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

Interdependence

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Deana Zhollis


Photo Credit: Richard Bennett/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Raven dropped down on her couch while balancing her mug filled with hot tea. The steamed liquid swirled sharply before settling down when placed on the wooden end table. She gathered her black braids behind her head and secured them with a hair band before picking up the tea again to take a sip. With her free hand, she scrolled through her options for a TV series, for something that could fill the silence of her apartment. She chose a storyline that didn’t entail too much interest so that she could look up from time-to-time and still know what was going on in the series. She would have enjoyed watching a Korean drama or a vibrant, colorful fantasy, or some anime adventure, but that entailed reading subtitles since she hated listening to the dubbed versions. A childhood fantasy adventure would do, since she had seen every episode decades ago, and relived one or two from time to time over the years. This one was about an apprentice wizard where each episode was him learning a new spell that involved helping someone or finding an ancient relic to add to his arsenal.

Satisfied, she sat back, grabbed a pillow to balance on the armrest and placed her tablet on top of it.

“And let the questions begin,” she sighed, as she double-clicked on the familiar icon, and read the next one out loud. “Do you prefer a lot of rest before starting your day? Yes. No.”

Raven figured she would answer a few more questions before taking a shower and then finish up the next few hours answering more, that is, if she was able to make it that far. And so far, she’s been able to continue for two days.

She was now comfortable enough with the questions and had an idea on what was needed to answer. For a job, she should answer ‘No,’ since there may be times where she would need to have little sleep to complete a project. However, this test sometimes had another agenda.

She chose ‘Yes’ and then the next question appeared.

“How many hours of rest do you need?”

Raven chose the number nine.

“What type of bed do you prefer to sleep on?” Five images appeared displaying different backgrounds and shapes of beds. She chose one with a contouring shape. One must have lumbar support.

“What type of lighting do you need for sleeping?”

Raven wasn’t sure why this endless, unnumbered sequences of questions were pertinent for job employment, and she most definitely didn’t understand why it had been a total of six hours for the past two days. However, countless people of had tried to qualify for this famed company, but many had failed—as much as ninety percent. The contender would know they were not qualified within the first two hundred questions. It was that probability that made Raven not even try, though anyone, world-wide, could try. A candidate is only given a single chance before being declined from ever trying again. Not even the smartest of hackers could get around the questionnaire’s protocol. It always seemed to easily identify those who had already taken the test, even if they put in a person’s name who hadn’t.

The company’s logo of two worlds interlocked and its name, “Interdependence,” was on the top of the screen, while the next question with choices hovered in the middle.

“Choose between these melodies.” Raven press the buttons, listening to each one, before placing a check underneath the one that was quite lovely to her ears.

“Can you sleep while listening to this song? Yes. No.”

Raven had earlier stated that she didn’t need complete silence while sleeping, and that she favored music to sleep with. Now, she was being asked what types of music she would prefer. She had been asked about different colors that were pleasing to her eye yesterday, and the types of animals that she liked. Before that, it was about physical activities and roller coasters.

“Can you remember your dreams? Yes. No.”

Raven sighed. “From sleep to dreams.” Yes, she dreams in color. Yes, there were some dreams that she would still remember from time to time. Yes, sometimes the dreams reflect her day, and yes sometimes they didn’t. Yes, she believed in dreams. And, yes, she thought they were fun.

Six hours. She had been answering questions for six hours over the last two days, and she was beginning to think that this was all a joke. Interdependence promised the best job one could ever imagine, where one would be completely happy to do, and enjoy doing, the job, and with a salary to match it. These opportunities were given to some in their sixties and some as young as sixteen. It didn’t matter the background or place of living. Alarmingly, even someone on parole could apply. There were no standards. The only thing one had to do was to get access to download the app, and answer the questions.

“Do you like to kill in video games? Yes. No.”

Actually, she didn’t like shoot-’em-ups. Puzzle and adventure games were more her style. And, of course, that was the next question. She answered more questions related to how she enjoyed playing a game, and how long would she play one.

“Do you prefer mornings, afternoons, or evenings?”

The random, off-topic question would appear now and then, and it would proceed from there before going back to its main line of questioning.

“How many stars do you enjoy seeing in the night?” This question came in relation to her choice of preferring evenings. Several images appeared and Raven chose one. Then questions related to celestial bodies, which transitioned to spiritual questions, and went back to similar questions from two days ago, about teamwork, meeting goals, handling stress and mistakes.

“Can you hold a secret? Yes. No.”

Raven thought about it. Should she be honest? Yes. So, she answered No.

“Do you believe a secret should not be told to you? Yes. No.” Yes.

“Do you believe a secret should be shared if told to you?” Yes.

“Do you want to know a secret now? Yes. No.”

Raven laughed. At least this part of the questionnaire was interesting. She answered No.

“But we want to tell you a secret.”

Raven stared at the screen. There was no selection to choose from. Slowly, she tapped the tablet’s screen.

Nothing happened.

She tapped again. But still nothing.

Did the app freeze?

Suddenly, “Will you allow Interdependence to run interference in your life? Yes. No.”

Raven sat up on the couch. “Wait. Am I being offered an opportunity?”

She slowly lifted her finger. Did she pass?

She pressed Yes.

“Will you allow Interdependence to contact your job and family and tell them you have checked into a mental health institution, and will not be allowed to speak to anyone for at least three weeks? Yes. No.”

She raised her eyebrows at that question. Mental institution? Why would Interdependence want to do that? She thought about the many interviews of those who had been accepted by Interdependence and how each beginning was a bit different from the last. At the time of acceptance, candidates were secretly transported out to avoid the swarm of people. Once inside Interdependence, each were individually trained on whatever job that would make them at peace for the rest of their lives. But, she never heard of a beginning that started with lying to family and friends.

The question disappeared and a white screen was shown.

“Oh no.” There wasn’t anything about time sensitivity!

“The package is waiting, Raven.”

Raven froze as she reread the sentence, before it blinked out and the previous question returned.

“Will you allow Interdependence to contact your job and family and tell them you have checked into a mental health institution, and will not be allowed to speak to anyone for at least three weeks? Yes. No.”

She didn’t realize how fast her heart was racing. Was this an opportunity? What if she answered the question wrong?

She knew she didn’t have much time. This had to be time sensitive.

She raised her finger slowly, and then quickly tapped.

Yes.

The screen went blank, and stayed that way for what seemed like minutes. She didn’t want to close her eyes. She just couldn’t miss the next question.

Then, “Please meet the delivery person downstairs. They will be standing with a sign that says, ‘Game.'” It blinked and then went to the Interdependence logo.

Raven jumped, grabbed her keys, and went out of her apartment. She needed to check to see if it was true, and was shocked to see a woman standing in front of a parked town car, holding up a sign indeed with ‘Game’ written on it.

She went back to her apartment, her mind racing: When did the driver get there? When was I accepted? Was the driver out there when I grabbed my tea? Who should I call? Should I call anyone? This is just too good to be true!

She picked up the tablet and double-checked the app to make sure it was legitimate. It had to be. She didn’t understand the reason why Interdependence wanted to proceed in this way, but she thought perhaps it was another test, like the hours she took taking the questionnaire.

Making a decision, she jiggled her keys, and went to the waiting car.

*

The cube was the size of two shoe boxes and its smooth surface emitted a warmth that was comfortable to touch, but just a few degrees from almost unbearable. Raven was glad that she had a short walk back to her apartment on the first floor, since any longer it would have been a bit too heavy.

She sat it down on her coffee table and stared at its glossy black surface. She wasn’t given any instructions; the driver simply handed it to her without saying a word, and now she couldn’t find anywhere on how to open it. She wasn’t even sure if she sat it down on its correct side.

Grabbing its warm sides, she turned it over, looking for some kind of button or latch. After examining it, she then began rubbing it, as if it would produce a genie. Then she tried voice commands, but none of it worked. Going back to review the app didn’t help either. Only the Interdependence logo remained.

Finally, she gave up. It had been an exasperating night, and she hadn’t taken her shower yet. The thought made her yawn, as she headed to get ready to settle down to sleep.

In the morning, she decided to take another look at the cube with a fresh pair of eyes, only to be greeted by a holograph of a creature with three twirling tails sitting on the edge of the cube with legs crossed. She wore a knee-high dress, and had ears that swept back along both sides of her head, tips touching. Hair grew in the center of the ears and draped down her back, and her skin sparkled with a hue of blue.

Large black eyes and lavishing eyelashes turned her way as she said, “Good morning, Raven.” Her voice was rather pleasant, with a welcoming tone of someone who was genuinely happy to see you.

“Uh, hello?” Raven answered.

The creature laughed. “I know. I’m quite amazing to look at, aren’t I?”

The comment made Raven chuckle. “I would say, quite unexpected.”

“Well,” the creature said, “you weren’t planning on going to work today, were you? You did accept the agreement to allow us to intervene in your life.”

Raven had almost forgot about that.

“The calls will be made, as soon as work hours begin, and then to the rest of the people in your life.”

Raven meekly asked, “How do you know who is in my life?”

The creature smiled. “We know.”

This is Interdependence. They had global and major resources everywhere. Especially with all the talent they had in all walks of life. They all contribute back to Interdependence in some way or another.

“My name’s Cerasee,” she said with a bright smile. “How do you do?”

Raven nodded towards her, still laughing at the idea of talking to a hologram. “How do you do?”

“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” Cerasee stated, “and I hope I can answer just the few major ones in my introductory speech.” She cleared her throat. “Are you ready?”

Raven waved the floor to her. “Go right ahead.”

“Yes, I am completely interactive. No, I am not programmed with standard answers. Yes, you can ask me anything and I will try my best to answer your questions as much as I could. Why did we choose you? Because we enjoyed watching your thoughtful expressions before answering. And because of your honesty and bright answers. Yes, we will really contact everyone and tell them you are in a mental institution, and if anyone becomes a bit aggressive with wanting to speak to you, we will provide them with a fake video of you inside a mental ward, and being provided a treatment of meditation and a vow of silence in order to help you regain your balance in the world. No, you will not be able to see this video as we have far too much to do in the next few weeks. And why did we choose this route for you?” She leaned forward, and dramatically whispered, “Because you can’t keep a secret.”

Raven laughed and Cerasee continued.

“Yes, this is really Interdependence and it is happening for you and for real. From this point forward, Interdependence will be responsible for your every meal, your health, your social environment, and simply.your entire being. Starting today, you will be a member of Interdependence and we leave as soon as you have completed your morning routine. I will only answer any remaining questions during our travel to our destination. You should wear a comfortable outfit like when going for a walk in a park, but no tennis shoes, please. Sandals or comfortable strapped shoes would be preferred. No perfumes or jewelry or makeup, please. Lotion and deodorant are acceptable. Breakfast will be provided.”

Cerasee smiled then, quite proud with her presentation. “Well, what are you standing there for?” She waved her hand towards Raven’s bedroom. “Get ready!”

Raven moved with the climb of excitement that made the night sky turn into glimmers of wonder and dawn into shimmering gold. She was quick with soaping her brown skin, being careful not to allow too much water underneath her shower cap as she bent down to quickly clean from her knees to her toes. As she showered, she thought of the many questions that she wanted to ask Cerasee.

Interdependence.

It was not just a company that people’s first thoughts were its profitable revenue, but it was tied to making a cherished way of life come true. And somehow, she was one of the ten percent to hold such an opportunity. Or would testing continue once they reached the next stage of this reward? However, Cerasee had said she was already a member of Interdependence. After all of the hours of answering needless questions.. Was it really this simple?

Raven was ready to go, wearing a light sundress and flat sandals. She didn’t use makeup much, so that was not a concern for her, but she did miss her earrings and rope chain necklaces.

The same driver was waiting and helped Raven place the black cube into the town car, still not speaking a word. Raven sat in the spacious passenger compartment, separated from the driver by black sliding glass. She immediately recognized how minimal the outside sounds were as they drove off.

Cerasee appeared again, wearing the same outfit that Raven had on. “I will be with you at all times during this part of your training. What training, you ask?” The small creature didn’t wait for Raven to speak. “We will find that out once we reach Interdependence. For now, please enjoy breakfast.” She waved her hand towards a drawer under the facing seat. Inside, were warmed pancakes, Raven’s favorite, scrambled eggs, and link sausages. “Please eat while I continue.”

Raven picked up the gold fork (she had never eaten from one before, only silver) and listened carefully to Cerasee’s speech.

Though surrounded with a lot of verbiage, the rules were rather simple—follow and do whatever Cerasee asks of her to do. If a continuous defiance occurred, then Raven would not reach the full potential that Interdependence could provide for her. She would be given a manageable and uncomplicated life.

“Like this driver and courier,” Cerasee indicated to the front of the car. “I’m not demeaning, mind you. She is quite content with her life, but she refused to grow for whatever personal reason she wished upon herself. And we will not interfere with that, but will continue to provide until death do us part.”

Interdependence’s workforce was for life.

Cerasee continued to speak, providing information Raven already knew about Interdependence, which was all positive and dreamy-eyed fulfilling. She watched the streets and then the highway, predetermining their destination, and that was the nearest facility outside the city limits. Interdependence owned a 500-acre campus, designed so employees wouldn’t have to go beyond its borders during the course of their work days. From numerous dining options, retail services, health care and child care facilities, there wasn’t anything that the campus couldn’t provide.

IDs were scanned numerous times as the town car made its way from the outside borders of the campus to the interior roads. They drove up a coiled ramp when they entered a garage and exited on level five, with three more levels above. Raven didn’t see when the handle and wheels appeared on Cerasee’s cube, as the handle telescoped to a height easy for her to pull. Interdependence was top in technology.

From walking from the garage to the entrance door of the same fifth floor level, there was more scanning of fingerprints and facial recognition, which included Raven. As Raven pulled the cube, the driver led her down a carpeted hallway, passing several secured doors before stopping at one. Raven scanned her face and the door opened. The driver left.

Inside, was a comfortable studio apartment playing music that Raven had chosen from the app. A kitchen to one side, a king-size bed on the other, and a reclining chair with a swing-away table in the middle. Sitting near the bed was a six-panel dressing screen displaying the silk flowers of a plum blossom tree, an actual moving image swaying gently in the wind. But what really caught Raven’s attention was the black oval contraption towering to the ceiling next to windows displaying the forest bordering the Interdependence’s campus.

“We call it Raindrop,” Cerasee’s voice broke through Raven’s mesmerized eyes. “It’s what will be your life for the next several weeks, and more. And all of this,” she waved around the studio, “will be your dwelling. A chef will come at mealtimes and prepare all acquired substances.”

“What is it?” Raven said, letting go of the cube’s handle and walking towards the device. Its black surface looked identical to Cerasee’s cube: shiny, but with no reflection.

“It’s where we start,” Cerasee said. “There’s a suit behind the dressing panel. Please put it on and we will begin.”

Remembering the rules Cerasee had provided in the town car, she did as instructed. Behind the dressing panel was a three-drawer dresser. A black, shiny jumpsuit sat on top. Raven undressed and didn’t notice the footies and gloves were incorporated into the suit until she held it up. It had a hood and mask as well, with translucent coverings for the eyes. Her entire body would be covered with this suit, zipped without metal interlocks, but pressed together making it almost seamless. Raven left the hood resting on her back as she came to the front of the dressing panel.

“You must have everything covered before entering Raindrop.” Cerasee pointed at the hood.

“Is this some kind of protection against dangerous rays or something?” Raven looked at her arms and hands covered in the black suit, which actually felt quite light, almost as if she was wearing fine silk.

“Nothing like that,” Cerasee said, now also wearing the same suit Raven had on. “Hood please. We have a lot to cover.”

“Okay,” Raven breathed in and pulled the hood on, sealing it closed around the neckline.

“One hand on Raindrop, please,” Cerasee extended her hand, indicating what Raven should do next, and Raven complied.

A part of the contraption melted away, displaying only darkness within.

“Step inside, please.”

Raven tried to see what was inside, but couldn’t make out anything. She looked back at Cerasee and she was standing up on the center of the cube.

With curiosity rushing to its peak, Raven stepped inside, and all light was sealed away.

Raven didn’t hear her own breathing as she stood in the darkness. Then, a small light appeared and grew, until someone was standing in front of her, unclothed. She recognized herself.

“Oh my god!”

“Amazing, isn’t it?”

She heard Cerasee, but she couldn’t find her projection anywhere.

“This is your avatar. Unfortunately, you will not be able to dress her until you’ve acquired the skills. Fortunately, the weather isn’t harsh, so being unclothed while you learn will not be a problem.”

Raven continued to look at herself as if a real person stood right in front of her.

“This is the only time you will be able to see yourself, until you acquire all the items necessary to have those types of luxuries like shelter, clothing, mirrors, etc. Though food can be sought anywhere, since we can only eat fruit.”

The avatar disappeared and a wave of colors filled the air around her, like seeing the smeared rainbow colors in bubbles.

“Here we go!” The excitement in Cerasee’s voice filled up the contraption.

The colors finally stopped, to change to white and yellow sharp spears of light, and then were replaced with sounds of a forest and the cool light of the sky.

Raven looked around to see strange trees with trunks that twisted up to branches with dark green leaves. The ground was covered with the fallen leaves and grass hinting small flowers at their ends. Looking up, she could see a large sun and two moons. One of the moons had a ring.

“Oh my god.” Raven didn’t know she spoke as she noticed that not only could she see, but she could feel wind, and hear creatures, and smell the fresh scent of air.

“Are you okay?” It was Cerasee’s voice behind her and she looked to see a being of her same height, looking as real as her next door neighbors.

She was completely naked, and Raven could see where her three tails stretched from her sides and lower back to make gentle curves that rose above her head. Her smile didn’t contain teeth, but cartilage, blending with the same color as her skin. She had five fingers, but no opposable thumbs. And her blue skin had specks that looked like colorful glitter.

“Are you okay?” She repeated, slightly tilting her head.

Raven was speechless, as her mind went to: Where are we? To: What is this place? To: How can I smell and feel the air? To: What’s going on?

Cerasee laughed as she completely understood. “This is Heofon. The sister world of Earth. You will learn how to live here and, in turn, how to also live on Earth. Everything you do and learn here is a mirror to what you can complete on Earth.”

Raven continued to look around, seeing and hearing the leaves wrestling and some colorful birds flying in the air. “This is some simulation.”

Cerasee laughed. “Your essence, your soul, is using the avatar. Now come, we must work on the first lesson.” She walked towards one of the trees. “You must learn how to speak.” She tapped the tree’s trunk.

Raven look at Cerasee and then at the tree. “You want me to talk to a tree?”

Cerasee nodded. “They have the most patience for teaching those not native to Heofon how to speak, especially those from Latter Ages where life is not capable of enlightenment.”

Raven grasped what Cerasee was softly trying to explain to her, while trying to minimize any insult. “You mean, like Earth.”

Cerasee stood still.

Raven continued to elaborate, in order for Cerasee to know she understood. “Where we’re violent towards each other, at so many levels.”

Cerasee changed the sad subject. “Please place your hand here, and try to empathize with the tree.”

“Empathize?” Raven chuckled lightly. “With a tree.”

“This particular tree,” Cerasee patted the trunk, “is a bit perturbed because it must wait for that other tree to move in order to move itself. It wants to change places, you see?”

Raven looked and saw in the distance a tree slowly moving, its roots lifting it up and dragging along the ground.

“Okay, trees walk here.” Raven took a deep breath. “There is so much I have to learn.”

Cerasee’s tails twitched. “We are one language here. Once you master it, you can speak to any living thing on Heofon.”

Raven placed her hand on the tree’s trunk and thought of how to empathize. To have to wait for so long for another to move in order to move itself. She understood that type of frustration, especially when the other didn’t quite care for your own predicament.

A voice drifted into her mind. She/he did care, but was enjoying her/his walk, thus taking a long time to settle into place. One must allow the joy of others in order to then enjoy oneself.

Raven lifted her hand away from the trunk. “I—I think I heard it.”

Cerasee gave a huge smile. “Yes! Yes, you did! We just knew you would be able to adapt quickly here!”

Raven stared at her hand where she could still feel the impression of the tree. “This place is real.” It was a statement. A fact. It was something she knew to be true.

“Yes, it is,” Cerasee said. “We bring all candidates here, but majority only see it as a simulation. And they bring what they learn back to Earth, a spark of light from Interdependence, one member at a time. But then there are candidates like you, who will learn and, with time, come to stay on Heofon, once your body is slowly transformed by the meals we prepare for you, so that you can actually live here.”

Raven turned to Cerasee. “Why? Why are you doing this for us?”

Cerasee grasped her hands. “Because our worlds are tied to one another, interdependent, where one has more light, and a little dark, and the other has more dark and a little light. We exist in contradictory opposites, but are inseparable. The gateways between our worlds have always existed, but we pass through to each other in different ways as the ages change. In the past, it was through stone gateways monitored by mystics and sages. Today, it is through entertainment and challenges.”

A white horse galloped by with its proud tail curved upward. Its horn caught the rays of the sun and sparked as it spread its massive wingspan and caught the air. Raven watched in awe as the uni-pegasus flew in the direction of one of the moons.

Raven whispered to herself, figuring out the Old English terms she remembered from an anime show. “Eorthe. Earth. Heofon. Heaven. Helle.” She turned to Cerasee.

“Oh, Hell,” Cerasee said. “Its gateways are on the underside of Earth, and handled by a different division of Interdependence. But, we don’t talk much about that world here.”

pencil

Fairy Tales have always been a favorite of Deana Zhollis, along with folktales. Yet when she set her eyes on the movie Gargoyles (1972), her young mind began drifting with romance and/with the inhuman. And so the storytelling began, first with dolls and paper dolls, and on to writing Science Fiction and Fantasy—even before she knew what it stood for! Engulfed in the genre, she dreamed over and over of that Happily Ever After, in the adult life, with a fashionable twist. Email: penvizion[at]gmail.com

The Devil’s Take

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Joshua Flores


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

Unspoiled vegetables cost too much, almost thrice the price of moldy ones. Rafa picked through the rotting wares.

“Father, why can’t we have fresh carrots for a change? Oh, and some meat?” Samuel pleaded as he pulled on Rafa’s threadbare grey woolen coat.

“Shush now. Devil of a time putting a few pence together. What, with me working all day digging black rock from the ground. Be glad we have something in our bellies tonight and hush down.”

The stall’s owner—a wizened hag—cackled at him to get a move on. Finding a few tomatoes, carrots, and other random provisions with a bit of crunch left to them and very few spots which he could cut away, he paid the crone her blood money.

Vegetable stew then for Rafa and his son tonight. Unless luck was with them and they came across a dead animal on the way home—even a juicy rat would do. Been months with no meat on the table.

Samuel kept pulling on Rafa’s coat as they walked in the middle of the street, avoiding horses and carriages that paid no heed to those in their path. Despite the risk of being trampled, walking on the streets was safer. Never knew when a flying bucketful of human waste and filth would be dumped out a window right onto you if you kept yourself on the side paths.

“Father. I want some milk tonight. Can we get some? Maybe a sweet? Please, Father.”

Rafa sighed. “Sorry, son. None of that for ya tonight. Maybe another day. We have to make do with what we have. Can’t let the Devil get us before our time, eh?”

Samuel pouted but stayed silent as they trudged along, keeping an eye on the gutters for any chance of having meat in his stew. After a few minutes, Samuel tugged on Rafa’s coat again.

‘Father, why don’t you hunt for meat? You were a hunter you told me. You can go out and get a goose, or a duck, maybe even a grouse.”

“Aye, I was a hunter. I hunted all types of game, Samuel. Not all of them were wild animals either. You know why I can’t hunt.”

“But Father, I want some meat.” Samuel’s protest was causing passersby to take notice.

“Hush boy. The forest is owned by the King. He doesn’t give leave to us for hunting. If caught, the penalty for poaching is death. That’s the why, boy. Now keep an eye out for a dead rat.”

 

Rafa and Samuel entered their home. Rafa couldn’t help but think it had seen better days when Maria was alive. She kept a clean and tidy home. She even patched things up when they needed repair. Now, piles of dirt and debris, webs and tiny insects littered the place. Rafa had to get up when the sun rose, take Samuel to Old Lady Veronica, then head to work in the dark mines digging for coal. He pulled out a few lumps from his bag. Part of his daily pay. He placed them in the stove and stoked a fire. He filled a pot with water and placed it on top of the stove. He then washed off the black powder which covered him from head to toe while the house warmed and the water boiled.

Freshened, Rafa sat at the table near the stove. He added salt and some dried herbs he had picked from the roadside to the pot of bubbling water.

He set to work on cutting off the bad bits from the vegetables, placing them into the pot to simmer. He heard a skittering and without a pause he threw his knife, skewering a rat against the corner. “Samuel. We be having meat tonight after all.” Rafa retrieved his knife and bounty.

Samuel looked up from his cot. “Father, when will supper be ready, I am starving.”

“We only just arrived, boy. Be a few minutes. Make yourself useful and sweep a bit, eh? Looks like the Devil blew through here. Could use a bit of tidying.”

“I’m tired, Father. Had to work on maths today with Miss Veronica. She’s a mean one, she is. Made me work hard.”

“Samuel, ya don’t know what tired is. Tired is where you work until your back is bent and your bones are crackling. Now get up and clean for ya supper.”

“I never knew Mother. I know others have mothers who clean and cook and look after them. Where is Mother?” Samuel asked trying to distract his father.

“We live in terrible times. What, with witch burnings, lynchings, and plagues killing people off. It is how we lost your mother, may God rest her soul. One day she was all cheery-eyed, the next she fainted with fever. Few days later, it took her. Had to raise ya by myself, I did. You were just a babe swathed in cloth then. Been seven years now. We managed to survive alright.”

“But Father…”

“Clean I said. Or may the Devil take you.” Rafa realized he had let his anger come out, but before he could apologize, there was a knock on the door.

Samuel stopped reaching for the broom and looked up at his father.

Rafa put down his knife. He had finished skinning the rat and had started butchering it. He washed the gore from his hands in the wash basin. Another knock.

“I’ll be with you in a moment,” Rafa answered as he kicked some of the clutter into a corner.

Rafa opened the door.

An old stately gentleman stood at the door. He removed his bowler hat and gave a slight bow. “Good evening. Mr. Rafa I presume? I am here to accept your offer.”

“Who are you? What offer might that be?”

“Ah, please forgive my manners. I go by many names: Scratch. Old Nick. Or, your favorite, the Devil. And the offer for me to take your son, Samuel, of course.”

Rafa’s unshaven face wrinkled in disbelief. “The Devil you say? I flirted with you most of my life and I must say, you don’t look like much. So please forgive me if I don’t believe you. Now if you don’t mind, I am making supper for me and my son.” Rafa began closing the door when the gentleman’s cane shot out and blocked it.

“Oh, I am definitely the Devil. I can prove it too.” The old man tapped his cane on the hard dirt floor three times and in an instant the house was clean, repaired, and tidied. A roasted grouse was sitting in the middle of the table with all the trimmings and sides. The aroma wafted over to Rafa. His mouth watered. Samuel ran to the food and was about to grab a leg when Rafa called for him to stop.

“Well, whether you be the Devil or a witch, matters not. I cannot allow you to take my son. I made no offer. So you best be gone.” Rafa straightened himself up to show he meant every word.

“You did make the offer. Heard it myself as I was walking past your place. You said ‘May the Devil take you.’ I may and I will.”

Rafa’s countenance darkened. “’Twas said in frustration and anger. There was no offer being made. Now, you don’t want to make me cross. I am not a nice man when I am pressed.”

“Rafa the Bloodhound. Rafa the Hungry Hunter. Rafa the Shadow. I know you. You have earned your way into my realm many times over. I have many who have entered it thanks to you. You are indeed a formidable man. But you are no match for me. I am not a man. Nor am I mortal. Come, let us partake of the feast I prepared while we come to terms?” Scratch’s arm outstretched towards the table as he tilted his head.

“I think not. You are not welcomed in my home. Take your favors away. We don’t need them.”

“Father. But it’s grouse. A proper roasted grouse. With potatoes and look, gravy! Oh and cranberry jam. Father, I am hungry. We have never eaten like this. Please let us eat?”

The food did smell good and Rafa’s belly was aching to get some into it.

Rafa opened the door wider to let his visitor enter. He allowed the visitor to take his chair while he sat in Maria’s. Samuel stood near his cot, not sure what to do.

“Samuel, come boy. May as well enjoy this food. Our benefactor won’t be staying long.” Rafa motioned for Samuel to take his seat. The boy did so.

Rafa carved the bird, giving Samuel a leg and a wing. He gave Scratch a breast and himself two thighs. Samuel piled potatoes, gravy, and cranberry jam onto his plate. He also poured himself a glass of milk. Rafa also filled his plate up. Scratch served himself some cranberry jam. He then dipped pieces of meat he delicately sliced off the breast in it before sending the fork to his mouth. He chewed quietly but with a smile. Several minutes passed as each of them ate without speaking.

Finally, it was Samuel who broke the silence. “Father, why is the Devil wanting to take me? You didn’t give me away as he says.”

Rafa released a low grunt and responded. “That I didn’t, son. Don’t you worry, you aren’t going anywhere. I will make sure of that.” Rafa’s fork stabbed a thigh, piercing it all the way through, releasing squirts of pink juice. He lifted the thigh and took a large bite out of the meat.

“So Mr. Scratch. Why not chalk this one up to experience and leave us be? We are a struggling folk, trying to survive in troubled times. My son has not yet ripened into a man. Has not discovered the curse of drink, the promise of love, nor the guilt of fight. He has a lot to do before he moves on from this Earth. All he needs is time. You have plenty of that. You don’t need him now. You can afford to wait for him when his time is done. Just like you are waiting for me, I suppose.”

Mr. Scratch finished chewing and swallowed. He then smiled showing bright white teeth.

“My dear Mr. Rafa. Your son is an innocent this is true. And you are not. But will he grow to be like his father? There is no guarantee of that. I don’t want to break up your home, but I must remind you, it was you who uttered the offer. I didn’t come to you unbidden.”

“Then I rescind the offer. No contract has been made.”

“You cannot rescind. There was no contract terms given when you offered. You didn’t ask for anything in return for Samuel.”

Rafa stood up, knife in hand, nostrils opening wide. “You. Will. Leave. Us. Alone.” His voice held steel, his eyes flashed the red of molten metal.

“Now. Now. Mr. Rafa. I’m a reasonable being. Perhaps we can substitute one offer for another?”

Rafa’s body relaxed and he allowed himself to sit down.

“Speak.”

“Your old life was, let’s say, profitable to me. When your wife passed, you made the choice to leave that path so you could take care of little Samuel here. You have done a marvelous job of it too, haven’t you? So you took to working menial jobs to help feed you both. But you miss your old life don’t you? I know you still practice to keep your skills honed.”

“That is not my life anymore. I no longer hunt people. For anyone. Not even you.”

“Here is my proposal, Mr. Rafa. You can keep your son. He can grow into a man and do all the things you envision for him. He will make his own decisions and decide his own fate. But you, you have to work for me. Hell has grown so much over the years, so much so that we have occasional misplaced souls. I am certain they have made their way up to the Human Realm. I want you to hunt them down and return them to me.”

“My son needs me. I cannot disappear for long periods of time hunting your sinners.”

“Also, in return for your services, you will be rewarded with enough gold to move from here to a bigger manor and have staff to watch over Samuel. Who knows, you may be able to woo a young lady to become his mother and care for him while you are away working.”

Rafa looked over to Samuel. Gold. Samuel could have meat every night. Fill out into a man of strong and sound body. He could have proper tutors. He could have a future much better than the one currently promised..

“Father. What does the Devil want you to do? I don’t understand.”

Rafa sat for a minute. “He wants me to hunt again. Not animals but people. Like I used to before you were born. He offers me good pay for it too. And, I must admit, I miss that life. It is in my blood.”

Scratch’s smile grew just a bit more. “So do we have a deal?”

Rafa looked at his son. Samuel’s eyes were wide, hopeful.

Rafa returned the Devil’s smile, albeit with yellowed teeth. “We do.”

pencil

Joshua Flores manifested in Chicago with Spanish as his first language, the struggle to learn English well lead him to read. He devoured comics and men’s adventure novels. Eventually, he exchanged Doc Savage, James Bond, and Sherlock Holmes for authors. He scoured thrift stores and used book stores for Poe, Bloch, Beaumont, Ellison, and Bradbury. Horror wasn’t a specific genre but whenever Josh found it, it never failed to draw out raw emotions. Those emotions beckoned Josh to write. At ten years old, he two-finger-pecked short stories on an old electric typewriter. He hasn’t stopped writing since. That scares Josh. Email: Squarehopper[at]gmail.com

Risk Assessment

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Annie Percik


Photo Credit: NASA/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Captain Zheng Gan of the Terran Exploration Alliance flagship, Lapsang, raised his sandwich to his mouth to take a large bite.

“You’re going to die!”

The holographic form of the ship’s Virtual Engine for Risk Notification (VERN) materialised at his shoulder. It appeared as a slender white man in a dark suit and bowler hat, carrying a clipboard. Some programmer’s idea of a joke. The way it screamed right in his ear wasn’t particularly funny.

Gan didn’t even glance at it. “Why this time, VERN?”

“That white bread will spike your blood sugar and eventually all your limbs will have to be amputated! And then you’ll die!”

Gan wished he hasn’t asked. But past experience told him it was always worth checking with VERN before dismissing its warnings. The system’s settings were way off and desperately needed adjusting. But the technician working on the problem had died in the epidemic when the ship’s doctor had ignored VERN’s apparently paranoid rantings about a possible alien pathogen in the air vents. So now they were stuck with it.

To demonstrate his disinterest in VERN’s warning, Gan raised his sandwich and took a huge bite. As he did so, the ship’s proximity alarm sounded piercingly, making him jump. The bite of sandwich shot to the back of his throat, blocking his windpipe completely. He dropped the rest of the sandwich and reached out an arm in supplication, unable to draw in any air or make a sound.

VERN, still at his side, waved its hands frantically. As a hologram, it was unable to assist with the Heimlich manoeuvre.

“The captain is dying! The captain is dying!”

After Gan failed to respond to VERN’s panicked yells, Commander Janet Harcourt looked round from her station, took in the situation and sprang into action. She made two quick strides to the captain’s side, hoisted him up in front of her, placed her hands in the required position under his sternum and jerked backwards. On the third attempt, Gan felt the lodged mass of bread and chicken break free and shoot out of his mouth. It flew in a high arc over the pilot’s shoulder and landed with a squelch on the communications console.

As Gan bent over, gasping and coughing, Harcourt’s arms still steadying him, he caught sight of movement from the corner of his eye. Struggling to regain control of his breathing, he tilted his head to look at the view screen, which showed the wide-eyed face of a Tlagan, staring at him in horror from the bridge of one of their standard battle cruisers. The yellowish tint of the lizard-like alien’s leathery skin told Gan it was a male. The Tlagan opened its mouth and a stream of enraged hissing spewed out. The Lapsang’s translator kicked in.

“How dare you disrespect my people in this way! I will spare your puny vessel, but only because the importance of reporting your egregious disregard for the terms of our erstwhile peace treaty allows for no delay.”

The screen went black.

Gan looked over his shoulder at Harcourt, having difficulty processing what had just happened. The Tlagans abhorred physical contact of any kind—they reproduced by parthenogenesis—and had originally declared war on Terra after witnessing the multitude of ways in which humans used touch to communicate in everyday life. The conflict had been long and bloody, and had only ended six months previously. The Terran Exploration Alliance (TEA) had been founded in the wake of the peace treaty, with the Lapsang launching its maiden voyage to celebrate the new opportunities for exploration without fear of attack.

And now, after the Lapsang’s first encounter with another ship, they were apparently at war again.

VERN flailed its holographic arms. “You’ll all be court martialed! Unless you all die first!”

Gan thought fast. For once, VERN might be right. The TEA was still a branch of the military and High Command was going to be less than impressed with them being responsible for war breaking out again.

“Follow that cruiser, Lieutenant,” Gan called out to the pilot.

Lieutenant Kozlowski turned in his seat and stared at the captain.

“You heard me, Lieutenant,” Gan said, wishing his voice sounded less hoarse. “Get after that Tlagan ship right now. Don’t let it get too far ahead, but try not to attract its attention.”

The Lapsang might not have much weaponry, but it was fast and agile. They ought to be able to keep up with the battle cruiser without drawing its fire. Kozlowski capitulated and turned back to his console, tapping in commands. The starfield visible through the view screen shifted perspective as the ship came about. A small dot far ahead denoted the cruiser’s progress.

“What are you thinking, Captain?” Commander Harcourt asked.

Gan answered her question by issuing more orders. He spun to face the communications console.

“Lieutenant Commander Owusua, can you jam any outgoing signals from the cruiser?”

She looked at him gravely. “I should be able to. Yes, sir.”

“Do it.”

Owusua regarded the sticky glob of ejected sandwich and carefully gave it a wide berth in executing Gan’s order. “Signals jammed, sir.”

“It’s all very well stopping them getting a message out now. But what are we going to do when they get back to Tlagan space?” Harcourt wanted to know. “We can’t follow them all the way home. And if they decide to confront us, we’re toast.”

“I’ve just bought us some time,” Gan said. He had no idea how to solve their dilemma, either. “I’m hoping someone will come up with a plan before things get worse.”

“You’re all doomed!” VERN wailed. “The situation is hopeless!”

“Thanks, VERN. You’re a ray of sunshine as ever.” Gan looked round at the rest of his bridge crew. “Does anyone have anything more constructive to offer?”

Blank, worried faces looked back at him. Strategic planning was meant to be his department, but instinct had only brought him so far. They were hurtling towards what was now enemy space, with no hope of surviving a direct conflict. And, if they turned tail and went back to Earth, they would probably be thrown in prison. He would have to hope something occurred to him before they reached the point of no return.

The atmosphere on the bridge was tense, as Kozlowski worked to keep the Tlagan cruiser in sight and the Lapsang off its radar, while Owusua kept any announcements of the renewed war from escaping the jamming field she had extended around the cruiser. Gan noticed the rest of the bridge crew throwing anxious sidelong glances at him every now and then. But inspiration refused to come.

Eventually, Lieutenant Kozlowski announced, “We are approaching Tlagan space, Captain. What do you want me to do?”

Gan opened his mouth but nothing came out. He was an explorer, not a soldier. How was he supposed to know what to do in this situation. But before the silence dragged out to an embarrassing length, Owusua broke it.

“There’s another ship coming at us fast. From the direction of the Tlagan homeworld.” She turned wide, frightened eyes on Gan. “It’s an elite battle cruiser.” Those were three times the size of the standard ones. “And it’s hailing us.”

Gan felt what little of his sandwich he’d managed to eat turn over in his stomach. They were for it now. VERN was right. He had led his entire crew to their doom. He glanced round the bridge to make sure nobody was touching anyone else. There was no sense in exacerbating the problem even more. Then he straightened his uniform jacket and took a deep breath.

“On screen.”

The starfield was replaced by a larger and fancier version of the other cruiser’s bridge. This time, the purple tint of the captain’s skin denoted a female.

“Greetings, Lapsang.” The translator turned her hisses into a very cheery-sounding salutation. “You’re a long way from home.”

Gan stared at her. Was the jamming field still in effect? Had the other ship not managed to alert this one to the changed war status?

The Tlagan captain continued. “And I see you’ve brought us a present. We appreciate the assist.”

What on earth was she talking about? Gan looked at Owusua, who looked straight back, as baffled as he was.

“Um, you’re welcome…” He trailed off, not wanting to reveal his complete ignorance of what was going on.

“I have to admit I’m surprised that a human ship with little to no offensive capabilities would be willing to risk attack from one of our battle cruisers.” The Tlagan captain’s eyes shone with admiration. “I’m impressed that you humans are taking the peace treaty so seriously. To risk yourselves just to track a rogue ship and broadcast a distress signal on an open frequency to let us know where you were…” She shook her head in amazement. “That took some guts and could easily have gone very wrong for you. But we’ve been looking for this crew for weeks and haven’t managed to track them down. So you’ve done us a huge favour.”

“Um, you’re welcome…” Gan repeated, swallowing hard.

When it became clear he wasn’t going to say anything more, the Tlagan captain nodded. “Right then. We’ll take it from here. We’ve got them secured in a forcefield so they won’t get away from us again. Oh, and I’ll send a communique to Terran High Command to commend you for your actions. I think you’ve just strengthened the peace between our two peoples considerably.”

The screen went blank, leaving Gan opening and closing his mouth like a fish. He turned to Owusua.

“What distress signal?” he asked. “You didn’t send out a distress signal, did you?”

Owusua shook her head. “No, sir. That would have been insane. Anybody could have picked it up and come to find us.” She gestured at the screen. “Just like they did.”

“So what was she talking about?” Gan felt like he was seriously losing the plot. He jumped as VERN appeared at his side again. At least this time, he didn’t have anything in his mouth.

“I sent the distress signal,” the hologram said. “The ship was in imminent danger of destruction! So I called for help! Any kind of help, from anywhere that was listening! It was the only way to save you all!”

Owusua scanned her console, her eyes alighting on the chewed up piece of sandwich. With a grimace of distaste, she flicked it away with her fingers to reveal a bright, flashing yellow light. The distress beacon. It had been going off the whole time.

“You can switch that off now,” Gan told her, then turned to gape at VERN. “I don’t believe it. You actually saved us.”

The hologram adopted a superior expression that actually matched its prim and proper appearance for once. “Of course,” it said. “It is my job to identify risks and protect the crew from danger.”

Gan collapsed back into his captain’s chair and wiped his hand over his face. Talk about a roller coaster of emotions.

“Lieutenant Kozlowski, plot a course for Earth. It seems we’ve averted a war and now we have commendations to collect. Let’s go home.”

pencil

Annie Percik lives in London with her husband, Dave, where she is revising her first novel, whilst working as a University Complaints Officer. She writes a blog about writing and posts short fiction on her website, which is also where all her current publications are listed. She also publishes a photo-story blog, recording the adventures of her teddy bear. He is much more popular online than she is. She likes to run away from zombies in her spare time. Twitter: @APercik | Email: annie[at]alobear.co.uk

Aunt Nettie

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Charmaine Braun


Photo Credit: galaxies and hurricanes/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

They told me to beware. I didn’t listen. I should have listened.

I’m scared.

I looked up from the diary and squeezed my tired eyes shut, took off my glasses and pinched the bridge of my nose. The tiny slanted handwriting was hard to decipher and I had to keep my face close to the book. I stretched my neck and heard a crack. The current entry was dated March 15, 1926. This could be it, I thought.

A conversation with my mother about ten years ago started the search. I asked her about our family tree and she began to rattle off names and dates as I frantically scratched them out on paper. When she got to Aganetha Hiller—Great Aunt Nettie to me—I was at a loss. I had never heard of her. I had dabbled a bit in genealogy, mostly by asking random relatives about their family, but no one had ever mentioned Nettie before.

I was curious. I signed up for a genealogy website and typed in the names. I found a birth record for her but after that she disappeared from history. When I asked relatives about her they would either say they didn’t know anything or change the subject. I was so annoying about it, after a brief hello and a hug the only relatives that talked to me were less than two feet tall and mostly said mama or dada.

After years of hounding every relative I saw, weird cousin Larry slipped an old red, tattered book just small enough to fit in a pocket, in my hand last night at his sister’s wedding, telling me, “you didn’t get this from me.”

I hid it in my jacket and said my goodbyes before heading back to the hotel.

I entered the hotel, kicked off my shoes and started reading. When I opened the book five hours ago I was excited to find out that it was a diary and even more when I read the name written on the first page. Now am elated that I might finally find my lost aunt. I rubbed my eyes, put my glasses back on and started to read again.

Everyone told me not to be stupid. I know my other entries are dull. No one cares about shopping or people they never met. This was supposed to stay a secret. I wasn’t going to write about it but I want my family to know what I saw if something happens to me. I have a run tonight and I don’t know if I will make it back.

I worked at the hotel. No, not as a chippy, I served drinks when I met him. Legs. I liked him right away. He was gorgeous and had money to burn. He was keen on me too. We started to spend more time together. About three weeks later he asked me to do the first run.

It made sense. Who would expect a woman?

The money was great and I got to drive a fast car. A really fast car. So what if it was a little illegal. The law couldn’t catch me.

I dressed ritzy, in some of the most beautiful dresses I have ever seen. Nobody would recognize me. They had the car ready for me and I just drove it down. If the law got wind and started to chase, I just put the pedal to the floor and left them in the dust. I love those cars. I haven’t been caught yet and don’t plan to be.

About a week ago, the last run went all kinds of wrong. It started the same as always except the big boss from the other side of the border was there to ‘check out the operation.’

When he saw me he blew his top. ‘Who’s the dame?’ he yelled and grabbed me by the neck of my dress. I’m glad he didn’t rip it, even if I don’t get to keep them.

I told him I was the driver. He said dames don’t drive. I told him I was the one doing the driving for the last four months and he always got his stuff on time. He pushed me away. ‘Who said you could drive?’

I didn’t say anything. He pulled out his gun and looked at the boys gathered around. Legs told him. The boss said, ‘Let’s see if the broad can drive.’

I got into the car and the boss got in beside me. He kept the gun in his hand. Drive, he said. So I did.

I always took the trip by myself. It was easier. He made me nervous. He didn’t talk. He just stared out the window. As we crossed the border, the lights and sirens started and the coppers gave chase.

They were good. I’m better.

I stomped on the gas and we jumped forward. We were leaving them behind when the boss leaned out the window and the shots began. I had never been shot at before. The boss fired back and one car spun off the road and into the ditch. The other kept coming. The boss fired until his gun was empty. He sat back in his seat and yelled at me to go.

Go! I was already going as fast as the car could go. The bullets were still hitting the car and I started to swerve and then turned the car around so we were facing the coppers. I drove at them without letting up. The boss was screaming at me and hitting the dash. Our cars were getting closer and I settled in. When we were almost even, the cop swerved to one side and I swerved with him and hit the front of his car with ours. Their car tipped into the ditch and rolled over. I turned the car around and drove to the meet. The boss gripped the seat so hard I thought he was going to rip it in two.

I switched cars at the meet like usual and changed my clothes and headed home.

The next morning the newspaper said that two cops were shot and killed. The two in the car that I pushed off the road were fine.

That night when I came back with Legs, one of the boss’s boys was in my house. He was sitting in my kitchen. He had his gun on the table. He rushed at me when I walked in the room and pushed me up against the wall. He pushed the gun into my cheek. Legs tried to pull him off, but the other guy was bigger and shoved Legs to the floor. The lug grabbed my face and told me ‘you didn’t see nothing.’ I nodded. He spit on Legs as he left the house.

The next morning the newspaper said that the other two cops got bumped off in an alley. No one saw nothing.

They told me to be ready to drive tonight. I’m frightened. What if they decide to get rid of me too? I’m no snitch!

I’m hiding this in a safe spot that only Pete knows about. He’ll come get it if no one hears from me in a couple of days.

Brother, I want you to give this to Mom and Dad and tell them I’m sorry. I hid the money in the spot where we saw that bird that time. I love you. I hope I’m being a Dumb Dora and you never have to find this.

The diary ended and I flipped through the last empty pages. A folded envelope fell out. I opened it and pulled out a slip of paper. A yellowed newspaper clipping fell into my lap. I set the clipping aside and read the paper.

So, cousin, you finally get the answer that you were looking for. She was a bootlegger. And by her account damn good at it. You can see why no one wants to talk about her, but I thought you should know. You can finally stop with all the questions. I found the clipping in the same box. I think that Pete might have cut it out. I thought you might want to look at it.

Larry

I set the paper aside and picked up the short clipping.

YOUNG WOMAN FOUND IN LAKE

An unidentified dead woman was found on March 24 in Milk River. Two fishermen found the woman in only her undergarments floating in the river. Police suspect foul play and request that anyone who has any information contact them.

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Charmaine Braun lives in Edmonton, Alberta. She has recently rediscovered her love of creative writing and had finished one (unpublished) novel. She is currently working on a fantasy trilogy. Email: charmainebraun[at]hotmail.com

Beware: A Prue Klatter Mystery

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Cayce Osborne


Photo Credit: Jorn van Maanen/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Diary of Prue Klatter
March 15, 1952 (aka my 30th birthday)
Lawrence, Kansas

They told me to beware. I mean, not in so many words. That’s not how these things work. I’ve only worked for the FBI six months, but I’ve learned that much.

The voice on the tape actually said: “If you’re hearing this, you’re in danger. If I had another way…” The next words were lost underneath a noise, something familiar. “I need your help, you’re the only one I can tell. I saw something I shouldn’t—”

The recording cut out.

Usually, the tapes I transcribe are boring. I know I’ve gushed about my job on these pages and at first it seemed like a dream, but every day is the same: I sit at my desk in a long row of other transcribers. Lawrence is the central facility, so tapes are sent by agents in the field, from all over the country, then distributed among us girls in the dictation pool.

All we get to hear are snippets. Sometimes I’ll get a tape marked 2/3 and my friend Laurel, who sits next door, will get 1/3, and neither of us ever gets to see 3/3. I try to get details out of her on our walk home sometimes, to fill in the holes, but she likes to “leave work at work.”

I can keep my mind from wandering by piecing together clues. Each tape is marked with an alphanumeric code to match the agent who is speaking and the field office he is working out of, to the case. And yes, it’s always a he. No girls allowed in Eddie Hoover’s clubhouse.

That’s how I knew today’s tape was special: the voice being piped into my ears through my headphones belonged to a woman.

I must’ve listened to her fifty times. Until the floor matron noticed I wasn’t typing and scolded me. I started clacking randomly at my typewriter keys, the purple mimeo ink recording my gibberish onto the duplicate pages. It looked enough like work, I could concentrate on the voice and what had interrupted it.

I knew that sound.

I just needed to figure out how.

Tuna fish. That’s what I was eating when it came to me. I’d made my tuna salad too wet, and it’d sogged the bread something terrible. Chewing it, there was a nauseating chomp and slosh sound. Laurel glared at me so hard her cat-eye glasses slipped down her nose. I tried to chew quieter. She slid farther down the lunch table bench.

The sound was almost a slosh and swish, like the sound the SuperMat laundromat makes. I walk by it each night on my way home from work, so I hear it a lot. That’s what was on the tape: a symphony of washing machines, overlaid with some sort of long, high whistle.

“What’s got you so moony?” Laurel asked.

“I’m not,” I mumbled, swallowing the last of the tuna fish.

“You still sore about tonight?”

We’d planned my birthday celebration at The Flamingo Club weeks ago, but her cousins decided to come to town so dinner was off. I haven’t had the heart to write about it, which is why I’ve been lax in my diary entries. I’m over it now, mostly. Thirty isn’t such a big deal. Certainly not compared to whatever the woman on my tape got herself into.

“It’s not that. It’s the case I’m transcribing. You ever hear something that’s made you… worry, or need to know more?”

She fought back a smile. I thought she was laughing at me.

“So-and-so went to this address at this time and was driving this make of car? No way. It’s all so dullsville! I know you want to be an agent someday, but me? I’d rather marry one of those men than be one.” She finished drinking her coffee. “Something good on your tapes today?”

She slid back down the bench. Humoring me, only asking because she knows I like to follow the cases on my tapes. But if there was a reason to beware, I didn’t want to say too much. I also wanted to keep the intrigue to myself a bit longer. Laurel would talk me into flagging it for supervisor review, as we were trained to do with unusual recordings.

I waited for a group of other girls to pass before answering. “No, nothing good.”

Laurel didn’t seem put off by my lie. She patted my hand, wished me happy returns, and went to wash up before lunch hour was over. I hurried back to my desk and pulled out the slim notebook I’d taped to the underside. That’s where I note the alphanumeric codes I’ve managed to decipher.

P24 at the beginning of a code means the tape came from the Philadelphia field office, for instance. I discovered this when local landmarks were referenced on recordings all marked P24. When I recognize recurring voices, I can tie agents to the cities I’ve already identified. I don’t know them by name, of course, only by code. I hide my discoveries using a simple substitution cipher (the same one I use in this diary, actually) in case anyone finds my notes.

I thought if I could match the ID code on the mysterious tape to one of the agents or field offices I’ve already identified, I’d be closer to figuring out the rest. After the floor matron passed my desk, I examined the code inked on the tape’s label: S38-BV93.

I’d noted in my book S38 was the code for the Seattle office. BV93 was not an agent I’d been able to place. But the city was a start. I looked up to see Laurel watching me. Pretending to need a new sheet of paper, I leaned down to my desk drawer and slid the notebook back into hiding.

When afternoon break came, instead of meeting Laurel at the coffee pot as usual I ran to the pay phone across the street, scrounging in my purse for a nickel. By the time I got my sister on the line, half my break was over.

“Susan! I need your help. Does the Lawrence Library have any Seattle telephone directories? I need to know if there are laundromats near the Seattle train station.” I waited while she put me on hold, left the circulation desk, ran to the stacks, and returned with the answer.

“There are two within a mile.” She rattled off their addresses, breathless. “Are you going to tell me wh—”

I hung up before she could finish, hurrying back to my desk.

“Bad tuna fish,” I told the matron when I returned late. I tried to look nauseous. I almost was, but with excitement.

When the five o’clock bell sounded, I looked for Laurel to excuse myself from our usual walk home, but she’d already left. I went to the corner store for change and then to the phone booth, not wanting to make my calls from home. (As I’ve noted many times in these pages, Ms. Rainey who runs my boarding house has trouble minding her own business. Thankfully, she hasn’t the sense to understand my cipher.)

The first call was answered right away, by an elderly woman with a creaky voice. I engaged in some light conversation until I was satisfied it wasn’t the laundromat from my tape. The machines in the background were too whiny, like they needed a tune-up. The next call was a failure as well. When the train whistle blew, it was deafening, masking the sound of the machines.

I gave myself a pep talk on the walk home. Real investigative work isn’t easy: lots of footwork, lots of phone work, lots of… work. If I ever want to become an agent, I need to make peace with that. Before leaving work, I’d stuffed the tape back down to the bottom of my stack so I’d have more time with it. There must be other clues, and I was determined to find them.

As my resolve rehardened, the SuperMat came into view. Maybe I’d just stop in, I thought, to see if being there jiggled any inspiration loose. It was silent inside as I tugged the door open, no customers in view. The minute my feet hit the linoleum, life exploded. Laurel and the other girls from the dictation pool. My sister Susan. A few friends from high school. My parents, for heaven’s sake! They all jumped from behind the washing machines, tossing streamers and confetti my way.

“Happy Birthday!” they called in unison.

The B&L coal train, which passed through town twice a week, whistled in the distance as if it too wished me well.

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Cayce Osborne is a writer and graphic designer from Madison, WI. She currently works in science communication at the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has been a staff writer at Brava Magazine, and her fiction has been published in Exposition Review and the Dread Naught but Time short story anthology from Scribes Divided Publishing. She also collects her work on her website. Email: cayce.osborne[at]gmail.com

An Unapparent Suicide

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Miguel A. Rueda


Photo Credit: Bethany J. Baker/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

They told me to “Beware.” Warned me to “Let dead men stay dead.”

The anonymous posts starting popping up on my Facebook business page—Max Haas. Bonded Private Investigator.—the day after I accepted the gig.

I’m not good at remembering random dates: my ex-wife’s birthday, my second ex-wife’s wedding anniversary, but the day the messages began stuck with me, March fifteenth, the Ides of March. Together with the use of the word, “beware.” Yikes.

Not that I’m superstitious but I’ve been known to call off a stakeout if a black cat wanders between me and my suspect.

I did a quick sign of the cross and knocked on my desk, y’know, just in case.

Misty Magnussen had hired me to investigate her late husband’s death. Two weeks earlier, her now-late husband, Lance, took a header out of a back window on the second floor of their brownstone. He landed on the patio in their backyard.

If the plan were to do yourself in, a two-story fall isn’t usually fatal, unless you’re lucky enough to land on the top of your head.

Lucky Lance.

Misty didn’t believe he’d done it. She said the police wouldn’t tell anyone what the note said until their investigation was over. I guessed that her husband’s self-inflicted homicide meant she’d get zip of a fairly hefty life insurance policy.

She told me how they met—she was working a party at his posh Upper West Side home—and that they were making plans for a family. It’s why the note didn’t make sense.

I told her my fee and she pulled a wad of bills from the matching purse she was carrying. In hindsight I should have asked for double.

Lance didn’t have a social media presence, but I did find the public info about him: his obit, how he made his money—investment banker, that Misty was the latest in a long line of brides for Lance; she was his fifth. I guess the rich can afford to keep a priest on retainer.

In contrast, Misty was the proverbial open (Face)book. Although her profile was set to private, I sent a request and she accepted immediately.

A quick look showed that she had the art form down, she had selfie game.

The posts went back to high school. Prom photos, cheerleading… she got a job working catering for high class parties. In one of those, I recognized Lance with his arm around a woman who must have been his previous wife. The couple was standing behind Misty and she was looking over her shoulder at him. Maybe this is when she first set her sights on bagging him.

Photos dated just six months later were of Misty and Lance on a beach together, and two months after that, together at a lavish wedding.

Her last posts were somber, and although her attire didn’t show any real bereavement, maybe that’s just Misty the party girl. Sadness never gets in.

I did everything I could online; I had to get into the house.

*

Yellow police tape was strung across the front doorway and a blue-and-white NYPD cruiser sat in front of the house. I recognized the officer, Patrolman Daniel Hulkenberg, and knocked on the window.

After exchanging enough small talk to make it appear that I wasn’t plying him for information, I asked about the investigation and he confirmed what the widow had told me and said closing off the house was merely a formality. He had been the one to respond to the frantic calls from neighbors about a body with a pool of blood in the backyard.

Hulkenberg said that the body had been there all night.

Thanking him, I asked that he AirDrop me the info for the lead investigator and if he minded if I looked around a bit.

He shrugged, tapped his phone a few times and waved me off.

My phone chirped as I walked up to the door and I saw two drops. One from Hulkenberg and one from an unknown sender.

I clicked on the second.

It was close-up photo of Lance’s bloody skull and the single word: “BEWARE.” Dude was definitely into drama.

An AirDrop meant the sender was within Bluetooth range, couple hundred feet at best.

Looking down the street, the only thing out of place was a pearl white Saleen Mustang. It’s a rare car; it stood out among the nondescript sedans and SUVs. I didn’t see anyone in any of the parked cars.

Hulkenberg had said he had to break down the door because both it and the rear door were locked and chained from the inside. All of the windows, except for the one Lance took his swan dive through, were latched.

I headed up to the second floor. A gem-encrusted dream catcher hung askew from above the window. Unknotting the strings let me see that one spider-web shaped piece was missing.

I walked out the back door and looked up. It wasn’t that far a drop. Lance had to be dead set to die, forgive the pun, in order to jump head first. He’d be more likely to end up a vegetable, than a corpse.

The townhouses ringing the block created a private park for the residents. I walked around, not looking for anything in particular, when I noticed an extension ladder against the back of another house. As I got closer, something glinted in the sunlight. I walked around—not under, I’m not stupid, knock on wood—climbed up and found the source of the reflection, the missing piece of the dream catcher.

That’s when I knew who killed serial-groom Lance.

When I nonchalantly asked Hulkenberg for the address, he didn’t ask if I had found anything or why I needed to see the ex-wife. I then asked him about the note.

He said it was the one thing that struck him as odd; Lance apologized to his former wife, the ex, not the widow. He was sorry he had betrayed her and had made a mistake.

*

She lived just outside the city in a neighborhood with big lawns and bigger tax bills. I noticed the rear end of a car just visible in one bay of the three-car garage. The taillights of a pearl white Saleen Mustang.

I thumbed the safety off my .38, sent out a quick text with a dropped pin, and knocked on the door.

It was answered by a woman who resembled the one I had seen standing in the photo next to Lance, but she appeared different than in the picture; she had definitely taken up a workout regimen. Lance’s ex was buff.

She invited me in as though I was expected.

I had to play the game as though she knew everything I knew, which of course she did.

I talked about the neighborhood and the weather a bit before offering my condolences. She said she had made peace with it since he had apologized for betraying her in the note.

Casually, I mentioned it was unusual for the police to release a note since the investigation was still ongoing.

She smiled a bit, and that’s when all hell broke loose.

She was on me like a shopper on the last new game console on Black Friday.

I didn’t even have time to pull my gun and she had me in a headlock and was flinging me around the room. My adrenaline kicked in just in time to keep my face from smashing a mirror.

If a woman kicks my ass in a fair fight so be it, but seven years of bad luck? No, thank you.

Everything was going dark when the front door busted in and my new best pal Hulkenberg was standing there, gun drawn, barking for her to drop me. Which she unfortunately did.

Right into the mirror top table. Dammit, almost made it out unscathed.

*

Hulkenberg got my text and pin and raced into the suburbs at full lights and siren speed.

Lead Detective berated me for not calling her, and after I shared the who and the how of Lance’s unapparent suicide, she told me the why.

Lance had a habit of providing for his ex-wives and their children in the event of his death by splitting up his fortune between all of them. Whoever his current bride was would only get his life insurance, nothing else.

Ex number four decided that she was good with that arrangement and decided to stage his death. And it turns out that in addition to being a gym rat and a tad homicidal, she was a big fan of Shakespearean plays. Tragedies mostly, what with all the murder and whatnot.

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Email: waynehillsauthor[at]gmail.com

Trapped in a Box

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Karen Davis


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

“Step right this way, sir! Win the little lady a stuffed animal of her choice!”

“Try your luck at the ring toss!

“Come see our two-headed cow, perfectly preserved for over fifty years!

“Come show your skills at the balloon dart throw! Everyone’s a winner!”

As the couple strolled down the midway, the sideshow barkers called to them with one attraction after another. The old man looked at his wife and smiled. After all these years, they still loved to people watch at one of the only surviving public events from their youth. They remembered going to carnivals together as kids, and it remained pretty much the same, even now. Freak shows, rigged games, mirrored houses, and rickety dizzying rides. It was a thrilling place to them, even though they knew there was a curtain that separated the magic of the place from the grim reality of the world.

There were crowds of young people walking along. A few of them were laughing, taking pictures of themselves together, and daring each other to try the various games and shows. The old man remembered what it was like, to be young and full of so much energy and enthusiasm. But many of the groups of people were trudging past the games without noticing, too busy looking down at their phones. The old man was sad for them. He was part of the last generation that had grown up without internet access, and he wished they could experience life the way he had. He sighed but then looked over at his wife and remembered the good life that he’d had with her.

As they were walking past one colorful attraction, he noticed a boy getting in line. It looked like he was trying to impress his young girlfriend by attempting to win the over-hyped contest.

“Test your powers of bravery and fortitude!” The man at the podium called to everyone walking by, while encouraging the boy to move forward to the front of the line. “Take a step back in time and see how you might survive the torture of the ages!”

“Yeah, I’ll do it,” the boy said with a mixed look of bravado and fear on his face.

“That’s a fearless young man!” the barker yelled to the crowd. And then he said quietly to the boy, “You sure you can handle it?”

The boy balked and then set his face to stone. “What’s the big deal? It’s just a joke, right? Of course I can handle it.”

“Fine. One ticket, please. You will remain inside the room until you ask three times to be let out. We will give you three chances so that you will be sure you want out. We wouldn’t want you to lose your chance just because you panicked.”

“Panic? Why would I do that? This is just a silly trick. There’s nothing in there that can scare me into wanting out.”

“Nothing, indeed, sir! I believe we may have our winner for tonight!” He gave a wide smile and a wink and gestured toward a small metal box that was built into the door. “Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

The boy looked around with a smirk. “Why do I have to do that?”

“It’s for your own safety and for the integrity of the game, sir. Thank you very much!”

The boy emptied his pockets into the metal box.

“And your cell phone, sir.”

The boy looked at the phone in his hand and paused for a moment. He placed it in the box with his other items, and the man closed and locked it.

“Thank you very much, sir. Now just step inside the room of torture and see how you fare. Any man who can withstand this room is a brave soul, but the man who holds the record for the longest time in the room tonight will win free tickets to our main-stage show tomorrow night! Good luck to you, sir!”

With that, he closed the door behind the boy, who looked back one last time with confusion on his face as the door sealed shut.

“The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes!” the barker called. “Will this young man be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

A minute, and the boy’s friends looked at each other and smiled.

Ninety seconds, and they thought they heard stirring inside the room.

At two minutes, there was a knock on the door.

“I want to come out now, please.”

“Listen here!” the barker called. “The young man has called to be let out one time. He will be given two more opportunities to show his bravery!”

After another minute, there was another knock. “I really want out,” the boy called from inside the room.

“That’s two! Be brave, young man! We believe you can do it! Just another thirty seconds and you will have the record for this evening!”

At that point, there was a terrible commotion from inside the room. The boy was banging on the door and screaming, “Let me out! Let me out! You’ve gotta let me out of here! I can’t stand it anymore!”

The man at the podium shook his head and opened the door.

The boy stumbled out of the room, looking disoriented. His face was flushed, and his hands were shaking.

His friends looked at him wide-eyed. “What was it? What was in there that was so scary? Is it another person? Did they hurt you? What? Tell us! What?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he whispered as he quickly gathered his belongings from the small metal box.

“What do you mean, you don’t want to talk about it? It’s just a gag, right?”

“Yeah, it’s nothing. I just… can we leave now?”

“Well, why were you screaming then?”

“I don’t want to talk about it!” he yelled at his friends. He walked away, and his friends followed as they made their way toward the exit of the carnival.

The old man who had been watching turned to his wife and asked, “Should I try it? It can’t be that bad, right? He was just a kid. They probably spooked him with some flashing lights and fake monsters or something.”

“I don’t know,” his wife replied. “That kid looked pretty freaked out. Do you think your body could take that kind of stress?”

He looked at his wife and frowned. With his recent health problems, a lot of the fun things in his life had been taken away. This would be just one more thing that he couldn’t enjoy like he used to.

As they were talking, another man walked up to the podium. He was in his thirties and was looking at his phone with an irritated expression until he stopped in front of the podium.

“One ticket, please,” the barker told him.

“What is this anyway?” the young man asked.

“A simple test of your manhood, sir! See if you can withstand—”

“Okay, okay. Whatever. Here’s my ticket. What do I do now?”

“Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

“Okay, let’s get this over with.”

“Ah, ah, ah,” the barker scolded. “Don’t forget to put your cell phone in the box.”

The man dropped his phone in with a huff.

“Good luck, honey!” the young man’s girlfriend called from the line. She was laughing at him as he entered the room. “He hates this stuff,” she told the old man’s wife as they watched the door close for a second time.

“The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes!” the barker called. “Will this gentleman be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

A minute, and the young man’s girlfriend looked at the older couple and smiled nervously. “He really does hate these types of things. I’m surprised he agreed to do it.”

Ninety seconds, and they thought they heard stirring inside the room.

The girlfriend spoke again. “I thought he would come out by now. He just wants to prove me wrong. I told him he wouldn’t last more than a minute.”

At two minutes, there was a knock on the door.

“Let me out,” the man called forcefully.

“Listen here!” the barker called. “The gentleman has called to be let out one time. He will be given two more opportunities to show his bravery!”

Immediately, there was another knock. “Let me out, I said!” He sounded angry and fearful.

“That’s two! Be brave, sir! We believe you can do it! Just another sixty seconds and you will have the record for this evening!”

“Get me out of here, or I’m going to sue!” the man roared from inside the room.

The barker cleared his throat and opened the door, making sure to take a quick step back so the young man could rush out of the room. He was breathing heavily, gulping down the air as if he’d been deprived of it for the last couple of minutes.

“Where are my things?” he demanded.

He was shown the open box where he hastily grabbed his belongings and stomped off down the midway with his girlfriend following in a panic.

“Are you okay, honey? What happened? Did they suck all the air out of the room?”

“Of course not! Don’t be silly! Let’s just get out of this stupid place.”

“Don’t be mad at me, please! It was supposed to be funny! I’ll never make you do anything like that again!”

The young couple could be heard arguing until they were out of sight as they left the carnival.

The old man and his wife looked at each other in disbelief. What could possibly be so terrible in that room? The second person had been a grown man and was clearly disturbed when he left the room.

The old man’s wife shook her head. “I don’t think you should do it. I don’t want to take any chances. If these young people can’t withstand whatever is in that room, how will you do it? I don’t mean to insult you, but I also don’t want to risk your health.”

The old man looked at the small, colorful building and then back at his wife. He had a look of determination on his face. “I’m going to do it,” he declared to her.

After all, what was living if there were no risks to be taken. Plus, he was older and wiser than those other two. Surely, he would be able to see through the illusion of whatever scary thing was being done or seen in that room. He was smarter than those other two and was sure he could do it.

His wife begged him, “No, you don’t have to. I already know you’re brave. You’ve done so much over all these years. You don’t have anything to prove to me.”

“But I can win,” he told her. “I’ve never been very good at games and contests, but I really do believe I can win this one.”

“You don’t even know what it is!”

“No, but it’s just a carnival game. How bad can it be?”

She looked at him and wished he would change his mind, but she knew there was nothing she could say now to make him do that. Once he got that look on his face, he was determined that he would succeed. She had learned over the years to trust him when he decided to do something. She knew that he wouldn’t do anything too dangerous. She knew that he would never do anything that could hurt him or her.

She felt a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach, probably because of his recent health diagnosis. She had tried to shelter him so much more recently. She had tried to stop him from taking any risks that could damage his health. Maybe she had done too much to get in the way of his ability to live his life and to be the man he wanted to be. Maybe this would be a good chance to show him that she trusted him and that she believed in him.

“I’m going to do it,” he said again.

She smiled at him and put her hand on his shoulder. “Yes, you will,” she said as she gave him a small kiss on the cheek and looked him in the eye. “I know you will.”

He turned confidently and walked up to the barker who was grinning at their overheard conversation. He put his face close to the old man’s ear and whispered, “That’s a good woman you have there. And I think she’s right. I think you can win this one. One ticket, please.”

The man gave him his ticket.

“Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

The old man put his wallet, comb, and pocketknife into the metal box.

“And your cell phone, sir?”

“Phone? No, I didn’t bring it tonight. The only person I need to call is here with me.”

The barker gave him a strange smile and waved him into the room. As the door closed, the old man turned around to look at his wife, confused for a moment, and then a smile spread across his face.

He could hear the barker outside calling to the crowd, “The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes! Will this gentleman be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

The man looked all around the room, which was dimly lit, to see if there was anything that might open to allow a “monster” to come into the room to scare him. He saw nothing. It was simply a white-painted metal room with no windows and no doors except the one he had come through. There was nothing.

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

But the the metal box in the door began to hum. It had the sound of a cell phone ringing.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

He hadn’t put anything electronic into the box, so he wasn’t sure where the sound was coming from.

After a minute, the barker called again, “Will this man be our winner tonight? Can he withstand the torture of this time-travelling room of the ages?”

The metal box vibrated again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

*What was that sound?*

Ninety seconds, and he could tell there was a crowd gathering outside. The noise of the people was muffled, but there were many voices of concern and fascination.

At two minutes, the man thought about the fact that there was nothing in the room. Nothing except that infernal buzzing. He wondered why on earth this would be tortuous to anyone.

At three minutes, he got bored and started daydreaming. He thought about the first carnival he ever went to. He had gone with his friends, and they had very little money between them. They had tried some of the contests on the midway and had lost every time. They hadn’t been told that so many of the games were rigged and that their money would have been better spent on spinning rides or cotton candy or popcorn. He had won one time—one of the easier games—and his prize was a plastic ring. He had given the ring to a girl at school who had blushed and run away.

At seven minutes, the man could hear the crowd growing larger and more agitated. The buzzing in the door continued, but he was able to ignore it as he thought again about times he had been to the carnival before. He had taken his wife to one when they were young and foolish, but he had learned some of the tricks of the contests and knew which ones he would lose and which ones he could win. She had come home with a giant smiling stuffed bear that night, and she had kissed him for the first time on her doorstep before she stepped inside, smiling back at him through the window in the door.

He smiled to himself now, thinking about how lovely she had looked that night, and how she was still that girl to him. He thought about her standing on the other side of this metal door and wondered if she was still proud of him today.

At twelve minutes, the barker yelled loudly, to draw more attention to “the marvel behind these walls, the man who could do the impossible!” He didn’t feel like he was doing anything spectacular, but if standing in this little room made him a hero to his wife, he would stay in as long as they would allow him to.

The box buzzed again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

It reminded him of a time, not so very long ago, when his phone sat buzzing on the kitchen table. When he had gotten the call from his doctor with that awful diagnosis. He hadn’t known that words could bring a man to his knees like that. He wasn’t worried for himself. He only cared about how it would affect his family.

He did everything the doctors suggested, every treatment that was available. Nothing seemed to work. He had resolved to die gracefully and without all the hysteria. But one day, he went to an appointment and his doctor said he was getting better. He said that the man might even be fine for a very long time. He had thought it was impossible, a miracle. It was unusual, but it did happen occasionally. His doctor told him, it was like winning the lottery. He had told his doctor that he’d never won anything like that in his life. And his doctor told him maybe he should try his luck more often.

At seventeen minutes, the man began to wonder how long he had been in that metal room. It didn’t seem like very long, but his mind had been wandering so he wasn’t sure.

The box buzzed again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

He looked at the box and thought about the boy and the young man who had been in this room before him. They had been panicked, afraid, anxious to get back out into the world. To have their things in their pockets again. To get out of this dream world and back to their well-documented realities where they could escape almost anything at the touch of a button.

He had no need to escape. He was right where he wanted to be, in this strange little room with a buzzing metal box and a head full of memories. He was sad for those other two and also for the one who had set the three-and-a-half-minute record earlier in the evening—if he really did exist at all. He wished those others could have been comfortable in this place, locked in with themselves, but he guessed that was just too much to ask of some people. Or maybe of most people. He didn’t know because he had his small circle of people who concerned him, and the rest were of no consequence to his daily life. And he was of no consequence to theirs.

At eighteen minutes, there was a knock on the door. “How are you doing in there, sir? Are you okay? Do you need medical attention?” The barker grinned at his clever techniques for getting the crowds riled up.

The old man’s wife had a worried look on her face, and she stepped forward to confront the barker.

“Let him out,” she told him forcefully.

“But he hasn’t called to be let out yet. I have to give him three opportunities—”

“You open that door this very minute!” she demanded.

“Yes, ma’am,” he complied.

He opened the door to find the man standing in the middle of the room with a smile on his face. The crowd that had gathered gawked at him with their eyes wide and their mouths gaping.

The woman asked her husband, “Are you okay? Why didn’t you call to be let out? I thought something terrible had happened to you.”

The man just looked at her and kept smiling. “I’m fine. You shouldn’t have worried. I’ve been around long enough. I can handle pretty much anything.”

The barker seized the opportunity. “Come one! Come all! See the man who can endure the strangest and most debilitating torture our century of technology has ever cooked up! He stayed in this ancient room of torture for eighteen minutes! That’s, right, eighteen minutes! Do you think you can do better?! Come and see! Test your mettle in this impossibly horrific room! Who can do it? You, sir? Can you do it? Can you?”

As the old man and his wife walked away, he held his head high, proud to know that he was a man who would not be tortured by his own mind.

pencil

Karen Davis is a short story writer from Knoxville, TN. Email: davisflyer.karen[at]gmail.com