Little Lies by Michael King

Mar 22 2015

As takeout chimichangas battled against his sensitive bowels, Dan White drove homeward. Three years ago, after his mother died of pancreatic cancer, he began spending each Monday evening with his father. Dinner and beer and conversation about a sitcom or an old western were customary, but tonight his father had surprised him. The still-sober old man had tried to tell him something. It had been about marriage and momentum and love being an uphill struggle, but then the old man’s eyes had narrowed and he had shaken his head and had said goodnight and had closed the front door on his only child.

In truth, Dan was glad his father hadn’t continued. Marriage advice was rarely helpful. And if the old man had intended to tarnish the gleaming silver-work his son held high as his parents’ marriage, Dan had no interest in that either. Maybe that was why he never stayed past 9 pm. He usually left before his father got drunk and started reminiscing and truth-telling. At a painful twisting sensation just below the little beer-gut he kept at bay with regular trips to the gym, Dan grimaced. A moment later the pain intensified and the inside of the 76′ Firebird he had restored himself reminded him of the salt marsh out near 50th Street. He knew he had to find a toilet soon.

The problem was that Dan lived on the south side of Eldon, Nebraska and he was on the north. Other than his father’s house, a strip mall centered around a Super Target about five minutes ahead and the house on Pin Oak Rd (which was one of several properties he owned and rented out) he didn’t know what was where. Considering the sweat beginning to bead on his forehead, he figured he could pull a U-turn and hightail it back to his Dad’s. He might make it. He glanced at the iPhone on the passenger seat but, not being device-savvy, quickly decided against using it to locate the nearest restroom. With his luck, he’d get to monkeying around and narrowly miss a jaywalker and swerve into a tree. They’d revive him a couple hours later and fuss over his bruised noggin, meanwhile being polite enough not to mention the smell of the load in his pants.

The house on Pin Oak Rd. Holy crap. It was nearby, and the tenant, Rebecca Woods, had left town yesterday; and she’d asked him to look at her bedroom window during her absence. Supposedly it wasn’t latching correctly and was rising gradually as she slept allowing the winter admittance. Until now, he’d forgotten all about it. He didn’t have his toolbox but he did have the keys. If anyone asked about the intrusion, he’d tell them about the window. Turning down the car’s heater, he stomped on the gas and concentrated on the healthy purr of the engine. He smiled, thankful it hadn’t snowed in days and that he wasn’t in his other car, putting along. When his headlights illuminated the dark green Pin Oak Rd sign, he slowed the beast as much as he dared and hit the blinker. His stomach clenched. A white-knuckled moment later, he pulled into the badly cracked driveway of 3037 Pin Oak Rd. He groaned, tightening his backside. He was 50-years-old for Christ’s sake: too old and too young to shit himself.

As soon as the internal pressure relented a notch, he pushed out of the car and, tinkering with the key-ring, stiffly jogged to the front door of a house in need of fresh paint. He crashed inside and flicked on the hallway light. Then, orienting himself, he shot down the wide, short hallway that lead to the bedroom and the bathroom and, hardly noticing a strange, metallic odor, barged through the correct doorway and slammed shut the door. He sat down just in time.

Relieved, Dan surveyed the small, windowless room, flexing his toes within his shoes. Rebecca kept the space clean, but he had never liked it. Too small. His right knee rested against the vanity. Great. The toilet paper holder was empty. The fake chrome tube lay on the floor beside his right shoe. He shifted his bulk so he could check behind him near the toilet brush receptacle. Nothing. With his left hand, he grabbed the yellow shower curtain and dragged it toward him, wincing at the scraping of the metal rings. The tub was empty. He scooted forward and awkwardly opened the vanity. Shit. A spray-bottle of Windex in an old wicker basket. No paper towels. When he realized the cabinet door was about to slam shut, he shot out a hand to quiet it. Then, feeling foolish over his predicament and at the unwarranted sense that he had company, he opened the door and banged it closed.

A shuffling outside the bathroom door. Then a man cleared his throat with gusto.

Dan gulped, his face warming with embarrassment. The room spun once around him. When it stopped, he noticed more of it. The streaks of gray in the mostly piss-colored linoleum, which curled up at both ends where the bathtub met the craggy, eggshell wall. The difference in color between that wall and the grimy outlet and light switch covers it was supposed to match. The light switch. The light. He hadn’t been the one to turn it on.

“You know why there ain’t any paper in there?” Dan sat dumbly.

“Cause I took it. Something in this joint has got my sinuses all out of whack. Probably her crotch. Yeah, her moldy, rotten crotch.”

A knot unraveled in Dan’s stomach. Heat rose from the v-neck of his shirt. The toilet seat felt warm and slick. His legs tensed, and he started to stand. An image of his iPhone in his sleek, black car outside passed through his mind. Then his wife’s sweet face made an appearance. She had been angry with him lately but he wasn’t sure why, and he’d got idea she wasn’t either.

He shook his head, trying to clear it. The guy outside was clearly bugshit. This wasn’t a joke. He knew the guy’s choice of words wasn’t merely a faux pas. He needed to think. He needed to get the guy to leave. The idea of a broken rib or a bloody nose or even a swollen pinkie-finger caused Dan to cower inwardly. But what about getting gut-stabbed and bleeding out on the cheap, stiff carpet. As he reminded himself to keep still and remain calm, his mutinous index finger jabbed the button on the doorknob. The lock engaged with a tinny click. Gritting his teeth, he looked at the ceiling.

The guy outside blew his nose. Then chuckled.

“You chicken shit,” he said, “I wanted in, I’d be in, Mr. Healthclub-Firebird. You’re not supposed to be here, but seeing how you are, I’m thinking you might help me out. Yeah, I got a use for you. Man. What did you do to deserve this? All you had to do was look in the garage. You’d have seen her car.”

Dan shivered. Slowly he stood, holding his belt-buckle to silence it. Eyes locked on the faintly gleaming, brass-tinged doorknob, he quietly put himself together. The man cleared his throat again, drawing out the action.

“Ever since I was little, this thing would talk to me through my bedroom window. It seemed to know what I was, what I was capable of, even before I did. I swear I didn’t really know till just a bit ago. Once I tried to tell Momma but she just said I was dreaming about human nature and put her cigarette out on the tip of my big toe. Squashed it in up under the nail. But I tell you what: it’s coming. It’s coming tonight. I can hear it in my mind. And I can feel it in my arms. The way a good song gives you gooseflesh. I want you to see it. I want to see your face when you see it. You’ll see it when it comes to feed on Rebecca. Stupid, fucking, bippy tart.”

He chuckled.

“I tell you how I got in? I came over late for a cup of milk, preferably skim. We were fine for a while. She even told me about the latch on her bedroom window. Yeah, until I touched her. Got all crazy and told me to get the fuck out. When I turned to go, the bitch must have thought she sensed weakness. She started in. Criticizing just like momma. Right then, I looked down at my tenting ding-a-ling, and I knew I’d be back. I waited a bit, took one of my bar stools and flung it over that pitiful excuse for a privacy fence. Then I followed. Shouldn’t have told me about the window. I killed her. I fucked her up. I—“

The guy rattled on. Dan tried hard to listen carefully, but the motor of his mind seemed to be stuttering and he was missing words. His throat felt constricted, as if he were wearing a high-collared shirt and the room seemed a size smaller than a moment ago. He pondered the old, hollow-cored door before him, wondering if the material breathed or if the air between the thin flats of wood was stagnate, dead. Likes his mother. A lie is a closed door between us. She’d said that often when Dan was a boy. He supposed he’d always been full of shit.

When the guy’s rant segued into a song, Dan tore his eyes away from the doorknob and began to search for a weapon. The towel rack was out. Too flimsy. Breaking the mirror wouldn’t do either. At the noise, the guy might rush him. He didn’t want to cause a panic. He removed the lid on the toilet and silently prayed thanks that it was old and heavy. He gripped it with both hands and tried to prepare for a dark future. But what the hell was the guy singing?

“…scrambled eggs between her legs-“

“Okay, okay. Please stop,” Dan said.

“I just knew you were in there. Why don’t you come out and get a look at me; we’ll talk.”

“No, I think I’ll stay. Sooner or later somebody’ll get nosy.”

“Shit, not here in the big city. Folks just want privacy. You saying you don’t want to see it?”

“Whatever.”

“You think I’m going to kill you, don’t you? But that isn’t in the plan at all. I just want you to see it.”

“Sure. You’ll try,” Dan said.

“Guess I got to play hard ball,” the guy said, and then Dan heard the sloshing of liquid in some sort of container.

“I’ll give you till the count of three,” the guys s “Then I’ll pour on the gasoline and strike a match. Here, let me help.”

The lock on the doorknob popped out.

Reflexively Dan stepped backward and his fingernails dug into the imperfect side of the heavy slab of china. The door slowly swung open. He could hear the killer giving ground.

“Man, that ain’t even gray hair, it’s silver. Wish I had such cool hair.”

The leggy, boot-wearing, 30-something Dan had envisioned was not present. The only similarities between the imagined and the real were the age and the smile of movie-white teeth. The guy was stripped down to boxer shorts. He was short and soft and small-boned with swirls of black hair on his chest and belly and no hair on his head. His small eyes were set too closely. His beard was pubic-looking. His lips were purple. He tossed the role of toilet paper at Dan and laughed when it bounced off his chest and stopped rolling at the bedroom door. Dark eyes moved up and down Dan’s body.

“I bet you recycle. You recycle?”

Dan didn’t even blink. His body was warm and ready, and he was oddly calm, open, as if even the pours in his skin had the task of detecting the slightest movement. His eyes took in everything–the dusty red, plastic gas-container sitting by the spearmint green wall, the flaking, white baseboards, the old gray carpet and the small blob of beef-pink caught in the thick hair on the top of the shark-eyed man’s left foot. He did not see matches or a lighter or whatever he’d used to pop the lock.

“C’mon, it’s okay. It’ll be here any minute.”

He showed Dan his arm.

“Pimply. It’s all pimply.”

Dan’s nose and upper lip twitched. The killer’s smile widened as he pointed to the closed bedroom door.

“I open that, and it’ll reek even worse. Reminds me of my childhood. Reminds me of two things actually. One I’m not gonna talk about. The other is a sweaty handful of pennies. Any metal probably. I bet your wedding ring stinks.”

Stepping over the threshold, Dan adjusted his grip again. His ears honed in on a tiny sound that it took a second to recognize as his wedding ring sliding along the china.

Then it just happened. The dark eyes squinted and then rolled to the door. The bald head began to follow the eyes. The whole body turned, revealing the little man’s back and the knife-handle nestled in a black patch of kinky hair above the band of the man’s boxer shorts.

“You hear that?” the little man asked.

But Dan was already in motion. His mind was blank. His entire upper body vibrated like a struck bell when the toilet lid connected with the glossy skull. The man went down. On his belly, one ear to the thin carpet, he appeared to be sleeping. Dan stared at the bald head, at the bruising, puffy spot. He wasn’t sure what had happened to it but the knife was no longer visible. When the brown eyes opened and the brow furrowed and the arms slid back toward the ribcage, Dan hit the little man again. As hard as he could. The end of the toilet lid snapped off and flakes of white appeared on the carpet and in the little man’s eyebrows and across his freckled nose. Though the head was dented and bleeding, Dan stared at a white spec on the black and empty eyeball nearest the floor. He was vaguely aware of the odd notion that his mother were in the room, watching, knowing the necessity of what he’d done. Then the pain in his big toe registered and he noticed the hairy arm reaching, the open hand, an the knife sticking out the top of his shoe. He stumbled backward, yelping when his butt hit the wall. Dazed, he stood there for a long moment, staring at the knife. Then he looked at the object in his hands and threw it down. He became aware of a nasty headache as he bent over, as if his head were half-filled with water. The knife slid out easily. He tossed it somewhere. He couldn’t be sure but the wound felt superficial. It was painful but he had no trouble moving. He’d done it. He’d survived. In 50 years, he’d never thought he’d make it if push came to shove. He thought of his son. His daughter hadn’t been hard to rear, but his son had needed a father who had had more faith in himself. No, his daughter could have used that other man too.

From behind Rebecca’s bedroom door something shifted or slid or creaked. He tried to look through the gap beneath it, but the space was dark. His heart started thumping away again and it seemed to radiate a slightly painful warmth that was edging its way down to his stomach and into his shoulders.

Mostly Dan wanted to run. But maybe he could help. Maybe Rebecca was still alive. And maybe the guy he’d just clouted was a nutcase but not a murderer. He lurched forward and reached out a trembling hand.

The bed beneath the window was a red mess. After a time, details emerged. A strand of hair, a pug nose, a split lip, a tooth. One young breast. He thought he could taste the thick stench in the air. He thought he could feel it coating his face. He gagged, put a fist to his mouth, bit hard on the knuckle.

Suddenly his eyes flicked upward and focused on the window. Something was there, dark and wriggling and filling the space, almost muting an emergency siren off in the distance. Even this close, Dan couldn’t see it clearly. It reminded him of being a child and the things his mind would draw in the dark. It was the reason he’d needed a night light. Dan thought if he saw too much of it now, he may never sleep again. His big toe throbbed. When a part of the mass dropped onto the bed, making a slurping noise reminiscent of lover’s lost in an open-mouthed kiss, Dan swallowed bile, pulled the door shut and staggered out into the cold night.

Eying the slipshod wooden fence, he got in his car and keyed the ignition and wondered why his headlights seemed so bright. He backed out, wincing in pain as he pressed the gas pedal. He hoped nothing horrible would appear in the windows of the little house or climbing over the rickety fence. A good distance from Pin Oak Rd, he parked under a no-parking sign and stared at his iPhone until he felt he could drive again.

He’d have to lie. A little. He had stop by to work on the window and had decided to use the bathroom. He’d forgotten his tools but figured he’d find some in the garage. He’d lie, but he’d do better later. He would. He would take his place. Husband. Father. Son. Landlord. He had wasted far too much of his life merely acting out his parts, because he had always figured on failure. So for now he would shoot for near the truth. Unexpectedly a stark image sparked in his mind.  He gagged, looked out the window, gulped. He couldn’t decide which was worse—the poor dead woman in the bloody bed or the dark thing he’d seen in the window?

The End

Michael King spends most of his time at home. He is grateful to his beautiful family for keeping him tethered to the earth. He writes only when the cats are sleeping, unless they are sleeping across the keyboard or atop the printer.

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Cold, Cold Heart by Mark Lewis

Mar 15 2015

It was the pain of good times that Ian remembered as he held his wife Caitlyn’s cold hand. Their love had been strong, however prosaic their meeting and their lives together. Her grasp was weak, her smile faint, but she still managed a smile.

“You don’t have to do it,” Caitlyn said. Her voice was thin.

“You know I do,” Ian said. “What would be the point without you?”

Ian and Caitlyn had met online, on a faith-based matchmaking website. Their profiles correlated perfectly: wants and needs, income, hobbies, attitude to children. The first hesitant meeting in a Bath tea house brought no fireworks, no earthquake. They were two shy, lonely people who slowly found each other, slowly their lives became entwined, like loose wires behind a television, until they were so inseparable they made it formal and in their God’s sight, in a small service in the village church, they became Mr and Mrs Price.

“It’ll be okay won’t it,” Caitlyn said. “If we have faith.”

“I’m going to talk to Human Capital Partners, Caitlyn. The adviser was very helpful.”

“What does it cost?” She said. “Can we afford it?”

Ian could not tell her the true cost. She would not let him pay it.

“2I can afford it, I’m going to meet the adviser at his office. I’ll take out a loan that I can afford,” this was not entirely a lie. He grasped her hand tighter.

“I don’t trust them,” she said. “I’ve heard terrible things in the press.” So had Ian, but Human Capital Partners were the only hope. The NHS doctors had given Caitlyn only days to live without a kidney transplant, and at the current capacity even if a suitable donor was found, they would not be able to schedule an operation in time. No, Human Capital Partners it had to be.

“I love you,” Ian said.

Caitlyn grasped his hand tighter, and for a moment, just one moment he saw her old fire.

“Don’t sacrifice yourself,” she said.

But he would, if that’s what it took. That was Ian’s definition of love.

So, Ian said his goodbyes without crying, because he wanted Caitlyn to think he was coping. He walked through the not-quite clinically clean corridors of the hospital and started to breathe deeply when he reached the air outside.

#

It was a bright day with airy white clouds, in the village the clinic was set in. Ian drove down a pathway between houses. Ian’s car crunched down the long cobbled driveway, while the clinic’s dog barked an irate welcome. The clinic was a converted farmhouse and stables with large patio windows set in elegant grounds, weeping willows, lakes, set off with a plastic heron. The dog, a black Labrador, leapt up as Ian tried to get out of the car. Ian looked out at an immaculately-dressed man who was smiling. Ian got out of the car, dog jumping up and licking his trousers.

“He‘s a soppy old thing,” said the man, extending a hand.

“I’m Julian. We spoke on the phone.” The dog sniffed Ian’s feet. “Keynes!” Julian shouted at the dog. “Stay.”

Julian led Ian into the clinic, grinning with salesman’s teeth. They sat in an office with a large patio window looking out into the garden. A money plant exhaled compost flies. The dog looked in, a deflated rugby ball grasped between its teeth.

The adviser, Julian, sat too close. He wore a navy blue suit, with a pale tie and pressed white shirt. His cufflinks had the company logo of a stylised heart, with the initials HCP. His face was a mask of slick confidence, he was clean shaven, no, his whole head was clean shaven. Maybe all of him was, Ian thought with a shiver.

“How is Caitlyn?” Julian asked, his smile now turned down a shade from greeting to ‘concern with sympathy‘.

Ian looked away, studied the picture on the wall of Julian with the England Fightball Captain.

“It’s not looking good right now,” Ian said, his voice low.

“We’ll see what we can do to help,” Julian put a paternal hand on his shoulder. “You said she needs a kidney. An operation. It’s urgent.”

“Yes. Have you found a donor?”

Julian leaned back and studied Ian’s face. Then a smile spread over Julian’s face, the full force of his salesman smile. He brought out a glossy colour brochure full of smiling people being operated on by well-groomed beautiful surgeons of both sexes. He stopped at a grid of smiling faces.

“These are our kidney donors. Our specialists have matched up a donor who would be perfect.”

“How soon?” Ian snapped, in his eagerness.

“Well, we’ll have to allocate surgeon resource and theatre time. Plus, we’ll have to get the business authorised by our Compliance office. Three weeks. Much sooner than the NHS could offer.”

“Three weeks. That’s too long. She needs it now.”

“I’m sorry. Compliance just wouldn’t sign anything off in less than three weeks.”

“You must have dealt with urgent cases before. There must be a way.”

Julian sat back, studying Ian’s face and tapping his fingers, before speaking: “There is. You see, the criteria are much more relaxed for swaps. The legislation is strict for financial transactions, but if you were to agree to a swap and sign a waiver, then we could bypass a lot of the bloody red tape.”

“A swap? How would that work? Would you take my kidney?”

Julian laughed.

“Certainly not! You would just need to agree to assign your heart to us in the event of your death.”

“Assign? What do you mean?”

“It’s just like having a donor card and agreeing to leave your body to the medical establishment on your death, only you agree to leave your heart to us.”

“When I die?”

“It’s not like you’ll need it.”

“Would there be any possibility the company would, let us say, hasten my death?”

Julian laughed.

“What’s the catch?”

“How quickly did you say you need us to operate on Caitlyn?”

“The doctors, well, they say to be sure, 48 hours.”

“That would be very difficult. I’ll do what I can.”
The adviser, Julian, gave a fantastic performance. He called his assistant, then went next door. Ian could hear the tone, the level of sound, but not the specific words. Julian shouted at bureaucrats on the telephone, a pantomime of pulling out all the stops for his client, while Ian waited, looked at the pictures in the brochure of happy patients in gowns and relieved loved ones, back at the dog, then the rubber plant, waving a fly away.

At the end, Julian thanked the administrator on the other end of the line politely and put the phone down. Grimly, he brought out the brochure again and stared at Ian. Then his salesman smile spread over his face.

“I won’t bore you with the deals I’ve had to make. We can do it.”

“Thank you,” Ian’s eyes were drawn from the smile to a fly that flew near his face. “Sorry,” Ian added.

“No, it’s what we’re here for. Just one thing I need from you.”

“What’s that?”

Julian held out the paperwork: “Sign here.”

“What am I signing?”

Julian waved the thick brochure at him.

“It’s all here if you have time to read it all. But I can’t give our chaps the go-ahead until you sign.”

Ian signed. What the hell. Whatever he was signing away, Caitlyn was more important.

#

The operation and recovery went smoothly. That wasn’t strictly true. Ian waited during the operation. He was in the operating theatre, holding Caitlyn’s hand. The room was all bright lights and his head swam in terror. The staff were cheerful and sympathetic. They got through it; that was as much as could be said.

#

The dust had settled, as much as it was going to, in Ian and Caitlyn’s lives, and one fine drizzly Sunday afternoon they sat down to cups of tea and Ian read the Guardian while Caitlyn read a D H Lawrence collection. Caitlyn fixed Ian with that look, the one that meant trouble. Her jaw was set.

“What did it cost?” Caitlyn asked.

“What cost?” Ian said, not looking up from the paper, although he knew very well that she was probing his face for a reaction.

“You know what. Saving my life.” Her tone was serious. Ian looked up from the newspaper, but didn’t quite meet her eyes.

“I just took out a loan.”

Caitlyn’s mouth turned down in anger.

“What did you promise them? I’ve read about how they work. Tell me.”

Ian folded the newspaper and looked Caitlyn in the eyes.

“I agreed to donate my heart, when I die. That’s all.”

“That’s all?” Caitlyn looked away, and said quietly, “You won’t say that when they come for you.”

Ian’s face went red. “They won’t come for me. They can’t do that. It’s only after I die of natural causes.”

He wished he could sound more convincing, but he didn’t. Caitlyn didn’t reply, but she went back to her book, her eyes red. They avoided talking about the subject again, and during the time they spent in the vicinity of each other, they didn’t talk about the future. They lived together in a small house, each alone. Neither giving each other the comfort and assurance they needed, the love they had for each other withered on the vine, denied its nutrient.

They went on with their lives, Ian busy with his work translating Egyptian texts to English and Spanish, Caitlyn busy recuperating and maintaining an immaculate house. For Caitlyn’s part, she researched, never telling Ian, the laws and ethics governing pre-death organ assignment, and the cases Human Capital Partners had been involved in. The minutiae of the paperwork. Any loopholes, precedents, get-out clauses. The average statistical lifespan of debtors who had agreed to give an organ in future payment (statistically well below average). She knew they would come for him. He’d signed his life away and perhaps he didn’t even know it. Was he that naïve? She couldn’t ask. Caitlyn had also found there was a way he could get out of the deal. But the cost. The cost of doing so would be high and she knew he would not hear of it, if she told him.

#

Although their modern redbrick home was small, it was filled with enough books and visitors to avoid spending time meaningfully with each other. Even their bed was big enough so they could both sleep in it, alone.

#

So they continued, neither could reach out to the other, there was too much unspoken, leaving their love brittle. At the last, there was so little left to lose.

One Autumn day, as dead leaves swirled around the path leading to Ian and Caitlyn‘s house, they came. Julian McGuire stood smiling at the door, accompanied by a man in a sharp suit with a sharp-featured face, carrying a leather folio. Caitlyn answered the door, Ian was out the back, weeding.

“Mrs Price,” said Julian. “I hope you are well.” The sharp-featured man looked right past Caitlyn into the house.

Caitlyn gave Julian The Look.

“Who are you? What do you want?” She said, her tone hostile.

“Julian McGuire-“ he held out his hand, but Caitlyn did not take it. “Human Capital Partners. HCP. This is Francis Wells; he’s an independent Compliance Consultant. Here to keep me in line.” Julian laughed as if he was just there on a pleasant social call.

“You can tell me why you are here,” Caitlyn said. “Or you can leave now.”

Francis shot Julian a look. Julian nodded.

“We’d just like a word with your husband.”

“No,” Caitlyn said. “He isn’t home. I don’t know where he is.”

The sound of the patio door opening, and Ian walking in from the garden gave this the lie.

“Mr Price!” Julian called out. Ian walked to the door, but Caitlyn stood between him and Julian.

“I’ll handle this,” she said. “For God’s sake don’t go with them. They can’t legally come into the house uninvited, but if you step outside they can take you.”

Julian looked at Francis, who nodded.

“It’s okay,” Ian said. “I’ll talk to them.”

Julian smiled and reached out a hand to Ian, past Caitlyn. To Caitlyn’s dismay, Ian accepted the handshake and moved to the door, within the threshold.

“Ian, you did the right thing,” Julian said. “Your wife is looking so well. This is partly a courtesy visit; are you happy with the service HCP gave you – providing a life-saving operation to Mrs Price?”

“Yes,” Ian said. “Yes, thank you.”

“I’m very glad,” Julian said and a reassuring smile spread over his face. God, his teeth were frighteningly white.

“Mr Price, this is Francis Wells, he’s a Compliance Consultant. He’s here to keep me honest.” He laughed. Francis’s sharp features were unmoved.

“Cut the crap,” Caitlyn said, putting an arm between Ian and the door. Ian looked at her, with an expression of confusion. “Mr McGuire, what do you want with my husband?”

Francis looked at Julian. “If directly asked,” he said with a deep calm voice, “you have to disclose your full purpose.”

“We’re here to make a collection,” Julian said, with a smile. “I can reassure you that we would only collect at this time because a Platinum-grade client requires life-saving treatment.”

“Collect?” Ian asked.

“For God’s sake!” Caitlyn said, and started to shut the door. Julian held it open, still smiling. He was deceptively strong for a Suit.

“We need you to come with us, Mr Price.” Francis said.

“No,” said Caitlyn.

“This can’t be right,” Ian said. “Julian – you said there would be no collection until I… passed away.”

“That‘s right,” said Julian. “The organ will only be removed once you have passed away.”

“You bastards.” Ian said.

“You did agree to this, Mr Price. You signed the waiver. Francis?”

Francis reached into his portfolio and brought out a sheaf of papers. At the top was the signed agreement. “You signed to show you understood all of the terms, including the Principal Platinum override clause.”

“What?”

“HCP reserves the right of early repayment, when the life of a platinum client is in danger. We never do this lightly, but our platinum clients are key members of society.”

“What is this?” Ian said.

“Leave now,” Caitlyn snapped to Julian and Francis. “Or I will call the police. You’re threatening my husband’s life.”

“I will call the police,” said Francis. “If you or Mr Price prevents us from recovering the property, the organ, that now belongs to Human Capital Partners. We have a court order.” He produced a stamped and signed piece of paper.

“I know this is distressing,” said Julian. “But this is the right thing to do. The client in question is a microsurgeon. That’s why the court agreed we could collect early. They weighed up his life and the impact his loss would have on society: lives would be lost. Possibly hundreds of lives within just a few years. Your translation work, though noble and intellectually fascinating… won’t save a single life. But the agreement you have made with us will. You’re a great man, Mr Price.”

“This is disgusting,” said Caitlyn. “We’ll fight this with everything at our disposal.”

“The decision has already been made,” Francis said.

“I’ll come with you,” Ian said. “Caitlyn- we’ll straighten this out.”

“No you won’t,” said Caitlyn, holding him back.

“I’m sorry,” Ian said. “You just make sure you’re okay. We could fight this in the courts and it would ruin us. They’ve sewn it all up. Get on with your life. Make yourself happy. Or this will have meant nothing.” Gently, but firmly he removed her hands from him, and went with the men, tears worrying at the corners of his eyes. Caitlyn raged, and shouted, but it changed nothing.

#

The police officer was apologetic, even sympathetic. He calmly explained to Caitlyn that although what Julian and Francis did was arguably unethical, it was legal. Their paperwork was in order. There was nothing she could do, she just had to accept that Julian was gone. She had the right to be present at the organ collection. She had the right to disposal of the remaining body, once the organ in question had been taken. There could be a full burial with any relevant religious rites.

It wouldn’t come to that, Caitlyn decided, despite the cost.

#

What hurt Ian most was that Caitlyn had not even come to see him one last time. She had declined her right to be with him during the collection. When they spoke on the telephone, she hadn’t explained. Neither had been able to talk articulately, through their hurt. Julian, smile now on a sympathetic setting had offered Ian the final meal of choice and a blessing from a minister of his choice. Ian had rejected both. He had no appetite, and his religious faith, once so strong had not survived this blow. Even so, he said a prayer to himself, as he faded away under anaesthetic, as darkness filled him.

#

Caitlyn phoned the ambulance, before applying the knife. She had already written the letter, using the precise wording required. The solicitor had checked and agreed it. The timing was crucial. If she survived, her instructions in the letter would be void. If she died too soon, the kidney would be useless, so again her instructions would be void. The painkillers weren’t enough. The pain was sharp and hot as the knife sliced into her skin. But this was right.

#

Julian was there when Ian came to under the bright lights, Julian was there. The salesman’s smile was gone. Francis stood at a distance. They were in the room with the money plant and compost flies. There were more of them now.

“You are free to go,” Julian said, his voice hollow.

“Free? How?”

“Mrs Price did the only thing that would render our deal null and void.”

“But what?”

“She returned the Capital. She died, leaving a letter expressly returning the kidney you purchased with the assignment of your heart to HCP.”

“What?”

“She killed herself and gave us the kidney back,” Francis called over. “Our technicians checked it and the condition was satisfactory. So the agreement is null and void.”

“You mean- Oh my God.” Ian buried his head in his hands. His face melted into tears.

“She sacrificed herself for you,” said Julian. “Bloody-minded woman.”

“That’s Julian’s personal opinion, not mine or that of HCP,” Francis said. “You’re free to go. Of course there are the operation costs you are liable for but Mrs Price took care of that too. HCP receive her life assurance payment. It’s enough. We have no claim on you. You’re free.”

“I can’t just sit here and listen to this. Ian, if you walk away, a better man dies,” Julian said. “A man who could save many lives. It’s not too late. You can still gift your heart to him.” Julian pointed at Ian. “It’s the right thing to do. Your life hasn’t amounted to much, let’s be brutally honest.”

“Save the life of a man who tried to buy someone else’s heart. Who decided his life was more important than that of a stranger and paid you to carry out a murder on his behalf. No, whatever job he does, he’s not worth saving. Caitlyn’s sacrifice won’t be in vain. I’ll live, Julian. I’ll make this life worthwhile.” A fly came right up in his face. Ian caught it and squashed it.

Ian left, the dog barking at him, jumping up until he got in his car, which even now seemed cold and empty, and he drove, to his house which would be empty, with Caitlyn gone.

#

Julian watched Ian Price go, then turned to Francis.

“Is there really nothing we can do?”
Francis shook his head. “The contract is void. We can’t touch him. Mrs Price’s sacrifice saved him. Would anyone do that for you?”

“They won’t need to,” Julian said and laughed. “I wouldn’t get caught in one of our shitty contracts.”

Francis brought out a sheaf of papers contained in a clear plastic wallet.

“Mr McGuire. Our client can’t be allowed to die. He is too important.”

“Then what do we do? Is there another match?”

It wasn’t really a smile; just a slight curl of the lip but it was the closest to a smile Julian had seen on Francis.

“All Human Capital Partners are tested, as you know.”

“A formality at point of employment.”

“You signed the agreement. Clawback. In the event of an adviser losing a candidate for transplantation, they agree to serve as a back up, if compatible.”

“My God,” Julian got to his feet. “You wouldn’t. You bastard.” He spat, pointing a finger at Francis.

“You are compatible,” Francis said.

Julian pushed past him and headed for the office door. His way was blocked by two orderlies in scrubs. Francis stood up, and led the way to the operating theatre. Julian followed, struggling, sandwiched between the orderlies.

END

Bio: Mark has previously had work published in The British Fantasy Society Journal, Another 100 Horrors, seinundwerden, A Touch of Saccharine, Full Fathom Forty, Escape Velocity, Scheherazade, Estronomicon, The Nail, and others. He has also written and performed in pantomimes. He is still working on two novels. Mark is a member of the Clockhouse London Writers. More of Mark’s writing can be found at http://syntheticscribe.wordpress.com/

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Soul by Doug Hawley

Mar 08 2015

All of the following news articles appeared in the Daily Northwest News.

February 10, 2043 Copenhagen, Denmark. Using new detection equipment built by Nobel Prize winner in physics Magnus Albreck, Frank Smelling and the staff at the National Physics Laboratory has discovered electromagnetic waves previously detected nowhere in the universe. The wavelength of these newly discovered waves are shorter than any previously observed.

The discovery excited physicists around the world. At this time, the source of the waves is unknown and there has been no independent verification of Albreck’s and Smelling’s results. The practical use of the results is unknown at this time.

February 27, 2043 Copenhagen, Denmark. In a follow up to an earlier discovery, Magnus Albreck and associates at the Denmark National Physics Lab have identified the source of previously unrecorded electromagnetic waves originally discovered in late 2042. The waves originated from lab technician Helga Stein. Stein was in close proximity to measuring device, Extended EMW, when the waves first registered. Whenever no one was close to the Extended EMW, no S (for Stein) waves were recorded. Subsequent experiments recorded S waves for other laboratory personnel with slightly differing wave lengths and amplitudes.

March 1, 2043 Nashville, TN. Chester Ogilvie, leader of Baptist USA claims that Danish scientists have discovered the human soul. After years of religious and spiritual claims to a distinctly human soul as an unmeasured driving force in all humans, he sees the S waves discovered at the Denmark National Physics Lab in late 2042 as proof of the soul’s existence. “They have not found S waves anywhere but in humans, so I think that it is obvious that the human soul has finally been quantified. Those who have never taken religion seriously now have scientific proof that we uniquely have souls and are not just more atoms in a materialistic universe.”

Neither Magnus Albreck nor Frank Smelling of the Denmark Lab were immediately available for comment. Bhati Nempali of the Halide Institute of Chicago responded that “A new form of electromagnetic wave may have been discovered. The Danish Lab work has not been peer reviewed at this time. Whatever they discovered is just another physical phenomenon, not the basis for superstitious claptrap.”

March 3, 2043 Chicago. Professor Bhati Nempali of the Halide Institute of Chicago, who two days ago questioned the nature of S waves, and indirectly cast aspersion on religious leader Chester Ogilvie of Baptist USA in Nashville, TN, apologized saying “In my earlier remarks I did not intend to offend anyone of any religious belief.” Mr. Nempali’s contract with the Halide is up later this year and congressional hearings are scheduled next month on Federal research funding.

March 5, 2043 Interactive Listing – Today at 5PM on Channel IA4322: Daytona Brown will moderate a chat with guest experts on the S waves. Are they real? Do only people have them? Are they a manifestation of the soul? Are there any commercial applications?

Daytona Brown – Let me introduce the participants. We are honored to have the discoverer of S waves, Magnus Albreck, imminent theologian Chester Ogilvie, Jeremy Atkins of PETA, abortions rights supporter Sue Feldman and biologist and well-known atheist Roger Sawkins. Do you have opening statements?

Albreck – First, let me spread the credit around. The waves were discovered coming from Helga Stein, a very important colleague. Many at the Danish National Lab have worked on the equipment that did the recording. I’m just the first among equals. Second, we have lots of work to do before we can draw hard conclusions.

Ogilvie – I say it is not too early to draw conclusions. Do S waves come from coffee cans? Do they come from lab rats? No, I don’t think so. Despite some of the negatives I have heard, we have evidence of the human soul. Now, I’m not saying my particular brand of religion has all the answers, but I think that Professor Albreck’s work has proven that there is a spiritual plane of existence beyond the physical.

Feldman – Before anyone suggests that this in anyway invalidates abortion rights, let me remind everyone that some abortions may still be best for society and for women who are not prepared to give birth.

Atkins – If we have a spiritual existence, I think that we will find that our animal brothers are on the same plane and deserve the same respect that humans deserve. We need to test chimps, dogs, cats and other animals to see if they have S waves.

Sawkins – Let’s go back to what Professor Albreck said. It is too early to draw conclusions. Can we all just keep an open mind and go by what is proven rather than conjectured.

Brown – Hypothetically, let us say that S waves are exclusive to humans. What does that mean?

Ogilvie – Why, clearly we will have scientific proof that man is God’s crowning achievement and is uniquely suited for a heavenly paradise after death.

Feldman – It doesn’t change anything for me.

Albreck – From the point of view of physics, I don’t think that we are prepared to conclude anything.

Sawkins – I agree that we will not know exactly why only humans have S waves, if that is in fact correct, but I could suggest that it relates to some unique human feature. There are subtle, but real differences between the human brain and those of other animals.

Atkins – Regardless of the presence or absence of S waves in non-human animals, I think that all animals deserve our respect. In fact, if indeed we are different from our animal brother, that implies that we should show them the treatment that our greater consciousness allows us.

Brown – How has the discovery of S waves changed any of your opinions?

Sawkins – I am now open to the belief that humans are a unique form of animal.

Albreck – I am just amazed at the progress we are making in understanding ourselves and our universe. I did not think that this big a discovery would be made in my lifetime.

Ogilvie – A lot of people, including myself, have thought that science and religion were at odds. We now have a case where science is now clearly supporting religion.

Atkins – I now accept the possibility that humans may be unique, but it does not change in any way my opinion about the treatment of animals.

Feldman – The existence of S waves convinces me more than ever that we need to do research on the physical and emotional aspects of abortions and find ways to make most of them unnecessary. Much as we eliminated smoking, we have the technology to avoid unwanted pregnancies. I would much rather stop unwanted pregnancies than debate abortion.

Brown – Closing statements?

Ogilvie – I hope all of those who have rejected religion in their lives are now open to the real possibility that they were mistaken.

Atkins – Whether we are the equals or stewards of non-human animals, they deserve our respect and humane treatment.

Albreck – I think that we have just scratched the surface of S wave research, and I look forward to continued research and new revelations.

Sawkins – I hope that the physics research from the Danish National Physics Lab is married with biological research to fully explore the implications of S waves.

Brown – I think that this discussion has just started, but we are out of time. Perhaps we can reconvene in a year and talk about progress in the study of S waves. For now, I’d like to thank
all of the participants for a respectful and insightful panel on the beginning of a new era.

Author Bio

Doug Hawley lives in Lake Oswego Oregon with his editor Sharon and cat Kitzhaber. He is a former actuary who now writes (Potluck, Insert, Short Humour, Oblong, Hash to appear), hikes, snowshoes, and volunteers at a local bookstore and a local park. He was inspired/depressed/impressed by Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

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The Cracks in Our Walls by Kyle Hemmings

Mar 01 2015

Asa served her sister, Aoi, a warm bowl of soba noodles, chopped green onions on top, and a cup of sake. Across from table, a pet lizard looked out from its glass case, its bulging eyes taking in the world, perhaps becoming too big for it. Inside, there was also a miniature replica of a foxglove tree. Only when Aoi finished, did Asa make a bowl for herself. She always ate alone.

The sisters lived in the same apartment they once shared with their mother before she went missing without a trace. Although the mother pointed to several men in succession as their real father, all DNA tests came back negative. Asa always suspected that the mother had poisoned the men with some form of foxglove after each one denied his fatherhood. Asa and Aoi were born joined at the hip. Each claimed they shared each other’s thoughts before they grew apart.

It took several surgeries to unhinge the sisters. In a family album, hidden in the back, there was still a photograph of the two as babies, joined together, one laughing, the other, crying. When asked who took the photo, the mother said it came out of her body along with the girls. She said that a nurse had fainted. The sisters couldn’t tell if she was joking or in one of her mysterious moods.

When the sisters reached their twenties, it was Asa who was beautiful and snobbish, dating handsome college students from Tokyo or Kyoto, and Aoi who grew disenchanted, increasingly prone to bizarre visions and twisted logic.

The sisters went to the same school but hated different teachers. Sometimes they fell in love with the same one. They would make paper mache portraits of their “crush” and fight over him. Aoi, being the less aggressive and the more insecure, usually lost. Then Asa would tear up the paper mache cut-out and throw it in the air. She would laugh all the way home. Aoi would keep her head down, sobbing. She’d study the contours of her shadow as she walked and wondered if she could ever catch anything, anyone.

Once the sisters went out to a nightclub and danced together. Two men, whose first names were the same, tried to pick them up. In a rare moment, Asa was protective of Aoi, and tried to get between Aoi and the stranger, a burly man with thick dark hair. She rebuffed the advances of the other man, who reminded her of one too many computer nerds, always memerizing pick-up lines from a self-help book. But Aoi insisted to go home with the other. There was a twinkle in her eyes.

When Aoi returned home the next morning, she told Asa that she had laughed so loud while she experienced her first orgasm that his tiny room shook, In fact, a ceramic bird might have fallen and shattered. She wasn’t sure. “And he was so scared that he ran naked into the street carrying just his shoes.”

Asa sat up in bed, her eyes following Aoi as she giddily sang the wrong words to a popular love song as she sashayed out of the room.

Aoi, who as a child, loved exploring the rooms of the apartment, later fell in love with a fisherman from one of the tiny islands to the east. She even had mother sew her a wedding dress from scratch. It fit her so well, was so perfect, that it almost had a life of its own. It seemed to breathe. It would make Aoi breathless.

But Asa, always envious and spiteful of everyone who might have more than her, stole Aoi’s fiancé. She said it wasn’t her doing; it was his. Men can’t fight their desires. They spend so much energy on denying them, that they become exhausted and helpless in these kinds of situations.
Aoi stood for a long time, staring at the wall behind the sofa her sister sat upon, browsing a women’s fashion magazine. Her lips parted, forming something between a scowl and a smile. All she could hear was the crinkling of pages and fisherman’s words that there was no one as special as her.
Aoi withdrew from everything, cried for days and weeks. Around this time, she revealed to both mother and sister that she had noticed “cracks in the walls big enough to fit through.” It was on the other side, she said, that she saw a whole world, perhaps derived from this one, or maybe the other way around. There, she had met her real father, a lizard king who sat on a throne, who granted favors to those kind to him, respectful of the desert, of the heat, of night or of sun, of water, and most importantly, the cracks in the ordinary world that everyone either ignored or denied.
Whenever Aoi spoke of this “other” world, there were noticeable gaps in her speech. It was if someone else was speaking through her.
To keep her grounded, Asa reminded Aoi to run errands for mother, that they needed buttermilk four and rice. Aoi obeyed and cooked, but everything came out bland, tasteless.

One day, Asa announced over dinner that she had sent the suitor away. He was really below her station anyway, she said, as if she lived on top of the world. Aoi looked up then continued to eat her mountain vegetables as if it didn’t matter at all. That night, she pressed her face into her pillow and imagined smothering herself. This life of hers, or the life she wanted, she concluded, was never meant to be. She had a dream that night of the fisherman drowning. She would not save him. After it was lifted by men on police boats, his body was bloated and blanched white, She did feel then, a stab of pain and remorse.

In the weeks that followed, Aoi spent more time alone, exploring undiscovered cracks and where they led to. She told Asa of the conversations she had with the lizard king and how he wanted her to be his wife. She said she needed that wedding dress back. Asa told her to watch the simmering herring and enough of this nonsense. What’s done is done, she said, as she whisked some eggs for a cake. Mother sat stone-faced, lifeless hands on her thighs, on a mat in another room.

The apartment became tense to live in. Mother and Aoi lived in their own separate worlds and often, didn’t answer Asa’s questions or requests, or said they couldn’t “hear her.” After many flare-ups and confrontations, the mother, at Asa’s promping, committed Aoi to a mental institution. While there, Aoi, glassy-eyed and constantly smiling, warned the mother that if she did not allow her to marry the lizard king, there would be dire consequences for her. She told her that she, the mother, might fall through the wrong crack and there will be no one to catch her.

Over the years, Aoi was in and out of institutions. She was given bouts of unsuccessful electro-shock treatments, subjected to hours of therapy sessions and group meetings. There were all kinds of different colored pills and pills to counteract the effects of the others. Often, she complained how Asa brought chocolate that was already melted, or was too hard to bite into, or that Asa brought her bitter strawberries that made her screw up her face. And when she bit into them, she could taste the hatred, hatred meant for her, the acidic juice running down her lips, ruining her skin. She thought of the lizard king and how they would both glow peacefully in the night.
When not visiting, Asa stayed home to care for the mother who was becoming progressively forgetful and despondent.

Aoi returned home with a promise that she would be a better daughter and sister. But she still couldn’t stop thinking about the cracks in the walls. She avoided herself in mirrors. They made her feel ugly.

One evening, after Aoi spat out her evening meds, she tried to convince Asa to follow her into one of the “cracks,” or as she like to call them, “the tears in our fabric.” Asa refused, but when she was asleep, Aoi whispered in her ear, and in a twilight state, she followed Aoi. Deep past the crack, Asa saw the wedding dress mother once made for Aoi. It was floating through air, over tree branches. At times, it eclipsed the sun. It had a life of its own. When Asa began to run, Aoi caught her and said “I’m marrying the lizard king. He wants me. He loves me for myself.”

After other trips beyond the crack, Aoi began to look younger. Her complexion became smoother, her breasts like large ripe fruit. Asa grew winkled with lines around her eyes and mouth. Her legs turned shriveled with broken networks of veins showing. She no longer whisked through every chore. She trudged and labored. She complained of all kinds of pain.

Aoi said to her, “You can give me away at the wedding since mother disappeared. The lizard king has appointed you my good sister, my protector beyond the crack that leads into the deluded world of failure and suffocation and constant ache.”

Aoi and Asa made regular trips to visit the lizard king and the world he ruled over. Soon the two grew comfortable in either world, since they knew which one they really belonged to. Both knew they were not meant for the world of bitter strawberries, chocolate that did not taste like chocolate.

The sisters found a kind of peace they had only known when they were joined at the hip. They sometimes took that old photograph of themselves at birth and smiled and giggled over it. Sometimes they cried when they confessed they had not done enough for mother, another victim of a world one could only pay homage to, but cannot live there. Earth could be colder than Mars said Aoi, as she offered her sister a golden apple. Aoi smiled as she looked into her sister’s eyes and said, “No, it doesn’t have a worm inside it. It’s perfect in itself.”

One night, Aoi slept and awoke from a dream where a voice was calling her from a distance. Aoi looked everywhere, in the fields, over the streams and ponds, over the jagged lines of colored rocks. She could see nothing.

She slipped out of bed to make herself some tea. Asa followed her into the kitchen.

“What’s wrong?” asked Asa, “couldn’t sleep?”

Aoi shrugged. Ask Asa if she wanted some tea.

“Why not. I’m up now.”

Aoi turned her head from wall to wall. She slowly stepped out of the kitchen. Asa followed her.
A shadow loomed on each wall. It slithered, or stood upright. It waved to the sisters. Its back was slightly hunched.

The sisters huddled. Asa said she was going to grab a knife, There must be a thief in the house.

Aoi grabbed her wrist and said No. It was no thief.

“How do you know?” asked Asa. “What else could it be? Do you want to be killed or beaten without a fight?”

Aoi stared into her sister’s eyes, then crouched low and followed the shadow into every room. Asa followed behind.

“Do you think it was that fisherman who I once sent away?’ said Asa.

Aoi turned around, looked up at her sister’s face.

“Why? Why would it be him after so long? He’s probably married, I’m sure.”

The shadow stood still, crouched down too, as if imitating the two women.

Aoi whispered in her sister’s ear.

“How is it that we can see this shadow so clearly with such dim lights or no lights at all?”

Asa’s eyes roved from her sister’s face to the shadow moving from wall to wall. At one point, it faced them and seemed it would walk out of the wall and directly towards them.

“Do you know who it is?” asked Asa.

“Look at how it waves to us. Look at the curve in its back.”

Asa studied the shadow. Her eyes widened. Her jaw dropped slightly.

“It’s mother,” said Aoi. “She’s not lost after all. She’s here in some way. She’s here with us.”

“Perhaps,” said Asa.

“I wonder if she can hear us.”

Aoi waved to the shadow. It waved back and walked from wall to wall, towards mother’s old bedroom. The women followed. In the bedroom, the shadow disappeared.

“We will see her again,” said Aoi.

“I hope so,” said Asa, “I miss her so.”

The women held hands and went to pour tea.

Later that afternoon, they sat in the dining area, facing each other.

“Would you like more udon?” asked Asa of her sister sitting at the table.

“Yes, and you must join me. It’s too much for one.”

Asa bit her lip, pondered it as if something ineffable. She finally agreed. Aoi doled out generous portions into her sister’s bowl.

The lizard behind its glass case blinked its enormous eyes. Once. Then twice. Then three times.

Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey. He has been published in Your Impossible Voice, Night Train, Toad, Matchbox and elsewhere. His latest ebook is Father Dunne’s School for Wayward Boys at amazon.com. He blogs at http://upatberggasse19.blogspot.com/

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Little Soldier by Teresa Richards

Feb 22 2015

I am running through a dense jungle, covered in several days’ worth of muck. Bullets fall like rain, and tree branches slap me in the face as I flee. I haven’t slept in oh, so long and the weight of exhaustion tugs at my legs, slowing me down. I dive into the hollowed out section of a fallen, decaying log and lie flat on my back, breathing heavily. The bullets cease and I fidget before checking my watch for the millionth time.

She should be here by now.

The jungle waits like a hungry beast, its silence daring me to make the first move. I check my watch again and exhale in frustration.

Where is she?

I decide to give her three minutes, hoping the enemy doesn’t find me in the meantime. I search the ground at my feet, finding a small stone, and lob it high in the air. It lands in a bush somewhere to my right, startling a flock of tropical birds that take flight in confusion. The bullets resume, now conveniently aimed away from me.

The enemy falls silent and the jungle is eerily still. I ease my head up and peer over the edge of the log, scanning the horizon. I can’t see far, of course, on account of the dense vegetation I’ve gradually come to regard as home. I would be content to wait here all day if it weren’t for her. Why did she have to come with me today?

I glance at my watch, seeing that she has just thirty-three seconds left. I give myself a pep talk, detailing all of the reasons why I shouldn’t wait for her and steel myself to run when her time is up. Yet I know, deep down, I would never leave without her.

Finally, ten minutes and twenty-six seconds later, I catch sight of her little head bobbing toward me through the trees. I rock back in shock as I realize she is crawling! Adrenaline shoots through me and, after throwing a smoke bomb to give us some cover, I rush from my hiding spot and hurry toward her. She smiles at me, but I know she’s been hit. Why else would she be crawling? I don’t wait to find out; rather, I scoop her up and run as fast as my little legs will carry me.

This is exactly why I didn’t want her to come along today, but she insisted. The rendezvous point is still several miles away and I would manage it much better without having to look after my little sister. Yet here she is, bright-eyed and smiling at me, as if I’m the greatest person on the planet. And crawling in the jungle, no less! Really, I thought we were past all that.

A loud crash to my left makes my heart lurch. My sister’s eyes widen and she clings to me tighter.

Fear zaps through my veins. I know what made the crash. I’ve only heard it on one other occasion—a time that did not end well, I might add.

I do the only thing I can. “Run for your life!” I scream to no one in particular. Sometimes it just feels so good to yell at the top of your lungs. Ruthie starts slightly at my outburst and then, turning to gaze at me, flashes me one of the cutest smiles I’ve ever seen. I simply can’t resist smiling back before tearing my eyes away from her adorable little face, forcing my mind back into the game.

I need to focus. We have a hungry dinosaur to outsmart.

I shift Ruthie abruptly to my back, where she clutches to my shoulders and waist just before I take off at top speed through the jungle. I’ve always been great at running away and I utilize my skills, weaving in and out, jumping over rocks and ducking under tree branches, all in an attempt to confuse and outmaneuver the giant lizard trailing us. This one is smart, though—he stays right with us, hot on our scent no matter what tricks I pull out of my impressive, time-tested arsenal. Soon I’m breathing heavily, not used to bolting through the jungle with a baby on my back. I begin to think that maybe this will be the last of my adventures.

That’s when I see it. Our salvation. Looming high over our heads, not far in the distance. I smile.

“Don’t worry Ruthie, I have a plan!” I inform her. She’s starting to get restless and I squeeze her legs tighter, preventing her from lowering herself off my back. She protests and squirms, trying to free her legs. I know that if she gets down she’ll be a goner, and I just love her too much to let that happen.

“I’m sorry, Ruthie. You can’t get down or the angry dinosaur will eat you up!” I inform her, changing course abruptly to accommodate my new plan. She squirms some more, but I’m holding her fast and there’s nothing she can do about it. I will not let her fall prey to that horrible monster.

It begins to rain, but I soldier on. I hear shots in the distance and wonder absently what my enemies are firing at. A massive scream of protest reaches me from the depths of the jungle and the dinosaur behind me roars in response, pausing briefly in his pursuit. I take advantage of his lapse and dart to my right, ducking behind a massive boulder and crouching out of sight.

At last, we’ve reached the tree! I know the dinosaur will be chasing us again soon so I don’t lose any time. I release Ruthie’s legs and help her slide to the ground, where she giggles and stretches up onto her toes, attempting to run away from me. Oh, of course now she wants to show off her new skills, when she would be running straight off a cliff and into a churning waterfall!

I reach out and pull her back, clapping my hand over her mouth and gritting my teeth as her ear-piercing shrieks ring out through the air. Well, if we had lost the dinosaur, he knows where we are now. I stretch up and grab the end of a massive vine hanging from the gnarled old tree and tie it quickly around Ruthie’s waist.

“Hold still,” I insist, knowing that if I don’t get it just right then she runs the risk of tumbling into the waterfall we’ll be swinging across in order to escape mister cranky-pants dinosaur. When she’s tied up nice and tight, I secure another vine around my own waist.

Ruthie is kicking and screaming now, red in the face and angry as a bear that she’s tied up. I’m trying to soothe her when I hear the dinosaur crash back to life behind us, joined now by a second set of rumbling footfalls. I know time is running out, but just as I move to push Ruthie off the rock, I hear the most dreaded sound in the entire world.

“Tristan! What on earth are you doing?”

The dinosaurs flee in fear, the jungle fades away, and I am left standing at the top of a staircase, the loose end of a rope in my five-year-old hand. The other end of the rope is wrapped around the waist of my livid one-year-old sister, who is outraged by the fact that she’s been tethered to me unwillingly.

“Tristan, I asked you a question! Answer me, please.”

I gaze sheepishly up at my mother and explain that we were trying to escape from two hungry dinosaurs by swinging over a waterfall on some tree vines. Really, what does it look like we’re doing? Does she think I want my baby sister to get eaten by dinosaurs? I don’t say that last bit out loud, of course.

Mother scolds me and unties Ruthie, picking her up and cooing softly in an attempt to soothe her.

So now I am sitting in Time Out. Again. I don’t understand what was so wrong with trying to save my sister from the jaws of death, but apparently, benevolence is frowned upon in this house. I will be sure to remember that the next time we are under attack.

I sigh and rest my chin on my knees.

Suddenly, I hear something. I straighten up and cock my head, listening. A faint buzzing noise, getting stronger, is headed this way. I know it immediately—the sounds of a fighter jet whirring to life. I lift my head and turn to face the horizon. A blue sky peppered with puffy white clouds looms over a lonely terrain.

I bounce anxiously in my seat, waiting for the moment when I am released from my prison sentence.

The sky is calling.

Bio:
Teresa Richards has been writing since eighth grade, when she co-wrote her first novel with her best friend. She earned her degree in Audiology-and-Speech-Language Pathology from Brigham Young University, took a break to get married and have a few kids, and then took up writing again with a vengeance. She writes novels and short stories, as well as children’s picture books. Teresa can often be found reading or writing in lieu of cleaning or exercising.

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Shadowlands by Cooper Smith

Feb 15 2015

I pull up and park my motorcycle outside a small townhouse, this is the address that was reported for a disturbance. I look around to see if the caller is still around but the street is abandoned. Good, I haven’t even walked up to the door and I can already feel the chill that runs up my spine. This isn’t a false alarm, we have a breech.

As I walk up to the door I take out my U.L.E.R., what we officers call our Ultra-Light Emitting Rays, it won’t kill whatever is in there but it will stun it, and I would rather not pull out my Shade till I need it. I move to push the door open and find it unlocked. Could be looters but it is more likely the place was abandoned and the previous owners didn’t care. That is the case in a lot of boroughs like these. I slowly push the door open with my right hand, crossed over my arm that is holding the U.L.E.R., just like they teach us at the Monastery. At 18 I am one of the oldest officers, been on patrol for 5 years, but I still take the time to think about each rule and practice they teach you as a Green. It calms me and I am sure it is one of the reasons I am one of the oldest officers. By the time I run through the list of rules in my head I have already closed the door behind me. It won’t do much good if we have a Breecher charging through it but it may slow it down just enough for me to catch it.

I walk through the bottom floor of the house, no sign of movement. I look around and see pictures, the only things the looters don’t lift. Most of them are of a nice young couple, attractive, dressed nicely, one of the pictures was even taken in front of a tree. Must have had money. While my eyes look over the pictures I receive some information on it from one of my implants. I feel a warmth from the back of my neck and in a fraction of a second I am given a condensed stream of information on the residence.

They lived here awhile with their newborn; after a couple of months some people broke in. Two looters, climbed in through a second story window, one of the perps heard a noise, reacted and shot into a dark corner of the room. The kid was killed instantly. After a few weeks the couple couldn’t stand living in the house and moved. Six months later and here I am. The stream ends and I’m back to the present, and that is when I hear the scurrying upstairs.

I know what I am dealing with here, that stream was all I needed. I make my way to the staircase. I hesitate at the bottom; I know what is waiting for me up there. I unsheathe my Shade and clench it tight while I feel the warmth leave me. The amount of times I have had to use this thing, I can’t imagine I have much time left, maybe a year if I’m lucky. They say every time you even hold it you have a few months shaved off your life; a few years if you actually get up the nerve to use it. Who knows, maybe this Breecher will kill me or maybe killing it will kill me. That is the worst part of being on the Blackguard, the only thing that can kill Breechers wants to kill you too. Either way it doesn’t matter, I have a job to do. I push the thought from my mind and work my way up the stairs.

About halfway up I feel another chill shoot through my spine, it hisses at me to turn around and leave, to get out of this house. I feel the pale-blue blade hum in my hand. It is excited, it wants blood, my blood. It is thinking the same thought I just was. But this is my job, this is why I was chosen, so I push myself. I get to the top of the stairs and stop, but not out of fear, I am winded. I wasn’t thinking, I should have waited till I got to the top of the stairs to draw the Shade, but, like always, I feel a pinch in my arm and my implant delivers me a heavy dose of adrenaline. With more strength I turn the corner and see it.

It is padding around in the corner where the baby died, looking pathetic; if this thing could cry I bet it would. It must be hard, remembering a life that it never lived, just a shadow. Just a shadow remembering what little it can from a child who lived a short life. Even without the info I received I can tell it how long it has been since the kid died just from looking at its Shadow. It still kind of looks like an infant, only difference is that its limbs are longer, like they have been stretched out of necessity, like a spider. That and its skin is an unnatural black. Though the skin is a quality all Shadows share.

This one is still developing clinging on to a shape that it can piece together, but soon it will lose those remnants and it will change as is necessary. Maybe it will grow wings or a snout, the good thing is that it hasn’t yet so this kill should be easy. Keeping an eye on the Shadow with my Shade out I holster my U.L.E.R. Then I move my hand up slowly to right under my ear. I feel for the round button and press it. For a moment my eyelids flutter, a reflex so I know that the Court House can see what I see right now. I reach again for my U.L.E.R., ready to aim and pull the trigger but I was too slow. The Shadow turned and looked at me dead on with its pale blue eyes and just like that it was heading for me.

I tried to aim and fire but I my Shade was draining me and I couldn’t focus. My gun was swatted away and I dropped to one knee. All I had to fight now was with this thin knife and it was already trying to kill me. I pulled the blade in close and rolled back before I took a stomp from the Shadow’s clubbed foot. I was back on my feet again before it had the chance to strike. I went back to the Monastery again, just like they taught us, dodge strafe slash stab. It was all muscle memory at this point but my knees quivered and I stalled allowing one of its hands to slash at my shoulder.

It had no claws to speak of, or talons or even sharp nails, but it cut into my flesh all the same. A normal human would have died there but I was raised as part of the Blackguard. I had gone through hell being given the best that science and the occult could offer. I am this world’s one line of defense from the Shadowlands and all of the messed up shit that breeches the wall. I am eighteen years old and I am dying way too soon to give up now. With what little strength I had in my legs I pushed myself forward and rolled over the Shade. When my back was pressed to the ground underneath the Shadow I used both hands and pushed the blade into the jaw and saw it come out through the top of its head. It just stared at me. It stared at me with those pale eyes the same color as my Shade and the same color as mine.

There was no more humming from the Shade, it fell silent as the shadowy infant dissolved from existence. I felt my wound burn as I sheathed the Shade and a huge breath of air fills my lungs. I could feel the warmth return to my body and looking at my hand I could see some of the life return to my skin. I force myself off the ground with another burst of adrenaline, just enough to get me to the Court House Med Center. I pick up my U.L.E.R. and take the stairs three at a time on the way down, I almost fall but I catch myself at the bottom. I don’t care, I just want to get out of here. I exit the house and hop on my motorcycle. I am ready to drive off to have the doctors patch me up and tell me how lucky I am just to be walking around.

Before I drive off I look around at the houses on the street. I was taken the day I was born. I never met my parents; maybe they lived in a house like this? Maybe I would be dead if it weren’t for the Blackguard? Maybe my memories would go on to live in one of these deranged echoes? I think on these questions for a bit and imagine what life would be like on the other side. Then I ride off and leave them behind with the abandoned house. This is New Boston, it’s best if we don’t question our lot in life here.

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Summer by Jane VanCantfort

Feb 08 2015

I remember when I couldn’t seem to find contentment. Contentment, now a distant luxury, a concept you couldn’t explain to children, though I haven’t seen a child in awhile, not since the baby passed.

Life was so easy then; with yoga classes and three square meals a day and a comfy bed and floral pillows. Lovely weekends, filled with cleaning and food shopping and laundry and gardening and cooking,; but even so I’d often be at loose ends, wandering from room to room. Maybe I’d cook some more, make homemade potato salad from my mom’s recipe, the one with the cider vinegar on the hot potatoes, with my addition of cilantro from the window box. Maybe I’d make my signature dark chocolate banana bread., Or I’d go for a long run on our country road and come back and do some weight lifting; and read the latest short fiction in a magazine; band yet I could still find myself staring into space with an inexplicable malaise. Now I see what I have lost; now that my fear is real.

And life was easy that last summer, so warm and sunny. The strawberries were a brilliant deep red, ripening early, and each bite had an explosion of flavor, of sweetness, of red juice flowing. The farmer’s market was always bustling; I can close my eyes and still see the piles of patty pan squash in brilliant speckled green and yellow, the mountains of lettuces and green beans, the brilliant shades of the gladioli. I took photos of the bounty and posted them and all my friends liked them; that is how we were back then. I googled canning and made strawberry preserves and felt so proud when they were lined up on the shelf in the new mason jars in my little storeroom in the barn.

One Saturday at the outdoor market there were no squash, just gourds. I had always loved gourds, I remember my mom buying them in September or October for her fall displays. I loved the unusual colors and the bulging warts, protruding oddly and different than I had ever seen.

“Why don’t you have any more patty pan?” I asked the young farmer, who, like many of the farmers affected the bearded overall style of the latter day hippie.
“I think the compost I used got degraded, its never happened before, and I think the gourds are early this year anyway…. you can’t eat them but they are sure pretty. We call then bi-racial because of all the colors!” He guffawed, a bit self-consciously; perhaps he had been using the line all morning. I smiled and bought a bag full. It was strange they were so early, and they had never been such n a brilliant red and burgundy. They looked pretty in my Mexican bowl in the entryway.
It was such fun for the young people, that summer, we’d see them headed out to the lake with their jet skis every day. They started having dances at the meadow that surrounded the old mine mansion, with solar Japanese lanterns; we could hear the music faintly as we waiting for the sun to leave us for another day. I imagined the girls were wearing tiny summer dresses, as I once would have done.

Our public pool was stuffed with people daily, and the city council voted to up the cost per swim. People worried about sicknesses from the pool, which was so jammed with people. It stayed hot until 10 or 11 pm, in fact it didn’t really ever totally cool off, not like it used to. And old folks had to be checked on, and there was a new program to get swamp coolers to the poor, and cell phone kept going out. Oh, we heard tales of twin tornados and the fires in the south were terrible and they had to ration the water, but we were on a well so we kept watering, and the tiger lilies had never looked better.

One of our shrubs, which had never bloomed before, suddenly had tiny white blossoms. It was pretty, but it became infested with tiny flies with shiny copper eyes, you couldn’t walk by the plant without being in a cloud of flies, and we started leaving the house by the other walkway to avoid them. The shrub is outside the window of the storeroom, I can see it, or what’s left of it, through the dust and cracks in the window. I can see it from the far corner where I wait for them. The storeroom is where I hide now. I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been here, could be three weeks, surely not three months.

Back then our chickens kept sitting on eggs, and we had more chicks then we knew what to do with, but they kept dying. Joe found one with its eyes bleeding, and then more of them were floating in the horse trough. We had a little plant of marijuana, since it was legal and we liked to smoke in the evening, and that formed giant buds way before the season usually ended, and the weed was so strong we just had one or two hits and were set for the evening. When we sat in our chaises and took in the sights, it was like we were looking through a iridescent floating bubble, and all the trees and flowers looked soft and inviting, and we heard the low buzz of the insects throughout the night.

Joe started to get extra tired daily, even though he loved to garden; the days were just so hot. Our old dog Parker was always miserable and panting, and could barely climb the stairs, and Joe usually left him in all day with a water bowl that he had to frequently refill.

We used to watch the news while I made dinner, we had the top floor of the barn converted to a loft and I could chop at the kitchen island and watch the giant flat screen TV, and the news and the weather just seemed more and more ominous each night. We were having power failures frequently, and sometimes the cable would go out.

“Why would terrorists shoot down a plane? What good would it do them?” Joe asked one evening, reacting to a war event, there was always something lurking in some part of the world.
“It shows the world the injustice of the powers that be, I guess.” I answered.
“Things have always been unjust, though, haven’t they?” Joe asked.
“I’m more worried that they shut down the borders of a whole country, because of Ebola!”
“Ebola will never get here, though.”

We switched to the local news; the mountain lion sightings, the city council elections, much more calming. After all, there had been a terrible world event in every year of our lives. I was always railing about injustice back then and taking the side of the underdog; our little debates, so silly now. How arrogant we were, to think that our opinions mattered.

The heat was unrelenting as summer wore on. Even at nine in the evening, as I sat in my chair under the heavy flower baskets we had hanging, I couldn’t believe how much I would sweat. There was often sweat pooled in the hollow of my throat and my scalp was damp, and there was always a film of sweat on my face. I had to slather myself with Buzz Away all the time, and the odor of it was always on my hands.

Joe and I were typical old folks, complaining of fatigue, and there were tales of other elderly fainting in public, or passing away alone in overheated apartments. There were even wholesome ads on TV , with the phrase: “Weather, we are all in it together. I saw it on billboards and grocery bags.

The cell phone coverage kept fluctuating, I didn’t understand the technology, why would heat affect satellites, but they said it was solar flares, or maybe solar storms. The price of water kept going up, but Joe and I were on a well with a windmill, so we kept watering, but Joe worried that eventually the ground water would run out if it didn’t rain. In town there was a reward if you saw people watering or spraying off the sidewalk, which used to be routine, and the penalties got harsher, jail on the second offense.

And then it got hotter than the records had ever shown, and it was almost September. It seemed like all the leaves were dying, not changing, We rented out a modular home on our property to a young couple, Jared and Renee. I didn’t talk to them much, I wanted them to have their privacy from a on-site landlady, so I was surprised to see Renee making her way over to our side with baby Avery. I hadn’t see either of them in weeks. They used to barbecue outside with friends, and throw a ball for the dog, but they had been staying in all day lately.

I could see the dust Renee’s flip flops made as she walked, and even from the second floor window the baby looked listless and pale. I cranked up the fan and poured us ice tea, and took the baby from her as we sat at the kitchen table. Avery looked dully at me and seemed so quiet.
“I can’t get her to nurse, do you think I should switch to rice cereal?” Renee asked.
“I think she is too young, you should hold off until five or six months.” I said, stroking the baby’s sweaty head. Renee looked sickly too, soaked with sweat and wearing the same stained denim shorts and tank top she had worn last time I saw her.
“Did your kids have diarrhea in the summer when they were little? Did they ever not want to eat at all?” she asked. “The pediatrician says she isn’t thriving.” Renee said, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Oh sure, kids are always losing their appetite in the summer, or having the runs, or getting prickly heat on the back of their necks.”
Renee nodded, gratefully, but I was frightened to see the baby so thin. It was odd to see gnats in Avery’s eyes, and she had no energy to brush them away.
“Maybe you could fill the baby pool and …” I started to say, but she was already shaking her head no, I guess they didn’t want to spare the water.
Before we knew it, it was Labor Day, and there was no sign of the heat passing on. They tried to say it was Indian summer, but I wasn’t sure.

Joe and I weren’t watering anymore, we were afraid the well would run dry, so we filled water bottles and stored them by the washer dryer. We tried to do as little laundry as possible, and wear the same shorts and tanks for as many days as we could stand.

They shut down the farmers market for the season because it was so dry and dusty by 9 am and the vegetables weren’t thriving anymore. The grocery stores cut their hours, too, not wanting to use the power to be open all night.

A lot of the kids in town got a stomach flu that wouldn’t leave them alone; and the talk returned that the dirty pool water caused it, or maybe it was the runoff from the manure, or maybe the river wasn’t clean anymore. The water looked different, and there was a smell; not chemical exactly but strange when you turned on the tap. The water stopped running in the local ditch and the fish were dying in the lake, no one knew why.

When they said we couldn’t use the air conditioner anymore, too many people were using power, we didn’t care, we had always thought it was bad for the environment, and we were used to lying on the bed at night, sweating, hearing the fan turn. Then electricity costs went up so we went for no fans as well and we started sleeping out on the porch. I wasn’t that much cooler. We moved the chaises upstairs and slept separately, it was just too hot to bump into another sweaty body at night. The store sold paper fans now, and I remember as a child the fans in church during services, I hadn’t thought of those in years. Maybe we were returning to a simpler time. How foolish a thought.

“Just think how the settlers had it, back in the 1800s. They didn’t have electricity or refrigeration at all, and only took a bath once a week.” Joe said from his lounge,
“I guess we can get used to this, huh? At least I don’t have to wear the dresses they wore back then….”
“I like the hats the men wore though, and the suspenders. And my feet have to be as dirty as theirs were!” Joe said. “ He wiggled his crusty brown toes. Joe could always get me to laugh, and I feel asleep watching the stars. They looked cool up in space, glowing like ice in the night sky.

We started thinking we had better save some food, the market was so picked over, so I got sacks of brown rice and dried pinto beans at the coop, and we decided to solar dry our veggies, but the veggies were so withered they looked dried before I even put them in the rack. I got a lot of canned food at Grocery Outlook, but I had to be so aggressive in grabbing things I was a little frightened; people used to be so much nicer, now it was all elbows and dirty looks. All the bottled water and batteries were out of there, and I had to get Vienna sausages even though we hated it. At least I could give it to the dog.
I still tried to keep up my old routines, I still went running, but now I went at first light to avoid as much heat as I could. I still went to the place I always went, but I started walking halfway there, it was just so hot.

One morning I heard a terrible rustling and grunting in the Manzanita growth. I stopped dead in my tracks, it was an awful noise that I still can hear when I concentrate, or maybe I am thinking of the sounds I hear in the next room as I wait here, its all mixed up now.

Then I saw it, about 30 yards away, a mountain lion pursuing a wounded deer, and I saw it pounce and the deer screamed and I smelled blood. I turned and ran for my life, imagining claws on my back, and I never went back. I can still see its muscular tawny body stretched all the way out to pounce on the scrambling, bleeding deer. She didn’t have a chance.

I switched to walking on the road and then it was too hot for that, and it didn’t seem safe. People from the city were coming up more and more, and I didn’t want anyone following me back to the house. There seemed to be strangers living in the woods.

Joe and I went to the city council meeting, just to see what the plans were, with the stores in town shuttering and the mail delivery down to twice a week and all the new people in town. Our town had always been divided with a conservative tilt, but now the Tea Party had a strong voice, as all their nay saying and fears seemed to be coming true.
I was shocked to see an old man carrying a picture of a coffin, saying the government was going to leave us to die.
Joe approached him with a smile.
“Aren’t you exaggerating a bit there friend?”
The old man turned and looked at him, taking in his long hair and farmer’s feet, and the anger was so fierce and sudden.
“You’re a fool if you think that, and you’ll deserve what happens to you.” The old man almost spit at Joe, spittle was on his lips, and I pulled Joe fiercely to get him away.

Joe had always been a pacifist, he was a conscientious objector in the war three wars back. I think he was shocked at the venom, but then it got so much worse.

They was a lot of talk about the guns for sale after the meeting, that did scare me. but for me the worst part was the open discussion.
“Back in Washington, they don’t care about us. They don’t care I went and fought in their war, and they don’t care if we run out of water and gas either.” A young veteran said, his voice rough and husky with emotion, and all the people around him patted him on the back.

We left the meeting early and I didn’t like the feeling of the eyes on our backs . I was relieved to get in the car, and locked my door the second I got in. Gas was up to $7.00 so we decided to come to town even less.

I sat on the deck to look at the moon that night, and I wondered what we would do if they came over from the highway to our place, we had big glass windows, perfect for the valley views but I felt vulnerable.

Then our son, Wade, living down in the city, lost his job. That was bad enough, but he was also worried about the sea level. He heard rumors that they might evacuate the coast and his place was one block from the beach. Wade said the fog was changing, it used to roll in daily in the summer, so there was just a few hours of sun each day; but now the fog was rare and had a yellow cast.

I had taken to turning my phone off, now I turned it on twice a week, I used to scroll through silly pictures constantly, but now I worried it wouldn’t be charged if the power went out. When I turned it on I saw a message from Wade. It was three days old.

“Hi Momma! Hey, it’s getting kinda hairy about here, and Stef and I want to come up and stay for a while. They are going to evacuate and I don’t want to be part of that mess. I’m gonna bring my guns, might be good to have some security up there. Might take us a couple of days to get there. ” He laughed, but the dread in my stomach felt like a punch.
“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll make it. Put a jar of jam aside for me, okay? And some eggs? Love you!”

—————————————————————————————————————————–

And then it was over, it got bad so fast. Now I know that the fabric of civilization is a fragile mesh. it seemed like it took three days for us to be on our own but I guess I am exaggerating. I remember reading what people went through in the Holocaust and the Reckoning but I never saw it happening to us. I just didn’t expect the lawlessness. I didn’t think the government would just go missing. I didn’t think neighbors would turn on each other. I didn’t think of the terrible violence. I didn’t think hungry people would binge on meth.

We became people who lived behind boarded up windows only venturing out when desperate for water or food. Then we lost even that, when they invaded the house.
We ended up in the little storeroom downstairs, along with some of the neighbors they had rounded up, and our tenants and their baby. That was rough, but Joe had it worse.

Joe had run out of medications he took for blood pressure for quite a while, and wasn’t himself; he had always wanted to be the husband and caretaker and he just couldn’t stop the way things got. He hated being powerless, they wouldn’t listen to him, they struck him more than once and I hated to see him old and helpless, and when they shot Parker Joe didn’t recover. Then the baby passed, and we helped them bury her at night in a dresser drawer wrapped in her favorite blanket.

Then Joe had another stroke, after they broke his nose with the rifle butt, and this one was bad, his face drooped and he couldn’t use his arm. The last stroke he had been in the hospital for a week with physical therapy and 24 hour nursing, this time he lay on a pile of old rags we had in the barn. He couldn’t speak either though he tried. I kept telling him I loved him and we would get through this, but his eyes were filled with fear, and he would work his mouth but only sounds would come out. Then one day he was just gone, and I didn’t tell them but when they brought the water but they saw and took him. They dragged him, and his head banged on the concrete floor. Mary covered her face with her hands but I kept looking.

I hated them so much. Once they had to be young people, probably at the dances, and I don’t know how they learned to be so cruel. They had to be the people who I used to see, selling tires, having families, but they had changed.

Then they took Jared and Nick away, and we women were alone. Renee had been catatonic since the baby, but Mary was always on the edge of hysteria. They took Renee first, she was the youngest and prettiest and when they took her she didn’t struggle. I don’t know what they did to her; I only know she didn’t scream. I could hear them laughing. They drank a lot, and I guess meth; they always seemed so wired and so cruel.

Mary was next, and she screamed and cried and struggled, and I sat numbly alone in the room. I was almost sixty and I guess they didn’t really want me. They forgot the water for a day and I hoped they would forget me. I could sit and remember, but the fear made the memories jumbled, and I guess not eating too. Nature used to always soothe me, but I didn’t ever hear birds chirping and the sky wasn’t blue very often.

I found a few tablespoons of jam in a jar hidden under a crate, that jam I made in early summer, and I ate a half of it. I felt sick but I kept it down. I held some under my tongue like I used to do with candy when I was young.

Then they came for me. I still had the taste of jam in my mouth when they grabbed me, and they pulled me out of the room into my barn. They dragged me to the stairs, and suddenly I thought of the deer in the woods months ago. I might as well run. I could run up the hill toward Mary’s old place. Maybe I could live back in the woods where I used to run. Maybe somewhere there will still good people.

I sagged and pretended to faint, and they loosened their grip. Then I burst into a run, still tasting the summer berries, and I started up the hill. I ran like the deer, I ran as fast as I had ever run. Maybe this time the deer will get away.

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Water Baby by Jane Percival

Feb 01 2015

Zoe was an odd little girl, there was no question of that. From the day that she first joined the family – a small scrap of a child with a shock of black hair, she was different. She had such a grave way of looking at the world. Her aunt, uncle and cousins would take turns to try to make her smile, but she would just look back at them. When she was a toddler, she was content to play by herself, although she did play alongside other children if she had to. And it didn’t go unnoticed that she had a habit of staring at people, watching. Jo would often look up and catch her gaze.

Zoe was a collector. In itself, that wasn’t unusual. Her father had collected those cardboard coasters that they have in bars, and her mother’s childhood stamp collection was still up in the attic. But Zoe collected round river stones and had a pile of small twigs that she’d found somewhere. She’d spend ages sorting the stones and rearranging the twigs into different shapes. When not playing with the twigs, she’d bind them up in her old baby blanket, the one she’d been wrapped in on the day she was rescued.

Another difference was the way she behaved around water. As a tiny child, the only thing that would calm her when she was upset was a deep bath, and she was always trying to put her head under. She’d push back and wriggle in Jo’s arms, as slippery as an eel.

And then there was her physical appearance. She was slim and supple, with a heart-shaped face, a small turned up nose, a wide mouth and huge green eyes. Her hair was glossy and straight, and pure black. Both Donna and Carl had been fair.

Despite her being so unlike their other children, Jo and Tom loved Zoe unconditionally and cared for her with the same love and affection they had showered on her older cousins.
*
When Zoe was four, Jo took her along to the local kindergarten. Her cousins had spent their early years at home until old enough for school, but it seemed that Zoe needed something more than helping in the kitchen or playing with her dolls in a bucket of water in the dusty back yard. It was February, the tail end of summer, and Zoe held Jo’s hand as they walked the three blocks to the centre. She allowed herself to be introduced to the teacher and Jo offered to stay with her for a while to keep her company. Zoe watched the busy activities going on around her and didn’t seem interested in joining in. She didn’t even look up when Jo left.

Attending kindergarten wasn’t that much of a success. It wasn’t that Zoe didn’t mix with the other children, it was more a case of the other children not mixing with her. She was like a small repelling magnet. Despite every attempt to include her in group activities, she remained aloof. She would watch, rather than joining in. When spoken to, she replied as she should. There was nothing measurably wrong with her speech or her cognitive abilities, she was just ‘different’.

The only activity she appeared to enjoy was the water bath. She would collect up all the dolls, take off their clothes and line them up under the water with their glassy eyes staring upwards. Sometimes she’d have to weigh them down with heavy stones from the sandpit to stop them from bobbing to the surface. Then she’d take them out and toss them onto the grass. She repeated this activity over and over until the other children complained and the adults became unnerved. How she would manage at school, nobody knew. After a few months, Jo decided to that kindergarten wasn’t for Zoe.

At home, her collecting had become something of a problem. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she’d just ‘collected’, but she was always tipping out her cardboard box of stones onto the bedroom floor, sorting and re-sorting. And she disliked being disturbed. As she grew older, she arranged the items into complex patterns. The twigs were always sorted into shapes resembling small people which she’d fan out and link to the river stones. The river stones were sorted into undulating lines that started from a central point. The storage box became tatty and shabby, its corners bursting at the seams.

One day the family heard a sharp cry from Zoe’s room. Upon investigation they had found her sitting on the bedroom floor, gazing at her twigs and stones which were in jumbled heaps, the cardboard box torn away at the bottom. For her next birthday she was given two plastic storage containers with wheels underneath. They had lids that could be clipped down and handles for towing and could be cleverly stacked on top of each other or rolled under the bed. But Zoe wouldn’t use them. From the day the cardboard box fell apart, the stones were always on her bedroom floor. She just stepped over her complicated arrangements and became upset when it was time to move them aside to vacuum clean. Every night she’d collect up her twigs, wrap them in the old blanket and carefully place the woolly bundle alongside her pillow.

*
The first day of school caused a minor catastrophe – Zoe refused to be parted from her twigs (still wrapped in her baby blanket)and had insisted that they be packed into her backpack along with her lunch and other school items. She wouldn’t leave the house without them and when Jo tried to lift her up, she scratched and bit at her. In the end, Jo managed to squeeze the blanket into the backpack alongside her exercise book and pencils. Zoe had to carry a separate plastic bag with her lunchbox and drink bottle inside.

At the end of that first week, when Zoe was sleeping soundly in her bed, Jo crept in and removed the parcel from beside her pillow. She carefully set the twigs aside and cut the blanket up to make a small purse with a Velcro fastener. The next morning, Jo expected Zoe to complain, but she didn’t. In fact for the first time, she almost seemed pleased, tucking the purse safely down the front of her sweatshirt.

Zoe was a bright child and managed her school work with ease, and despite being a loner, seemed happy enough. She excelled at water sports and could swim like a fish. She couldn’t be persuaded to wear goggles, however, even when the chlorine made her eyes red-rimmed and sore. She fitted in.

As she grew older, she formed no friendships and had few acquaintances. At around the age of thirteen, she complained to Jo that she’d been having trouble sleeping.
“I have these dreams,” she said. “I dream that I’m in the water and it’s cold. There are two white lights and people all around me are saying ‘go, go, go’. Pushing me.”

She began to spend her free time walking by the banks of the Hokitika River. She’d been told the story of her parents’ death and how she’d been saved, but this didn’t deter her.
“Do you think the accident had some kind of lasting effect on her?” Jo asked Tom.
“I doubt it,” Tom replied. “She was only a tiny baby.”
“Sometimes I wonder, though,” Jo reflected, thinking back to the day that Zoe had been rescued from the river.

*
It had been a tragedy. Jo’s sister Donna had given birth to Zoe at the maternity unit at Grey Base Hospital, about 40 km north of Kaniere. Zoe’s entry into the world had been straight-forward, but the day her parents were due to bring her home had been wild and stormy. Carl had driven to Greymouth to collect them, with the intention of heading back in the early afternoon. On a good day, the drive back to Kaniere usually took less than an hour, and they’d left Hokitika shortly after lunch. There had been a flat tyre and Donna had rung Jo to say they’d be a bit later than they’d originally expected, but other than that, there was no reason to think anything would go wrong. Jo, Tom and the cousins had been looking forward to their return and meeting up with baby Zoe for the first time.

After reaching Hokitika, Carl had taken the slower, Arthurstown Road route. This road ran alongside the Hokitika River for a good part of the trip to Kaniere. Even this should have been without problems, but just as they were on the final straight before crossing the bridge into town, the car swerved sharply to the left, before sliding over the bank and into the river. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the accident happened directly across from one of the few houses on that stretch of the road, all three lives would have been lost. But a gentleman by the name of Don Walters was checking his mailbox at that very moment. He heard the screeching of tyres and looked up through the driving rain to see the tail lights disappearing from sight.

The Hokitika River is fast moving, with its source in the Southern Alps. At the time of the accident, it had been raining steadily for most of the day, and the river was swollen. Don had run across the road and stumbled down the bank to where only the boot and back bumper of the car were showing, muddy green water coursing over its roof. Only a few minutes had passed since the accident, but there was no movement, no sign of anyone struggling to get out. Don waded in up to his waist. The water was icy cold. He pulled at the left rear door but it wouldn’t budge – the car was already starting to shift due to the pressure of the water. Picking up a rock, he pounded it against the window until it broke, reached in, found the catch and dragged the door open. The front seat was completely submerged. He could just make out the shapes of two bodies still strapped into their seatbelts, the woman’s blonde hair swirling, when the car started to move some more.
Floating in the back of the car was something wrapped in a sodden white blanket and Don was startled to see two bright eyes. He quickly grabbed at the bundle and pulled it out. The car shifted in the water, sank further, then started drifting down the river. Dan fell backwards and only just managed not to be swept away himself. Looking at the wet pile of bedding in his arms, he realised he’d rescued a baby. It was wet and cold, but clearly alive.

The rest was history. They found the car the following day. It had been washed up on the sand bar at the mouth of the river, with Carl’s body still wedged behind the wheel. Donna’s body was never found; most likely she’d been washed out to sea.

Jo shook the feeling off. They’d done the only thing they could, they’d taken baby Zoe into their own home. Not that a new baby was something they’d wanted with the other kids all but grown up, but she wouldn’t change a thing. She did still wonder about that day, however. Why had Donna and Carl taken the longer route, and why had the car suddenly swerved? Sure, it had been rainy and windy, but it was a straight road and there had been no other traffic.

*
After graduating from Westland High School, Zoe was accepted into the University of Otago’s Bachelor of Science (Marine Science) programme. She moved down south to Dunedin and studied there for a little over two years, managing well enough at the academic side of things. She had good grades but her inability to make friends, combined with her lack of interest in forming relationships of any kind, held her back. Her class mates found her odd and difficult to talk to. And they found her behaviour a bit unnerving at times. She was often found gazing into the specimen pools at the Marine Science facility, and on diving excursions she easily lost her focus and would lie motionless, drifting face down just below the surface, gazing at the swirling strands of golden brown kelp as they moved with the tide. The girls in her class considered her ‘weird looking’ with her green eyes and her shiny black hair and her aloof and distant manner. The boys found her somewhat scary and gave her a wide berth.

She still carried around her collection of twigs. These were well-worn from handling – smooth and almost pure white from age. She had purchased a small fringed suede pouch from a craft market and kept them there, along with three small stones from the Hokitika River. She wore the pouch on a long leather thong around her neck.

*
In April of 2010, Zoe upped and left Dunedin, taking the InterCity Bus to Christchurch and the West Coast shuttle across the island to Greymouth. She met up with Jo who was finishing her shift at the Grey Base Hospital where she was employed as a nurse. Zoe’s cousins had long since moved away; to Christchurch and Nelson respectively. Tom had drowned in a fishing mishap a few years earlier. Jo was mostly glad to have her back home, but wondered what she’d do with her.

Zoe picked up a part-time job at the Countdown supermarket in Greymouth and once again, took to walking along the banks of the Hokitika River in her spare time. She couldn’t remember where she’d found her original twigs and this seemed to bother her. She constantly asked Jo about her parents’ accident.
“Why did they drive off the road?”
“Where did they drive off the road?”
“Who found me?”
“How did he get me out?”
An onslaught of questions that Zoe had never raised before.

*
A couple of months after her return, Zoe went for a walk and didn’t come home. The police were alerted, but as she was an adult and the weather was still mild, they weren’t unduly worried. Everyone knew Zoe; they knew she was familiar with the area and a strong swimmer. And she did have strange habits.

By the time they began searching in earnest, more than twenty-four hours had elapsed. Tracker dogs found Zoe’s clothes folded tidily on the banks of the river, directly opposite the place her parents had met their death, 21 years earlier. On top of the pile of clothes was the fringed suede pouch. Jo’s heart sank when she heard this.
One of the search party volunteers was the local GP. He tipped the contents of the small pouch onto the ground, to see if Zoe had left a message or any clue inside, then drew back in surprise.

“Let me look at those!” he exclaimed, hoping he was wrong. He held the small twigs in his large hands, peering at them closely. “These are bones, and unless I’m mistaken, they are the hand and foot bones of a very small baby.”

But there was more to come. The dogs were barking and scratching at the ground below the clothing and the search party decided to investigate what was making them so excited.

It was assumed that Zoe had given up on her solitary life and thrown herself into the river, but her body was never found. What they did discover, however, was a small grave, directly beneath where Zoe’s clothes had been left. In the grave they found the skeletal remains of a human baby. The remains had been preserved in muttonbird fat inside a sturdy bag made from bull kelp. The hands and feet had been removed.
END

Bio
Jane Percival lives on a small life-style block adjacent to the Kaipara Harbour, north of Auckland, New Zealand.
She has recently ditched her day job to focus on her long time love of writing. She is an avid gardener and writes a gardening blog. Lately she has been focusing on speculative fiction.
Blog: www.heni-irihapeti.com

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Unholy Spirits By Mario Piumetti

Jan 25 2015

Warren heard the opening notes of Hole’s Reasons to Be Beautiful. He opened his eyes and saw he was in a bar. The bartender looked emaciated. His hair was spiky to the point where it resembled a patch of needles. He had a black vest, unbuttoned, and a grey t-shirt that read, “Pretty done.” He poured Fireball over the ice in Warren’s glass.

The bartender grinned and said, “Welcome to Hell. I’m Lucifer, your new best friend.”

“Pfft. Yeah, right,” said Warren. He took a sip.

“You don’t believe me? Well, I suppose I should know better than argue with a customer, huh?” Lucifer leaned in. Now he grinned like a little boy with a dirty joke in mind. “Where are you?”

“What do you mean? I’m in a bar.”

“Yeah, but how did you get in here? You don’t remember?”

Warren felt his pockets. His keys were there, but the memory of getting behind the wheel was absent.

“Maybe I’ve had too much to drink?”

“Keep telling yourself that. You had too much to drink, and that’s how you ended up in a dark bar with no doors.”

Warren spun around on his stool. There were other patrons at the bar, and more in booths behind him. An all-girl punk band performed on stage in the next room. They were all dressed like Catholic schoolgirls. An upside-down neon crucifix glowed on the wall behind them. By all appearances, it was the sort of place Warren found appealing except for the lack of doors or windows.

“Shit,” he said. “How did I get here?”

Lucifer did a little dance as he chugged from the Fireball. He spilled some onto the counter laughing at Warren.

“Allow me to subtly and cryptically explain: you were on the fifth floor of your office building. You felt the wind on your face, the sun on your skin. Birds were chirping, and then you went splat!”

Warren’s face fell. “I didn’t jump.”

Lucifer stood tall and faced the band. “Ladies, how did Warren here come on by?”

They practically sang it. “Warren jumped! Warren jumped! Warren fuckin’ jumped!”

“And over three hundred dollars!” Lucifer slapped his hand on the countertop. “Seriously, I’ve had guys do themselves in because they knocked up their secretaries. Someone did it because he ran over a guy while high. There was even a kid from Tokyo who did it because he got an A-. And yes, there have been folks who suicide over money. Happens all the time during economic downturns. But you snort the proverbial coke off a stripper’s ass. Don’t believe me?”

Lucifer stood aside so Warren could look at the mirror behind him. Warren didn’t see his reflection, but he saw himself. Splat was the right adjective. His body was on the pavement behind the building near the entrance to the subterranean parking structure. He’d jumped down to a concrete walkway by a little garden. One of his legs was curled up in an unnatural way so the ankle was beside his belt, and his radius poked out through the skin. His shirt and side were popped open like a balloon full of blood and something yellow. The top half of his head was gone. A halo of brain surrounded it. Police cordoned off the area and examined the body. Simultaneously, Warren saw his coworkers Christy and Madeline in their offices giving statements. Christy’s mouth hung open with tears down her cheeks. Madeline held her head in her hands barely able to keep herself together.

He couldn’t hear them, but he knew what they were saying.

“He was all right this morning,” said Madeline.

“I said hello when I got in,” said Christy. “He started to panic five or ten minutes later.”

Lucifer shrugged, and the mirror returned to normal. Warren saw a dumbfounded look on his face. He knocked back the rest of the Fireball and wiped the excess from the corners of his lips, but it was clear from the welling tears in his eyes that he was close to breaking down.

“And that, friend, is the end of one Warren Whitford.” Lucifer drew a fresh glass. He poured vodka, prinkled some powder, and added a splash of something from an unmarked bottle. “Here. My own special concoction. It’s made with red chili flakes and the tears of unborn children. Thanks to your people’s hard-on for abortions, I never run out of it. Go on. Give it a try. It’ll make you feel better. I promise.”

Warren wasn’t sure how much trust he should put in Lucifer’s promise. The thought of doing so brought to mind images of southern evangelists screaming about the empty words of Beelzebub and “them liberals.” But when he sipped the drink, he found its effects were as advertised. He felt a sense of calm. His hands and arms usually went numb when he was very stressed. They felt that way when he went up onto the balcony. Now he had full feeling in both of them.

“So now what?” he asked. “Am I going to burn for all eternity? Are demons going to carve me up?”

Lucifer pretended to think deeply. “Uhhhhhh, no. Now you get to kick your feet up and relax, dude. Have some drinks. Listen to some music. Maybe later I’ll introduce you to this succubus I know. She’ll rock your underworld.”

“No torment?”

“One sec.” Lucifer went to speak with one of his employees. He came back and started a round of drinks for a booth. “No torment. You’ve lived a pretty decent life. You didn’t kill anybody. You told a white lie or two, but who hasn’t? You committed suicide, so the rulebook says you’ve gotta be here, but there are different levels of Hell. Punishing you because of a terrible job market is like punishing gingers for having red hair. It’s beyond your control. Now the guy who cheated you, oh, I’m going to grab him by the hips and fuck him hard. I mean, hard!”

Warren said, “Sitting around doing nothing sounds pretty hellish to me.”

“You’ll get used to it. Just relax and free your mind, man.” Lucifer laughed. “I’m sorry. I sound like God right now. Fuckin’ hippie, that guy. But no, just do your thing. Make some friends. Check out the band. You don’t even have to be confined to the counter. Make yourself at home, because that’s exactly what this place is now. You and I are gonna hang out for a long, long time, palomino.”

Warren took another look at the place. It seemed so much larger than a few minutes before, so full of possibility. The dim light seemed to brighten. It felt less like a place and more like a thing, like a giant creature in which everyone was a cell, every conversation a fiber of the nervous system, and every beat of music a breath. He saw people walking in and out of the restroom, because even in Hell people have to pee. A flight of stairs by the restrooms went up to a door.

Warren pointed them out to Lucifer. “Hey, I thought you said there were no doors here.”

“Oh, that’s the balcony. You have to check that out. We got barrels of jungle juice up there with a layer of foam a foot thick. Ski shots. Everyone loves everyone, and you might find your one and only too. You can even smoke up there.”

“There are smoking and nonsmoking sections in Hell?”

“Of course.” Lucifer frowned. “That shit’s bad for you, dude.”

Warren finished his drink and made for the stairs. Away from the band below, it got quieter, but he could hear people on the other side of the door. The party sounded like a scene from The Great Gatsby with Motley Crue doing the soundtrack. Warren thought he could hear She Goes Down as he put his hand on the door. He pushed it open. A red light poured out over him.

End.

Mario Piumetti was born and raised in Los Angeles. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in English from California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, and his MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles. His writing has been featured at Arts Collide and The Horror Zine. An avid music lover, his work is heavily influenced by rock, punk, and metal. Mario is also a staff writer for the dark culture magazine Carpe Nocturne. You can find out more at his blog: My Corner of the Catacombs.

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Dust to Dust

Jan 18 2015

Kristina R. Mosley 4,765 words
P. O. Box 434
Kensett, AR 72082
(501) 593-8646
elstupacabra@hotmail.com
Dust to Dust
4,765 words

Dry Springs is a good name for this place, Constable Casey Robbins thought as he walked down the town’s deserted main street. The town had never been a big one, but when the bank closed, the rest of Dry Springs did, too. The fact that it hadn’t rained in months didn’t help matters. Everyone who was smart had already left.

The town never had a proper mayor, and it was too small and isolated to have any kind of police force. Twenty-four-year-old Casey had been the only real authority in Dry Springs since he was elected constable three years earlier. It wasn’t a tough job: the most he had to do was send a drunk home. He didn’t even need to carry a gun.

His footsteps echoed as he passed Bell’s General Store, one of the few places still in business. Just as Casey stepped in front of the doctor’s office on the other side of the store, someone bumped hard into his shoulder, so hard that the straw hat popped off his brown head. He staggered but managed to grab the person’s collar.

“You should be more careful,” he growled. He realized that he had Woodrow, the thirteen-year-old son of Hubbard Jones, in his grasp. He let go of the boy “Where are you going in such a hurry?” he asked. Casey knew something was wrong from the fear in the boy’s green eyes.

“Paw’s real sick.” Woodrow huffed, trying to catch his breath. “I gotta go get the doctor.” Sweaty red hair stuck to the boy’s forehead.

“Did you run here?”

“Yeah.”

“Dear Lord.”

The boy ran off, and the constable followed. By the time he caught up, Woodrow ran out of Dr. Lindsey’s office with the short, white-haired doctor in tow. Dr. Lindsey carried a large black bag.

“Casey,” he said with a nod.

“Doctor, can I have a word?”

The doctor stopped next to the constable. Woodrow glared at them from inside Dr. Lindsey’s green Chevrolet.

“I didn’t think Hubbard Jones was that sick,” Casey whispered.

“He’s not.”

Something’s not right here, Casey thought. “Mind if I tag along?”

The doctor gestured to his automobile. “Be my guest.”

Dr. Lindsey and Casey got in the car and headed to the Jones place.

#

After three bumpy, dusty miles, they arrived at the tiny wooden shack in the field of dirt. Hubbard’s older son, Floyd, and daughter, Mae, stood outside. Mae hid her face in her apron while her brother tried to comfort her.

The three got out of the automobile, and Dr. Lindsey ran ahead into the shack. Woodrow rushed to his siblings. He spoke to Floyd, but Casey couldn’t hear what he said. The older Jones boy shook his head, and Woodrow looked to the parched earth.

The constable nodded at Floyd Jones as he took off his straw hat and entered the home. It was dark, a sheet covering the only window. A thin layer of dust coated the furniture. Hubbard’s wife, Leona, sat at the small dining table, her gray-streaked red hair in a messy bun. She looked up at Casey, tears running down her heavily freckled cheeks.

“How are you, Mrs. Jones?” Casey asked quietly.

“He’s gone,” she sobbed. She put her face in her hands.

“I-I’m sorry.”

Leona wailed.

Casey felt like he should comfort the woman, but he didn’t know her well. He didn’t want to impose. After a few moments, Dr. Lindsey called from the other room. “Casey, could you come in here, please?”

The constable sighed and walked into the room. A thick layer of black dust covered the meager furnishings except for what was probably Leona’s side of the bed. Grime obscured Hubbard’s features, creeping into the man’s nose and mouth. Gray skin stretched over the bones of his desiccated body.

“I haven’t seen Hubbard in a while, but he wasn’t that skinny last I did,” Casey said.

“I saw him three days ago. He had lost weight, but not this much.”

“What was wrong with him?”

“Lung problems.” Dr. Lindsey reached up to brush the dirt away from Hubbard’s face. The dead man’s nose snapped off and fell onto the bed.

Casey yelped.

“That’s never happened before,” Dr. Lindsey said, wide-eyed.

“I wouldn’t imagine so,” Casey whispered. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I don’t know. It’s as if he’s been dried out.”

“What would cause that?”

The doctor shrugged. “I think I’ll take the body back to my office. Maybe I’ll discover something.”

Casey nodded. “Good luck.”

“Would you care to help me get him back to the office?”

The constable’s jaw dropped. “W-Why do you need me?”

“I’m an old man, Casey. I can’t lift him by myself.”

Casey sighed. “All right.”

“Thank you. I’ll drop you off at home after we’re done.”

“Well, let’s get to it,” the younger man replied.

#

Casey waved as the doctor drove away. Upon entering his small gray house, he took off his hat and placed it on the table. His wife, Clara, stood at the black stove, her back to the door. She didn’t turn around, so Casey snuck up behind her and planted a kiss on her ivory cheek.

Clara jumped. “Casey, you’re going to be the death of me,” she said after turning around.

“Oh, you love me,” he said, smiling. He reached a hand into her short blonde hair and pulled her close. He kissed her hard.

After a few moments, she pulled away. “What’s gotten into you?” she whispered.

“Nothing.”

She turned back to the stove. “Supper’s almost ready.”

“All right,” he said and sat down at the table. He couldn’t help but think about Hubbard. What illness made him dry out like that?

Clara placed a small bowl of brown beans in front of Casey and sat down.

“Thanks,” he said, trying to get the awful thoughts out of his head. He cut himself a piece of cornbread from the cast iron skillet on the table. He took a bite of the cornbread. It was gritty. There was dirt in the food, but he didn’t say anything to his wife. It wasn’t her fault that dirt was half of what he ate nowadays.

Clara chewed on a piece of cornbread. She grimaced and glared at the skillet. “How was your day, Casey?” she asked, straightening her face.

“Strange,” he said through a mouth of beans.

Clara raised an eyebrow. “Did you hear about Hubbard Jones?”

“That’s what I was talking about. Hubbard’s youngest boy bumped into me in town when he came to fetch the doctor. Dr. Lindsey thought things peculiar, so I tagged along.”

“What happened?”

“Hubbard was dead by the time we got there.”

“Oh no. How were Leona and the kids?”

“They were taking it best they could, I guess.”

She put down her spoon. “He died from his lung problem, right?”

Casey shook his head. “Dr. Lindsey doesn’t think so. I tend to agree with him.”

“Why?”

“First off, the doctor said Hubbard wasn’t that sick. Second, the body didn’t look right. It was gray and all thin and dry, like something left out in the sun too long.” He shuddered, remembering Hubbard’s nose falling off.

“How did he die?” Clara asked, her eyes wide.

Casey shrugged. “Dr. Lindsey doesn’t know. He had me help him get Hubbard back to his office so he could figure things out.”

Clara was quiet for a few moments, the only sound being metal spoons scraping against ceramic bowls. “I was talking to my cousin Dora today,” she said finally. “Her cow, Lula, died. Dora said she was awfully skinny.”

“Did the cow starve?”

“Doubt it. Dora fed Lula better than her own children.”

“Hmm.”

“I think whatever got her cow got Hubbard, too.”

Makes sense, Casey thought. “Sounds likely. I just wonder what it is.”

Clara shook her head slowly, and the two finished their meal in silence. She stood up. “Are you finished, Casey?”

He looked at his empty bowl. “I guess I am.”

She took his bowl and walked away from the table.

He sat there thinking. If Hubbard Jones were the only one to die, Casey would’ve assumed that the sick man’s death was natural. Strange, but natural. That didn’t explain Lula’s death. It could just be a coincidence, he thought. Then again, Casey Robbins didn’t believe in coincidences.

Clara began placing the dishes in a white enamel pan. Casey went to help her. As he filled the pan, his stomach twisted in knots. He couldn’t help but feel that Hubbard’s death was the start of something bad.

“Casey?”

He tried to shake the thought from his head. “What?”

“I asked if it was all right if I make something to take over to Leona and the kids. I know we don’t have much, but they have even less.”

“Yeah, that sounds nice,” he replied absentmindedly.

“Are you all right?” Clara asked.

“Something’s bothering me about Hubbard’s death and the death of your cousin’s cow. I know it’s probably just some disease, but it’s suspicious.”

She put a hand on his arm. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

He sighed. “I hope you’re right, Clara.”

#

Two days passed. There were a few more animal deaths, and two more people had died. Casey knew that neither Lois Smith nor Lymond Cartwright were sick before they met their ends. The constable was sure something bad was happening in Dry Springs. He just didn’t know what.

Casey knocked on Dr. Lindsey’s door, the sound echoing off the vacant buildings.

“Come in,” the doctor called.

He entered the office. Dr. Lindsey sat at an oak desk, worry apparent on his lined face. “How have you been?” the constable asked.

The doctor gestured to a chair in front of his desk. “Confused, Casey, mighty confused. I take it you’ve heard about Lois Smith and Lymond Cartwright?”

Casey shifted in the hard wooden chair. “Yes, sir. They weren’t sick, were they?”

Dr. Lindsey shook his head. “No, they were not.”

“Did they look like Hubbard?”

The doctor nodded.

“You do know what it is, though, right?”

Dr. Lindsey threw his hands in the air. “I’ve combed over every medical book and journal I have. There’s no disease described in any of the texts that matches what’s going on here.”

Casey’s brow furrowed. “Bugs?”

“What?”

“All the crops are dead, so the bugs are trying to find food in folks’ homes. Lord knows how many locusts Clara sweeps out of the house each day. Spiders, too.”

Dr. Lindsey shook his head again. “There aren’t any bites. That wouldn’t explain the dust in people’s noses and mouths, either.”“Poison?”

The doctor shrugged. “I don’t know. Who’d poison them? The victims have nothing in common: they’re all different ages, different sexes. Never mind the animals.”

Casey looked off to the side, staring at the wooden floor while he thought. Dr. Lindsey was right. The three dead people didn’t really have any connection other than living in Dry Springs. “I don’t know what it could be,” he said quietly.

The doctor didn’t reply.

The younger man stood. “Well, I best be going. Good luck, Doctor.” He held out his hand.

Dr. Lindsey shook Casey’s hand and accompanied him to the door. “Thank you for the well wishes, Casey. I know I need all the help I can get.”

“Bye, Dr. Lindsey.”

“Goodbye.”

Casey had one foot out the door when he heard a woman scream for help. He gasped and ran down the street. He guessed from the footsteps behind him that Dr. Lindsey followed. Before the men stood Clara’s cousin, Dora. A dark dust devil swirled around her, whipping at her dress and tangling her long blonde hair. She swatted at the air, but the funnel didn’t relent.

“Help!” she screamed.

Casey began to charge toward Dora, but Dr. Lindsey held him back. The doctor pointed at the woman. Her skin shrank back and cracked loudly, clinging to her bones. Her screams hurt Casey’s ears.

Then, the screaming stopped. The cloud drifted into the air. Casey picked up a rock and threw it at the haze.

“That’s a cloud of dust,” Dr. Lindsey said flatly.

Casey turned his gaze away from the sky and saw Dora’s body on the ground. He and the doctor ran over to her. She was gray and dried out. Black dirt covered her nose and mouth. She looked like Hubbard Jones.

Dr. Lindsey knelt beside the body and lifted her left arm. He felt for a pulse, shaking his head gravely. “She’s dead,” the doctor proclaimed.

“Of course she is!” Casey yelled. “Why the hell didn’t you let me help her?”

“Did you see what happened to her?”

“Yeah, I did. She shriveled up and died.”

“Did you want that to happen to you?”

“Well, no,” Casey said, anger draining from his voice. “So, how’d she get that way?”

Dr. Lindsey shook his head, then his eyes widened. “The dust cloud.”

“What?”

“Think about it, Casey. There was dust all over Hubbard Jones’s house, all over Hubbard himself. There was dust in Lois and Lymond’s houses as well.”

“But the stuff’s everywhere, Doctor.”

“Not like that. Have you ever seen it that thick?”

“Only after a dust storm.” The constable thought for a moment. “When was the last time we had a dust storm, anyway?”

“I believe it was the day before Hubbard Jones died.”

Casey gasped. “But what does it mean? Why didn’t Leona Jones die? She was in bed next to her husband.”

The doctor sighed. “I think there’s something…wrong with the dust. It’s killing people selectively.”

Casey squinted. “That means it would have to think or something, right?”

“Perhaps.”

“How’s that possible?”

“I don’t know, but the people of Dry Springs need to know.” Dr. Lindsey walked back up the street.

Casey put out a hand to stop him. “Whoa there. Are we supposed to tell everybody that the dust is killing them? They already know that.”

“Well, I don’t know what you’re going to tell them, Casey, but I need to get a stretcher and get Dora’s body out of the street.”

“Me? Why me?”

“You’re the only law this town has. It’s your responsibility.” The doctor turned around and entered his office, leaving Casey staring at the corpse.

#

Dora’s family didn’t take her death well. The citizens of Dry Springs didn’t take the news of what killed her well, either. Every day, Casey saw more trucks and wagons headed out of town. He couldn’t blame them.

On the Sunday after Dora’s funeral, Casey and Clara walked to the small white church on the edge of town. They noticed a familiar Model T driving toward them on the road out of Dry Springs. A few trunks and pieces of furniture were tied to it. Casey flagged down the vehicle.
When the car stopped, Dora’s widower, Martin Ruckman, looked back at them. Their daughters, Martha, Mary, and Mabel sat in the car. Looking into the girls’ gaunt, dirty faces, Casey noticed how much they looked like their mother. He then remembered how Dora would drag her family into church each week and sit on the front pew.

“Where are y’all going?” Casey said, trying to sound casual.

“We’re leaving,” Martin muttered.

Clara gasped. “Oh goodness! Why?”

Martin’s dark brown eyes bore into her. “Why do you think? We were about to lose the farm. Then, after what happened to Dora…” He looked down.

“You still have family and friends here,” Casey offered.

“There’s nothing here but bad memories now,” Martin replied coldly. “It’s not safe. I suggest you and Clara leave, too.”

Martin’s tone took Casey aback. He merely said, “Best of luck.”

Clara looked to each of her cousins. “You girls take care of each other.”

The girls nodded and muttered that they would.

“We need to get a move on,” Martin grumbled. The car pulled away, leaving Clara and Casey in a cloud of dust.

Casey coughed and shook the dirt from his clothes.

“I think he’s right,” Clara whispered.

“What?”

“We should leave. Lord knows when the dust’ll get us.”

“It won’t get us, Clara,” he said. He placed a hand on her shoulder to reassure her.

She shrugged it away. “You don’t know that, Casey. Dust is killing people. Nothing here makes sense.”

“But*”

“You know what? I already have some folks out west.” She looked at the trail of dust that still hung in the air. “Well, I guess I’ll have a few more. We could move out there, too.”

Casey sighed. “People are having trouble finding jobs out there.”

“It’s better that we starve to death there than be killed here,” Clara whispered harshly.

After a few moments of silence, Casey noticed the church doors closing. “I’ll think about it. Now, we need to go.” He linked arms with his wife and walked to the church.

The old doors screeched when he opened them, and the parishioners inside snapped their heads back to leer. Casey sheepishly led Clara to a pew at the back of the dark church and sat down. Stuffy air filled the constable’s lungs. Even though it was late spring, the church’s windows were shut. I’d rather have dusty air than no air, Casey thought.

After a few songs and the passing of the collection plate, Brother Winthrop Jefferson walked to the pulpit. He opened his Bible and tapped his notes against the podium. As he spoke, Casey’s mind wandered. He’d never seen the church so empty. One way or another, the dust would make everyone leave town.

He wondered if he and Clara should be the next ones to go. She was right: the dust could get them at any time. He needed to protect his wife. What about the rest of the town, though? He was the only constable. Besides, he thought, Dry Springs was all he and Clara knew. How could they just move somewhere else? Before Casey could make a decision, the preacher’s booming voice shook him from his thoughts.

“These are wicked times,” Brother Jefferson said. “The Lord is punishing sinners. Just as He punished the wicked of Noah’s time with the flood, He’s now punishing the wicked of our world with drought. As it says in Deuteronomy, ‘The Lord shall make the rains of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed.’”

A woman in the church cried out as Brother Jefferson pushed his silvery white hair out of his face.

“The drought wasn’t enough punishment, oh no. The Lord is acting more directly now. The dust is everywhere: in our businesses and in our homes. ‘Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ There is no escaping the scourge of God!”

A man yelled out, “What do we do?”

“I’ll tell you what you can do, brother,” the preacher replied, looking to the congregation. “The Bible tells us, ‘the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ The only thing you can do is repent. Get on your knees and beg God for forgiveness.”

The church fell silent, and Brother Jefferson pulled a silver pocket watch out of the pocket of his trousers. He flicked the watch open and checked the time. “Well, that will be all for today. I hope to see all of you next week. God bless you all.” He stepped down from the pulpit and walked to the front doors of the church.

The parishioners slowly stood up, wide-eyed, and made their way toward the doors. Brother Jefferson shook their hands as they left. Casey and Clara remained seated, in no hurry to wait in line.

“Doctor, I’m surprised to see you,” Brother Jefferson said.

“Well,” Dr. Lindsey replied, “I figured it wouldn’t hurt to come.”

“I hope you come back next week.”

Casey looked toward the door. What was the doctor doing here? he wondered. The physician had never been to church in the whole time Casey had been alive. Did he know something about the dust?

The constable stood. “C’mon, Clara, we have to go.”

“Why are you in a hurry?” she asked standing.

“Dr. Lindsey’s here. I need to talk to him.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Well, let’s go.”

Casey grabbed Clara’s hand and pushed past the few remaining people in line.

“Why are y’all rushing off?” Brother Jefferson asked.

“Sorry, we’re in a hurry.” Casey called back.

They stepped into the blinding sunshine. Casey’s eyes adjusted, and he found Dr. Lindsey walking away from the church.

“Dr. Lindsey!” he yelled, running toward the man. He still held his wife’s hand. She struggled to keep up, keeping a hand on her light blue hat so it wouldn’t fly away.

The doctor stopped. “Good afternoon, Casey.” He turned to Clara and nodded. “Afternoon, Clara.”

“I never took you for a churchgoer,” Casey said between breaths.

Dr. Lindsey smiled sadly. “These are trying times.”

Casey leaned in close to the doctor and whispered, “Do you know something else about the dust?”

The older man looked to Clara. “Are you sure we should discuss this in front of your wife?”

“She knows what’s going on.”

Dr. Lindsey sighed. “I spoke with a colleague over in Colton. He said a similar thing is happening there.”

Clara’s jaw dropped. “But Colton’s on the other side of the state.”

The doctor nodded gravely.

“Well, what do we do?” Casey asked.

“Have you two thought about leaving?” Dr. Lindsey wondered. “You’re young. You could make a fresh start.”

Casey shrugged. “We talked about it. Clara already has some folks out west. Maybe with all those people moving out there, they could use a lawman. If not that, I can do something else. I’m not too good to get my hands dirty. I just don’t know, though.”

“What do you mean?” Dr. Lindsey asked.

“This town’s all Clara and I know. I for one am not too keen on leaving.”

Clara sighed but didn’t say anything.

“What about you, Doctor?” the constable asked.

“I’m too old to pick up stakes.”

“Nonsense,” Clara offered.

“You’re just being nice. I have a duty to this town. I can’t leave everyone without a doctor simply because I’m afraid.”

The three stood in silence for a few moments.

“Well, Doctor,” Clara said finally, “I think it’s time for us to go. My husband and I have some discussing to do.”

“I’m sure you do. Good luck, Casey. Good luck, Clara.”

“You, too,” Casey muttered.

Dr. Lindsey walked toward his office while the Robbinses headed toward their house.

“Why do you want to stay?” Clara snarled.

“Someone has to be the law here,” Casey replied. “And you heard what Dr. Lindsey said. If this stuff’s happening in Colton, what’s to stop it from heading out west, or even back east? There might not be a place on God’s green Earth that’s safe.”

They were just a few feet from their front door now, and Clara stopped in the yard. “I’m just so scared, Casey,” she whispered.

Casey lifted her chin so that he could look in her eyes. “I know you are, dear. When we got married, I promised to protect you, and I don’t break my promises. Nothing’s going to happen to you.” He kissed her forehead. “Now, I think it’s time to find something to eat,” he said and opened the door.

#

The next morning, Casey walked into the kitchen. The air was heavier than usual, humid.

Clara looked out the window. “Come look at this,” she said.

He walked over and peered out the window. A big, gunmetal gray storm cloud was moving in from the west. “It looks like rain, doesn’t it?” he said, amazed.

“Dear Lord, I hope so.”

He sat down at the table, and Clara handed him a bowl of oatmeal. She sat at the other end and slowly ate her breakfast.

“I’m thinking we might leave,” Casey said.

She raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yeah. After what the doctor said, the dust might get us anywhere, but we should at least have a fighting chance.”

Clara smiled slightly. “So, when are we leaving?”

“As soon as we can. I just want what’s left of the town to try to find someone new. I mean, big shoes to fill…”

Clara chuckled.

They finished their meals, and Casey stood up. “Well, time to make my rounds.”

Clara took his bowl. “Oh, I’ll go with you. I need to pick up a few things at the store.” She put down the bowl and took off her apron.

“All right.” He grabbed his hat off the rack by the door. Clara picked up her purse, and the couple left the house arm-in-arm. They were in the center of town within a few minutes.

The streets were busier than normal. Casey supposed people were trying to complete their errands before the rain came. Or maybe, he thought, they wanted to be out when the rain started so other people could tell them they weren’t crazy. Brother Winthrop Jefferson and his wife Louise greeted the Robbinses as they walked down the street.

“Why hello, Casey.”

The younger man nodded, and then tipped his hat at Mrs. Jefferson.

“Looks like it’s about to rain.”

“It certainly does, Brother Jefferson.”

Thunder rumbled in the distance.

“It surely must be a gift from God.” Mrs. Winthrop offered.

“Must be,” Casey muttered.

“Well, we’ll leave you to your work.”

“Have a good day, Brother Jefferson.” He turned back to Mrs. Jefferson. “Ma’am.”

The two couples separated. A steady wind began to blow.

“What’s that?” Clara asked, pointing.

Casey saw an enormous black cloud, darker than a moonless sky, barreling down on Dry Springs. “It looks like a dust cloud,” he whispered.

“I-It could be a regular cloud,” his wife stammered.

The constable looked to the nearby storm, then back to the cloud of dust. “No. It’s moving against the wind.”

“What do we do?”

“Run!” he screamed. “Everyone run! There’s a dust storm!”

Lightning flashed ominously. People screamed and scurried in all directions.

“Get inside!” Casey yelled over the thunder.

A smaller dust cloud flew past Casey and caught Mrs. Jefferson. She screamed as the dust dried her out and left her a lifeless husk on the ground. The preacher stayed near his wife’s body. “Lord, take me, too!” he cried.

“If you don’t get inside, He will!” Clara snapped.

Brother Jefferson gasped and ran into Bell’s General Store.

More of the dust devils attacked people, killing them almost instantly. Casey and Clara looked at the wall of dust, which was almost at the town.

“What happens when it hits?” she asked.

“I don’t want to know.”

Thunder grew louder as more small dust clouds flew past the husband and wife. One traveled under the closed door of Mackey’s Funeral Parlor. Several people ran out the door, only to be struck by more dust.

“Maybe the buildings aren’t so safe after all,” Casey muttered.

A door screeched open. “Casey, Clara, get in here!” Dr. Lindsey said.

“Okay,” Casey said. He and Clara ran toward the doctor’s office. A small dust cloud swooped in and attacked the older man.

“Dr. Lindsey, no!” Casey screamed.

After a few moments, the doctor’s body fell in the doorway.

“Oh God,” the constable whispered and fell to his knees.

Clara tugged on his shirt. “Casey, we have a bigger problem right now.” She pointed to the east of town. The wall of dust was no more than twenty feet away. “We need to get inside.”

“I’m tired of running, Clara. I want you to go in, though.”

She shook her head. “I’m not leaving you out here to die.” She knelt beside him.

He put an arm around her. “I love you, Clara.”

“I love you, too, Casey.”

Thunder boomed loudly above them. Casey looked up. The gray storm clouds collided with the black mass. Something dark fell from the sky. He covered Clara’s head and tried to hide his own.

Rain fell on the couple, soaking their clothes. Casey cautiously looked up. Black mud covered him and his wife. Clara looked up a few moments later.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think so. What happened?”

“I-I don’t really know.”

He stood up, then helped his wife stand. The couple stood in the middle of the street, watching the mud fall from above. Townspeople slowly milled out of the buildings.

“I-Is it over?” Brother Jefferson asked.

“I have no idea,” Casey said, looking to the sky.

Kristina R. Mosley lives in Kensett, Arkansas, a tiny place no one has heard of. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including Micro Horror, Fiction on the Web, Dangerous Dreams, We are Dust and Shadow, and Silent Scream. She recently published her novelette Strange Days on Amazon. She tweets too often at twitter.com/elstupacabra.

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