Category: Fiction

The Hobby Cowboy – Will Brooks

The Hobby Cowboy – Will Brooks

Our first work of fiction for your reading pleasure thus far. We enjoyed the humor present in this story’s dialogue sections and in the unique characterization of Bessie. We have a feeling you’ll come to agree.

The Hobby Cowboy

About three years ago, my wife, Pinky, talked me into moving. I say she talked me into moving because I was content where I was. Regardless, she had found a place she liked better and was moving with or without me. Not seeing any other choice, I moved. 

Pinky picked a good place, forty acres with a spacious farmhouse that was older than both of our ages combined. Fortunately, the fella who had it before us didn’t waste any time hunting or fishing. The house had been totally gutted and redone. New plumbing, heating and air, cabinets, and paint; even the house inspector found little to write up about the place. Having been a sucker most of my life, I knew it was too good to be true.

“The previous owner, did he die or something?” I asked attentively of the realtor. 

“William?” Pinky snapped. Pinky, having never attended the school of screw-overs as I have, finds that kind of questioning offensive. I couldn’t imagine a guy spending all this time on a house and then selling it. I kept my mouth shut.

It wasn’t until we were signing the papers that the scam was brought to light. Under property description were the words “hobby farm.” I broke into a cold sweat. Unable to speak, I meekly pointed with a trembling hand. 

“What is it, sweetie? Did you find a grammar error? I know how you love a good grammar error.” 

“There,” I managed to say, afraid to repeat the words rattling around in my head.

“Yes, hobby farm. I don’t see the error.”

“Hobby doesn’t bother me—it’s that second word.”

“Farm?” said Pinky. I unconsciously started grinding my teeth. Flashbacks of endless chores, broken equipment, and animal dung broke like a dam from some suppressed area of my brain, rushing into my conscious mind like floodwater. I swear I heard a rooster crow. 

“But you grew up on a farm?”

“Actually,” the realtor piped in, “it’s more of a hobby ranch. This reminds me that I need to tell you about Bessie.” 

“Please tell me she’s a ghost that haunts the house,” I said. 

“No, she’s actually a cow. An Irish Dexter that the previous owner left with the property.”

“This is a nightmare,” I said, putting my head in my hands.

“An Irish Dexter?” Pinky asked. 

“Yes, they’re a smaller breed of cattle. Really cute.” 

“Cute? Oh god, I think I’m hyperventilating.”

“Oh, calm down, William. You knew this place had acreage. What did you think we were gonna do with it, hunt?”

“Yes! I thought that was the deal. You get the house and I get ground to play on, not work on.”

“Oh, it will be fun. You grew up on a farm. You’ve told me dozens of times about those hilarious mishaps.” 

It was true I’d wasted half my youth laboring on farm duties. It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized not everyone farmed and that was okay. Pinky, on the other hand, always seemed delighted by my tales of farming as a youth. I think the idea intrigued her urban logic.

“Fortunately,” the realtor piped in again, “it’s more of a ranch than a farm.” 

“See, it’s not even a farm. It’s a ranch, Will.” 

“A hobby ranch,” the realtor said, smiling. 

“No, it isn’t true. It isn’t,” I muttered. I was in denial, the first stage of farm-purchase grief.

Then I got angry. Not the scream-and-shout kind of angry. The bitter kind of angry where I quietly seethed through the whole moving process, followed by me making a bargain with myself that if I got rid of the cow it wouldn’t be a farm anymore. Then I got depressed reflecting on bitter memories of kicks and stomps I received as a youth. Then I accepted the fact that I now lived on a farm. All this took about three-and-a-half days. I understand that the larger the spread, the longer the grieving period.

“Forty acres with one cow,” I told my wife as we were placing dishes in the kitchen cabinet three nights after moving in. “That’s chump change. Heck, as a half-grown kid I was in charge of whole milk-barn of Jersey cattle.”

“Well, I’m glad to see you’re feeling better, dear. Say, we’ve been working on this house all day. Let’s go for a walk around the forty.” 

“Sounds great, dear. Have you seen my boots while we’ve been unpacking? All I’ve got are these tennis shoes to wear.” 

Looking back, my limited selection of footwear may have been the only thing that saved me on that first encounter with Bessie. Who knew I’d be running? 

We had just made it to the very back of the property when my wife elbowed me and whispered, “Look over there.” 

I thought she’d spotted something important like a ten-point buck, only to look over in disappointment: a mini black cow.

“That must be Bessie,” said my wife. 

“Sure, or her sister.” I said. 

“Isn’t she cute? Oh, William, can we keep her?” 

“You keep kittens because they’re cute. It doesn’t work that way with cows.”

The whole time we had been talking, Bessie had been eyeing us with suspicion while chewing her cud. A nonthreatening glare meant to keep our alarm down. The top of her back came to about my waist and the two horns on her head didn’t look long enough to cause a flesh wound. Bessie looked like an overgrown toy.

“Do you think she’ll let me pet her?” Pinky said, taking a step toward Bessie. 

All at once Bessie’s potential energy exploded into kinetic. Bessie grew three times her size with horns as long as pool sticks. I heard my wife scream (or it could have been me) as I turned tail in the direction of the house. After a few hundred yards I noticed my wife wasn’t with me. 

I pushed the image of Bessie stomping the mutilated body of my spouse out of my head long enough to yell, “Pinky?” 

To my great relief, there was a response of, “Over here, you stupid blank-of-a-blank.” 

Carefully, I eased through the brush until I came to Pinky thrashing in the waters of a mudhole pond, Bessie on the other side condensed to her original size and resuming the chewing of her cud. 

“What happened to you?” I asked.

“What do you mean? You left me!” 

My wife, unschooled and unconditioned in farm life, didn’t understand that when cows attack, heroic gestures only cause bodily harm and it’s better if every man accounts for himself. I was trying to think of how to break this to my wife when she intruded on my train of thought. 

“She chased me into this pond. And you just left me!” 

“She chased you into the pond?” I asked, making a mental note of Bessie’s behavior. She doesn’t like water.

“No, it just looked so inviting I couldn’t restrain myself from taking a swim. Now help me out of here.”

Finding a long stick, I gave Pinky a hand, doing my best to keep my sneakers dry. Covered in bright green duck grass from head to toe, she looked like Swamp Thing. 

“What are you smiling at? I could have been killed.” 

“You know those hilarious mishaps? I think this makes the top of my list.”

Pinky stomped off, muttering. The only two words I made out were “horses” and “ass.” I didn’t think it a good time to school her on the fact that horses and donkeys are different animals. Left alone, I turned to look at Bessie—who wasn’t there. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I knew she was still watching me. I hurried after Pinky to the safety of the house. 

After two showers and a glass of wine, Pinky finally spoke a direct full sentence to me as we climbed into bed. 

“Get rid of Bessie.” 

Evidently, Bessie’s cuteness had worn off quickly. 

“It’s not that easy,” I stammered.

“I don’t care. I’m afraid she’ll hurt someone.”

“Yeah, me too. Mostly me.” 

“Just get rid of her.” 

The next morning I searched the Internet for a cattle hauler. After a few phone calls, I had a gentleman who agreed to come out that day and take a look. An hour later, he turned in the drive, pulling a long aluminum trailer behind his Ford Dually truck. He stepped out donning a palm-leaf cowboy hat, a pearl-snap, long-sleeve shirt, Wrangler jeans, and boots. A thick mustache covered his upper lip, the tips of the hairs stained by Copenhagen. A real cowboy, I thought—he’ll know what to do. He introduced himself as Buck Thompson. Even his name sounded heroic to me. I’d found my man.   

“You been cowboyin’ long?” I asked. It was such a stupid question to ask; a real cowboy is born in the saddle. 

“You bet.” 

“Oh, well, what’s your horse’s name?” I asked. 

“Taco. Won the team-roping event off her last weekend.” 

“Fascinating,” I said. 

It’s a little-known fact Missouri ranks number two in cattle production in the United States. However, it never had the rich cowboyin’ history of Texas. Growing up, we never had a horse. Our cowboyin’ was done on foot with buckets of grain, willow branches cut for swatting sticks, and—if things got bad—rocks. For this reason I’d never considered myself a real cowboy growing up. I mean, when was the last time you saw John Wayne rope a milk cow?

Buck disappeared to the end of the trailer and there were a few thuds as he unloaded Taco, a tall chestnut roan. Taco was already saddled and Buck climbed onto her back with the ease of most people stepping into a warm bath. Adjusting the saddle a bit, he took a can of Copenhagen out of his shirt’s chest pocket, tapped it on the saddle horn, and pinched a bit of the snuff into his gums.

“Alright, where is this pygmy cow?” Buck asked. 

“Right back that way.” I pointed in Bessie’s direction. “Say, uh, you don’t… I mean, I can if you want… Need help?” 

“Probably not this time, Bud.” 

“Right. Okay, well, I’ll be in the house doing some work. So, yeah, if you need me,” I said, trying not to sound too excited that I didn’t have to help.

“I’ll let you know when I’ve got her all loaded up,” Buck said, leading Taco into the pasture. I watched him start to take the trail Pinky and I had taken the night before. Immediately, Buck met his first adversity to Ozark Cowboyin’: tree limbs. Not able to take the direct path Pinky and I had followed, he maneuvered Taco around some buckbrush and disappeared. I retreated to the safety of the house. 

Watching through the back window, I counted the minutes waiting for Buck’s triumphant return. Around minute sixteen I heard the first sounds of a fierce struggle. Pinky came along about this time and asked what was going on. 

“Hush,” I said.

“Don’t hush me. What’s going on?” 

As she stood glaring at me, Bessie burst from the brush. She didn’t look as intense as I remembered during the attack, but she didn’t look happy. One end of a rope was looped around one of her stumpy horns and she jerked and bucked as if being stung by bees. She was shortly followed by a disheveled looking Buck holding the other end of the rope. 

“What’s he trying to do?” asked Pinky. 

“What I hired him to do.” 

“Maybe you should help him.” 

“He’s a professional. He made it very clear he didn’t want my help.”

Even though I could see Buck was flustered, I was confident he would come out on top.

Boy, was I wrong. He’d played right into Bessie’s plan. 

Now in the open, Bessie rushed around a lone blackjack tree, then shot back toward the woods. Taco was doing her best to take up the slack in the rope as Bessie disappeared back into the woods, dragging Buck and Taco into the low limbs of the blackjack. Buck’s hat flew off as a tree branch whipped off Taco’s neck and into his face, bloodying his nose. A few expletives were released as Buck and Taco disappeared back into the woods. We heard Buck yell, “Get back! Get back!” 

Then all went eerily mute. 

“You know, maybe I should call 911,” I said. 

“Maybe you should go out there and help?”

“You want to be a widow?” 

As I said this Bessie came marching victoriously from the brush, the rope and Buck having disappeared. She paraded up to the fence, her tail arched defiantly, eyes blazing, looking for her next victim.

I’ve heard of elephants using low-level bellows to communicate with other elephants several miles away, of whales having a vocabulary of calls and songs that scientists have yet to decipher, and of the amazing chemical communication of ants. But I have never sensed a connection with an animal like I did as Bessie eyed me in the window, stopped dead in her tracks, and stared into my soul. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I must have blacked out, for when I finally felt my eyes blink, Bessie was gone. 

“Where’d she go?” 

“Back in the brush, but more importantly, where’s your cowboy?” 

An image of Buck’s mangled body hanging from a tree limb was just starting to form in my mind as Taco and Buck limped out of the woods. I hurried to the back door. Buck was bloody. Taco had no visible flesh wound but seemed to be favoring her right hind leg. I asked what any reasonable, non-medically trained person would ask. 

“You alright?” 

Buck didn’t answer. He just laid Taco at the back of the trailer. I’d never seen a horse load so fast. 

Again applying my most sympathetic voice, I asked, “Anything broken?” 

Buck still didn’t answer, only limped to the front of his truck and climbed in the cab. He fired up the engine and rolled down the window. 

“When will you be back to try again?” I asked. 

“Don’t call me. I’ll call you.” 

A few days went by and I hadn’t heard from Buck. I dialed his number, feeling that same tight-gut feeling I’d had calling up some girl I had a crush on in my juvenile years. I could feel myself swallow with every ring on the line, dreading the moment when he might answer, and wishing to God he would. He didn’t. 

I hung up the phone and wrote him off. I thought I’d reward myself for the effort with a stroll into town for a visit to the gun shop. Heck, maybe I’d buy a new gun to hunt down Bessie. 

My friend Frank runs a hunting and fishing/knickknack shop in town. He attracts a variety of weirdos that make a weekly stop to visit, me being one of his favorites.

“Hello, Will, what’s new with you?” he asked as I walked through the door. 

“What’s a good caliber for cow?” 

“Cow elk?” 

“No, cow cow.” 

He gave me a puzzled look and I explained my situation.

“You need to call my cousin Carl,” he said when I finished. 

“Is he a good cowboy?”

“I wouldn’t call him a cowboy, but he knows how to handle cattle—that is, he did until he got locked up.” 

“Locked up? Listen, thanks, but I don’t want some tweaker on my property.” 

“No, he got locked up for cattle rustling.” 

“Like stealing cattle? That’s a thing?” I asked ignorantly. I thought they only existed in Western movies. 

“Oh yeah. If he can’t catch ’em, no one can. I’m gonna see him later. I’ll give him your number.” 

“Great, thanks,” I said, figuring I’d never get that call. 

That night, at about eleven, I was awakened from a sound sleep to my phone ringing. Thinking it might be Buck, I answered on the third ring.

“Hello?” 

“Is this Will?” 

“Yes.” 

“This is Carl. When do you want to catch that cow?”

“As soon as possible.” 

“I can come over tonight, but it will cost more.” 

“Tomorrow will work.” 

“I’ll be there at sunup.”

“Sure.” And then the phone went dead. 

“Who was that, dear?” Pinky asked from under a night mask on her side of the bed.

“Carl.” 

“That’s nice dear, and who is Carl?” 

“Some cousin of Frank’s that catches cattle.” Leaving out the part about Carl being a convicted felon, I lay back, wondering what time sunup was and how Carl knew where I lived. But I guessed rustlers have their ways. 

I didn’t sleep much after the phone call and was awake by 5 a.m. The sun wasn’t up yet so I figured I wasn’t late. I was going for my second cup of coffee, just as the first signs of daylight were emerging from the window, when I noticed a rusty pickup sitting in the drive with an even rustier stock trailer connected to the bumper. Shocked, I stepped outside, wondering how long a vehicle had been parked there without my knowledge. A man was leaning against the front bumper of the truck smoking a cigarette. He looked nothing like the image of a rustler to me. 

He was pudgy and dressed in bib overalls. His feet were adorned with some camouflage Crocs. He was bearded and had on a sweat-stained truckers’ hat from the local feed mill. He looked vaguely familiar, like I might have seen his picture on the People of Wal-Mart website.  

“Are you Will?” the man asked, and I recognized the tone from the phone. I thought of saying no. I stood there trying to decide what to say when Carl spoke again. “Let’s go catch this gyp before it gets any brighter.” 

“But how?” I asked. The question was meant to be geared toward the truck. How did it get in the drive without me knowing? I think Carl thought I meant Bessie.

“Minor details,” is all he said as he lifted his butt off the bumper and gestured me to follow. I was too stunned to decline. 

The trailer was parked in such a manner that, with the trailer’s rear door open, it blocked the gap left by the open gate. Carl entered the trailer via a side door toward the trailer’s front. Following, I noted the trailer’s floor was blanketed with carpet. I turned to ask Carl the purpose of the carpet, but he was already heading toward the woods, two dogs on either side of him that hadn’t made themselves noticed until now. Dumbfounded, I stood there watching them go until they stopped at the edge of the woods. 

“You coming?” he asked.

“Listen, I’m not sure what kind of help I’ll be. Maybe I should just wait in the house. I’m more of a hobby cowboy.”

“Cowboy? Shoot, son. Cowboys got nothing to do with this.”

“Well, yeah, maybe. But I’m…” I was digging through my bag of lies, but couldn’t clutch anything valid enough to use.

“I’ll tell you what. Since it’s your first time and all, I’ll let you be the racer.” 

“Racer? What’s that?” 

“Oh, nothing much. You just run back through the trailer and exit via the escape door.” 

“That’s the door on the side? And how will I know when?” 

“Yes. I’ll holler. Oh, and be sure to shut it behind you.”

And with that, he turned and walked into the woods. I took a tentative step off the trailer, wondering just how fast I could make it back to the trailer. I’ve never been known for my ground speed. I’m no dummy; I knew what Carl was asking me to do. I should’ve turned and gone into the house. Maybe I was just desperate to rid myself of Bessie, or maybe it was the way Carl just marched off into the woods so fearlessly, but something mustered what minor hero material was in me. Stupidly, I followed, feeling like a lamb being taken to slaughter. 

Our quartet found Bessie by the mudhole pond, patiently chewing her cud. I thought Carl would send the dogs instantly, but he only stood staring at her in silence. 

Finally, I asked, “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. I’m just figuring. You stay here. I want to see what she does when she’s approached.”

“Explodes,” I said. 

Carl either didn’t hear me or didn’t care because he took the dogs and started around the pond. Bessie noted their movements with the skilled tactician of a seasoned veteran. As Carl and the dogs circled the pond, she shifted her hind legs around, keeping her pointed stubs of horns pointed in their direction. Then she started backing up. I’d never seen her back down from a fight, but the dogs, I figured, were a new threat she had not dealt with before. As she backed up, she kept edging around the pond, keeping the water between her and Carl. I stood stock-still, not sure of my role in this tango, watching as her rump inched closer to me. 

Transfixed on Carl and the dogs, Bessie finally backed around the pond until she was a mere ten yards away. I hadn’t moved, wasn’t even sure I was breathing, but she abruptly whirled around to face me. I felt death was certain now—that at any moment she would charge, drilling her horns into me before stomping me to death with her mini-hooves.

“Run!” Carl shouted, startling Bessie who glanced his direction. “Run, now!” 

I swear Bessie knew what he said, because she turned and looked at me, an evil smirk coming across her face. Bessie was looking for a fight. I wasn’t giving her one. I ran.

I ran as fast as my short legs would go, and, feeling Bessie’s hot breath on my backside, jammed into another gear I didn’t even know I had. I was preparing to hit Mach 1 when the trailer came into sight. I took a quick glimpse back before entering the trailer and could see the dogs nipping at Bessie’s heels. I exited the escape door, slamming it behind me. The trailer shook violently, Bessie bouncing off the sides like a wild bird put in a cage. 

“Good job, Sport,” Carl said, coming around the end of the trailer, “Better get half-pint here to the yard before she brains herself. Have you got my pay?”

Stunned by my near-death experience, it took me a moment to answer. “Yeah. Yes. It’s inside. I’ll be right back.” 

Rushing inside, I found Pinky at the back door, no longer wearing her night mask, but still in her robe. 

“Where have you been?” she asked. 

“Catching a killer cow.” 

“You caught her?” 

“Of course.” Playing it off, I continued, “Say, Carl wants to get paid. Grab me a check, please, before Bessie breaks out.” 

She disappeared around the corner and I heard the drawer open and slam where we keep the checkbook. “How much is it?” 

“I have no idea.”

Back outside I found Carl already in his truck, the two dogs in the passenger seat. Spontaneously, there would be a big thump from the trailer as Bessie tried her best to free herself, the truck rocking a little with each blow. 

“How much is it?” 

“Two hundred is my standard hauling fee.” 

“Great,” I said, and started writing out the check. 

“I prefer cash.” 

“Oh, well. I don’t…”

“A check will do, as long as it’s good.” 

“Oh, it’s good. I promise.” I tore out the check and handed it to him.

“I guess you want the check from the yard mailed to here? That is, if she brings more than the postage cost.” 

“Yes, here’d be great.” 

“All right then,” Carl said, and put the truck in drive. “Take ’er easy.” 

Following Pinky through the grocery store a month later, I found myself in the meat department. I realized I hadn’t thought of Bessie in a while, but seeing the red meat lying on Styrofoam plates wrapped in plastic made me wonder where she was now. Her display on the selling floor at the stockyard must have been impressive; she brought a whole fifty dollars, according to the check I received. She may have been compact, but she fought like a giant.

Will Brooks received his bachelor’s degree from Drury University, with a major in creative writing and a minor in business. He currently works for his family’s propane company. He loves working with his hands and enjoys many outdoor activities, hunting being his favorite pastime. He lives on a large farm, in a house that was built with lumber harvested and milled right on the farm over sixty years ago. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hawaii Pacific Review, Pencil Box Press, Ignatian Literary Review, Critical Pass Review, Stirring: A Literary Collection, and The Penmen Review. He is also a member of the Missouri Writers’ Guild.


Revival – Mark Houston McLain

Revival – Mark Houston McLain

Mark’s writing for Revival is captivating. It tugs at you as much as it does envelop. The world he paints, along with its characters, is at once verdant and tragic. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Reader discretion is advised for physical and emotional violence.

___

REVIVAL

Ruth

When I was a girl, my Momma and me would sing together.  She would be working her hands on that washboard and look over at me and smile, singin’ that song as happy as she could while not knowing she was working herself to an early grave.  The winter after Daddy left, she got sick and died and left me all alone. I was sixteen and that’s when Irwin asked me to marry him. I guess he felt sorry for me because I had only met him a couple of times and had given him no reason to like me.  His family had a large farm and they said we could live there. Where else could I go? So, I said I would marry him, and we decided we could have a wedding at the end of summer and live with his Momma and Daddy until we could build our own house.

I went to church some, but Irwin and his folks were a Bible bunch and I reckon they thought since I was going to be part of the family, they had better start workin’ on me.  A couple of weeks after we told everyone we were going to get married, the whole family packed up in the truck and we drove down the highway about an hour to a hay field in the valley of a large farm.  We unloaded the truck and pitched a canvas tent next to a group of other families. In the middle of the tents was a haulin’ trailer with a big shiny microphone roosted on a metal stand. Hangin’ behind it was a white sheet with big red letters

HAVE YOU BEEN WASHED IN THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB?

That first afternoon we laid out blankets on the hay field in front of the trailer, and we were right in the front, as close as we could get.  In the evening, two women got up and stood on both sides of that microphone and began to sing and everybody that knew that song joined in. They sang two more songs and then left the stage.  Someone turned on a string of lights that hung right over the trailer, and a lanky man ran up the wooden stairs two at a time and onto that stage and grabbed that shiny microphone and yelled into it and said Hallelujah! Have you been saved? as he held up his hands high in the air.  He was young, and I don’t know if he had even shaved yet, but he was wearing a black suit and a white cotton shirt and that is the first time I ever saw anybody in a suit.  He had a head full of red wavy hair and it was all combed over and was the prettiest hair I had ever seen. It shined like a new penny when he walked under that string of lights.

He began preachin’ and walking himself back and forth across that stage.  Every once in a while he’d stop and look me in the eyes, and I figured it was the Lord talkin’ right at me.  After he finished, the two women got up and sang again, then the lights went off and we went back to the tent for the night.  Only I couldn’t sleep in that old hot canvas tent with all them family in there. Whenever somebody moved it woke me up all over again.  I told Irwin I was gonna sleep outside, and I don’t know if he even heard me. I took my pillow and went and put it down on that stage and slept like a baby under the stars.

The next day we all walked down to the river and Irwin’s Momma had packed some cornbread and greens, so we all ate and put our feet in the water.  That evening as the crickets started to chime, we went back to the trailer and the same two women came out to sing and I waited on the red headed preacher to come on the stage, but it wasn’t him but a big man in blue pants and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled way up.  He did some preachin’. He’d stop ever so often and say Amen and take his hanky and wipe all the sweat off his face.  I didn’t hear much of what he said, I was wonderin’ what had happened to that other preacher.

That night, when the family was all getting settled in the tent, I told Irwin I was gonna sleep outside again.  He said I was sure to get eat up by skeeters and rolled over. So, I went back out across the field to the trailer and throwed my blanket down under that big sky and the preacher with the red hair comes walkin’ up.  He don’t have his suit on and he sure looks different. He asks me what I’m doing out here. He takes his smoke and crushes it out on the metal edge of the trailer and asks me if I have ever been baptized. I shook my head no and he says we should go down to the river.

We walked down the steep bank to the river and sat on some big rocks along the side.  He kept talkin’ about cars and shotguns and whiskey, but he didn’t say nothing more about baptizing.  The moon was big that night and I figured I might as well sit and talk with him cause the sky was so bright, I wasn’t gonna see any stars anyway.  That red hair almost glowed in the night and I kept looking at his eyes when he talked and didn’t even realize that he had put his hand on my leg and slid it up under my dress some.  He went to whisper in my ear and I thought it was gonna be something about baptizing but instead he just kinda rubbed my neck with his mouth. It happened fast after that. I was lookin’ up at that big moon and pretty quick-like he stopped moving on me and just lay there and I figure that’s when he filled me with his spirit.

******

Irwin

I used to tell myself he don’t mean no harm.  But I’m an old man and now I know that sometimes you can see a thing for what it really is.  I come to realize that sometimes there is evil in the world and that’s all you can say. That boy come into this life screamin’ and I reckon he won’t quit ‘til they lay him in the ground.  He don’t look like none of my folk but I raised him just the same. I knew it as soon as I seen the little bastard. Damn boy come out with that red hair, how the hell was I supposed to think he were mine?  Raised him though, and claimed him for my own when I knowed he wasn’t. She let me name him and I give him my uncle’s name and I shore wish I hadn’t.

When that boy was just a little feller he was pure evil, I mean weren’t a decent bone in him.  Killin’ stuff around here just for the fun of it. Ants and spiders when he was knee high. Coons and possums later.  Once he killed him a huntin’ dog. A damn huntin’ dog.  Had a collar on it and everything.  I told him it were a redbone and some hunter would sure be lookin’ for him.  He didn’t care. He just kilt it to watch it bleed out. I told him it sure was a sin if I ever heard one to kill a man’s huntin’ dog.  He just stood there and looked at me with that red hair stickin’ up. I give up on the boy right then and there. Roof. Heat. Food. That’s all that youngin is going to get from me.  I said to myself thank God he ain’t from me, I ain’t got that evil blood runnin’ through me.

Ruthie and me don’t talk about him no more.  She never let me lay into him, whip him a few times.  It’s because she knows he ain’t mine. We he was about twelve or so, he got into trouble, something to do with cornering a girl after school and holding her down.  School principal showed up at the house and said Don’t send Parnell back down here, we don’t want him.  That boy gonna have to get his learnin’ somewheres else.   Ruthie told ‘em they was all damn liars but deep down she knew it was true.  Only time I ever heard her swear in her whole life. She tried all the time to get him some salvation, but he never seen the need for it.  Sometimes at night she’d read to him from the Bible and he’d sit there staring into the fire, listening to her reading all the thous and shalls, his cold eyes all fixed and he’d just have this little smirk in the corner of his mouth and sometimes right in the middle of a readin’ he’d bust out and laugh and she’d stop readin and look at him.  I mean right at him. I could see she was madder’n hell, but I knew she’d be right there on her knees that night prayin’ against all that evil in him. One night she just slammed her Bible shut and went to bed and cried all night and I figured that’s when she gave up on him too.

******

Parnell

I had a girlfriend once.  I was about sixteen. Pretty girl.  Her neck and face as smooth and white as sweet milk.  I met her down at the river. It was summertime and hot as dammit.  One day Momma said she wanted me to see a preacher man. I asked her why and she stayed quiet for a real long time and I thought, well fine then don’t say nothin’, I don’t care.  Then she said she wanted to get me right with the Lord and I thought well hell, why not. Damn old truck bout didn’t make it over the mountain. We drove for a good long while before we pulled up in the dirt parking lot of this church.  I couldn’t read the sign, but I saw it had a steeple so I knowed it was a church. Made out of cinder blocks with white paint peeling and hangin’ off and that steeple on it were way too small looking and I thought this don’t look like no place to get any religion.  Momma said to stay in the truck and so I sat there while she went inside. After a while she came back out with this big bald-headed feller and they stood there in front of the door with Momma talking at him and him standing there with his arms crossed just lookin’ at me and noddin’ and I thought this don’t look good.  Momma waved me on and I walked up to them and ole baldy put his arm around me and kinda pulled me along into the church. We walked right up to the front, where all the preachin’ is done and he said I was a sinner and that I gotta get down on my knees, and so I figured we come all this way I might as well do what the man said so I kneeled on down and then he smacked my head real hard like and started screamin’ and then Momma started screamin’ and all the while I was the one bein’ smacked and I was the only one weren’t hollerin’.  After he popped me a couple more times and yelled some more, he laid his hand on my head and I didn’t pay no attention to what he said but he had my head under that big hand of his and it was a shakin’ like he was trying to send something down into me. He let it go all of the sudden and told me Get Up! and I did, and I could see Momma standing there with her hands all up in the air shoutin’ and the tears a washin’ down her face.  She durn near shook the hand off that old preacher and then handed him two dollar bills. On the way home, we stopped at a blue hole down by the river to eat our sandwiches and I saw her.  She was swimmin’ and she knew everybody was watching her, but she didn’t care. I sat right there and watched her swim. Her hair was all slicked back on her head. When she got out of the water and on the bank, I could see her pretty bottom in that swimmin’ suit and she knew I was lookin’.  She stood up and pulled at her top and bottom to make sure that nothing ain’t fell out when she got out on that rock, standing there in the sun. About that time, she bent over, and I said GODDAMN! and Momma commenced to start bawlin’ and said she reckoned the devil ain’t been out of me and that preacher must not be no good, and I started laughin’ cause I guess that’s the funniest thing I ever heard.

******

The social worker stood on the stoop of the tattered shack, tears flowing down her cheeks as her trembling fingers flicked at her cigarette.  The sheriff should be here soon, she thought. On the rotten porch steps, she could see Parnell’s bloody boot prints heading in the direction of the heavily wooded creek area.  In the open front doorway lay Irwin, his eyes open and fixed in the furrowed skin of his cold, white face. Only the handle of a large hunting knife could be seen, as the whole of the blade was entombed in the side of his chest.  In the shack, some cinders remained smoldering from a neglected fire and a heavy ash lay over the stone hearth. The room showed the leftovers of a violent struggle. In the rocker next to the hearth sat Ruth. She rocked in silence save for the runners of the chair creaking with each pass on the floor.  Her old hazy lensed glasses sat perched on her nose as she read from a well-worn Bible that lay open across her lap. Her craggy face showed no signs of distress or horror, but of serene peace and calmness. Along the worn floor, the blood that had drained from the wound in Irwin’s side wasn’t the bright red of a fresh cut, but a crimson as deep as the reddest of wines.  The blood had rivered along the knotted pine floor to pond at the low area beneath Ruth’s rocker where some of it had soaked up into the thick wool socks she was wearing.

___

Mark McLain loves to write short stories about the South.  A seventh-generation Tennessean, he is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and enjoys spending time with his family floating the Hiwassee River and hiking in the Appalachians. His work has appeared in Gravel and Mulberrry Fork Review.

The Food Upon Which Others Feast – by Thomas Elson

The Food Upon Which Others Feast – by Thomas Elson

This story carries a chilling note of the thought-provoking.

Please, enjoy the read. We certainly did.

___________

THE FOOD UPON WHICH OTHERS FEAST by Thomas Elson

We mapped this route generations earlier, and irrespective of origin, the path is the same for everyone. We also dictated a hierarchy: We, the vanguards, would watch the votaries whom the witnesses were told monitored them.

Two of our votaries perched thirty feet above the driveway in front of a limestone building constructed in 1868. Obadiah, the senior votary, impeccably attired in a dark blue suit, silk tie – the color of which befitted our calendar, and sunglasses, rested his hands on the polished railing. Ariel, young and eager to impress, hovered with his clipboard pressed into his gray sweater.

“Who are the two new witnesses?” Ariel looked at the older votary, bit off a piece of beef jerky, and waited for an answer.

“Take notes at the briefings the way I taught you and you’d know.” Obadiah smiled and looked down.

Ariel, by now used to such sarcasm, tapped his pen on the report form attached to his clipboard. “Humor me.”

Obadiah shrugged and continued. “That first guy, the red-headed one, is Herb Peavy. He used to sneak into second-floor bedrooms and stomp women to death with his climbing spikes. It’s his second time here. He’d be at the North Center if the vanguards didn’t still have some use for him.” He waited for a moment. “Just watch him. All he wants to do is get close to that thin kid. If he were anywhere but here, he’d get detained for-“ Obadiah waited a second. “Following too close.” Laughed at his own joke.

“That thin guy looks like an eleven-year-old girl.” Ariel pulled his sweater over his belt buckle. “Hell, he looks like a-”

“Don’t say it. Do not say it. That’s Kenny Dumars. Just two months ago, he was a part-time wheat farmer and full-time high school Spanish teacher livin’ the dream. Even set-up housekeeping with his girlfriend. But the sheriff caught a Cessna unloading marijuana on his property. Ol’ Kenny boy had himself a third job – being paid for the use of his farm land.” Obadiah grinned, added, “Poor guy’ll be eaten alive in here,” then shook his head and unbuttoned his suit jacket.

“He ought’a have a good time in this place with Herb tailgating him.” Ariel watched the red-head smooth his hands over the thin kid’s shoulders. “What’d they want us to do with ‘em?”

“Well, Herb’s bound to do what he did the last time.”  Obadiah adjusted his tie, nodded toward the driveway. “His only value to the vanguards is to see how Kenny reacts around him at the South Center. So, we are required to keep ‘em together after processing and watch what happens.”

When new witnesses arrived we required they remain alone for a short period of time. Alone and unattended, but not unobserved, and certainly not unrecorded. Their movements to be transcribed by votaries onto a checklist. Posture erect? Hunched over? Gesticulations made? People touched? Pockets reached into? Items extracted? Stepped out of line? Anything picked up? Rocks? Cigarette butts?

The witnesses stood as if transfixed. Blank stares. Clenched teeth and tight jaws. Minds working overtime. They stiffened as a scattershot wind hit their faces. Herb looked east toward the wide expanse of farmland and inhaled the scent of the harvest. Kenny stared at contrails swirling twenty-six thousand feet above. Both shuffled around on the gravel driveway. Their sounds alternated between crunching and hammering. Neither looked toward the North or South Centers.

Inside the South Center Processing and Orientation section a votary with a sore-knee limp walked toward the two witnesses, handed each a towel and small cup half-filled with delousing shampoo. “Well, Herb. I figured I’d see you again. What happened? You hear we got a new line of clothing?”  He pointed at the open shower. “You know the drill. And keep it in your hair for a few minutes.”

Amid echoes of “Fresh meat,” and  “Come over here and visit me,” Herb walked with his middle finger aloft. He abruptly shouted, “Looks like you’re working old three-pack pretty hard,” nodded toward the man laboring to stand – his left hand clasped three unopened packs of cigarettes, then hurriedly walked to his chair, lifted his pad and charcoal, resumed drawing.

Kenny held back until Herb returned, then clutched his towel where he thought it might do the most good, and, despite wet floors, rushed into the shower. He finished without drying, quickly headed back, and hurriedly dressed.

The votary handed each a paper bag and directed them to carry it in their right hand. “What you’ve got there is a toothbrush, toothpaste, and two hotel-sized bars of Ivory soap. Commissary takes ninety days to kick-in but most of you will be gone by then. So, other than your meals, that’s pretty much it.”

The votary raised his palm. “Ya’ll gonna be buried under the mass of senior witnesses. Just know that you have no rights here. Only privileges. The rest you gotta figure out on your own.” He looked at Kenny in his practiced manner. “Consider that your orientation.”

The votary knew Kenny was too frightened to remember what was said, but his perspective would change after the doors slammed. When it became apparent that he could never again open or close a door, walk from one room to another, chose when to eat, what to eat, where or when to sleep without first asking permission. When Kenny had the look of an animal that decided to stop running, we would know he had learned our Rules: Eyes down but stay alert – Don’t look but see everything –When you walk hug the wall but do not touch it – There are no gifts; accept anything and you are in debt. – Ask for permission before you do anything.

The votary led them into an area the size of a basketball court with a walkway surrounding a chain-link enclosure. He assigned both witnesses separate bunks within fifteen feet of two exposed toilets and one rust-stained sink. Then he repeated what he said each time, “Good luck. And don’t come back.” He locked the gate and walked away.

As Kenny waited in line that evening, his eyes moved from witness to witness. He watched how each held two utensils under a stainless-steel tray, and silently moved toward a wall opening, then placed the tray on a small ledge, and remained motionless as meat and green beans were plopped on it. After a half-pint carton of milk hit a tray, a voice barked, “Next!” and the line moved forward.

Kenny set his tray on a table near the stage. Herb pulled a chair out, turned it slightly, dropping his tray next to Kenny. Herb looked at Kenny, “What’cha need from the commissary?” Then skimmed his tongue across his upper lip and moved his hand under Kenny’s. After a moment Herb raised his fingers slightly, pulled his hand back, and left a list of commissary items under Kenny’s palm. “I can get you ramen noodles, pens, paper, stamps, cigarettes, peanut butter, pretty much anything. What’cha want?”

“They told us we can’t use it for ninety-days.” Kenny moved his hand away.

Herb pushed a package of gum between their trays. “But I can. I’ve been here before.”

Silence.

“Why me?”

Herb stroked Kenny’s hand. “You’re my friend.”

Kenny leaned forward, gently raised his hand, gracefully rested it on the back of Herb’s head, and whispered.

Herb’s eyes flared. “We’ll see smart guy.” Then, contemplating his next move, said, “We’ll see how you’re taken care of from now on.” He grabbed Kenny’s half-pint of milk, shoved it into his coat sleeve, stood, left the package of gum on the table, and walked toward the stage and the line of witnesses waiting to be frisked.

A votary bent to frisk him – calves first, then thighs and hips. Herb, with a one-arm motion, slid the milk carton from coat sleeve to palm and onto the stage. When the votary found nothing, he turned to frisk another witness. Herb picked-up the milk carton, raised his arm, allowed the carton to drift inside his coat sleeve, cupped his hand, lowered his arm, and walked away.

An hour and a half later sounds and smells reverberated inside the enclosure. Toilets flushing or not flushing. Bodies unwashed for days. Scattered loud voices. Small groups talking, shuffling. Bunks creaking.

A votary wheeled in a console television. “This will remain on the channel it’s set to.” He paused. “That safety razor on top the t.v. has one blade.” He pointed to the razor. “You have one-half hour to shave,” he said to everyone. “When I return at eight o’clock, that razor will be right there.” He struck the top of the console with his knuckles. “With the razor blade next to it. If I see anything other than that, I will respond.” Tapped the console and left the enclosure.

Herb rose from his bunk with three other witnesses, walked up to Kenny, blinked slowly.      “You busy?”

No reply.

“You too busy to spend some time with us?” Gestured toward his bunk, then pulled Kenny’s head closer, “You owe me.”

“The hell I-”

“Shut up. Shut the hell up. You owe me. I gave you something. And now you owe me. Don’t renege or I’ll make sure they yank your privileges. Send your ass down behind them damn white doors.” Within moments he laughed, raised his voice a decibel below a yell.   “You want that? You wanna be b’hind them doors downstairs?”

The three witnesses from Herb’s bunk surrounded Kenny, then tightened their circle. Kenny’s head jerked back. Pain descended from eyes to mouth, then came guttural sounds, and he was on the floor in a fetal curl. He knew he was leaking – red or brown – but did not know which. One of the witnesses set a blade on top the television.

The next afternoon Kenny waited in yet another line of witnesses to be told what to do, where to go, yelled at about something, lined up to go somewhere or lined up to come back. It didn’t really matter. His knees ached, everything ached, and he was ashamed of the stains between the hip pockets of his jeans. Herb cut in. Within seconds Kenny was again encircled.

“You.” Herb spit on the floor. “You do not say ‘no’ to me.” When he signaled, the circle blended away, and Kenny was on the floor with blood on his shirt darkening yesterday’s stains.

A votary meandered over. “Get off the floor.” He raised his voice. “Get over to the infirmary.”

We now knew Kenny had learned the Rules.

Late the next day, when he awoke, Kenny’s eyes followed the white infirmary wall toward a metal desk at the opening of the ward. He blew at the detritus descending from the ceiling, watched it float away, then concentrated on the liquid dripping through a tube attached to an elevated bag. When he pulled down his sheet, he saw stitches below his rib cage and several blood stains.

A nurse from Honduras walked up. “¿Como estás?” Kenny asked.

She eagerly responded. “¿Pero, como estas?” Then smiled and touched his shoulder.

A witness two beds over pounded his mattress. “Hey, lady, get the hell over here and take care of my bedpan.”

She rolled her eyes, stooped slightly, walked toward the demand. When she returned, Kenny continued with questions about Honduras, her hometown, his difficulties. In an environment where she was held in less esteem than children’s pets, she lingered. On his third day, she handed him a gift – a Hershey’s candy bar.

“No te puedo pagar,” said Kenny.

“No need to repay,” she said. Then added, “You don’t look like you belong here.”

Kenny laughed, then winced. “Gracias.”

On his final morning, the nurse placed the Spanish edition of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” on Kenny’s bed. “When you go back, read it,” and tucked it under his pillow, then patted the pillow as if fluffing it. “Wait. Open then.” She knew when he left the infirmary he would not be searched.

A week later Kenny was strong enough to walk the circumference of the enclosure. He moved carefully. His head down just enough to seem disinterested – as if passing through on an assignment.

#

Kenny had waited almost six years since his transfer to the North Center’s third floor when he heard a votary’s clipped accent call his name for the first time, “Du mars.” The sound seemed to extend. “Kaaaa-neee Duuuu-maws. Somebo’y lu’ ya.” He pitched a nine-by-twelve manila envelope on the concrete floor. Kenny hustled down iron steps to retrieve the package.

Back on the third floor, he flipped to the last page, saw the final word: DENIED. But when he read the preceding three words his body constricted. “… the same fate.”

He reached for the book the nurse had given him. Opened it to the section with the indentation. He did not understand why they allowed him to keep the book. Kenny closed his eyes. His contours hardened as if chiseled. DENIED, that last word on the final page told him whether sunny or dark, summer or winter, held no relevance for him. He knew what came next.

He would soon be inside a metal building, past racks of the North Center’s food items – cans of peaches and lard, bags of rice and beans, five-gallon bottles of ketchup and mustard – walking toward unmarked doors, then into a building connected to a small concrete warehouse, and through an opening the width of a garage door. When he stopped, the door would descend.

Lights would illuminate five unsmiling votaries in dark suits and one senior witness. At this point, Kenny would need assistance. We knew it required an element of irrationality to voluntarily continue. “Let’s go,” a votary would say. “Lean on me.”

Kenny’s shallow breathing would be familiar to these votaries, as would the next sequence – exam table. White sheets. Straps. No needles. No tubes. Eyes never averted. No request for last words. No more time.

Our Rules dictated that Kenny remain awake while the senior witness held the toothbrush the nurse had secreted inside the book. The same sharpened toothbrush Kenny shoved__ into Herb Peavy’s carotid artery.

The senior witness would press that toothbrush into Kenny’s neck until there was no longer a pulse.

– THE END –

 

______________

Thomas Elson’s short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in numerous venues such as Calliope, Pinyon,Lunaris Journal, The New Ulster, The Lampeter, Blood & Bourbon, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Adelaide Literary Magazine. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.

The Beast by Lauren Trail

The Beast by Lauren Trail

She is given a task that morning, one that is not grand or unique. She has carried it out a hundred times before, but today her thoughts get muddled and bleak.

Some days it seems she floats on a breeze, her mind at ease, no troubled sleep. She carries with her woes and strife from days gone by, pain that cut so deep its internal scars might never heal. Yet everyday she wakes and stands and moves her feet, paints on a smile with cracked teeth, and dons her armor even though it is weak. She does not allow herself to mope and weep, but pulls back her shoulders and struts down the street.

Today is the day, she always thinks. Today is the day I conquer the beast.

She surges towards her goal, determined to fulfill her task, courageous and strong and happily content. She knows where she’s going, she knows what needs done, but halfway there, there’s a bump in the path. She sees it coming and tries to avoid it, but she’s thrown off course and now everything is ruined.

That’s when she feels it, a shiver running down her spine unbidden, and though she cannot see it, she knows that the beast is coming for her. She looks down at her armor, all battered and cheap, and she thinks about fighting, but her mind is too weak. Where before she had been confident, so sure and so strong, now her plans have been altered and her whole body has gone numb.

The beast is coming fast and hard, she can hear its thundering feet. Her heart leaps into her throat, fear coiling in her chest as her lungs constrict. Her body is slow to respond, even though she is desperate to run, and the first few steps she takes are tremulous and clumsy. She grits her teeth and forces her stiff muscles to obey, and soon she is sprinting for her life, desperate to outrun the beast, desperate to escape what fate has thrust upon her, even though she knows she is too late.

The beast comes for her nearly every day with no rhyme or reason to its scheme. Its arrival is seldom anticipated or planned, but she can always sense it the second it grows near. Though it is never an early enough warning for her to truly escape, and she knows that she never will, she still tries, again and again, each time hoping for a different result. Some days, she is too tired to run, so she bargains and pleads. Some days she turns to face the beast and tries to fight back, but the beast overpowers her every time, leaving her bloody and weak. Some days she runs until she thinks that she has won, only to turn around and see that the entire day is gone and she is far from home, and the beast slinks back into the shadows with a broad smile of glee.

Today is another sort of day. It is the type of day when she knows, no matter what she decides, that the beast will capture her in its teeth before she can even think. Still, she attempts to flee, but she does not make it far when she feels the beast’s warm breath tingling on the back of her neck. She pushes herself harder, arms and legs swinging, head ducked down as if to increase her pace. Sweat forms on her flesh, races down her spine, pools between her breasts. Her knees nearly buckle, and her legs are spent. When she gasps for breath, the air gets trapped somewhere in her chest. Nausea coils in the pit of her stomach, the world spins and her head feels dizzy.

As she runs, she tries to remember a time when the beast did not chase her. It has been so long now that she cannot truly recall. She remembers fighting other beasts, beasts that still haunt her at times, but they are only nightmares now, past woes she tramples on and scrapes from the bottom of her feet.

As she runs, she sees other people passing by, and they look at her as if she has lost her mind. She covets those who do not suffer the same. She looks at them hard as she’s racing by, out of breath and full of misery, and she wonders how they can gaze upon the beast so blankly and without fright. She notices, too, that some of them have beasts of their own. She can see it in the twitch of their eye, the flinch in their shoulders, the stutter in their speech. She wishes to commiserate, to seek comfort in their comparable fates, but when she is ensnared in the claws of her own beast, she loses the ability to speak. How can she come to know theirs when she is so deeply scared?

As the beast comes nearer, she makes one last desperate leap. She outstretches her arm, in the direction of her original goal, but everything is distorted now, and she does not know where to go. It feels as though she is reaching for something she cannot grasp, always so close, yet so far. She tries to swallow, but the air is too thick. She tries to keep going, but she’s too far off her path. No amount of reaching will get her there.

Then the beast catches up to her, wraps its weighty, gargantuan palm around her waist, and she is jolted to a stop, her stomach heaving a little from the force. The beast’s claws stab through her abdomen, and her mouth opens in a silent scream. Her feet are lifted from the ground and she is suspended there, with nothing but time to think. The sharp daggers in her stomach twist and cleave. She closes her eyes tight, tries to breathe through the pain, but the more she focuses on it, the worse it seems to become.

The beast’s mouth is close to her ear, and it whispers to her softly, filling her head with more worries and fears. “What good are connections when they only bring strife? What good are your words when they have no design? There is nothing for you here, no reason to fight. You can run, and you can hide, but you’ll never defeat me, so why even try?”

In the midst of her agony, she finds her voice enough to hopelessly query, “Why? Why me?”

As per usual, the beast has no sympathy. “Our fates are intertwined,” it says simply. “We are forever linked, you and I. Come rain or shine, no matter where your life leads, there I shall always be.”

She has no fight left within her, now her thoughts are just bitter. Her task is not forgotten, but it’s too heavy a burden. She wants to sulk and complain, even though nothing will change. What is the use? She will not defeat the beast today.

The beast eventually lowers her back down to the ground, loosens its grip on her wounded middle, though not entirely, and she takes the moment to breathe, to even her breaths as she hadn’t been able to before. She takes one shaky step forward, swallows the nausea, and forces herself to push forward. The beast does not inflict further pain, but it follows close behind her, mimicking her every step, its heavy body wrapped tight around her back and chest. With no choice but to accept its frequent presence, she tries to carry on. The beast always lurks in the shadows or presses against her spine. It is always enshrouding her like a heavy cloak, always waiting to strike, always weighing heavily on her mind. Some days she makes it through with little trouble from the beast. Some days she is dragged so far from the trail that she makes it nowhere. Yet still she struggles, still she fights, even when the beast comes for her, day or night.

Each morning she wakes, to do it all over again, and each morning she thinks, Today is the day. Today is the day I conquer my beast.

 

Lauren Trail is an English major at Hagerstown Community College. She enjoys margaritas and long walks on the beach.

Deadfall By Paul Lamb

Deadfall By Paul Lamb

 

How could it have been worse? Not only the three-hour drive, mostly into the setting sun, and their wooden conversation, mostly about nothing, but in the last half mile of forest, just before they finally got to the cabin, a tree lay fallen across their road.

David had watched the tree for a few years, a hackberry. He watched it die limb by limb and drop branches slowly, watched it shed bark in sheets, watched new pileated woodpecker holes appear in the bare white trunk, watched the tree and wondered if it might do exactly what it had finally done.

Had watched and done nothing because this was the natural course. A snag like this served its own purposes in the forest. After it had dropped its leaves for the last time, it became a home to furred and feathered cavity nesters taking their turn. It allowed sunlight to return to the forest floor. And then finally, when it came down, it began to merge with the ground again, returning its decades of enrichment to the soil. To David, a fallen tree wasn’t bad it was just, well, next.

Curt saw none of this however. To his green eyes the fallen tree was a roadblock, a new chore to hijack their weekend, a bad start to a difficult visit that needed to be a good one or else everything would be wrong for all time.

David shut off the truck’s engine, and both of them stepped out at the same time. The tree was a blowdown, its withered roots heaved from the ground and coated with the rocky Ozark soil the trunk had risen from, the hole it left behind still holding water from the storm that had toppled it. His father had once said – had he said it, Curt wondered, or was it just a story he liked to believe? – that it would be among the roots of such a fallen tree that he could ever hope to find an arrowhead, and Curt scrutinized the rocks there, looking for a worked stone lost by a hunter centuries before and then entwined in the roots of a sapling begun as an acorn or nut that had fallen beside it. He wasn’t sure what kind of tree it had been, but his father would know.

“A snag like this could have stood for another twenty years or fallen in a day,” David said. “Our tough luck that it came down now and across the road.”

“Must have made a lot of noise when it fell.” Curt paused, waiting for a response that didn’t come. Then, “I guess we need to walk the rest of the way to the cabin and bring back the chainsaws.”

“Maybe not.” David broke off a branch as thick as Curt’s arm and tossed it aside. “C’mon.” He returned to the truck, and Curt followed. David shifted the truck into four-wheel drive and steered into the trees, picking his way, pushing down or pushing aside the scrub and saplings, bumping over rocks hidden in the damp leaf litter, finding a path through all of it that would fit his truck and get the two of them past the problem and back on the gravel road that lead to the family cabin. Branches scraped the side of the truck, stuttered across the roof of the cab, slapped the windshield and plucked the antenna. But David did not relent, and as they crept, Curt watched in silence as his father found a way that was invisible to him. When they bumped onto the road once again, David didn’t pause to relish his success but stepped on the gas and continued to the cabin.

The cabin waited, waited to welcome them, waited as it had for decades past and would, they all hoped, for decades more, its own roots sunk deep in the Ozark hardpan. For David the cabin was the most evocative memory he had of his father, who had built it; for Curt the feeling was more diffuse. It was family and memory and stories and a sanctuary that would always be ready, both safe and sacred. As it needed to be most of all for him, for them, this weekend. All that was wrong could seem right, seem fixable, when he was at the cabin.

The fallen snag, they both knew unspoken, would wait for the next day. They would return rested, with the tools they needed and when the day was fresh. An hour or two of harsh noise and heavy lifting, then the road would be clear again, showing remnants of the fall and their clean up, but all of that would soon be absorbed by the living forest that would keep to its eternal cycles. Before them now, though, was the work of getting settled in the cabin and a fire built before the summer sun had set. Chores practiced through the years, both together and alone, that were simple to Curt. Simple and clear compared to his real, his dreaded task for their weekend. This complicated and conflicted son of a good but possibly not good enough father. He would soon know.

“Talk to your father,” Kathy told him. She had watched her boy in the days and weeks following his graduation from medical school, saw how the completion of this one great thing had now meant that another, greater thing took its turn and lay before him, no longer to be shunted and put off. “Say what you need to say to him,” she said as the two of them sat at the kitchen table and picked at the threads of Curt’s next life. Kathy knowing, without having been told, what her son needed to tell his father, and also knowing, better than her son could, what his father would say in response.

“Do you think maybe you underestimate him?” Kelly had said, his turn to press counsel on Curt, unasked but not, he knew, unwelcome. “Has he ever given you any sign that he is not broad-minded? Or at least incapable of being so?” Kelly knew, guessed, with an objectivity Curt did not have, that the picture Curt had painted of his father was incomplete, even unfair, and further, suspected that this most important conversation of their two lives would finally breach that false barrier, and Curt could begin to see the depth in his father that he hadn’t allowed himself to across most of his life.

And so here he was, in the place that was refuge for both of them. Where, Curt knew, he had always felt most clearly the love of his father, a man who was not so good with words but who had an eloquence of both action and stillness that better expressed his heart. But if his love was unspoken it was also, Curt believed, unguarded. As natural and boundless as the blue summer sky above them. All that remained was for Curt to say three small words. But his life would not be the same after he spoke them. Nor would his father’s. And he cared deeply about both. So, Curt asked himself as he built the fire he would certainly light with a single match, should he upend their entire weekend at the cabin, or wait for the last possible moment so he, they, could relish most of this time they had together just as they had countless weekends of their past?

Yet if Kelly was right, then so many of those uncounted visits – most of Curt’s life as a son really – had been incomplete, not as fully or as deeply lived as they should have been. If Kelly was right, then Curt had cheated his father and had cheated himself. And if his mother was right – there was no question of this to Curt – then he shouldn’t wait a moment longer.

Still, nothing would be the same afterward. Who would think that it could? Each moment of each day for the rest of their lives would be filtered through this new knowledge. And it was this aftermath that Curt feared the most. Even the best outcome would mean a subtle but permanent difference in how they saw one another.

Curt’s fire burned brightly, pushing back the falling darkness, and he readied the larger pieces of wood to add so they would have flickering flames and coals for conversation and quiet musing. He wondered how many of these fires he had built in his life and wished he had kept some record of it, some record beyond the deep build up of mute ash in the ring. David came from the cabin with two beers in hand, giving one to Curt, and they both popped them open. The night sounds of the forest were beginning. A barred owl had been calling across the lake below them, and they hoped, as they always did, to hear a whippoorwill, their totem sound and one David had commented that he’d seemed to hear less frequently than he had in his boyhood memories. Even with the regular cycles of the forest, some things changed. This simple, even pure delight of theirs might go missing some day, and he was glad Curt had known of it, had experienced it.

Doctor Clark! It’s easy to be proud of you, Curt.”

Stop, Curt thought. You’re making this harder. He dropped a chunk of split oak onto his fire. Orange sparks spiraled into the air and winked out.

“Maybe so,” Curt said. “But maybe med school was the easy part. Being a doctor, a resident in the real world might not be so easy.”

David pulled a chair closer to the fire; its feet ground through the gravel. He sat, and in a moment, Curt did the same, across the fire from his father. Once on an evening much like this, a screech owl had pierced the forest with its call. Sudden silence had followed; every other creature had ceased its noise in awe or terror. Curt remembered that.

On this night they were instead gifted with the three notes of a whippoorwill, somewhere in a tree beyond the firelight. Both men sat in silence, savoring the sound, and Curt recalled another now long-ago time when he had tried to count the repetitions of the bird’s call, giving up somewhere in the thirties.

The whippoorwill had spoken. Curt would as well.

“Dad,” Curt said, not lifting his eyes from the orange glow of the consuming flames between them, and David knew from Curt’s use of that word, this less formal name for him he rarely used, that important words were about to come, words he thought he could guess.

He tried again. “Dad, I’m gay.”

And now the aftermath.

Curt did not know how long his father had been waiting to hear these three small and so hugely complex words from his boy. Curt had always been a clever boy. The depth of his compassion had led him down the path to becoming a doctor. But for all of the range in his heart and mind, Curt had never seemed able, or perhaps willing, to grant sufficient humanity to his own father. Early on he had formed a concept of who the man was, what his essential nature was, and he had been so busy hiding his own essential nature, that he missed all of the evidence that David Clark was the one person on the whole planet who loved him most of all.

David hadn’t understood, at first, why his son had cultivated an uncrossable distance between them. They could joke and laugh and discuss most things and even skinny dip in the lake together without hesitation, but he knew there was always something in the way. As his realization of what this must be slowly came to him, and he stopped joking about girlfriends and stopped speaking about grandchildren, he understood that if it ever were to be broached, it would have to be on Curt’s terms. His boy grew, never giving him a single moment of rebellion or cause for grief that he could remember. He finished high school well. He went to college and came back a man of insight and achievement. Then he went to medical school and came back a doctor. And yet during all of this, Curt had not found the opportunity – or was it maybe the desire? – to be fully open with him.

David never knew why, just as he didn’t know why this time, this visit to their cabin, was when it had finally happened. What about the universe had changed?

And then it struck him. He pulled on his beer then cleared his throat, wanting to say the right thing and not realizing how even the short time the took for this reflection was rending Curt’s heart, filling him with a certain fear of an outcome that he had been equally certain wouldn’t come.

“So is there someone special?” David asked, not yet ready to meet his son’s eyes. He would follow Curt’s lead in the moments ahead.

Curt slumped into the most immense relief he had felt in his life. David’s question told him that his father, whose opinion most counted in all the world, had jumped past objection or rejection or confusion or whatever wrong might have been, had even jumped past immediate acceptance, and had effortlessly moved on to opening his heart to Curt’s fuller life. Someone special! Someone his father would greet and hug and welcome as a second son and bring to the cabin and their forest because this was his way of expressing love.

The part of Curt that had known this all along pushed aside his unfounded fears, sidestepped the more obvious subject for discussion, and joined his father on the other side.

“Yes, actually. His name is Kelly.” Then a moment later, “I met him on the running trail.”

“A runner like you! That’s great.”

“Yeah,” he said, barely able to suppress a chuckle of giddiness.

David was about to ask when he would get to meet this Kelly person, this person who loved his son, but another thought pressed itself ahead.

“I don’t suppose you even need to tell Mom.”

“She can see right through me, Dad!”

“I know. Me too.” And he’d heard that word “Dad” again. “Still, you should tell her anyway. Just to get it in the open.”

Maybe they were exhausted by their achievement because they let a comfortable silence fall between then, filled, mercifully, by the chirring forest around them. Each man had been unprepared for the other’s words but each man had been relieved and released by them. David finally attempted.

“Curt.” He scuffed the toe of his boot in the gravel. “I’m not very good with these things. With speaking my mind. I don’t know the right things to say, the right way to say them. All I can say is that I love you. I always have. I always will. You’re my perfect boy and I’ve always been proud of you.” He paused and set his beer on the gravel then clasped his hands. “I don’t know what else to say, son.”

In a husky voice Curt said, “You don’t have to say anything else. What you said is perfect.” And then, “Thanks, Dad.”

And so for a while neither of them said anything. The fire between them snapped and sizzled. The insects and frogs sang in the trees. Faraway owls hooted. A breeze came from the other side of the cabin and blew smoke into Curt’s face. He closed his eyes for a moment, but when he opened them again, the smoke was still coming at him.

“Well, if that’s they way it’s going to be,” he said, rising from his chair and dragging it through the gravel to the other side of the fire beside his father. His dad. Dad.

In the orange of the firelight David reached across and rested his hand on Curt’s bare forearm.

“You know what I don’t see a lot of out here?”

Curt, not expecting to be confronted with such an odd question and unable to imagine where it might lead said simply, “What’s that?”

“Mosquitos. I guess the dragonflies and the bats take care of that for us.”

What could he say in response to that? Curt wondered. Was any response necessary? His father had eased right back into common cabin conversation, into the mundane they shared as though Curt’s monumental words were now well behind them and maybe even not so monumental at all. More importantly though, when, beyond a perfunctory handshake or a clap on the shoulder, was the last time his father had touched him, touched his skin? When had he let him? His arm tingled.

They both knew, each at his own level, that what had passed between them at this campfire would need more thought, more slow absorption into their lives. That their few words to each other would eventually be followed by other words, mostly good words surely, but words that would pick and poke at their changed relationship, furthering it, deepening it, and discovering what it would mean going forward.

David was already beginning to sense this. Now that he had his son back – and he was back, wasn’t he? After more than a decade of holding himself at his distance Curt had finally spoken his truth and together they had pushed aside or left behind what had been between them, right? – David realized that he was also losing him. Soon he would no longer have Curt to himself, at least as wholly to himself as he might have before and now could only for the rest of their weekend while they were together in this place. Because Curt was going to give himself to another. To Kelly. David would have to learn to share him, to accept – once again, ironically – whatever bits of Curt were allowed to him. He held this bittersweet tension in his heart, feeling it but not understanding it.

Curt, in turn, tried to find his own new equilibrium. It wasn’t so much that his father’s automatic acceptance of his son’s life had been unexpected. He realized how he should have seen this, should have seen it years before. No, it was that so much time had been wasted, so much love had been tempered, so much chill had been cultivated and then endured. So much needless waste! Why had he allowed himself to create such a mess? To let it last for so long? His diagnosis: he hadn’t been a very good son to a very good father. No, he had not been very good; merely good enough. Never mind that the cure had come easily or that they could both now be healthy again. That the affliction had existed at all was his real shame.

The whippoorwill had ceased its call. David thought he had heard one across the lake, up on the far ridge, but it was too distant to hear clearly. The air had stilled. A thread of smoke rose unmolested from the few coals still glowing in the ring. Time to spread them so they could burn out. Maybe quench them with whatever liquids the two men had at hand. And then to the cabin for the night. The usual routines before going to sleep.

David screwed his half empty beer can into the gravel and pushed up from his chair. He prodded the coals with a stick and considered whether they needed further attention or could burn themselves out overnight. The recent rain meant the forest was wet, so he wasn’t too worried, but he also knew he would rise in the night, more than once likely, and he could check on the coals then.

Curt had watched in silence, thinking much of the same thoughts as his father, the result of having shared countless campfires with him in this place.

David said, “I’m turning in.”

“Be right there,” Curt said, rising from his chair and stepping closer to the coals. “One thing first.”

As David walked the familiar path to the cabin he heard Curt quenching the coals.

When Curt reached the cabin, David had already turned on the lantern that hung from a hook in the ceiling. The light was dazzling to his dark-adapted eyes and he looked to the floor at first as David opened the windows to ensure that whatever breeze passed before the cabin would also pass through it and keep them cool as they slept.

And it was in this moment that Curt was overcome with the realization of how fully his three words had changed his life.

Before him his father was undressing, getting ready for falling into bed. He would strip to his briefs, unabashedly before his son and move about the room nearly naked. Curt would do them same, peeling down to his boxers with nothing left but to say a few words and then get into bed himself.

Together, the summer before, they had added a second bedroom to the cabin, which was his dad’s big indulgence. His grandfather had built the cabin, and Curt saw that putting on that second bedroom was important to David, a way of leaving his own mark. More than anything, David wanted the little cabin and their hundred acres to be a part of the family forever. He was preparing it for further life that he wanted to be lived there, for further perfect moments.

Yet Curt feared that the second bedroom would soon be witness to a different kind of moment. One that would forever evoke its own memories. This sudden realization tainted his outlook for the whole weekend ahead. On the face of it, a perfectly sensible, even inevitable consequence of his three words, yet harrowing because nothing could speak more clearly of a new and irreparable sunder with his father. It was this: that no longer could they share the old bed in the old cabin. No longer could these two men in nothing more than their underwear curl under the single quilt as they had hundreds of times and fall asleep side by side. For despite the love he knew his father felt for him, Curt was certain that the man could never again sleep beside his son, his son who was now an openly gay man. It tainted his whole life ahead.

Curt stood beside the bed, hesitating. He was waiting. Waiting for a word from his father or the will in himself. Waiting for direction.

“It will be good to get some sleep before we tackle that fallen tree tomorrow,” Curt offered as innocuously as he could, trying to fill the empty air between them and maybe prod the right words – or even the wrong ones – from his father.

“I’d completely forgotten about that!” David chuckled at his own forgetfulness. “Yeah, that will be quick work for the two of us.”

Left with nothing, Curt paused for a hopeless moment then grabbed the second pillow from the bed and turned to march off to the other bedroom.

“Hey, where are you going?”

Curt stopped but didn’t turn.

“Aren’t you going to sleep here with me?”

Curt spun around did not try to hide his smile as he threw the pillow at his father. He shook off his clothes and hurried under the quilt with his dad.

David in his briefs and Curt in his boxers. Two grown men, nearly naked, happily in bed together. And would they slip into the lake fully naked the next day, to wash off the grit and grime of their work on the deadfall, just as they had so many times before.

 

Paul Lamb lives near Kansas City but escapes to his little cabin in the Missouri Ozarks whenever he gets the chance. He keeps a blog of his writing and other oddments at Lucky Rabbit’s Foot. He rarely strays far from his laptop.

The Collection By Danielle Davis

The Collection By Danielle Davis

“I’m not too sure about this,” Suzanne said. She stood just inside the threshold of the front door, shifting her weight from one foot to the other and glancing around like she was expecting something bad to happen. The hallway smelled like old people and boiled eggs, and just faintly underneath it all, a hint of bleach. It was like someone woke up, made breakfast, and set about cleaning right away.

“Oh, come on. It’ll be ok. Besides, we’re coming right out again in a minute.” This was from Mark, who was already out of sight around the corner into the living room. It was his house, but his parents weren’t home yet, and this was the first time Suzanne had gone to a friend’s house when their parents weren’t there. She was pretty sure she’d be grounded if her dad found out, so she was anxious to get back to the safety of the street and get home.

A tabby cat poked its head from underneath a love seat in the entrance way and meowed at her. She stepped forward to pet it, glancing around again as her fingers rubbed the soft fur at the back of its ears. It leaned into her touch and closed its eyes in bliss, purring like a small motor. “If my parents find out that I’m over here…” She didn’t quite want to admit that she wasn’t supposed to be there. The Brewster twins, Mary and Mark, had only been at her school for a week, but she’d already developed a crush on Mark that her parents probably wouldn’t approve of. They told her sister, Marianne, that she was too young to be interested in boys and she was a year and a half older. Suzanne was still a little thrilled that Mark had invited her to his house at all—the last thing she wanted to do was act like she was scared of breaking the rules. That wasn’t how cool kids acted at all.

“What, they don’t let you visit friends’ houses?” Mark’s head popped out from behind the corner, frowning. The cat gave a venomous hiss and darted back under the love seat, startling Suzanne. Mark rolled his eyes. “That cat hates people. I’m surprised she let you touch her. You coming?”

She followed him into the living room and down a long hallway. The house looked ordinary, with a few boxes stacked neatly against the wall in the hallway. “We’re still unpacking,” he tossed back over his shoulder. It was eerie to be in someone else’s house without their parents being home. He stopped in front of a bedroom door that had a poster of Spiderman clumsily taped on it. Inside, the room was mostly boxes, with the rumpled sheets of a bed against one wall and a lonely chest of drawers across from it. There were bumper stickers stuck to the fronts of the drawers, but the print was too small for her to make them out without staring.

He darted around the bed, snagged something from the ground and held it out to her. “Isn’t this cool? My dad bought it for me when we moved here. Said it might help me make friends.” It was a remote-controlled helicopter with blades that sounded like a hive of bees buzzing when it hovered. He demonstrated how lights on the side flashed when it made machine gun noises, and she tried to pretend she was interested. But she was acutely aware of the time shown on the digital clock next to his bed. Her own skin started to feel itchy with the sense that every minute that she stayed put her one minute closer to being grounded.

“Can we hurry? I’m supposed to be home in ten minutes.” It embarrassed her to admit she had a curfew, but she decided nothing was worth risking getting grounded for, not even a visit to Mark Brewster’s room.

“Do you always have to go straight home?”

“Not usually. Just since…” She glanced at the doorway and lowered her voice. “Just since the murders. My Dad said it’s not safe to dawdle after school until they catch whoever did it.”

“Oh, yeah. I kinda heard about that.”

“You kinda heard? Wasn’t Terrence Latrell in your English class?” She was surprised—she thought everyone was taking the murders as seriously as her Dad was.

“Wait, that’s why he’s been out this week? He got killed?” Mark’s eyes were very wide, and his mouth hung open as he stared at the carpet. “Oh man. I just thought, well, that he’d been sick or something. But killed?”

Suzanne unconsciously straightened a little, pleased to be able to show off her knowledge on a subject he obviously didn’t know much about. “There’ve been three so far,” she confided. “All kids.” She cocked her head. “Well,” she amended, “the first was a high school kid. But the last two were from our school.” Her voice dropped even lower and when she leaned toward him, he leaned forward, too, to hear her better. “My Dad says there’s a serial killer on the loose.” She allowed a gloating smile when Mark’s eyes got even wider. “My mom got real mad when he said that, because it was at the dinner table. But I heard them talking later that night about it, and she thinks it’s one, too.”

Mark frowned and fidgeted with the edge of his shirt. “Yeah, my mom and dad mentioned that earlier, too.” Suzanne’s shoulders slumped a bit–she’d thought her parents were pretty smart to have come up with that–but Mark didn’t notice. “They were worried about my sister.”

“They were worried she’d be killed?”

“No, not that. Worried that…” He looked up at her, and she was surprised to see that he looked uncertain, as if he were struggling to decide what to tell her. “Do you know why we came to Woodbury?” She shook her head. “My sister kept getting into… She had some trouble at our last school.” He looked at his shirt again. “It got so bad that we had to move.”

Suzanne stared at him, unsure how to respond. “That’s…terrible.”

Mark gave an angry glance to the side. “It wasn’t fair!” he burst out. “One day stuff started happening and everyone thought it was her. People all over town kept harassing us. The teachers whispered things behind our backs. Folks tried to pretend they weren’t staring at us when we went to the grocery store. The neighborhood kids, kids at school—they started with the names. Calling her ‘Bloody Mary’ and ‘Mary the Maniac.’ It was awful! She’d come home crying every day. It wasn’t even her fault.” He glared at his shirt. Suzanne thought she saw a shine of tears collecting along his lower eyelid. “This is our chance to start over.”

“What kind of stuff happened?” Suzanne asked in a soft voice.

He blinked quickly and frowned at her. “What?”

“You said stuff started happening. What kind of stuff? Was it the same kind of stuff as here?” Goosebumps rose along her arms and she felt her scalp tighten. The room felt colder, though she knew it probably wasn’t. It was her that was getting colder as she listened.

Mark opened his mouth, but before he could answer, a door slammed shut somewhere back the way they’d come. Suzanne jumped and whirled to face the hallway beyond the door. “Hello!” a woman’s voice called out. “Hello? Anybody home yet?”

Mark stepped quickly past her to the door and leaned his head out of the room. “I’m here, Mom!” he yelled down the hall. “And I’ve got a friend, Suzanne.” It seemed so strange for him to be calling down the hall instead of going to meet his mother to talk. Suzanne’s mom always got on to her for yelling in the house, when she could just as easily walk down the hall and talk in a normal voice like a civilized young lady.

“Oh lovely!” the voice shrilled back. But even though his mother sounded cheerful, Suzanne thought it felt wrong, somehow. She supposed it was just because of what she and Mark had been talking about. “From school?”

Mark glanced back at Suzanne and gave a theatrical roll of his eyes. She giggled. “Of course, from school, Mom! I was just showing her my pets.”

“Well, don’t get too messy, love. You don’t want to ruin your school clothes.”

Suzanne moved forward to touch Mark’s arm. “No, wait. I can’t. I need to get home, remember?”

“It won’t take very long,” he assured her. He smiled. “They’re just in the closet. Don’t you want to see?”

“But…” She glanced between Mark and the doorway, torn. “If my Dad finds out, I’ll be grounded for li—”

“Relax.” He smiled at her, the same cute smile that he’d given her the first time she saw him in class and pointed at the door. “One quick glance and we’re gone. Besides, it’s probably best if you’re not here when Mary gets home. She doesn’t like it when I have friends over.” As he moved toward the closet door, she realized there was no trace of the tears he’d been close to shedding moments before. In fact, his eyes were clear and alert, and he grinned like her sister did when she rode her bike down a very steep hill.

He put one hand on the doorknob to his closet and then paused. With a glance over his shoulder at her, he said, “I only show this to my friends. But we are friends now…aren’t we?”

She couldn’t help but nod, though the way the sunlight slanted through the curtains in his room told her it was way too late for her to be out.

“On second thought,” Mark said, stepping back. “You open it. It’ll be even cooler that way.”

He straightened in a motion that made his shoes click together at the heels, the way a doorman might stand at attention for a rich lady in a movie. She moved forward, feeling like some other girl in a dream, and put her hand on the knob. Though she expected it to be cold, the brass was warm from Mark’s hand. She pulled it open.

Inside were small glass aquariums, the kind she’d seen in pet stores for lizards or snakes. Three were side-by-side on a shelf, with another three perched on top of those. Each one held a head, in various stages of decomposition, floating gently in a clear liquid that looked too thick to be water. She stared at the heads that stared back at her, feeling empty as her brain struggled to make sense of what she saw. The three on the bottom row were obviously the farthest gone, with milky orbs for eyes and small bits of flesh like sediment floating around the faces. But the ones on top were the freshest. She registered Terrence’s head bobbing, frozen in an expression of surprise.

Suzanne opened her mouth to scream, but only a low huh huh huh noise came out. She turned, slowly, to look at Mark. He stood where she’d last seen him with the same feral grin as before. But now he held an empty aquarium. She hadn’t even heard him move to get it.

He held it out to her and said, “We’re going to need this.” She took it like a robot, unable to keep from looking down into the bottom with a glassy-eyed gaze that didn’t really see anything. Don’t get too messy, his mother had said.

“Now the fun part begins.”

Billy Bagbones: A Folk Tale By Dan Fields

Billy Bagbones: A Folk Tale By Dan Fields

There’s an old song about Billy Bagbones. I bet most of you know it, but it’s only a little bit of the story. I’ve got cousins way out in the country whose people were neighbors with his folks. When I was little my great-aunt Winnie told me all of it, the way she heard it when she was just a little older than me.

A long time ago in the foothills thick with trees, a few miles south of where we are tonight, a little boy lived in a falling-down cabin. His name was Billy Boggs. His daddy brewed moonshine from corn and dogwood bark and pine cones to sell in town, but kept too much for himself to make much money. His mama took in sewing and laundry even though she couldn’t keep herself clean to begin with. Billy’s granny lived there too, and bought tobacco to chew with money that could have fed the family better.

Billy was seven years old and there was nothing much special about him, good or bad. He liked fishing and tree climbing like any boy, even though he could never find another kid to play with. Parents told their children to steer shy of Billy Boggs because he belonged to bad folks. His mama and daddy hadn’t started out bad, but they came from bad folks and were sad and mean and rotted from hard living.

Instead of teaching his son to shoot and fight and brew, Billy’s daddy taught him just enough wood chopping to keep the fire burning, then left him alone except to beat him.

“You’re a dumb dirty kid,” Billy’s old man told him, “and that’s all you’ll ever be.”

The old man had fine ears like a hound dog. He could hear the revenue man’s truck coming five miles away, and he could track hogs and deer through brush without having to wound them first. He could hear anytime the boy came in easy swatting range, no matter how quiet Billy tried to be. He could have a been a hunting guide or plenty other useful things, but he drank too much for steady work, so he wasted and grumbled his life away, hearing the world go on around him and blaming his son for it.

Billy’s mama wasn’t much for washing, but she had fine fingers and a gift for sewing. She worked long hours in the house, never so much as going to the porch to watch the sun set. She muttered under her breath what sounded like prayers, but they were full of cuss words, and when Billy came to help her she kicked his legs or poked him with pins.

“You’re a nasty child of sin,” she told him, “and you’ll never be anything else.”

She’d had an old banjo, but Billy only remembered her picking it once when he was just a baby. She’d sold it off to spring Billy’s daddy from jail for fighting. If she hadn’t married Daddy she could have picked the banjo for real money, maybe even played gospel meetings on the radio. But she’d had to marry, she said, and gave Billy another kick or a hard poke in the ribs when she thought of it. Billy tried to be good, fetched and carried for her and did everything she thought up for him to do. He reckoned if he could figure out how to be a good boy, things would ease up on him.

Billy’s mama never went to the porch because his granny practically lived there, and she was the flat worst. She’d stare at the boy like a chicken hawk as he came and went, spitting her chaw into the weeds unless Billy stopped to speak to her or even look at her. Then she’d hock brown slime right in his eye and pinch him with her birdy claws.

“You’re a filthy little twerp,” she’d screech at him, “and you’ll never be good for a thing.”

Then he’d always get a slap and a kick at supper from his daddy and mama both, for what they called provokin’ his granny. Billy was never sure whether his granny was his daddy’s mama or his mama’s mama. They all went together so natural it hardly mattered. He was not about to ask fool questions just to get beat up. Most of his time he spent thinking of ways he could try harder to be good. He wasn’t all that dirty, and he certainly was not dumb, but he’d been called it so many times he believed it. It was why he never thought of running away.

One day the sun came out with no clouds to hide it. The air was warm with a soft breeze that made the trees whisper sweet things. Daddy had passed out drunk, Granny was in bed with hay fever, and Mama was deep in a basketful of sheets to mend, muttering her dirty prayers to the ugly gods in her heart.

Billy ran down to the creek, happy and free. Perfect days only came a few times a year and they taught him what it means to be blessed, even know he didn’t know the word well enough to say it out loud. The frogs were out in the creek enjoying the warm sun, yet he didn’t find a single snake to bother him. He splashed and laughed in the creek, piling mud on his feet just to watch the current wash it away. If that day had not come along so nice, he might have thought all girls and boys grew up the same as him. He was fixing to learn different.

Two little children found him there, a boy and a girl. They weren’t from town or from a farm.  They said their folks were traveling north to a place called Oh-Hi-Oh, and they’d stopped the wagon for a picnic just up the hill. Billy was so glad to meet people who didn’t know him or who he belonged to that he played all sorts of games with them, pirates and hide and seek and skip-a-rock. Billy caught flies and set them on the water in front of a big old bullfrog, who’d shoot out his tongue and lasso them into his wide mouth. When it was time to go, Billy gave each of his new friends a button off his shirt to keep. They were nice buttons but nearly ready to fall off, and he wouldn’t ask his mama to sew them when she was eaten up with work. Just as he was leaving for home himself, the bullfrog hopped up to him and burped a happy song. Billy decided to keep him as a pet, to help him remember the wonderful day he’d had at the creek.

When Billy came running into the cabin, busting with excitement over the friends he’d made, he thought somehow he could keep life from going back to normal. It already had. He held the bullfrog up to his mama just as proud as could be.

“I trained him to follow me!” he said, thinking a bad sinful child could never do such a marvelous thing. His mama didn’t say a word at first. She stuck her sewing needle straight into the frog’s ear, which made it go slack. Then she grabbed the floppy thing by its big legs and slammed its head against the floor. The poor thing never made another croak, but his mama had something to say.

“Well, go and build a fire to stew it in. And how come there ain’t no fresh wood in the fireplace?” And she knocked him on the side of the head. Billy had taken every kind of licking there was, but something about the way she did with his frog made him feel different. It was just like she’d knocked those nice children, who wouldn’t hurt nobody, on the side of their heads too. What had the old bullfrog done but be hungry and friendly? It was one thing to smack a bad childlike Billy, but he had enough sense to know an innocent thing when he saw it. All at once he wondered how his mama would like to be knocked on the head herself.

What his mama didn’t know, what his daddy didn’t know, what his granny sure as hell didn’t know, was the secret Billy kept all for himself. It was the reason he kept so cheerful no matter how rough his family treated him. He knew he could be good enough to please them someday because he knew that in his heart, he was good. He knew because he had been told, and the one who told him was always with him.

Billy thought it was the Lord Almighty speaking to him, the same who looked after the poor and mistreated. He believed in the goodness of creation even when he saw his mother’s faith turn to poison in her breast. He believed in wonderful rewards he’d earn for not complaining, for doing his best, for keeping his chin up. In his sweet trusting way, he never imagined that there was another who knew the scriptures as well as the Lord, to use against the innocent. The voice that came to Billy in sleep and solitude told him, “You are good in my sight. You are loved when you suffer for my sake.” He felt the words were pushing the hurt and anger out of him. He never dreamed it could be old Scratch putting on a holy accent, packing his bad feelings down like powder in a cannon. For months and years the devil had played his trick on Billy, until he only needed to touch a spark to the charge in the boy’s belly.

“Now, my son,” said the voice in Billy’s heart. “Free yourself. Show them what they’ve made.”

There was a wooden mallet in the kitchen that his mama used for pounding hog meat tender when they had any. It was stained dark with hog blood, so Billy figured nobody would mind if he spoiled it some more. He took it right back to his mama and gave her a good knock, right in the jawbone. She slid from her chair to the floor with a kind of wet-sounding sigh. Billy figured another knock would really teach her, and once he’d done that he had a hard time thinking of reasons to stop. Before he was done he’d knocked his mama’s head with that mallet almost as many times as he’d ever been hit himself. Finally, his arm got tired and the mallet felt heavier than before, and he noticed there was hardly any head left to knock.

Billy’s daddy found him in the yard awhile later. The old man was up and around with a mighty sore head. Billy ignored him at first, kept splitting wood like his mama had sent him to do, but his daddy was looking for something to hit. He saw the dark rusty footprints Billy had made all down the porch and settled on that for a reason. He punched the back of the boy’s head, nearly knocking him forward over the splitting stump. Billy almost fell on the hatchet he used to split smaller pieces and shave off kindling. Things might have stopped there if he had. His daddy would have run off to the hills, or maybe had a change of heart and cried for the love he’d kept from his only son, or maybe kept on drinking til somebody found the four of them knocked and chopped and drunk and starved to death all around the falling-down cabin on the hill.

Instead, Billy stumbled forward a step and caught himself. He didn’t turn around right away, but he cocked his body to move quick like a little clock spring. The voice of love was talking to him again, telling him carefully every little thing he ought to do.

“What the hell you step in, boy?” growled his daddy. “You hear me, dummy?”

Billy gave his daddy the chance to calm down, to back off, just as the voice in his heart told him. That way he could never be blamed for what might happen. When his daddy’s rough hand spun him around, Billy was ready with the hatchet. He was just the right height to swing for the big man’s knee. A second later, the two halves of the knee dropped to the ground and the big broad chest was lined up for a second stroke. A second after that, the forehead of the man now roaring in pain and surprise was lined up for strike three. Billy had never swung an ax crosswise at a standing tree, but he knew how to hit a baseball. It was just about the same thing.

Billy was stoking up the fire when his granny came out of bed to complain about the noise, or maybe about the quiet, or maybe that no dinner was cooking yet. She stood above him in her shawl, screeching about the ruined floor that seemed to concern her a good deal more than Billy’s mama with her head all gone. When she saw the boy all caked in gore she cursed him, telling him she’d always known he’d bring them ruin.

“Hateful, hateful, hateful,” she spat. “Shame on the day that saw you born.”

Billy, who now knew that shame and ruin had existed long before him, had in fact brought him unwilling into the world, had nothing much to say. He had spoken his last a good while ago. The voice of love gave its next instruction. Billy rushed at the old woman but instead of striking as she cowered away, he seized a corner of her shawl in each hand and spun her with the skill of a square dancer she might have known in bygone days. He released her just so to send her tumbling across the hearth into the well-built fire. As she cried out and flailed and crackled, he held the iron poker that she had used to stir him from idleness in the past, yet he treated her with the gentleness he owed his elders. He only used a few soft jabs of the iron to keep her from crawling out, until she was quite still, and a pleasant roasting smell filled the cabin.

Billy spent the remaining daylight dividing his family into easily carried pieces with the hatchet and a butcher blade from the kitchen. He meant to rise early and dig a single hole to bury them. He was not feeling tenderhearted enough to call it a grave, but he did not mean to let the bodies fester and foul the little cabin, bitter a place as it had become to him. Had his heart been a shade colder, he might have stewed up a pot of them to sustain him in hard days to come. But he was ready to have the whole business done with. The freedom he had seized for himself was dawning on him by degrees, and he hoped to spend the following day enjoying the sun again. Something, a queer instinct that whispered softer than the voice of love, told him to set aside a few fragments from those he would bury. These he stowed for safe keeping in the woodshed.

It would be easy to think that for Billy Boggs, things came within a hair of turning out fine. If you did not know how deep the devil had his hands in that poor child from birth, you’d think it was only the one bad chance that cast him into ruin. There happened to be a wandering preacher man along one of the cart roads. He traveled with a mission of saving souls when he found them wanting. He was young and unwed, freshly minted by the bible college, young enough to be Billy’s older brother. He had made good road time that day but being in a strange place he feared losing his way. That was why he rode his mule up to the yard of the falling-down cabin. The sun was long set, but he could see a fire burning inside and a small shadow moving through the open door.

The mule shied, nearly tossing its rider, and would come no closer than two dozen yards from the house. Not until the preacher crossed the threshold did his nose pick up the sharp copper smell that had frightened the animal. It was a farm smell he knew from his own childhood, a smell of the fall slaughter. It was blood and rendered flesh. What he found in the cabin brought him to his knees. He gave a quavering cry as he searched the room for one whole, recognizable human form.

That was when Billy, startled by the intruder’s ghastly warbling, stabbed the preacher deep in the thigh with the butcher blade. It was a confused, inexpert blow but it roused the preacher to full alarm. Unmindful of his hurt leg, the man retreated into the yard and leapt on his mule. Kicking the bewildered beast to speed with his good leg, he rode it like a hellhound four miles to town, crying murder and massacre all the way.

The town folks returned to the cabin a short time later. The sight of a holy man with blood all down his leg and terror in his eyes put them in a sort of frenzy that it might not so much these days. He put up a shout about the small demon in the falling-down cabin on the hill. On they came in less time than you’d think possible. They came with shovels and shotguns and fire, and most of them carried stones.

They found Billy busy, burying the fragments of his people. He paid them no mind nor made them any menace, for it grieved him having harmed a stranger who meant him no ill. He had a mind to finish his chores and leave the rest of the world in peace. He was dropping the last of the dead into the hole he’d dug when the first rock struck his head. Crying in one voice of vengeance and hate, they rained their stones upon him as it’s told in the Good Book, seeking to break the monster who had made the carnage they beheld.

They mangled poor Billy, not knowing him for a simple child wronged by heaven and hell and humanity alike. The largest rock came hard enough to split his skull, and caused his brains to ooze. They might have torn his limbs one from the other had not the loudest of them cried for him to be decently hanged. They marched all the way back to town bearing the dying boy’s body, and using the good stout rope from the town well, they hauled him up on the gnarly limb of a grandfather elm that stood in the square. They hoisted him and let him swing where all his good neighbors could look upon him.

Only then did the evil one, author of all the day’s misery, take the scales from their eyes. He had appointed the lynching for his own purposes. Dumbstruck, shamed and horrified, they saw that they had seized and stoned a young boy without knowing his guilt for certain. Their madness washed away as from a drain with the plug out, yet nobody had the nerve to approach the tree and let him down. None of them spoke as they turned homeward. The only sound was Billy Boggs twisting at the end of a rope, high on the elm in the center of town.

 

Tadpole, tadpole, frogs in the sand

Billy came home with warts on his hand

“Shame!” said Mama and thumped his head

Billy took a hammer and he knocked her dead.

 

Graveyard, graveyard, digging up roots

Billy came home with mud on his boots

“Shame!” said Daddy and blacked his eyes

Billy took a knife and skinned him alive

 

Woodshed, woodshed, hide ‘em in the dirt

Billy went to church with blood on his shirt

“Shame!” said the preacher and cast him out

Billy took a hatchet and shut his mouth

 

Murder! Murder! All through town

Billy came walking when the sun went down

“Shame!” said the folks and they took his life

Hit him with a hammer and a hatchet and a knife

 

Hangman, hangman, string him up high

Let Billy be the last in town to die

“Shame!” said the devil and cut him down

Made him a body from bones in the ground

 

Rooster, rooster, crowing at the sun

Where’d Billy go to? Now he’s gone

Body sewed up and brains in a sack

Billy got away but he’s gonna come back

 

See, there’s a Bible verse telling how the devil stalks the world like a lion, looking for folks he can eat. He labors in every heart, understand, but only once in a while does he open his jaws and gobble up a soul. He’d been cooking Billy Boggs for seven years, and my oh my how Billy must have tasted. Turning the poor child loose on the kin who’d misused him was only one delicious bite. The real feast began the next midnight, when old Scratch took himself walking through the square to see how things had shaken out. Every door was shut tight, with no lights in any window. It was not the quiet of a little town asleep. It was a cemetery, each home a crypt where folks had locked themselves in. On account of what they’d visited in fear on a poor troubled child, they dared not speak or look one another in the eyes. Nobody but the youngest children had taken any supper, entombing themselves in sleep and resignation to heaven’s judgment, few expecting to live til morning.

But the punishment for their sin was not to be death. In their beds they slept soundly, and dreamed of guilty secrets til the sun shone in and they rose to see the morning newly created. After one instant of joyful promise, they looked closer and saw the world was the same old horror as ever. Never would a sunrise come again that failed to remind them. That was the reward of the murderers, not to die but to live in dreadful knowledge of the hearts.

The evil one knew this all along, smiling to count the ones who would know despair and end themselves the soonest, compounding the black marks against them in the Almighty’s account book. Standing beneath the tree where the little body hung, he thought of the many new rooms he would have to build in his own foul halls. A mottled crow roosted on the limb, but dared not peck the boy’s sweet eyes without leave from its master. The eyes were shut, the expression on the beaten face almost prayerful. The child looked only asleep, but for the rope about his throat. It would have pulled the heart from any creature except the prince of hell, who half-sang to himself as he watched the breeze turn the rope, this way and that. At two minutes after twelve, he went to work.

From his pocket he drew a long bandage of coarse linen, narrow as a ribbon. Then he took a length of thick black thread made for binding up wounds and sealing the lips of the dead. At the thread’s end was a fine needle fashioned from a bone sliver, the kind that may shear off into the blood and stab the heart from inside. The body has such ingenious ways to murder itself that for most men, enemies are a needless luxury.

At the devil’s command the hanging limb withered and died. It was a trick he had stolen from the preacher of Galilee. He sewed up the worst of the child’s wounds and bade the still heart beat again. The Billy-corpse flailed about senseless in the dirt. The devil wound the linen bandage in clever loops around the broken skull, binding in the brains and seeping matter, then fastened the ends tightly round the throat. Two eyes fluttered open, and the thing Billy had become looked in silent reverence on its deliverer. Old Scratch had no stern decree for his dear one, no brutal marching order. He had come to teach the boy secret ways of mending himself. At dawn he handed over the oily black thread as a gift and sent the Billy-thing away to walk the world.

The folks in town were reluctant to shake off sleep. It was Sunday, but no one rang the church bell. They dared not tempt holy wrath before the Lord’s altar. Instead they came in barefoot twos and threes to the town square, where they found the hanging tree fallen, the rope a frayed and snakelike ruin. As the women who found the open tomb on blessed Easter felt wonder and joy, these folks felt horror. It was a dreadful discovery, yet in their hearts many were not surprised. The devil had claimed and preserved his own. That did nothing to soothe or justify their hearts. In silent assent they gathered lamps and candles. As pilgrims they went, two by two, up the hill to the falling-down cabin. There, as the company looked on murmuring psalms, each one cast his light through the window until tongues of flame rose high above the eaves, issuing a black column of hell smoke. The congregation prayed that their penitent act be accepted as a cleansing, not as a further mockery of the commandments they had all held sacred before the madness of the previous night.

Billy wandered the nearby woods for some hours, til long after the interlopers had gone home again. From an old memory, or old it seemed after his long night of hell, he found his way back. The ruins of the house were smoking, a vile remembrance charred into the earth, but he did not come in search of shelter. In the woodshed he found the tokens he had saved, obeying the command of his false conscience. With the gory hatchet he cut his fingers free one by one. In place of them he stitched the slender fingers of his mother. The womanly digits on his chubby child’s fists were spidery and queer, but with his nimble new hands he could grasp and sew and do all manner of things much faster.

With rough strokes of the bone-blunted knife he took his father’s keen ears for his own, sewing them in place under the bandages that made his soft skull. With these he could track anything through the dark, no matter how small or fleet.

He had no use for a sharp tongue, especially since his granny’s was stained with chaw. Her lungs were tough and callused from the exercise of shrieking. Instead he took her flinty eyes which could see everything by dark and by day, sometimes things only imagined. With the devil’s art and his gift of needle and thread, Billy made himself all new.

Probing deep with his hands, he sifted fresh grave dirt for more parts to strengthen and sustain him. Some were half-rotten and had to be replaced within days. Billy began to walk the woods along wagon roads, listening for unwary travelers. From a young blacksmith he took shoulders like a bull. From a hermit he stole tough horny feet that ran silent and sure over gravel and sharp river rocks. Soon he was a much greater thing than a defenseless boy, yet not any sort of creature that you might call a man. He prowls these parts even today, adding to himself from the victims he takes. His parts are always wearing out and going dead, but there’s always new folks passing through. I reckon one day he’d like to have a good left leg like yours, and a strong young heart like yours. Be careful in case he comes close enough to hear it beating in the dark. The only thing Billy never worked out is how to switch his dirty cloth head for a whole one of flesh and bone. Keeping his body alive while he changes heads, that’s the one secret old Scratch never shared. He held it back to make sure Billy stays a monster no matter how much life he gathers to himself. That way his wandering and searching will never end, and when our little ones grow older the song will be theirs to sing.

 

Dan Fields once absconded with a film degree from Northwestern University. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and offspring.

Mountain Views By Abigail Miller

Mountain Views By Abigail Miller

Above the tree line, it hits just how alone you are. You’ve traveled so far that the forest who once stood tall beside you, offering shelter from the less inviting elements of nature, no longer accompanies you. There were a few brave souls who tried, but only managed some naked trunks. Miles below on the ground, it looks like a hill lined with toothpicks, or a closely buzzed scalp.

But miles up, standing on top of the peak, is its own kind of beauty. It’s the place where you find snow in a desert, sweltering heat and bitter chill at the same time. The whole atmosphere a confusing and beautiful contradiction, perilous beauty that you could only recognize up close. Anyone can look up from the valley, see the mountain and say it’s beautiful. But what makes the opposite perspective special, looking down at the valley, and looking directly around you, is that fewer know the view.

Colorado “14ers” get their nickname for being over 14,000 feet above sea level, close to three miles in the sky. Even the oxygen cautiously wanes, not yet abandoning you, but just enough to keep you moving. The sun beats down on you to combat the brisk winds trying to knock you back down. But you’ve come too far to turn around, you must finish.

Right on the divide between towering evergreens and snowy sand, it’s a breathtaking scene. The pause between motion and complete stillness. Even the famous evergreens decided they were not strong enough to plant themselves beyond that line, yet there you are accepting the challenge to trek forward. And the reward is well worth it. For eyes who never grow tired of beholding nature’s glories, it’s a breath of fresh air. For the soul who must conquer uphill battles to grow—it’s a victory well won.

 

Abigail Miller is a Dental Hygiene major who likes to think she’s got a knack for writing. Her hobbies include hiking, sub-par mom van parking, asking to pet strangers’ dogs, and writing about all the above. As she continues exploring her passion for words, she hopes it’ll inspire the joy and humor in others’ lives, one snarky piece at a time.

Your Studies, Sir By Robert Pope

Your Studies, Sir By Robert Pope

When I was very young I heard of them, certainly, but they remained a distant terror. I heard about them later in religious training and bedtime stories. Ministers taught us to resist the desire or tendency to conform to their ways, beliefs and practices—as if they had any attraction! They were nothing more than evil, something to fear in shadow and abstraction. Yet in bedtime stories, I sensed both threat and charm, for what is the tale without the danger?

While given to believe they were legion, around us every moment, I saw only my friends, other children, parents—where was the danger we feared? The world still seemed a jolly place, and with my faith in God and all his Saints, what had I to fear? Still, the legend of the vampire thrilled me, fear a drug of sorts. I imagined fabulous creatures in their lairs, waiting to suck the mortal blood.

As I grew, I lost myself in studies of the dark ones to the exclusion of anything else, and for this removal from their midst, my townsmen admired me, mistrusted me, even feared me. As years went by, I came to understand legends as ideas cloaking our reality, like the dark cape of the monster—but where were the monsters themselves? The lure of ideas retreated, withdrawing like waves from a beach. As these waves drew back into the ocean from whence they came, what remained but old friends, parents, strangers met along the way, my teachers themselves?

I could no longer believe that vampires, demons, or other such hobgoblins, manifested themselves among the normal, common folks with whom I worked and lived, who looked at me as something of an oddity because I was not yet one of them! I had held back from them so long I felt alone. Following this childish faith—that the imaginings and fears that once fascinated me had promised a world darker and stranger than the natural one—had made me an oddity, a freak, willfully denying the goodness of the curious humanity about me, who studied me with furrowed brow as I searched among them for the shapes of evil.

I relaxed my defenses, laughed at the fool I had been, joined the throng of comrades in their pleasures and strife, blessing the day they finally took me in as one of them. Years passed, and nothing of the child I had been remained. And then, one day, a fellow came to our office with frightened, shining face, full of the illusions of protracted youth. He had surely been a pampered one. How little did he know of the reality of life! And yet, what promise he possessed. He stirred my fascinations of old with the tattered pages of the book he sought to publish.

He sat across from me at lunch next day, in the midst of an eating, drinking crowd, loud with conversation of daily matters. A dear friend had died; perhaps this separated him from me. In his excited words and gestures, I saw him for a fool possessed of ridiculous ideas, and nothing more. But as the distance between us grew, what I saw was not a separate individual, but the sort of fool that I had once been. I now recalled the wild excitement of those days, so long forgotten, that now un-reclaimable faith! What I experienced was grief!

What my teachers hoped to protect me from, I had become, the inevitable progression to conventionality against which they warned me. Yet even then they knew the reason they sought to preserve in me their own lost faith—they knew it would be lost. I looked about us there in the restaurant, saw the creatures I had feared, whose number I had joined not because they sucked at my blood, but because I feared to stand alone. I could hardly breathe. I shouted, “Please, stop this nonsense at once!” My young companion ceased in mid-speech and those at tables near enough to hear turned to look at me. Their curious, roguish smiles terrified me.

I literally fled the company of men preoccupied with their own lives and hid in the forest around our little hamlet, shunning the community of people who had fostered, rejected, received me once more in their bosom. I could not return. I left word by an old friend that I would venture back to the university and into the greater world in my pursuit of a project I had contemplated for many years. Oho, my old friend said, with a mischievous smile, so, you have not given up on all that muck?

I winked at him as if he had caught on to me, but I did not tell him I had discovered an abandoned hut in the deepest wood and there taken up residence with nothing but my howling emptiness for sustenance and companion. I grew thin, snarling, sickened on my own lost faith, the notions I once held that could never be fulfilled or realized in this or any world. I felt nothing so strongly as an urge to stop the young man who had created this metamorphosis in me, for his mistakes had been my own, and mine had led me here.

One night, desperate without respite or cure, I cloaked myself in darkness, crept to the edge of town, and peered through a window the other side of which sat my student at his books. A fire dwindled at the hearth. With candle burning at his elbow, he smoked his clay pipe as he followed a line of thought with one finger on a text. My hatred flared now higher than the fire inside a darkness I had pulled around me. I tapped on the window, drew back in the trees. From where I hid I saw an inquiring face at the glass, looking first one way, then the other.

I climbed onto the lower branch of a stout tree and perched there listening as his front door opened. I heard the rustle of the undergrowth as he made his way around the little house, calling out a tentative greeting: Hello, who’s there? I removed a lengthy blade secreted in my bosom as he approached. When he stopped beneath me, puzzled, I hid my mirth. I watched him in his dire confusion scolding his own senses for deceiving him. I waited until he gave up inquiry and went back in the house to climb down from my tree and hurry through the shivering woods, to the remote hut in which I now dwelt.

Did I intend to kill him that night, or on another night in the coming weeks and months, or did I simply intend to terrify him? I did not know, but I came to realize our fates had become inextricably entangled, my only duty now to ensure my student either gave up forever or never gave up his studies. I wanted to dash, once and for all, a fantastical faith that his fears had a mysterious source that would, at last, be revealed to his probing mind, or confirm him in the same belief—which, I could not say.

Inevitable fulfillment came at last, one night in autumn, when the student railed against the forces tormenting him. I lurked in the shadowed doorway of an alley through which he had come to pass, ever glancing behind. He stopped, turned, and roared for his tormentor to reveal himself at last. As I stepped from concealment, the dagger clutched in my hand inside the cape, he stared in terror until he found his voice and demanded my identity, and the reason I assailed him in this way. My turn to be confused.

He pointed now, arm straight, his finger stiff, asserting his right to an answer. Could he not recognize my face? Was I so changed? Answer me, he bellowed, whatever manner of demon you may be. Your name, sir!

I could take this unconscionable abuse no longer. I sprung, cape flying, plunging the blade deep in his heart and held it there, looking in his eyes. When he fell, I crawled on top of him and whispered in his ear: Your studies, sir, have not been in vain, for you have called me from the blackest hell, wherein my malice and my love were forged.

Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well as a collection of stories, Private Acts. He has also published many stories and personal essays in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology.
 

 

 

Unearth By Jody Gerbig

Unearth By Jody Gerbig

The guy running the “real archeological dig” has me take the Number Nine bus to a non-stop alongside the freeway. He instructs me to tell the driver to pull over at mile-marker six. I wear khaki hiking pants, rolled and buttoned mid-calf, hiking boots, and a black t-shirt. The summer air has an unexpected chill to it, and I wish I’d worn a jacket, or something with pockets for my hands.

“Here we are,” the bus driver says, pulling onto the berm. I emerge from the bus alone, on the berm, with only my cell phone, some cash, and a photo I.D.  I wonder when the others will arrive and notice it’s already 5:35 p.m. I didn’t think to bring a taser or pepper spray, but I wish I had.

A gray Jeep slows on the asphalt and pulls over, its front dipping into the ditch marking the beginning of the field, its sides somewhat obscured from the road by tall grasses. A man steps out, all six-feet-some-inches of him. He wears faded jeans slung low on his lean hips, a hunter-green long-sleeved shirt, a plain baseball cap that covers peppered brown hair, and hiking shoes. I judge him to be somewhere between thirty-five and forty.

“Howdy!” he says, shifting a bag of rattling tools and a large spade to his left hand. “Miriam?”

“Ted? I wasn’t sure I had the right place,” I say. He extends his free hand for me to shake. It is warm and soft. I notice a pair of leather gloves hanging from his back pocket.

“Wow, you’re much prettier than I expected.”

My neck tenses. I have been called ‘pretty’ only a handful of times and never by a stranger. I feel my armpit drip with sweat. Ted is handsome. Not like Harrison Ford handsome. He’s clean shaven and smells like baby laundry detergent. I stare at his perfect row of white teeth as he smiles.

“And the others?” I say, fingering my cell in my back pocket, considering an Uber ride home.

“Others?”

“There are other people on this dig, right?”

“Oh, yeah.” Ted searches the horizon, as though remembering these nameless ‘others’ who had once filled the class. “They had, uh, another engagement.” He turns and smiles, his eyes inviting, like those of a guy passing me on a Sunday hike, out with his black lab, enjoying the stillness of the woods. “Just us.” He winks. “Sorry, not sorry.”

“Oh.” I shrug, letting my hand fall from my phone. “No worries,” I say, like someone else. Like a festival-going hipster.

When I filled out the form linked in the Facebook ad, Ted emailed me within the hour. I considered for a moment that “Ted” is an infamous serial-killer name. He wrote emphatically, Hello, Mariam! I have one spot open for an evening group dig this Thursday at 5:30 p.m. Reserve about three hours and wear comfortable outdoor clothing. Please respond if you are interested in signing up and pay via PayPal on the link below!

I had so many questions: Where do I meet Ted? Do I bring my own shovel and brushes? Where do I buy a shovel and brushes? How many people are in the class? Are we digging on private property? His own, maybe?

My co-worker Jen, standing over my shoulder when I got the email, said, “You’re not thinking of doing this, are you?”

“It sounds fun,” I said.

“It sounds stabby. Or rapey,” she said.

“So, I shouldn’t go.”

“I dunno. He might be cute.”

I paid without asking the questions, and Ted sent me instructions with too many exclamation points in them.

But Ted doesn’t seem like an exclamation-point kind of guy in person. Not out here. Even with the teeth. He does seem like a quarter-life-crisis kind of guy, though. I make assumptions: he went to Harvard business school and then dropped off Wall Street two years in to be a rafting guide in Colorado—that is until he realized he kind of sucked at rafting, that he was way better at digging dirt and brushing dust off old poop pots.

Ted turns and walks toward the worn path, whistling a light tune anyone would follow. I know I should call the Uber. I feel like my next step could take me somewhere.

“Coming?” he says, turning only his cheek toward me, a half smile. He waves his hand over his shoulder—he will not wait for me. I take a full breath, clench my fists, step onto the grass path, and walk into the horizon.

Ted’s whistling is beguiling. I don’t even notice we’ve walked about a half-mile on a narrow dirt path, past some full-grown oak trees, until the low sun pierces my eyes.

“What do you expect to find today?” I ask.

“Oh, you know.” He pulls the gloves from his back pocket and slips them on his hands. The shovels and brushes rattle on his back as he strides, clinking together like a hobo’s pan and tin cup. “Sometimes we find native clay pots. An arrow head or two. Maybe something like that.” He turns his head slightly. I see a glint in his eye—the sun’s reflection. “What do you expect to find today?”

It is one of life’s questions. I don’t answer.

“How many times have you done this?” I say instead. I want to ask all the other questions, like whether he’s married, if he has any children, whether he’s close with anyone, but I don’t. I ask interview questions, as though I haven’t already bought the ticket and tromped that first piece of grass off the freeway.

“A few.”

The air is still, save birds fluttering hither and thither. I’ve always wanted to use that phrase, hither and thither. In accounting we use acronyms, like ETA, ULD, AR, LLC. We wear layers of polyester clothing, the office a deathly temperature fit for a sub-species of men. Our throats scratch when we talk, and we don’t talk much. Thus, the acronyms.

“So, what is Miriam like when she’s not following strange men through unmarked fields?” Ted says, glancing back.

“Sitting next to stranger men in cubicles,” I say. He laughs. I can’t help it—I fall for his self-deprecation. He has a nice laugh.

We walk twenty or so more yards, past a sign that reads Private Property, No Trespassing. Ted holds open a loose spot in a barbed-wire fence for me to climb through awkwardly and slowly. I count nine years since my last tetanus inoculation. We enter a clearing, speckled with limestone boulders, hedges, and dirt mounds. About two-hundred yards in the distance lies a line of deciduous trees. I can’t make out any buildings.

“Here we are,” he says. I stop and stretch, making mental notes about the direction we’ve gone (south), how far on foot (approximately a mile), the terrain (mostly flat and open, a dirt trail through tall grasses), should I ever need to remember. The ground on the site has been dug before, in neat four-by-six-foot sections with a flat-edged shovel—I can make out a clean edge—like rows upon rows of fresh graves.

“You sure we’re allowed to be here?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah. No worries.”

“It’s private property.”

“I worked out a deal.” He pulls off his tools and unbinds them. “A couple weeks ago I found some artifacts around here. I was with a few young ladies from the university. They loved it,” he says, like a man who holds forest-bed orgies under super moonlight. He looks up just long enough to wink and smile.  I picture girls in high pony tails, low scoop-neck t-shirts, and Daisy Dukes out here pecking at the dirt with the point of their spades. I shudder, feeling both revolted and jealous. Maybe even a little afraid. I remember some discussion in the spring about a new self-defense startup for such girls, and I wish now that I had taken one of the classes. But I am not a co-ed. I’m a middle-aged woman wearing a loose chignon with frayed grays around her temples.

“What kind of things do you do for fun?” he says, and I bristle, thinking again of the orgies under moonlight. “Dig in the dirt much?”

My mother rented a plot in a community garden once, outside our rented town house. She grew tomatoes and cucumbers and lettuce, and I remember her outlining rectangles like these, each to keep track of what she’d planted where. Later I realized the cucumbers take over all of it.  “No, not like this.”

Ted shovels an outline of a new work area, the same rectangle as the surrounding ones, and as he works a bead of sweat forms on his brow. I find myself taking deep breaths, watching his arms flex under his shirt, noticing his back muscles grip cotton with each move.

“Here, sift through this dirt pile I’m making. Make sure there’s nothing interesting in it,” he says, pointing to the growing pile behind him. I squat down, my eyes level with his backside, and grab a handful of dry dirt. It slides out the bottom of my fist, now like an hourglass.  “You just might be a natural,” Ted says, and I blush.

Ted and I talk to pass the time—about high school and first dates, about junker cars and strange pets we’ve owned. He gabs more than I would’ve imagined, growing quiet only when describing a brown-eyed girl who lived next door. I think I should respond, to fill the void.

“You liked her?”

Ted seems not to hear. He bends over and digs a dozen or so strokes. In the middle of a shovel-full he remembers something that sparks the conversation again, a summer spent camping in Wyoming with his uncle. He talks feverishly about butchering his own deer. He is so youthful and excited about it all that I almost forget that he has killed and slaughtered a deer.

“—its entrails fell out like—” I hear before the horizon captures me, its large, jagged rocks and bushes like a rural skyline. A fantasy emerges: A storm has rolled in, and we are trapped in the woods. We need to make shelter. And huddle. We must huddle for warmth. Ted’s scruff has grown. I feel it on my chin as I shiver. He rubs my arms, and—

“I’ve never told anyone that,” Ted says.

“Hmm?” I’ve missed something.

“I mean, no one knows.”

“Oh, wow. Okay,” I say, now trying to remember the last thing he said, wondering if it was something clandestine, illegal even. I nod, but he doesn’t look at me. He digs instead, his sleeves now rolled up his forearms, his pace quickening. He glances at the sky, at the horizon where the sun begins to dip, where I had been staring when he confessed.

He wipes his forehead and meets my gaze.  “You want to trade?” He lifts the spade toward me. I pause, staring at the tip of the blade, maybe studying it for marks or something. I stand, take it from him and hold it like a shot gun, feeling its weight in my hands. I nod, lean over, and dig. It’s more difficult than I imagined, the dirt hard and dry and unforgiving. I feel sweat beading in my cleavage and worry that I smell. I wonder if this is Ted’s workout.

“Does it ever get easier?” I say, leaning in, pushing the spade into the hard, dry soil with my boot heel.

“Easier?” He laughs. “This is fun for me.” He fiddles with his brushes. I am so focused on creating the hole I don’t notice if he’s made any progress.

“I didn’t think it would be so violent,” I say, my arms aching. I have dug a sizeable hole. We haven’t found one artifact.

“Most things are, aren’t they?” He laughs. I don’t understand the joke. I am breathing heavily now: in, out, in, in and out. I feel dizzy. Do I imagine a buzzing sound? Birds, maybe? Hawks overhead? I squint into the sky, getting only an eyeful of sun.

“Hey, why don’t we take a little break?”  he says, leaning over and reaching into his left sock. From it he pulls out a flask. He shakes and uncaps it. I smell whiskey. He takes a long swig and holds it out for me. I could take it—I am only an arm’s-length away—but what then? Would we sit on a boulder and watch the sun set?

Was it too much of an impulse, coming here? I wonder. It was a damned ad on Facebook. An ad! I’d been riding the Number Six bus to work last week, like I had every day for fifteen years, scrolling through my Facebook feed, when a man, holding a morning paper under his arm, climbed aboard. I’d noticed him before, this gray-haired man still riding the bus to work, still reading a physical paper. He passed me and chose a back seat. I made some assumptions about him: he still sits in a cubicle; he often works late; on Tuesdays he eats lunch at Applebees; he has a secret life—some hobby or activity he does—that maybe his wife doesn’t even know about. In the moment I grew jealous.

That’s when I noticed the ad. You, too, can find hidden treasures! I clicked on it. The man with the paper coughed behind me. The bus jerked to the left, and I was forced right. I reached for the seat in front of me. The driver yelled, “Shit, man!” slamming his foot on the brake, leaning back so that his bald spot reveals itself to the dozen passengers behind him. The tires squealed. A woman screamed. In the street, a dog barked and then yelped. It is dead, I thought. I didn’t want to know. I gripped my seat. I took in a quick breath and held. This is it, I think. I will die today, in this rolling coffin of a life.

What did I know, then? Nothing. It was another life. She, a different Miriam.

“Aren’t we running out of time?” I ask.

Ted caps the flask and returns it to his sock, shaking his head. He is disappointed.

“I’m not.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Nothing.” He pulls the flask back. I stand, my arm resting on the planted shovel, my head cocked to one side. I’m tired, but I don’t drop the shovel. In the quiet, I study Ted: the sharp edge of his jaw casting an odd shadow, his pristine hiking boots, the brushes sticking awkwardly from the tool bag that, admittedly, might not be brushes at all. I feel tired. Very tired. I do want to take a break.

“Look,” he says, using his hands to talk, “I just meant that I’ll be back. You aren’t planning on coming back, are you?”

It is one of life’s questions. I don’t answer.

I think about the man with the paper, on the bus. About his secret life. Gambling? Jumping from planes? A girlfriend? A boyfriend? It would’ve been nice to have known him, I think—to have talked to someone through all those red lights between my apartment and the cubicle.

“Give me a swig,” I say, reaching for the flask Ted digs from his sock. I down a large gulp, the alcohol burning my throat, the low sun piercing my lashes—closed now like a Venus Fly Trap. The tonic tastes like death. Like all the countless things that have perished here, some deep and sand-like, some fresh and foul. I wonder which I will be. One of life’s questions.

I don’t answer.

I drink.

 

Jody Gerbig is a mid-forties, Midwestern woman raising three toddlers and a writing career. Her recent work appears in South 85, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and Litro Sunday.