Category: Fiction

Too Quiet By Daniel L. Link

Too Quiet By Daniel L. Link

“Don’t look directly at it,” she said. “They won’t do it if you’re looking.”

“Do what?” Harry had been staring at the mural for five minutes.

“They won’t move.” Violet used both hands to turn his head a few degrees to the left. “There. Try it now.”

He didn’t know what he was supposed to be seeing, but he liked the feel of her hands. Violet was twenty years younger than Harry, one of the youngest patients at the hospital. She was pretty, too. Harry wasn’t sure why she chose to spend all her free time with him, but he wasn’t complaining.

“You’ve got to use the sides of your vision.” She crossed in front of him, her nose turned up in disappointment. “Your peripherals. That’s the only way you’re going to see it.”

It wasn’t the kind of painting that belonged in a hospital. It reminded Harry of something he and Margaret had seen at Coit Tower in San Francisco. They’d brought Deb with them; he’d carried her in the little backpack with the holes her legs went through. Bobby hadn’t been born yet.

That painting had depicted migrant workers in a field. He remembered wondering at the time whose idea it had been to paint it on the inside of a tourist attraction where people would spend ten minutes waiting in line. Wouldn’t people rather see something beautiful while they waited, not some poor schmucks working their fingers to the bone?

The mural on the south wall of the hospital looked similar, only these workers were picking corn. He couldn’t remember what kind of fields they were working on in Coit Tower, but he was pretty sure it hadn’t been corn. He still thought it was strange to show people outside working to patients trapped inside a hospital, but his perspective had shifted. Now he’d do anything to toil his day away in the sunshine. He and the other patients were the schmucks.

“Harry, you’re not even trying.” Violet loomed so close to him they could almost rub noses. He could see his own reflection in her large pupils. She poked his belly. “Are you in there?”

“Sorry.” He tilted his head, then squinted while he took in the painting. He felt her hands reposition his head, and he smiled. “Now what am I supposed to see?”

“The men. If you wait long enough, they’ll start to move.”

“What will they do?”

“They’ll fucking move.” Her voice betrayed her frustration. “Wouldn’t you say that’s pretty damn spectacular? How many other moving paintings have you ever seen?”

“I haven’t seen this one yet,” he reminded her.

“That’s because you’re not doing it right. Now I’m going to go sit in the corner,      quiet as a mouse. Remember, don’t look straight at it. You’ve got to pretend like you’re not looking.”

“No.” Harry heard a tremor in his voice. “Don’t go.”

“I’ll be right over there.”

He sighed. “Okay. But don’t be quiet. I can’t stand the quiet.”

The doctors told him the voices he heard weren’t normal. They said it was good that the medication made them go away. Harry had relied on the voices. They were a part of him and he was lost without them.

The first few months in Belmont were torture. It wasn’t until Violet arrived that things became bearable for Harry. She was the only noise in his life, the thing that allowed him to forget for a second the absence of the voices. The doctors said that absence was good, that the quiet it brought him would allow him to sort out things in his head, but all it did was make him feel alone.

“Did you move?” Violet was off the couch and bounding across the room before he could answer. “This is never going to work if you keep moving.”

She checked the position of his head, fingertips light against his temples, then flitting away like butterflies. “There. Now try again.”

The men in the painting were dark, much darker than anything Harry saw inside Belmont. Aside from the mural, everything on their floor was white, from the walls, to the tile, to the patients. They were so pale, himself included, the place leeching the color from their skin.

He tried to imagine being in the painting, working out under the hot Indiana sun. The color would come back to him then, if he could leave this place. If he escaped this palace of bone, he might revitalize his body, and if he could get off the meds, he might be able to hear their voices again.

“Harry?” Violet sounded far away. He was in the painting, but her voice floated down to him there. “You okay, Harry?”

“I’m fine,” he said, trying to stay focused. “I still haven’t seen them move, though.”

“Maybe we should take a break.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re crying.”

His concentration shattered. He didn’t move his head, but he reached up a hand and touched his cheeks. They were wet. He reddened, then wiped the tears on his pants. The material felt scratchy on his finger and thumb, but his thigh felt nothing.

“You want to go back to the TV room?” Violet appeared in front of him again.

“No. I want to try again. I can do this.”

She squeezed his hand, which made him want to cry out with gratitude. It felt so good to be touched, made his heart desperate for more, but he kept his face neutral and waited for her to put his head back where she wanted it.

After a few moments staring in silence, he said, “Keep talking. It makes it easier.”

The white wall in front of Harry had a crack running from floor to ceiling, a tiny black line that started at the floor and wended its way upward and to the left until it terminated at the white foam insulated tiles that led to the attic. He concentrated on that, letting the edges of the mural blend into his periphery. Still no movement.

What it did was create a bright white backdrop for his memories to play out on, a cracked projector screen on which the pivotal moments of his life appeared before him. He saw Margaret in the hospital, a different kind of hospital, one where hopes and dreams came alive, not where they went to die.

She was in the bed, the sheets tucked under her armpits, her face soaked in a sheen of sweat. A nurse was handing her a bundle wrapped tight in a pink blanket. She looked at Harry, turning the package so he could see the tiny red face. “Meet Debbie.”

Harry gasped, more at the sound than the sight. He hadn’t heard their voices in months, and the sound of his wife’s voice mingled with his daughter’s cries was almost too much to take.

“Is it working?” Violet asked.

He hadn’t been paying attention to the mural, and there was no way he was taking his eyes off of that scene from fourteen years before. He didn’t even blink until the reel changed and he saw himself, standing next to a brown-haired boy of about six astride a bicycle with streamers hanging from the handlebars. Bobby.

The boy’s laughter cut deep, as did watching himself running alongside the bike. On the wall, his hand was on the bike’s seat, but there in the hospital it clutched the armrest of his wheelchair with white-knuckled intensity. He didn’t have to be told he was crying, his vision was so blurred by tears he only saw a fuzzy image of his son as he yelled, “Let go. You can let go Dad.”

But Harry couldn’t let go. He held on tight as the vision faded, and he was taken to that night, the night he’d lost their voices forever. The rain came down so fast it blinded him, though the wipers were on their fastest setting. The headlights bore down on them, like he knew they would. He felt Margaret’s hand on his arm, and he waited for the sound he knew he’d hear next, the twisting of metal and tearing apart of his reality.

Instead, he swerved, a deft maneuver that he could never have pulled off in life. The rear of the car slipped, gaining traction a moment before the truck flew past. They came to rest on the side of the highway, and he looked at their faces, each in turn. They shared a laugh, and as they pulled back onto the asphalt, the rainfall subsided.

“Harry?” Violet waved a hand in front of his face. “Did it work?”

He was back in the wheelchair, and the vision was gone, the wall once again a stark white slab bisected by that jagged line. But Harry could still hear the echoes of his wife and children, their laughter still present in his head as he wiped the tears from his eyes.

“Yes,” he said. “I think it did.”

 

Daniel Link lives in Northern California where he writes short stories, novels, and flash fiction. He is the assistant editor of the Gold Man Review, and since he started submitting stories in April 2017, he’s had ten published in various literary magazines. Most recent were the Eastern Iowa Review, HCE Review, New Reader Magazine, and ALM Magazine.
The Cracked Door By Clara Jenkins

The Cracked Door By Clara Jenkins

 

There was no way he was going to call Rich of all people and ask to be unlocked from this room. He knew how that smugness would overtake his normally stiff, ill-favoured face, and he wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. It had been almost a month since he’d been down here last, and the thick scratchy air and vague smell of millipedes was still as unsettling as he remembered.

Stanley had accidentally locked himself in the grimy, neglected storage room while searching for a file. Fumbling through a cabinet of letters and waxy paper folders, he’d heard a sound: a soft shuffle and scratch from the hallway. Straightening up, he walked over and turned the door handle, intending to peer out and find the source. Nothing greeted him except the sharp click of metal on metal to inform him that he was locked in. As he pulled his phone from his back pocket, it sounded again, closer this time and loud. He paused, but dialed.

“Rich, I need you to bring your keys,” he said as soon as the phone picked up. “I’m locked in.” Through the taunting reply on the other end, a long, drawn-out scraping ran across the outside of the door.

It stopped a minute before Stanley heard the jingling of keys, and the door opened.

“Did you hear anything when you were coming down?” Stanley asked, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.

“No,” Rich replied questioningly and glanced to his left, noting Stanley’s serious expression and quick pace. A wicked grin spread over his face. “Aw, did you get scared? Locked in the basement all alone . . .”

“Of course not,” he replied dismissively, disguising any anxiety in his voice with a natural annoyance. Although there was something about that basement that gave him chills, his feelings of foreboding soon vanished as mild embarrassment set in. It had been impossible to feel anything but disgruntled while listening to Rich’s mocking voice.

This time, there would be no need to call Rich.

I’ll Just find the files and leave. It’s no big deal, he thought to himself.  Just as he was about to step into the room, he heard a voice call after him.

“Oh yeah, apparently, that door will still lock on its own if you close it, so just prop it open while you’re in there,” Rich instructed with a lazy tone and an amused half smile, indicating the musty file room. Stanley just scoffed in response. Rich had probably known that door would lock last time. He always found enjoyment in messing with him, but Stanley wouldn’t take the bait. Rich jingled his keys and placed them on his belt before the conspicuous metallic whine of the elevator carried him back up to the first floor.

Stanley looked around for something to prop the door with. A small cardboard box did the trick, leaving a narrow window open to the hallway. He got to work and began to rummage through the scattered mess of soft, thick paper files. This was going to take a while, he noticed, precariously stacking piles of foxing brown paper and fervently trying to ignore the memories of what happened last time, that eerie scraping. He checked his phone. “Seven percent” he noted. He knew it probably wouldn’t last long, but he didn’t plan on using it.

At first it didn’t bother him, having his back to the door, but as the quiet settled in, the place began to get to him. A few minutes into his task, he noticed that he kept turning back to glance at that rectangular chink of light. The crack itself wasn’t a problem; that connection to the outside was almost comforting to Stanley when facing the door, but he wasn’t. His concentration had to be on the other side of the room, deep in the corner of a cabinet. He faced his files, resolved not to turn around again.

His anxiety began to spike, and he nearly jumped out of his skin when a file fell off its stack with a sudden stinging flap. Slowly and gently he replaced it, forcing a calm through his hands to prove his indifference to the sudden noise. He kept thinking of the persistent, creepy noises from last time. Maybe it had just been the elevator, or Rich trying to mess with him.

The minutes dragged. He could feel the stale basement air press against his back, but he forced himself not to look. The elevator whined at random intervals, interrupting his determined silence. It was nerve wracking, just out of sight, around the corner and down the hall. The worst was that he never knew what it meant. Was it a familiar human face coming down to him, or something else? Stanley didn’t know whether he should consider it threatening or comforting, but he knew it was beginning to unnerve him. He settled on threatening. The tension was mounting, twisting into something more dangerous. Every dull pulse of the air vents and smudge on the white washed walls seemed to seep that invisible echo of a horror that lurks in every deserted place.

Each creak or stir he made seemed to be coming from the door; a sickening jolt ran through him every time his own shoe squeaked louder than it should against the slick floor or his feathery shadow seemed to move faster than he had. It was as if something else was attempting to synchronize its movements with his. His rationality weakened and the thick air closed in when he heard a sound from beyond the door, a hurried scraping shuffle. That was definitely not the elevator, he thought as he whipped around to see the crack staring back at him, a six-inch gateway to an unknown terror. He called out once, nervously but loud. Maybe Rich had come back down? No one replied.

He watched the crack in the door unblinkingly, the silence after the rasping scrape deeper and more horrible than it had been yet. He crept closer, apprehensively allowing just one eye to gaze out. He thought he saw a shadow for a moment. It was only a brief flash, and then nothing. His thoughts went to his dying phone. Yes, he could call and put this to an end if he had to, but not if his phone died first. He tore his gaze away for a moment to check it. It was at three percent. The shuffle sounded again, closer. Far too close. This could be his last chance to call. If his phone died, he wouldn’t have a way out of here for hours.

The next sound was long and steady, a rasping, vibrating scratch, sure of its purpose, as it reached the edge of the wall. Panic asserted itself and his brain filled with an irrational adrenaline. With a frantic motion, he slammed the door, swiftly and gingerly, as if it might bite while hanging loose on its hinges. The crack was sealed. He’d locked out the noise. He faced the closed door, breathing audibly, and with head heavy and reeling. His phone was at one percent. He called Rich.

“Well, well Stanley, you locked yourself in that room again, huh?” He could hear the sneer, and was about to offer a reply when everything went silent. He looked down through the dimly lit room at a black screen. The phone was dead, but the panic was dying with it now. He was about to get out of here. He pocketed it with a sigh of relief and fingered the door handle. His hand stiffened with sudden terror as he heard a shuffle and slow scrape, this time from the cabinets behind him.


Clara Jenkins is a student at Hagerstown Community College and is the current art editor for the Hedge Apple.

 

A Man of No Small Coincidence By Jack Donahue

A Man of No Small Coincidence By Jack Donahue

Let’s just say his name is Charley. That’s not his real name, but it will have to do for now. It’s not that I’m afraid I’ll be sued for defamation of character because for the most part I only have good things to say about him. Well, maybe good is not the most accurate word to use. The things I have to say about Charley are all true. I don’t know whether you would consider them good or not, but I do know they’re absolutely true because every single thing I’m going to tell you about him I personally witnessed. None of it is hearsay.
Another reason for choosing a fictional name is that once I start describing what “Charley” has done, some of you will probably recognize who I’m talking about anyway. I knew a lot about him when we both lived in Chicago. But I never had the privilege of meeting him there. I met him for the first time last week in Indianapolis. Well, maybe privilege is not the most accurate word to use to describe how I felt about meeting Charley, but I can’t think of a better one right now. You see, Charley is not the nicest person in the world. A celebrity for sure, but one that you’re probably better off not encountering real close up. He is all he is and nothing more and, in my opinion, sometimes a lot less.
Here’s another word I’m not crazy about using, coincidence, but it does describe my first encounter with the celebrity, Charley. I was a last-minute replacement for the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the American Dental Association. The original speaker who dropped out at the last minute (some joked he had an abscessed tooth) is arguably the nation’s top expert on developing methods for detecting mouth cancer in dental patients. Certainly, he would have dazzled the audience with the latest findings on this significant subject. But when I got the frantic call just days before the conference was to open, I could not promise so lofty a topic. You see, my specific expertise is indicated by my chosen speech: “The Most Efficacious Way to Advertise and Promote Elective Dental Implants.” I was assured by the ADA staff that the ballroom would be filled for my talk.
At least the lights would be dim enough so the moment I walked onstage to the lectern I would be kept in benign ignorance whether the room was filled with fellow dentists from all over the country eager to hang on my every word or only the first few rows were occupied by ADA promotional staff members. The golf and tennis tournaments weren’t scheduled until late afternoon, so I had at least a fair shot of attracting a ballroom filled with my peers. I mean, dental implants provide a huge profit center for the local dentist. Even though they are frightfully expensive and not covered in any way by most dental insurance plans, the appeal to a patient’s vanity is quite compelling. In my talk, I make sure to emphasize how often the dentist should subtly make the comparison between an old man’s removable choppers versus the new, natural looking permanent teeth locked into your jaw just like the ones God gave you.
Anyhow, I’m getting way off the topic telling you about myself rather than my encounter with the celebrity, Charley. The coincidence I referred to earlier concerns a magazine article I had just read on the plane about the very subject itself, the mathematical certainty of coincidence. The article was short and simple, but the editors did strive to present opposing points of view about the pro-coincidence movement as well as the position that there is no such thing as coincidence. “The world is so big,” one expert stated, “lots of things happen in every corner of the world every day. When they happen to us, we take special notice. Therein, lies the difference between coincidence and a commonplace occurrence.”
Fresh from the airport taxi ride to the hotel, I had to endure a mild inconvenience when I learned that my room would not be ready for another hour or so. Having that time to kill, I walked into the bar only to see Mr. Coincidence himself, Charley. He was in the process of regaling a few bar patrons with one of his legendary blowhard stories while I order a double scotch on the rocks (doctor’s orders: better than Anbesol for toothaches).
The fact I just read the magazine article on the subject of coincidence, coupled with the unexpected encounter with my fellow Chicagoan, Charley, in this hotel bar on Waterway Boulevard in Indianapolis, was worth noting. At least I thought so.
“Many years ago,” Charley started telling his star- struck fans, who were munching on peanuts and gulping down bottled beer, “I was vacationing with my family on the New Jersey shore, just driving along when my wife says out of the blue, ‘You know, Tommy’s regular temperature is 98.5 whereas Peggy’s is 98.6 like the rest of us.’ At that exact moment, I look to the side of the road and see milepost 98.5 on the Garden State Parkway. Then I pull into the Mobil station and the posted price for gas is…”
“98.5 cents,” one of the admiring fans answers automatically. The others make all the expected exclamations of how strange Charley must have felt. As was his custom, Charley pooh-poohed the suggestion the experience was out of the ordinary. “That’s nothing,” Charley says enthusiastically, “Listen to this. I pull up to the gas pump, open the car door, and take a look at the coke spill on the ground the previous driver just made, and the shape of that spill is a perfect rhomboid. At that moment, I look through my front windshield and the sun’s rays refract a perfect rhomboid on my seat cover. But here’s the weird part. The attendant comes over and asks if I’d like to apply for one of those Mobil speed passes. I look at the application on his clipboard and the coffee stain on the paper is a perfect…”
“Rhomboid!” the same volunteer hollers.
“How are the twins?” I called out from the other end of the bar. Charley does not turn
around. “Tommy and Peggy, how are they doing?”
The mention of the kids’ names got Charley’s attention. He swivels around to see where this question was coming from. The other patrons didn’t know, but I know. Charley had a local TV show for a little while back in Chicago, and he used to waltz his wife and kids in front of the TV cameras just, so those cute and adorable little people could verify his sometimes outlandish claims of high coincidence. You see, Charley was no mere teller of 98.5 cent gas price and rhomboid shaped coke spill stories. He was a bona fide seer. He predicted these things before they actually happened. And he didn’t go around trying to make them happen. They just did. In great abundance. Enough so that Charley got noticed by a Chicago TV producer, and soon, he found himself starring on a popular primetime TV show, “Mr. Coincidence,” featuring reenactments of actual events in his life. He is legitimate. No question about that. But after I mention his kids’ names, he tenses up.
“Did you hear what I just told these folks,” Charley said, staring me down.
“Yes, I did,” I dutifully respond.
“What I didn’t tell them is that if anyone of note was around to listen I would have told him that the 98.5 phenomenon was about to happen just moments before it did. And I knew about the coke spill, and the sun refracting through my windshield and the coffee stain, all before they occurred. As I watched that guy dump the contents of his plastic cup on the ground, I saw the shape of things in my mind. I know these things.”
“I know you do. I used to watch your show every Tuesday night at eight o’clock. I was a regular,” I say out loud but think to myself, ‘His wife and kids must not be of any note. I think I touched a sore spot without realizing it.’ His demeanor takes a nasty turn as we continue to converse. I was beginning to sense that my mere presence bothered him. Sometimes, his dark side would come through on his show. Even though it was taped, they could not edit out all of his telltale facial expressions. We all want our seers to be upstanding citizens, or, at the least, nice human beings and maybe even intellectuals with an aristocratic bearing combined with a common touch for more earthly beings such as myself. But he is none of these things. He turns his back on me and begins to tell his fans another story. One of them gives the bartender the sign for another round of drinks. I was not to be included in this little ensemble. But I press forward; order another scotch on my own tab, forty-five minutes away from gaining access to my room. Still bored, I decide to perform some surgery on him, in a congenial way I thought, by shoving another implant into his raw, bleeding gums. “Whatever happened to your show in Chicago?” I ask, touching an exposed nerve. He ignores me as well as any cat ever ignored his duty-bound owner. “I swear. I watched your show all the time. You deserved those high ratings. I heard you were close to syndication before … before it all ended so abruptly.”
Charley didn’t answer me then and I never heard from him what happened to his show. I was forced to stare at his back. He lowers his voice into one of those hushed tones where every word seems to carry the gravitas of exclusive, profound thought. His gathering of devotees, however, continues to laugh out loud and make all the appropriate gushing exclamations befitting their illustrious host. I didn’t know what Charley’s plans were or what business he had in Indianapolis, but it occurs to me that this little scene of his, holding court in a hotel bar, was a step down from national sponsors and millions of loyal TV viewers. When I should have been using this time to go over my speech on dental implants, I become more and more curious about Charley’s situation, even though it’s none of my damn business.
I pick up my drink and walk over to the group, taking the brunt of some cold, nasty stares. What they didn’t realize at the time was that I could stake claim to celebrity status myself, being the keynote speaker at a major convention. I stepped right in front of Charley. I had to know some things, but struggle to find the right words that would trigger a meaningful response.
“So what is it with you, Charley. Is it all just luck?”
“Hardly,” he answered curtly.
“Coincidence then?” I asked.
“Barely,” he said.
“Providence?” I offer.
“Rhode Island,” he says smartly which sends his gaggle of geese into a paroxysm of overly loud amiable beer laughs and a fit of contagious knee slapping. In that moment, the convivial atmosphere in the bar turns harsh and unwelcome, for me at least. I knew it was time for me to exit while I still had some of my dignity intact. I just wish none of those red-faced, knee-slapping drunks were dentists. But the odds are some of them are. Any mathematician would tell you there’s a one in seven chance one or two of them share my profession. But few odds makers could readily pin down the betting formula for what happens next.
I pay my tab, leave a tip for the bartender, and then pick up my briefcase. I head toward the exit. Through the spindle wood and eggshell glass barrier separating the lobby hallway from the bar area, I notice the vague outline of a woman and her two children about to enter into the dim light. I study them through the etched design of a swan, wings spread wide, alighting upon the water. The graceful bird seems to offer this fragment of a family temporary protection in the brightly lit hallway. As I drew closer, and the growing awareness of the identity of these three people start to sink into my scotch-soaked brain, I stop short of the exit and sit down at one of the small round tables.
The woman escorts her children into the far corner of the bar and settles in at a little round table just like mine. Oh my God, I think, it’s Tommy and Peggy, Charley’s twin kids and that’s his wife, or ex-wife to be more precise. Here’s a situation where I have a unique perspective. I knew I was about to see a scene unfold, just moments before it did. I could almost predict what would happen next. Charley would not be so dismissive of this little threesome as he was of me. Also, I’m not sure his bar friends would be as unkind in their silent treatment toward a woman and her two small children. I watch the kids closely. The girl sits obediently still, doing whatever mother commands. The boy has other things on his mind. He becomes restless. He makes several attempts to get up to greet his father, whose back is turned against his family. It seems that Charley is only aware of the entertainment value of his last remark, in all likelihood a retelling of some remarkable coincidence predicted by him for all the world’s historians to note.
The mother, I find out later, works as a receptionist for one of the dentists in Chicago. He is on the ADA Board of Governors, so he paid for her to accompany him to the convention. All she had to do in return was work the registration table one of the mornings. She agreed to go as long as she could take her children. After all, their ninth birthday fell on that same weekend. One morning at the table, check credentials for all dentists A through D, and the rest of the weekend she was free. Free to do what, I do not know. I am sure there is a lot to do in such a big city. A big city not that far from Chicago. I mean, Charley and the young, pretty TV producer he hooked up with could have run further away than Chicago. Yet, in Tommy and Peggy’s little minds, their father was as far away as the moon. He abandoned them and now there was the issue of unpaid child support. The TV producer, as much impressed with Charley as his current fan club at the bar, had some family as well as business connections in Indianapolis.
I noticed that Tommy tried to call out to his father, but his mother cuffed his mouth. She would be the one to speak first. I observed that at least his son still had feelings for him. Charley must have spent more time with him than the girl. Anyhow, it was sure building up to be an awkward moment for Charley. To be confronted with his past, the specter of the disenfranchised wife, the deeply hurt, neglected children, the near success of this phenomenal seer who must have known that someday there would come a moment way beyond the commonplace, weird shapes of coke spills and milepost numbers notwithstanding, when some extraordinary coincidence would take place in his life. He had to know that, given his exceptional gift for predicting the future. But Charley is no mathematician, so I am sure he was unaware of the odds of his estranged wife walking into this bar, with kids in tow, it being his stage for the moment. In a city that is not his current residence. On his abandoned kids’ birthday. The anti-coincidence theorist would say the odds were in favor of this exact thing happening, that his former wife had to get a job somewhere, and a dentist’s office was as good a place as any. The Chicago dentist paid her well. The job offered good health benefits which she certainly needed for herself and the children. And the dentist was kind to her. She needed that kind of treatment after Charley stung her so deeply. The coincidence theorist would most likely say, “Wow! What a coincidence!” I don’t know which side I would agree with, but I feel that somehow I am an integral part of the outcome.


Numerous short stories and poems written by Jack Donahue have been published in journals such as: Newtown Literary Review; Prole (U.K.); Palo Alto Review; The Main Street Rag; China Grove; Folio; The Almagre Review and others throughout North America and Europe. Mr. Donahue received his M.Div. degree from New Brunswick, Theological Seminary, NJ in 2008. He is married and resides on the North Fork of Long Island, New York.

Halloween Terror By Alison Cloonan

Halloween Terror By Alison Cloonan

How much longer before we get to the motel?”  Stephanie asked. “We haven’t slept for two days!  If it weren’t for all the caffeine today we’d be arrested for Driving While Asleep!”

Jennifer laughed as she drove through the darkening evening.  “About an hour. With the big college game there weren’t any motel rooms near the city, so I got one on the way to my dad’s stomping grounds. It was a whole lot cheaper, too.”

“Cheap is good!” Stephanie said.  “I’m so tired of being broke, but I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.”

Passing houses, the road narrowed as they headed into a small town nestled in one of West Virginia’s many hills.

“Oh my gosh!  Look at those cuties!” Stephanie exclaimed when she saw the costumed children walking from house to house asking for candy.  She laughed. “It’s so cold the poor kids have to wear coats over their Halloween costumes! Sure is different than back home, isn’t it?”

“Everything is different,” Jennifer agreed, “I’ve never seen entire forests of reds, yellows, and orange.”

Leaving the town behind them, the car was swallowed up again into the darkness as it followed the black ribbon of asphalt. The women murmured softly in conversation, Stephanie occasionally fiddling with the radio to change stations as static overtook them.

Peering into the dark, Jennifer said uneasily, “The trees are so thick you can’t even see the stars! It’s Halloween so if we have car trouble there better be cell service, because I am NOT getting out of the car to go for help. I don’t want to end up being a campfire story.”

Fog rising from the ground dulled the headlights and made the curving road difficult to follow and both women began to lean forward, peering out the windshield, the eye-shine of unseen animals reflecting back at them.  Deer became goblins and possums were gnomes, shapes shifted, reaching down as though to block their way.

*   * *  * * *  *

Having finally checking into the motel, Jennifer threw her suitcase on the bed and herself next to it. “We’re here, we’re here! Oh glory, we’re here!  I should be ready to sleep, but I’m still wired from the drive and am up for putting on my swimsuit and checking out the Jacuzzi. How about you?”

“Oh, yeah!  I’m still knotted into a pretzel from the plane ride. Dibs on the bathroom!” Stephanie called as she zipped open her suitcase and pulled out her suit.

Exiting the bathroom she saw Jennifer in her suit, tossed her a towel, and they wrapped themselves up and headed out into the open walkway.

“Brrr!  It’s colder than I thought!” Jennifer declared, “We’ll be doing that Swedish thing of getting hot and then running out in the cold.”

Giggling and shivering, they ran, the slapping sounds of their flip flops echoed into the dark.

“Ahhhh,” Stephanie sighed as she slid into the heated bubbling water.  “This Jacuzzi is the perfect lagniappe for the start of some great memories.  Just one of those little extras that make life fun!”

Jennifer placed her towel behind her neck, resting it on the edge, her muscles relaxing in the warmth.  “If I fall asleep, don’t let me drown!”

Stephanie turned to look into the pool area. Windows enclosed the three open sides and she thought how pretty it would be to watch the snow or rain falling through them.  She turned back around to face the wall. Unfortunately, the jet was positioned where she couldn’t see outside.

The two soaked in meditative silence until Jennifer popped up out of the water and exclaimed, “If I don’t go in now I’ll be too limp to get to the room, I’m like a wet noodle!  You stay here for another ten minutes while I shower, and then you can take yours. That okay with you?” She looked down at her friend, grabbing her towel.

“Perfect,” Stephanie agreed. “I’m still working on this one kink in my back.”

“I hope I can make it to the room!” Jennifer said, staggering off.

Stephanie slid further into the water, closing her eyes.  The lights, reflecting off the pool, danced across the walls and glowed through her eyelids.

A change in the lighting perhaps or a sound she couldn’t identify caused Stephanie to open her eyes.  The clarity of the black shadow cast on the wall in front of her outlining the hat and trench coat left no doubt that a person was behind her and that it was a very large man.

Languid from the heated water, her brain muddled, she was unable to move and the scenarios of all the horror movies she had ever seen flashed before her eyes. She saw her body dragged away, raped and murdered, her family never knowing what happened to her; her best friend finding her in a Jacuzzi full of blood, her hair spread out from her head as she floated in the water; she envisioned the shadowy arm lifting up a large knife and it striking down on her again, and again, and again.

In her head she was screaming, silently screaming, but she, herself, could make no sound.  Struggling to open her mouth, the horror of not being able to scream became as terrifying as the looming shadow in front of her. Her eyes, the only part of her still able to move, widened, the pupils dilating across her green irises as she watched the shadow shift, shrinking as it moved further down the wall as footsteps echoed off water and windows.

Her heart, beating so loudly in her head her ears vibrated, she almost missed the sound of a weak, quivery voice, call out, “It’s a nice evening out tonight, isn’t it?”

Rolling her head around toward the voice, Stephanie saw a small elderly man with a very gentle face, wearing a fedora and overcoat against the fall chill, standing across the pool, the bright floodlights luminescent behind him.

“Yes,” she wheezed out the breath she had been holding, “Yes, a very nice evening.”

He smiled, nodded, and continued his evening walk.


Alison Cloonan is a 60-year-old emerging writer who has completed a college creative writing class at Hagerstown Community College.

Ghosted By Jade Draper

Ghosted By Jade Draper

The neighborhood was a quiet one. One of those developments, filled with large, similarly constructed houses, evenly spaced apart. A neighborhood full of cute, picture perfect families of the upper middle class, living in their beautiful houses, in serenity.

They were a young couple.  The woman, with straight, platinum hair cut into a perfect bob and her husband with slicked back black hair, both never looking out of sorts. The day they moved in to the last vacant house on the block was memorable simply because they brought nothing with them. No moving truck pulled in with their enviable black Mercedes, just the Mercedes. All the people recall is watching that car pull in, seeing the couple get out and walk straight into the house. Not a single bag. And nothing had come before hand and nothing came after and believe them they tried to get a peek inside because how strange it all seemed. Who moves into such a home and brings absolutely nothing with them? And yet every time they saw the couple they were dressed in different clothes and he often had a briefcase, she wore varying pieces of jewelry. It puzzled them, but what could they do?  Everyone just called it peculiar and moved on because they did not bother anyone.

Then Autumn set in and the leaves changed and with it the couple changed. It was if their icy exterior fell away as they got ready for Halloween. They pulled decorations from who knows where and set them up in the yard. A string of skulls in the barren tree in the yard, a frightening witch, a headstone, multiple jack-o-lanterns, and ghosts scattered about the yard. This again set everyone to talking, yet only for a minute because most everyone decorated so it was not too out of place. What really was interesting is what the children started to say. Rumor had it that the couple liked children. That they were kind to them even.  The parents dismissed this talk as the children mistaking the couple’s new-found comfort around their home for comfort with the neighborhood itself.

The bus stopped at the end of the cul-de-sac and all the children walked home together, one by one saying goodbye and going into their homes. They then would meet up to play after all the homework was done and run around the neighborhood on bikes and scooters, laughing and shouting. Now each night, unbeknownst to the parents, the couple had started to sit on the front porch. They had set up chairs, again, from where they brought them no one could know, and watch the children. It could be said that they just enjoyed the crisp fall air and each other’s company, but about two weeks after this habit had formed they moved the chairs to the edge of the driveway and began to talk to the children. And the children began to like them. They would joke and sing with them and make sure they went inside at a decent hour. They never moved from those chairs though.

Halloween was quickly approaching and all the children were becoming quite excited. They did not come outside at night anymore to play because it had become much too chilly and they had costumes to work on. The couple had moved their ritual back to the porch, but sat outside after the children got off the bus. Now the way their house was situated, second to last in the development, meant that by the time all the young ones had walked each other home, there was only one child walking by their house to get to his. Jones was a small timid boy, but he enjoyed playing with the other children and he had grown to like the couple who had sat outside and chatted with them all this time. So, every afternoon as he walked by to go home he waved and the couple smiled back. This went on all the way until the night of Halloween.

Trick or Treat was simple for the neighborhood. Everyone knew everyone so it was put your child in a costume and send them out all at once and then, at the agreed time, turn your porch light off and all the children came scampering home. It was a great system. The parents could relax without freezing and all the kids felt independent and got candy. So, the night began. All the little witches and vampires and doctors were running around gathering their candy, happy as could be. The couple sat on their porch, light on, handing out candy to each child as they came by, smiling and offering a kind word, the only adults visible outdoors on the chilly night.

At the agreed time, all the porch lights went off and each child reluctantly went home, dragging a bag of candy with them. Jones waved goodbye to his last walking partner as they ran inside their own house and began his small journey home. As he was walking past the couple’s house he noticed, even though their light was off, that they were still on the porch. They saw him, smiled, pointed to a bowl of candy that was still quite full and waved him over. He made his way up the sidewalk and excitedly opened his bag and watched as they dumped all of it in. He grinned and said thank you.

The next morning the police were at the last house in the neighborhood. The family was hysterical for it seemed that their little boy, one in a ghost costume who goes by Jones, never came home. The police made their rounds that morning to each house and questioned the families. When the police questioned the couple, who were on their porch drinking coffee, they found nothing out of sorts, as with everything else in the neighborhood. Three days later the neighborhood woke up to find the second to last house in the neighborhood vacant again, the porch light flickering ominously. Void of the couple and their Halloween décor.  Obviously suspicious of such a quick departure, the people of the neighborhood took it upon themselves to investigate.

Inside they found beautifully decorated walls, with pictures of the couple hung all about. Odd artwork of a dark nature, not really depicting anything for certain sat about in random corners, giving each person an uneasy feeling. The house otherwise was empty. No beds or furniture or food. Not ever toilet paper or a toothbrush. Yet, when they made their way into the garage they found the black Mercedes sitting alone. The doors of the car were locked, but the trunk was left slightly ajar and dirty handprints had seemed to have caressed it not too long ago. All the neighbors looked at one another, no one really knowing what to do or daring to touch anything. Suddenly, without anyone touching the trunk of the car, it flung itself open with a creak to reveal a large bag of trick or treat candy. The candy was not alone in the trunk. Staring down each neighbor, striking fear and questions into each heart, lay a tiny, blood soaked, ghost costume.

Threads of Glass By Aileen Pepple

Threads of Glass By Aileen Pepple

I open my eyes and the first thing I perceive is the unsettling moonlight slipping in through the cracks between the filthy, navy-blue curtains. Pushing myself up from the dusty, certainly bug-covered floor, I take in the room around me. Large pieces of the wood flooring have rotted away or been viciously pulled up to create dark pits that bring out my anxiety. Peering into the darkness burrowing into the heart of the abandoned house, some feeling tells me that if I were to jump I would hit a dirt floor where two graves had been dug. Leading out of the living room I stand in, two framed doorways reveal a kitchen and foyer with a raggedy staircase leading up to the second floor. Eventually I notice the peculiar wind chime hanging from the ceiling between the doorways. Thin threads hold up shards of multi-colored glass that scratch each other in a breeze that I don’t feel. I move towards the hanging glass and reach out, mindlessly running my finger along the edges of one of the longer, magenta-colored pieces.

Lainey, be careful! I hear his sweet little voice arise from the back of my head. Not all of my memories from my childhood come back, but some of the missing pieces I never wanted to be recovered find their way to me at last.

My voice cracks as I speak. “Why am I back in this house?”

Silence.

“Why!”

I can hear the sadness underlining my little brother’s words. “You promised me you wouldn’t forget, but you did it anyway.”

My eyes water and my face flushes as I turn around.  “Danny, none of this is real. You are not real. I-” He stills appears as his seven-year-old self, the age he had been murdered in this very house by him.

From what I can remember, our parents used to go on monthly, week-long business trips together, although they never told us where or why they went. During these trips, they had our Uncle D’lester babysit us. Our uncle was known to have anger problems and questionable tendencies by nearly anyone who had met him, but I don’t think our parents ever thought he would hurt either of us. Yet, he did and had been doing so for a long time. That last night, my little brother saw how our uncle hurt me and, in seeing the bruising on my arms and legs, he tried to protect me. Uncle D’lester pushed him too hard. Danny’s body slumped between the floorboards and the walls as a small pool of blood started to trickle out from the back of his head. Our uncle turned back to me and bashed my head so hard into the wall behind me that it knocked me unconscious. After that, I woke up in a hospital with one of our neighbors holding my hand, my parents missing, and my brother dead.

Danny stands before me with swollen cheeks and the bruising and dirt covering his small form still clearly visible. “Danny, please. Our uncle is dead now. I got rid of him forever. Our fear should be gone.”

Danny looks up at me and tries to dry his tears with his sleeves, but it doesn’t help. He speaks in a much older voice now, how I think he would sound if he had lived to the present. “You don’t remember! You don’t remember, Lainey! You are still in danger! Over these years, I have heard you try to convince yourself everything happens for a reason. Well, that is true, but not always do they happen for good reasons. Sometimes the reason why things happen is because evil exists.”

“Stop!” I shout. “I just want this to end! Why did you bring me back here!”

Suddenly he seems frozen as he stares just over my shoulder. “I didn’t.”

“Then who did?”

A shiver runs through me as the light behind me in the foyer flickers on. The silhouette of a man holding a small knife and a woman holding onto his arm stretch across the floor boards beside me. They speak in unison. “Hello, sweet daughter.”


Aileen Pepple is an English/Theatre major. Her passion is for creative writing with a focus on horror and science fiction. One of her major dreams is to write and direct a series of horror short films, using all the knowledge she has learned at HCC. 

 

 

Watching, Waiting By Katelyn Hogue

Watching, Waiting By Katelyn Hogue

2:52 A.M. All it took was one sound. One unexpected sound, and I could feel the air shift around me. So quick, but so important. One unexplained sound and she awoke, surely frightened. Her body now lies rigid and alert, but only seconds before curved naturally in blissful sleep. That’s fine. Mistakes happen. Sounds happen. I wait, calm, sure that soon her eyes will tire and her body will sag, comforted by the warm air and the trusted silence. I wait, 3:05 A.M, but still, for over ten minutes, her demeanor does not change. Smart girl. She trusts her instincts. Most would pacify themselves with hopeful reassurances until their frightened bodies fold organically back into their mattresses, but not her. She heard me, and she knows it too. For one instant in the confusing in-between where reality and fantasy converge she heard me, and the voice now telling her to relax her ever-beating heart is not loud enough to silence her instinctual need to survive.

3:07 A.M. I breath silently, in no hurry, and completely willing to let her take as much time as she needs. The sun will not be up for hours. I have plenty of time.

3:21 A.M.  I long to move, but I stand perfectly silent. When I close my eyes, I can hear her internal debate. One voice pleads with her to look around the room, worried for what may be lurking in the shadows. Another voice, either fear or reason, tells her to go back to sleep and scoffs at the childish fear of monsters waiting in the darkness. I lick my lips and smile. It’s a shame how many times “don’t be stupid” outweighs “just to be safe”…

I want her to look at me. I desire it with an incredible lust I can’t fully explain. Just look behind you I tell her silently. So few ever do. Searching for me, looking at me means facing fear itself. That’s what I want. That’s what I love. It makes the game so much better.  After all, no one wants to hunt a dead deer. Those who have the courage to peer into the darkness, to confront man’s fear of the unknown live to fight another day, and I, I resign to the shadows, euphoric and satisfied. We both win when they’re brave. With vigilant, hungry eyes, I study her, aware of everything; the woosh woosh of her fan, the chill in the air, the faint scent of cinnamon. I watch and wait for a twitch or a hint of movement, something that tells me she is willing to confront me. I hold my breath in anticipation. No matter what she choses I will get something what I want. So I watch and wait for her.

3:36 A.M. I watch her sag, convinced that the sound she heard was the wind, not real, or some other excuse made from her tired mind. I shake my head, almost making a tsk sound, but I don’t.

A hint of a smile flicks across my lips. I’ll enjoyed killing her, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed too as she has, unknowingly, surrendered to me, and sadly, she will not get another chance, another sound, to save herself.  I take a silent step towards the bed as I reached for my knife. Long. Thin. Sharp. Slow. She’ll know soon that she was right, and it was foolish of her not to check on me. Perhaps that will be her final thought.


Katelyn Hogue is a student at Hagerstown Community College.

Cabin Fever by Judy Gitterman

Cabin Fever by Judy Gitterman

“Ted, are you in there? Are you alright?” It was Dennis, his father.

“Yeah, Dad. Just a minute.”

Ted took a quick look in the mirror over the dresser but barely recognized the visage staring back. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his skin was so pale it looked like he hadn’t been outdoors in months. That wasn’t far from the truth. He was at the family cabin in upstate New York for the weekend, and it was the first time he had ventured out of the City since Susan died. They had always traveled together to the annual family “Oktoberfest Weekend” near the Finger Lakes. He hadn’t wanted to go this year, but his father pressed him, and he’d finally agreed.

He had at least three days’ growth of beard. Instead of the usual thick dark curls, his hair hung in listless strands, plastered every which way on the sides of his face. Ted couldn’t remember when he had last washed his hair. He splashed his face with water from a glass on his nightstand and opened the door.

Dennis was wearing pressed corduroy pants and a new hunter’s green plaid flannel shirt. At 6’2” with broad shoulders and angular features, he always seemed so put together. He was 60 but looked ten years younger. Dennis stayed in good shape by running five days a week and working out with weights. He could be the poster boy for AARP’s “aging well” campaign. Dennis handled whatever life threw at him and made it look easy. Ted’s mother Joanne had died from breast cancer when Ted was nine. But Dennis had taken this in stride; he had never appeared bitter or angry and had taken on all the childcare responsibilities with enthusiasm. He managed to juggle Ted’s Boy Scout overnights and soccer games with his job as an engineer for Con-Edison. When Ted was twelve, Dennis married Andrea, and Ted’s twin half-brothers were born three years later.

Dennis creased his brow and frowned. Ted hated that look. He knew his father had good intentions, but Ted wasn’t in the mood for conversation. He braced himself.

“Ted, you’ve been up here at the lake three days already, and you’ve barely left your room. I know what you are going through. But Susan’s been gone eight months now. Why don’t you take your camera outside and get some fresh air? You know, today’s the perfect day to take some pictures—the foliage is at its peak. Ted, do me a favor, just try it.”

Ted looked at his father and quickly looked away as he fought to suppress the tightness welling up in his throat. He didn’t want to talk about Susan, and he didn’t want to talk about his camera. He’d brought it with him and had even charged the batteries but had yet to use it. It didn’t seem right to take pictures without Susan. Though they both worked long hours—Ted was a software engineer, and Susan was an attorney—they had shared a passion for nature and landscape photography and always made time for it on weekends and vacations. Their pictures lined the walls of the cabin.

“Hey, it’s okay, Dad. Don’t worry. I just needed to rest, that’s all. Go on back downstairs. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

Ted found his clothes crumpled in a pile on the floor and put them on. No need to shave or shower. What was the point? He went downstairs. The twins Chris and Kurt were playing their new Super Mario Brothers game on the Wii.

“Hey, guys,” Ted said.

The boys did not take their eyes off the television screen. Their faces were set with resolute determination as they deftly moved the game controllers with the confidence of experienced fighter pilots. No one would guess they were related to Ted; they didn’t look anything like him. While Ted had Dennis’s build and affect, the twins were skinny as string beans and had their mother’s sandy blond hair and bright blue eyes. Ted liked the twins well enough, but he didn’t have much to say to them. At twenty-eight, Ted was fifteen years older. He could have tried harder and invited them to do things with him, but he didn’t feel like expending the effort this weekend. Anyhow, they were lost in their alternate universe of video games.

The air in the family room was dense with wafts of roast beef, potatoes, carrots, and onions. Comfort food. But he wasn’t hungry and didn’t want to be comforted. The smell of a home-cooked meal just made the pain of Susan’s absence that much sharper. He was an interloper, looking in from the outside on the domestic bliss of some other family, not his own. He needed to get outdoors and clear his head. Ted found his hiking boots by the front door and laced them up.

He walked over to the kitchen doorway. Dennis and Andrea were preparing dinner. Dennis was chopping up vegetables for the salad while Andrea sliced the roast.

“Hey, I’m taking a walk,” he said. “Back in about an hour.”

Dennis glanced up. He looked relieved to see that Ted had emerged from the bedroom.

“Sure son, have a nice walk.”

Dennis turned his attention back to the carrots and lettuce.

Ted zipped up his bomber jacket. It was his favorite jacket even though it had a long gash in the left elbow and the brown leather was faded and crinkled. Susan had given it to him for his 21st birthday. He wore it every day now, and in a way that he couldn’t explain, it gave him some semblance of security.

Ted opened the front door when a photo in the front hall caught his eye, and he stopped. It was a photo of a eucalyptus tree Susan had taken in Kauai, on their last vacation together. He remembered that Susan had spent almost an hour getting close-ups of the eucalyptus grove on the North Shore. A stab of guilt hit him when he remembered that he had been impatient and had asked her to hurry up so they could go to dinner. But with her usual equanimity, she had just smiled and said she hadn’t realized the time. They ate dinner as the sun set at a small café overlooking Hanalei Bay that night, and he remembered feeling how lucky he was.

Susan had cropped the photo of the eucalyptus to magnify the rainbow colors of bark, and then she over-saturated the colors in Adobe Lightroom. The result was a stunning abstract of bright, crayon-like colors. She printed it out on their home printer, and Ted had made a white mat and cherry wood frame that made the colors pop. They gave it to Dennis and Andrea for Christmas last year.

Ted turned his attention to the open door. Outside, the sky was a brilliant blue and crystal clear after last night’s rainfall. The leaves on the maples and sycamores that surrounded the cabin were deep wine red, bright orange, and yellow. Ted held his gaze on the trees, then turned and ran back upstairs. He grabbed his camera backpack and tripod and went outside.

Almost as soon as he shut the front door behind him and walked past the property line, the tension in his head evaporated as he breathed in the crisp autumn air.

Ted took the trail that circled the lake. When he was just about halfway around, he turned off the trail and climbed through piles of leaves and underbrush until he got to the water’s edge. Setting up his tripod, pushed the claw feet into the mud to stabilize the legs and locked his camera into place. The grip of the camera in his hands felt warm and welcoming, and only then did he realize how much he missed it. Over the summer, friends from the photography club he and Susan founded had asked him many times to go on weekend shoots, but he always declined, making one excuse or another. His friends didn’t believe him and kept asking until finally they gave up and stopped calling.

The early evening light brought out the rich tones of the leaves on the white oak, red maple and river birch trees lining the lake. Ted peered through the camera’s viewfinder and adjusted the aperture setting to focus on the foreground as well as the distant trees lining the far side of the lake. He took some wide-angle shots and then switched the camera to panorama mode. The shutter clicked and whirred as he moved the camera in a 180-degree arc, the camera’s internal software stitching together the frames into a single image.

Ted took a quick look at the LCD screen and was satisfied that he’d captured the vista in optimal lighting. He sat down on a rock and gazed out over the water. The wind whistled faintly through the trees, and a lone hawk called off in the distance. Snowy cloud pillows drifted across the canvas of blue sky. Perfect solitude. Susan would have loved it.

As the sun sunk down lower in the sky, the wind picked up, and the air chilled. He slung the tripod with camera attached over his shoulder and started to walk up the hill, toward a small clearing that would give him the best view of the sunset over the lake. The incline was steeper than it looked from below. Ted was out of shape, and he had to stop several times to catch his breath before continuing the climb.

Drenched in sweat, he reached the summit just as the sun was about to set over the lake. The view was worth the effort. Pink and red streaks illuminated the sky. Ted drank in the deep red, orange, yellow, and green tapestry of trees with his eyes. It was too windy for a reflection of the trees on the lake, but as the sun hit the ripples, the light shimmered and danced on the surface of the water like Fourth of July sparklers on silver.

Just as he was about to take a shot, a double rainbow appeared, like oil pastels that mirrored the image of Susan’s eucalyptus he still held in his mind’s eye. He clicked the shutter, catching the sun as it melted into the lake.

Ted felt a gentle wave of tranquility wash over him. He smiled, packed up his gear, and turned to make his way down the hill, back to the cabin. He was hungry and looked forward to dinner.


Judy Gitterman is a writer living in Santa Monica, California. She recently received her MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, where she was co-lead fiction editor and on the interview team of Lunch Ticket. Judy is currently working on a collection of interwoven short stories.

Days of Heroes by Matthew Wilson

Days of Heroes by Matthew Wilson

At night I watch her dance, the sweet village girl, how she smiles and I would give my soul to have her smile at me, but she comes here for peace and quiet from her problems, this angel.

 

How I wish I were brave, strong as steel to deserve such a dancer, but I have given my name to science, and I wished to save the day another way. The world of 2018 is dying, and I thought I could use my machine to go back, to be like the heroes of old days and warn the people of before.

 

I thought I was smarter than this, but my machine malfunctioned, and I have travelled much further than I should. At night, I creep back into the woods to untangle it from the trees and try to undo my mistakes; for the locals would hang me as a witch if they knew the truth.

 

But I would cross galaxies to see this angel dance, this girl  who keeps me from my work when she shouts at the stars, spitting at the tyranny back in her village when corrupt officials kill her neighbors and burn their homes.

 

I can see such bravery in her eyes that shame those stars, steel that I envy but know I can never have. I am a man of science and know I can get back to 2018 if I keep working, if the angel would cease invading my dreams. So, I wake refreshed with my mind on one thing.

 

But all I know is angels, and that idiotic part of me that got me stranded here in the first place wonders what would happen if I spoke to her, if this Marion noticed me.

Oh, what a hero it would make if she smiled at me.

Then the world would know me for something more than science.

Maybe it would know Robin Loxley for something great.

 


Matthew Wilson, 34 has been published over 150 times in such
places as Horror*Zine, Zimbell House Publishing, Star*Line, Alban Lake
and many more. He is currently editing his first novel

 

“Continuing Grace (we can always come back)” by Michael Tucker

“Continuing Grace (we can always come back)” by Michael Tucker

1999

It smelled funny in church. Antique wood paneling, breath mints, musty hymnals, Aqua Net Hairspray, polyester suits worn by old ladies since the 1970’s, sour old man sweat, cheap perfume, slightly mildewed carpet, and that institutional, indecipherable smell which is somehow contained in church buildings everywhere added up to a smell that Zach had come to hate. He didn’t want to be sitting here with his back pressed up against this hard and unforgiving, wooden pew on a Wednesday night smelling this funny church smell as the congregation of The Continuing Church of God brought their painfully discordant rendition of Hymn Number 422, “When Storms of Life Are Round Me Beating,” to a merciful end. Brother Don stood at the pulpit in a navy blue, pinstriped suit waiting to start this evening’s sermon. Zach hoped he wasn’t going to again pull out those horrific banners that displayed the beasts from the Book of Revelation alongside the visions of Daniel in all their terrible glory. He particularly dreaded the one that bore a demonic looking image of a drunken harlot clad in scarlet riding on a many- headed, leopard-spotted beast with snarling fangs and glowing eyes. Brother Don had just unfurled those scary, prophetic pictures in his sermon three Sundays ago, so he should be safe tonight. He hoped, too, that the pastor wouldn’t pull out those tapes of rock music being played backwards with its garbled, demonic voices that praised Satan. That was scary stuff— and besides what kind of person listens to music backwards anyway?

 Zach had hoped to no avail that his mom would let him stay home this evening. He was, after all, already thirteen years old, and his friend Malora, who was also thirteen and who lived in the trailer at the end of the road with the grouchy old man she called Pap, stayed home alone all the time. Besides the fact that she always smelled of stale cigarette smoke, Zach really liked Malora. Unlike the people here at The Continuing Church of God, Malora made him laugh with her sarcasm and her silly streak. Brother Don with his slicked back hair, ruddy, rubbery face, and booming voice just made him feel sort of uncomfortable and more than a little unworthy.

Brother Don wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead with the handkerchief he kept in his lapel pocket, took a deep breath, and began his sermon. It didn’t sound much different to Zach from the one he had just heard this past Sunday or last Wednesday night or any of the other ones he had been forced to sit through before that for that matter.  

“Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we are truly living in the last days. Just as in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, the world is full of filthy perversion and immorality. People have turned away from God. And just like He did to Sodom and Gomorrah, God will once again pour the vials of his wrath out upon the earth. The world is full of immorality and homosexual perversion…”

Zach glanced sheepishly over at David McAllister who was sitting three people away from him in the same row. Zach wasn’t sure what he felt when he looked at David, but he found himself looking at David often— even if it made his stomach do flips whenever he looked at him or thought about him for that matter.  Besides, if he didn’t want to end up being burned up by the hand of God or turned into a pillar of salt, he had better stop staring secretly at David. He had seen him playing basketball at the park last week with his shirt off in the early spring sunshine. Zach wondered if his own skinny body would ever develop the muscles that David had. He thought about the naked statue in his art book that was named David, and he thought about how much the real David resembled its smooth and chiseled musculature there in the shimmering sunlight on the basketball court that early spring afternoon. His mother tapped him on the leg. She unwrapped a Certs and handed it to Zach. This was his cue to pay attention.

“… and yes, brothers and sisters, false information is all around us. Television. Radios. Newspapers. So-called universities of higher learning. All the Devil’s tools in these last days. Scripture tells us in Second Timothy 3: ‘This, know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents…’”             

Zach squirmed in his seat. There it was: that funny church smell again.

“…ever learning and never able to come to the truth.’ Do you know my brethren that there are even those among us who claim today that animals have souls when the Holy Bible clearly tells us that this cannot be so?”

Zach’s mind wandered to Jerry, the fuzzy, gray ball of fur that had showed up shivering and mewing on their front porch two weeks ago. He couldn’t believe that his mom had agreed to let him keep the poor little, hungry kitten. Things had been tough since Zach’s dad had passed, and another mouth to feed was kind of a big deal, not to mention paying for cat litter and vet bills. All the stuff that came with being a pet owner added up to extra expenses, and most of the money his mom made at the factory went for rent and food, but who could say no to those bright green eyes? That little cry? That purr? That warm little body that made frantically loving circles around their ankles in the morning?  Zach thought to himself that Jerry had a soul. He was sure of it. He didn’t care what Brother Don or his book said. He glanced over at David and felt another orange Certs being pressed into the palm of his hand.

2015

It smelled like rain: fresh and green and sad and somehow fertile with more than a hint of earthworm and mud in its essence. Zach sat on the front porch waiting for the lightning to let up. He looked at the box and the plush, blue blanket inside it. At least with all the rain, the ground would be soft. This was going to be hard. Each time someone he loved died, it brought back memories of all his previous losses. He barely remembered his Dad’s passing. He was five. The details were fleeting. Eating a bowl of Lucky Charms in the warm kitchen on a snowy morning. His mom looking pale and shocked on the phone.  An emergency room waiting area. A closed pine casket on a white pedestal. The sickening stench of flowers. Eating food in the basement of The Continuing Church of God with its paper table cloths and folding metal chairs and that funny church smell. His Mom’s death was much more vivid in his mind. The details much more visceral. The diagnosis: pancreatic cancer. The constant doctor’s appointments. Chemotherapy. Sickness. Low red cell counts. Radiation. Isolation. The hospice people bringing in the hospital bed. Morphine. The sickening stench of flowers. A waxy skeletal figure that only vaguely resembled his mother in the pine casket lit by soft funeral parlor lighting.  Brother Aaron, son of Brother Don, officiating at the freezing, January graveside service. Food prepared by the ladies of The Continuing Church of God and served in the same basement. Same paper tablecloths. Same metal folding chairs. Same damn funny smell… And now his best friend of the last fifteen years lay wrapped in a soft blanket in a cardboard box on the front porch waiting for the lightning to let up, so Zach could bury him. It wasn’t unexpected, really. Jerry didn’t do much but sleep these past few weeks. Zach had found him stretched out dead on top of the dryer when he came in from work. His eyes were closed. Old Jerry must have drifted off into eternity in his sleep.

Thunder rumbled in the distance. No sign of lightning. Zach buried Jerry at the edge of the backyard. He scattered some lime over the fresh grave to keep other animals from digging Jerry up. I’ll never forget you, Jerry. May your soul be at peace in the land of mice and catnip, my friend. He went back to the shelter of the front porch and had a much needed, cathartic cry on the damp, cool concrete.

He fixed a veggie burger for dinner since there would be no food served in basement of   The Continuing Church of God in Jerry’s honor. Not that Zach ever went back after his mother’s passing. Not even once. Malora would be picking him up in a few minutes. Going to shows together was sort of their thing. If he hadn’t already paid for the tickets, he would have called Malora and told her not to bother, but tonight Zach’s favorite band, Papadosio, was playing, and dancing would be fun. Sometimes dancing was the thing that kept Zach sane. It was the way he worked things out in his body, his mind, and his soul, and tonight, he would dance in Jerry the Cat’s honor.    

Malora pulled into the driveway in her hulk of a Lincoln Town Car: dull silver with a Bad Religion bumper sticker on the left side and a multicolored, dancing Grateful Dead bear sticker on the right. She had stickered up the old beast of a car when it became hers after Pap’s death. She blew the horn. “I’m sorry about Jerry. You partying tonight?”

“Thanks. Nah, I’m staying sober,” Zach replied, sliding into the gigantic, leather front seat. It smelled of stale cigarette smoke. He took comfort in the fact that some things never change.

“You don’t mind driving, then? Do you? Hell, yeah, Dosio tonight! What do you want to hear the boys play?”

“Not at all, it’ll keep my mind straight ‘til we get there. And I would love to hear a super dank ‘Magreenery,’ ‘Out of Hiding,’ or ‘Utopiate,’ or hell yeah, ‘We Can Always Come Back.” It’s my favorite off the new album.”

“Dude, I want ‘Therian’ so bad. I love Sam’s voice so much.  And did I tell you that I can see people’s animal spirits now?”   

He slid into the driver’s seat and pulled away as Malora howled out the window at the moon at the top of her lungs.

It took almost an hour to reach the venue. Zach spent most of the ride thinking about Jerry and laughing at Malora’s sarcastic take on the customer base at Hot Topic. It was an okay enough job and it payed for her efficiency apartment in town, but damn, what posers. The topic of conversation somehow switched to include a lofty spiritual analysis of Ally Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club, Lana Del Rey, and Labyrinth-era David Bowie as her spirit animals, and the two travelers reached their destination before they knew it. They went inside the venue where it smelled of patchouli and fruity vape-smoke along with that magical essence of anticipation for incredible music hanging in the room: something kind of electric, yet somehow tangible. Tauk, the opening band, was already playing a heady mix of progressive rock and psychedelia.      

They were greeted by the usual suspects in the regular congregation of Dosio family revelers. Shawn with his bear hugs and giddy excitement about what the boys would be playing tonight, Mark with his “Fuck, you two look beautiful tonight,” Claire with her kind smile and patchwork style, Rob, the merry prankster all lollipops and goofiness, and Nick with his bright eyes and intensity. They all gathered together at the rail up against the stage as the lights grew dim. They screamed and cheered as the time to rage was finally upon them: those nice boys in Papadosio took to the stage immersed in surreal lights and began to play.          

 From the first note onward, the music overwhelmed Zach. It felt like liberation-to be lost here in the lights, all violet, orange, green and white, and the sounds, those driving beats, shimmering synths, and soaring-vibed guitar melodies, to be at one in this moment with the crowd, moving together as a single organism and hanging on every note as if this sound was nourishing the very fiber of their souls. And perhaps they were. To Zach, this all felt somehow sacred. Malora was babbling on and on in his ear about how Sam had turned into a shining, white wolf creature behind the piano. To Zach, he just looked beautiful, pounding away at the keys with rhythmic abandon and arching his back elegantly as he played on, his silhouette glowing against the trippy projections on the seemingly liquid-LED screens that served as a backdrop. She rambled on that Anthony had morphed into a multi-limbed Hindu god and that she couldn’t even look at him because he was really freaking her out  with his ability to send out gigantic love vibes with his guitar… and would you just look at Healy stealing faces and flailing away on the drums like a beast and Billy twiddling those knobs opening wormholes in space and Rob. . . he really made your feel that bass all the way down to the bottom of your soul like no other badass creature in the universe. Zach felt love wash over his entire being as the band veered a familiar melody into an achingly beautiful, uplifting jam. He kept riding the crest of the waves of the melody until all his grief, all his cares washed away from him. This felt like salvation. There was nothing left but joy and gratitude and appreciation. He was all ears and all heart. He felt the pleasant sensation of other human beings moving to the music with him. One body kept pressing itself against him in rhythmic sync to the epically danceable groove being laid down for them. This body belonged to a boy with glowing green eyes in a tie-dyed hoodie with a large lightning bolt patch sewn on the front. Zach smiled sweetly at him, and wordlessly they fell into a timeless hug.  Chest pressed tightly against chest, all that existed for them was each other and the music. It was pure, and it felt like magic.

“Thanks for the awesome hug, brother. My name’s Jerry, and I’m grateful I met you.  Have a great night.” He gently pulled away from Zach and danced off into the crowd.  

Zach thought about Jerry the Cat and was overcome with gratitude for the deep friendship they had shared. He thought about each beautiful soul in the crowd and how grateful he was to be sharing this moment with each one of them. He thought about his Dad and how he never really had the chance to know him beyond Saturday mornings spent watching cartoons on the couch together. He thought about his Mom and how she had found meaning and purpose all those Sundays and Wednesdays at the Continuing Church of God— and how much she had wanted Zach to find his meaning there as well. I just found mine in a different place, Mom. That’s all. I love you. He pulled Malora close to him and smiled just as the hauntingly spacey synth line of “We Can Always Come Back” began—  and it felt like a prayer. For Zach, it felt completely like grace.


Michael Tucker is working on degrees in English and Human Services at Hagerstown Community College. He enjoys live music, literary pursuits, and spending time with his partner, Tara, his daughter, Emily, and their menagerie of furry critters.