Archive for: February, 2017

Dichotomy Ground by S.L. Dixon

Feb 26 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

Two died on impact. Strong and healthy roots from separate and yet entangled family trees gone in an instant.

A third involved in the incident died while the screaming sirens and the bright lights did little beyond clearing a path and offering the sidewalk gawkers a reason for speculation. The rolling white cube carted nothing more than a still warm body. However, if his life’s work meant much, he was in a better place. Being a man of the cloth suggested no less than Heaven.

Two survived, and to add to the chaos of the scene, there was the sixth body.

A body long cold and days dead. It almost seemed as if the corpse dropped from the sky, smack in the middle of the wreckage.

It was young woman with a familiar face. That face had been on the news all week. Her parents were worried sick. There was a fight and Little Miss Thing had an attitude and yet, according to the teary-faced mother, Carrie was a good girl, acting out that’s all. Those words and the accompanying tears were all over the news every day following Carrie’s stroll on Highway 66. It was hours before anyone recognized an issue.

Carrie’s mother discovered something didn’t fit when Sandi, Carrie’s friend from up the highway, called to check on Carrie, said Carrie wasn’t answering texts and said Carrie was to be by… when was that exactly?

A question people ask when the hot ball of worry drops into their bellies, something’s wrong and it’s been that way for hours now, but… how many? When was it, exactly? Oh God.

Mama told the cameras pointed at her front door about what Carrie wore out of the house. It was embarrassing. Mama let Carrie out in a short skirt and a fishnet top that showed off a fluorescent pink halter. On her feet, pink heels completed the look. It was definitely not Grace of God Baptist Church approved.

After acknowledging an issue, neighbours searching the side of the highway found a pink heel that booted that worry like a soccer ball, booted it into all-out panic.

Everybody guessed the likely answer, but nobody said. Girls on the highway had a way of showing up used and abused, final heartbeats drummed and no way to paint a suspect. There were already four that year and the police did not have a clue where to look as thousands took that highway, daily.

When Carrie’s body showed up in the middle of a car accident in the ditch, they thought perhaps that luck had finally swung in their direction. Thank God.

It was a three-car collision. A pack of elk decided it was a good time to cross the highway and a rusty Ford truck plowed into a little Nissan and a mid-size Chevy. It appeared most of those riding in the vehicles had a lazy attitude toward safety belts.

The two survivors shared a wide hospital room with two empty beds, left so, for the sake of the families. All expected an early checkout time, despite whatever hope rattled around minds.

A detective waited outside the door, he had some questions to ask the one woman, but the doctor said no and the nurse told him he’d best skedaddle if he didn’t want a size seven square in his ass. Frustrated, he waited and watched as people came in and out, deathbed exceptions to the rules for family members only.

One clinging to life was just thirty-three, no husband, no kids, a ghost of her former self. She rested, unconscious, her name Eliza Goodman, or Lizzy to her friends. Eliza was on the brink, her lungs needing regular drainage even after the first surgery. It didn’t look good. She was pretty well dead to the world long before anything was official, but that didn’t keep her parents from rushing the two hours along rough highway and into her hospital room.

“Look at her, I mean just look at her,” Maria Goodman said to her husband, she gripped her Bible begging for a red zone defence from the Man Upstairs. Keep that score the way it was, please!

Bryan Goodman put his hand on his wife’s shoulder and pulled her to his chest, knowing exactly what went through her head looking down at that puffy white face. Hell, that was it and he knew it too. They’d discussed it and thought they’d have time to reconcile, let it slide for a few years until she came to her senses, but she’d never get a chance at redemption if she never awoke.

It was the failing of her last relationship and the loss of the baby growing in her oven that turned Eliza sour on the Lord. Neither Bryan nor Maria could say much, not right away. They did their best to give space at such a troubling time, although it was the duty of every good Christian to lead stray sheep back to the flock.

“We should’ve tried harder,” said Maria, tears danced down her face. “She’s doomed if she doesn’t wake up and beg the Lord, beg His forgiveness for what she’d said, doomed.”

Bryan wanted to say something reassuring about the Lord’s way and the His work, but none of it sounded right for that moment. Their daughter was on her way and not to a better place. Good person or not, she didn’t get right with the Lord and that meant she was right with Satan.

A machine attached to the woman in the bed next to Eliza beeped frantically and the woman leaned forward. Her eyes scanned and her arms flailed with frantic swipes, looking for something, needing help.

“Oh Bryan, get the nurse,” said Maria and she ran to the panicked woman.

Bryan raced out of the room, his sneakers squeaking on the shiny, waxed floor.

“What’s going on?” the detective demanded.

Bryan ignored him and got to the nurses’ station. It wasn’t far, but it doesn’t say anything about cardio in the Good Book, not directly anyway. He huffed and gasped, mouthing words. The nurse got the just of it and ran past him.

The detective demanded information from the nurse as she rushed. She ignored him. He stopped Bryan from trailing the nurse all the way in, “What’s happening, is there trouble?” asked the detective. He’d had time to think and it seemed very unlikely that the accident happened on a fortunate spot. He deduced that more likely a serial killer was on her way to a dumpsite. The perp liked rivers and there was a wooded area featuring a secluded canoe launch not ten minutes up the highway. Let the body float and bob, let that evidence wash away with nature.

It was possible that the body had been dumped in the vicinity and that the killer had long gone. It was possible.

It seemed a hell of a lot more likely that the woman in the room was in on it, maybe not the main show, but in the mix. Right there with that same raping and murdering sonofabitch they’d sought for almost a year and who they’d linked to past crimes as far back as 1995. Sonofabitch was a PG term for this guy. At the station they had an entire rainbow of colorful titles for him to hear if they ever caught him. They never thought there’d be a her involved or even considered the possibility that it was just a her.

“You can take a boot,” the detective muttered to himself and then chased into the room to gawk at the questionable woman struggling for life.

The nurse busied herself with a needle over the washroom’s sink. Eliza was asleep and her father cried, nodding with along to the rambling Biblical chanting performed by her harried mother.

The suspect repeated over and over that she was sorry for what she’d done. Her greasy blonde hair crawling over the bandage on her head, falling into her eyes as she struggled against the pain. Life was hard and death was no different.

“Forgive me, Jesus, please, take me! Jesus, forgive me, I’m sorry!” the woman begged, wailing.

The beeping became frantic. The nurse raced back and tripped on a loose shoelace, spilling her forward, the needle skittered under the heat register, she yelled a chorus of near-obscenities and crawled across the room seeking the needle.

The detective decided to question the woman trying for peace with Jesus, “Ursula Donaldson,” the detective pushed aside the short-range missionaries and leaned down to look into the woman’s panicked eyes, “did you kill Carrie Howe?”

There was recognition there, it was there all right, but before the detective could ask another question, the nurse stuck the needle into Ursula and she fluttered off to sleep.

The Goodman’s returned to their spot next to their daughter, feeling better as they’d saved a soul, although wishing it were Eliza’s soul they’d saved. And… what was it that the detective asked about anyway? Did that poor woman kill a girl named Carrie? Nonsense…, but if she had, she repented and, made good with the Lord. It’s the only real law of the land anyway. She might not get the star treatment, but the Lord would love her for the devotion and repentance, sure He would.

Ursula Donaldson made it three more hours, but never regained consciousness, dying at exactly seven that evening. It was sad, but there was still a chance for Eliza. She’d gone in for another surgery at six and the doctors said it went well. It felt like one of those things only God knows for sure.

First thing the next morning, Eliza had another surgery. Maria read aloud from the Bible, hoping something might stick and allow their daughter consciousness for a second, just a second, long enough to let God know she’d changed her way.

#

Eliza opened her eyes. She was warm and comfortable and yet, she didn’t feel herself. Her skin was tight, comfy and clear. It reminded her of high school but without all the acne. She sat in a field, her mind in a fog, the memory of how she got there was gone. She recalled being in Kate’s car. Malcolm was behind her and Kate and he had sunburn on his back so he couldn’t sit against the seat. They sang, all of them sang, loudly.

Some damn song. Catchy as hell… but then what?

Eliza got to her feet and looked around the peculiar landscape. The grass with luscious green and full, without weeds. She brushed at her short dress, curious about how she’d come to fit into a dress she had in the ninth grade. It was not as if she’d packed on much weight, but over the years her body shifted in shape, giving her a more womanly quality than that of a young boy. Nonetheless, she liked the dress and was happy that it fit again. A ways ahead she saw a road. It was warm and the grass felt nice on her bare feet.

“What was that song?” she asked herself, stopping as the sound of her voice registered fully. “Hello, hello. My name is Lizzy. Mo, mo, me, me,” she said, her voice was light and high, higher than it was when she and Kate and Malcolm sang along to that damn song.

She skipped toward the road, humming the tune of the song she couldn’t remember. It was pretty much the catchiest tune of all time and somehow it escaped her.

“Who cares about the name of a song? How did you get here? Where’s here?”

Just before the road there was a patch of butterflies resting atop a bed of wild flowers. She crept slowly, they fluttered into a breezy cloud and then dispersed, all but one. One beautiful creature with black circles over large blue and yellow wings landed on the tip of her nose. She smiled and wrinkled her face. A sneeze rocked her head forward and the butterfly followed its friends.

She bent to pick an orange wild flower and put it in her hair, it matched her puffy little dress perfectly. It seemed such a strange thing to do. Yet, it felt right just then. A gentle breeze put the scent of pine in the air from the forest on the other side of the road. Walking in the gravel didn’t appeal, but the grassy edge dipped down into the ditch for much of the trip.

“Screw it,” she said and took a timid step expecting a great discomfort and found a wonderful surprise. Each stone worked like magic fingertips, scratching spots she hadn’t realized itched, never tickling, just scratching and massaging. “I could walk here forever,” she whispered and continued down the road.

The sun began to lower behind her and she thought she pointed east.

Maybe over to… “Where in the hell am I?”

Eliza glanced up to the evening sky and as if her luck needed any luck, a truck rolled along the road. It was bright and shiny, but older, from the nineties. Eliza lifted her hand to block out the sun and watched the truck approach her. Part of her wanted to walk more, barefoot, loving the gravel, but another part didn’t like spending nights on the side of the road.

The truck slowed. It was a big Ford, it had a double-sized cab and a blonde haired woman with a wide smile sat behind the wheel. She reached over to turn down the radio and swung open the passenger’s side door, it was a Nelly Furtado song, I’m like a bird.

Eliza stepped closer. The driver pulled a denim jacket into the small strip of vinyl on the fabric bench, a center spot fit for only tiny bottoms. She waved Eliza in, seeming all right. Still, Eliza remained cautious. The corners of the driver’s mouth lowered into a thoughtful frown.

“Hey girl, did ya need a lift?” the driver asked.

“Maybe, where you going?”

“Don’t know. I’m lost. I’ve been driving since last night and can’t put my finger on where in the world I am, but it sure is pretty ‘round here.”

Eliza couldn’t disagree. The lack of knowledge this driver held didn’t sit well, maybe the next car might have a driver better acclimated.

“If you want, I’m heading west, I think. That way nonetheless,” the driver pointed through the window and squinted, one eye closed.

“You see anybody else around?”

The driver dropped her hand to the gear shifter. It had a blue and yellow butterfly inside its glass knob.

“You know what, I haven’t seen a soul, just you. So ya coming?”

“I don’t know, I don’t usually accept rides from strangers,” said Eliza, she sounded especially childish.

“Oh I don’t blame you there. While you’re waiting for your pops to come along and pick you up, someone bad might come. It makes you think, don’t it?” the driver nodded.

Eliza thought, it’s not as if it’s some rough old man.

“I took a couple bad rides in my life. I know how it can feel. Best get in. I’d feel better for you.”

“Hmm, all right,” Eliza said and scooted sideways. The seat was springy and pleasant on her back and butt.

She caught her reflection in the door mirror. It was her and at the same time, it wasn’t, not anymore. It was the Eliza that owned the orange dress, a young girl with tiny hips and pebble breasts. The face in the mirror was Eliza’s junior grades self… but without all the acne.

Eliza forced her eyes forward to the road, it got darker by the minute and she was starting to feel very fortunate to be in the truck.

The driver brushed her long blonde hair behind her ear. Eliza stared at the woman’s strange earrings. Real butterflies stopped dead and hung stiff for fashion.

“You like them?” the driver asked, noticing the interest. The butterflies dangled on slim gold chains.

“Sure seems like you like butterflies,” said Eliza.

“Don’t you like butterflies? I love them. Most girls love butterflies. Are you suggesting that you don’t just love them? I ain’t met a girl that don’t love them,” the driver turned toward Eliza with a heinous, toothy grin.

Eliza thought she was probably one poor soul in school. A rough trailer park girl that never caught a break, probably a poor luckless soul her entire life. Eliza also wondered why she looked, felt and thought about things along the lines of school.

Why do I look like this again?

An old All-4-One song came on the radio and Eliza recalled a school dance, one from right around the time of her dress and her boyish shape. The time she let Robbie Dion feel her up. The memory made her laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“I just remembered something,” said Eliza. She looked out and the sky had gone from dusk to full night in the minutes of All-4-One’s I Swear.

“Look at that,” said the driver, pointing and squinting as she had earlier.

Hills rolled a little ways ahead and a bright neon sign promising fuel and motel beds stuck way up into the sky, a beacon for weary-eyed travelers looking to hide in the darkness offered by the backs of their eyelids.

“I think we should stop. I’m getting,” the driver yawned, it seemed forced, “tired. What do you say?”

“You think I should sleep in a room with you?”

Eliza’s safety warnings sounded the alarm in her mind. The woman was a stranger and a weird one at that. Eliza wondered what choices she had, she didn’t have a purse, didn’t have a credit card, she didn’t even have her cell. She wished she’d never gotten out of Kate’s Nissan.

Why did you? Damn it, what was that song?

The driver sniggered at Eliza’s question, “A room? Uh, no darlin’. It’s been fun and all, but we don’t need a room. What’s going to happen is, I’m going to reach over, you’re going to struggle some, I’ll hit you once or twice, you’ll calm down a bit, but really I’ll wish you wouldn’t. My hubby always liked the struggle too. Then he’d do his thing, but he’s not here, so we’ll skip the sticky bit.

“Ya see how this goes is, I’ll throw the seat flat and start my business. See girls like you, I know what you all think. You all think I’m dirt, well guess what! I am and dirt like me, well, we love to take it out on little girlies like you! Oh, you’ll fight some more and I’ll smack you around a bit more, I’ll be about ready to finish you, then I’ll force myself to wait. It’s better to wait, draw it out for the long haul.

“You might even give up for a while. Cry and moan for your mama and your pop. Once you’re still, you’ll feel a little something.”

The driver wheeled into the deserted truck stop as she spoke. Eliza looked around for a weapon and found none.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle in the end. I know how to treat a lady. I’m awfully ladylike myself. Ha! You girls should’a been nicer to me in school, this would never had’a happen if you was just nicer.”

Eliza shook her head although she didn’t quite comprehend, recognizing only that things were about to become much worse for her and that the Mariana’s Trench song Malcolm tried to push on her for the last month was on the radio. The driver ran her hand behind the front bench and it folded back, a smooth bed front seat to back seat.

“That’s better, now, where was I?” the driver grabbed onto Eliza by the shoulders and made to toss her down onto the folded seat.

Eliza considered playing dead. The woman said she liked the fight, playing dead might make the woman lose interest. At the woman’s touch, that idea became so obviously ridiculous. Eliza made for the door handle. The driver’s fist thumped into her head twice and she grew sluggish. The driver pulled flat her prey. Eliza’s eyes rolling back in her head and she considered the exact nature of the situation around her.

How am I young again?

Where am I?

And why can’t I remember things?

Energy surged, if only at a minimal level, and Eliza grabbed at the door handle on the back door. It did nothing. She pulled the handle three times to be certain.

“Back doors only work once the front door is open,” the driver laughed, “You little ritzy bitches are all the same. Stupid.”

The track on the radio faded into a new song, “I threw a wish…,” said the voice and Eliza forgot all about the insane woman in front of her. It was that catchy Carly Rae Jepson song, the one that if you heard it one day it would be in your head for a week. It was the song on the radio, they all sang, Kate took off her seatbelt to dance while she drove. It was funny.

The hook between the first and second verse was as far as they all got. Elk, an entire pack, ran out into the road. Kate thumped into one and pulled hard on the wheel, two other vehicles did the same thing at the same time, coming together and stopping dead in a sea of metal and elk bits.

It was black after that. Now and then she blinked, saw paramedics, saw a nurse, the inside of a hospital room, a bandaged woman in another bed. She blinked again and saw her mother. Her mother didn’t notice the second she opened her eyes because her mother was nose deep into the Bible. That was it. There were no more blinks until she awoke in the strange place.

The driver had wild eyes and a fat knife ready for the main event.

“Don’t worry, I like to take my time with little girlies like you.”

Eliza thought, this is crazy and booted twice. The woman fell back and Eliza dove to the driver’s door handle, one that would certainly work. The door opened and she spilled out.

“You bitch!” Ursula Donaldson screamed as Eliza crawled on the gravel toward the neon sign next to the motel.

“Leave me alone!” Eliza shouted back in a shrill childish squeal.

Eliza felt two hands come down on her and lift her skinny frame into the air. She kicked as if pedalling and invisible bicycle.

“God wants me to have you! Sure as shit He does!”

“I don’t think so,” said a firm, mannish voice.

Eliza opened her eyes and stopped kicking. There was another person in that place, a hero, a perfect, wonderful hero.

“This is none of your business,” said Ursula.

The grasp let some and Eliza slid to the ground. The hands kept the small girl from moving, but both knew it was just a matter of time.

“Oh yes it is,” the man said to Ursula and then crouched with open arms.

Eliza recognized the man’s Catholic collar and despite her sourness toward the church, she jerked completely free of the driver and raced to the new embrace.

“There you are, my child,” the man held Eliza.

Eliza glanced back over her shoulder at the evil truck-driving woman. Ursula sneered. The father collected Eliza and squeezed. The driver’s door of an F-150 slammed and wheels dug into the gravel and peeled away.

“Are you hungry?” the father asked as he rose.

Feeling even smaller and as helpless as a young child, Eliza nodded emphatically and sobbed.

“Come, the Lord hates to see a child hungry,” the father said and pulled a key from his pocket.

They strode hand-in-hand across the parking lot to the door marked Office. Inside wasn’t like a motel room. It was drab and small. There was a single bed and a kitchenette. A worn wardrobe stood in a corner next to a ratty padded chair under a reading lamp. There was a child’s desk and three images of Jesus above the desk, hanging with loving warning. On the desk was a Bible.

“Sit, my child,” said the father, giving Eliza a small shove toward the bed.

She sat and gazed further around the dim room. A light switched. There was a row of cupboards and a small refrigerator. The father busied himself with a tray and what sounded like crackers. “How about some music?” the father asked and without waiting for an answer switched on the radio. Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe had started over. “This must be your song,” the father added, there was a smile on his voice, “My song is a Tom Petty song. I don’t recall it from before…, well, before, you know. It was on the radio.”

Before what? Eliza wondered and suddenly took on an uneasy feeling again, “Can we call my dad?” she asked and her voice was strange, more childish.

The father stepped back into the room carrying the tray of crackers, “In time, my son.”

Eliza wanted to shout. Everything was wrong. The father was strange. That woman before was terrifying. She wasn’t a boy and she wanted her dad! Instead, she sat in a respectable silence.

The father placed the tray over their laps as he sat. Eliza looked down at the silver tray. Around the crackers she saw the reflection of the father and a small boyish face with sad eyes, rosy nutcracker cheeks and a short brown bowl cut. Eliza shook her head gently, so did the boy in the reflection.

I’m not a boy! I’m a woman! she ached to wail, fear sapped her ability.

The father took a cracker and crunched.

He took another, crunched.

On the third, he crunched and spoke with a breath of spat crumbs, “The Lord works in mysterious ways. You want to make the Lord happy, don’t you, my son?”

Eliza stiffened.

“Of course you do, the Lord wants those that follow him happy. So you just do as I say.”

Eliza felt a hand on her boy-thigh and it struck her as Carly Rae Jepsen howled playfully.

I’m dead. There was an accident and I died. I died and, “I’m in Hell,” she gasped.

The father touched a sweaty palm on the cotton trouser thigh of a small boy, avoiding the boy’s eyes. Licked his dry, soda cracker lips. “How could this possibly be anything but Heaven?” the father asked as his hand rose up the thigh.

#

Third-Person Bio:

Former homeless hitchhiker and high school dropout, S.L. Dixon’s fiction has appeared in grew up in dozens of publications from around the world. He’s married, has a cat and currently resides in a small coastal community in British Columbia, Canada.

www.sldixon.ca
@SLDixonWriter

Publication History:

38 short stories published in the last 3 years (June 2014-June 2016) (Starburst Magazine, Dark Moon Digest, SQ Mag, Perpetual Motion Machine, The Wicked Library, etc) and a handful more are due for release in the coming months.

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Glass-Walled Cabin by K. Marvin Bruce

Feb 19 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

Flames jetting high overhead force screams from the tall pines and the animals trapped in them.  Old Johnny’ll kill me.  If I survive this.

Old Johnny said to stop by the fire tower anytime.  I love nature.  Have to get out of the valley of money.  Back to nature.

Shift the rucksack to release some of the steam broiling my back.  I hope his offer’s still good.  It’s a long hike.

Our families go way back.  Used to share an honest-to-God log cabin down on the lake.  Unpretentious, open-plan log shack with inadequate lighting, gaps around the windows, and an outhouse without ventilation.  The aged timbers had cracks running their lengths and calking merely a suggestion.  A cabin from which you could watch the world.

Old Johnny and I each owned half.  Back in our bachelor days we’d share the cabin during the summer.  Fishing, snoozing, paddling a leaky old 12-foot aluminum lazily across the tranquil water watched by sentinel mountains.  Nights we’d light a fire down by the lake.  A can of beans and a half-dozen hotdogs any honest man’s meal.  In the morning coffee was strong.  Grounds collected at the bottom of your chipped mug.  If a few made their way into your mouth you spit like a man.

Marriage changes old habits.  Eventually the women-folk wanted newer accommodations.  Using a privy in the middle of the night in grizzly country was declared dangerous.  We sold the cabin and each built ourselves newer quarters with electricity and running water.  Hot and cold.  We remained close.  Johnny and I’d sit around the fire telling bullshit stories until all hours.  I never believed him later when he told of strange things he saw up in that lookout tower.

Johnny joined the US Forestry service as a ranger and volunteered summers on fire tower duty.  The missus stays in town.  He says odd things happen when you’re truly alone.

It takes a special kind of guy to be a fire-watcher.  Got to be comfortable in your own head.  It’s a lonely job.  Lonely as hell.  Worse than a lighthouse.  Fire-watchers climb into their observation towers by their lonesomes and remain alone for four solid months.  120 days of solitude.  That’s why I’m walking up this rocky path in the tall bear grass.

Lightning strikes can occur out of the blue.  Literally.  Campers don’t always obey old Smokey.  A hundred miles away a careless driver might flick a still-burning butt out a window, heedless of the prime tinder all around.  Forest fires explode into instantaneous monsters.  Fire-spotters are the first line of defense with their powerful binoculars.  Radio in the coordinates.  Save hundreds of thousands of acres.  Alone.

Nothing Johnny hates worse than a fire bug.

Kaniksu National Forest.  These mountains in eastern Washington are remote.  I never see any other cars once I creep onto these dusty logging roads.  The washboard surface on the gravel track kicks up impenetrable powder and shakes your deepest fears.  Tall pines crowd the very edges of the unpaved course.  Sun beams down from a crystalline sky heating the air like a kiln.  It hits triple digits down in the valleys.

Cool relief on the mountaintops.  Highest summits hoard their snow even in July.

Johnny and I were best friends as kids, but our commitments as adults wedged us apart.  He stays in the hills, while I sweat out the heat of the valley.  My valley is far from here, closer to the money.  The gold’s here, Johnny says.  Maybe money isn’t all it promises to be.  Nature marks a man.

At the deserted forest ranger station, Smokey the Bear said fire danger is “Extreme.”  Hasn’t rained here since May.

Puffing up this trail, I feel my desk job.  Endless swaths of bear grass encompass me.  You’d have to be pretty damn tall to see over it—grows over seven foot high.  A lake of it.  Lime-green stalks shoot straight up and explode in puff-balls of tiny, white flowers over your head.  Swaying across the path.  Blocking every view.  I walk slow.  Altitude and gradient pull me down.  I’m struck by the silence.  Other than the whisper of the giant stalks, no sound.  When I say I enjoy the quiet of the mountains, I mean the quiet of non-human noise.  The raucous bawl of the stellar jay.  The scolding chatter of the red squirrel.  The squeal of pikas.  Complete silence is unnerving.

I pull out my map, trying to convince myself there’s no danger.  Up here in the remote Rockies some animals have no fear of humans and their rifles.  I’m unarmed anyway.  Granola bars, water, matches, and a pocket knife all all a man needs.  Nature takes care of you.  Map shows the fire tower, impressively close gradient lines, and dashed scores representing the path.  “3 mi.”  I try not to think of grizzly bears.  Three miles.  How far have I walked over this rocky trail so far?  Distances are difficult to gauge.  I must be closer to the tower than to the car by now.

Rustling deep within the swaying grass.  I feel eyes on me.  Hairs on the back of my neck salute.  Mountain lions, the ghosts of the Rockies.  I quietly fold the map and shove it into the pocket of my cargo-shorts.

Up ahead the path curves along the contours of the ridge.  Like swimming through a blond sea of heavy grains.  I follow the gentle bend in the trail.  At first my brain won’t register what my eyes see in the powdery dirt.  A footprint.  Looks human, but not.  My heart bumps audibly in my throat.  Bigfoot pranksters all the way up here with their plywood cut-out feet?  The track looks detailed, not flat, although it’s hard to tell in this anemic, dry soil.  Should I return to the car?  How far have I come?  What’s up ahead?  The fire tower, my old friend Johnny, should be visible any moment now.

Taking a deep breath, I press onward, up the slope.  Just ahead, a break in the grass.  The green sea opens into an Alpine spruce grove.  There, above the thinning trees, on naked rock, stands Johnny’s lonely tower.  I step forward with renewed determination, feeling eyes on my back the entire way.

“Johnny!” I call out when I’m close enough.  Human voices strike fear in animals.  “Johnny! You there?”  Fire tower, standard R-6 model.  Not as tall as the stations in lower hilly regions.  Nature’s vista from the top here is sufficient with the thirty-foot advantage over the five-thousand feet of this rounded peak.  A set of wooden stairs winds around the outside of the thick timber supports, offering access to the glass-walled cabin at the top.  Creosote aroma lingers faintly.  A wrap-around porch offers clear 360-degree viewing above.  Flat roof overhang gives a little shade in the intense summer heat.  “Johnny!” I call again, making for the stairs.

I feel, more than hear, something pursuing me.  I try to jog, but the rocks are treacherous.  Panting, I reach the stairs.  With a sudden adrenalin rush, race to the top.

Porch is chained off.  Forestry Service sign reads, “Tower Closed.”  The chain is merely a psychological deterrent.  It’s Old Johnny’s place.  Damn backpack gets snarled in the chain as I try to duck under.  Not as lithe as I used to be.  A stabbing pain jolts through my back as I try to coax another inch out of my creaking knees.  What’s behind me?  Frantic, I force myself further.  The chain relinquishes the canvas sack.

I catch my breath.  Secure up here.  This is an artificial structure—human territory.  Even though the tower is unprotected, it’s a cabin in the woods.  I stretch out my back.  Walk the course of the wrap-around porch.  Strange stillness.  Nature is afraid.  Where’s Johnny?

If there’s something hiding out there, I don’t have a friend to watch my back.  The car is three miles of broken rock from here.  Long shadows creep up the mountainside.  Beyond the shading eaves of the flat roof, the sun is well past its zenith.

That footprint in the dust.  All I have is a glass-walled cabin.

Door’s locked.  Not that there’s anything to steal.

I painfully slip off my backpack.  Fish out my pocket knife.  Starting above the stolid latch, I slip the blade into the crevice and gently jimmy it on down, sliding it behind the curved surface of the brass until the handle pops free.  I’m no thief.  Just desperate.

I slip inside and pull the door shut.  Latch engages with a satisfying thunk.  There’s nothing here.  The place smells like an abandoned pantry.  A cot with no bedding.  Well-worn decks of cards.  A notepad or two.  Bears don’t climb towers, but the dry goods and cans are all gone anyway.  Dusty cobwebs dangle in the breeze I create.  The walls—everything from the waist up—are glass.

I glance around for the radio.  Fire lookouts are useless without communication.  I remember seeing Johnny use the big, old government-issue transmitter.  Like in black-and-white war movies.  Radio’s nowhere to be found.  Johnny’s super-sized binoculars are gone.  The sun ominously beams in.

Should I make an attempt on the car?  Three miles.  Trail broken and rocky.  Knees feel like they’ve been run over by a truck.  I might make it back before dark.  Not likely.  Surveying the vista, my utterly exposed situation settles home.  Anything on the porch can see in.  Visibility is a two-way street.

No bathroom.  99.94 percent of the time, the fire-watcher is completely alone.  The call of nature.  Suddenly all that metallic water I’ve been slugging down makes itself urgently felt.

As a young man I could hold it for hours.  Age has a way of making bodily functions less negotiable.  Who’s going to see?  I unlock the half-glass door and step out onto the porch.  Just in case another hiker is coming along the trail, I walk to the back of the tower—is there a back?— pull down my zipper.  Instant relief of my emptying bladder.  I hear the stream spatter on the dry, thirsty ground thirty feet below, achingly loud in this seclusion.

I zip up and ponder.  I’ll start out at first light.  Plenty of time to reach my car.  In the meanwhile I’ll work with the bits and pieces of government cast-offs.  Everything in this sparse tower seems to have a single, fixed function, and any other use feels unnatural.  Sun balefully dips to the frozen rock waves of my horizon.

Looking down over the bear grass meadow, there’s a beaten path in the grass from this vantage point.  Without binoculars, I to strain to see.  No movement visible.  The bear grass gives way to larches and cedars down at the tree-line, and the shadow of late afternoon has already reached them.

Bears are crepuscular, foraging in the twilight hours.  Would they climb all these steps and break the glass to get at me?  Cougars are even less likely to break in.  What else is out here?  What did Johnny see?

Will there be any light once the sun sets?  Johnny used a Coleman lantern.  Gone.  The shelves have been thoroughly emptied.  No electricity.  Johnny had a generator for the radio and mini-fridge.  Gone.

I scoop up Johnny’s abandoned cards and lay out a hand of Klondike on the floor.  Each card slap announces I’m here.

Full moon is already in the sky.   I’m glad for the illumination in the spooky stillness of this mountaintop.  I drop the cards.  Walk around the inside walls of the cabin.   Gerbil in a terrarium.  Nervously I glance toward the darkened bear grass.  Watch for any movement down there.

The gray light of the moon hovers over the mountain top.  Mountain peaks refract the cold, unforgiving light.   Down at the cabin I spent countless nights out after dark.  Entire moonless nights on the dock watching the stars and wondering.  Up here darkness menaces.  Nature wants me.

The distinct sound of rustling outside.

An inhuman scream pierces the night.  My heart flies, a cannonball in my chest.  The scream’s so loud.  Animal must be close.  A mountain lion screams like a woman.  But this is more primal.  Wild.  Angry.  I’m frozen.  What am I up against?

Haltingly, silently, I step toward the windows.  Peer down into the leaden light of the moonlit bear grass.  My fluttering heart stops.  Movement.  Indistinct in the swaying grass.  Something large is approaching.  I pray it’s only a grizzly bear.

An answering scream rips the night.  Shudder violently racks my shoulders.  Whatever’s down there isn’t alone.  I don’t want to look, but terror compels me.  As still as possible, I glance around the clearing on this rugged mountain peak.  There!  From the bear grass!  Something covered in fur emerges.  My mind automatically says “bear,” framing this creature with a recognized category.  But it’s no bear.  It’s something that doesn’t exist.

The huge creature lumbers out on two feet.  Not four.  It tips back its head.  Its scream forces my hands to my ears in panic.  Swaying cobweb glances my neck.  I stifle my own scream.

Three.  Four seconds.  Answering call from behind.  My shaking uncontrollable, I believe the impossible.  The creature lumbers toward my tower.  The abandoned structure serves as a kind of landmark for animals as well as for humans.  Its monstrous shape and faded creosote smell.  The only thing like this for miles around.

In the feeble light of the moon, I see the long shadow cast by this lumbering giant.  By the height of the bear grass it just exited, eight feet tall.  Long, matted fir, dark in the night.  Man-like body, only it’s much heavier than even the fattest man I’ve ever seen.  And I live in Spokane.  Long arms sway beneath its knees.  It walks with purpose.  It’s close to the tower now, hopefully unaware I’m here.  Another ear-splitting scream.  I melt into a quivering heap below the glass.  Menaced by the impossible.

The answering cry is much quicker.  Two night stalkers just below me.  Silently as I can, I creep to the far side.  Glance at the companion.  Slowly, slowly, I push myself up on popping, crackling knees.  Emerging from the larches and firs is another.  The massive, furred beast makes its way toward its companion.  Suddenly it stops.  Close enough now to see a hairy, almost human face.  Sniffing the air.  It drops down.  I remember where I peed earlier.  Left my scent.

Grunts and snorts emerge from below me.  Discovered.  A coat of pins pricks my back and shoulders.  What will they do?  A ranger in a fire tower can’t see directly below.

Seeing even one of them is surreal.  Bigfoot’s a myth.  Although right next to one another, they begin a frantic screaming.  I cower down, pressing palms to my head.  The pitch and timbre now a shrill call of discovery.  Similar cries emanate from the valley below.  Others making their way here.  Is this what Johnny saw?  Is this why his post is abandoned?

The howling increases as more join the couple below.  Communal sounds like the gorilla grunts at the zoo.  I’m now the beast in a glass cage.

The timber frame shakes.  Thick, lodgepole pine supports, hasped together with heavy steel plates and immoveable bolts.  Silence.  Another sudden jolt.  They’re testing my cage.  Assessing its strength.  What can I use as a weapon?  Another heavy shudder.  They can’t topple this tower, but I am terrified that they even try.  Non-human intelligence is unnatural.  Just go away!

After the terrible din and violent jerking, sudden silence rages.  I can’t look.  Maybe they’ve made their point and will go away.  My ears strain against the silent night.

Unmistakable creak of a heavy foot on the stairs.  One of them is climbing up.  I glance around my glass-walled cabin for shelter.  Any cover.  Only solid thing here is this canvas cot.  At least it’s a visual shield.  Any kind of barrier is better than none.

I scramble behind the cot as the unsteady, weighty steps continue their ascent.  It’s not accustomed to stairs.  I will need to maneuver the cot to keep it between my assailant and me.  Must keep out of direct view.

Each faltering footfall kickstarts my already hammering heart.  Stomp.  Silence.  Stomp.  Silence.  Silence.  Stomp.  The wait is interminable.

This flimsy cot’s shaking.  Did I latch the door?  Surely they don’t use handles.  Even with the glass, an unlatched door is no protection.  How near the top of the stairs?  Do I have time to scurry to the door, slip the bolt?  Panic decides for me.  I stand.  Swiftly step across the small room.  My fingers sweating as I try to shove the inadequate slide bolt across.  The climbing stops.  The moon disappears behind a cloud.

It’s not a cloud.

I feel the red eyes boring into me from above.  The glass door filled with a dark, furred shape.  I cower below the level of its massive thighs.  The colossal barrel chest.  Thick arms sway just inches away.  High above, a hideous face peers down at me.  Lips parted in a snarl.  My breath hitches, all hair erect before this nightmare.  A clumsy, crippled insect, I scramble back behind the cot on all fours.  Only now I hear more feet.   Fumbling up the stairs.  Wrap-around porch.  Glass-walled cabin.  Full visibility.

The angry beast is joined by a second.  A gigantic hand suddenly raps the glass.   Testing it.  Solidity deters it for a moment.  My heart pounds fast.  Can’t distinguish individual beats any more.

The creatures swagger around my glass cage.  Stooping as their heads rasp the overhanging roof.  I shuffle around, holding the cot in front of me.  Try to create confusion for them.  Their eyes are hostile.  Grunting a guttural exchange.  A shattering screech fills the air.  I drop the cot to cover my ears.  Glass shatters.  I grasp my backpack.  Steel water bottle my only weapon.  The matches fall out.

Everything in this cabin is old and dry.  This cot will go up instantly.  Shaking fingers grasp for a single matchstick.  Another deafening scream.  I drop the match.  Scramble for another one.  They’re in the room.  Violently trembling fingers snatch another match.

I try to strike it.  Shaking throws coordination off.  Large beasts surround me.  Finally sulfur and sandpaper meet, rasping a single spark into a light.  Penetrates the darkness.  The lit match drops from my fingers onto the desiccated cot.  The flare is instantaneous.

Huge, hairy creatures scream in another key.  Ape-like, they climb over the protective banister with surprising speed.  The raging heat behind me.  I linger to watch their dark figures scatter into the forest.

How will I stop the conflagration I started?  Eyes wide with fear, tears of relief and terror leaking from the corners.  I search for an extinguisher.  A blanket even.  Nothing here.  I snatch my knapsack.  Hastily unscrew my steel water bottle and dump it ineffectually on the blaze.  I have to get out of here.

Stepping through the glass, I see the chain blocking the stairs has been ripped from its anchor-point.  Splintered wood now exposed to the air looks strangely fresh.  And very dry.  I trip down the stairs.  Hellish flame jetting out the cabin.  Is there a fire-watcher?

Backpack constantly slipping from my shoulder, I run.  Persistent pain in my knees, I lurch to the trailhead.  Sinister tower aflame.  I stumble into the bear grass.  If the monsters have any sense, they’re far ahead of me.

Descent is more difficult than ascent.  Avoiding a fall on sharp rocks takes time.  Nature’s at my back.  I slip and tumble into the rocky dust.  Panic prevents me from assessing the damage.  I drag myself upright and glance back.  The whole mountain-top dancing with fiendish, orange light.  Walpurgisnacht in July.  My entire left side thrums with pain.  I hope I haven’t broken anything.  The night breeze feeds the famished fire.

“3 mi.”  The trail’s longer.  Unfamiliar in flickering light.  Crackling flames now scream.  Another stumble.  I can’t distinguish sweat from blood.  If I survive this fire, Johnny’ll kill me.

If he ever made it out alive.

#

Bio: K. Marvin Bruce has lived in six states and two countries but calls no place home.  His fiction has been published in Calliope, Dali’s LoveChild, Danse Macabre, Deep Water Literary Journal, Defenestration, Exterminating Angel Press: The Magazine, The Fable Online, and Jersey Devil Press.  His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  He works in New York City.

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Autotext by Tom Miller

Feb 12 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

As he pulled up to a customer’s mailbox and began fingering letters for another delivery, Darryl heard the chime that signaled a new text message.  It was the thirteenth message he had received since his last package stop.  Without checking the sender, Darryl was still ninety-nine percent certain all thirteen were from his mother.

Darryl had created a monster.  At first, he thought that texting had saved his job, if not his life.  Mom used to call him several times a day to drone on about problems with her knees, back, bowels, toenails, house, car, friends, neighbors and any other object or being that may have crossed her path.  While it was forbidden for letter carriers to talk on cell phones while they drove, it seemed to Darryl like this was his only option.  If he stopped every time Mom called, he would never finish his route.  If he ignored the phone during the day, Mom’s complaints would shift to him—why he never answered her calls, why he failed to visit more often, or why he had no marital prospects.

One ninety-degree afternoon, Darryl drove from box to box to box in a mesmerizing rhythm while his mother narrated the fascinating saga of how somebody from her church had changed all her air filters.  Lulled into a hypnotic trance, he had failed to check his mirror before pulling away from a mailbox and almost collided with a speeding Hummer.  Had the Hummer’s driver not demonstrated some nifty reflexes, postal inspectors would have pulled Darryl’s phone records, seen that he was on a call during the accident, and fired him.

After the close call, Darryl had stopped the truck, interrupted his mother and told her of the near calamity.  He would not answer her calls anymore while he worked, but that he did have an alternative.  On his next day off, Darryl bought a phone with the largest keyboard that he could find, signed his mother up for cell service, and made the four-hour drive to her house.  Mom resisted the new technology at first, but when Darryl held firm on his new policy, Mom gave texting a try and began typing one sentence messages a few times a day.  When Darryl stopped the truck to deliver a package, he would read his mother’s text and send a quick reply.  Everybody was happy.  Mom could communicate freely with her only child, and Darryl could focus on driving and delivering mail.

Now, though, Mom could text almost as fast as she could speak.  The sentences became paragraphs, and the paragraphs became chapters, until once again, Darryl’s delivery times began to lag.  It did not help that Darryl had inherited his father’s fat sausage-link fingers instead of his mother’s long, tapered digits that were like organic styluses.

Darryl received three more texts before he had to get out for a large parcel.  After he had carried the box to the customer’s porch, he scanned the sixteen texts that Mom had sent him.  According to the gist, the niece of Mom’s bridge partner Ethel was still willing to go out with Darryl, and she had a great personality.

Darryl punched in his typical response: “No thanks, but I appreciate the thought.”  Before he had discovered the predictive text feature on his messaging app, it would take Darryl two full minutes, after correcting all of his errors, to peck out this insubstantial message.  The phrase, though, had become such a staple of their dialogue that the phone anticipated its use.  The word “No” immediately appeared as one of the three options at the top of the text box whenever he responded to his mother.  After he tapped the word “No,” the word “thanks” popped up as an option.  The pattern continued, and Darryl could now complete the sentence, punctuation and all, in only nine taps.

As Darryl started the truck and continued his rounds, his phone resumed its incessant chiming.  Twenty minutes later, after Darryl had delivered the next large parcel, Mom had written a serial novella that required ninety seconds to skim but could be summarized in two words: “Why not?”  By the time Darryl had sent off his explanation, even with the use of the handy predictive text function, he was running fifteen minutes behind schedule.  He would have to skip half his lunch to avoid management ire when he returned to the post office.

At home that evening, exhausted from hustling between parcel stops, Darryl collapsed onto his leather recliner and pulled out his phone.  He went to his favorite search engine and typed in “more extensive predictive text.”  He needed an application that did not just predict words, but sentences, maybe even whole paragraphs.  While Mom would have loved to see originality and thoughtfulness in his texts, what she craved more than anything was bulk.  She wanted visual evidence that Darryl was putting forth the effort that a mother deserved from her son.  His father had died when Darryl was six, leaving mother and son a paltry life insurance policy along with thousands in credit card debt.  For many years, Mom had worked two full time jobs and still somehow managed to be home for him after school.  The least he could do for her now was to send her multi-sentence texts.

Darryl scanned the search results.  A couple of links promised faster and more accurate predictive text, though not for smart phone messaging applications.  The rest of the results were merely related to predictive text—what it is, how to turn it on and off, and humorous text predictions.

As Darryl began to despair of finding a solution, an ad popped up on his phone screen.  His index finger was about to close out the ad when the words caught his attention.  “IS PREDICTIVE TEXT TOO SLOW FOR YOU?  TRY AUTOTEXT!” Darryl smiled.  Smart phones never ceased to amaze him.  It was as if the whole world was watching his every keystroke so it could reply with a sales pitch.  This disturbed some people, but for Darryl, this technology was often helpful and in the present case, entirely apt.

When Darryl proceeded to the corresponding website, he read a more extensive description of the application’s features:

Do you have fat fingers and little time?  Then try Autotext!  Autotext uses a revolutionary algorithm to analyze an entire history of texts with an individual to predict sentences, entries, and even entire conversations!  The application allows for easy editing of the suggested responses, and even has a fully automatic mode.  And it’s absolutely free!  Try it today!

It sounded too good to be true, but as long as he did not have to provide any personal information or credit card numbers, Darryl figured he had nothing to lose.  He clicked the button to download the program, and then he installed the application on his phone.  When the process was complete, a capital “A” had joined the clock, wi-fi, and battery icons at the top of his phone screen.

Darryl swiped down on the icons and tapped the “Autotext” option in the drop down box.  A splash screen appeared featuring an attractive middle-aged woman who was delighted by what she was reading on her phone.  Underneath the image was the program’s name with a smiling emoji in place of the “o.”

Once the application loaded, two options appeared on the screen.  Darryl touched “Autotext Contacts,” and his contact list appeared.  Just to the left of each name was a small checkbox.  Darryl scrolled through the alphabet until he reached “Mom,” tapped the box to the left of her name, and touched the “Save” option at the top of the screen.  Back at the original menu, Darryl selected “Edit Contact Settings.”  When he selected this option, the only contact that now came up was his mother.  Darryl tapped on her name, and two options appeared: “Review texts before sending” and “Fully automated replies.”  He selected the first option and again hit the “Save” button at the top of the screen.

When Darryl returned to the main menu, he searched for more information about the program.  Surely its creators had devised an “About” page so they could introduce themselves and their brilliant application to the world.  Where was the “Contact Us” or “Help” option?  How could he purchase the deluxe version when he became annoyed with the limitations of this freeware?  Darryl, however, could find none of these staples anywhere on the site.  The selfless inventors apparently wanted no credit or payment for their masterpiece and felt that the application’s operation was self-explanatory.

Darryl got up from the recliner, walked into his narrow galley kitchen, and placed his phone on the dark green laminate countertop.  He had just started the noodles for macaroni and cheese when his phone chimed.  Eager to test his new application, Darryl hoped it was his mother.

After he had cut off a sizable chunk of Velveeta, he put it in a saucepan, and turned the heat on low.  As the cheese food slowly melted, Darryl picked up the phone and read the text from his mother:

I’m sure that there’s a skunk living under my deck.  I smell it twice a day.  Once in the early morning, right before the sun comes up, and then again in the evening.  At night, they go out to find food and get together with other skunks to do skunk things.  Then, after gallivanting around all night long, it crawls back under my deck to sleep it off.  I’m sure it’s down there right now, snoring away.  On your next day off, you’ve got to come down here and do something about it.  I think I may be allergic.  My sinuses are acting up.  My medicine is not working.  I just want to breathe, Darryl, I just want to BREATHE!  If this doesn’t get better soon, I’m going to have to go to the drug store and get those pills that they keep behind the counter because some people use them to make speed.  At least that’s what Ed told me.  And Dr. Carpenter said those pills were not good for my blood pressure, but I don’t care! If I can’t breathe, what difference will high blood pressure make?

Darryl set his phone down on the counter.  While he waited for Autotext to respond, he alternated between stirring the Velveeta and the noodles—with separate spoons, of course—to keep his ingredients from sticking to the bottom of the pans.

As the minutes passed, Darryl began to wonder if his new app was a dud.  He saw no indication whatsoever that the program was formulating a response.  His phone seemed to be at rest.  Just as Darryl was about to give up and start his own handcrafted replay, his phone sung to him: “Autoteeeeext!”

Darryl bobbled his phone and barely controlled the device before it landed in the boiling water with his noodles.  Autotext’s announcement was a three-syllable mellifluous harmony that could have been excerpted from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Darryl looked at his phone screen. Below his mother’s gargantuan text, he saw a new entry highlighted in a blue box.  At the top of the screen were three buttons: “Send,” “Try Again,” and “Exit.”  Darryl read the words that Autotext had crafted:

I’m sorry to hear about the skunk, Mom.  I’m sure that must be very unpleasant for you.  I won’t be able to make it over there on my day off, but I do have a solution for you.  They sell skunk repellent at the home improvement store.  Just call up Jimmy from across the street, give him some money, and I’m sure he would be happy to buy it and spread it for you.  I know how tough it is when your sinuses are clogged, Mom, but please just stick with the sinus medication you’ve got.  I know you want to breathe, but I want to keep you healthy and around as long as possible.  Love you!

Darryl read the text again, and then a third time.  It was amazing.  The response firmly stated that he was not going to make the eight-hour round trip, yet it was still caring and sympathetic.  And the idea about Jimmy was pure brilliance!  Darryl tried to remember the last time he had referred to Jimmy in a text.  It was months ago, and he had erased his messages several times since then.  The app must have recovered those deleted texts and synthesized that information into its response.

Since Darryl could not imagine a better reply to Mom’s rant, he touched the “Send” button and sent the text on its way.

As he was pouring the noodles into a colander his phone chimed again.  Darryl left the colander in the sink and looked at Mom’s next communication:

Why can’t you come?  Are they forcing you to work your next day off?  I know how that is, because after your dad died, there would be some days when I had to work sixteen hours a day for all seven days of the week.  I would not have had the time to drive eight hours to take care of a very important problem for my mother.  It would be nice not to have to call Jimmy, though.  He’s got to go to school and football practice, and then his parents make him do his homework before he can do what I need him to.  Sometimes it’s a couple of days or more before he can get to me.  And Jimmy’s a good boy and does a good job, but I do feel like I have to pay him a little something for his time.  You know, when you’re on Social Security, ten dollars matter.  If you were able to come, you would save me that money, and I will also make a couple of those thick cheese sandwiches that you like.

Darryl winced as he finished reading this not-so-subtle tale of his mother’s sacrifice.  When she really wanted something, Mom never failed to slide this razor-sharp stiletto between his ribs and into his heart.  Now on his next day off, when he wanted to relax and read on his patio, waves of guilt would intrude on his serenity.

Darryl poured the drained noodles into the Velveeta and stirred until he had a gooey delight.  Not bothering with a plate, he was scooping out his first bite when he again heard Queen’s imitators: “Autoteeeeext!”  The reply had arrived much faster this time.  The program must keep all of its previous analysis in a cache.

Darryl tapped his screen to read the entry.  If Autotext could pull off this response, Darryl was going to make a call to Stockholm and nominate its author for a Nobel Prize.

I don’t have to work, Mom, but I do have a dentist appointment.  I could cancel, but then I would have to wait three months for another appointment, and that’s a risk to my dental health.  You’ve always taught me how important it is to take care of my teeth, and I thank you for that.  As for the ten dollars, let me remind you that you have a considerable portfolio of stocks and bonds from the money you saved after working sixteen hour days.  I admire you for that, and I encourage you to reward work ethic is our young people, which these days is lacking.  I do love your cheese sandwiches, and I’ll take you up on your offer when I see you soon.

Darryl again stared at the screen in wonder.  He had forgotten about that dentist appointment.  Furthermore, the text was loving yet refused to cave into Mom’s emotional manipulation.  And such bulk!  He was about to send the perfect message on its way when he noticed the “Try Again” button and tapped it out of curiosity.  This time, the app had another possible reply ready within three seconds.

I would come if I could, Mom, but I have a dentist appointment.  If I have to reschedule, I won’t be in for a couple of months, and I’m concerned about gingivitis.  As for the ten dollars, I will make it up to you the next time I come.  I’ll take you out to that seafood restaurant you like, and then maybe we can go out for ice cream afterwards.

Darryl nodded when he finished reading this option.  The message still had substance, but it was shorter and less likely to arouse suspicions.  The text also played on Mom’s gingivitis phobia.  Darryl had never sent or received the word “gingivitis” in a text, but the program must have inferred his mother’s fears from the fact that she flossed her teeth five times a day.

Darryl hit the “Send” button and looked at his macaroni and cheese.  If he did not start eating it soon, the cheese would begin to cool and congeal.  Its utter creaminess would be forever lost.  He needed no further evidence that the wonder app could handle his mother.  Darryl opened the Autotext app, selected “Edit Contact Settings,” and changed his mother to receive “Fully automated replies.”  After muting his phone, Darryl put the phone in his pocket.

As he carried his macaroni and cheese to the table in his small dining nook and set the pan on an oven mitt, Darryl felt the vibration on his upper thigh.  Darryl opened up the latest issue of a sports magazine and began to read.  As the phone buzzed again, Darryl resisted the urge to check the conversation.  Autotext had proven itself, and now he should enjoy his well-deserved peace.  The heartfelt dialogue between mother and son would be there for him to peruse after he finished his dinner.

Seventeen days after Autotext had entered his life, Darryl sat across from his mother as she ate shrimp scampi.  He had the whole weekend off so he could make the trip without burning up all of his free time.  His mother’s constant groans of pleasure were distracting him from the enjoyment of his fried seafood platter.

“I get it, Mom,” said Darryl.  “The food is good.  I’m glad you like it, but is it necessary to moan with every bite?”

Darryl’s mother swallowed what was in her mouth.  “What?  Am I not allowed to enjoy a good meal?  When do I even eat real food anymore?  I heat up soup, I make cheese sandwiches.  If I eat anything after five o’clock, I wake up the next morning with terrible heartburn.”

“Yes, Mom, I’m aware of that.”

“And this is not just any meal,” continued Darryl’s mother.  “I’m sitting here with my only son, who I rarely see, and who even more rarely takes me out for a nice lunch.”

Darryl wondered why he had said anything at all.  He knew his mother better than he knew anyone else in the world, including himself.  Any request to stop a certain behavior only exacerbated the problem.  “You’re right, Mom,” Darryl said, too late.  “I’m sorry.”

“And, you know,” said Mom, “I wouldn’t be so focused on the food if you talked to me more.  I feel that we’ve been communicating better in the past two weeks than we ever have.  I was really looking forward to talking to you like that in person today.  Now, it’s like you’ve gone back to your old self.”

Darryl could not hold back a smile. All day while he was out on the route delivering mail, it seemed like his phone never stopped vibrating.  Mom never once questioned how he was able to send such frequent and lengthy texts and still perform his job.  For the first couple days of his new Autotext life, Darryl would skim the conversations during his breaks and after work, but as his trust in the program grew, his interest in the dialogue waned.  Mom continued to spew words about life’s annoyances while Autotext responded with voluminous declarations of sympathy and love.  After one long day, Darryl postponed the evening review until the following day.  The next morning, when the number of texts had grown exponentially, Darryl decided that he could skip every other entry and still get the gist.  By the end of the week, Darryl was ignoring the conversations completely.

“What is that grin about?” asked Darryl’s mother.

Darryl’s mind hurried to find a suitable explanation.  “Just thinking about those text conversations, Mom,” he said.  “They have been pretty great.”

Darryl’s mother reached across the table and grabbed his hand.  “They’ve been better than great, Darryl.  I’ll admit that for a while now, I’ve been feeling like you didn’t really want to talk to me, that you would just come to see me out of obligation.”

“Mom— ” Darryl tried to object, but his mother lifted up her other hand to silence him.   “I’m not saying that’s what you meant.  I’m saying that’s how I felt.  But these last two weeks, everything has changed.  I feel like I’ve got my son back.”  She shook her head.  “No, it’s more than that.  It’s like now I’ve got the son that I never had.”

Darryl felt mixed emotions welling inside of him after hearing his mother’s declaration.  He almost revealed that she had not been communicating with him but with unfeeling, analytical computer code.  Maybe she loved an inanimate machine more than her actual flesh and blood.  Then he saw tears welling in his mother’s eyes.  She may annoy him, but she was still his mother and had always been there for him.

“You’re right, Mom,” he said.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t sleep well last night, and I guess that’s made me a little cranky.”

“Have your sinuses been acting up?” asked his mother, blotting her eyes with a napkin.

“No, it’s not that.  I just had a lot on my mind, that’s all.”

The comment appeared to brighten his mother’s mood.  “Is it this new woman you’ve got your eye on?”

Momentarily shocked, Darryl popped half a hushpuppy in his mouth so he could think while he chewed.  What woman?  There was no woman, and there had not been a woman for a while.  He swallowed his food.  “You mean the one I texted about?”

“Of course I mean the one you texted about,” said Mom.  “How else am I going to learn about what’s going on in my only son’s personal life?”

Darryl took a bite of fried flounder and touched the outline of the phone in his pocket.  Autotext was now writing total fiction.  It was one thing to make up excuses based on real data such as a dental appointment.  It was a totally different thing to invent aspects of his life out of thin air.

As Darryl fumbled his way through a conversation about his “new woman,” he ate the rest of his fried seafood in small bites that gave him frequent opportunity to pause.  He tried to keep his comments and description as vague as possible.  He told his mother that things were just starting out and he did not want to boost hopes of an enduring relationship.

Darryl did not have a clue what this crazy Autotext app had said to Mom.  The program was stealing the affections of his mother and making up lies about Darryl’s life.  The once nifty piece of software would have to go.

After saying goodbye to his mother, Darryl had turned off his phone and driven the four hours back home.  Now he walked in the front door, sat on his recliner and took his device out of his pocket.  He had considered his situation more thoroughly during his drive and again resolved to delete Autotext from his life.

When his phone powered up, Darryl received fourteen new texts from his mother.  If he did not act soon, Autotext would spout more lies and worm its way further into Mom’s heart.  He opened his phone’s settings, from there went to the applications manager, and touched the Autotext logo with its sinister, smirking emoji.  He tapped the “UNINSTALL” button.  An option box popped up:  “Are you sure you want to uninstall Autotext?”  Darryl had never been more certain of anything in his life.

As his thumb was about to make contact with the button, Darryl’s phone rang.   The caller ID said “Sexy Sandra,” and images of her curvaceous body came to him in an instant.  Sandra was a real estate secretary at one of the offices on his mail route, and when he was first posted to his current assignment, she would flirt with Darryl when he walked inside for the daily exchange of letters.  He had gotten her phone number, asked her for a drink, and she had accepted.  The date, though, required more extensive interaction than some quick delivery banter, and they had each suffered through some long, awkward pauses.  Sandra had given Darryl no further encouragement, and their conversation was now succinct and business-like when he dropped off the mail.

Darryl answered the call.  “Hello?”

“Hi, Darryl, this is Sandra.  “I’ve been waiting for you to call, but I got impatient.”

“You’ve been waiting for my call?” asked Darryl, confused.

“Well, yeah,” said Sandra.  “You’ve been sending me all these interesting texts and I thought it’d be easier if we just talked.”

Darryl was about to ask about these mysterious texts when he stopped himself.  He had figured it out.  Autotext was telling his mother lies about a “new woman,” and now it was sending automated replies to a contact without approval.  The app was hijackacking his life.

Darryl tried to play it cool and fake his way through the conversation.  He deflected comments about the unknown texts and asked Sandra about her life in the six months since their drinks date.

As the dialogue began to wind down, Darryl, sensing a good vibe, took a chance and asked Sandra out to dinner.  She accepted with an enthusiasm and suggested that she might also be open to an after-dinner nightcap.

“And keep those texts coming,” said Sandra, just before she hung up.  “They really brighten my day.”

Darryl promised to do so, and they said goodbye.  When his calling screen disappeared, he once again saw the text box with the question inside it:  “Are you sure you want to uninstall Autotext?”  Darryl felt like this was not just an automatic message generated whenever he wanted to delete a program.  Now there seemed to be a living, breathing organism inside his phone that was talking directly to him.  “So maybe I’m taking some unauthorized liberties,” Autotext seemed to say, “but do you really think you can do this without me?  Do you really think someone like Sandra would date someone like you if it weren’t for my enhancements?”

Darryl’s thumb hovered above the “Yes” response to the text box’s question.  Autotext may be able to woo Sandra with witty messages, but in person, Darryl would still have to do the heavy lifting.  If he wanted to have a genuine relationship with Sandra, he would have to learn to communicate more effectively on his own.

A short film ran in Darryl’s mind, as if Autotext were playing its last card.  He was setting mail on the countertop while Sandra sat behind her desk and talked on the phone.  She wore an attractive but business-appropriate navy blue dress.  From behind the deep “V” neck line of the dress peeked the top of a white camisole which covered all but the barest hint of Sandra’s cleavage.  Darryl tried not to stare at the enticing area, but the almost imperceptible crevice screamed for his gaze.

Maybe he should not be so fast to cut ties with Autotext.  Darryl canceled the delete for the moment.   If nothing else, maybe he could learn something from how Autotext had reconnected him with Sandra.  Darryl opened his recent message thread with Sandra and scrolled—and scrolled, and scrolled—until he reached Autotext’s initial offering: “Hi Sandra, this is Darryl.  I’ve missed our talks in the office.”  Sandra’s replies were terse at first, and Autotext moved slowly.  It shared humorous stories of fictional events that Darryl had supposedly experienced while delivering mail.  It invented juicy gossip about the secret lives of real estate agents.  It discovered a shared love of reality television and debated the merits of various contestants competing for fame and fortune.

When Darryl finished reading the impressive exchange, he swiped on the Autotext icon.  He selected “Edit Contact Settings” and gasped at the results.  Where his mother had once stood alone, now Darryl could choose from anybody on his regular contact list.  He tapped on a few of the names and found they were all set to let Autotext ride solo.

Darryl felt a sudden surge of anger at the program’s audacity, but there was also a twinge of curiosity.  From his messages, he selected a thread with one of his co-workers, Neal.  He only texted Neal for work-related reasons, but Autotext had begun a dialogue that involved Neal’s passion, cars.  The application had also reached out to a cousin that Darryl had not talked to in years.  It was even setting up a time to go bowling with an old high school buddy this weekend.

Darryl weighed the pros and cons.  Yes, Autotext was taking on a life of his own, but it was also helping him get back into life.  Darryl had always had problems connecting with people, and the application was facilitating that.   Wasn’t that the reason for technology’s existence—to help its human owners achieve goals more easily than they could do on their own?

Darryl made his decision.  He closed the messaging app and put the phone back in his pocket.  He stood up and headed toward his bedroom, where he would select the perfect outfit for his date with Sexy Sandra.

#

Bio: I have previously published a story in the magazine Red Fez, and I continue to write stories that seek to entertain the reader and engage with issues in contemporary society.

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Miller’s Forest by D.A.Cairns

Feb 05 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

A gusting westerly tossed and bustled the willows as they struggled to form a guard of honour along a two hundred metre stretch of Raymond Terrace Rd. The sun scorched the earth in anger, melting the bitumen road and causing recently filled potholes to become sticky black puddles. Heat waves danced above the road distorting as they obscured, while the needle rocketed into the red zone taking his temper along for the ride.

‘Damn it. Fuck!’

If you are not inside an air-conditioned room, then I suggest you hurry up and get yourself there. Thirty nine degrees and rising, folks and its only ten thirty. The Bureau forecasting storms for this evening but that’s a long way off so stay cool and stay tuned. You’re on ninety nine seven RhemaFM, Newcastle and the Central Coast. Good morning.

The middle of nowhere. The end of the line. Millers Forest. Blake Steele and a clapped out nineteen eighty five Falcon on the verge of a fiery death. The first week in March; a very bad week and it was getting worse for Blake. Lost his job, lost his girl, and losing hope. All he could think to say was, ‘Damn it’ and ‘Fuck!’

As there was nowhere for him to stop and cool off, Blake chose to keep going. The air-conditioning roared in frustration as it blew hot air hard into the cabin so Blake switched it off, thinking to himself bitterly that he wished he could switch his life off.

What a disaster it was. What a total shambles. He liked his job but his boss was a complete tool, and Blake could not tolerate the biting sarcasm which that self promoter used to cover his own stupidity and dump on his employees. Blake seemed to be a particularly fond target of his. Maybe it was because Blake refused to kowtow to such an asshole. Maybe it was because he was sick of being the butt of his boss’ stinging barbs. Humour he called it, and those who slobbered at his feet laughed along like mindless hyenas. Whatever the reason, his sacking was inevitable. You don’t humiliate a man like that by decking him in front of his employees, without suffering some pretty direct and severe consequences. Good-bye job.

Sam was the sweetest girl he had ever known, good natured and devoted, naturally beautiful and intelligent. How the hell he ever snagged her as his girlfriend he would probably never know, but there she was; patient, kind and even tempered. Blake had a tempestuous nature and a short fuse and without Sam to mollify his rage, he often ripped headlong into trouble. So many transgressions, followed by so many sincere apologies followed by more sins. She seemed like a god to him sometimes but finally proved she was not by leaving him. Her final words? ‘Why don’t you grow up and be a man! You’re killing yourself Blake.’

Blake had thought at the time and still did that her words were a bit over the top, unless she wasn’t talking about physical death. That was a favourite topic of hers; spiritual life and death. Blake didn’t know what she meant, and he didn’t care. All he knew was that he felt terribly sorry and he missed her, and he knew he was a better person when she was around. Who would control him now?

Bang! Ssssshhhhh! A long harsh hiss.

‘Damn it! Fuck!’

The Falcon angrily breathed its last and rolled to a stop, as Blake steered it off the road and onto the shoulder. In the stillness of Millers Forest, the sound of steam rushing from underneath the bonnet was like a hurricane. Blake sat there and stared through the torrent of steam down the long straight road and pondered his immediate future. Rage, although volcanic at the moment, seemed futile, but he was powerless to stop it. He flung the door open and almost fell out in the rush, then began frenetically kicking the side of the car with the underside of his heel. Soon he was exhausted so he lumped his body behind the steering wheel and waited for the last of the storm to subside.

Drenched in sweat and disturbed by the smell of himself, Blake climbed out of the car again and began to walk towards a house which sat quietly on the left three or four hundred metres down the road. It was the only island in a sea of flat grassy meadows and it should have had a huge banner flying over it, proclaiming ‘Last Hope’. His car was stuffed, it was hotter than hell and he didn’t have any water. At the very least he desperately needed a drink, so he dragged his feet through the almost liquid bitumen and dreamed of salvation in Millers Forest.

As he approached the house Blake noted the windows were all shut but there was no sign of an air conditioning unit outside. There were two cars in the driveway; a dirty 78 Toyota Landcruiser, and a little red Hyundai. There was also a motorbike and although Blake was not a huge fan of motorbikes, courtesy of the shocking injuries a friend of his had suffered after crashing one into a fence, he could see beauty in their styling and appreciated the passionate feelings they aroused in some. It was all white, even the leather seat and had no badges to identify the make or model. He had never seen one like it.

Gravel crunched under his heavy feet as he walked down the driveway, past the vehicles towards the front door. He waved his hand over the bonnet of both cars but could not tell if the engines had been running recently or not. It was too damn hot.

The front door was closed. Blake listened closely but could hear no sound at all and that bothered him, and the bother turned into concern, and the concern suddenly became anxiety. He heard whispers in the hot wind and smelled something strange, something off, a rancid stench. Dizziness almost overwhelmed him as he reached out his left fist to knock on the door.

‘Hello,’ he said, as he knocked, without knowing how loudly he spoke.  ‘Hello! Is anyone home?’

Blake fell towards the door and might have heard a voice as it swung open and he crashed in on to the floor. The voice might have been asking for help but that voice might have been his own.

When he opened his eyes he saw a horizontal Christmas tree. A long tree with presents jam packed at one end and a pair of runners standing on their toes. Blake sat up slowly and the room righted itself. He looked again at the shoes; pink and small. A little girl’s shoes. Christmas tree? Presents? March?

‘Hello?’ said Blake weakly. ‘Hello? Is anyone home?’

A heavy silence filled the room and Blake was afraid to disturb it by moving but when he spotted the opening to the kitchen, he carefully rose from the floor and walked in to get some water. The kitchen was so clean it literally sparkled as fingers of sunlight poked through the Venetian blinds and stabbed the faux marble benchtops and stainless steel sink. Not a single glass, plate or utensil could be seen and there was a faint odour of lemon in the air. Blake turned the tap on and cupped his hands underneath the cool flow, before greedily shovelling the precious liquid into his mouth. Slowly life returned to his parched body.

‘Hello?’ he called again, having recovered his voice, ‘Is anyone home?’

Nothing.

Blake tried to leave the kitchen but jumped back in fright as a woman stood in his way with outstretched arms and no hands.

‘Help me!’ she shrieked. ‘Help me!’

Losing his footing, Blake slid against a cupboard and stared in disbelief at the horror of this woman. Handless, bleeding from the stumps and from cuts to her face and chest and arms and legs, she came no closer and spoke no further. A young woman with a lithe figure and firm breasts, her long brown hair was tangled and lank. She wore a long pink nightdress with no sleeves. Her eyes opened wide were crystal blue islands floating in bloody oceans and her mouth twisted in terror.

The smell of death was overpowering and Blake was frozen by an artic chill which ran down his spine. What could he do? What should he do?

‘Phone? I’ll call an ambulance,’ he said and with each word came more confidence. ‘Where’s your phone? He stood quickly and searched the kitchen but could not locate it.

‘It’s too late,’ she said.

He spun around to the sound of her voice but she was gone. Darting out of the kitchen, he quickly scanned the living room but found everything was as it had been when he first came in. The woman was gone. Running for the stairs, Blake was again stopped dead in his tracks but this time by a physical blow to his chest. A punch or a shove, he could not decide but it knocked the wind from his lungs and he crumpled to the floor gasping and clutching his chest. When he looked up, a man was standing at the foot of the stairs. He wore a pair of navy blue shorts and no shirt. Blood flowed from a long deep gash ripped across his hairy chest and there were smaller cuts on his arms and face; scratches like fingernail marks. He looked enormous but when Blake scrambled to his feet he realised the man was actually shorter then himself although considerably wider. He resembled a wrestler.

‘Who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my house?’

Blake noticed that like the woman, the man did not seem able to move from the spot where he appeared. He also felt the stench invading his nostrils once more and it was cold.

‘The woman,’ said Blake, ‘she was badly hurt and asking for help. What happened here?’

The woman’s voice said, ‘It’s too late.’

Blake turned quickly but the room was empty and in the seconds it took for him to realise it, the wrestler also disappeared.

Two and three at a time, Blake bounded up the stairs and began rapidly turning handles and opening doors. Bedroom one. Nothing. Bedroom two. Nothing. Master bedroom. Nothing. All tidy and clean, beds made. Moving into the ensuite bathroom cautiously, Blake sniffed the air and was surprised to detect nothing but a slight mustiness that you would expect if the house was shut up for any length of time. The bathroom off the master bedroom was also clean although not as clean as the kitchen. Blake left that room and back on the landing he stared at the last remaining door.

As he approached a child appeared in front of it. A little girl. She looked sad but there were no obvious signs of injury until Blake noticed her feet.

The girl followed Blake’s gaze down to the stumps at the ends of her legs, and said in a shaky whisper, ‘Daddy’s very angry. I’ve been a naughty girl.’

A whirlpool in Blake’s stomach reached up his throat and pulled his tongue down making him gag. He turned away from the girl and vomited on the carpet. Dry retching mostly as he had not eaten for hours.

‘How could a man be that angry? To cut off your feet? What could you have possibly done to deserve that punishment?’ Blake was speaking to the carpet because his head felt too heavy to lift and he was afraid to look again at the child. When she failed to answer, he knew she had gone without even looking. Needing more water, Blake dragged himself up off the floor again and entered through the last remaining door. The bathroom. The wrestler was sitting on the toilet.

‘Hey, don’t you fucking knock first,’ he boomed, standing and shaking his clenched fist at Blake. ‘Where’s my fucking axe?’

Had Blake been watching a horror movie he might have laughed at someone being threatened with an axe by a naked man simply for interrupting him on the toilet, but given the circumstances he was mortified. Was that all it took to make this man blow his stack? Was a forgetting of manners enough to turn him into a mindless beast of violence?

Despite his heart trying to tear a hole of escape through his chest, Blake somehow calmed himself sufficiently to ignore the man, and casually wandered over to the sink with and washed his face and hands, before cupping some much needed water into his mouth. Glancing in the mirror, he noticed the man had disappeared. With refreshment came clarity so Blake returned downstairs to look for the telephone. On the sofa sat on man dressed in white who did not seem to notice Blake as he entered the room.

His plan was not to engage the newcomer but unfortunately the telephone was sitting on a small coffee table right beside the man in white who sat still and remained apparently uninterested in Blake’s activities.

Blake reached down for the phone but as he did his arm was grabbed in a vice like grip by the man in white.

‘What?’ cried Blake. ‘Let go!’

As hard as he shook his arm he could not break free and the pressure was excruciating.

‘Aren’t you going to say excuse me before you reach across?’

Suddenly the man released his hold of Blake’s arm at the exact time he had been pulling with all of his might to get free. This caused Blake to tumble backwards and he might have fallen on the floor yet gain had it not been for the three people standing behind him into whom he cannoned.

Sunlight caught the edge of the axe blade and momentarily blinded Blake as backed away to a neutral corner of the room. That corner was where the dusty Christmas tree stood guardian over unopened presents and a pair of runners which Blake could now see, as he stood directly over them, were not empty.

‘Okay, man in white,’ said Blake pointing at him. ‘What the hell is going on here?’

‘Anger management. Is this your future?’

‘Are you real?’ answered Blake without answering the question.

Screaming. Chaos. Frantic movement. The voices of the man, his wife and their child all mixed in a frightening cacophony of anger and fear. Blake covered his ears and closed his eyes, praying for the noise to stop but on it went. The sounds of footsteps followed by more screaming, then crying, then sobbing and all else faded away to leave just the little girl’s quiet voice, barely above a whisper, saying, ‘Sorry, Daddy, sorry.’ Then silence.

Blake was alone.

The image of the little girl haunted him. Everywhere he looked, eyes open, eyes squeezed shut, still he could see her. Sitting on the floor emotionally exhausted he began to think about Sam. The only goodness in his life and even she was past tense for him now. Marriage and children. Of course she had raised the topic, and naturally he, not wanting to have children but definitely wanting her, had rebuffed her by laughing the subject off as being premature; something they could talk about later. Blake had run out of laters. He wondered if the man with the axe had wanted children or had his once beautiful young wife pushed him into fatherhood. Was his temper a symptom of the frustration he felt at losing control of his life and having to share too much of himself, his time and energy with others? Was he a time bomb waiting for someone to press the right combination of buttons to detonate him? Was Blake such a bomb? Would he have been, or could he be, the same sort violently abusive father? These questions were painful and frightening.

The smell of death returned to the living room, sneakily like a thief trying not to disturb wake anyone, and the chill squeezed his bones like an anaconda. Blake shook his head to break free of the melancholy which smothered him like a hot blanket and searched the room for signs of the restless dead.

In the silence he heard whispers, echoes of voices, screaming and crying. Soft and faint like the pulse of one on the brink of eternity. There was pain and misery in these whispers, and it was written all over the faces of the woman and her daughter as they appeared in front of Blake seated on the couch.

Blake was wondering what to say or if he should say anything at all when the door burst open and in rushed the man in white.

‘Where is he?’

He looked at Blake, then at the other two. ‘Where is he? If you know tell me. It’s very important. Tell me,’ he said as he slowly came closer to the three of them, ‘so I can help you. You are in danger.’ He was staring at Blake.

‘I’m in danger?’ said Blake. ‘From what? Losing my mind? These ghosts can’t hurt me.’

The man noted the way in which Blake waved at the two ghosts dismissively and shook his head. ‘You do not know what you are dealing with,’ he said. ‘They can hurt you but they don’t want to. He, on the other hand, does. He’s been very patient with you but you’re still in his house. Uninvited.’

Blake stood up and demanded, ‘Who are you?’

His answer was swallowed by a crash as the door slammed shut and the wrestler swung his axe into the back of it. Splinters flew in all directions. Some hit Blake in the chest, others passed through the woman and child on the sofa who sat passively embracing one another. The girl looked frightened but what, Blake wondered, did the dead have to fear?

‘Judgement!’ bellowed the man with the axe as he swung it around his head and into the door once more. ‘Judgement!’

Blake noticed he still had not moved and was relieved to see his theory about the limited mobility of these ghosts was holding.

The man in white was the next to speak. ‘The dead are afraid of judgement,’ he said. ‘Even more than the living fear the judgement seat.’

Focused on the man who answered his unspoken question, Blake missed the first step the wrestler took towards them, and the second and third steps. He noticed the girl press in tighter to her mother’s breast and in the split second it took him to figure out why, the axe found a home in the man in white’s ribcage via a forced entry through his back. Blake could just see the tip of the axe poking through under the man’s shirt before a river of blood engulfed it, and he dropped to the floor.

Blake was confused and terrified. The killer had vanished again and so had the other two. He ran for the door but it was shattered too badly to open, so he turned and ran for the biggest window behind the Christmas tree. Knocking the tree over, he ripped the curtains apart and flung the venetian blinds up and over his head. The window was locked and the wrestler was standing outside staring in. An exploding shower of glass rained over Blake as the axe came through the window, hooked around the blinds and reefed them back out with it. For a moment Blake was caught, tangled in the blinds as they were pulled out of the house but he struggled free and scrambled backwards. Shards of glass stabbed into his hands mercilessly as he battled to regain his standing.

The man in white was no longer on the floor. Blake pushed the tree aside and desperately searched for something with which to defend himself. Kitchen. He darted for it but his arrival was greeted with the whistle of a blade through the air and into the door frame where it wedged. He froze as the madman wrestled with the axe trying to wrench it free, and the instant he succeeded, Blake fled for the broken window in the living room. As he ran for it he saw the glass had been repaired but he had no time to stop and he knew he was going to die if he could not leave this cursed house. The rush of adrenalin through his system masked the pain long enough for Blake to crash through the window and stagger to the ground and up on his feet again. Running. Running. Around to the front of the house. To the cars in the driveway. Any keys? Could he be so lucky? Not with the Hyundai but the Landcruiser’s keys were in the ignition.

Blake jumped up into the driver’s seat and looked instinctively in the rear view mirror. The woman was there.

‘Please don’t leave. Help us.’

Blake yelled at her, ‘I can’t fucking help you. There’s nothing I can do. Nothing. Do you understand? You’re already dead. You’re dead! You’re dead!’

Blake raved on like a madman until she disappeared then he turned the key but the battery was flat. He slammed his hands into the steering wheel and swore continuously as the blood from his cuts flicked all over the inside of the car. Stopping at the sound of a loud crack, he studied his hand closely and realised he had broken his finger. Physically spent, he sat there behind the wheel and stared at his finger, fascinated by the bone sticking out at a weird angle through his bloody skin.

In the midst of a fury of pain and anger and frustration, Blake tried to think, tried to latch on to some logic, some sanity. He could not drive away and he was sure as hell not going back inside the house so he decided to walk. There was a flicker of an idea to run but his strength was gone and he didn’t know where he was going anyway.

He trudged up the driveway and out onto the road. Walking very slowly down the centre of the fiery bitumen, Blake’s mind flooded with turbulent chaotic thoughts, and he lost track of time and direction. His eyes half closed only saw blurred shapes which his mind could not decipher and finally he dived to the hot hard ground unconscious.

*****

‘He’s coming to.’

‘No, don’t move him yet. Let’s get some fluids into him.’

‘Is he talking? Did he say anything?’

At the sound of strange voices, Blake slowly opened his eyes but could not see anything. Panicking he tried to sit up while clutching for his eyes.

‘It’s okay, lay back. You’re all right, just lay back now. Take it easy. I’ll take these patches off for a second.’

Suddenly he could see and he relaxed but only until his eyes began to focus and he saw who it was that was talking to him. A man in white and he freaked out again. Jumping up off the ground, he saw a solid man with an axe and he ran, ignoring the yelling from behind him, and tried to figure out where he was. When he realised, when he saw the house, burning like a rampant inferno, it was as though a massive vacuum had sucked all the breath from his lungs and he collapsed again.

No salvation. No answers. The middle of nowhere. The end of the line. Millers Forest.

Bio

Heavy metal lover and cricket tragic, D.A. Cairns lives on the south coast of New South Wales where he works as an English language teacher and writes stories in his very limited spare time. He has had over 50 short stories published (but who’s counting right?) He blogs at Square pegs http://dacairns.blogspot.com.au and has authored four novels, Devolution, Loathe Your Neighbor, Ashmore Grief, and A Muddy Red River which is available now from Rogue Phoenix Press.

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