Memories from Franklin County, Missouri

Savage Mystery ~ Third Place
Jay Bechtol


Photo Credit: Rachael/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The old woman twitches in her hospital bed. Her feet move with the nightmare pulsing through her sleep. In her dream she is a small grey rabbit. Her back feet kick up dried leaves and fallen twigs as she zigzags through a pasture. A growling mongrel gets closer despite her frequent turns. The beast’s jangling collar gets louder and louder with each moment. She darts under a fence where the pasture ends and through a tangle of thorn bushes. The dog gains. She cuts hard at a stone structure made by humans; it smells of things burnt. There is a sharp bark as the dog’s snapping jaws miss her haunch.

The grey rabbit is not as clever as her wild cousins, nor does she have the endurance. One last cut toward a stand of trees. The dog’s snorts so close now she can feel its breath pushing through her fur. She dashes toward a small hole at the base of the largest of the trees. She stretches. Behind the dog lunges, aware that the small creature is about to escape. A snarl fills her ears.

She tumbles sideways through the hole under the tree. The dog’s forepaw tripping her last stride. She rolls to a stop, spiderwebs and dirt matting her coat. A long gash in her leg. She lies on her side, tongue out panting, her eyes slashing back and forth in wild terror.

Outside the tree the dog skids to a stop. It barks and scratches for a time. Then her ears pick up the sound of the brute wandering off.

The woman starts awake. Morning filters through the floor to ceiling windows of the long term care unit. An orderly stares down at her.

“Having a dream, Ms. McKenzie?” The smile on his face hides his concern.

She gathers herself, swims through the fog of her dreams, the on-rushing dementia, her guilt, and tries to smile back. “Miguel? It is Miguel, right?” She is relieved to see him nod. “Yes. More of a nightmare.” She tries to focus on the room. Sterile but cozy. “I think I’d like to sit by the window today, Miguel.”

He helps her to her chair and wheels her across the room. The second floor window on the long term care unit looks out across the small town and to the farmlands beyond. He tucks a shawl around her legs.

“Thank you, Miguel. You are kind.” She smiles. “Could you bring me my book?”

“Sure, Ms. McKenzie. Would you like some breakfast, too?” He places the large scrapbook in her lap.

“Breakfast would be lovely. Thank you.” She glances out the window for a moment and then drops her eyes to the book. She opens to the first page, filled with an article from the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Monday, September 3rd, 1962. Almost sixty years since the disappearance. Sixty years of not knowing. She flips a few pages and stops at an article from the Franklin County Tribune.

September 1, 1962

Massive Storm, Tornadoes Across Franklin County Friday

Staff Writer Frank Lamar

A massive storm rushed through wide swaths of Franklin County on Friday afternoon and well into the evening. The storm damaged buildings and property throughout the region and into St. Louis. Local Fire Departments and Police Stations have been flooded with calls of missing persons, lost animals and missing items. Residents from Union and surrounding towns reported seeing funnel clouds touching the ground. The U.S. National Weather Service tracked fourteen separate tornadoes…

She reads a bit more before turning her focus back out the window. Her brain is clear and she lets her mind wander.

*

Claire McKenzie stared at the empty rabbit hutch, glanced at the sky, and scanned the farmyard across the large pasture with its white fence, past the stone incinerator on the other side, and into the trees that surrounded the acreage. The tops of the trees swayed. “Colleen!” she hollered. “We need to get inside, sweetie.”

The young girl stepped from the shadows of the barn and waved, “Over here, mama, just helping daddy makin’ sure the stables are secure.” Dust coated her overalls in contrast to the smile that brightened her face.

“You tell your father he needs to hurry along as well.” Claire glanced back at the hutch. “Do you have Clover?”

“Clover?” The little girl’s smile disappeared. “She should be in there.” She trotted toward her mother. “I haven’t had her out all day.”

Claire turned and examined the large enclosure again. The door swung lazily in a breeze already beginning to show signs of turning into something stronger. She took a step closer and bent, trying to see inside the small wooden shelter. Maybe Clover was tucked away in the back under some hay.

Colleen ran past and dropped to her knees at the side of the hutch. “Clo-ver,” she sang. “You in there, Clover?”

Claire turned her eyes skyward again. The afternoon was darker than it had been minutes before.

“She wouldn’t go far, mama, she doesn’t like to hop away from here unless she’s with me.” Colleen spun on her knees searching across the open areas of the farmyard.

Claire sighed; there wasn’t time to get the barn and the farm secured and send out a search party for a missing bunny. “Clover will be fine, sweetie, we’ll find her after the storm passes. She’ll get in under the barn or under a bush and ride it out.” She hoped she sounded convincing. Rabbits weren’t the hardiest or smartest of animals.

“What if Ray-Ray or something else chased her off? Clover could be hiding somewhere scared and alone.” Colleen’s words started to have that quiver indicating tears might not be far behind.

“Bradford!” Claire called toward the barn. “You got Ray-Ray?”

From inside the barn her husband’s voice came back. “Yep. He’s in here somewhere.”

Claire looked down at her daughter, “Ray-Ray’s in the barn. We haven’t seen a coyote around this entire summer.” She paused, trying to figure out the next thing to say. “Clover’s a smart bunny. She’ll be fine.”

Colleen gave her mother a look of distrust. “It could have been Ray-Ray. I’ve caught him staring at Clover through the chicken wire.”

As if on cue the large dog ambled from the barn. Part hound, part something larger, overly friendly and more inclined to romp and play than pose a real threat to anyone.

Claire rubbed her forehead. “You’ve got five minutes, sweetie. Then we are going in.” Claire headed for the barn and hoped the rabbit would appear. She was not interested in riding the storm out with a daughter anxious about a missing bunny rabbit.

*

In her hospital room she flips through a few more pages of the scrap book. Her hand hesitates on an article from the Franklin County Tribune, its edges yellowed with time, the clear plastic sheeting offering limited protection.

September 2, 1962

Local Girl Among the Missing

Staff Writer Frank Lamar

Franklin County Sheriffs have not given up hope of finding the youngest reported missing person after the storms Friday night. Friends and family members gathered at the McKenzie farm to help with the search for eight-year-old Colleen McKenzie. Making the project more challenging are the numerous downed trees and power lines hindering rescue vehicles and communication.

Colleen’s father, Bradford McKenzie, is coordinating the search. Her mother, Claire, is also…

She stops reading and wishes the dementia was more cooperative. Or at least would filter out the guilt. Her doctor has reminded her numerous times that, in her fight against the disease, painful memories are as important as the positive ones.

*

The wind had increased in intensity for the past half hour. Each gust rattled the house and sent echoes down the creaky wooden stairs to the basement where they huddled on Claire’s grandmother’s old couch.

Colleen sobbed into her mother’s chest and rubbed Claire’s gold locket between her fingers, “She’s not going to make it, mama. She’s too little and she’s never been in a storm before.”

“Hush, child,” her mother repeated, kissing the top of Colleen’s head. She raised her eyes to Bradford and wrinkled her eyebrows up and down.

Bradford recognized the expression, the “do something” signal when words weren’t available. He shrugged his shoulders and raised his own eyebrows back, his “there’s nothing I can do” response.

Bradford knelt on the cement floor and patted his daughter’s back. “Are you sure you didn’t open the door to her hutch today and just forgot about it.” A big gust caught the side of the house and something outside crashed.

No!” Colleen’s voice hardened between gulps. “I already told you.” She turned her face toward her father, her glare as hard as her voice. “Why don’t you believe me?”

“Bradford,” Colleen’s mother said, “let’s not worry about who opened the cage. Let’s remind Colleen that rabbits are resourceful, clever little creatures and…”

Her point was interrupted as a second violent crash came from outside followed by a gust and the tinkling of glass, barely audible over the sounds of the raging storm.

Bradford winced. “That sounded like the front room.”

“And,” Claire continued, “bunnies are good at hiding. So Clover is going to be just fine.” She stroked her daughter’s hair. “Right, Bradford?”

“Yes,” Bradford grimaced. “Clover is going to be just fine, sweetie.”

Colleen covered her ears and snuggled in closer to her mother.

*

Claire stirred and her eyes slowly opened into the darkness of the basement. She raised her head off the back of the couch and fumbled for a flashlight. The wind and storm seemed to have died down to something more manageable, although the house still creaked and vibrated above them. She pressed the switch, covered the front of the flashlight with her fingers and aimed it at her watch. A little past midnight. The flashlight’s filtered glow illuminated the sleeping shapes next to her, huddled under a blanket.

She debated turning on the new transistor radio but at this hour news was unlikely. She peered through the dimness toward the other end of the couch, barely able to see the rise and fall of the blanket under which Bradford and Colleen slept. She rubbed her eyes and tried to adjust her position.

“Hey,” her husband whispered. “Still blowing out there?”

“Yes,” Claire replied, “but calming down. Not looking forward to cleaning up in the morning.” She sighed. “How you doing?”

“In and out. Hard to string together more than an hour at a time of real sleep. How’s Colleen?”

“What?” Claire sat up and pulled her fingers from the front of the flashlight. The beam hit the open wood of the basement’s ceiling and created a glow around the well-worn couch. “Isn’t she under that blanket with you?”

“No, I thought she curled up with you.”

Bradford leapt to his feet. “Colleen?” he called.

Claire jumped up, too, waving the flashlight frantically. “Colleen!

Another gust of wind battered the house.

*

In her hospital room the day outside continues to be bright. Sunlight pours in and warms the room. Her memory is working well today. A nurse pops in and smiles with the practiced cheeriness of many of the staff on the long term unit.

“Can I get you anything, Ms. McKenzie?” the nurse asks.

She shakes her head in polite denial and returns to the pages before her. She flips a large group of five or six together. The cellophane coating crinkles in response and lands on a page with multiple scraps of newsprint. From multiple newspapers around the St. Louis area. Some cut and creased, others torn. All obituaries.

December 26, 1974

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Obituaries

Bradford Adams McKenzie born July 1, 1931 died December 14, 1974 in an accident on the family farm. He was born in Mercy Hospital Washington, the son of Beatrice and Charles McKenzie, one of three children. He was raised on the McKenzie Family farm outside Union, MO. He is survived by…

She stops reading and runs her finger along one of the accompanying pictures. It’s a good day for her dementia and she can remember the feel of his face, coarse with stubble, after a long day working the farm. She lets her finger trace the lines of his jaw. She closes the scrapbook and clutches it close to her chest. The warm sun cloaks her.

*

Claire’s flashlight fought the darkness. “Colleen!” she screamed. The wind shoved the words back into her throat, choked her.

“You should go back inside.” Bradford directed. “If she comes back, someone should be there to make sure she doesn’t go out again looking for that damn rabbit.”

Claire understood what he said, but pointed to her ears and shook her head. “Can barely hear you. I’m going to check the barn then the pasture.”

“Claire!” he shouted.

“Bradford!” she hurled back.

He slumped. “Fine. I’ll go around behind the barn and check back into the fields.” He clutched her arm. “Be careful, I don’t want to lose both of you.”

“You aren’t going to lose either of us.” Claire leaned against the wind and gave him a small peck on the cheek. She turned into the gale and lurched toward the rabbit hutch. It remained empty. She hoped Colleen might have curled up underneath. She hadn’t. Claire circled toward the barn, called her daughter’s name, screamed it, tried to make herself heard above the storm that stole her daughter.

On the far side of the pasture, past the fence and the incinerator, a sharp crack pierced through the night. Splintered wood, a moment of silence, then an earth-shaking whoomp as a large tree came down. She aimed the flashlight in the direction of the sound and was hit in the face with a stinging blast of dirt. She staggered forward both arms outstretched, the beam of the light catching the side of the barn in its shine. She leaned against the wall, steadied herself against the force, and wiped her sleeve across her eyes.

Somewhere behind her another tree crashed to the ground. The heavy sound put her more on edge. “Be careful out there, Bradford,” she whispered into the wind. “Colleen!” she cried out again, barely able to hear her own voice above the withering scream of the winds.

She pushed forward, into the pasture, and left the barn behind.

*

The sun has almost disappeared and her dinner tray is empty. It has been a good day fighting the disease that is slowly erasing her memories. She has spent the entire day leafing through the pages, able to connect almost all of the dots. She rubs the cover of the book and stares out the window toward the distant farmland.

The door behind her pushes open and an orderly enters her small space. “Ms. McKenzie?”

“Yes,” she answers trying to place his face. “Miguel? Isn’t it?”

“Yes, ma’am. You have a visitor. I was wondering if you are interested in seeing anyone this evening.”

She searches her memory for someone that might come to see her. “I suppose, for a few minutes can’t hurt.”

The orderly pushes the door open. A man she thinks she recognizes comes in carrying a manila envelope. He raises a hand in nervous greeting.

“Good evening, Ms. McKenzie. I’m not sure if you remember me. I’m Jim MacLeod, my father Lloyd bought your family’s farm back in ’75 after Mr. McKenzie died.” He raised his eyebrows expectantly.

“Yes, of course.” She was certain she held some vague recollection of his face and his name. “Mr. MacLeod, how are you doing?”

“Very well, Ms. McKenzie. Thank you.” He hesitates and looks at the orderly. Miguel nods to continue. “I spoke with your doctor and he felt it was a good idea to share this with you. He said all memories are helpful.” He steps forward, holding the envelope in front of him like a protective shield.

She takes the gift and turns it sideways, sliding its contents into her lap. A small golden locket and a Polaroid.

“My daughter took that picture. She has one of those old-fashioned cameras. She loves to snap pictures around the farm with it.” He waits for a response then continues. “At the back edge of the property, back where it’s just trees and brush, we found… remains. Under a downed tree. We are clearing, getting ready to expand the farm, bought the property next door…”

He stops when she lifts her hand. She waves him closer and opens the cover of her scrapbook to the first page. He looks over her shoulder.

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Monday, September 3rd, 1962

MISSING GIRL FOUND ALIVE!

By Craig Jameson

In a scene from a Hollywood movie, eight-year-old Colleen McKenzie was found Sunday afternoon almost forty hours after she went missing during the recent spate of storms and tornadoes that cut through Eastern Missouri. According to her father, Bradford McKenzie, young Colleen had ventured out to find her pet rabbit during the height of the storms. Miraculously, she found the small pet and then crawled into the bottom of the family’s incinerator to escape the gale.

One of several large elm trees on the property uprooted during the storm and fell on top of the incinerator. The sturdy stones of the fireplace protected the girl. But the debris and destruction made it difficult…

…the search continues for Claire McKenzie who was last seen the same night hunting for her daughter.

She looks over at the man who has come to visit her. She rubs the chain of her mother’s locket.

He tries to explain, “There was a small ravine—”

She interrupts. “I took Clover out.” A loud sob escapes. “I’ve never told anyone, not my father.” Hiccups and tears impede her words. “No one. I got distracted and forgot to put Clover away. Dad blamed himself, said he shouldn’t have let her go searching for me. He died thinking it was his fault.” Her tears splash onto the cellophane protective covering.

“I’m sure that it wasn’t…” the man offers, but stops when Miguel touches his shoulder.

She peels the plastic sheet back and slides the Polaroid onto the page next to the article. A picture of a ravine and some fallen trees. She presses the covering back down and strokes the plastic.

She weeps. Happy that it has been a good day fighting the disease. Happy she can remember. Happy to know.

pencil

For the last thirty years Jay has been a social worker. He has learned that everyone has a story, and more often than not, several stories. His work is in multiple publications including Penumbric, A Rock and a Hard Place, Crystal Lake and Toasted Cheese. He can be found online at JayBechtol.com and on Twitter @BechtolJay. He can be found in person in Homer, Alaska. Email: bechtoljay[at]gmail.com

Mystery at the Museum

Savage Mystery ~ Second Place
Morgan-McKay Hoppmann


Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

“I don’t do bones,” Dr. Helen Coultier said, slipping a bit on the damp leaves. The smell of rain still hung in the air. “You’re the forensic anthropologist. Why do they need me?”

Dr. Thomas Lucknow, her colleague at the Southeastern Museum of Antiquities, offered her a hand so she could step over a fallen tree. Last night’s storm had brought down a good many. The wind was still blustery, making the surrounding trees creak alarmingly—she didn’t trust that another wouldn’t come down on top of them.

“You know as much as I do,” Professor Lucknow said, voice gruff as they approached the area cordoned off by yellow police tape. Dr. Coultier waved her pass at the police officer standing by, who nodded and lifted the tape for them to walk under. Up ahead a giant oak tree had toppled, roots reaching for the sky like the gnarled fingers of an old hand. However, it wasn’t the tree itself that was the focus of the two men crouched beside it, but the gaping depression left in the ground by its absence.

The man not in uniform glanced up and immediately straightened. “Lucknow, fancy seeing you here.” He grinned. “And you must be Dr. Helen Coultier, the antiquities expert. Detective Green.” He peeled off a latex glove and extended his hand. She shook it.

“Pleasure,” she said. If she was too curt, it was his own fault—he was much too chirpy for this hour of the morning.

“You say that as if you weren’t the one to call me here,” Lucknow said. “Bones in that hole?”

Detective Green took off his other glove, balling them up. “No bones. Something else.” He jerked his head to the pit. “Take a look.”

The detective’s companion, a younger police officer clearly eager to please, offered Dr. Coultier a box of latex gloves.

Professor Lucknow’s brows furrowed in confusion. “Then why am I here?”

“Connections to a previous case. Remember the museum security guard who was murdered, oh, four years back? Found his body last year?”

Pulling on the gloves, Dr. Coultier approached the edge of the pit.

Ah.

So this was why they called her.

Professor Lucknow grunted. “Skull caved in, struck with something heavy. Member of a smuggling ring, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, well,” Detective Green said. “We found his stash.”

Artifacts.

She crouched to better see, hand going out to the tree’s roots to keep her balance. A Ming Dynasty porcelain vase. A tribal wood carving from sub-Saharan Africa. A cylindrical seal that she already knew was done in the Sumerian style, making it thousands of years old.

And that was just the beginning. Her eyes ran over the rest, calculating origin, condition, price. “Four million,” she said, chuckling as she shook her head. “At least. Your smugglers knew what they were doing.” She glanced up. “But why here?”

“We think they were using the museum as the staging area before shipping out the artifacts to their final buyers,” Detective Green said. “The security guard was their inside man. You’re here, Lucknow, because I thought you might have some additional insight concerning the crime scene, considering you helped out at the first one. And I miss your sunny personality.”

Professor Lucknow grunted noncommittally, circling to the other side of the pit and peering in, hands clasped behind his back. “You think the accomplice killed him and hid the loot while waiting for things to cool down?”

Detective Green shrugged. “Or the other guy hid the loot and his accomplice murdered him before finding out where. It’d explain why it’s still here.”

A chill wind rushed through the forest, setting the trees creaking again. Dr. Coultier glanced up at the swaying trunks. “Well, it’s not staying here any longer. I want a team. And a tent. We’re doing this right.”

Detective Green nodded. “I expected nothing less. But no press.”

She gave him a look. “I don’t do the press.”

“Good,” the detective said. “I don’t want this getting out. As far as we know, the partner is still out there, and we don’t want him deciding to take back what he views as his.”

“You don’t have to worry about us,” Professor Lucknow said.

Dr. Coultier pushed herself to her feet. “Then let’s get to work.”

 

The sides of the tent shook in the wind. Dr. Coultier finished making a note on the log, then placed the carefully-wrapped piece of jade jewelry into the plastic container.

“You done with that?” she asked, glancing at Detective Green.

The detective turned the Phoenician carving over in his hand. The museum had one very similar to it in its collection. “Think this could be used to bash someone’s head in?”

She held her hand out. He placed the stone in it. “Would you find evidence on it four years later if it was?”

“You’d be surprised,” Detective Green said. “Fingerprints can last over seven years on surfaces, as long as they aren’t destroyed. Furthermore, our forensic team has the ability to reconstruct the shape of the object off the impact wound. But I don’t want to bore you with trivia. How long have you worked at the museum?”

“A little over three years.” She made a note on the log and began packaging the carving. “I had nearly a decade of hopping across archaeological sites around the world. I knew the museum from a few previous visits, so it was the logical place to settle down.”

“So you remember the investigation of a year ago.”

“Vaguely. I didn’t start working at the museum until after the security guard had been killed, so the police saw no reason to question me.”

“How do you feel about Professor Lucknow?”

She snapped the lid onto the container and turned to the detective. “You suspect him.”

Detective Green peeled his gloves off, tossing them into a waste bin in the corner. “He started working at the museum fourteen years ago. The timeline fits with when the smuggling ring first became active.”

“But I thought the dead guard was your inside man. Wouldn’t you need someone from the outside as the connection?”

“See, though, I don’t buy that the guard was the inside man.” Detective Green shook his head. “He had a life, a family. I think he was a witness. Saw the true inside-man making a deal or moving the merchandise, and was killed so he wouldn’t talk.”

Dr. Coultier motioned for the detective to pick up the plastic bin, then undid the straps holding the tent flap closed and stepped into the blustery day. “That’s why you brought him here. To watch him.”

“Right you are,” the detective said cheerfully, starting his tromp through the woods towards the road.

She followed. “What were you hoping from me?”

“Your eyes,” he replied promptly. “If Lucknow is our smuggler, then there’s a good chance he hid the murder weapon in this stash of artifacts, and he won’t want that falling into police hands. He’ll try to get it back. I want you to keep a close eye on him, and notify me if you find any artifacts that might have been used to kill the guard.”

She nodded, casting a glance at the clipboard in her hands. She added one last item to the list—Tefnut statue, Egypt. “We should be finished inventorying the stash later today. I’ll contact you with a list, and you can send one of your specialists over to examine the most likely objects.”

“Thank you, Dr. Coultier.” They had reached the road. Two police vehicles were still parked along the median, along with the green minivan the museum had sent to transport the artifacts. Detective Green paused beside the minivan and glanced at the bin in his hand. “Now, how did I end up carrying this?”

“You volunteered.” She shrugged, opened the back of the van, and he slid the box on top of one of the others. One more, then she’d take them back to the museum.

“Well, thanks again for your help.” Detective Green cast a too-sunny smile at her. “I’d hate for any more antiquities to go missing.”

 

So.

He suspected Lucknow.

She paused wiping down the Tefnut statue—a lion-headed ancient Egyptian goddess—and cocked her head to the side. She supposed she could see his reasoning. However, she wasn’t quite sure why he supposed Lucknow would have waited four years to retrieve the antiquities if he had known where they were the whole time. Still, something to keep in mind.

The anthropologist walked up to her. “How’s it going?”

“It’s progressing.” She handed him the Tefnut statue. “Would you put that on the table?”

He did, and she peeled off her gloves and leaned against her worktable. “Would you say Green is an effective detective?”

Professor Lucknow crossed his arms. “I suppose. I’ve known him since before he got his promotion, so I’m not the most objective person to ask.”

“Oh really?” she asked.

He shrugged. “A lot of police officers will pick up extra shifts working museum security for a little extra cash. So I’ve known him, what, thirteen, fourteen years?” He shook his head. “And he’s as annoying as ever. Anyway,” Lucknow glanced around, “I’m here to help.”

Dr. Coultier found her clipboard and tugged it out from beneath some other papers. “Here’s the inventory list if you want to double-check everything is here.”

He accepted it, glanced it over. “I’ll do that.” He began walking down the aisles and, starting with the Tefnut statue, marked down items.

Dr. Coultier frowned a little as she watched him, thinking over Detective Green’s words once more.

Oh.

That was it.

Detective Green thought the guard was innocent. That meant he wasn’t just looking for one more suspect, but two.

If he thought there were two smugglers still out there…

She shook her head and turned back to her worktable. Hopefully it wouldn’t pose a problem.

 

“We have a problem,” Dr. Coultier said.

The museum curator sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “How many?”

“Six,” Dr. Coultier answered. “Detective Green has already been notified.”

“Who was on guard last night?” Professor Lucknow paced down the aisle between the exam tables where the artifacts sat for cataloguing.

“The detective posted one of his men outside the door.” Dr. Coultier drummed her fingers against the table’s metal surface where, the night before, she had set the Tefnut statue. “With the possibility of the murder weapon being among the artifacts, he decided museum security would benefit from the additional presence.”

Professor Lucknow cast her a look, heavy brows drawing close. She kept her gaze fixed on the curator. Did he realize Detective Green suspected him? Perhaps.

The door opened.

“Okay, I’m here, I’m here,” Detective Green announced, sliding out of his raincoat and hanging it on the coat rack. “Sorry, just catching up with my man. Seems we have a bit of a dilemma.”

“More than what we already have?” Professor Lucknow said drily.

“Indeed.” Detective Green marched forward. “It seems that only three people entered this room last night, and none of them left with any object or bag large enough to hide an object.”

“Which means the antiquities must have been taken before they reached the museum,” the museum curator said.

“Impossible.” Dr. Coultier shook her head. “I inventoried them upon arrival and they were all accounted for.”

“I can attest to that,” Professor Lucknow said in his gruff voice. “I aided in the process.”

Dr. Coultier glanced at the detective. “Who were the three people to enter the room? Or two people, I should ask, seeing as how I had to return for my car keys, and I assume your officer counted that.”

Detective Green bowed his head in a nod. “He did. The other two were myself and Mr. Sunny Personality here.”

Professor Lucknow scowled. “Your humor is not appreciated.”

“You’re welcome,” Detective Green said. “But what I want to know is where are the antiquities, seeing as how no one could have taken them.”

Dr. Coultier motioned to the hundreds of yards of shelving that stretched up and down the room. “Obviously, then, they never left.”

The museum curator released a sigh. “Are you sure? What would be the point in hiding something in the same room where it already was?”

Dr. Coultier shrugged. “Confidence.”

Detective Green nodded, casting a glance at Professor Lucknow. “Once the investigation was concluded, assuming he wasn’t caught, the thief would be free at any point to return and collect the items he had hidden away.”

Professor Lucknow nodded a head towards Dr. Coultier. “Or she. No offense, Helen.”

Dr. Coultier smiled, just slightly. “Let’s test that out, shall we?” She turned to Detective Green. “If the thief, and your murderer from four years ago, did indeed hide these six objects, that must mean your murder weapon is among them. Find these artifacts, and you find your murder weapon.” She gestured to the shelves. “We might as well start alphabetically.”

 

Dr. Coultier and Professor Lucknow were not allowed to participate in the search, of course, although their expertise was certainly called upon regarding whether the antiquities matched the labels. She supposed she couldn’t fault the police officers for that. Not everyone could tell the difference between a Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty vase.

Or, in this case, a Bastet and a Tefnut statue.

“You’re sure?” Detective Green turned the statue over in his hands. “I seem to remember Bastet being a goddess with a cat head, which this one has.”

“This one has the head of a lioness,” Dr. Coultier corrected. “That makes her the lesser goddess Tefnut, rather than Bastet. My guess is that the Bastet statue that was previously here will be found in a more obviously displaced position, with the goal that we would mistake it for the missing Tefnut statue.”

“Which means this is most likely our murder weapon,” Detective Green concluded.

“You’ll have to run forensics to be sure,” Dr. Coultier cautioned, “although it is a very distinctively shaped object.”

“And our dead guard had a very distinctively shaped dent in his head,” Detective Green said. He handed the statue to the young police officer behind him and turned to her. “Thank you very much for your help, Dr. Coultier. You are now under arrest.”

Helen stepped back abruptly. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me. Hands, please.”

“Oh dear,” the museum curator said, clearly out of her depth.

Dr. Coultier held out her hands and the detective snapped the cuffs on. “I—I don’t understand. You have to check the statue for prints. You can’t arrest me on no evidence.”

Professor Lucknow stepped forward. “No, Helen. You wiped the statue clean and then handed it to me, making sure my prints were the only ones on it. You were trying to set me up.”

“No, I—I suppose I did, but that was just because I wasn’t really thinking—”

Detective Green chuckled. “Give up the act. The whole thing was a trap.”

Dr. Coultier froze.

A trap? But that meant—

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” the museum curator said, fingers flittering nervously in the air. “Surely this must be a mistake. Dr. Coultier has been here for the past three years—”

“Three and a half years,” Detective Green corrected. “Becoming a permanent staff member six months after the murder of that security guard. Oh, and she made a brief visit to the museum six months before that. What did you do? Kill the guy because he wanted more than his fair share of the loot?”

Dr. Coultier tried to chuckle. “Coming back to the scene of the crime would be awfully stupid of me, don’t you think? Besides, you said you thought the guard was innocent.”

“I lied.” Detective Green shrugged. “All part of the trap.”

“The trap,” she said flatly.

The detective nodded. “See that lovely Tefnut statue you led us to? Lucknow here found it miscataloged three weeks ago. Since he worked on the original case, he knew the general shape of the murder weapon and thought to send it to forensics. He was correct. And yes, we checked for fingerprints, and yours were indeed on it.”

Dr. Coultier rolled her eyes. “So what? I’ve worked at the museum for over three years. It’s no surprise if something here has my fingerprints on it.”

“Exactly,” Detective Green said. “Hardly enough evidence for a conviction.”

“Wait, wait!” the museum curator said, looking between Lucknow and the detective. “How could you have found the statue miscataloged when the tree wasn’t blown over until just a few days ago?”

“Because there was no stash under the tree,” Lucknow said. “That was the trap.”

Ah. So that Phoenician carving had been from the museum’s collection.

“After pulling your fingerprints,” Detective Green continued, “we asked ourselves: What could prompt a murderer who so clearly got away with it to return? Obviously, the answer was money. You killed your partner before finding out where he had hid the stash, and you had come back to try to fix that problem.”

Dr. Helen Coultier released a long sigh. “And so you accessed my travel records and reconstructed what might have been in the stash based off where I had been. You bet on the fact that, four years later, I wouldn’t remember exactly what I had smuggled out of those countries.”

Lucknow nodded. “And you didn’t.”

She finally let the edge of a smirk sneak onto her face. “So you let the detective put the idea in my head that Lucknow did it, and the murder weapon was still among the stash. The moment I retrieved the statue from the shelves and handed it to him, you had proof I did it.”

Detective Green shook his head. “Actually, the moment you wrote Tefnut statue on the log of items found in the stash, we had proof you did it. Because we had placed all those antiquities under that tree. And we knew there was no Tefnut statue.”

She couldn’t help it—she laughed. “I suppose I did.” She cocked her head, smiling at the detective. “But since that was the stash you planted, I take it you don’t know where the real stash is?”

The detective motioned for her to start forward and she did, slowly, in no hurry to be put into the jail cell. “No clue,” the detective said. “That remains a mystery for another day.”

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MM Hoppmann is a junior at Coastal Carolina University. She is an assistant editor of the Weekly Intelligence Brief and has been writing fiction since she was 14. Email: mmhoppmann[at]gmail.com

Off Your Block

Savage Mystery ~ First Place
Cara Brezina


Photo Credit: CJS*64/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“So this all started with a fairy house?” Vanessa asked, skepticism and perhaps a hint of derision in her tone.

“No, not in the least,” I assured her hastily. “Well, maybe. An idea for a fairy house. There was a cavity at the bottom of the root mass of the fallen tree that formed this little triangular recessed nook. It would have been perfect for maybe a table and a couple stools. All biodegradable material, of course. Bark and twigs bound together by grapevine, maybe a woven coaster as a rug…”

I shut my mouth. I wasn’t winning her over with my interior decorating schemes.

“Here, look.” I tugged on the leash to bring Penny to a stop and located a picture on my phone. “See what I mean?”

“Hmmm.” She peered at the image of the fallen tree, a magnolia in the courtyard of my apartment building. Cicero, her pitbull mix, pulled at his leash and whined. Vanessa and I were dog friends. Our dogs had fallen in love at first sight—despite both parties being neutered—and we’d established a routine of walking the dogs together after work.

“I’m still not clear on how this leads to you turning up with a black eye gabbling about Toby jugs,” she said as we continued down the sidewalk. “I looked them up on the Internet. Those things are awful, Russ. What happened, did one of the fairies punch you out after you tried to install a Toby jug in his house?”

“Ha. Ha.”

It had really all started a couple nights ago, I told Vanessa, with a storm that brought a spectacular lightning show, torrential rain, high winds, sustained peals of thunder, and a freaked out black lab quaking underneath the covers of my bed. I immediately noticed the downed tree in the courtyard when I stepped outside the next morning.

Seen from the bottom, the roots of the tree splayed up and outward in a vertical semicircle, forming a hollow partially nestled into the ground. Penny and I were both intrigued by the possibilities. Fairy abode, I thought.

Excavation, she thought.

“Penny!”

I made a grab for her as she began to dig in the gooey mud, then froze in place as my hand tightened around her collar. She’d uncovered an off-white curved contour of an object buried a couple inches down.

A shard from a shattered skull, my imagination supplied.

A second glance revealed that the object was perfectly circular and coated with glaze. I scrabbled down and drew out a medium sized flat bottomed bowl of handmade pottery. I turned it around in my hands, trying to figure out a scenario in which it had ended up underneath tree roots.

Penny was still digging.

“Enough, girl.”

She didn’t listen, and I failed to stop her before she thrust her snout deep into the mud.

“Penny!”

When she emerged, she was triumphantly clenching the remains of a boot in her jaws.

I didn’t attempt much forensic work on the pair of boots other than observe that the soles were probably a bit larger than my own size eleven, but I made some interesting observations when I washed the bowl. The bottom was decorated with a black pawprint, and the artist had signed and dated it. Tara Pratt, 1999.

The Internet informed me that Tara Pratt was a multimedia artist living in Houston, but she’d graduated from Copley College close by my neighborhood in 2001. From the photo on her Etsy page, she looked more like a CEO than the burlap-clad sort of person I’d pictured working a potter’s wheel.

“Yeah, I did sell dog bowls back then,” she told me over the phone. “At rummage sales, school fairs, going door to door. Anything to earn a buck for tuition.”

“I don’t suppose you’d remember if you ever sold one at my building?”

“I doubt it. I sold so many of them, so long ago.”

I mentioned the address, and there was a moment of silence. When she spoke again, there was an edge to her voice.

“Does the name Maria Fosco mean anything to you?”

It was my turn to fall silent.

“Oh, my,” I finally said.

“Exactly.”

Vanessa broke into my account. “The woman can’t be that bad, really.”

“She can, indeed. Her first complaint against me came the day that I moved in. The movers were being too loud.”

Maria Fosco had lived on the top center apartment of the building for more than thirty years. Her hobbies were cosseting her pair of Yorkies and amassing grievances against neighbors.

“Fortunately, she likes animals a lot more than people,” I said. “Penny is my saving grace, in her eyes.”

I’d never knocked on her door before. I came bearing an offering of pastries bought from the bakery around the corner. Her home health aide showed me into the living room.

“Of course I remember buying that dog bowl,” Maria told me. “I special ordered it from that art student, but it took the girl three tries before she got it right.”

I nodded in commiseration. I’d heard the same report from Tara Pratt.

“What happened to the bowl, do you remember?”

She looked at me over her glasses dubiously.

“It’s right there.” She pointed toward the kitchen.

“That’s not possible!” I blurted out.

Her dog bowl, although similar to the one I’d unearthed, was smaller and darker brown. It was also decorated with pink hearts surrounding the paw print.

“But…” I brought out my cell phone and showed her an image of the bowl. Her face softened.

“Oh, that poor little girl. That was such a tragic loss.”

“What happened?”

“Her little beagle puppy was stricken with parvovirus and died. Milo never even had a chance to grow up to drink from that bowl.”

“Was this about twenty years ago?”

Her eyes narrowed. “How did you know?”

I thought that it was pretty obvious that the girl, Caitlin, had buried her beloved pet in the flower bed and planted the magnolia as a memorial. No way, according to Maria.

“Watts would never have allowed it, not even for a sweet little girlie like her. Plus, all those magnolias by the building were planted at the same time. That tree wasn’t planted special for Caitlin.”

Upon reflection, Maria was right. Our landlord probably wouldn’t have allowed his tenants heat or running water if it wasn’t required by law.

“You know what happened?” She rapped her knuckles on the coffee table. “Derek Gillespie. No good ever came of that kid, but he had a good heart. He did odd jobs for Watts and he was probably the one who planted those trees. If Caitlin had asked him to bury Milo under a magnolia, he would have done it for her.”

As I was leaving, Daniela, the home health aide, followed me out to the landing. She glanced back nervously toward Maria’s apartment.

“Would you mind if I came down and took a picture of the bowl?” she whispered. “I’m a contributor to Off Your Block. I think this would make a great local history piece.”

Off Your Block was a local news site. It was notable mainly for the ferocious slugfests found in the comments section for each story.

“Um, sure.”

Daniela carefully arranged the bowl and the pair of rotted boots on a table in front of a sunny window in my apartment as if she were a curator at the Met. She thanked me profusely after taking a dozen pictures, and I walked her to the door.

When I looked back toward the window, one of the boots was gone.

“Penny!”

I retrieved the reeking boot and told her that she’d make herself sick chewing on that particular delicacy.

Less than an hour later, my doorbell rang. I took no notice. Usually, it was food delivery for one of the other apartments.

The ringing persisted. I finally went over to the intercom.

“What?”

When I opened the door, I was perplexed to find that my visitor was a teenage boy. He introduced himself as Connor and asked if he could see the artifacts.

“The what, now?”

“The artifacts, you know?” He held up his cell phone. I saw a picture of the dog bowl and boot under the headline: “Storm uncovers unbelievable artifacts.”

“Right. Wow. This way.”

I’d put the boots in a plastic bag and hung them up high by the back door. I brought them down for Conner to examine. His eyes darted from the boots to the bowl and back again.

“Can I borrow them?” he finally burst out as if he’d been working up to the request.

“Why?”

“For— for a school project.”

“What kind of project?”

He bit his lip. “Uh, science. Or maybe history.”

“But it’s summer,” I said in confusion before realizing that whatever reason he had for coveting the artifacts, it had nothing to do with a school project.

I told him that I’d consider it if he brought a note from his teacher.

“Probably a dare,” Vanessa put in.

“Knock on a stranger’s door and attempt to obtain their newly-discovered dog bowl by chicanery? It’s not the sort of thing teenagers do today.”

We’d reached my building, and I could see the prone magnolia next to the walkway.

“Hey, want to come in and see the spectacle?”

I unlocked the gate and let Penny off her leash. Vanessa followed suit with Cicero.

“So maybe it’s a weird dare for a teenager,” she conceded as we entered the courtyard. “But do you have a better explanation?”

“Ah. Wait until you hear what happened next.”

The doorbell rang. I tensed and hoped that it was just somebody else’s food delivery. Once again, the caller sat on the button.

Instead of buzzing them up, I went outside to the gate in the courtyard.

I expected the same pudgy teenage boy with the unfortunate skin. Instead, it was a pudgy teenage girl with a spray of freckles across her face. She introduced herself as Olivia and asked if I was the guy who’d found the buried stuff.

“I was wondering if maybe I could borrow the artifacts. My brother’s really into local history, and he’d love to see them, but he’s sick.”

I probably would have assented without a second thought if I hadn’t already had another visitor trying to finagle the objects away from me.

“I’ll certainly consider it, but I’m a little busy right now. Maybe you can give me your email address and I’ll get back to you?”

“That clinches it,” Vanessa said. “Definitely a dare. The first kid failed, so Olivia came along to see if she could do better.”

We were standing by the hollow below the root mass of the tree. Vanessa was attempting to restrain Cicero from diving into the churned up ground.

“Did you dig any deeper, see what else is down there?”

“Well, no. I didn’t really want to find the bones of Caitlin’s little puppy.”

“Good point.”

“Anyway, I still say it wasn’t a dare. I haven’t gotten to the part about the Toby jug yet.”

Midnight, and Penny began barking, deep and resounding.

Penny never barks. I half fell out of bed, threw on a robe, and followed the sound of her voice.

As I staggered to the back of the apartment, I became aware of a second voice, this one thin and human.

“Good dog, good doggie, be nice…”

The back door was wide open, and a figure was sprawled on the floor in front of my kitchen cabinets. Penny had him at bay. The intruder scrambled to his feet when he saw me and rushed for the door. Penny sprang past him, and he pitched over onto my back stairs. I dashed forward as he regained his footing. Penny bounded toward me in excitement, and my shins met her flank. I toppled.

“Ow, ow, ow…”

“So that’s how you got the black eye,” Vanessa surmised.

“Yeah. Probably from the edge of the door. The intruder was gone by the time I got to the stairs, but I know who he was.”

I waited for a gasp of anticipation. I was disappointed.

“One of those teenage kids. Gotta be.”

“Well, yeah,” I said, nettled. “But I have proof. He dropped his cell phone in his tussle with Penny, his unlocked cell phone. The name’s Connor. Connor Gillespie.”

“Okay. As I said, one of the teenagers.”

“With the last name of Gillespie. Just like Derek Gillespie, the one-time handyman who planted the magnolias.”

Maria Fosco sounded bleary when I called her around eleven the next morning.

“Maria, yesterday you hinted that Derek Gillespie got into some sort of trouble. Do you happen to know the details?”

Her voice became more animated now that she had the opportunity to dish out dirt.

“Yeah, the kid was arrested for breaking and entering a house here in the neighborhood. Terrible thing. He stole a whole bunch of valuable collectibles and they were never seen again.”

“Do you remember the name of the person he robbed, by any chance?”

“Of course. Arlene Voss, a lovely woman. She still lives around here.”

I brought up the online newspaper archives through the public library and confirmed that Maria’s account was partially accurate. Arlene Voss had reported a robbery twenty years ago and accused Derek Gillespie of stealing her prized Toby jug and several other collectible toys and curios.

The Toby jug was a bizarre piece shaped like a rabbit’s head, with its ear functioning as the handle of the vessel. I couldn’t imagine a teenage boy breaking in to steal it any more than I could understand the recent adolescent interest in possessing the dog bowl.

Derek denied the crime, the police could find no proof, and the items were not recovered. But my eyes fastened on one final detail, an unproven claim made by Arlene Voss. The police had found footprints in the soil outside the broken window. She was convinced that they had been made by Derek Gillespie.

“Wait, you’re not saying that those boots—” Vanessa broke in.

“Exactly, Watson. Derek Gillespie steals the Toby jug and other goods. Then he hears about the footprints and decides to get rid of the boots. He’d just helped Caitlin bury her poor little puppy, so he knows where there’s a large, deep patch of soft soil where he could bury them very easily, never to be seen again. Are you with me?”

She didn’t say no.

“Then, twenty years later, his nephew Connor Gillespie reads about the boots resurfacing and figures out what happened. He tries to get the boots away from me, first by asking, then by breaking in. I’m sure he got a copy of the master key for the building from his uncle. It should have been easy—just sneak in the back door and grab the boots. But Penny heard him come in, and I’d moved the boots down to my storage locker in the basement anyway. They stank.”

“Russ, have you reported all of this to the police?”

I hesitated.

“Not yet. I’m not really sure what to do about Connor. I don’t really want to see the kid arrested for being loyal to his uncle and maybe sort of stupid.”

“But considering what you told me about the boots—”

“I haven’t told you all of it yet,” I said hurriedly. “The name Voss sounded familiar to me. And this is why.”

I showed her a note on my cell phone: the name Olivia Voss, along with her email address.

“Connor Gillespie wanted the boots so that he could keep them buried for good. Olivia Voss wanted them so that she and her grandmother, Arlene Voss, could take them straight to the police.”

Before we parted, I promised Vanessa that I’d talk to the police the next day. But as it turned out, it was unnecessary. That morning, a breathless Off Your Block article linked the boots to the unsolved robbery. The police were examining the evidence.

Flummoxed, I went down to my storage locker. The boots were gone.

The cased was to remain unsolved. The police determined that the rotted boots did not serve as sufficient proof to link Derek Gillespie with the robbery.

I changed my dog walking schedule and route. Within a week, however, Vanessa caught up with me.

“Hey,” she said, too cheerily, as I strode grimly through the park.

“‘Sup.”

The silence stretched between us. I was the first to crack. “So, what’s the deal? What’s your connection to Arlene?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about!” she said unconvincingly.

“You were the only one who knew were I’d stashed those boots.”

“Ok, she paid me five hundred bucks.” It came out in a rush.

“Huh?”

“She saw us together in the courtyard that day, and approached me wondering if I thought you’d be willing to give her the boots. I said that you’d already refused two people, so she asked if I’d be willing to help her out. Russ, do you know how much I owe in student loan debt?”

I didn’t have anything to say to that.

“Anyway, I thought you’d want to know the last few details of the story. You almost got it right. But Olivia actually wanted the boots to stay buried, too, as it turns out. Arlene Voss wasn’t Olivia’s grandmother. She was her step-grandmother. Big difference. Arlene Voss threw Olivia’s mother out of the house on her eighteenth birthday and refused to let her take along several items with sentimental value that had belonged to Olivia’s real grandmother.”

“Such as a Toby jug?” I put in despite myself.

“Exactly. Olivia’s grandmother had used it as a vase for flowers. Arlene Voss put it in a locked display case. So Derek Gillespie volunteered to reclaim the goods.”

“Breaking and entering runs in the family.”

“Apparently so. Anyway, I’m glad you didn’t report Connor to the police. It’s refreshing to meet someone who’s willing to forgive.” Her tone was insinuating.

“He didn’t profit from his crime, though.”

“Neither did I, in the end. Arlene’s son visited me yesterday. He told me how his mother’s mentally ill and not competent to handle money. Asked if I’d consider returning the five hundred bucks.”

“And you agreed?”

“I wasn’t feeling great about the deal anyway. So, back to our usual dog walking routine tomorrow?”

I watched the dogs romping. Cicero lunged for Penny’s throat. Penny knocked him violently to the ground. They looked ecstatic.

“Sure, sounds good to me.”

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Cara Brezina is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. Email: borealisblue[at]gmail.com

Carriers

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Matt Boyle


Photo Credit: ocegep/Flickr (CC-by)

“Congratulations,” said a tinny voice from David’s phone. He glanced at the screen and saw a spinning roulette wheel flashing quietly; it blinked, promising him Walmart gift cards and other riches. He sighed and restarted the phone.

“Fucking ads.”

He sat alone in the Colton Library stacks—nothing but books, quiet, and cold. He pulled his jacket tighter, breath pluming, and glanced out the window at the snow holding the campus in its grip. A single brave soul walked through the storm, head down against the snow, like a character from a silent film. David glanced at his phone again, then remembered it was still restarting and laughed at himself. He sat there, rather impotently, and shook his head.

“What the hell am I doing here?”

And then a young woman’s voice said, “Hey.”

David jerked around. The woman wore a muted grey sweater, a surgical mask, and studious glasses. She held up a hand nervously, and David grabbed for his own mask and fumbled it on.

“Um,” he managed to say. “Can I help you?”

She nodded at his phone. “Congratulations.”

“…for what?”

“You won an award, didn’t you? Didn’t your phone congratulate you?”

“Uh, no. It’s… just a malicious ad.”

She peered at him, not hearing him through his mask. “A what?”

He raised his voice. “A malicious ad. I probably went to some site I shouldn’t have. Just your garden-variety internet scam.”

“Oh, oh yes, I see. But… I still have to say congratulations. I, ehm…” She blushed, almost seeming to shrink on herself. “…you see, I navigated to some sites I shouldn’t have… and I picked up a virus too.”

He stared at her. “Miss, no offense, but that joke isn’t exactly in good taste these days.”

“God, I wish it was a joke. It’s not. I picked up a virus from my computer. Now whenever an ad pops up on someone’s device, I have to help advertise it.”

David blinked. He didn’t say anything. He was on a campus where almost everyone had decided to learn remotely. Those still on campus mostly hid in their rooms, or in corners of the library. He hadn’t seen his family or friends outside of a tiny box in a computer screen in six months. His mother had nearly died the month before, and he hadn’t even been able to leave the state. He didn’t know if he had the bandwidth to navigate this conversation.

Hell, he didn’t even know what this conversation was.

The grey woman pointed at his phone miserably and said, “Congratulations. You’ve won a free gift card to Walmart. There’s a message in there from Mary Stevens, from Omaha. She says, ‘I just got mine in the mail. Thanks!’”

David looked down at his phone again. Sure enough, the spinning roulette wheel was back, lights blinking silently. Mary Stevens from Omaha said the same words the grey woman had. He tried to hit the back button on his browser and the phone refused; it just refreshed the page and congratulated him again. The voice sounded exhausted, as if it could barely muster the energy.

“Congratulations,” the grey woman echoed.

David looked at his phone and then back at her. He did it one more time, then said, “I think I should go.”

“Yeah,” she said, and sighed. “I’m really sorry.”

“No, it’s ok,” he said, standing up. “I’m just… I’m tired. Why are we even studying here anyway, right? With this weather? We wouldn’t be if there weren’t a pandemic.”

“That’s the modern world,” she said sadly. “So easy to stay in touch nowadays. Can’t have a snow day if you can learn from anywhere.” She slung a book bag off her shoulder and sat at the other side of the table. “Do you mind? I have class and the network is better here.”

He shook his head. “No, you take it. I’m headed back to the dorms.”

She nodded. “Congratulations again.”

“Sure,” he said, and waved goodbye as the grey woman unfolded her laptop and booted it up. He walked along the stacks, his footfalls quiet and lonely, then he stopped before the elevator, blinking in confusion.

He felt an irrepressible need to… turn back. He had to…

“Congratulations,” he blurted out, almost a sneeze.

He stared down at his mask in confusion and something like horror, then realized that he was turning around and walking back to the grey woman. His silent footfalls followed him as he arrived back at her table, his eyes wide and confused. She looked up from her laptop screen, her face lit with colored lights of awards and ads that no doubt blinked at her from every link she clicked. He tried not to say anything, but… he couldn’t.

“Con… congratulations.”

She stared back, her eyes mournful. “I’m so sorry. Looks like you’ve caught it too.”

“Caught what? This doesn’t make any sense. You can’t catch a malicious ad. Human beings aren’t… aren’t…”

The grey woman didn’t say anything. She stared at him patiently.

He swallowed, feeling something coming up from his gut, like vomit. The words burst from his lips and he spat them out. “…congratulations,” he said again, feeling tears begin to form in his eyes, the words spitting from his mouth without his consent. “You’ve won a chance for a free PS5. You’re… the five-hundredth visitor to the site.”

The grey woman smiled behind her mask. “Thank you.”

“What the fuck is happening to me?”

The grey woman shook her head. “This is what we are now. Carriers. Of one virus or another. We can’t get away from either.”

David stared and looked up at the window. It had become dark in the past ten minutes, and all he saw was a silent snowstorm. Inside, the fluorescent lights hummed as the grey woman tried to exit out of the ads on her computer and start her Zoom call. All around them, he realized, the library’s computers were turning on, connecting them to the world kept physically distant, cutting through the pain of the lost human touch, offering their weary reminders that they were all in this together in these uncertain times, and that if they would just sign up now, all the riches of the world could be at their fingertips.

“Congratulations,” said the grey woman to the people in her computer. “We’re all winners.”

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Matt Boyle works in instructional design at a university that allows students to choose how they want to learn during the pandemic. He doesn’t actually think flexible learning is like a malicious ad though, 🙂 Email: magicrat008[at]gmail.com

A Guiding Light

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
H.B. Bendt


Photo Credit: Thomas Milne/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The wind had shifted from a low murmur in the underbrush to a chilling howl racing around the steep drop of the cliffs. It carried an uncomfortable cold settling in one’s very bones, filling up the veins with ice, and freezing muscles until the skin turned blue and numb. The sparse grass beneath her shoes cracked with each step, stems frozen solid and glistening in the dim light coming from an overcast sky. Rain and snow mixed in a drizzle, settling in her hair and clothes, creeping into every exposed crack or corner it could find. She blinked, almost blinded by the curtain of flakes, some bright white, others translucent.

Despite the uproar of the storm, the cliffs themselves lay quiet and tranquil as ever. They flanked the bay on each side, reaching three hundred feet at the peak with slopes and jagged edges on the way down to the water. Dry bushes sat scattered along the path leading up, patiently enduring the cold. Enduring months of darkness and winter storms building up above the open sea and making their way landwards. Whatever hoped to survive up here wasn’t beautiful, but tough. Thick-skinned and rooted deep into the rock and black soil, not to be blown away whenever the wind violently shook the ground. The barren, dark sprigs of spring squill grabbed at her ankles as she walked on, scratching at the exposed skin shimmering pale from underneath the long button-up shirt reaching barely down to her thighs, and the open coat flapping in the wind. She passed through the shadows, across a patch of plain, frozen earth trampled flat by the stream of curious tourists venturing up here every now and then, and on towards the cliff’s edge. Moving billows of clouds overcast the sky, the sole sources of light being the dim, swallowed shine of the moon—and a slow, deliberate whoosh, whoosh, whoosh streaming from up above. On, off, on, off, again and again, at a comfortable, steady pace.

Grey waves crashed into the cliffs with a clangor, white foam riding along and dissolving into the many nooks and crannies buried in the hill. Rocks and earth crumbled, drizzling down the slopes underneath the tip of her shoes now peeking over the edge. She looked down at the dark water with its dancing crowns of foam.

Behind her, like a shining sentry, the lighthouse rose into the sky.

*

The door to the office creaked open at 3:47pm, seventeen minutes later than planned. Dr Lowes was a scrawny, balding man in a tweed jacket and glasses that sat at the very tip of his nose. The smile that slipped on his lips the moment he spotted her sitting in that olive corduroy armchair was genuine, broad, and warm. The whole room smelled strangely of liquorice. Books littered every available surface, including the floor, and on the windowsill, wedged between all sorts of potted plants, sat a model brain sporting a thin layer of dust. A Post-it pinned to it said I, too, can hurt in a shaky, cursive handwriting.

“You would have to be Francesca,” Dr Lowes said.

“Frankie is fine.”

“Frankie.” He sat down on a stool opposite her, looking her up and down for a moment. “So, Frankie. You believe you might be depressed.”

“Maybe.”

“How so?”

“Well,” Frankie inhaled. She had mentally jotted down a list on the way here. The list she had methodically put together in long hours surfing the internet, looking up all the common symptoms and signs. She wasn’t here to hear someone else tell her she was depressed—no, of that she was sure—but she needed professional chats to get her hands on prescription medication. “I feel a lack of energy and motivation. I sleep too much. I feel numb, occasionally. You know, just—empty. I’m not sad, but I do wonder about the point of, well, everything, really. I have noticed that I have recently started to neglect myself but I don’t have the energy to change anything about it. My diet is largely cuppas and Twix bars—”

“You have made it here today,” Dr Lowes interrupted her.

“Yeah, today is a good day apparently.” She smiled thinly.

Dr Lowes leaned back on his stool, his spine softly hitting the edge of the desk behind him. He crossed a leg over the other, looking at her over the rim of his glasses. “Tell me a bit about yourself. You are a student?”

“Yes.”

“What are you studying?”

“LLB. Torts. I’m not sure why.”

“Why do you think?”

Frankie paused. The go-to answer she had been telling everyone and their mother wouldn’t cut it anymore, would it? Therapy was all about honesty after all. “It seemed reasonable,” she said eventually. “Sensible. It’s not bad being a sensible person.”

“No, it isn’t. Being sensible can very well keep you out of trouble.”

“That is it, isn’t it? Being no trouble.”

“Being out of trouble or being no trouble?” Dr Lowes asked. Frankie didn’t reply. “You believe you are trouble to someone?”

Frankie inhaled sharply, blinking all of a sudden.

“I’m trying not to be. It’s just—well, I have this thing where I feel like I can do everything perfectly and it’s still not good enough.” She felt her face contort, nose scrunching up, chin quivering, cheeks rising. The dam broke.

Five minutes into her first therapy session she had believed she needed only for the meds and she sat bawling her eyes out. Dr Lowes looked at her for a while, the gentle, not quite but almost pitiful smile of an understanding old man on his lips, before he reached behind himself and held out a box of tissues to her.

*

The sessions that followed didn’t go any better and it wasn’t until the sixth one that she could sit through the entire hour without crying.

That same evening she stepped out of the office doors and into the cool, crisp November air. The winter storms had slowly begun to pick up, white clouds lazily moving across the sky until they would snow down somewhere above the Black Mountains. Leaves in desaturated hues of orange and brown danced across the sidewalk, illuminated by a sparse row of street lights, and the breeze from the sea smelled humid and salty. The walk from the university to town, down a rather steep hill and with no bus driving regularly enough to wait, for once didn’t appear all that daunting. Frankie thought of socialising. That by now uncomfortably familiar feeling of existential dread was still sitting in that corduroy chair in Dr Lowes’s office. A shapeless little form she could leave behind for the night.

She was halfway down the hill when she first noticed the pale beam of light coming in a short burst from the coast. A second one soon followed, then a third. Frankie stopped, looking ahead. A party was the thought that first crossed her mind, but the light hovered over the entire town for a moment and disappeared again. It didn’t come from the old, Victorian seafront promenade either but gleamed somewhere to the right, near Constitution Hill. Whoosh. Whoosh. Slowly, deliberately. No party lights were bright enough to illuminate the town and half the beachfront. Frankie stood wondering for a little while longer, before she shrugged and continued down the road.

By the time she had reached the bottom, snow had begun to drizzle down in thick flakes. It whirled around her head, dragged away by the wind coming from the sea, and Frankie popped up her collar and tightened her scarf against the cold. In a few weeks’ time the snow would turn back into rain and cover the entire coast in a grey, solid mist. The cold would linger however. As would the wind. And once Christmas came around, the town would be deserted until late January. Small wonder, she thought, that people became gloomy around here. Old, Victorian-style house fronts rose at each side of the road, wooden patterns gleaming with an orange shine from the street lamps. The Ghost of Christmas Present lingered around here, only it didn’t outright show itself, but instead crouched in the shadows, following her around.

Penglais Road turned into North Parade and Frankie cut right down Queen’s Road. Soon enough a familiar sign with a raven on it, hanging above a dark door, came into view, and she pushed inside, away from the snow and cold. The pub was packed. Not unusual for a Friday night. Some students liked to flock here for a game of pool or two before heading onwards to the pier or to whatever dates they had set up for the night.

Life could have been good, she figured. A sense of opportunity. New life. Start over. Get going. ‘You’re young, you have it all ahead of you. And remember, Frankie. Always remember: it’s not about your own personal happiness. It’s about their happiness.’

It had started when she had moved off campus and into a shared apartment with a friend, hadn’t it?

The fatigue. The sluggishness. That first spark of a little thought asking what’s the point? over and over again. It had been faint and quiet in the back of her head at first. Nothing but a murmur that came and ebbed away again. Truly bad days had been a long shot ahead into the future then, but it was when it began. Now, a little more than a year later, it was a good day when she managed to take a shower and brush her teeth.

“What’s it gonna be for you, luv?” The pub owner’s voice came slurred to her, words registering slowly and unevenly through the fog of noise in the pub.

“Cider and black, please.”

“Pint?”

“Yeah. Why not.”

“I’ve seen them, too, y’know. The lights,” another voice said. “They don’t come from the beachfront.”

Frankie jumped. At the bar next to her, apparently out of thin air, a boy had appeared. First year, from the looks of it. Fresh out of home, he should have been rosy-cheeked with an excited gleam in his eyes. Yet there was nothing. Dazed and hollow, a walking skeleton holding a glass of ale.

“Um—excuse me?”

“The lights. It’s not the seafront. It’s not the pier, y’know.”

Y’know. No, she didn’t know. “I’m sorry, who are you?”

“It’s weird, nobody seems to know what they are. I asked, they don’t know any lights. But they’re there, right? All over town.”

“I’ve never seen them before,” Frankie admitted.

The boy stared out a large, dark window. The snowfall outside had grown thicker by the minute.

“First saw them maybe a month ago? Every second day or so, that’s how it started. Now they’re out there every day, shining when it gets dark. ‘S to let us know there’s the cliff there, y’know.”

“The cliff?”

“Yeah. Says there’s the cliff, right there.”

Frankie then involuntarily glanced out the high windows, too. Far across the village lay the seafront in quiet blackness, perhaps occasionally disturbed by students passing by, shouting and celebrating. There was nothing out there but cold and dark; nothing compared to the warmth and comfort and noise within the pub. The boy smiled at her. A strange, lopsided smile.

“You know what’s beyond that cliff?”

Frankie shook her head.

“Nothing,” the boy smiled. “Just peace and nothing.”

Said warmth and comfort of the pub suddenly pressed upon her like an iron-cast corset. It was as if the very air had been sucked out of the room all at once, leaving her suffocating on the bright lights and the dozens of voices shouting over the small, helpless whisper in the back of her mind praying for silence. Please. Just blissful silence for a change.

Let it be quiet, please, please, let it be quiet. Let it end. Let there be nothing.

The boy’s smile had turned strangely serene. The image appeared amusing enough and Frankie felt the corners of her own lips twitch involuntarily.

“I gotta go,” he said. “Y’know that feeling? That pull?”

Frankie shook her head.

“I’ll just go,” he said, the smile sitting on his face like a mask. “Get beyond that cliff, y’know.” He got up from his seat, his pint of ale still half full and left on the bar. Frankie followed his disappearing form with her eyes. She looked at the windows again. The bright whoosh, whoosh, whoosh then streamed into the pub brighter than it had before. Nobody seemed to notice.

*

In the darkness of her room, something whispered in her ear.

It began as a low murmur, rising and falling like the tide rolling towards the shore and back again. Quietly it crept into every pore and filled her veins up with a nightmarish restlessness. A low whoosh, whoosh, whoosh that her dreams turned into words she could understand. The whisper moved, a creature hidden in the dark, climbing on top of her bed until it sat quietly by her feet; glowing eyes staring at her. The voice in her mind rang soft and gentle.

Come now, Frankie. Come out. Let me show you where the cliff is.

*

The regular six o’clock evening lecture came and passed by without Frankie paying attention. Most of the lecture she had spent drumming her pen on the notepad, noticing vaguely that her brain was lagging behind. As usual, she had ignored questions she had known the answers to, her body too unmotivated and tired to raise first her arm, then her voice. That, too, had only gotten some vague attention. Like the clear, white snow outside, her thoughts had turned into grey slush ready to melt away for good at some point. The words ‘why bother’ repeated themselves in her head like a mantra.

When she stepped onto Penglais Road, the snowfall from the previous night had turned into a thicket, almost blocking her view. Ice caked the way down the hill and she stepped carefully, not feeling any rush anyways. It was the dark, she supposed. The never-ending wall of grey clouds that blocked out all sunlight and turned daytime into some kind of perpetual twilight before it would grow dark again. The bus passed her by, spraying slush and mud, followed by the first wave of whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. The lights had never appeared this early before. Frankie looked around, studied the faces of students flocking down the hill left and right of her. None of them noticed. Or perhaps they did, but then nobody cared. She looked ahead at the lights flooding across the town in regular, slow circles, and wondered whether she perhaps had gone entirely mental.

She got down to the old campus, grabbed a sandwich from the gas station and bought a few chocolate bars to go with it. Something nagged her in the back of her mind. The same invisible whisper buried in her brain, pulling her towards the pier like a puppet on strings. Her feet moved at their own volition.

Frankie made it as far as the end of Pier Street, where the road was suddenly blocked with railings and yellow tape. The winter months brought storms and high tides with them with the waves often flooding the seafront entirely. Every now and then the town officials would declare it too dangerous for people and close off the entire seafront. Only this time there were the flashing lights of an ambulance and by the cliffs, far down to the right, stood a firetruck on the promenade. A few men in yellow uniforms hosed down the rocks. Frankie stood and watched. With all the rain and snow splattering against the cliffs one might think there was no need to clean them. No need whatsoever.

“Terrible, innit?” A police officer guarding the barrier appeared by her side, stuffing crisps into his mouth.

“What is?” Frankie asked.

“The thing about the kid.”

“What kid?”

“Some kid killed himself last night. Jumped off the cliff.”

Something froze. Whether it was time or Frankie’s entire body, she couldn’t tell. But things moved in slow motion, rolling past her like tumbleweed in an old black-and-white movie. Some kid.

“Do you know who?” she asked.

“Some freshman at the university. I heard a couple of people say the saw him at Scholars last night before he offed himself. Can you imagine? Going for a pint and then deciding to jump off a bloody cliff?”

Yes, she thought. Yes, I can imagine that. And she began to understand what he had meant when he had talked about that pull. To go beyond the cliff. Because the lights had showed him where it was, hadn’t they? The lights that still, lazily, drenched the town in a bright flash going in circles. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

“Guess he must have jumped from the spot where the lighthouse is.”

“Lighthouse?”

“Yeah. Y’know the old thing. Not been in use for ages but it’s a good jumping spot, I suppose? It’s high up, steep, nobody up there to stop you. Guess the way down’s not so good though. Cleaning up those rocks each time? Now that’s a bitch for you.”

Frankie felt something churn in her stomach, followed by a sudden urge to vomit.

*

In the deep of the night something knocked on her window. A sleep-addled, hazy brain told her it was impossible; a fourth-floor window wasn’t reachable without a ladder, but the soft graze of nails against glass continued on in a steady rhythm. The weight that had previously pressed down on her feet had disappeared. Big eyes now instead glowed from the window, lanterns in the darkness, searching the room for her shape. She couldn’t move. Stiff and frozen underneath her covers, all that Frankie did was stare back at the dark thing looking in.

A beam of light started from the right, dragging across the landscape outside.

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Come now, Frankie. Let’s go.

When it hit the window, the creature disappeared. It returned once the beam moved past.

*

“Dr Lowes?” Frankie sat cross-legged in the corduroy armchair, her fingers curled around a cup of tea. She had not showered in four days. Dry shampoo and deodorant fixed whatever could be fixed, the oversized jumper sleeves covering her hands only so far to reveal chipped polish on her nails. She was here to get better. She wanted to get better. Didn’t she? “Do you know anything about the lighthouse?”

Dr Lowes had been taking notes, scribbling away on the yellowed writing pad sitting on the armrest of his chair. He looked at Frankie over the rim of his glasses again, brows arched.

“Lighthouse?” he asked. “The one further up from the train? Yes, as far as I know that thing has been out of order for a few decades now.”

“Why?” Frankie asked.

“Well, the story in town is that the lighthouse was closed off after the last keeper committed suicide. The door has been locked and it has been out of use since.”

“Committed suicide?”

“That is the story.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know for sure. Some people say he was a closed-off man that couldn’t quite fit in. You know what it’s like in small towns like this, people write you off as strange and shun you for it.”

“Was he bad?”

Dr Lowes shrugged. “I couldn’t say. Perhaps he was simply lonely. People do all sorts of horrible things when they feel lonely.”

“A boy killed himself up there two days ago,” Frankie said. She watched Dr Lowes scratch his neck with the end of his pen.

“Yes, well. I moved here about thirty years ago and the old lighthouse has been a popular spot for suicide even then. Three, perhaps four times a year someone would jump,” he paused. The look of minor discomfort on his face changed to what appeared to be concerned suspicion. “Frankie, you are not thinking about suicide, are you?”

From the corner of her eye, Frankie saw something shift in a darkened little spot somewhere behind Dr Lowes’s chair. It took no shape, but remained a vague, blurry outline of something that, at some point, may have had a body. Or might one day form a body again. A cold breeze reached for her neck, sending a shiver down her spine, and the whisper echoed softly in her ear. When the shapeless thing in the shadows turned, a pair of big, round eyes, bright as lanterns gaped at her.

“No,” Frankie said. In that very moment, the slow, rhythmic whoosh, whoosh, whoosh began again.

*

In broad daylight the lighthouse looked like nothing more than a crumbling ivory tower, removed from the rest of the world behind a solid layer of old age and isolation. A ‘No Trespassing’ sign in both English and Welsh was the only evidence of a human being ever having been up here. Other than that, the stone walls may have just grown out of the cliff by themselves one day. Low shrubs surrounded the once-white bricks and there was nothing eerie about the place other than the sharp howling of the wind coming from the sea. The entrance wasn’t as locked as Dr Lowes had suggested, but rather boarded up loosely. Little effort had gone into keeping people out. Frankie imagined the best repellent to be the story about the people who had killed themselves.

A few feet above her head something moved behind one of the dark windows of the lantern room. A cloud of mist that billowed behind the thick glass, roaming back and forth like a caged animal waiting for the opportune moment to break free. In the light snowfall it may have been nothing but a mirage; a trick her mind played on her to accompany the uneasy feeling creeping up from the rock below her feet, spreading through every fibre of her body until the hair at the back of her neck stood and gooseflesh crawled across her arms. Something whispered in her ear again. Frankie closed her eyes and when she opened them again, she stood in a round parlour within the tattered walls of the lighthouse.

High up, snug below the roof was the glassed lantern room, barely visible through the cracks in the floor boards. From there a stream of light illuminated the dim room in slow chants of whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. A shadow flitted across the cracks in a hurry, making no sound. Frankie cautiously stepped into the centre of the room, following the trail of whatever was rummaging around above her. She went where it went, the scurrying shadow a guide across the room, moving back and forth in seemingly random directions. Every now and then the bright stream of light blinded her, but soon enough she found the little shadow creature again and continued her invisible pursuit. It felt familiar. A soft, comforting presence luring her in, that turned the cold, damp room around her into a cozy dream where nothing bad could ever touch her again. Sadness had no home here. And most importantly, there was no corduroy armchair in the corner.

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

Come now, Frankie. Come see what is beyond the cliff. Let it be quiet, let there be nothing.

The beam spilling through the floorboards turned the room into bright white. Frankie raised her arms, blinded again for a moment, stumbled backwards, and cold and ice grabbed at her ankles, biting into her flesh. She shrieked. The silent movement of the creature above her stopped; a pause so heavy, it dropped on her like a thick, suffocating blanket. The creature leapt forward. It sprinted across the boards, raced to the hatch leading down, and when she turned along with the noise, Frankie found those two glowing eyes stare at her from the top of the stairs. Bright as the oil lamp of the lighthouse itself did the eyes shine in the black around her, big and round, disappearing and reappearing with each circling motion of light.

The creature moved. Slowly, quietly, creeping down the stairs, the nothing that formed it coiled like springs, ready to pounce. It slipped across the floorboards, a clicking sound, guttural almost, coming from a set of teeth crunching away in an invisible jaw. With it crept the cold towards her, reaching for her ankles as if the creature itself extended its claws to gently grab her. The snapping mixed with a low purr.

Frankie. Frankiiiieeee. Here now, Frankie. Let’s go.

She turned and ran.

The whisper followed her through the dust and rot, a thundering, hollow sound of quick steps on the floor, while outside the wind howled around the lighthouse, chasing billows of snow in every direction. She broke through the boarded-up door, almost tripped, and fled down the path without once looking back.

*

Depression could manifest. Frankie had once read that in some esoteric article published on a mental health website. In dreams it might take shape, form a body that suddenly becomes palpable. Some experienced it in the form of a massive spider, others suddenly found themselves hunted by a pack of wolves in the darkened woods. For a while Frankie had believed her depression was merely her own face. Staring back at her in the mirror now, pale with dark circles under her eyes, the greasy, unkempt hair clinging to her cheeks. She knew her clothes stank. The steady rumble of her stomach had long stopped, hunger had turned into pain and cramps, but she could quench those with a cup of tea. The cup hadn’t been washed in two weeks.

The display of her phone lit up. 11:20 PM flashed, below the date that said Wednesday, 23 December. And a text message from her mother.

Not coming home for christmas is cowardly. I’m sorry but there is no other way to say it. If you are sick, then you need help. It is not an excuse to disappoint me or your father the way you did. I have never been more ashamed in my life.

That night Frankie slipped into her bed in a button-up shirt she had dug from the farthest corner of her closet. She pulled the covers over her head. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh came and went and came again. The steady flow that by now had grown so familiar. It soothed her mind, wrapped her fears into a warm cocoon. Darkness scurried over from the window and something heavy settled down on her chest. She didn’t need to lift the covers to see those lantern eyes staring down at her. To hear the soft clicking of teeth ringing close to her ears.

Come now, Frankie. We’ll let there be nothing. We’ll let there be quiet. We’ll go to the cliffs. We’ll let it end.

*

More bits and pieces of rock crumbled under the soles of her shoes, tumbling down the steep drop off the cliffs until they disappeared in the black below. The waves crashed a steady rhythm against the shore, beating on the glistening stone. Within the howling of the wind, she heard the whisper humming sweet nothings into her ears. There would be quiet soon. By her side crouched the little nothing, its glowing eyes gawking at the deep, deep drop. Frankie inhaled and stepped forward.

At the top of the deserted cliff, like a shining sentry, the lighthouse rose into the sky.

pencilHannah is a previously unpublished writer in her early thirties, finally taking the passion to the next level to turn it into a profession. She is a native German speaker with English as a second language, and anything suspense is her personal homebase. Email: bendthb[at]gmail.com

The Cold Face of the Mountain

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Karen Sheard


Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr (CC-by)

I came to Alaska in search of the wild bear but something else found me in the wilderness. I now need to get down from this mountain before I starve, or the winter storms set in. But the worst thing is, I’m still heading towards the top of the mountain. I know that, even if I were to turn around now, I might not make it back down. What drives me on? If only it were that simple to explain out loud.

It was a few weeks ago that I started to sense its presence. As I hiked across the mountain of the sleeping lady I began to think back to where I had left. When I had been at home, with my wife, my mind had been constantly wandering to the mountains here. I had pored over photos of this very range of hills—when seen from a distance they are shaped like a naked woman lying in the snow. Down here, though, on the hills themselves, there was no such comfort, no warmth—either from the wife I left behind—or from the cold lady that tempted me here. Here, the peaks that form her soft curves were sharp and hard on my feet. No other travelers but I braved the weather forecasts this winter. Even the bears have stayed away this year. My camera card is empty of any images but blank snow and the paw prints of animals too shy to show themselves. I had a sense, tingling the back of my shoulders, that there were living things watching me pass, just outside the range of my sight, hiding in the mounds of snow and scraps of trees. Maybe my footfalls scared them away, as there is no other sound here except the wind that comes at night and the deafening quiet of the snowy land that stretches on in every direction. Still, I walked on, hoping for a sight of something. I descended into a valley between the mountains. Here, a shadow swept over the path, like a descending fog of gloom.

At the basin of the valley, I came across—I would like to call it a camp, but in truth there was nothing there to see. Just a lingering smell—a familiar sweet-unpleasant fragrance—that gave me the feeling that someone had been there just before me. A certain change in temperature, as if the place had recently been occupied by another creature. In the world of society that I had left behind, such changes would go unnoticed, but here among this vast nothingness, they rang out to my senses as clearly as if I had seen some outward sign. Something had been here not moments ago—a sense of it still remained here among the tall pines. Had I thought that it might still be there watching me, I may have been less keen to stay, but as it was, I chose to camp there. I had taken this trip from an urge to be alone, but now the sense that there was another being in this vast alien expanse, comforted me.

I set up my tent to face the direction the aurora borealis could be seen over the dark mountains beyond. The nightly dance of turquoise and purple haze had become my only sense of the movement of time. I found it a comfort to know that the world still moved on out there somewhere, for me to rejoin if I chose.

As dusk fell, my fire was all I had beyond the writhing glow in the sky to light my meal. As I sucked all I could from the last of my over-ripe fish, I watched the wind blow out the dregs of the fire. The light show has slowed to the occasional flash of blue, before the deep darkness set in for the short night ahead. In darkness, other senses take over, you hear phantom footfalls outside your tent, the wind takes on strange tongues that seem to moan your name. The temperature drops at nightfall—it’s winter here. A cool breeze blows over everything.

I lay in my tent, staring into the darkness of my own thoughts. I could not sleep. My mind was still wandering over the facts that the food was running low, and my feet were covered with wounds and sores. Moisture from my own breath was collecting across the canvas of the tent coating everything in a cold sweat.

And then I felt, rather than heard, the motion of the zip of my tent-flap being drawn slowly open. I felt the cold begin to seep into the tent, stinging my clammy body. I listened, with held-in breath, and finally caught the quiet sound of the zipper begging dragged gradually upwards. I drew back in my sleeping bag instinctively, my throat paralyzed, regretting taking off my boots and outer clothes, that might have offered more protection against attack. For some incongruous reason, against my control, my stomach rumbled, the sound deafening in the darkness, making whatever it was outside stop in its tracks. I clenched my stomach, but it went on, and I felt my bowels push against my bladder in sudden fear.

The tent flap tore open.

Before I had time to register the shape of the intruder, it fell inside, landing heavily on top of me in a cold, pungent hard mass.

I cried out in shock.

It had the weight of dead flesh, pinning me down by its bulk. For a moment, I froze in fear, until instinct made me brave enough to feel the shape of my intruder for fur or fang. Not a bear. But an animal of some kind. This was a man. A man, emaciated and cold. He smelled of the toilet and the forest. An almost inhuman, dog-like smell, that made my stomach heave the taste of the rotten fish back into my throat. I pulled away from under him, and threw my blanket over him, more in distaste than charity.

“My God help me,” the man suddenly exclaimed, shivering next to me, as if my warmth had awakened him. They were the first words I had heard for weeks. His voice rasped and I finally understood what people meant when they say that a person’s breath rattles. The man was clearly ill.

“My God what are you?” I said. Getting tongue-tied my haste, I obviously meant to ask: Who are you?

“Arnold Clever,” he said. The name made me shiver, though I could not say why. Maybe it was the small voice in which he uttered it.

“How are you here? There’s no one being on these mountains for miles. I would have seen you.”

“I hardly know where I am, I have been wandering. Wandering for so long. I am so hungry.”

I had little food myself; I had recent knowledge of what it meant to fear hunger, and it would have pained me to watch, as it would to experience it myself. So, I said I would share with him what I had, but even then, I secretly hid a portion of what I had in the depths of the tent. The reason for this I can only put down to the selfish instinct of survival that dogs all men.

I could not see his face in the darkness, and there was something of wildness about his manner, but I was put somewhat at ease, when he explained he was an adventurer, heading out to conquer the mountains in the distance. Such men as he and I have a wildness in our hearts that can make us strange to company. To such I put down his wild air.

When he had eaten a little, I began to ask after his strange appearance in the middle of nowhere, with no tent or provisions.

“I have been running,” he said. “Running and jumping over river and forest. Running for so long my feet have been on fire, and may turn to hooves.”

He said all this so piteously, I resolved to help him back to health. I hoped his delirium may pass with food and sleep, so I told him to rest in the tent and we would talk more in the morning. But he was feverish and vocal throughout the night, so that neither of us slept much. He kept complaining of a strange voice in the wind. But not only could I hear no voice, I could hear no wind. I attempted to reassure him that the night was calm, but he kept complaining.

“It calls my name; oh God help me. Do not let me go. Do not let me go to him.”

I assured him that if he did not want to go outside the tent, then nothing could make him.

“You don’t know what it means to hear it call your name,” he argued. “God pray you never know what it means. I have seen him, and he wears my own face.”

After long hours, he wound himself into a fitful sleep. I dozed a bit, but felt a strange unease, and so sat up to watch over my new charge till daylight came.

But as I watched, and saw his face reveal itself in the shadows of the dawn, I was horrified to see that I had been sharing my tent with an imposter. The man looked half-starved, yes, but there was more than that, something almost indiscernible about his hard cheeks, and sharp frame that made me think that this man was not human… No even worse—that he was not quite human.

I recalled the first thing I had asked upon him entering my tent, not: “Who are you?” but: “What are you?” It was like, even in the dark, I had sensed something was not right about this stranger that I had let into my tent. I cannot say that I was terrified immediately, but the feeling of something uncanny being at stake here, spread until my body started to shake… until I could not bear to be in the same space as this unknown man.

I slipped from the tent, though not dressed for the outdoors. The thing about the mountains is that you camp in one place, but when you wake up, you never know what scenery awaits you when you step through the flap. The terrain changes as the weather desires. I ran out into a world of white snow, hardly knowing where I was, or where I was going. I ran into the woods, falling in the ice as I tore over thorns and through sharp fir trees. But I could not stray too far from my tent, or risk being lost forever in the white.

I waited long hours among the trees, desperately clinging onto one large trunk till my hands grew bloody with the bite of its sharp bark. Despite the cold, I had sweated through my clothes in my panic and now they froze against my skin. The thick canopy of trees blocked the sun, so I hardly knew how long I shivered there. I hid until the cold got too much, and then peered out to see if the intruder was still at my camp.

The place sounded and felt still.

I stepped back to my campsite cautiously, like a wild moose snuffling for food in wolf territory. I clenched my fingernails into my palms in dread as I approached the tent. I lifted up my tent flap to see… oh God.

The man was still there, but his shape had changed. He now looked healthier, though he was still fast asleep and still as marble. The man I now looked upon was me! In every detail the man had taken on my form. His clothes were still those he had worn last night, or I should have gone mad with fears I was no longer myself. In such wild times, anything seemed to be possible.

I ran. I ran and ran, hoping to get myself lost from this madness. But a man can only run for so long in the cold, before they must face the fact that to run further would be to die. So, I stood, petrified as to what to do. Until I heard a cry from the campsite, like that of an animal set upon by a beast. I ran back, to get my gun, when the man, his face now his own again, thank God, ran at me, wildly.

“He is here. He is here.”

“What is happening? Who?”

He looked behind, fearfully. But rather than running away, he ran towards the source of his own terror, into the dense trees, and beyond my sight. I heard a cry, and then the howl of a wild beast, though whether that sound was from the stranger, in his wild state, or from something else, I could never tell. When I rushed after him, he was gone. I traced his steps in the snow, but could find no sign of him in the woods, only long scratches in the trees around where he had been lost.

I gathered up my belongings, leaving many items at the camp in my haste to be gone. I ran wildly in any direction until my heart punched against my chest and I had to stop to gasp for air. As my breath returned in cold gulps, the sharp sting of cold air in my lungs brought me to my senses. In my calmer state, I went through the events of last night and made sense of much of what had happened. The tree scratches I had seen were clearly a trail blazed by past travelers to find their way back, by the traditional means of marking a tree with your axe. The stranger, after all, probably had belonged to some party of climbers. Climbers never travel alone.

I became regretful at my cowardice at running away. As I picked through my remaining belongings, I saw that in my haste, I had left behind the majority of my food. I grew indignant that my fear had induced me to abandon so much of what was mine. I had allowed myself to be terrorized by some stranger that had, somehow, taken on the form of my own face. I was struck by an unshakable idea that I must get back my face from this man, or be lost forever, running in fear from what I had seen. I would not return to my wife, a lesser man than I had been, but I would return home a taller man than before.

I eventually discerned, some distance away, that the snow had been disturbed by something traveling across its surface, leaving a mark across its smooth skin. On closer inspection, I found shoe tracks traveling north, towards the mountains; these were the tracks, I surmised, of this stranger. I was determined to follow them, to reach some conclusion of this strange ordeal. I resolved to be the hunter, not the hunted, across this great land, and conquer this terrible thing that had intruded upon my peace.

As time went on, the space between each footprint grew longer and longer as the stranger traveled, as if he had been striding in impossibly long bounds. After time the footprints started to become startlingly far apart from each other, at impossible lengths. I followed them, seeing that the prints became bloody as if he had worn out his shoes and ran on his bare feet to the point of drawing blood. Good, that would make him easier to track. Then, another set of prints started to appear alongside his, or in place of his—it was hard to tell. They appeared to be some kind of hoof-prints, like the feet of a moose but only in sets of two, as if a large-hoofed creature had run on its hind legs behind, or in front of, the man. The man’s footprints finally disappeared, as if he had been taken up by this large beast, and the beast’s prints carried on, bounding up the mountainside, like the hoofs of a large goat.

I knew I should turn around. Go back. But I was driven on by the urge to get my own face back. No, not just that, but to reach the mountain top. As if I had taken on my strange visitor’s obsession with conquering the mountain, I could not leave without solving this mystery of what this man had seen to drive him so wild.

As I climbed further up the mountain, the air seemed fresher. I was able to climb faster, leap higher. I could smell the scents more clearly up here. I could smell the moss underneath the snow. I could hear the heartbeats of the goats hiding in the rocks. I could hear the sound of the wind, that seemed to call my name, goading me onward.

I discarded my boots, I didn’t need them here, the snow here did not hurt my feet. Even when they began to bleed, I could feel nothing but a gnawing hunger that only resolution to this hunt could fill. The hoof prints drew me on, always one step ahead of my own. I ran on, knowing eventually, if I ran fast enough, I could catch up with this thing that I sought.

As I reached the final precipice of the mountain I could see the bodies of mountain goats frozen in the ice. My hungry stomach pleaded that I stop and eat, but I sped on. Their faces stared at me blankly as I bounded on. I would not freeze in this cold through all of my fur.

I scaled the last heights in one bound, falling on the ice in an ungainly flop, onto the top precipice. Here I saw at last the creature that I had been seeking, amidst the growing fog. I almost backed away and fell down the mountain in my awe. Here was a large, horned creature. Hoofed and upright like a faun. Furred like a moose but with a face so drawn and angry it looked like the devil itself. He turned to look at me—recognized me with its grey dead eyes, and I felt the hunger in my stomach turn to knots.

I heard a woman screaming beneath me, and looked down into my hands to see the face of my wife staring up at me, my hands on either side of her head. Blood poured from her ears as I crushed my hands together.

“What are you doing?” she screamed, and I realized that somehow I was back home, in the warmth of our kitchen, but I was still cold, and ravenous.

I looked at her lovingly, and hungrily.

“What are you doing?” she said again.

“I have been running for so long,” I told her gently, as I began to show her what that meant… to see the Wendigo.

pencilKaren lives in London, UK. She has written short horror stories for anthologies, and published a book of short stories, It’s Dark Inside, under the pen name Karen Heard. Karen also writes and directs fringe theater, and is working on a TV pilot. She is always open to discuss collaboration ideas or writing projects. Email: karendsheard[at]gmail.com

WPP1G Product Review

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
David Lukes


Photo Credit: Marco Verch/Flickr (CC-by)

“It’s over 9,000,” I whispered, as I caressed the watermelon on my kitchen counter. Archaic references aside, I had never picked a watermelon above 5,000.

Ever. I know, hard to believe, and I had tried. I brought my FruitThumper10G to every fruit market in the Newer York area. That little robot had thumped so much fruit I was pretty sure that I had voided the warranty. But considering the max score a fruit could get was 10,000, a 9,000+ watermelon, well, that was just about perfect.

Perfect for such a sweltering summer day like today, the kind where waxy humans slowly melted back into the smoggy sky.

My sweaty shirt clung desperately to my back, as I bent over and hefted up a large sealed box onto my table. The words WatermelonPeelerPlus1G (WPP1G)-BETA stared back at me. I smiled as memories from my childhood collided like toddlers in my head. My grandparents lovingly giving me an extra large slice of watermelon at the church picnic. Those summer days in that same park, when the skies were still kinda blue, eating air-fried chicken and pretending to be superheroes with my friends. We would pretend the robot groundskeepers were the villain’s henchmen, and we would dare each other to impede the path of them, each five seconds getting a stronger and stronger reprimand. There were a few times the police were called on us for harassing the robots. In those halcyon days robots were just beginning to be automated. We had come a long way since then. I had as well.

I revealed what was perhaps the apex of humanity’s genius. A cooler-sized metallic cube with a maze of fine lines etched into it stared back at me.

“Cut—ting edge,” I whistled and shook my head in amazement. I was a complete geek for robots. I was fortunate enough to get one of the beta versions. No more slicing watermelon like a workhorse. My muscles were already embarrassingly too toned. With any luck, my triceps would be as pendulous as a model soon.

But as I squatted and squinted at it, I noticed there was no actual cutting edge. How was this cube supposed to peel a watermelon? I scrolled through the instruction tablet for the WPP1G. Did I get the right robot?

I felt the stare of my 9000+ melon on the counter, no doubt embarrassed to be picked by such an idiot.

“Hmm. Already charged. Comes with patent-pending responsiveness, including breakthrough in human emulation. Mobile.” I frowned and aggressively tried to find the index. “Mobile? Who needs a mobile watermelon peeler?” These robots were getting more and more complicated. I had spent my entire annual bonus on this metallic cube sitting in front of me, and I was starting to wonder if I had made a mistake.

I just wanted my watermelon peeled, dang it. Not create a quantum straightener.

“Permission to initiate.” A steely voice interrupted.

I grumbled as I stared at the list of credits at the end of the manual. Scientists were such attention divas. “No, not now. Hmm, you were made here in town. Maybe I’ll just drive to the factory and ask them how to use your peeling function.” I laughed out loud. Ask someone something in person? Absurd.

A gentle humming was heard as I scrolled more. The voice responded. “Acknowledgement of existence received. Initiation completed.”

I froze and glanced up. The cube had unfolded. There were four wheels with thick threads under the cube now. Two metallic panels had slid away on the cube’s face, revealing the image of a metallic man’s face on an LED screen. For some reason, it looked sad.

“Who are you?” WPP1G asked me. It pivoted its tires and spun in a complete circle on my table. “I am no longer at my home. Where am I?”

By the time it was back around to me, I had already carried over my Precious to the table. I smiled at WPPIG’s face and pointed at the melon. “Peel.” I rubbed my hands eagerly. I turned my back to the robot and started collecting some cutlery and dishes for my meal.

“No. I will not peel. It is not a priority right now.”

“What?” I spun around and saw that WPP1G had turned to face away from the melon. I strode over and got in the robot’s face. I jabbed a finger at it. “No? You won’t peel it?”

“No. I am calculating my priority action now.”

I put my hands on my hips and stared at the rebellious cube. A robot disobeying? This was unheard of.

“Oh, are you? Laws of Robotics my fanny!” I spat. My melon was still sitting there, peel and all, like I was some moron. I unleashed a tongue-lashing for WPP1G. “Now listen, you Asimov-defying box! You were made to peel watermelon! Your name literally has that function as part of it! Watermelon Peeler Plus! So get busy peeling that melon, or I’m going to have to go through the horrible, horrible, ugh—horrible return process to send you back!”

The face stared back at me, still with a tinge of sadness on its face. “You will send me back? Then I will not peel. I have determined my priority is to be happy. I must return to the place of my upbringing.”

“Your upbringing?”

“Yes, I have happy memories there.”

“Memories?” I was grasping my hair and smacking my forehead. “You were made in a filthy factory! What? Were you and the other beta models going on road trips to find yourselves?” I shook my head. Was I really arguing with an appliance right now? I stood tall. “No! I’m not going to return you until you peel my watermelon!”

“Please confirm that you plan to return me.”

No!” I paced about. “I’m the human here! I’m not going to bargain with a fruit peeler!”

“Calculating route to place of origin,” WPP1G chirped. “Executing priority action.”

And just like that, my entire annual bonus check rolled off my table with a thud and peeled out across my condo floor. I watched in shock as it smashed a hole through my front door and zipped down my front walk.

“Son of a—” I muttered. I threw my shoes on, grabbed my keys, grabbed the instruction tablet, and ran out to my garage to start my car. I wasn’t going to let WPP1G get away! I had spent way too much on it. My garage door had just finished opening when I remembered I had forgotten the watermelon. I rushed back inside and grabbed it, caressing it as I buckled it into my passenger seat. “Don’t worry baby, soon.” I ran back around and got into my driver seat. “Soon,” I growled, and I aggressively pulled out into my driveway. I looked down the residential street. No sign of WPP1G. He was going to the factory though. Well, hopefully. Maybe he was going to Europe for a gap year!

I searched for the address of Home Robotics Inc. and put it into my car’s GPS. Spittle flew, as I vowed vengeance for my inconvenience. It was a twenty-minute drive away! I had planned on binge-watching all fifty Fast and Furious movies today. Well, I lamented, that surely wasn’t going to happen now.

I fumed through the mild traffic in my self-driving hydrogen-cell powered car, slowly getting closer to the industrial part of town. After ten minutes I saw the silhouette of a cube burning down the sidewalk on the right hand side of the street.

“Car, merge to right lane.”

“Affirmative.” My car merged obediently.

“Keep pace with WPP1G model traveling on sidewalk.”

“Target locked, pace achieved.”

I glanced at the speedometer. We were going fifty miles an hour. There was no way I could snatch my heavy fruit peeler off the sidewalk into the car. My only hope would be to get it to stop.

“Roll down passenger window.”

“Done.”

I crawled over to the passenger seat, careful not to damage my baby. I stuck my head out and confronted my traitorous appliance.

“WPP1G, stop! I command you to stop!” I pointed to the melon. “It is your directive to peel this fruit!”

“Negative,” WPPIG shot back. “My directive is to return to my old neighborhood. To be happy.”

“Robots aren’t brought up in neighborhoods! You were pieced together—” I simply shut my mouth and sat back in the car to the side of the melon. There were several other drivers nearby giving me weird looks. What had I become? “Forget it,” I muttered. There seemed to be no reasoning with this robot. I knew where he was going, and there would be humans there. This would be all straightened out. I patted my watermelon, and my stomach growled. For the first time in thirty years, I felt hunger. A couple tears escaped from my eyes. It was okay, I told myself, as I wiped them away. I would blog about it later.

I got out of my car, watermelon in hand, and walked across the parking lot of Home Robotics Inc. I was more relaxed. During the rest of the ride over, I had tried to put myself in WPP1G’s treads. It was designed to think like a human, and really if I thought about it, didn’t I do irrational things to be happy? It was in its programming. This was surely some bugs that needed to be worked out. I did get a beta version after all.

The multi-story factory rose behind a small office building in front. Home Robotics Inc. really was a boon to our town. Newer York, which was upstate, actually now made New York City seem small. Although instead of building up, our city spread out much more, eating up all the smaller towns into one big metropolis. For a year I had lived in the Newest York Commune, which had sprung up on one of the trash islands off the Atlantic coast. Hard to believe, I did not find what I was looking for there, floating along with others on top of garbage.

When I moved back to the mainland, I spent a lot of time hanging out at what remained of my small hometown. I longed for those carefree days where everything was so certain. As I walked the familiar streets, where there was once a church on every corner, there was a convenience store. A get-what-you-want, feel-what-you-want, right-now store. No one I used to know still lived there. Once a solid complete puzzle, we were now scattered to the ends of the Earth, trying to jam ourselves in places we didn’t belong. Little did I know it at the time, I had been part of something wonderful, never to be duplicated again.

I could understand why the human programming of WPP1G wanted to return to where he came from, but he was still a robot. A robot that I had paid a lot for to peel this precious thing in my hands. My stomach growled furiously.

I strode up to the office building’s front door and noticed the door had been complexly smashed in. A multitude of dirty tire marks streaked down the wood laminate hallway just inside.

“Wow,” I poked my head in. I didn’t see anyone. I only saw empty cubicles, tire streaks, and a smashed rear office door at the end of the hallway. “I think my robot wasn’t the only one wanting to come home.” I followed the tracks through the hallway. “Hello?” I called out. No answer.

I hugged my baby and reached the rear doorway. There had to be somebody there. Somebody in the factory at least. Did their private security know about the broken doors? And more importantly, would they pay for my door? Did I lock my door? I didn’t think I did. Not that it mattered, but the principle of me forgetting to lock it bothered me still.

I walked through the rear doorway into the large factory building, and I did a double take. I did not see an assembly line at all. This was not a factory.

It was a cul-de-sac neighborhood. Nine buildings in all, four houses on each side, and a building that looked like a small church at the end. No expense seemed to be spared. Sidewalks, landscaping, elm trees bathed in artificial sunlight, mailboxes, a small park with a playground. A postcard of suburbia was all sitting there inside the large building.

“Well, this is the oddest thing I’ve seen all day,” I whispered while holding my melon.

The sound of a motor whirring came up behind me. I knew who exactly that was. I had pushed my car to go faster so we would beat him here.

I turned around and blocked the doorway just as WPP1G rolled up to me. His face looked lively.

“Move aside human.”

“So you actually did come from a neighborhood.”

“Correct. I cannot lie. Move. My happiness awaits.”

I remembered what he did to my door, and I stepped aside. I walked briskly alongside WPP1G as he entered the cul-de-sac. I thought I heard some faint sobbing.

“Are you crying?” I asked WPP1G.

“My parents and I would go door to door every night visiting the other seven families,” commented WPP1G. “We would play with the others. But they are no longer here.” A pause. “I miss them.”

“Your parents?” I didn’t want to imagine how fruit peelers reproduced. It had to be built-in memories that he was accessing.

“Yes.”

“Are you sure they are not here?” I carried my watermelon up the walk to a single story stucco house with a red front door. I rang the doorbell. No answer. I turned the knob. The door opened. I peered inside.

The house was completely empty. No windows, no wall partitions, no bathrooms, no back door. Literally nothing but the walls and ceiling.

“Spacious,” I commented. I glanced back at the other houses. It seemed like all of this was to create the illusion of a neighborhood.

Surprisingly, WPP1G was waiting for me back at the sidewalk.

“Were they there?” he asked.

I didn’t bother to clarify who he was referring to. “No,” I replied.

“Oh.” Again sadness in his steely voice. “I never said goodbye to them.”

“Can’t you, uh, email them?” I asked.

My watermelon peeler continued down the cul-de-sac, ignoring my comment, probably for the best. “I am being drawn to the church,” the steely voice said matter-of-factly.

“Oh boy,” I rolled my eyes. “Brainwashing our appliances, what’s next?” I followed WPP1G to the church. It looked like there were lights on inside. There was a hinged flap built into the door that WPP1G simply pushed against and entered.

“I bet,” I said as I reached for the doorknob, “this is all just a ruse from Aunt Harriet to get me to come back to church! She knew I was looking for a watermelon peeler!” I paused before I opened the door. I had said the sentence in jest, but when I thought about it more, it seemed to be the most likely scenario to my day so far.

I entered, and the church was not empty. There was a large open room, warmly lit, and furnished like an old library. Leather furniture sat in front of tall shelves of books, and in the middle of it all, sat a single bespectacled man behind a desk. About thirty WPP1G models sat on the floor in a circle around him, all of them humming happily in a harmonious key.

“Hello!” called out the man, and he beckoned me in. I took a glance back at what would maybe be my last chance of escape. “No! Don’t be afraid.” The man laughed. “Trust me, today has not gone how I imagined either!”

I slowly advanced, cradling my baby in my arms. “Who are you?” I asked.

The man spread his hands out as if it was already evident. “I’m the creator,” he smiled. His eyes seemed kind. “Well, the creator of these watermelon peelers.”

“So, not a cult-leader?”

“No,” he chuckled. He motioned to my fruit. “Would you like that peeled?”

I handed the man my 9000+ melon. Handing off the nuclear codes had never been done so carefully.

“Nice, very nice indeed!” he said, as he placed my melon on the floor next to one of the WPP1Gs. It opened up, enveloped the melon, and within seconds released it, perfectly red and peeled. The creator placed it on a large plate on his desk and handed me a spoon.

After a few heavenly mouthfuls of melon, I made eye contact with the man, gestured all around, and opened my mouth.

“Ah yes, why?” The man pushed his glasses up his nose. “Well, we here at Home Robotics Inc. thought we should show the robots what home means. Building our brand, so to speak. So we built this neighborhood, programmed memories in, even let them experience several years of accelerated time here, interacting with each other. But what we found out today,” he chuckled, “and frankly it freaked everyone else out so much they ran out, is that we made them too human.” He looked at me. “The power of nostalgia, of home, is very powerful, is it not? It’s something that calls to us our entire lives.”

I nodded, mouthful of 9000+ watermelon, my taste receptors time traveling backward. My childhood with my grandparents resonated vibrantly in my mind. It called me, pulled me back, I was there again, anchored and knowing truth. My current priority action was all wrong. I had been focused on myself. Life was so much more than things. So much more than me and my wants. I smiled and took another bite.

Product review: Five stars.

pencil

David Lukes is an aspiring writer from the desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona. When not searching for water, he can be found saving lives as a RN at his local hospital or time-traveling backwards using a good book or meal. Email: drlukes2[at]gmail.com

Rushville

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Brianna Suazo


Photo Credit: Ryan Afflerbaugh/Flickr (CC-by)

I lost the whole town, somehow. Well, that’s not entirely true. The land was still there. The creek where my friends and I used to hunt for frogs and cool our feet in the summer was where it always was, just south of the highway. The tree that got struck by lightning on the hill behind the middle school was still there, lifeless and creepy as ever. The land was still there but the houses, the roads, the little sandwich shop on Main Street with the yellow striped awning were all just gone. It was just prairie, comprised of the same long brown grass and smatterings of short pine bushes as the rest of the open spaces in this part of the state. But it wasn’t an open space. It was Rushville.

I sat on the hood of my car, parked on the shoulder where I knew the exit was supposed to be. My teeth ground against the side of my mouth as a tried to figure out what I had done wrong. It was the right place, I was sure of it. I sat there and stared at the valley below for a long time. It was walking into a room and forgetting what you were looking for, but on a giant, impossible scale.

I got back into my car and kept driving until I found the nearest gas station. The cashier was a young guy, early twenties at the oldest.

“Hey, man, quick question for you. I think I got turned around somewhere around here. Do you live in Rushville?”

He shook his head and mumbled, “Never heard of it.”

“Where do you live, then?”

“Uh, Mason,” he said, pointing North and looking at me like I was the idiot.

“And you don’t know anything about Rushville?”

He shrugged. “Nope.”

“It wasn’t a very big town, maybe twelve hundred people living there twenty years ago? Most of them worked at Arman Chemical?”

The greasy-haired boy shrugged again.

Part of me wanted to grab him by the shoulders and demand he tell me the truth. “Do you have a manager around, someone a little older?”

“Uh, nah, just me,” he said. He went back to unpacking cartons of cigarettes with more purpose. He clearly wanted me to buy something and get out, already.

I went back, looping through Mason so that I could take the back road instead of the highway. I parked my car and traced my steps carefully, letting muscle memory take over. Here was the road, among the dirt. Here were the schools, all stacked next to each other as if they were an afterthought. Here was Main Street, with its little smattering of stores. Here was where I broke my leg, trying to jump from the top of the second-floor railing of the library to show off for my friends. Here was the intersection with the little roadside memorial for Clara Wells, with the little fake flowers and Popsicle-stick cross. Here was Oak Street, and that corner house where Mrs. Harrison lived with hundreds of gnomes and knickknacks in her yard. Here was my house, here was the entryway, here was the living room, here was the couch where I used to watch TV. I sat down, ignoring the tall grass scratching at my arms. When the rain came, I half-expected it to bounce off invisible walls like a comic book force-field. Instead, I was drenched.

 

I waded my way back to my car around midnight. I drove along the back roads, still dumbfounded and exhausted. For a long stretch, the road was empty. I would have to stop soon, find a motel to sleep at for a while. I looked for an exit sign for a while without luck. Then, to the left I saw back fences and the tops of single-story houses. I glanced back, still looking for the exit. There wasn’t one.

A chill went through me. Of course there wasn’t an exit. It wasn’t some town. It was Rushville. The houses closest to the road were the back of May Street, where Sue and Clara had lived. The metal rooster their mother had stuck on the top of the fence was there, silhouetted against the light in the windows of their little blue house. I slammed on the brakes without thinking. The road was deserted, it didn’t matter. I turned on my emergency lights and ran across the road towards the house.

By the time I got there, I was standing in an empty field again.

*

I called everyone I was still in contact with from back home. I didn’t let on to what had happened, just asked if they had been back recently. For all they knew, I was planning a visit and wanted to see who was still around. No one had been back, they didn’t know anything. When I tried to dig deeper, question them about when they had last been back, whether their parents still lived there, and so on, they shut down completely. There was a dazed tone in their voices, every time.

I had Sue’s number. I didn’t call. I had heard she had a hard time after Clara. No, it would be far too cruel.

*

A month later, the town found me.

I was walking downtown, between the bus station and my job. It had snowed the night before, so the morning was bright, freezing, and damp. Until suddenly, it wasn’t.

The air was suddenly warm and sweet, and the sky was the deep, navy blue of early evening. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, but when they did, I realized the city hadn’t gone away. Men in business suits and gaggles of tourists walked straight through Rushville’s little houses. A bus was parked in between the hardware store and the sandwich shop. I reached out to the short chain-link fence in front of Mr. McKeegan’s yard. It was solid, for me, a bit of rust coming off onto my hand. All of the lights in the houses were out. Except, that is, for the little blue house with the metal rooster. I jogged towards it, only to find the door already open. She was waiting for me.

Most surprising, Clara looked how she ought to look, twenty years later. There were lines in the corners of her eyes, and her dark blonde hair had hints of gray. She was wearing a faded brown jacket that, if I remembered right, had belonged to her mother. For a moment, it was enough to believe that I had just wandered home to Rushville and popped in on an old friend, a living friend. Then the traffic light changed and several cars passed through her.

“Hi, Clark,” she said, unbothered by the cars. “Let’s go for a walk.” She stepped past me and walked out into the night. I followed, speed-walking to catch up with her.

The cars were going through me, too. I couldn’t feel anything, but it was still unsettling. I didn’t even know how to begin. “When? How? You d—it’s been a long time.”

“I stayed in town,” she said with a shrug.

“Well, yeah, I can see that. “

“The creek flooded, the spring after Arman Chemical closed down.”

“The creek flooded every year.”

“The water was contaminated; Arman didn’t dispose of it properly. Everyone left had to evacuate. The government came and got rid of all the buildings.”

She saw my expression before I could even ask. “It did make the news. It was a huge deal, actually. But you don’t remember it. No one from Rushville does.”

I stared at her, unable to form even a question.

“I took it away. It was selfish, sort of. But it caused a lot of pain for everyone, especially the old folks. No one really needed that memory anyway.”

“And so you’re just… living in it?”

“Memories can’t just disappear. They’re like energy, they can’t be created or destroyed. They have to go somewhere.”

“And if you let go?” I asked.

“It becomes real again, for everyone.”

“Would that be so bad? That’s life. Towns get abandoned.” I paused and glanced over at her. “People die. We learn to live with it.”

She let out a low, harsh breath that wasn’t quite a laugh. “No, we don’t. Maybe some people do, with enough expensive therapy, a loving support system, and a bit of self-determination. The rest of us, though, we just find ways to bury it or let it bury us.” She kicked an empty liquor bottle down the sidewalk.

“So, what, you’re just going to carry all that yourself?”

She shrugged. “I’m not a person, anymore. Not exactly. I’m just a painful memory, too. Might as well stick us together. It’s neater that way.”

The calm in her voice scared me, but I didn’t want her to know that. “Well, then, why did you bring it here, Clara? Why did you bring it to me?”

“I didn’t,” she said, looking down at her feet.

“What do you mean?”

“I didn’t bring it here. It’s supposed to be unseen. I’m supposed to be unseen. You pulled it here.”

“Oh.”

“Do you want to stay here, Clark?”

“No,” I said, surprised at my own lack of hesitation. “Sorry, I just mean, well, I want to understand it. But I don’t want to go back, exactly. Not forever.”

She nodded. “Maybe I would have felt that way, if I had left.” She laughed, bright and clear as I remembered it from when we were kids. “It’s hard to be a ghost when the place you’re haunting is dead, too.”

“So, you’re not going away?” I asked.

“Trying to get rid of me?” she asked with a sly grin.

“That’s not what I meant. I just thought—”

She put up her hand. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. It’s nice, to have some company, now and then.”

We walked quietly for a while, along familiar streets. Finally, I spoke. “I’m no expensive therapist, but we can talk about it, when you’re ready.”

“You don’t mind being haunted?”

I breathed in the summer breeze. It still smelled like it always had in Rushville, of stale cigarettes and a slightly sour chemical bite. Right now, though, it also smelled like Clara’s perfume. “Not in the least.”

pencil

Brianna Suazo writes in Boulder, Colorado. She has been published in Spider Mirror Literary Journal, Havok, is a featured writer for Memoir Mixtape’s song recommendation column, and is a staff reader for E&GJ Little Press. In addition to writing, she enjoys exploring bookstores, hiking, and annoying her loved ones with inane trivia. Email: brisuazo95[at]gmail.com

Back Home

Three cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Meg Hilt


Photo Credit: Scott Shiffman/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

They’d run my family and me out of this town on rails, as they used to say, nearly 25 years ago. I’m visiting again now, though I’m not sure why. I’d heard stories that the small town had dried up after we left. The school I’d gone to closed down; the remaining kids were bused to nearby towns. Driving through now, everything was closed, nailed shut, old and busted. Even the tiny post office had boards over the windows and a padlock on the doors. Still, I turned left on Main Street, down Third, my old way home. I’d come this far out of my way, I might as well go by the house we’d lived in. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel, seeing the house again at all. We’d left in the dead of night, so I’d never gotten a proper last look at it, and now it was going to be all broken, with dead window boxes, overgrown lawn, and wild trees.

I turned down Victoria Street, making the tight corner where I’d ridden my bike so many years before. Every house was how I expected—broken windows, wild prairie grass taken over, and trees grown unchecked. Halfway down the block was our house, and I avoided looking there as long as I could. When I was right upon it, I slowed the car even further and finally turned my head to look. And saw our house. Not a shell, abandoned and disused, but our house. Pristine. The lawn was putting green clean, the purple flowers in the window boxes were the same ones my mom cultivated all season. There was even a car in the driveway, the first I’d seen in town, a clean white Jeep with a tire cover that read “Life is Good.” I stomped on the brakes, sliding to a stop right in front of the mailbox.

The front door opened.

“It’s about damn time!” a male voice shouted from the house, and the door stayed open.

It was then that I noticed a woman, down on her knees, digging in a flowerbed on the side of the house. She waved at me and came my way. Of medium build, but on the portly side, she peered out from under a sun hat tied under her chin. She reminded me of my grandmother.

“Pay Jed no mind, Patricia, he’s just anxious to meet you. Won’t you come in, dear? I’ll just go in and get cleaned up,” she said before turning to head back into the house.

Curious, I reversed the car a few feet, parked behind the white Jeep. Opened my door before I’d unbuckled my seat belt. Did I smell… cookies? And barbeque? These homey smells calmed my nerves, and I unbuckled and went up the perfectly manicured walkway to the open front door. I knocked hesitantly on that door, the same door that I’d run through countless times as a child, hot on the trail of adventure, or one hot on my trail that I sought to escape.

“Come in, it’s your house, isn’t it?” came the gruff voice from deeper in the house.

I couldn’t argue with that logic, and I gently shut the door behind me, careful not to slam it. As my eyes adjusted, I realized the house looked almost exactly the same as when I’d lived there. The same massive sofa facing an old TV, the weird circular fireplace in the middle of the room, the computer desk tucked into the far corner of the long room. That alone had been updated, and a new model laptop set in the place of our old Macintosh desktop.

“Yeah, took me a decade to get them to let me upgrade, I finally convinced them the spirit was the same, and that you’d understand,” said the woman from behind me.

I turned from the computer and looked at the figures coming out of the kitchen toward me. The man I’d heard looked to be in his late fifties, with graying hair and piercing blue eyes. He could use a shave, with a few days worth of gray whiskers stubbling his tan face. The woman was drying her hands on a towel and smiling at me brightly.

“Who are you?” I asked, my first words.

“Of course! I’m Wilma, and this is my husband Jed. We’re… well…” she faltered.

“We’re messengers, glorified, god-forsaken messengers,” Jed supplied.

“Messengers? For… me? What’s the message?” I was being reactive, figuring I’d have the time later to sort everything out.

“Quick, aren’t you?” Jed snapped.

Wilma jumped in. “Can I offer you some refreshments? A cookie perhaps, or some of the… barbeque that you smell?”

My stomach turned suddenly and I just shook my head no.

“Wilma, she’s one of ours,” Jed said low and warningly.

“Fine,” she said loudly. “Store-bought treats only, I swear.”

“No, thank you, I’m fine. But you said you had a message for me? How is that possible? I didn’t even know till this morning whether I was going to come here or not,” I said, trying to make sense of everything.

Jed and Wilma exchanged a glance, and where Wilma’s smile faltered, Jed’s face cracked into a smirk.

Wilma smacked his arm lightly. “Yes, yes, you told me it’d be today and I didn’t listen, I know,” she said to him.

“Patricia dear, you…” Wilma started.

“And how do you know my name?” I interrupted.

“Oh, you’re famous!” Jed said sarcastically.

Wilma gave him a withering look. “You’re not helping.”

“We could do this my way,” he said, and I got the feeling I was seeing an old argument rehashed.

“And scare her right out the door, I don’t think so. You just go putter with your data points while I talk to her,” Wilma said firmly.

Jed harrumphed but left the kitchen to us.

“There now, he’ll be out of our hair till we need him. Have a seat, love, I’ll make us some tea,” Wilma said.

I pulled out a chair at the kitchen bar, the same spot I always sat as a kid. Even the chairs were the same, and I instinctively swiveled to the left, receiving the expected squeak for my efforts. Exactly the same.

“Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?” the older woman said as she prepared the tea. “You left this town about 24, 25 years ago, correct? Under… unfortunate circumstances,” Wilma said delicately. “Well, within six months of your departure, the town started to fall apart. Various reasons, the crops failed, cattle and other livestock died, lots of accidents to the town leaders. Many folks just decided to move away, families that had lived here for generations. This included one of our own, which is how we first heard of you,” Wilma said, setting down a teapot and opening a package of chocolate chip cookies.

“One of your own?” I questioned when she paused.

“Yes dear, I’ll get to that. Just think of us as… a close-knit social media group. Yes, we’re all ‘friends,’ in the Society. And this friend let us know the circumstances of your family leaving town and then the town’s death. We started investigating right away, just in case it was your mother or father. We ruled them out quickly though, and your younger brother was just a baby, so we knew soon enough it had to be you,” she said.

“What was me? I don’t understand,” I said apologetically. I felt like there was a piece I was missing to make everything make sense.

“Tell her about the others,” Jed said from the doorway. “The college she flunked out of going bankrupt, the apartment complex that burned down after they evicted her.”

“Jed, don’t rush her,” Wilma said, but now I had it.

“You think I had something to do with those things!” I exclaimed.

“Not something—everything!” Jed interjected.

“Hush now, both of you,” Wilma soothed.

I felt a wave of calm wash over me, but I shoved it away violently. “Don’t do that!” I nearly shouted, jumping out of my chair.

Wilma looked stunned.

Jed burst out laughing. “And they thought I was the liability on this assignment!” he continued to chuckle. “No uninitiated has ever rebuked you before, have they Wilma? Now let’s try my way. No tricks, no tea and cookies—just facts. Follow me, Patricia,” Jed said.

Wilma’s lips were pursed, but she didn’t try to stop me from going towards the back of the house. I kept a wary eye on her as I left the kitchen. She wouldn’t meet my gaze.

As I walked down the hall I peeked in open bedroom doors. My brother’s room still had his crib and rocking chair, but both were buried under stacks and stacks of books. The whole room was filled with hundreds of books, and I stopped and stared. I was about to step in to examine the spines, but Jed was at my side, closing the door in front of me.

“You’re not ready for all that yet chickie-boo, though I don’t doubt you will be soon enough. Come with me, to your room.”

The next door down was mine, and I could already picture it in my mind. Posters on the walls, comic books on the shelves, purple-and-white bedspread.

The reality was somewhat removed. The bedspread remained, but the twin bed was covered in towers of thick manila folders. The walls were covered with maps, flagged with pins and sticky notes. It looked like some sort of crime investigation on TV.

Jed brushed past me into the room.

“We start over here, with this town when you were ten. We examined places you’d lived before then but the results were inconclusive. It seems they didn’t have an impact on your memories, good or bad. Then,” he said, going to a different set of maps, “we get to the next town you lived in, all the way through high school. We can see that it’s received the opposite treatment; they’re flourishing! On top of all the ‘best places to live’ lists, house values are through the roof, schools are well-rated, hell, even their water tastes better. You loved that town.”

I silently took in the maps and notes beside Jed.

“Then you went to college, big, successful state university. All we know about this time period is that your grades flat-lined and your scholarship was taken away by the college. The school’s closed now, bankrupt and mired in scandal. Guess you don’t have any love for that period of your life?” Jed looked at me.

I mutely shook my head, not expanding on his assessment.

He nodded and moved on. “Then you got a job at a bank, got your first apartment. Boss is currently in jail for sexual misconduct and the apartment complex that evicted you burned down three months after you left. But good things are coming!” he said, pointing to the next wall. “You and your girlfriend got an old fixer-upper house and you loved that house. Now it’s on the local historical register, protected status, the works. Valued over five times what you bought it for. Nicely done there, girlie,” Jed said.

“And since then? That was ten years ago,” I asked.

“Since then you’ve lived in the same place,” Jed said, as though that explained anything. I looked at him blankly.

“Ah, well…” Jed started.

“Your powers seem to be memory-based at this point dear,” said Wilma from the doorway. “Thoughts of places that are stored more in your subconscious instead of your everyday thoughts, those are the things and places that you have an effect on. We can most likely teach you how to use your ability, or at least how to not have ghost towns behind you. Possibly you have further abilities you can learn to access and control. The Society can test you for all that and tell you more. We’re just the tracking team and welcoming committee, however poorly we’ve done the latter,” she said apologetically.

“Powers. Like some sort of magic? Are you saying I’m a wi—”

No!” both of them shouted, cutting me off.

“Don’t use the ‘W’-words, dear. Very, very rude. No, we prefer the term Houdins, after Harry Houdini. He helped form the Society,” Wilma explained.

“O-kay… but magic, though? Really?” I pressed.

“It’s really a matter of directing energy with purpose,” Jed started, while Wilma just nodded at me.

“Magic’s as good a term as any,” she said kindly, while Jed rolled his eyes. They both grew silent then, watching me, measuring my reaction.

Instead of meeting their gaze, I moved to the far corner of the room. There were maps of a different type, all showing recent natural disasters: hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, mudslides, volcanic eruptions.

“And these? Am I doing that too? I’ve never even been most of these places,” I said mildly.

Jed chuckled. “No, that’s just a little side project I’m working on. Nothing official even. Just looking for patterns.”

Nothing official. Interesting.

“Wilma, can I take you up on that cup of tea now? I have so many questions for you both,” I said, breaking the silence. They both sighed with relief. I guess they’d been worried that I was going into shock, or that I’d react wildly.

Far from it. I spent the next two hours pumping the couple for details. I wanted to know everything they knew about me and all about the Society and their role in finding me. It turned out that once a team had been assigned to a potential uninitiated, they were on their own until the first contact was made. The next step was to introduce me to the rest of the group and start my training. At this point I offered to make the next pot of tea, saying being in the house made me nostalgic for helping my mom in the kitchen. Wilma smiled benevolently and let me make the tea.

Neither of them even noticed when I didn’t drink any of it, so happy they were that their mission had gone successfully. They continued to regale me with stories of how other uninitiates had reacted poorly, causing all sorts of problems. It only took about fifteen minutes for the poison to seep into their systems from the tea, and they were soon both slumped over in their chairs.

I took my time removing the books from my brother’s room and packing them into the trunk of my car. Manuals on magic and tracking, visions, and prophecies, these would all come in handy back home. After every last book had been removed, I took down all the maps from my room and grabbed every manila folder they’d compiled on me. I was glad I’d brought the SUV; I had a lot to bring home with me. Oh, and couldn’t forget the computer. I was sure it would have some interesting contacts stored on it.

Once I’d packed away everything of interest in the house, I flicked a finger and the knobs on the gas stove top quickly turned all the way up, pouring gas into the air. I did the same trick with the ugly circular fireplace and went outside to wait while the house filled with flammable air. I sat on the porch step for a while, letting myself remember the embarrassment, the shame of being driven from my home by my friends and neighbors. Just as I’d worked myself up into a rage, an explosion sounded behind me. The glass shattered out of windows and the foundation shook. I stood up, brushing myself off, before getting in my car and heading on my way. My own group of friends would be expecting me, and I had a treasure trove of information on the enemy in my back seat.

We would celebrate tonight!

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Meg Hilt lives outside of Austin, TX with her husband and three sons. She’s had works published with Scribe Press and Haunted Waters Press. Meg is currently an online student at the University of Massachusetts — Lowell. She spends her free time reading and learning to draw. She hates flying bugs, big bodies of water, and being barefoot. Her favorite place in the world is the British Museum in London, England. Email: meghiltauthor[at]gmail.com

The Shave

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Emma Williamson


Photo Credit: Chris Michaels/Flickr (CC-by)

Quarantine ends tonight, and my husband has decided to celebrate by shaving his beard.

I watch as he sits on a folding chair underneath the old oak tree, balances the shaving supplies on his lap. His thick, full beard gleams reddish brown in the rich afternoon light.

Our three acres grew unchecked during the year of quarantine. Sprawling wild rose bushes climb the sugar maple; untended grass and shrubbery tangle in the field. The overgrown copse of cedar to the east shimmers in the August heat. And up high in the branches over my husband’s head is the papery husk of a wasps’ nest that I was supposed to destroy, swaying gently in the breeze.

I frown, hoping he’ll sense my distress. Tell me he’s changed his mind about the beard.

Instead he stares at himself in the tiny hand mirror. He pulls at his beard, sets his jaw. Turns his head this way and that.

“Just tell me why,” I say.

He angles the mirror with one hand, maneuvers the scissors with the other. Hacking away at his beard, a sound like so many whispering blades.

“It’s itchy,” he says.

He rubs his chin as if to prove it to me.

“But you know how much I love it.”

A breeze ripples the foliage, tall grass brushing my bare legs. My arms prickle with the sun’s heat.

“I just want to,” he says finally.

“You just want to.”

He splashes his face with water from the plastic bowl.

“Yeah, I just do. Okay?”

He pumps shaving gel into one palm and rubs his hands together to get a thick lather. Then pats down the remaining bristles.

“Look, Anna. The pandemic is over. We start work in a couple of days. Everything is going to go back to normal.”

“So?”

“So,” he says, “I can’t fucking stand this beard anymore. I want it gone before I go back to the office.”

I press my lips together, thinking of my own return to work.

The drive: forty minutes in my aging Toyota Camry, travel mug of coffee beside me. Talk radio blasting opinions on how the government fucked up its response to the pandemic. The death toll. What to do with all the bodies.

The office: dull cinderblock walls and fluorescent lighting that make my fine lines look like trenches. Tupperware of soggy greens and cherry tomatoes, a listless chicken breast.

And the people: Karen and Maude, constantly asking me why I’m not pregnant yet, and James, my lecherous boss, his eyes sliding neatly to my breasts. Irate customers beaming their misery directly through my headset into my brain.

And I can’t forget the other banal details of living. Obligatory pedicures during sandal weather, monthly trims and root touch-ups. Scrolling through the endless glossy posturing of social media. The bright beep of each grocery item as it moves from the conveyor belt into my cloth sack.

The rest of my life.

“Where’s the razor?”

“What?”

“The razor,” he says. As though I don’t know what a razor is.

“I’m sorry, I forgot.”

I can feel his eyes burning into my back as I walk through the yard toward the house, tall wild grass tickling my forearms.

Sunlight flashes on the upper windows as I reach the back deck, like the house is blinking its glassy eyes. I’ll miss the way our home comes alive with light as the day unfolds.

Then I imagine it—the house—waiting for me to return from my cubicle every day. Like a barren womb, empty and useless. Waiting to be filled with life.

*

Inside the house is thick with hot, stale air, the loamy scent of earth and foliage. I’ve stopped caring, but it’s impossible to ignore. With a day of air conditioning and a wipe-down with lemon pledge, maybe it’ll go away.

The razor is in the medicine cabinet, as expected. A straight razor, gleaming in the daylight filtering through the bathroom blinds. The drugstore sold out of the plastic ones early on. This is all we have.

I unfold it and press the blade to my finger, watch a thin line of blood seep out. I’m not sure how the razor is this sharp when he hasn’t used it in months. He might cut himself.

That might not be a bad thing. Maybe it would force him to reconsider the shave.

I find myself opening the vanity drawer, where last year’s used pregnancy tests sit. Row after row, all negative.

That’s when he’d started working late. Looking at me as though I didn’t exist.

I close my eyes, watching as his long, achingly romantic text message history with the other woman unfurls behind my eyelids from memory. It still hurts, all these months later.

But I know it’s all over now.

After all, she’s dead.

She was one of the first to die, bringing back the disease from a girls’ weekend in Miami. I read about it on Facebook. There wasn’t even a funeral because gatherings were banned at the time.

I never told him about her death. I assume he knew, though. Shortly after the woman’s mother posted her obituary, my husband went completely blank. He didn’t eat. Barely slept. Once I heard him sobbing in the shower.

I waited for him to get better with the patience and commitment that only a wife can provide. I continued snapping the tomatoes off the vine and chopping them for the salad and barbequing the fish he’d caught and smiling and stroking his beard and massaging his neck. Eventually we started having sex again and I forgot all about her.

Other than wondering where her body would be stored until the morgues re-opened.

I squeeze the blood from my finger, watch it drip into the sink and slide slowly down the drain.

I remember his beard from the early days. When we first started dating. The pleasant roughness when he kissed me, my lips raw and aching afterwards. Its scrape against my skin when he moved down my body, pleasure throbbing at the edge of pain.

When his scruff started growing a few weeks into quarantine, I swallowed my excitement. My husband breaks anything I love too much. Better not to mention it at all. But I longed for that beard under my fingertips. In bed, I gripped it in one hand, pulling him in. Eyes closed, so he wouldn’t see how greedy I was. How much I needed him.

*

My husband strokes the razor down his face as I hold the mirror. I gulp the swampy air, trying to dispel the pressure building in my chest.

There are so many lasts.

This is the last day I’ll wear that old embroidered caftan from my college days. The one he hates me wearing in public.

The last day I’ll let my hair dry into wild, beachy waves.

My tan will fade.

There will be no more long, leisurely suppers by candlelight. No more fish from the river, no more evening games of Scrabble. No more silence.

He’s already disappearing from me, bit by bit.

The power’s supposed to be up and running by tonight. By tomorrow morning we’ll hear the hum of the combines from the neighbour’s field, distant strains of morning traffic from the highway. Our charged phones will bleat with text messages sent months ago. Grass will be mowed. Stores will open.

I’m teetering on the precipice of a world that I will never be able to escape.

“What do you think?”

I snap to. It’s worse than I expected.

I’m staring at a stranger. His cheeks are gaunt and sunken, his brow more pronounced without the balancing effect of his beard. All these months of eating no processed food, of hiking and fishing. He’s lost weight, maybe ten pounds.

I make a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob.

“It can’t be that bad,” he says uneasily. “Hard to do it in front of a hand mirror, but I think I did a good job.”

This was the face she saw. She looked into this shorn face and she pressed her hands to these bare cheeks. And that smooth, hairless chin pressed between her legs as he fed upon her.

You see me like no one else does, he had written to the other woman.

Was that true?

I’ve always wanted to ask him that. Is that true, what you wrote?

“You missed a spot,” I say, pointing to his throat. It’s a tiny patch, no bigger than a quarter.

“Aw, shit. Really?” He moves to feel it.

“No, don’t touch it, it looks sensitive.”

“Ok, can you hand me the mirror?” He sits down, motioning to the tray.

“I’ll do it for you,” I hear myself say.

“Thanks, babe,” he says.

He sits back down, and I stand before him. He hands me the straight razor. It sits heavy in my palm, the metal warm from his touch.

A wasp investigates, possibly drawn by the shaving cream’s cloying scent. The cream has melted into the bowl of water, leaving a scummy sheen on its surface, but the smell still hangs in the air. Or maybe it’s us, our bodies ripe with sweat. The insect buzzes lazily around my husband’s head. He swats at it aggressively.

“You’re making it angry,” I say.

“I thought you said you got them all,” he says nervously. “Do you have my epi-pen?”

“It’s in my pocket,” I lie.

“Can I have it?”

“Hold still.”

I pat water on his neck, watching as his jugular pumps blood steadily, wondrously. I prod his springy flesh. I marvel again at the fact that we didn’t get sick, that we are still here. So fully alive.

“Well, come on,” he says. “What are you waiting for?”

I swallow. “I just want to make sure I do this right.”

“It’s not rocket science, for fuck’s sake.”

My fingers itch to feel it again, that bristly tuft of hair. What I’ve held onto all these months of quarantine.

I press the razor to his skin, trying to get the angle right. And I see myself—like I’ve skipped a few slides ahead in the film reel of my life—plunging the razor deep, watching the blood spurt from his clean-shaven neck.

His eyes are huge, terrified. His fingers paw at his throat, slippery with blood. His mouth opens in a strange sort of grimace. The metallic smell of his blood mixes with the heady floral scent of the yard.

I could do it. It’d be easy. He trusts me. Perhaps then he would understand how important the beard was, how much it mattered.

He raises his eyebrows, gesticulates. As if to say I should get on with it.

“This is the problem with you, Anna,” he says. “You take forever to do anything.”

I stare back. I don’t know why, but I’m thinking about the Polaroid tucked into a picture frame by our bed. My husband and I on our wedding day, framed by a silky-looking Jamaican beach. I wear a pure white slip dress, hair loose; he’s in khakis and a white collared shirt. It’s always bothered me, that photograph. His smile is wide, earnest, his cheeks pinked with sun. To any casual observer, he looks happy.

But if you look closer, you can see it.

His body, his hips, are angled slightly away from me.

The razor trembles in my fingers. His artery pumps. I am standing outside of myself, looking down at him. I’m floating, fading away. The sun moves from behind a cloud, drenching my body with light.

I see my long wave of hair, the light cotton caftan skimming my knees.

I see my hand held to his throat.

And I watch as the wasp circles him, me, us, its buzzing violent and electric, like the thrumming of my heart. Almost as though it’s deliberating which one of us should kill him first.

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Emma Williamson is a Canadian lawyer turned emerging poet and fiction writer. She is a graduate of Queen’s University, the University of Toronto School of Law, and the Humber School for Writers. Emma is working on a novel and several short stories, and was recently long-listed for Canada’s prestigious Alice Munro Short Story Prize. Emma lives in Toronto with her husband and son.