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.

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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.”

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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. Email: emmawilliamson23[at]hotmail.com

Morning Run

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Justine Gardner


Photo Credit: Corey Butler/Flickr (CC-by)

The fragrant main dish lies steaming on the restaurant table: a cat, whole and deep-fried, and still alive. It purrs when she pokes its crackling skin with the knife—

Something nudges her, leaving a moist slick to cool on her chin. She rises out of the dream, gasping, fingers in her cat’s fur. Listens to its purrs. Her husband’s congested snores that move his body, the bed, with every inhalation. She counts the seconds between his breaths, measuring his need for oxygen. Her watch says it is five-thirty. A glance at the monitor shows the baby smooth with sleep.

She gets up. She pads to the bathroom, then the kitchen, feeds the cat before taking her own half-cup of thin coffee. Her ten almonds, the bite of dried fruit. The jar of apricots is nearly empty. The snip of sky out the kitchen window is dark, but tinged with the early glow of sunrise.

She pulls on leggings, a tank top, straps on her phone. She slips out the apartment door, easing it closed behind her. The hall is ripe with the smell of the overflowing trash closet. The super has been sick, she heard. She hasn’t seen him since last week. Or is it the week before? She can’t quite remember the last time she spoke to a neighbor. The last time she heard the children crying from 6D.

She adjusts her mask, her hands already in their latex gloves, and takes the stairs. Fifth, fourth floors quiet, the lights out on both landings, the bulbs smashed. On the third floor, she smells fried fish through her mask and she thinks of that purring, crusted cat from her dream, feels the sour sip of coffee at the back of her throat. On the first floor there is a man sprawled in the stairwell, mask half slipped from his face, a bottle of vodka spilled from his hand. She does not recognize him as she steps over his prone body—but then there are so many people in the building it is hard to know for sure. He could be a stranger off the street; it wouldn’t be the first time.

She walks briskly through the lobby, pushing open the glass doors with her elbow. The air feels lighter outside; it moves with a slight breeze. The streetlamps are bright against the indigo sky. She breathes, as deeply as she can through the mask, feeling it tighten against her face and then bowing out on the exhale. She smells her coffee breath. And then under that, the rich, moist stink from the garbage bags piled at the base of the thin street tree. Soon, she thinks, there will be a wall of trash. A rat burrows through one bag, looks at her as she looks at the trash and then digs back in, stringy tail the last thing she sees.

She starts to run, slowly at first, letting her muscles warm themselves. She is sweating already. At dawn the air is cooler but it is still August, it is still eighty degrees at six a.m. She runs, faster now, catching sight of the park, the park she cannot enter—not since June—so she will run alongside the stone walls, imagining herself within.

Leaves crunch underfoot, making her think for a moment of that crackle of fried skin, the purring cat. She keeps running, her pace growing comfortable, her legs feeling their place in the usual rhythm. She adjusts the face covering, keeps it from sliding too far forward, although part of her wants to let it slide all the way, untie it, and throw it in the gutter with the bags of spilled trash and let the heavy August air encase her. Maybe she’ll take off her gloves, her clothes one piece at a time as she runs, dropping each item on the curb, her crumb trail home, until she is naked and sweating, pores open, ready to absorb everything around her.

She keeps running, the mask in place, counting off the red posters set intermittently on the park’s low walls. She can read only a bit as she passes each one, but she knows what they say: Closed until further—by order of—the Department of Health—and Mental Hygiene—Do not enter—Penalty can include a fine and—or arrest.

She doesn’t want the fine, or to be arrested, although that last part she knows is a lie—the jails were emptied out months ago and not by an order from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. As for the fine, they would have to catch her to give it.

She smiles, considers this as she runs, approaching the nearest entrance. There is no way to seal it, not completely. A police car will be stationed there, waiting to stop anyone trying to slip through with their dog, their toddler, their bottle of vodka.

But there is no one at the entrance—no police car, no soldiers. The barricades are open slightly as though someone pushed against them, sliding in. She pauses, looks left, right. The streets are empty. She wonders: has she seen anyone at all? Not a single car driving down the avenue, not one siren heard crying in the distance.

She slips between the barricades and runs, faster now, across the main road toward the glinting flash of lake. How long has it been? Three months? She can’t remember. She can’t think of the last time she went this far from their apartment—this far alone, even. But now that she is here, inside the park, she feels something brighten within her, wake up. She runs, enjoying the pound of her feet against the pavement as she nears the water.

The lake is still, and barren. Where are the geese? The birds? And then she remembers: they’d been removed by the same force behind the red posters. Known and probable vectors. She runs faster, the mask slicked to her face with sweat, her throat dry. Still, she runs. Who knows when she can do this again? Who knows if they will catch her, return her to the apartment, to her sick husband, her baby, her—

A cat streaks past on the path, a wiggling kitten in its mouth. She jumps, startled, and stops, panting, hands on her thighs. She watches the cat dip into the brush and vanish from sight. A cat is alive. A cat is alive in this park where the birds are all dead and the humans forbidden.

She starts running again, around the edge and down the steep hill. She catches a smell through her mask, something deep and chemically sweet. There is a fog rolling at the base of the hill, the sound of a motor; she sees a truck’s shape through the cloud. She stops. Backs up, watches the slow progression of the gray vapor as it seeps up the hill, creeping toward her. She turns back the way she came, running now, the mask slipping from her face. She pulls it up, holds it to her nose, her throat burning with that sweet, too sweet smell.

She crosses the road, races out the park entrance and crashes into the armored chest of a soldier.

“What are you doing here?” the soldier yells through their gas mask, eyes wide behind their goggles. “Didn’t you get the order—” They clip something at their collar. “We have a civilian at the east gate—”

She runs, faster than she has ever run before, her legs flying over the concrete. She runs and runs until she is at her building and up the stairs, panting and coughing her way over the body of the man and his vodka, up and up and up until she is at her front door, pawing for her keys in her pocket. She sheds her clothes on the doormat, there in the hall, leaving everything, even her underwear, her sports bra in a heap, and slams the door behind her.

It is a long time before she can breathe normally again. Ten minutes? Twenty? She leans her bare skin against the wall, feeling the searing in her chest, her trachea sandpapered and salted. Finally, she takes in air, a gulp, then another. But the smell is on her, that sweet, sweet smell.

She lurches toward the bathroom and runs the shower, standing under water that is too cold, scratching at her skin with the thin piece of soap.

She emerges, eventually, wrapped in a towel, shivering in the air-conditioning, her throat burning. She enters the bedroom, her husband just sitting up, looking at her with sticky eyes.

He points to the window, toward the tips of the park trees they can just make out over the roof of the building opposite. They are glowing, gold, orange—they’re burning.

She sits down on the bed next to him, watching the flickering, the rising smoke. He coughs, and leans against her. She puts her arms around him, kisses his cool forehead. Behind her the baby cries out on the monitor.

She thinks of the cat, the kitten it carried. She wonders if it knew before she did that it was time to run.

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Justine Gardner is a former dog trainer, past pizzeria proprietor, and current freelance editor and writer. She was born, reared, and still resides in Brooklyn, NY, along with her husband, young son, and two cats. Her story “Nature Will Provide” was a finalist in Regulus Press’s 2018 Literary Taxidermy Competition and published in the contest anthology, Telephone Me Now. Her story “Blood, Bone, Feather” appears in Issue 51 of the quarterly NewMyths. Follow her on Twitter @JBGrumpstone. Pronouns: she/her. Email: justine.gardner[at]gmail.com

Staring At The Sky

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
C.A. Rowland


Photo Credit: John Brighenti/Flickr (CC-by)

Sarah’s gaze was drawn to movement outside the window. Dawn had broken, but there were still more shadows than light among the oak trees that were beginning to fill out their branches with delicate light green leaves.

She’d looked up from the sewing machine where she was adding the last stitches to a face mask. A child-size face mask of bright colors of oranges, yellows, and greens, which she hoped would help banish some of the fears and illness that had swept through Virginia, as well as the rest of the world.

What Sarah had seen outside was more substantial than the waving of a branch when a bluebird launches itself into the air. A spotted brown deer maybe, since they wandered early in the morning hours, seeking out the moist leaves of the deep green hostas that had burst through the soil to reach for the summer sun.

As she watched the trees and shrubs, nothing else moved. She hadn’t yet opened the window after locking it for the night since her nearest neighbor was half a mile away. Still, she should have been able to hear a few birds singing in the new morning.

She brushed off the feeling of unease, attributing the movement to the shadow of a large bird soaring about the treetops, which were twice the height of the three-bedroom house she lived in. Sarah got up and moved to the window, wondering if maybe Al had been right about curtains.

He hadn’t cared that they were surrounded by woods or a hundred yards from the county road, he wanted windows with coverings. To reduce their utility bills, he’d said. She’d removed them shortly after he died, but she now realized that anyone could see inside if they wandered the property. See her and that she was alone, four years now and counting since he’d passed.

With each minute, the light filtering in through the dark bark of the pine and oak trees strengthened until it warmed and cheered her, chasing away any thought of what might have been there. She moved back to the sewing machine and the rhythmic hum of the needle moving up and down, piercing the fabric and then pulling out, lulling her into calmness.

Sarah looked up, her aching back and the growing stack of face masks, letting her know it must be close to noon. As with all her quilting circle friends that were home sewing as well, she’d stocked up on food for the next two weeks. She was well inside the virus’s target zone of those over sixty-five, although she had no underlying conditions that the virus might use to weaken her system. A ham and cheese sandwich with a few chips was on the menu today.

Sarah moved to the kitchen, where she busied herself. Over the sink, a small square window looked out over the backyard and the rust-red stained deck. She and Al had searched for several months for a green aluminum table and rocking chairs that would blend into the surroundings. They’d spent many a summer evening outside around that table.

As she turned back to the sink, her arms filled with the lunch makings, she looked out, her mouth dropped open, and she jumped, spilling everything from her arms to the floor. For just a quick second, Sarah had thought Al was sitting here. Much as he’d done when he was alive, basking in the sunlight while drinking a cold glass of tea.

The man sitting there was not Al. He was skinny like Al but seemed bonier, almost like a drug addict or someone deep in the throes of the last stages of cancer or other disease. His head was turned toward the forest behind the house, with a beige cowboy hat shielding him from the growing heat of the day.

His camouflage backpack sat beside him, leaned up against his blue jean-clad legs. He seemed relaxed.

What the hell was he doing there? Would he leave on his own, or would she have to run him off, or maybe call the police?

Who was he? A drifter?

Sarah remembered her grandma telling her stories of the Depression. If there was anything Granny knew how to do, it was stretch a meal. Six kids and an alcoholic husband who didn’t always have work, she pinched pennies. She also had an open back door for those down on her luck.

With three growing boys, she’d had no worry about any stranger getting out of line back then. Most had just been grateful to partially fill their bellies and move along. Was that what Sarah faced now? Someone just down on their luck as the pandemic fears caused businesses to close and workers to lose their jobs or worse?

The man seemed cleaner than Sarah expected. If he had no home, it hadn’t been for long, or he had a few resources to call on.

Times had changed. Last year, a man had been seen wandering the woods behind several houses after he lost his home to foreclosure. There’d been break-ins before he was caught. That was when Sarah began sleeping with the pistol underneath Al’s pillow.

Sarah hugged herself. She’d been raised by Granny to help those in need. Was this her time to step up, or would going outside to confront this man be foolish? She wished Al was here. He’d know what to do. No doubt he’d step outside and talk man to man with the person.

Could she live with herself if she failed to act? She might never know if one gesture from her might make a difference. Or would he just leave?

Sarah looked around. Safe in her house. Making face masks for unseen recipients—safe from the disease ravaging the country. Safe. Safe. Safe.

What would her mother do?

She’d been a child of the Depression, and it had had an impact. Her mother saved every penny and spent as little as possible.

But her Granny—there was no doubt that she’d lend a hand if she could. She wasn’t stupid or careless, but she never turned down those in need, even when it meant she went without.

Sarah had always hoped she’d be like her. Now, she had the choice to step up or not.

She watched the man for another couple of minutes. Then she picked up the food she’d dropped, stalling as she struggled with the decision.

Sarah turned and headed down the hall to the master bedroom. This room had no curtains on the windows either. She grabbed some jeans and a long sleeve shirt to replace her thin t-shirt and shorts.

The closet was the only room that didn’t have a window, so she changed there.

Exiting, she stared at the bed for a moment before she moved to Al’s side. She stared at the pillow.

She’d never liked guns. She’d never wanted to own one.

Al had insisted when they bought the house. Too many animals around that could be a threat. Plus, their neighbors were even further away back then. Al wanted her to be able to handle any situation. Now she was glad she’d been to the range to shoot. She still hated the idea of killing anything, but she was on her own and wanted to think she could protect herself.

She removed the gun. Checking that the safety was on, she tucked inside her jeans in the center of her back, the cool metal sending chills up her spine. She pulled the shirt tail over the top of her jeans. She might not be able to get it out as quickly as she needed, but Sarah was still quick for being sixty-eight years old, and she could run if she needed to.

Sarah headed back down the hall and out her back door onto the deck. She closed the door with a click so that the man would hear her coming. Sounds carried in this area of the county.

She took a few steps forward and approached him from the other side of the table. Keeping her distance, both for safety and because the last thing she needed was to be so close to someone, she could catch the virus.

“Can I help you?” Sarah asked.

The man’s movements were slow as if he was aware that she was being careful. He turned and lifted his head to stare at her.

“No, ma’am. Just stopped to rest my feet a while. I’ve been traveling some through the night. Didn’t mean to bother you.”

Sarah wasn’t sure whether she could trust that. At the very least, he was polite, although knocking on her door to ask permission would have been the ordinary courtesy.

“That’s fine,” Sarah said. “You from around here?”

“Was.”

That wasn’t so helpful.

“Planning to move on?”

“Sure.”

The man reached down to pick up his backpack. He looked back up at Sarah as if to ask her if she meant right now. His stomach growled.

“Have you had anything to eat today? I was about to make myself a sandwich. Making two is no trouble.”

“I’d appreciate that, ma’am.”

“I’m Sarah. I’ll be right back.”

Sarah turned to walk back to the kitchen, her nerves on edge. This was her most vulnerable time with her back to him.

“They call me Leon.”

She smiled, and her shoulders relaxed a bit. Names were important to know.

In the kitchen, Sarah quickly made two ham and Swiss cheese sandwiches. Each went on a paper plate with some potato chips. She grabbed a bottle of water for him as she took the plate out to Leon.

Still careful, she laid the plate on the table with the water and stepped back.

“Thanks.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, this seems like a bad time to be traveling,” Sarah said.

Leon reached across the table and dragged the plate so that it was in front of him. He lifted the water and took a long drink.

“That sure tastes good.”

Leon took a bite of the sandwich.

Sarah waited. Her Al had been like this. Slow to answer and precise in what he said. He’d loved to tell a story, but you had to get him talking first and in his own time.

“Had a room in a house down the county road. I’m a day laborer, and the work dried up. She and her husband had lost their jobs, and they were barely able to put food on the table for the family.”

Sarah frowned. She knew times were terrible, but the folks who were her neighbors wouldn’t usually put someone out when everyone was struggling. Still, she could detect no guile in his manner.

“Sit as long as you like. There’s water from the spigot on this side of the house, from the well, so it’s fresh and cold.”

Leon nodded and took another bite.

Sarah turned and headed back in the house, placing her feet carefully, her back rigid with some tension still left.

Inside, she ate her sandwich standing up at the kitchen window.

She watched Leon finish his food and drink the last of the water. He set the bottle on the paper plate and stared off into the woods.

Sarah made sure the kitchen door was locked and headed back to sew.

A few hours later, she headed to the kitchen. She had some left-over chicken salad she’d planned to eat for her supper.

She checked the deck. Leon was still sitting there. She sighed. She’d hoped he’d have left so she didn’t have to face him again.

A man down on his luck. She’d seen a few in her lifetime. Al had brought a few home to work around the house, helping him with projects that were more than one man could do. Sarah had fed them all. She could do no less now.

She filled two paper plates with the salad and grabbed another water bottle. Sarah headed outside.

“I was fixing myself some supper. I expect you’re hungry as well, so I fixed a plate.”

Leon turned toward her and smiled. It didn’t quite reach his eyes, but it seemed genuine enough.

“Ma’am, thank you. It’s been a few days since I’ve had more than one meal.”

“You’re welcome. You mentioned you’d be moving on.”

“I will. I’m wondering if you’d mind if I spent the night on the deck. I’d be no bother. It just beats being in the woods.”

Sarah swallowed hard. She’d hoped her hint would mean he’d move along.

What could it hurt?

“I guess that’d be all right.”

Leon nodded and began to eat. Sarah picked up the lunch plate and water bottle. There were only crumbs on it, but feral cats, raccoons, and foxes might be drawn by the smell of food. She’d be back for the supper plate once Leon had finished eating. No sense asking for trouble.

Back in the kitchen, Sarah realized that if Leon attacked her or tried to steal from her, no one would know about it. She headed to her sewing room, where her phone was beside the machine.

She texted her best friend, Linda.

Sarah: A man stopped at the house today. I’ve fed him. He is sleeping outside on the deck tonight.

Linda: What? Who is he? Are you safe?

Sarah: I think he’s harmless and down on his luck. I’ll call you in the morning. But if I don’t call, call me just to make sure nothing’s wrong. If you don’t reach me, call 911.

Linda: I don’t like this. Should I come over and stay? Should I send Jeffrey?

Jeffrey was her neighbor. He was ten years older than both of them, and a turtle would win in a race with him. But he was a good man who’d do anything for Linda.

Sarah: No. Just being careful. Doubt anything will happen.

Linda: I’ll be calling at 7.

Sarah laughed as she put the phone down. Just a few texts and she felt better already. Someone would be checking on her if they didn’t hear from her. Not entirely safe but a bit of net, just in case.

Back in the kitchen, Sarah looked at the window and saw Leon had finished his meal. She went outside and picked up the plate.

“Need anything?” she asked.

“No, ma’am. I’ll just bed down here for the night. Gonna be a clear sky with stars. Better than any T.V. show.”

“All right then.”

Sarah headed back inside and locked the door. She checked all the windows and doors to make sure all were secured and walked to her bedroom.

She knew most of the sounds that the house made, but she quickly realized any noise was going to keep her awake. She turned on her book reader and scrolled through the unread novels. She needed something light, so mysteries and suspense were out. A soft light on the other side of the room was on, and she decided to leave it that way. She’d slept with it on before, and she’d do that now.

In the end, Sarah found an old favorite classic and began to read.

*

For the next three days, Sarah and Leon kept up the routine. She fed him lunch and supper each day. He sat on the deck during the mornings.

In the afternoons, he’d wander the property. He had a few pruning tools in his backpack, and she saw that he understood plants. A clip here and a clip there.

Sarah understood. Just like Al and a lot of the men she had known over the years. Unwilling to take a handout unless they found a way to pay their way. Leon was paying her for the food in the only way he could.

Every morning and evening, Sarah checked in with Linda.

Each day, Sarah got her mail and ran an errand or two, which took her away from the house. She checked to make sure the doors were all locked, and that nothing had changed each time she returned.

Linda: When is he leaving?

Sarah: Don’t know.

Linda: I don’t like this. I’m going to come over with Jeffrey so he knows you aren’t alone.

Sarah: No. I’m fine. I’ll ask him to move on.

Linda: Tell me when you do that.

Sarah headed out at lunchtime with a hamburger and chips.

“Seems like someone might be missing you. Don’t you think you should be contacting them or going to see them?”

Leon looked up at her from under the brow of his hat. He shook his head.

“No. Nobody to contact. But sounds like I need to be moving on. Tomorrow okay with you? Looks like its gonna rain.”

“That would be fine. I have a tent in the garage. Why don’t I get that out for you? You can use that to keep some of the wet off you?”

Leon smiled.

“That would be very kind of you.”

Sarah headed back inside, kicking herself for making the offer. She knew almost nothing about this man. He’d probably spent many a night in the rain throughout his life. Why on earth did she say that?

Because she liked him. In Leon, she saw what she’d loved in Al—the slow movements, his respect for her, and his paying her for what she was doing for him.

Sarah realized she was sad and a bit lonely, but not so lonely as to do something stupid like bringing him into the house.

In the garage, Sarah located the camping tent and a sleeping bag. Al had been an organizer, and she’d left it all where he’d carefully placed things. The tent and bag were dusty from being left in storage, and she shook them both, the polyester bright blue waving like flags in the wind.

When she took out the supper meal, she made a second trip with the camping gear.

“You can put this up in the grass if you’d like. Anywhere back here is fine.”

“I’ll do that shortly. Maybe by the garage so that the house breaks the wind.”

“That would be fine.”

Sarah pulled out a rocker and sat down.

Leon looked over at her.

“I come out most nights to watch the sunset. Thought I’d join you if you don’t mind.”

“No, ma’am. I didn’t realize I’d kept you from seeing the sky.”

“I don’t always do it, but with the storm blowing in, I thought I’d sit a few minutes.”

Leon went on eating.

Sarah realized it was peaceful, partly because she knew this was the lull before the rain and wind would arrive.

In the end, she got up and picked up the plate.

“Good night, Leon.”

“Good night, Sarah.”

Sarah closed the kitchen door and locked it. She headed down the hall to her bedroom, which shared a wall with the garage.

Sarah: I’m headed to bed. Leon is leaving in the morning.

Linda: I’m relieved. Text me when he leaves.

Sarah: Will do.

A few minutes later, she heard Leon pounding the stakes into the ground to hold the tent in place for the night.

She found her book reader and clicked it open to the novel she was reading. She’d always had trouble sleeping during storms.

Sarah sat up straight in bed, realizing she must have dozed off. Her reader was dark, but the light across the room was still on.

“Dammit, get off me. You bastard, I’m gonna kill you.”

It was as if the shouted words were inside the room. Sarah realized that they were coming outside the walls.

A man screamed.

Leon.

Sarah was up, grabbing yesterday’s jeans and shirt.

Pulling them over her flimsy gown.

She jerked the pistol out from under the pillow.

Jamming her feet in shoes, she ran down the hall.

Grabbing her phone.

Through the kitchen she ran, hitting the light switch that turned on all the outside lights.

Down the pathway to the garage area.

Around the corner of the house.

Sarah could see the tent was askew. As if something had attacked it.

The wind?

No.

Leon was on the ground outside, with two of the largest raccoons she’d ever seen around him.

They snarled, and he was fighting them off.

Sarah clicked off the safety and shot the gun in the air.

“Out. Get out,” she yelled.

Four sets of gleaming eyes turned to look at her. Then they turned back to Leon.

Sarah could see scratches on his arm where they had gone after him. The pants on one leg looked to have a large wet spot—from the rain or something worse.

Sarah moved so that she could shoot away from Leon.

She aimed and fired near one of the animal’s legs.

The ground poofed where the bullet hit.

She aimed again.

Fired.

The raccoons ran.

Sarah fired again—behind them but making sure they didn’t return.

She hurried to Leon’s side, leaning down to check for wounds

“Where are you hurt?”

Leon moaned and leaned back on the ground, his arm over his eyes.

“Those damned raccoons scratched my arm and leg. One bit me. Shit, that hurts.”

“You need a doctor. I’m calling 9-1-1.”

“No.”

Leon almost screamed the word, and Sarah fell backward.

“What?”

“They’ll take me to the hospital. They’ve got the virus there. I’ll die if I go there.”

Sarah had heard there were such fears. Linda knew someone who had a relative die because they wouldn’t seek treatment.

“You need bandages. I’ll be back.”

“No ambulance. You hear me?”

Sarah ignored the words. She’d already risen and was hitting typing the numbers on her phone.

In the kitchen, Sarah pulled out dishtowels and some plastic gloves. She headed to her sewing room, grabbed scissors and an old bedsheet she used as a foundation for quilt blocks.

As the operator answered, Sarah gave her address and told her what had happened. She had hung up before she was back out through the kitchen door. Leon was getting help whether he wanted it or not. Raccoons didn’t attack unless they were rabid. He needed a doctor.

Back around the house, Sarah dropped everything on the ground. She pulled the gloves on—the ones she used while washing dishes. Not ideal, but they’d have to work.

Sarah cut the bed sheet into strips. Leon had lowered his arm and was watching her.

“Your arm is bleeding. I’m going to put a towel over it and tie it off. I’m going to need your help.”

Leon nodded.

Sarah folded the red-and-white checked dishtowel and placed it on his arm where the deepest scratch was. Leon held it in place while she tied it off with a strip of the bedsheet.

She moved to his leg. It was by far the worst.

Sarah picked up another dish towel. She stared at it.

“What’s wrong?”

She shook her head.

“Nothing. It’s one my mother embroidered for me.”

Sarah laid on it on the leg. It couldn’t be helped. A man’s life was more important than a keepsake.

She slid a bedsheet strip under his leg and brought it to the top. Tying it off, she moved to his chest and side.

“All of these need to be sterilized and treated. I’m not a nurse. I can only do so much,” Sarah said.

“No doctors.”

Sarah continued to put towels over his wounds and add some pressure to try to stop the bleeding. Leon laid still, his breathing labored from the battle he’d fought, and his eyes closed.

As the first sounds of the ambulance siren rang through the night, Sarah wondered what had brought the raccoons out. She hadn’t seen any signs that they were rabid.

Lights flashed as the ambulance turned into her driveway.

“Dammit. I said no doctors.”

“Raccoons can carry rabies, which is much worse than the virus. I had no choice.”

Leon opened his eyes.

“There’s always a choice.”

“You’re on my property. I’m not willing to let you die or become sick because I didn’t do anything.”

Doors slammed, and two uniformed male attendants hurried over.

“What happened?” a tall, young blond-haired man asked.

Sarah explained the situation.

The second man leaned down and began examining the wounds, pulling up the dishtowels to see below.

“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” Leon said.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you,” the blond-haired man
said.

“No.” Leon took a swing at the dark-haired attendant with the unscratched arm.

The dark-haired man opened his case and pulled out a syringe.

Stuck it in Leon’s arm as he continued to struggle. Then he went limp.

“We’ll be taking him to General Hospital. You can follow us if you want, but with the virus, you won’t be able to come in,” the blond-haired man said. “We can give the hospital your phone number if you want.”

“He’s only passing through. I won’t be going there.”

The two men nodded.

They pulled a stretcher from the back of the ambulance, placed Leon on it, and loaded him inside.

As they pulled away, Sarah wrapped her arms around her waist. She stared at the vehicle until it turned onto the county road and drove away.

She walked back to the house and washed up, throwing the gloves in the trash. What had happened outside while she slept?

Sarah walked back to her bedroom, knowing she’d never get back to sleep. She took a quick shower and sat on the bed, staring at the wall.

A couple of hours later, as the sun streamed in, Sarah changed into her clothes for the day and headed back outside. She took a new pair of gloves, just in case. The tent and sleeping bag would still be there.

As she rounded the corner, she caught her breath. The grass was torn up. The tent had deep tears down one side as if someone had cut it with a knife. Likely the raccoon’s claws. But what were they searching for?

Sarah took a couple of steps closer. Two empty tin cans were at the cloth door of the tent. Leon’s backpack was open, and more tins were inside the tent and in his pack.

What were they doing there? They reeked of days’ old chicken.

Not five feet away was her trash container. Why hadn’t Leon thrown them away?

All her care in making sure no trace of food was left on the deck, and he was storing these cans?

That might have been what drew them. It was like he’d sent out a smell invitation for the animals.

It didn’t matter. He was gone. Sarah needed to clean this up.

She moved to the waste container and threw the top open.

She gathered up the cans, the sleeping bag, and the tent, and tossed them in.

She slammed the cover shut.

Sarah had saved the backpack once she removed the tins. It held other things of Leon’s that he’d likely want, including the pruning tools he’d used on her plants.

Which meant he’d probably be back.

And none too happy with her.

Sarah picked up the backpack and raised it to her nose. Still smelled of food.

She took it inside. The last thing she wanted was to violate his privacy, but it couldn’t be helped. She emptied it and made sure it was washable.

Sarah texted Linda while the backpack churned in the washer.

Sarah: He’s gone. Had a run-in with raccoons and he went to the hospital.

Linda: There’s a story there. Are you okay?

Sarah: Yes. Just sad. He was scared.

Linda: But you couldn’t do anything else.

Sarah: I know. Still feels awful.

Sarah signed off and went to sew. She’d always found that her mind cleared when she sewed. Today, she kept wondering whether Leon would be back, and if so, how angry would he be. She’d decided to put his backpack on the aluminum table on the deck once it was dry. She’d leave it out all day, bringing it in each night.

Sarah didn’t sleep well that night or the next one. Not knowing if Leon would come back angry left her with keeping the light on at night and reaching out at times to make sure the pistol was there under Al’s pillow.

Two days later, Sarah returned from grocery shopping. As she placed her cloth bags on the counter, she glanced out the kitchen window, just as she had several times before.

The backpack was gone. In its place was something white. Sarah headed out the kitchen door.

The white was a dish towel with some light red stains, but it was clean. She turned it over, and a shiver ran up her spine. The towel was embroidered. Leon had returned the towel her mother had made for Sarah.

Sarah looked around, wondering if he might be watching from the woods. She figured she’d never know. What she did know was that Leon had forgiven her for sending him to the hospital. She knew he’d had to travel ten miles to return the towel, as well as he’d taken the time to wash it. No one did that who held a grudge.

She looked up at the sky and smiled. She wasn’t sure she could handle anything or anyone that came her way, but she knew she’d never question meeting a challenge like this again. She could stick to who she was and wanted to be, and be able to meet whatever came from that.

Sarah hoped Leon found his way to another who would help him, a place where he could watch the sky and was safe. That’s what she’d be doing tonight on her deck—watching the stars and the sky.

pencil

C.A. Rowland is a recovering lawyer turned writer. Raised in Texas, she now calls Virginia home—a place of history, folklore and inspiration. She’s published short stories and non-fiction articles and her first amateur sleuth mystery set in Savannah, Georgia, “The Meter’s Always Running,” is being published in June 2020. She has stories in the Fiction River anthologies, Spies and Stolen. You can keep up with Ms. Rowland’s upcoming fiction and travel adventures at carowland.com Email: carolyn94549[at]gmail.com

Small Town Magic

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Jennifer Pantusa


Photo credit: atmtx/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“When are you going to tell him that you don’t like magic?” Dot questioned as she flipped through the channels. Dot sat, as always, cross-legged on her beloved ottoman.

“I am not sure that is something he ever needs to know.” Maggie and Sam were a new item. Maggie had fallen in love (well, strong like) with Sam for his hangdog expression and, in part, the sheer geekiness of his embrace of legerdemain. She loved rescues, just not the animal variety.

“Why is he in small town Easton if he is trying to get his career going?”

“He is honing his craft.” Maggie replied as she sank into the sofa opposite Dot.

“He is honing something.” Maggie threw a pillow at Dot and dug into the kettle corn that Dot had brought back from the Farmer’s Market.

Maggie and Dot had been roommates for long enough to have been through a few Mr. Rights for both. They were waiting tables in Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore at the Kitchen Table, a new restaurant in town. Maggie was taking classes at Chesapeake College for the time being. Sam had joined the circle when he came on as a cook at the Kitchen Table. After watching the news recap, Maggie and Dot got ready for work.

On the way in for the dinner shift, the three wandered into the Gallerie de Folie, one of Easton’s ritzier boutiques. They giggled as Sam re-arranged what appeared to be ceramic Lego people. “Which hand is it under?” he said in traditional magician patter.

The salesperson was not amused. “Kindly do not touch the objets d’art,” she commanded. The three philistines left the store duly chastened, almost not laughing at all as they headed to the Kitchen Table.

“Did you see the price on those? One hundred dollars each! Insane!” Dot remarked.

Colleen had started the Kitchen Table as an homage to home cooking. Easton was a small town full of retired people who love to eat out. It was a good place to launch a business, but could be risky in the long term. The Kitchen Table was a little kitschy—avocado refrigerator laden with magnets and children’s art near the entrance, waitresses in robes and moccasin slippers. Her concept might have sold better with a slightly younger demographic but things were coming along. Thursday nights were meatloaf night—a popular night. Her staff rolled in at 3:30 and started their prep work.

As they worked, Maggie and Sam grinned at each other over the counter separating the actual kitchen from the front of the house. Colleen and Dot rolled their eyes at each other. Colleen went over the specials based on what she had found at the Farmer’s Market that day.

Around 4:30, people started shuffling in. And then more and more. Soon they were in the weeds and the side conversations stopped.

Maggie enjoyed working with most of the customers. She figured the small talk and smiles were good practice for her future as a nurse. Having a fun group to work with made it that much better. A busy night did not just mean extra money; it meant the time rolled by faster.

As the evening wound down, Officer Smith strode into the restaurant. Dot looked up as the door swung open. “Officer Wiggum. How are you today?” Officers were given complimentary coffee to encourage their presence.

“Is that a comment about my superior physique,” Officer Smith said, patting his slight paunch ,”or my superior intellect?” Middle age was starting to soften the edges of Officer Smith, and as tough as it could be on his vanity, he found he liked himself a little better as a person for it. He walked in and helped himself to a cup of coffee at the counter. He chuckled as he added milk from the full gallon of milk from the refrigerator. He smiled at “You guys do really capture the kitchen table experience.”

“We aim to please,” called Colleen from the kitchen.

“What’s new in the law and order business?” Maggie asked.

“Actually, we have a case,” Smith announced.

“In Easton?” said Maggie and Dot in unison.

“Pickpocket at the Farmer’s Market.”

“No way,” Sam said, walking out of the kitchen to get himself a coffee.

Three people had reported their wallets stolen this afternoon. Sam made an exaggerated reach for his back pocket. “I still have my wallet but all my money seems to be gone,” he said brandishing the empty wallet with mock horror.

“You didn’t have anything there to start with,” retorted Maggie.

“Oh, right,” said Sam as he retired to the kitchen.

“Pickpocketing seems to fit with your skill set, Mr. Magic,” said Dot archly.

“Sure, blame the new guy,” he shot back.

“You are stealing too much of my roommate’s time,” complained Dot. “That alone makes you a thief.”

The conversation took a turn toward other pressing Easton gossip as they cleaned up and closed up for the night. Their laughter echoed on the empty street as they headed home. All talk of the robberies was forgotten. The magic of a quiet, small town night was restored.

“Check it out,” Maggie announced the next day as she was entering the apartment with a copy of The Star Democrat. “There has been another robbery. One of the objets d’art from Gallerie de Folie. I don’t know if I feel safe living in Easton any more. I mean, the crime.”

“Like you have anything to steal. Wait, you mean the shop we were in yesterday?” Dot scrutinized Maggie’s face. Maggie could feel herself blushing. She knew exactly what Dot was thinking: Sam. But there was no way that awkward, bumbling man-child was a stone-cold criminal. No way. She rolled her eyes and went back to her homework.

Later in the restaurant, Colleen broached the subject awkwardly with Maggie after Maggie could have sworn she saw a glance fly between Colleen and Dot. “So, how much do you know about Sam?”

“We’re not getting married yet,” Maggie shot back a little more aggressively than necessary. She looked at Colleen’s worried eyes peering out under salt and pepper bangs. The concerned scrutiny made her squirm guiltily. How much did she know? But then, how much did she really know about Colleen or Dot or even herself? Maggie’s thoughts ran in philosophical rivulets, allowing her to evade the question at hand momentarily.

“Did you know that Sam is not even his real name?” Colleen’s question yanked Maggie back into the practical, concrete present.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that it is not his first nor middle name. It is not even a version of his last name—McGill.”

“How odd,” said Dot entering from the kitchen and staring pointedly at Maggie. Maggie kept rolling silverware in napkins.

Since Sam was not working that night, and the restaurant was slow, the thought was able to fester and send noxious tentacles into Maggie’s thoughts. Her mind developed labyrinthine plots that alternately indicted and exonerated him.

Sam showed up to walk Maggie home. Dot had left early since it was a slow night.

Why do you go by Sam?” Maggie asked hoping to sound casual, as if she had not spent the last four hours trying to decide how to ask.

Sam blushed. “Well, I adopted it as a kid because I thought I should have a stage name.”

“Why Sam?”

Sam hesitated. “It is so geeky. I thought I was being clever. It stands for the Society of American Magicians.”

Maggie’s laughter rang out against the brick walls. Her relief made her want to applaud as if he had just pulled off a masterful sleight of hand. Then she felt ashamed at the thought of the wasted anger and fear of the past few hours spent inventing reasons simultaneously to fear Sam and to be angry at him. All was right in her little world.

The following Wednesday was Sam’s stage debut at the Avalon Theater. Maggie sat next to Dot in the small theater, and the newly minted girlfriend was possibly more nervous than the performer. With her eyes, she followed the art deco design up the wall along the stage and over the stage and down the other side. Circle, triangle, flower… how do people generate these random designs? Do I even like these colors together? How did they pick the colors? What if he is awful? Should I be honest? I really don’t even like magic, and I am picky about comedy. Her thoughts fluttered around like leaves, unable to cluster and form a critical mass needed to start a conversation.

Mercifully, Dot excused herself to go to the restroom. Maggie could just sit and let her mind spin for a few minutes. Conversations ebbed and flowed around her. A classmate called and waved from the balcony, and Maggie managed a wave and smile. When would this show start? When would it end? Dot made her way back across the room. Maggie could see her wiggling her way through the conversations straddled across the aisles. Then Dot was back, and the house lights were going down.

Sam tripped onto the stage. Literally. That was part of his thing. Every ounce of his awkwardness was poured into his stage persona. Tricks went horribly awry to emerge as a different, still awesome, trick. And there was a collective holding of the breath as the audience decided. Maggie could not hear his spiel. She could only feel the room deciding. She almost held her breath. There were a few awkward, pity laughs. And then suddenly, magically, roars of laughter and the occasional gasp and round of applause. They had decided. They liked him. And she could relax and enjoy the show.

Maggie and Dot had planned to meet Sam at the bar next door after the performance. Maggie watched Sam work through the crowd over to them. He shook hands with people congratulating him on his show, remarking on some random detail they had in common, and asking fruitlessly how he performed this or that trick. He grinned at her. She grinned back and raised her wine glass.

Meanwhile, near the bar there was a disturbance. A woman was yelling ,”I know I had my wallet. Somebody here stole it! You need to check them.”

“Ma’am, I can’t search everybody at the bar,” the police officer was calmly explaining. “Are you sure you didn’t leave it at home accidentally?”

“I think that is our cue to leave,” Sam said, arriving at Maggie’s side.

“No kidding,” agreed Dot.

The three headed out the back door into the relative quiet of the night time street. Maggie enjoyed that hush, that release of pressure on the ears that always accompanies leaving a crowded bar. She was not really a crowd person and was glad her compatriots had been ready to leave. But later in her bed she wondered—had Sam had an ulterior motive for wanting to leave?

A few days later, Maggie got back to her apartment from jogging to see an officer on her stoop. “We are asking you to come down to the station; we have a few questions.”

Maggie panicked. “Like this?”

“It’s not a fashion show.”

Maggie grabbed her purse and followed the officer. She answered the questions that seemed to be about everybody from the restaurant. She giggled a little at the thought of grandmotherly Colleen pickpocketing the well-heeled gentry of Easton. The officer did not seem amused. It just seemed so absurd that anybody in her circle could be involved in the recent spate of robberies — Sam’s skill for sleight of hand notwithstanding. But they kept circling around to questions about Sam. And Maggie couldn’t help feeling that they knew something that they were not telling her. If he was a risk, shouldn’t they tell her?

On the way out, Maggie saw them escorting Sam in. He gave her a sheepish shrug. She spent the ride home deconstructing that shrug. Does he know something? Was he admitting guilt? Did he just assume as Maggie did that the whole thing was misguided?

Maggie went home and showered and sat glumly at the kitchen table trying to study. Dot came in and slumped across from her. “So, they questioned you, too?” She asked.

“Yes. It just seems unreal.”

“Small towns are magical, aren’t they?”

“What are you trying to say?”

“Nothing. I kind of like it. Finally, something interesting is happening here. Maybe thanks to your boyfriend.” Dot flounced off to the shower.

Maggie sat drowning in confusion and terror. Sam texted her and she ignored it. What am I supposed to think? She asked herself. She tried to convince herself to study and stared unproductively at her text books. For an hour. Then another hour.

Suddenly, there was a loud banging on the door. Maggie answered it to find a sea of police officers.

Confused, Maggie assumed they were there for Sam. “I swear he did not do anything. And he is not even here.”

“We know. It’s Dot.” They were already swarming past Maggie ,”Dorothy Detrich, you have the right to remain silent.” Maggie watched feeling underwater as officers flooded her apartment.

“We had you all under surveillance from early on,” explained Officer Smith, the one friendly face in the swarm. “And we really thought it was Sam, but then a review of some of the surveillance tape showed that Sam was not even at the Farmer’s Market on one of the days with the most thefts. Luckily the tape surfaced because he did not have an alibi. You were in class. We checked with your professors.”

“How…” Maggie’s jaw yanked on its hinges as she watched the officers pull the stolen items out of the ottoman, the very ottoman Dot sat on daily. Maggie consciously closed her mouth and stared in amazement asking silently how her roommate had done it, seemingly right in front of her.

“Ta da,” announced Dot, taking an awkward bow as they led her away in handcuffs. “It’s magic!” And Maggie’s mind went through all the times her mind had attributed guilty motives to Sam when Dot had done or said the same things. Sometimes it was Dot herself misdirecting like any good magician. What a trick.

Maggie’s phone lit up with another text from Sam: Why aren’t you answering? Are you okay?

“Hard to say,” she thought as she watched her roommate leave in cuffs.

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Jennifer is a teacher, mother and wife who lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where she arrived by way of New Jersey,  France, Indiana, Florida, and Louisiana. She has been published once before in Toasted Cheese.  Email: jpantusa[at]talbotschools.org

Fetch the Tuna

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Jason Porterfield


Photo credit: petrr/Flickr (CC-by)

Gordon Charles always tried to make an immediate impression whenever he stepped out in front of an audience. It mattered to him if there was a crowd, and it mattered to him that their eyes turned to him.

He dressed for the attention. A purple cape spilled from his shoulders to nearly brush the floor. His suit was the bright orange of a roasted butternut squash and clashed gloriously with the scarlet fedora that crowned his stringy dark hair. Tiny bells concealed in the cape jingled as he swooshed in and assumed center stage.

Today’s stage happened to arrive at Belmont, southbound for Fullerton and onward through Chicago’s Loop, to Chinatown and Hyde Park before terminating at 95th Street. Not that he would go that far on the Red Line. He usually got off after the train left the Loop, sometimes at Roosevelt, sometimes at Chinatown. Every now and then he would go all the way to 35th Street to catch the crowds going to White Sox games. He called the run his Mobile Baseball All-Star Magic Show.

Gordon didn’t always make it down that far. Sometimes riders were indifferent or outright hostile, jeering at his card tricks, his vanishing scarves, or at Little Gus, the fuzzy black cat who rode on his shoulder and played a key role in the show. Or riders called the police on him. Or train operators called the police on him. Or the police simply happened to be around and noticed him.

It was hard to hide while wearing an orange suit and a purple cape. If they didn’t notice the colorful attire, officers were sure to hear the bells. He became swift and agile in moving from car to car, weaving through the crush of passengers and up the stairs to the street.

He always called these brushes with law enforcement his greatest trick, announcing it to his audiences the minute he spotted law enforcement on a station platform.

“My last trick is called ‘The Magician Vanishes.’ Enjoy!” he would declare to the riders, whether they put a few dollars in the fedora and applauded or booed and threw things at him. Then through the doors, whether the main ones or one of the forbidden, between-car passageways to elude capture. Up and out. Swift and nimble. He was home-free as soon as he hit the street.

In the months he had worked this route, he had never been caught. There were some close calls, and there were times when he had to retreat from the Red Line in favor of the Brown or Purple lines on the elevated tracks. A cop almost grabbed Gus once, but the little cat ducked out of his grip. Another once blocked the stairway in front of Gordon, only to have the magician winkle under his grasping arm, the cape fluttering up into the cop’s face and causing him to lose his balance. He had sacrificed more than one of his props over time. They could be replaced and new tricks learned.

His favorite working time was four p.m. The trains weren’t yet crowded with work commuters. Instead, the riders were mostly tourists or people going to or returning from some attraction. Or they were fans going to games or leaving games. He liked the tourists best. It was easy to get children interested in his cups as he played the game out on a little folding table that he would extract from the depths of his cape. They followed the ball from one to the next, never spotting the moment he palmed it and always amazed that it wasn’t under any of them. Gus would purr on his shoulder.

He had one trick he perfected with Gus. Patience and long hours of hard work were required before they got it right, and there were still times that it didn’t work right.

He called it Fetch the Tuna. He would place Gus on the El car’s floor and call out “Fetch the tuna!” and the little cat would scamper through the car, all the way to the back. Even people who weren’t engaged in his cups or his cards would turn to watch the cat’s progress, giving the magician several seconds in which to slip wallets out of the back pockets of any standing riders near him. His subtle touch never failed him. The wallets disappeared into the folds of his cape before anyone noticed.

Gus would return from his charge through the train car to leap high into Gordon’s arms. The magician would exclaim “Good kitty!” and proceed to pull a long scarf decorated with a fish-print pattern from the cat’s ear to general applause. Even hostile audiences were typically impressed with that one. It usually functioned as the show’s finale and he would get off at the next stop. There was no point in hanging around long enough for the lucky riders to realize they had been robbed.

“It keeps you in wet food, little friend,” he would tell Gus. Gus didn’t really need Gordon to justify the trick. Gus was fine with the cat food, litter, catnip, and assorted toys that their riches brought them. “It’s just until I land myself a stage show. We’ll be under the lights, in front of a paying audience!”

Fetch the Tuna was turning out to be a lucrative trick. Gordon didn’t always have a chance to stage it due to police activity, hostile riders, or Gus’ occasional recalcitrance. If Gus refused to run, Gordon would produce a cat treat from his pocket and use that to tempt the cat into his arms. The trick could then proceed as usual, but without the pocket-picking that made it so worthwhile.

It was following one of those incidents that Gordon had his first talk with Benny Chain. He and Gus pulled off the abbreviated Fetch the Tuna, the audience applauded them he picked up a hat laden with coins and bills when a nicely dressed man standing nearby introduced himself.

Gordon was initially unnerved. Benny Chain had been one of his prospective marks. Gordon had already noted the position of Chain’s wallet (right rear pocket) shape (slender bi-fold) and speculated on its contents based on Chain’s suit (gas station card, platinum credit card, loyalty card from a yuppie grocery, ID, insurance card, and $320 in cash that would be used to tip valets, waiters and doormen). At first he panicked, wondering if Chain somehow read his thoughts and was about to pound him into a brightly colored paste. But Chain was smiling broadly and offering a broad, manicured hand to shake.

Gordon extended his own, noting the number (three) and size (huge) of the jeweled (diamond, diamond, ruby) rings on Chain’s fingers and the gold watch (Patek Philippe) on his wrist as they made contact. Chain’s hand was soft and his grip strong, that of a man who worked out in the gym and wore gloves while hitting the weights.

A card sharp, Gordon decided. A fellow tradesman whose fingers were sensitive enough to detect subtle bumps on the back of each card in a deck, distinguishing suits and values based on their pattern.

Chain introduced himself and Gordon returned the favor, while Gus took up his usual position on Gordon’s shoulder.

“You’re a talented man, Mr. Charles,” Chain said as Gordon tucked his little table, cups, and cards into his cape’s many pockets as the train pulled into Grand. The hat probably had $40 in it, he calculated as he stuffed the money in place. Not terrible for a five-stop ride without the full Fetch the Tuna. “How do you feel about getting paid for a little private performance?”

Chain had Gordon’s full attention at “paid.”

“How private?” he managed to ask calmly as he passed through the doors and into the station with Chain at his left elbow.

“It’s a very exclusive party,” Chain said, dropping his voice to a low whisper. “These are people you want to know. They can open doors for you.”

Visions of entertaining appreciative audiences who actually paid at a box office to see magic danced through Gordon’s mind. He could scarcely imagine what it would be like to not have to board trains, dodge the police, and pick pockets to get by. He and Gus could shop for real, without most of their excursions to the grocery store serving as opportunities to shoplift desirable commodities such as fresh broccoli and cans of tuna. Maybe he could move out of his basement apartment, the one that his landlord had illegally rehabbed in a building that certainly wasn’t adhering to the latest dictates of the city’s building codes.

Success means different things to different people. To Gordon, it meant living a little further away from the ragged fringe of society and paying his utility bills on time.

“I like this idea, Mr. Chain.”

“Benny. You call me Benny and we’ll get along great. You call me Mr. Chain and I’ll start looking over my shoulder to see if my gramps is behind me.”

“Okay, Benny. I am very interested in your proposal. I am, as you see, a working magician. Every magician wants to be noticed. We want bigger audiences. You saw where I perform. The idea of doing magic in a place that doesn’t move really appeals to me. I would appreciate this opportunity very much.”

Chain beamed. “Magnificent!” He clapped Gordon on the back. Gus clung to the cape as the blow pushed Gordon forward. Chain handed him a business card. “Call this number tonight. You’ll receive detailed instructions. They’ll also give you a quote on a fee for your services. It will be generous. I recommend that you accept it without haggling. Remember, these people can open doors for you.”

Three days later, Gordon stepped out of a hired car and onto a sidewalk with a briefcase containing his paraphernalia. Gus rode on his shoulder, as usual. The driver glared at the cat as they got in, but didn’t say anything. Or he could have been glaring at Gordon, who was dressed exactly as he ordinarily would for one of his El performances. Half of the money for the show had already been wired to his bank account. He had already made more on this show than he often made in a year. He wouldn’t let these people down.

He was in Lincoln Park, not far from the Red Line that kept him fed. The lake was east, its harbor full of boats that cost as much as homes in other parts of the city. This street was steps from the park itself, with its lagoons, nature areas, and zoo. He wondered if this job could eventually lead to him living in a neighborhood like this, alongside doctors and lawyers and bankers.

The home he was performing in was aggressively modern, its three-story facade a ringing endorsement of natural stone and reflective, polarized glass. A man with a polo shirt emblazoned with a logo matching the one on Chain’s business card ushered him inside and through a long hallway to a room that in more formal times would have been called a ballroom. Gordon gave in to the old habit of noting exits as he walked through, his eyes taking in the edgy abstracts lining the walls and the sculptures on every surface.

A quick mental headcount told him there were more people milling about in this room than could fit comfortably in three El cars. He brought his things to what appeared to be the front, where his back would be to the French doors leading out into the backyard. A phalanx of Benny Chain’s associates were preparing food and serving drinks out there as guests drifted in and out, enjoying unfettered access to the patio.

He set up, checked his equipment, and glanced at his watch. Three minutes until showtime. Gus nuzzled his neck and he gave the little cat a treat from up his sleeve. He noted Chain’s associates ushering people into the room and the chairs lined up on the floor. Definitely more than three train cars of people. Maybe a whole Friday afternoon train’s worth of people. Gordon experienced a small flutter of nervousness that he quickly repressed with visions of not having to filch wallets and groceries.

The watch ticked down to seven p.m. Everyone was seated. The French doors closed. He was pretty sure Chain’s people were locking them. A more captive audience than usual, he mused. Chain’s people ranged around the room, standing against the walls and in front of the doors. Some were in the halls. He watched one remove a painting. Another pair hefted a bronze statue and began dragging it down the corridor toward the entryway.

The nervousness returned and congealed into dread. He had been recruited into a robbery crew.

“How’re we gonna play this, little friend?” he whispered to Gus. Gus nuzzled him again. More treats, he seemed to be saying. The best way to handle adversity was to eat more treats.

“Good thinking, most valued assistant!” Gordon told the little cat. He rang his bell and all eyes turned forward.

“Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be dazzled!” he announced. His voice boomed in the massive room. “You will see things tonight that you will never see again!”

He performed with fluid grace, the cape billowing and the orange suit seeming to glow as cards flashed, cups moved and items vanished, only to reappear. Fetch the Tuna worked like never before, as Gus made a circuit of the vast space, the audience and the workers alike following the cat’s progress and giving Gordon ample time to unlatch the door behind him. They roared their approval as Gus leaped into his arms and he pulled the scarf from his assistant’s ear.

“Oooh boy, this cat has some serious fish breath!” Gordon announced. “Maybe it’s time to clear the room. What do you think?” They applauded. He took a deep breath. “This one is called ‘The Magician Vanishes.’ Enjoy!”

The lights went out.

Gordon was sprinting east to the lakefront when they came on again, Gus secured inside his cape. He didn’t hear the roar of applause, or the murmur of confusion that followed when he didn’t reappear. He didn’t see Chain’s people scramble around, looking for the vanished magician. Nor did he see the event’s host realizing that the caterers were trying to make off with millions in inscrutable art, or the cops coming in to arrest Chain and the crew.

No one remembered anything about the magician, other than the colorful clothing.

They slowed at the lake. Gordon took Gus from his pocket and the little cat assumed his usual position on the magician’s shoulder.

“Maybe we’ll try one of those improv theaters that hosts talent nights next, little friend,” he said to Gus. “It was nice to be still for a while.”

Gus nuzzled his neck and was rewarded with a treat.

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Jason Porterfield is a journalist, researcher, and writer living in Chicago. He is still looking for the ace of spades he made disappear when he was in elementary school. Email: jporterfield99[at]gmail.com

One of Wyeth’s Two-Hundred-and-Forty-Seven

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Jay Bechtol


Photo credit: Heather Phillips/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Their indifference thickens. A kid in the back row shouts an insult. Nothing too clever, something about a rabbit. Or maybe how the rabbit escaped. Doesn’t matter. The party magician is paying more attention to the minute hand on the big grandfather clock in the corner. It crawls toward the six. Three minutes to go.

He pulls the two ropes between his thumb and forefinger, ensuring they show equal length, and snips one in half.

“Can’t wait to see him put it back together,” comes from the back row, the sarcasm as obvious as the trick he is performing.

The scissors, six inches of curved stainless steel reflect the purpling sky coming in through the open French doors. All of the adults outside in the garden drinking, getting a break from the kids. He snicks the blades apart and looks across the pond of young faces. Folding chairs holding the young birthday party attendees hostage. Most sit hoping the juggler is better, a few watch with interest. A line of tweens in the back push smirks onto their faces. He scans the back row trying to figure out which of the young punks is the heckler, chooses the girl in the middle, the one with dark braids draping down either side of her head onto the shoulders of her grey turtleneck. Her smirk seems a little more… practiced.

A grin of his own appears and he locks eyes with her. Without checking his ropes, he snaps the scissors closed. Swiftly and cleanly. Slicing through the first knuckle of his pinky finger and spraying the seven-year-olds in the front row with blood.

He is happy to see the smirk on the girl’s face vanish.

*

My head is starting to hurt. The way it does when things aren’t in order. “Where’s the finger?”

A young officer not much older than some of the kids from the birthday party leans forward.

“Right here, Sir… um, I mean Ma’am… uh, Detective.” He holds up a ziplocked baggie. He may be trying to hide behind it. The red rising in his face almost matches the pink fluid sloshing in the bag of ice.  He adds, “I poured in some milk.” From around the edge of the baggie he smiles at me hopefully as if that will make up for his inexperience.

It doesn’t. “Milk?”

“They told us at the academy that if you put the… the parts… in milk it makes it easier to attach later.”

“You think we’ll be reattaching this soon?” I was young once, but Jesus, some of these kids coming out are dim.

I turn away, leaving the kid stammering, without having the heart to tell him what he can’t figure out for himself. The finger is fake, just part of the magic trick the guy created to make the heist that much easier. The blood, the screaming children, the fireworks, the whole thing. A huge performance piece. Pretty clever, really.

I hate it when I’m impressed with the bad guys.

*

He waits for the kids to start running, which they do almost immediately. Knocking each other over to get out of the living room. Or parlor. Or however these self-obsessed idiots were describing rooms these days. One of the blood-covered seven-year-olds trips on a folding chair, knocking it sideways, and sprawls to the overly polished wooden floor. The child screams. In terror or pain, he isn’t sure. Besides, the more screaming, the more chaos.

Most head for the open doors that lead into the grand backyard garden. Where all of the parents are gathered. Some run in circles.

He steps over the sprawled child and navigates the other hurdles. Red still drips from his right hand. He reaches the staircase with the mahogany bannister, its wood matching the floor in the room below. He’s up the stairs, two at a time.

At the top of the stairs a corridor leads past a sentinel of closed doors. He ignores all of them, speeding toward the door at the end of the hallway. The door into the Treasure Room, as described by the magazine article.  He doesn’t hesitate and brings his foot up, his full weight behind it, perfectly placed just to the right of the doorknob. The jamb gives way with a loud crack and splinters fly into the room at the end of the hall. The door slams open.

*

I pull out my badge. Again. It’s bad enough when men want verification that I’m the detective in charge. It’s embarrassing when women do it.

“Gretchen Skyler?” the woman reads skeptically. Her eyes move back and forth between me and her husband. He is staring at me more intently than necessary.

“Yes, Mrs. Devonshire, I’m Detective Skyler. I’m glad you and your husband and children are okay.”

“And I assume you know my husband?” Her words escape through a smile is as thin as her waist. It’s hard to determine if there is anything else behind the question.

“Yes,” I nod. “I know the councilman. Our paths have crossed from time to time.” I give him my professional smile. He’s still staring at me a little too intently. I extend my hand, “Good to see you again Councilman Devonshire.”

He takes my hand and shakes awkwardly. His hands are smooth.

The throbbing in my head increases. As soon as I get upstairs, get some alone time with the crime scene, some order will restore. The psychologist at the precinct thinks I carry too many secrets. What the fuck does he know?

I push forward, “Neither of you saw the guy? The one you hired?”

The councilman has the wherewithal to act a little sheepish, his wife not so much. “The party planner we hired took care of all of those things,” she speaks coolly, like she’s accustomed to explaining things to the help. “Came highly recommended. So, no,” she puts her hand inside the councilman’s arm and pulls him closer, almost defiant, “no, we did not know The Charming Chaz, or Clarence the Juggling Clown, or any of the servers, or…” she trails off and raises a condescending eyebrow.

I nod and uncharacteristically my own judgement leaks. “Maybe rethinking that decision to have your home highlighted in Home & Garden a few weeks back? Your gardens and statues and treasures upstairs?”

Her thin lips somehow compress even tighter.

I glance at the councilman; he appears to be studying something on the carpet. “Okay,” I say, trying to get back on track by summoning my inner compassionate detective, “can you run through the whole thing again for me?”

*

In the room at the end of the hall there’s a large clock on the wall made from the steering wheel of a sailboat. The minute hand touches the six. The clock looks to be the cheapest thing by far. He is only interested in the paintings that fill the wall with signatures like O’Keefe, Wyeth, and Winslow. He knows the value, each painting potentially worth hundreds of thousands.

Somewhere behind him explosions begin. Whistles and howls of colorfully wrapped chemicals, spewing sparks and fire. He clinches his right hand and smiles. The party planner had been right, the fireworks start right on time.

He pulls the steering wheel from the wall and begins smashing it against the only window in the room. Double-paned sheets with no latches or sashes. On the eighth strike, one of the pane cracks. In two more blows the steering wheel bursts through. His arms ache, even after such a short workout. Red liquid splashes against the wall.

The alarm is going off, barely audible behind the curtain of sound produced by the fireworks echoing in the backyard.

He clears the last of the glass and peers through the window. Dusk is giving way to night and his eyes follow the roof’s slope, down to within about eight feet of the statue garden on the side of the house. Fifty yards past that are trees and he can just make out a hint of red that is a parked car on the street running between some of these mansions in the hills looking over the city.

The fireworks continue. Fireworks. For a seven-year-old’s birthday.

He turns back to the wall of paintings.

*

I have my peculiarities.

I usually take a half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes at the crime scene. All to myself putting the pieces in place. Until my head starts to feel better. I’m pretty sure there is something I’m missing on this one, it’s too simple for my head to be hurting like it does.

The story has come together. This guy reads the Home & Garden article, does a couple of searches online and gets hired as a last-minute replacement magician. He bores the kids for a while, sprays some fake blood everywhere, grabs a painting while the preset fireworks are going off. In the pandemonium, he’s out the window and gone. No one even heard the alarm going off.

I turn slowly in the room at the end of the hall. An antique gun rack, a closet door, a vintage writing desk, several sculptures, a broken window, twelve paintings… eleven, and one space where a painting used to be.

Mrs. Devonshire told me it was the Wyeth that was taken. Probably the least valuable painting in the room. Her expression made me think she was glad it was gone.

Two things are still fueling my headache. Of all the pieces to grab in this room, why that particular painting? There are certainly more valuable things, worth so much more on the black market. I wander to the window. The steering wheel clock sits on the roof tiles with crystals of broken glass. The finger is the other thing. Not the trick specifically, figure anyone can buy a kit these days, but something about the finger still pokes my brain.

It’s strange standing in this room, in this house, a year removed. It only happened twice but those smooth hands, I can still feel them on my neck. On my hips. We had been on a city commission together for a couple of months. I made the first move, the councilman made a clever comment, and I put my hand on his knee. I regret it now, but it happened.

I wonder if his wife knows.

I try to refocus. I look at the guns. Examine the desk, probably a Chippendale. I slide the drawers out. Empty. Just a trophy.

Why the one painting?

I stare at the spot on the wall where the painting hung. There are some drips of red goo on the floor, Jesus, how much fake blood did the guy make? Really wanted to sell the trick I guess.

Why this painting? It had been featured in the Home & Garden article, but so had most everything else. He would know the value of it…

I turn and look at the closet door. Likely as empty as the desk.

I pull the door open and in an instant my headache vanishes.

The closet is almost entirely empty, as I expected. It’s not very big. Against the back wall is the missing painting. Leaning there. The woman’s face turned away and her nude image sitting on a stool. I don’t remember much about Andrew Wyeth, but I’m fairly certain the woman in the picture is named Helga. Charles, my husband, would know. He loves art.

How had no one opened this door to check? I suppose the Devonshires would not have bothered, imagining it to be empty. But why hadn’t one of the uniforms popped it open? Would probably have cleared things up right away. I will need to have a little talk with the boys later. Explain to them the finer points of police work.

It hadn’t been a burglary after all. Something else entirely. And I have drastically underestimated the fill-in magician’s sleight of hand. How clever he really is. I realize why the pinky finger is tickling my brain.

Another burglary solved by detective extraordinaire Gretchen Skyler.

All of this goes through my brain in a flash. I open my mouth to speak, but I’m not sure any words come out.

*

He crouches in the closet waiting. Knowing that when the door opens it will be over. He hopes he has anticipated correctly.

He has.

The door opens and he lunges upward, driving the shears into her midsection under her ribcage. Into her beating heart. His arm goes around her back and he pulls her close, pressing their bodies together. He sees her eyes. There is almost no surprise in them. Just understanding. He hears her breathe out. A labored gurgle as blood fills her lungs.

“Hello, Gretchen,” he whispers into her ear and lowers her body to the ground.

He sees her jaw moving, maybe trying to speak, maybe trying to scream. Her eyes are still alive, watching him. He sees the sorrow there. Meaningless now. He slides the scissors out of her body. The blood from his own severed finger mixing with hers. He holds his hand so she can see it and fully understand what’s about to happen in her last moments.

Her left hand has gone limp. He cuts through her left pinky with the shears, severing it where he had severed his own.

He drops the scissors and stands above her. Her jaw still flexes and he can see her eyes searching for his.

Detective Skyler likes her time alone at the crime scene he knows. There is plenty of time to get out the window, through the trees and to the car waiting for him. The other cops will be out front or waiting patiently downstairs. No one would dare disturb her. He’ll have an hour head start. At least. But even then, he might not make it far enough away.

He climbs through the window, his shoes crunch in the broken glass. He is surprised to feel tears.

*

I stare into the face of the man who has burst from the closet and stabbed me. Helga’s face in the painting behind him turned away to avoid seeing. His magic trick far more spectacular than I originally imagined.

“Charles…” I say, but again, no words come out. I can’t imagine how he found out.

I met him in college, we would walk on the beach and talk of the future. We were young. When he asked me to marry him, he didn’t give me a ring. He was a starving artist and couldn’t afford rent, much less a meaningless piece of metal.

From the floor I can see his hand now. His pinky finger is missing and I realize my mistake. He slices my finger off. I don’t feel it. I can’t feel anything.

I try and call to him, tell him I’m sorry, but he is out the window.

My world is going dark. But before it disappears completely, I see us on the beach. The sun is setting. “I want to marry you,” he says. “I want to love you for the rest of my life.” I see me, sitting cross-legged next to him. “I want the same thing,” I say. “Forever and ever.”

He intertwines my little finger with his own.

“Pinky swear?” he asks.

“Pinky swear.”

pencil

For the last thirty years Jay Bechtol has been a social worker helping children, adults and families navigate the world of mental illness, substance misuse and trauma. Jay has learned that everyone has a story, and more often than not, several stories. That experience has influenced many of the things he writes. Some more than others. Jay can be found online at JayBechtol.com and @BechtolJay, and in person in Homer, Alaska. Email: bechtoljay[at]gmail.com

Answers

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
DJ Tyrer


Photo Credit: Herry Lawford/Flickr (CC-by)

Twin beams of light thrust their way across sparkling, frost-rimed gravel as James swung the car off the road and onto the lengthy drive, revealing ranks of stark winter trees on either side.

James blinked sleep from his eyes. It had been a long journey, but it was nearly over; there was a nervous optimism alongside the tiredness he felt. Tonight, he hoped, he would have all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of his identity. Tonight, he would have answers.

Still, crawling up the drive, stones crunching beneath the car’s tyres, he felt a tremor of trepidation, as he recalled what Houghton had told him. What would he learn? Would he wish he’d stayed in ignorance?

No. No matter what he learnt, he had to know. He needed to know everything, to assemble all the pieces. No longer would he feel the shame of ignorance.

He remembered, as if it were yesterday, his cheeks burning with shame at school, his classmates’ laughter, when he showed his project on his ‘family tree’ with just his name on it, the exasperated tone of his teacher as she dismissed it.

“Not very good, now, is it, Jamie? More of an acorn than a tree.”

As if he were supposed to produce a family tree out of nothing!

James slammed his hand on the wheel with a grunt of anger.

Well, he would know.

Ahead of him, the black, unlit bulk of Lander House rose from the darkness. Had he know about the house then… he could imagine the other children’s envious faces. If only…

Growing up in what they called a ‘group home’, a small orphanage, effectively, James never had known a home of his own, never had a ‘forever family’, not even a foster one. Unwanted, ‘odd’, he’d slipped through the gaps, forgotten and ignored, without an identity.

Maybe he would have one now?

The drive swung around in front of the building, the headlight beams revealing that Lander House was constructed from a dark-red brick across which twined tenebrous vines of ivy. James parked before its main doors.

All the windows were black; no lights turned on at his arrival.

Slowly, he climbed out of his car and stood before the house, wondering if it held the answers Houghton had promised him.

*

Six months earlier, James had knocked hesitantly on the door to Houghton’s office.

All his life, James had assumed he’d been found on a doorstep, or dumped like trash in a bin, had never thought he would know who he really was. Had never thought he could find out.

Getting engaged had changed that.

“You should hire someone to research your past,” Jane had told him, brushing aside his protests. “Don’t talk about costs, darling, I can see it eating at you, no matter what you say.”

It was true. A wedding was as much about family as the two people getting married, driving home to him just how alone he was, no matter how welcoming Jane’s family were to him.

He’d taken her advice, bringing him to the man’s office. Christopher Houghton found people. His job was half-genealogist, half-private investigator, tracing beneficiaries of wills and missing persons.

“Come in, come in,” called a voice from the other side of the door.

He went inside and sat opposite the investigator.

“Hello, I’m James Eastleigh; I have an appointment.”

“Yes. How can I help you?”

“I was abandoned as a baby. I want to know who my parents were, where I came from.”

Houghton nodded. “What do you know of your birth?”

“Practically nothing. Once I was old enough to ask, all the carers in the group home would tell me was that I was named James after the local MP and Eastleigh after the hospital I was taken to. They couldn’t tell me who my parents were.”

“Unsurprising,” said Houghton. “That was often the case. Sometimes the care staff just wanted children to accept their lot and not ask questions. At other times, the parents may have requested anonymity. Of course, things are different now.”

James nodded, uncertain.

“Have you applied for your birth certificate?”

“Yes, I did, and when I got it, both parents were missing from it. I believe I was dumped.” James sighed. “Is it even possible for you to help me?”

“Tough, Mr Eastleigh, but not impossible. Just because your birth certificate is blank doesn’t necessarily mean nobody knows who your parents were. The first thing I will do is request your records. If any of them are sealed, we will ask for them to be unsealed. It’s possible their names are in them, somewhere. If they aren’t, I will check newspaper archives for reports of your discovery, see if it points to your parents or if any other news stories offer us clues.”

“And, if that fails?”

“DNA comparison—we might find relatives on one of the databases out there—or, we can try a public appeal. Somebody out there knows who you are, Mr Eastleigh, and it may be that someone will recognise a family resemblance.

“Of course, it is possible, we may only find dead-ends, but I promise you, I will follow every possible avenue…”

*

Houghton had.

“Yes, you were a tough case, Mr Eastleigh. Or, perhaps I should say Mr Bostrom.”

“Bostrom? You know who I am?”

“Yes. Well, close. A DNA test will be necessary to confirm it, but I am certain of your identity.”

“That’s brilliant.”

“Only, it’s a little complicated. Indeed, yours is a peculiar case. A proper mystery.”

“Really?”

“Uh-huh. I had to dig—pull together disparate strands. But, I got there in the end. It all began with a call to the police from a Mrs Clarke.”

“I thought you said Bostrom.”

“She wasn’t your mother. She was your grandfather’s housekeeper.”

“Grandfather?”

“She worked for Andrew Bostrom of Lander House. Forty years ago, she called the police, saying her employer was behaving madly, threatening her. Then, the line cut off. The police arrived to find her dead and a baby crying in the nursery.”

“Me?”

“Yes. Recently born, unregistered. No sign of your mother, presumed to be Bostrom’s daughter, Cecilia, nor of Andrew Bostrom himself. Little was said in the papers, some vague talk of an ‘incident’ at Lander House, implied to involve an intruder. You were placed into the care of the local council and your grandfather reappeared in official documents a couple of years later, as if nothing had happened.”

Houghton shrugged. “He’s a rich man; probably paid somebody off to stop asking awkward questions and assume it was an intruder who killed Mrs Clarke. As for his daughter, nothing.” Another shrug. “That’s it.”

“You say he is a rich man—he’s still alive?”

“He would be about ninety, but there’s no record of a death. The taxes on Lander House are up-to-date. The obvious inference is that he still lives there.”

“Then, I guess I ought to go see him.”

Nodding, Houghton said, “If you want any more answers, James, Lander House is the place to look. That’s where it all began for you…”

*

There was an old-fashioned bell-pull beside the door of Lander House. James had only ever seen one in movies before. He pulled it and thought he heard a distant jingle from somewhere within the vast building.

No lights switched on. Nobody came.

As he waited, James hugged himself: The night was chilly and he only had on a light jacket. He hadn’t expected to be left standing on the doorstep like this.

He hammered the large brass knocker against the door.

Still no response.

He hammered again, shouted.

Nothing.

Was his grandfather really inside waiting for him? Perhaps he was dead. Or, maybe, he’d left long before. James wondered if he were wasting his time.

Should he come back? Would he find his answers if he did?

He had to get inside.

Using the light from his phone as a torch, James slowly circled the house, wary of tripping on something unseen in the night. Perhaps it was a relic of the days when the Welsh Marches were a wild, lawless place, but the building looked like a fortress with windows high up and both the front and kitchen doors thick and bound with iron.

“I guess grandpa didn’t like visitors.” James wished the muttered joke hadn’t sounded so weak in the darkness.

There was an old glasshouse, an orangery, maybe, at the rear of the building, built with an iron frame and thick panes of glass that had a milky texture and were grimed with years of dirt.

James considered trying to break in that way, but smashing the old glass seemed extreme and he doubted his grandfather would appreciate such destruction of his property.

There were outbuildings near the house and he was able to smash the lock off the door of one with half a brick. Inside, he found a ladder.

He dragged it over to the house and leant it against the wall, before climbing to an upstairs window. Through it, he could see a room that was empty except for a large, dark wood wardrobe.

James used the half-brick to break a pane, then reached in and unhooked the latch, opened the window, and slipped inside. He checked the wardrobe, but it was empty.

He paused beside the door and listened; the house was silent.

He exited the room. The hallway was in darkness and he felt a shiver that had nothing to do with the chill. The light of his phone made little impression upon the blackness and he felt as if it were pressing in upon him. He shouldn’t have come here…

He searched around and found a light-switch, flicked it. The hallway lit up and he winced at the sudden brightness. Illuminated, the hallway no longer seemed spooky and he gave a shaky laugh at his foolishness. A grown man shouldn’t fear the night!

Still, the light told him there was power, which meant the house wasn’t completely abandoned. Not that it meant anyone was home.

“Hello,” he called, but there was no answer, only silence.

He tossed the half-brick from one hand to the other as he considered which way to go; it didn’t seem to matter much.

Slowly, James made his way through the upper floors of the house, but it appeared to have been abandoned for years and many of the rooms were empty or contained furniture covered in dust sheets. There was a bedroom with a rather grand four-poster bed, but the blanket was dusty and he doubted his grandfather had slept in it for a long time.

Then, he found the nursery.

The room was large with a cot in the middle, ornate with legs like the trunks of trees that rose to support a shade decorated like a canopy of leaves. Art Deco-style branches were painted twisting across the walls of the room. James had never seen anything like it.

Was this where he’d slept as a child? Where the police had found him crying on that fateful night? Maybe he was being naive, but he’d expected to feel something, some frisson of familiarity, but he’d felt nothing within Lander House, not even here.

Could Houghton have been wrong?

James slapped the door as he exited the room.

It might have been where he was born, where he was found, but, if it were, there were no answers, nobody to tell him about himself.

If anything, the tantalising hint of an identity was worse than knowing nothing about himself.

He found the stairs down. The top of the stairs was where the police report the investigator had dug up said the body of Mrs Clarke had been found.

Looking down at the spot, James had to wonder what could have driven his grandfather to murder his housekeeper. He could imagine no reason. Had the man been insane?

Stairs creaked as he descended them.

James explored the ground floor. Still, there were no clues to his identity, not even in his grandfather’s office when he used the half-brick the smash the locks on the bureau and a desk drawer, nothing to tell him who his mother was, what had happened to her.

Was she dead as well? Had his grandfather killed her?

What mad family had he come from? Was he better off not knowing the truth?

James sat on the bottom step of the stairs and put his hands over his eyes and sobbed. He’d hoped for so much, like a fool. He should’ve known better, just accepted that he was a cipher, alone in the world.

Shaking his head, he stood. There was only the glasshouse at the rear of the house left to explore, and it wasn’t as if that held any secrets about him.

He stepped towards the front-door. At least, he could leave without having to clamber awkwardly down the ladder.

Pausing with his hand on the lock, he looked back. Had he heard a noise, or was it the echo of some memory nagging at him? For some reason, he felt the need to visit the orangery. Or, maybe it was just a compulsive need to complete his search.

James felt like a fool as he stood there, grasping the lock. He knew there was no reason for him to go back there. There was nobody in the house, nobody hiding back there, and it wasn’t as if his grandfather had left any paperwork amongst the ornamental shrubs, or whatever had been growing back there, doubtless long dead, if they were untended as the rest of the house.

There was no point to it, but he let go of the lock and began to walk towards the rear of the house. He felt as nervous as he had when he first stepped out into the dark hallway upstairs. Ridiculous.

He could almost taste the damp air on his tongue as he entered the glasshouse. The orangery was full of plants. Clearly, there were automated sprinklers keeping it watered.

There was no sign of a light-switch, forcing him to proceed by the light of his phone, pushing past shrubs that had overflowed their pots. Before the place was abandoned to go wild, he could imagine it had been quite beautiful, probably his grandfather’s pride. But now, it was a mess.

At the centre of the glasshouse, where the roof peaked, there was a single tall tree that towered over everything else that grew in it, so tall that it pressed against the glass ceiling and bent to one side.

James approached it and shone his light over its dark, wavy leaves.

At about head height, he could see a single fruit, the shape of a rugby ball and a little larger. It seemed to shudder where it hung.

“What the—?”

He went closer, studied it. There was something moving within the fruit, pressing against the membranous skin.

He leant towards it.

Something pressed through the skin, defining features—something like a face peering out at him. James recoiled and swore.

Yes, it was definitely like a face. He couldn’t believe it.

Mould—yes, that was it. He’d read about mould spores making people hallucinate and this place was damp and bound to be full of them.

Only, he knew it wasn’t mould, knew that what he was seeing was real. Real and yet quite impossible.

He reached out to it, touched the slick, waxy skin. It pulsed beneath his fingertips.

A split appeared in the skin of the fruit and spread, so that it practically burst open. Inside the fruit he could see the tiny form of a newborn child, covered in slimy pulp, like blood. Its tiny arms reached out towards him.

James stared, unable to quite believe what he was seeing, yet unable to look away, to dismiss it. He felt as if he were about to vomit.

He was going mad! He was going mad!

The more he looked at it, the more he was reminded of a photo in his file of himself as a baby. It was like looking at himself as a child.

A torrent of thoughts flooded through his mind as he understood the meaning of what he was seeing, why people had always found him odd, why nobody had wanted to adopt him, why even Jane had said he wasn’t like other men she’d dated as she looked at him sideways.

Had he had the DNA test Houghton had suggested, what would he have found?

What the hell had his grandfather been doing here?

He stumbled back and looked around.

“My family tree,” he laughed, tears in his eyes. He’d always wanted to know where he came from and, now, he knew—and, wished he didn’t.

Spotting a hatchet, James seized it and struck at the child in the fruit, burying the blade deep in it. The child wailed in pain and James screamed, wishing he could silence the sound as he struck it again and again, obliterating it into a pulpy mess.

Then, he began to hack at the tree.

But, it wasn’t enough. It was too large.

He ran back into the house, to the kitchen and threw open every cupboard until he found lighter fuel and kitchen oil. Pausing only to turn on the gas from the cooker, he ran back out to the glasshouse and threw the fuel and oil over the tree, before lighting if, sending a coruscating sheet of flame up its trunk.

James stood, watching the flames engulf the tree, which seemed to shiver as it burnt. Flames spread to nearby vegetation, despite the dampness. Above him, the glass ceiling cracked from the heat, then shattered and began to rain down about him like a fall of snow.

He couldn’t return to Jane, not now, not knowing the truth about himself, where he came from. He just prayed his grandfather was dead, unable to continue the mad course he’d taken.

James watched the tree burn, the heat painful against his skin.

The scent of gas reached his nostrils.

It had begun here and it would end here.

He was ready when the end came.

pencil

DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Chilling Horror Short Stories (Flame Tree), What Dwells Below (Sirens Call), and EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness (Otter Libris), and issues of Sirens Call, Hinnom Magazine, ParABnormal, Ravenwood Quarterly, and Weirdbook, and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor) and a comic horror e-novelette, A Trip to the Middle of the World, available from Alban Lake through Infinite Realms Bookstore. Email: djtyrer[at]hotmail.co.uk