UR OE4O, by Peter Portelli
Photo by Alec Favale on Unsplash
My first thought was that I was still dreaming. But no, this is no dream. I really am standing alone on the side of a road. I’ve no idea how I got here. Even worse, I’ve no idea where "here" is.
The sun’s disappeared but it isn’t dark yet. I look to my right and then to my left. The road stretches in both directions. Do I walk? Do I sit down and wait? I check my pockets. No phone, no keys, no money. Nothing.
I try to remember how I ended up here. I think I was at a party. Yes, that’s it. I was at a party. With Jonas and his new date. Jonas had asked me if I wanted to tag along. I was the third wheel that quickly got unstuck. The rave was in a penthouse where, sadly for me, everyone was coupled up. I did what most people would do at a party when flying solo. I got plastered. Yeah, flashes of memories are returning. I was sussing out the late afternoon skyline and smashing those 5-star Mojitos. There might or might not have been a couple of pills involved too.
I’m not quite sure what happened after that. Jonas was meant to drop me home after the party but he must have found me worse for drink and dumped me here instead. What a wanker! He’s probably hiding here somewhere, laughing his head off.
I shout, “Hey dickhead, enough of this. Come on out. Take me home.”
My voice breaks the deadly silence. The last syllable fades away, replaced by an eerie quietness. The distinctive smell of desolation, which is neither good or bad but just dead, hangs in the air.
I dig my shoes into the loose reddish earth. There’s no tarmac on the road. He must have driven for miles to get to this place. I live and study in Adelaide, you see, as far away as possible from this back of beyond. I wouldn’t have it any other way. People look at me in horror when I say this but give me the polluted air of a city any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Cities make me feel alive. Country air gives me nothing but headaches. The rush of traffic, people with empty stares on their faces walking like robots to their workplaces, loud music, loud horns, loud noises … so much better than this sterile silence.
Who would want to live in a place like this? Before we moved Down Under, my father used to take us to visit our grandparents in Wales. How I hated those journeys through those endless stretches of roads with barely a house in sight. I used to be on edge the whole trip. What if the car breaks down? What if we steer off the road? We would be alone, stuck between two points. Which is exactly where I am now, in that dreaded spot between the "w" and "h" of nowhere.
I cup my hands against my mouth and scream at the top of my voice, “Jonas, stop jerking around. It’s getting late.” Nothing.
Where can he be hiding? There’s a field opposite with some ground-hugging shrubs, certainly not tall enough to hide the bugger. Bluish, silvery fog, like a mystical tsunami, is rolling over the ground. It reminds me of when my grandfather used to scare us with tales of the Old Grey King who sits on his mountain and comes down to snatch children who get lost on the bogs.
I walk a few paces up the road. My head hurts. I can feel a splitting headache coming on. It must have been one hell of a party. It always is when you can’t remember exactly what happened. Admittedly, this is not the first time it happened. I once woke up next to a naked stranger. Don’t laugh. If you ever find yourself in that position, pretend that you know their name, even if you don’t. I can tell you from experience that you’re kind of expected to, after having slept with them.
One of my hands is on my hip; the other is scratching my head. I look into the distance. Is that a dust cloud that I see? Yes! A car’s approaching. I stand as close as possible to the edge of the road. I don’t want the driver to miss me because of the rising fog. He might be the only passer-by before darkness sets in -- my only ride out of here.
My eyes immediately try to focus on the number plate. It is an instinctive reaction. I have this thing with number plates, especially personalized plates. I try to find the hidden meaning in that group of letters and numbers.
Sometimes, letters must be read as Roman numerals. A friend of mine bought a supercar after winning big at roulette. His number plate is XXIX BLK. Some numbers are interchangeable with letters. A 7 or a 4 can be an A. I saw a ‘777’ number plate once and wondered why anybody going to Alcoholics Anonymous would want to advertise it on his car. Mad, I’d say. Totally mad. Number 3 can be an E, and number 5 a S. The easiest one is, of course, the letter o which is often used as a 0 and vice-versa. But be careful: sometimes, the 0 is a D.
The car’s very close now. It’s a black 1963 Ford Consul Cortina. How do I know? My grandfather had one of those, same color and all. I can hear the gravel under the tires as it approaches, the same crunching noise followed by the rattling of the stones as they hit the underside of the car. It looks like the driver has seen me. He’s slowing down.
I look at the number plate and freeze. Cold sweat covers my body. Suddenly, everything becomes clear.
Peter Portelli is Maltese and calls the Mediterranean island of Malta his home. He is a career civil servant and writing has always been central to his professional life. For many years he thought about writing fiction but somehow never got around to it. Until recently. He started out writing short stories and flash fiction and, so far, his work has been published in The Chamber Magazine and Bright Flash Literary Review.
Hope Fool, by Matthew Pritt
Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash
In a prison filled to the brim with rotten men, I never found anybody rottener than the warden. Any warden could beat a man’s body, especially when he’s chained up, but Warden Tobias George could beat a man’s soul.
He had a reputation for being a tricky sonofabitch, so when he announced he was expanding the prison courtyard, we waited for the catch. He had one of the walls knocked down and even though we all knew it was a trap somehow, we couldn’t help but think about making our escapes. It looked so simple. Through the wall, two hundred yards over an empty field, and then into the woods. If we made it that far, we could hide.
It wasn’t that easy, though. We had to build the wall back up ourselves, working in a chain gang. Five of us together in shifts. Backbreaking work. Stone, mortar, stone, mortar, stone. All the while, freedom taunting us.
Bull ran on the very first day. The guard in the watch tower had dozed off, and Bull thought we could make it. He had his nickname for a reason. The four of the rest of us combined couldn’t have stopped him from running. Chained together at the ankle, we had to step as a team. We made it halfway to the tree line when Cobb stumbled and fell. He tripped me, and as soon as the chain on my other leg went taut, Bull lost his balance, taking Chambers and Beckett to the ground with him. We were just getting back to our feet when the warden rode up on his horse and shot Bull between the eyes.
I was surprised there wasn’t more blood, but Chambers said if you die quick, your heart stops pumping, and that’s that.
We thought the warden would cut Bull free, have us bury him under the wall we were building. Instead, we had to work around him. Laying stones while chained to a dead man is morbid work.
We kept on through the afternoon, long after the blood on Bull’s face had cracked and turned brown. Chambers and I had to drag Bull over every so often as we made progress. Chambers had the idea to slam a stone on top of the chain and try to break it, but I thought the sound might carry up to the guard tower. Instead, I set Bull up by some of the lowest stones and let his leg hang over. I figured he didn’t need his foot anymore.
It took about ten blows with the sharp edge of the stone. Beckett and Chambers were still chained to the dead man, but Cobb and I were free. I looked up at the watchtower and didn’t see any guard at all. Maybe he was on a break. Maybe he was on his way toward us. Either way, we had to get out now. I told Cobb to run.
Only, Cobb wasn’t so keen on the idea.
He said he had some powerful enemies out there and being in prison was the only thing keeping him safe. He said he tripped on purpose earlier and he’d do it again.
I brought the stone down on his skull. He didn’t even have a chance to cry out. I don’t know if he’d died completely yet, but I picked him up, slung him over my shoulder, and took off toward the tree line, praying no one followed.
My legs were burning from the strain, so as soon as I got into some cover, I stopped to catch my breath. Then, a revolver cocked behind my head.
“You know what happens to escaped convicts?” Warden George asked.
“Get it over with,” I said. “Shoot me.”
“Don’t think I will.”
I dropped Cobb and turned to face the warden. He lowered his gun.
“I think I’ll let you go,” he said.
“Hope is a mighty powerful weapon. Why do you think I took the wall down? If I let you go, then word gets out like wildfire. Everyone’ll hope they can be the next one to break out. All those prison dogs will be looking to make a run for it too, hoping to be like you. I can shoot any that try and I’ve always got an itch on my finger. Give a man hope and you can make him do the stupidest things.”
The warden reached into his jacket and pulled out a bottle of amber liquid and a slip of paper. “If you get caught, they’ll take you right back here and that hope dies. So don’t get caught. Deliver this whiskey to this address. Tell him I sent you. He’ll get you out of town first thing in the morning.” He hopped off his horse, gave me the bottle, and unlocked my chains, leaving Cobb on the ground. “You’re a free man.”
It seemed too good to be true, but I had to take him at his word. I waited until nightfall to sneak into town so my prison clothes wouldn’t be noticed. I finally found the address after an hour of searching and knocked gently on the door. A burly man opened and blinked at me.
I proffered him the bottle and said, “Warden George sent me.”
The man looked me over from head to toe, then ushered me inside.
“Why’d he let you go?” he asked after he shut the door.
“He said it was to give the other prisoners hope.”
“Why would he want that?”
“He said hope makes people do stupid things. Wanted to shoot some who followed me.”
“I’ll be damned. I owe that sonofabitch a hundred bucks.” The man threw his head back and laughed. “He really said that about hope? He ain’t lying. He bet me he could let a convict go free and still get him to turn himself in.”
My heart dropped.
He pulled a sheriff’s badge from his pocket.
“You poor, hopeful fool. You’re under arrest.”
Matthew Pritt is the author of The Supes, published by Future House. His work has been published by Dark Recesses Press, Dread Stone Press, and Cursed Morsels, among others. He is a member of the HWA and he lives in West Virginia with his five cats. You can see pictures of them on his Twitter @MatthewTPritt.
Remember Me Not, by Matthew Wiegand
Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash
The cemetery sat silent and desolate at the top of the dusty hill. The sun beamed down onto the faded and crumbling gravestones providing a constant slight erosion. The graveyard was unkempt, with patchy sage growing throughout the space. Many of the graves were unmarked, their memorials having crumbled or faded away into pebbles.
Nick handed the water bottle to Sarah. “Drink up,” he said, smiling at her.
“Thanks. This place is so cool don’t you think?” Sarah lifted the bottle to her lips to wash the dryness from her mouth. Nick looked around, breathing heavily from climbing the hill, but trying to conceal it from his girlfriend.
"Yeah, I guess. I mean, it's an old graveyard with, like, eight tombstones still standing. Barely," Nick said as he tapped a tilted tombstone with his canvas shoe tipping over a rock as he did so.
Sarah was so focused on the grave yard, she didn’t even glance at him. She slung around her camera, freshly purchased by her parents, and began snapping pictures.
"You have no imagination!" she said in between mechanical clicks. "Try to see it the way it was. Mining accidents, cholera, gunfights!"
"Yeah, the past sucked. You're right," Nick said. He stuffed his hands into his pockets, resisting the urge to pull out his phone to avoid being scolded. “This isn’t what I imagined when you said you wanted to come to the graveyard.”
Sarah continued to explore and kneel and click her camera. “This is the desert Nick. If nobody comes out and maintains the graves, the sun and the heat just eat it away to nothing. Ooo! Come look over here!" Sarah exclaimed as if she had just discovered a Christmas present hiding behind the tree.
Nick looked up to see his girlfriend crouching in front of a rusted gate encompassing three sides of a sun bleached and uneven hunk of rock that used to be a tombstone. One corner had fallen off years ago leaving behind jagged edges in the shape of a distorted crescent. Nobody had bothered to repair it. He walked up the broken trail and had to step on a few sagebrush bushes, as well as a few graves to get to her. There was no clear path.
Sarah stepped into the fenced area and hunched down in front of the grave. This was the only grave that was fenced in. Sarah wondered if the disarray of the cemetery was on purpose, or just the passage of time.
"Pierre Riddell," Sarah translated, squinting her eyes, and even touching the engraved letters. This grave was one of the very few that had been maintained, if only shoddily. "1848-1889. A Pioneer of the Golden West. Shot and killed in a land dispute. It is believed whiskey was involved," Sarah read from the plaque covered over in patina. "This is his picture. People looked different back in the day, you know?" The picture embedded in the greening copper plaque depicted a serious-looking man. He was tall and thin, and wearing an old black hat folded back to reveal his unkempt face.
"I feel like whiskey was involved in everything then," Nick said coming up to Sarah's side. "Pierre. Probably not a lot of Pierres around here." Nick pulled out his phone and took a picture of the plaque. “There we go. It’s almost five. The brewery should be opening soon. Want to grab a drink and get out of this-” Nick looked around at the cemetery, filled more with twisted sagebrush than dead people, “place?” He finished. His tone was light but slightly petulant. Like a teenager who bemoaned having to spend time with their family instead of their friends.
"This is history, love," Sarah said with enough force behind her voice to remind him that she would leave when she was damn well ready to leave.
Pierre Riddell desperately wished they would leave. He sat on the bench, dedicated to the memory of someone named Bob Hatch, and let his face slump into his hands. He invisibly watched the couple begin to argue, and step on and off his grave, bickering. The boy, named Nick, danced momentarily on it to prove that this entire thing was pointless. The girl, Sarah, yelled back at her husband. He was disrespecting Pierre's grave. Pierre didn't care about any of it, to be frank. He stopped caring about that nearly ninety years ago. He had seen this whole act play out before.
“I don’t even know why I go along with you on these stupid day trips. They are pointless,” Nick yelled. He stopped resisting his impulses and checked to see if his recent social media post had gotten any attention.
Pierre slumped on the bench. “You’re right, Nick. You should leave,” Pierre said without looking up. Deflated hopelessness sounded in his voice like his existence was a record stuck skipping for eternity. As if every day were the same day spent inside the world’s most boring DMV.
“All you ever want to do is sit on your phone and get into fights online. Who will want to sleep with someone who’s idea of social justice is liking something on the internet? You can be so aggravating,” Sarah said.
“She makes a good argument Nick. I know I wouldn’t want to sleep with you. You should go. See the world,” Pierre said to nobody in particular.
Sarah started back down the hill, walking under the arch that had the word "Cemetery" sliced out of the center. She called back to Nick, "Let's just go. Sorry I ever try to do anything," she said not bothering to turn her head. Pierre sat alone on Bob Hatch's bench, and sighed, head bowed in defeat. He finally lifted his head, and then stood. He dusted himself off and headed into town, praying that he wouldn't be summoned back to his grave site today.
It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was heading for its slumber behind the formidable, but not quite mighty Sierras. Pierre headed up the main street, Shepard Street, which looked more like the Shepard Street from his time than a modern main street in an insignificant California town. The sidewalks were laid wooden planks that had bent and twisted with time. They were made to look a hundred years old, but they were only installed sometime in the '90s. Exact dates were difficult for Pierre. He walked past the half dozen volunteer daytime actors who played at being cowboys and ladies in fluffy dresses or skimpy corsets for the more risque of them. Shepardville's only homeless person who owned a donkey and sold pictures to tourists for donations was coughing wet and loud in an alley. His mule, patiently waiting for her next carrot. Pierre walked unnoticed by them all. Not that he felt like talking to any of them anyway.
He walked into Salvatore's Saloon. It was a saloon to Pierre, but to everyone else, it was the "Shepardsville Museum of the Old West", dedicated to the preservation of town history and legend. It was mostly bullshit, filled with fake props and fake memories. Selling to retirees the dream of the west that came to them from the movies they watched as kids. The saloon supplied a hub for those without substance to congregate. Pierre walked through the door, literally, to not much fanfare. There were nearly thirty faces in the museum, all here to hopefully find a friend to spend a small but monotonous fraction of eternity with. Most of the faces were ones that Pierre was very familiar with, but there were some newer folks that he hadn't yet gotten around to memorizing, and there were always a few non-corporeals that would pop in just to say hello, stay awhile and share a drink.
"Hiya Mr. Riddelle," Said the Salvatore behind the bar. Pierre saw him as an old-timey western bartender with greased hair parted down the middle and a curly upturned mustache but others saw him the way they imagined a bartender would be. Sal was different for everyone. One thing Pierre Riddelle had not counted on when he woke up dead one evening was that there were more than just ghosts in the afterlife, if that is what you could call this anyway. There were spirits, energies, wisps, feelings, magics, cosmic beings, ideas, and things that simply defied labels. They all appeared in a very unromantic fashion. They all existed together, mostly minding their own business, and not giving a damn about anyone else's.
"Hello, Sal," Pierre said, and then sitting at the bar.
“The usual?” Sal said. Pierre just grunted. Sal wasn’t named Salvatore, he wasn’t named anything, really. Sal wasn’t the ghost of the previous owner Salvatore Bertollini. He was a hospitality spirit. His purpose was to serve, listen, and provide kindness and respite for all those who seek it. Standing behind the bar and passing out refreshment however unofficially granted him the moniker of Sal. “Good day?” Sal said pouring Pierre a double whiskey.
"Average," replied Pierre. He threw back the whiskey and winced, coughed a little, and then pushed his glass forward for another.
“How many?” Sal asked, not even bothering to cork the bottle again.
“Two couples. One old. One young, and one goth.”
“I love goths. They are so sweet. So dedicated to your kind,” Sal said, as pleasant as a spring breeze. He didn’t get angry. He didn’t get flustered or embarrassed. He didn’t hate or even get annoyed. Every action Salvatore the bartender took was caring, considerate, and kind. Pierre often found himself jealous of the spirit.
"They are idiots," Pierre said, now sipping at his whiskey unflinching. "It's damned hot outside and they are wearing all that black and leather. Kids these days," Pierre said.
“Pierre!” a booming voice called from the heart of the saloon. Pierre sighed and twisted in his chair. He saw a tall man, mustached, with a crooked smile and a silver tooth walking over to him. Pierre raised his glass.
"Howdy Shepard," Pierre said.
Andrew Shepard was the town's founder and was the only deceased person residing in the area to take a real interest in the town's well being. He attended council meetings, looked over books, and even endorsed political candidates in elections. Not that anyone living ever knew it.
“Pierre, you husk! What a day we had! Stop acting like a corpse and celebrate! The town was booming!” Shepard said, and he slapped Pierre on the back. The liquid in Pierre’s glass tilted and wobbled but did not spill. Pierre wondered if alcohol ever spilled here, and why he had never noticed it before.
"I'm happy for your town, Shep," Pierre said. Shepard scoffed.
“Our town! It’s our town, my boy! Yours and mine and theirs.” Shepard lifted his beer mug and saluted the other manifestations that were hanging about the saloon.
"The town. I'm happy for the town," Pierre corrected. He wanted to ignore Shepard. He wanted to brood in peace until he was good and drunk, and only then would he consider interaction with Shepard.
"Oh, I guess you're in one of your moods eh Pierre? Well, when you are feeling more cheerful come over and share a drink with us!" Shepard said and he turned and marched back to his table. Sitting there were two other human ghosts, Angus McLark and Rupert RunningDeer. Two people who Pierre knew everything there was to know about having talked with them again and again for over a century. There was also a shade. Just a shadow of a thing, shuffling cards and smoking a cartoonishly large cigar.
Pierre turned back to the bar and laid his head down over his arm. With his other hand, he began flicking his glass trying to get the whiskey inside to gently slip over the top when someone new walked in. It was a woman; her black hair was short and parted to the side. She filled out her jeans that had a few rips in them and had a tee-shirt with some kind of horse silhouette on it, and checkered red shoes. This woman was attractive, nervous, and confused.
“Ah. A fresh one,” Said Salvatore. “Come in. Come in my dear. Welcome to Salvatore’s! We have everything you could want. Mostly strong drinks, but there is also Pac-Man!” Salvatore pointed to the Pac-Man machine in the corner. The woman inched towards the bar.
“I think I am lost. You see I-” Salvatore cut her off. Warm smile drawn like a gun at high noon.
"We know dear. You died and then arose, confused and lost. Don't worry. We know. Everyone in here has experienced the same thing."
Shepard shouted for more drinks at his table, and Salvatore acknowledged him. He put out his hand over the bar and squeezed the new girl's arm gently. The girl gave a grin, surrendered, and sat at the bar. Only Sal's kind could make someone so comfortable so soon after death.
“You’re okay,” he breathed, “This is just what happens. Here, meet Pierre. He’ll explain things,” Salvatore said and then he turned and whipped up four frothy beer mugs seemingly out of thin air and walked over to Shepard’s table.
Pierre eyed the girl. She was looking around as if she expected to wake up from a dream.
“Is… is this heaven or hell or limbo or…” She trailed off.
“Uh, yes to all I guess Ms.?”
"Margaret. Margaret Crane," She said.
"Pleased to meet you. I'm Pierre Riddelle. Murder victim and pioneer hero of the golden west," Pierre said sardonically. "I'm guessing you are wondering why you are here and not surrounded by clouds and angels and whatnot."
“I’m not that religious but yes,” Margaret said, calming down a little, “also, why am I dressed like- I haven’t dressed like this in years.”
“That’s too bad,” Pierre said. “You look nice. It’s a little hard to explain. This,” Pierre gestured to all of Margaret, “must be a combination of how you see yourself and who you are. Your most true form. It’s a subconscious thing, you can’t really control it.”
Margaret nodded and her eyes wandered. Pierre smiled at her and threw back the remainder of his liquor. He smacked his lips and inhaled with satisfaction.
“You must have been a decent person. People who aren’t decent come back as... well, nothing good.” Pierre had learned not to burden the recently deceased with too much of the more graphic sides of being dead.
Sal was once again behind the bar and came over to fill Pierre's glass. "You should have something," Pierre said. "It helps."
Margaret thought, trying to recall what she had done in bars before. Trying to remember herself. “I don’t suppose you have a Guinness back there do you?” She said.
Salvatore smiled, "Miss, we have everything you want. One Guinness coming up!" He chimed. He turned and within a second he had in his hand a frosted glass, filled with black liquid, and a frothy top. "Here you go," Sal said and he placed the drink in front of Margaret.
"Do I pay? Or…" Margaret said, tapping her pockets looking for a wallet or purse.
“No ma’am. It’s just what I do. Happy to serve.”
"Cheers," said Pierre, raising his whiskey. Margaret joined him. Pierre sipped and let out a breath of satisfaction. Margaret raised the dark beer to her lips and didn't stop until the entire thing had disappeared. Pierre smiled and nodded in respectful acknowledgment. It looked like Margaret took a moment to take in and register the feeling of the beer as it slid down her throat and into her stomach, like it was a new sensation. She gulped it down, and let out a breath of satisfaction. "It's been two years since I had a drink," Margaret said, she wiped her chin with her arm.
“Another?” Sal said from down the bar. Margaret looked at Sal who was serving what looked like some kind of cloud.
"Please," Margaret said, trying not to stare. "So this is death," she said.
"Who knows," Pierre said back. He turned and looked at the patrons who were lounging about. Some happy, some sad, some lonely, some surrounded by others, but still lonely, except for maybe Shepard. "This is the next step, and where this leads nobody in here can tell you, or they won't," Pierre said, shooting his eyes to Salvatore who raised his hands in a noncombatant fashion and went back to filling drinks.
“So, do all dead people end up here or…?” Margaret asked.
“Not all. Barely anyone shows up here in our little hamlet. I’m guessing you died here in town?”
Margaret nodded. "My grandparents had a home here and the family kept it. I used to come here as a kid. When the chemo wasn't having an effect anymore, I told my husband I wanted to come here. Be around the memories. The last thing I remember I was watching the water flow by in the river and thinking how peaceful everything was and I swear I could smell my grandmother's cookies."
Pierre frowned and nodded. “Cancer. That’s a rough one. Makes me thankful mine was quick. Pretty instant actually. Bullet through the heart.” He opened his coat and tapped his chest. Margaret leaned in a little, and then laughed softly.
“I was half expecting-”
"A bullet hole? You'd be surprised how common that thought is. No, we are not tattooed with our deaths. Thank god," Pierre said.
Silence covered them. Margaret looked around, pretending not to notice. Even in the hereafter, the difficulties of conversation remained. Pierre took a breath and launched into it.
“So you want to know what is going on,” Margaret nodded. Not eagerly, but more like a patient nodding to the nurse when they call out your name in the waiting room. “The quick version is you are remembered. Somebody here in town remembers you. If you are remembered, you aren’t dead. You aren’t alive for sure, but you aren’t dead. You are just here. You die, proper die, when you are forgotten. When nobody thinks about you, you move on. Until then, you end up wherever you are remembered.”
Pierre raised two fingers to Sal who raised his eyebrows in acknowledgment. "I imagine you will travel fairly soon. A few days probably." Sal arrived with the refill of Margaret's beer and a topper for the whiskey. She took a sip and nodded.
“How long until I move on to- wherever it is we go?” Margaret asked. Pierre shrugged.
“That all depends. Got kids?” Margaret shook her head. “Well, you’ll move on quicker then. A few decades maybe. Off and on. You aren’t just floating above all the people who ever knew you. You only come back when you are being thought about, and for most of us, that is intermittent. Where were you before you died?” Pierre asked.
Margaret sipped her beer. “Sacramento. I’m an attorney. I mean, I was. You?”
“Oh, a little of this and a little of that. General drifter. Until I died. Now my occupation is town legend and belligerent spook.” A boom of laughter came from Shepard’s table and Margaret turned to look. Shepard was gyrating up and down with giggles as were Runningdeer and McLark. The shade did not seem amused, but then again, they never did.
"So Pierre, who is remembering you?" Margaret asked, her eyebrows raised. It impressed Pierre. Most people didn't take to death that quickly. Most people rejected the concept or attempt to escape back to life somehow. He had seen the recently departed jump back into their corpses as if trying to jump the battery in their car. Recently dead who had taken a long time to die though, they were the ones that took to the afterlife more comfortably.
“Me?” Pierre clarified, “Tourists. Edgy teenagers. Goths. The town council. Nobody I ever knew. I don’t know who it was who came up with the idea that they should visit graveyards for entertainment purposes, but here we are. It’s funny, when the town was healthy and booming I was only called up a few times over the years. I didn’t have a lot of relationships in life.” Pierre sipped his whiskey. “Then the town started dying. They needed a reason to get people here, to spend their money, you know. So they turned it into ‘The West’. Propped it up to look like a John Ford western movie and my shooting became a local town legend. A picture of me hangs in the visitor’s center, and the graveyard is one of our jewels of tourism.” Pierre shook his head, disbelievingly. “So, now, in this new millennium, people come up to my plot, read my name, read my story on a bronze plaque donated by the town, and then I show up.”
Margaret had finished her second beer now. She placed the glass in front of her indicating the urge for more.
“You know films?” Margaret asked, surprised.
"I may have died in the 1800s but I don't live there. Well, you know what I mean. I can go to anyone's house I like when I’m around. There are a few film buffs here in town that I frequent. Used to even go to the theater, back when we had one. There are also books. Art, it turns out, has a soul. Don’t know why Pac-Man is here though. Still figuring that one out."
Margaret laughed a sweet, soft, and beautiful laugh. “Well, limbo is better than expected. Do you like it? Death I mean?” She asked. Pierre took in a slow breath searching for the appropriate words.
"I will say there are those who have it worse than me so that in itself is a kindness but," Pierre paused searching for the words to say, "This whole thing," Pierre motioned his drink in his hand to the saloon. Ghosts and spirits and things that anyone would have trouble believing, socialized, and drank and passed the evening as if it were the most normal night in the world. "This thing is a dream that I can't seem to wake up from. Not a nightmare mind you, I'm thankful I'm not covered in boils or anything like that, but not a pleasant dream. You don't feel it now, but you will, an urge to move on. A need to wander. Every day though I find myself stuck here in this eddy of an afterlife. It's not bad, but it's not life," Pierre finished. He threw back his drink and winced slightly.
They went on like that for hours. Margaret was full of questions, mostly about the misnomers of the old west, and Pierre asked her about her law practice, and how Sacramento was getting along. He had been there a few times in life and once in death, but not recently. They laughed and got to tell their stories to each other. Pierre was pleased to have a conversation, and Margaret was pleased to have a conversation that had nothing to do with her health, her disease, or her “strength” that people seemed to point out with every interaction she had with them.
Sunset had come and gone and the moon and stars shined down on the small town of Shepardsville. Most of the tourists had either returned to their cities within a few hours drive or had retired for the evening to their quaint B and B’s. Only the karaoke bar was still blasting out signs of life, but there were not too many people. The air was cool and crisp, it felt like putting your feet up after a hard day's work. Salvatore had made sure the drinks stayed filled and Pierre and Margaret laughed and smiled and grew warm as the mountain air around them grew cold.
Pierre looked at Margaret. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t babbling about husbands or boyfriends or achievements not quite finished. She was someone that he would have liked to know in life. Someone strong.
“Are there places we can go?” Margaret said. Pierre’s eyebrows shot up. “To rest I mean. I don’t want to have to spend the night in the morgue.”
Pierre shook his head with a smirk, “There are always plenty of empty hotel rooms, and if they fill up, they have beds in their basements and there are a few ‘the way it was’ bedrooms in the museums. Do you feel tired?” He asked.
"No," Margaret said. Pierre nodded. Margaret took her beer in her hand and drank. "I have spent the last two years dying Pierre. Compared to that, this may as well be heaven." She looked at him now. Looking at him as if he were a person again. Alive again. It was a moment. A genuine moment of something with substance. "Pierre, thank you for- for easing me into all of this." She reached out her hand and took his. Pierre tightened his fingers anxiously at first but then loosened them. It had been a long time since he had made any real connection with anyone. Pierre's chest tightened and now he was gripping Margaret's hand tight too. She felt warm and soft and alive. "Do you think you can show me where I can pass some time Pierre? You've been so kind." Her eyes sparkled green. Tonight was a gift and Pierre hadn't received a gift in a very long time. Margaret said, "If you want you can-"
Pierre blinked his eyes. He was outside. Under the stars. Back in the graveyard. Standing on his plot. Looking down at three teenagers, wearing black shawls, and black coats, with black candles lit, passing a black pipe between them and reeking of marijuana.
"Oh Pierre Riddelle," girlish voices chanted, "We feel your anguish. We feel your pain. We know how you suffer. We are here to free you of your torment." One girl began a strange high pitch moan which sounded like the babbling of an infant.
"Oh god damn it! Dammit! You little goth shits!" Pierre yelled to the trio who could not hear him.
“Sam, get the board,” one girl said.
“No! Not a stupid Ouija board. No. No. No.” Pierre yelled at them, to no effect.
“Tabby has it,” said the girl. “Tabby, get it out. It’s almost midnight.”
“Right. Sorry,” apologized Tabby, rummaging through her backpack. Pierre sprinted down cemetery hill, darting back to town when he blinked and was back at his plot.
“Shit on me!” He screamed. “Shiiiiiiit!” He bellowed up to the stars and the heavens and anyone who may be watching.
“Oh Pierre Riddelle, show us how we may aid your soul and help you onto the great beyond,” said the third girl, who Pierre knew as Tracy. This was not the first time the trio had met like this.
"Come on, put your hands on it," Tracy said to the other two.
Pierre got down into Tabitha's face, "Oh, you want me to show you huh?" He grunted. "Here." With significant effort and force of will, Pierre moved the lens of the Ouija board. Moving things in the living world was exhausting, but it could be done if you had the experience. Pierre moved the lens over the letter F.
“You guys! It’s working!” Samantha squealed.
“Shhh. Let him talk to us.”
Pierre moved the lens over the letter U.
“I can feel him you guys! He is here!”
"Samantha, shut up and focus," said Tabitha. Pierre began to move the lens to the next letter when like always, one girl took over, and moved to an unintended letter, easily overpowering him. Eventually, the girls ended up with the letters F-U-L-P-T-Y until they started accusing each other of moving the lens and ruining their whole "like thing".
Pierre eventually sat back on the “In memory of Bob Hatch” bench and buried his face into his hands again. The girls kept at it for three hours. Chanting Pierre’s name and mistaking every gust and crack of twigs for a communique from beyond the grave. By the time Pierre made it back to Salvatore’s the sun was peeking over the Sierras.
Salvatore greeted Pierre with an empathetic smile. “Where is she?” Pierre pleaded.
"She's gone, my friend. About an hour and a half ago. Guessing the truck headed back to her hometown for… you know." Salvatore said, cleaning the bar spot Pierre occupied.
Pierre wanted to scream. He wanted to kick over bar stools, throw tables and jump out of windows. After a moment though, he just slumped over the bar, slid a stool underneath him, and dropped his head in defeat.
“She was nice Pierre. Real nice,” Sal said. Pierre didn’t look up. “I explained to her what was probably happening. Who was it anyway?”
Pierre spoke without looking up. “The Werner sisters again.”
Sal chortled. "Those three? I think they have a crush on you. Anyway, she left you a note." Pierre lifted his head enough for Salvatore to slide the paper down in front of his face.
It read: “Pierre, thank you for your time, and your kindness. In case I don’t get to see you again I wanted to say that all dreams end. Until mine does, I’ll be thinking of you.”
“Need a drink?” Salvatore asked, bottle ready to pour. “Yes, but I’ll hold out for now. Think I’ll take a walk. Maybe along the river. Keep it warm for me though. I’ll be back,” Pierre said.
"I know you will," Salvatore said as Pierre walked out of the saloon, literally through the door. The morning had arrived, and the retired dentists masquerading as bikers were mounting up, the coffee was being poured, and the town of Shepardsville prepared to once again welcome the coming guests to their small piece of the Old West.
Matthew Wiegand is a Middle School Reading teacher in Reno Nevada. He also performs stand up comedy in the Sierra Nevada area. He has two daughters and a very cool wife.
Just Passing Through, by Joe Kilgore
Photo by FETHI BOUHAOUCHINE ☑ on Uns
Some say a hot dry wind blew him into town along with the dust and detritus of a typical August afternoon. No one claimed to know him or his history, and he was not one to divulge information voluntarily. He carried no valise, backpack, or other visual means of travel, yet his worn and rumpled clothing told a story of time on the road. Where had he come from? Where was he going? Why was he here? All questions without answers the first time he took a stool at Dooley’s Diner and ordered coffee, black, no sugar.
The waitress tried to make conversation without employing interrogatives, a difficult challenge at best. There’s only so much that can be said about weather that isn’t bad, acquaintances that aren’t shared, and current events that have long since stopped being current. But such is the plight of a tired hash slinger hoping to turn a cup of java into a piece of pie, a hamburger, or any kind of food whatsoever that might result in a bigger tip. When she held up the pot, a single nod of his head indicated acceptance of a refill.
Over the span of a human life there are very few times individuals are actually thought of as mysterious. Being a stranger in a small town is one of those times. He didn’t seem to revel however in his temporary status. Rather, he just sat quietly drinking his coffee as if he had nothing better to do. In point of fact though, he did, and he would soon get on with his business in his own time and in his own way. The other customers at Dooley’s elected to conjure their own particular visions of this new arrival’s raison d’être. Their mental depictions were completely personal and not based on anything other than boredom and limited imaginations. You couldn’t blame them though. Little of import ever really happened within their quiet hamlet’s city limits, and speculation injected at least some measure of variety into one uneventful day after another.
Coffee finished and back outside now, he ambled along the sidewalk with his right hand stuffed in his trouser pocket while his left cradled a burning cigarette. Behind him, the deputy sheriff’s squad car crept along like a slow loris on the trail of an ant. The man behind the wheel harbored the illusion that the stranger might flick the coffin nail away, thereby providing an opportunity to confront him with the village’s ongoing commitment to keep it’s streets free of unsightly litter. Of course, that would also create an opening to demand, then view the interloper’s driver’s license or other means of identification. It just didn’t do to have someone in town that the law was not familiar with—knowledge, as everyone knows, being power. But the stranger thwarted the lawman’s plan when, without looking at his stalker, he took a last long drag, stubbed the fire-end out on a post, and dropped the potentially offending butt into his jacket pocket. An educated man might have chalked the spoiled scheme up to Robert Burns’ frequently quoted admonition about best laid plans, but the deputy was not now, nor had he ever been, on a first name basis with the romantic poets.
Park benches are known to inherently possess Siren songs. They lure passersby with a promise of quiet respite. The stranger was no exception and took a seat facing the largest edifice on the town square. It was, as is the case in many counties, the courthouse. There’s something majestic about these architectural icons to law and order that go beyond their often Romanesque appearance. Perhaps it’s because their historically European exteriors frequently mask the decidedly down-home justice that is metered out amid the columns and parapets. A certain percentage of the population would probably argue that injustice is a better description of what goes on within such hallowed halls, but then differences of opinion are what makes the world go round. And though law is supposed to be the counterweight for that old profundity that might makes right, it’s well documented that lawmakers almost always have a lot more might on their side than lawbreakers. That particular inequality was in fact the very reason the quiet stranger found himself taking up space on the filigreed bench mere steps away from the local government’s house of guilt, innocence, and whatever existed between those moral absolutes.
This particular day being the Sabbath, there were a few gawkers strolling along the sidewalk that surrounded the courthouse, but there were none entering and leaving as its doors were locked tight. The stranger was content to wile away the hours on the aforementioned bench appearing to simply smoke and gaze. In reality, he was mentally rehearsing plans he had developed while physically swinging a scythe as a non-volunteer member of one of the county’s many day labor chain gangs. Hard work was the key to rehabilitation they had told him and as usual they were full of shit. Hard work, he learned from sun up to sun down, was the key to aching muscles, weight loss, plus an unceasing appetite for protein and revenge.
A look back at history would show that he consumed too many beers when he previously passed through this burg on his way to what would have been a new job a couple of years ago. And the plate glass window he had thrown the rock through simply presented too appealing a target to a fun-loving fellow well-oiled with multiple longnecks. Little could he have known that the presiding judge would view his unseemly behavior as attempted robbery rather than vandalism under the influence—resulting in an extended sentence that cost him, to his way of thinking, a job, freedom, and potentially any kind of future that didn’t tie his name to the sobriquet, ex-con. Even now he still gave at least some thought to foregoing his long simmering plan for retaliation, but try as he would, he just couldn’t get over the feeling that the punishment dealt him had far exceeded his crime.
The sweltering day eventually graduated to muggy night, and the stranger had remained in his location long enough to watch the lights go out in all the square’s establishments. There were no longer any couples strolling hand in hand or families with dogs wandering about. If one can truly be alone in the middle of an environment designed for many, he felt he was. It was time to act.
Slipping on a pair of gloves he had folded and stuffed into each back pocket prior to his arrival, he rose and began to walk to the rear of the courthouse. There, he found windows at the bottom of the building indicating a basement within. Balling his right hand into a fist, he punched out the glass and listened for a possible alarm. Had he heard one, he’d quickly be on his way, assuming fate was advising against his desire for retribution. There was only silence. So he decided the gods were on his side. Slithering through the open space he had created, he indeed found himself in a basement storage room. The angle of the moon provided enough light for him to find the door. He opened it and slowly ascended the staircase to the main floor. From there, it was easy for him to find the ornate courtroom where he had been sentenced to two years hard labor. Taking some measure of self-satisfaction in his accomplishments thus far, he strode leisurely to the elevated bench and took a seat in the very chair where his prejudicial punishment had been handed down. The trappings of power bordered the center of the judges throne. A wooden mallet, used to call the proceedings to order was on the left. On the right, stood a pitcher of water and a glass still half full. They must have been in a hurry to get away for the weekend, he mused, before beginning the final stage of his plan.
From the left inside pocket of his jacket, he removed a single stick of dynamite. From the right, a lengthy fuse. Carefully, he attached the fuse to the explosive, leaving it more than long enough to give him time to retrace his previous steps and vacate the premises before it opened a crater in, as he saw it, this hall of infamy. Removing a small box of matches from the pocket of his pants, he took one last look at what would soon be shards and ashes. Then he lit the fuse and placed the dynamite on the floor beneath the center of the bench. As he stood to leave, he took a second look at the gavel. Why not, he decided. A souvenir of his payback. Scooping it up, he turned quickly to begin his exit. When he did, the gavel in his hand knocked the pitcher off the bench. Screw it, he said to himself, the fuse was still burning and it was definitely time to depart.
The stranger bolted from the courtroom, hurried down the stairs, and dashed back into the storage room. As he was hurriedly making his escape, he had no way of knowing that the water seeping from the overturned pitcher had made its way to the dynamite and puddled just enough to drown the flame. He also had no way of knowing that when he broke the window to get in, he didn’t hear an alarm because the county had installed one of those new-fangled silent ones.
Crawling out of the window he was immediately bathed in the glow from the deputy’s spotlight affixed to the fender of his car. Such was the stranger’s surprise, coupled with his assumed need to flee an impending explosion, that he gave no thought to the gavel still in his hand. The deputy however, did. He assumed it was a weapon in the paw of a criminal. And as remarked earlier, while the lawman had little literary expertise, he was extremely adept with the inner workings, operation, and use of his 30 ought 6 Springfield rifle. Only one shot was needed.
Big events in small towns tend to have long lifespans. It was quite a while before the citizenry stopped talking about the explosion that never happened, the stranger no one could put a name to, and the deputy who surprisingly retired soon after the incident. But eventually, the episode and its participants were seldom spoken of, and only infrequently recollected. Such is the nature of life on this particular planet we inhabit, where in reality, we’re all just passing through.
Joe Kilgore is an award-winning writer of novels, novellas, screenplays and short stories. He lives and writes in Austin, TX. You can read more about Joe and his work at his website: JoeKilgore.Com
Paranormal Blues, by Jack Adler
Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash
I was suddenly conscious of a faintly grey presence only a few feet away from me that was sliding through the hallway as I sat at my desk. I stared in disbelief. I was about to speak as if the apparition could hear let alone respond, but then it disappeared. I say “it” as I sensed the figure was female. Why, I don’t know. Nothing like this had ever happened to be before. I thought paranormal occurrences were possible, but I didn’t believe they were common-or that I would ever be affected. Indeed, after a few moments of surprise, I resumed work on my computer.
The following day, around the same time in the morning, an even more astonishing thing happened. I saw the shape of a slightly familiar looking dog marching throughout the hallway. We’ve had several dogs as pets whose memories we treasured. He looked so real that I wanted to reach out and pet him or her. Unlike the other presence I didn’t have any sense of gender. But the immediate reality of the sight was even more striking than the human apparition.
I didn’t recognize the “woman” or the “dog.” But why did they appear? Did their presence reveal some momentous development? Was I being forewarned? Or had I become a way-station on some paranormal trail? But it was easy, I realized, to invent all sorts of theories and possibilities, one more absurd than another. Assuming I had been visited by paranormal beings, human and canine, how did I know that I wasn’t just a random instance of their appearance? Why was I special?
Against my better judgment I decided to relate these two visual experiences to my wife, Jane, and our 15 year old son, Ned.
I thought they’d share the mystery of these dual appearances with me. Not so.
“Did she have any expression on her face?” Jane asked, not unreasonably.
“Did she have a face?” Ned immediately cracked, bringing a smile to Jane’s face.
“Why are you making fun? I saw what I saw.”
Jane nodded. “Of course. But you’ve been working very hard. It could be just a …
I don’t know ...a ….”
“Figment of my imagination?” I reacted with indignation. My account, no matter how unusual or fantastic, should be treated with more respect. I taught history at a community college. I was busy marking papers and other activities, and I was a bit tired, especially my eyes. But I was hardly overworked. I was lucid, observant, and totally rational.
“Come on, Dad,” Ned argued, “a woman and a dog! She wasn’t walking the dog, was she?”
Ned laughed and Jane resisted a spreading smile.
“Well, I didn’t expect to be made fun of. I won’t bother you with any more spectral sightings.”
“Steve,” Jane said, “don’t be insulted. We believe you.”
“Sure, Dad. We were just joshing you.”
Joshing, indeed! But I smiled nonetheless, wondering if the figures, especially the woman, would reappear. And hoping they would.
But there was no return. I felt foolish staring at the hallway at the same times each morning the next few days and being disappointed on a daily basis. I was actually pining for a second paranormal experience. Naturally, I kept this bizarre lookout to myself to avoid any further embarrassment. I could easily envision such other questions as:
Do you think the figure is of a former girlfriend?
What do you think her name was?
What’s the position of her hands? Is she pleading?
Was the dog wagging his tail? Did he have a collar?
I’d be a target, a marked man even to my family, if I opened my mouth again. But there was no diminution of my belief in what I saw. I didn’t imagine anything. Even if these fleeting figures never reappeared visions of them were fixed in my mind.
We had some friends over for dinner on a Saturday night, two couples we knew well. Just a small gathering. I don’t know how the conversation turned from politics to exploration of space with all the ultra-powerful telescopes and then to what creatures might be found on planets yet to be seen.
“They could be composed of anything, not flesh and blood like us,” Jeff mused. He was an executive at an insurance company.
“Even invisible, like paranormal beings,” Eve, his wife, a part time interior decorator, conjectured.
I couldn’t help myself. My face, I knew, had turned one shade redder. Jane winced. Obviously, she had shared a confidence with Eve, one of her best friends. But it seemed Jeff, her husband, didn’t have a clue how her comment involved me. Nor did the other couple, Doug and Doris, who both worked in the entertainment field. But I still felt betrayed and embarrassed.
Suddenly, a feeling of strange calm came over me. My normal pallor returned. I glanced confidently at the others. There, before us all, was a slim, barely visible shape of a woman.
“Don’t go!” I shouted at the diaphanous body. I leaped forward as if I could actually put my hand on her. But hands on what? There was was nothing but air. Everyone was staring at me as if I were insane but I didn’t care. Whoever it was, and whatever it was, had returned. Perhaps willed to do so by my firm belief? Vouchsafing my perceptions, my very integrity. Could I summon a paranormal in this method? Was I so gifted? A discovery none too late at the age of 42.
But the gathering ended. Not my fault. After the others left, embarrassed at what they had seen and not knowing its significance, Jane came over and comforted me.
“The doctor will know what to do,” she said, touching my forehead as if mere fever could explain my stunning paranormal epiphany.
“So will I,” I said with supreme confidence.
Jack Adler is a Los Angeles-based author and editor.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
The scorching heat from the sun was unbearable, the blue sky cloudless, the few green leaved acacia trees distantly dotted around far away from the over trodden narrow path, making it difficult to even entertain the thought of going to seek shade from under them. The twenty kilometer journey was proving to be near impossible for the three ladies walking one behind the other on this path.
They were all in their forties, the youngest and less talkative being anything between forty and forty two. Madhuve, the oldest, was doing much of the talking. She was tall, dark, a bit heavy around the waist, with chilling eyes that twinkled when she stared at you; you could tell that during her young age days, she had been a very strong woman. Masivanda, the second oldest, spoke here and there, mostly just nodding her head in agreement with Madhuve. She walked with a slight limp, and, according to her, she had tripped and fallen while running away from an angry charging bull from their village. She was slender, good looking and avoided looking people in the eye for reasons best known to herself. Stembile was the youngest. She was light in complexion and very beautiful. Her body and curves left many men drooling, some even walked into walls, trees and sometimes ditches while staring at her. She barely spoke, just listened to the others talk, occasionally laughing at something funny said by Madhuve. They were all married.
They had started this journey just before sunrise and hoped to arrive at their destination before sunset, but as they looked at the horizon ahead of them, with the sun just a few moments from touching it, they knew they would not make it today. They were going to attend a passover; a church event that happened once every year. The church leaders this time had decided to hold it very far from their village, but since they were devoted christians, they could not miss it.
The heat of the day had caused them to use up all their water and they knew that sooner or later they would have to find some. Since this was in the rural area, homesteads were within a few kilometers from each other and villagers did not mind sharing their water, or even food. It was also going to be a moonless night and walking in the dark, without seeing where one's foot was going, would not be a good idea. Snakes hunt at night and you don't want to step on one, especially puff adders that tend to just freeze when they sense danger. Hyenas, even though presumed timid, were talked about a lot in these villages. They were nocturnal because of the enmity between them and humans, and staring back at one, on a pitch black night like this one would be a terrifying experience. The ladies would have to find a home to seek shelter for the night and proceed the next morning. They could also use a hot meal, and, knocking on someone's door, way before dinner, was the wise thing to do, otherwise they would only be given somewhere to sleep for the night, a thought that was not pleasant at all.
As they walked on, hoping to set foot in a village soon, they listened to songs from the evening birds, that seemed to celebrate yet another day lived amid near misses from slingshot yielding village boys; yes, having stiff porridge (sadza) accompanied by a roasted bird was an achievement, a complete meal in every boy's dream. With one small roasted bird, two to three boys could finish two kgs of parlenta (sadza).
"Wait a minute," Madhuve said, excitedly, stopping, and, signalling the others to do the same. "I think I heard something, like people singing. Doesn't sound too far away."
"I hear them too." Masivanda spoke, her head craned to one side as if to catch the sound waves. "Sounds like some funeral songs. Oh yes, it's coming from over there, by that hill." She was pointing at what seemed like a glowing fire about two or so kilometers to their left.
The darkness was getting thicker and they could hear their own footsteps quite clearly. All birds had stopped singing and all that could be heard were frogs making their loud croaking noises; the males' deep loud distinctive croaks could be heard coming from different spots as they tried harder and harder to lure the females over for some romantic moments. A few fireflies could be seen floating all around them.
Now, when Masivanda mentioned the funeral, she and Madhuve exchanged glances that filled Stembile with fear. She had never seen anything like it. Their eyes had glowed for a moment and their long tongues had simultaneously slid out of their mouths and given their lips a chilling swab. Braving herself, Stembile started walking. "Maybe we can go over there and ask for shelter and food, am sure there must be a path brunching off this one not far ahead of us, oh yes, there it is." She increased her pace, her heart pounding. She hoped the other two could not hear it. All she wanted was not to be with these two alone in this darkness. She had no idea what was wrong with them but a cold stream of sweat running down the small of her back told her there was something sinister about them. All the stories she had heard in the village of ghosts and witches, and had brushed aside as mare myths, started flooding her head. Her mind was racing as she remembered Madhuve's response to her food statement.
"Yes, food! Funerals have lots of food, particularly meat. Yes, meat, am craving meat tonight, bloody raw..." Masivanda had given her a nasty nudge, stopping her in mid sentence. She had noticed Stembile 's terrified look. "Shut up." She had loudly whispered to her.
As they drew nearer to the home, they were relieved to see a lot of people, some singing and dancing to a rhythmic traditional drum bit that somebody, whoever that was, surely knew how to put together. This was happening around one big fire while some others just sat around another small one, chatting in low tones.
African funerals can be so much fun; people just do not sit or stand around looking sad and all, they break into song and dance; they share jokes, with some even imitating the deceased's behavior while they were still alive. The only time everyone is really sad and concerned is when they have just heard the news, or a few moments after someone's death; a few minutes after that, it is time to comfort and get the close members of the family to divert their attention from mourning all the time.
Even none relatives attend funerals and am sure most of them just for the entertainment, plus, of course, meat. On almost every funeral, a cow is slain and this does not happen often in any African village. Meat is eaten at very important functions only, such as weddings, funerals, anniversaries, memorials, and, on Christmas day. It is very common for a group of African women going to a funeral to be chatting excitedly, laughing, doing hi fives until they are close to the home, when suddenly they give off a cacophony of wails, screams and sobs, with some even going an extra mile by staggering and finally collapsing, falling short of passing out.
A dog barked at them from somewhere behind the main house, but a small teenage boy silenced it with some kind of a whistle tune.
"May we be welcome in your home, Papa?" Masivanda politely spoke, clapping her hands together, a thing villagers do as a sign of respect when entering someone's yard. An old man of around seventy years had appeared from the direction of what seemed like a chicken run and noticed them.
"Sure." The white haired old man responded, approaching them. "You are welcome. It's not a very pleasant day of course with the funeral and all but, as you can see, there is lots of people here from all over, please feel free to join."
He showed them where to sit. A young lady offered them some food and water and they accepted without hesitation. They told them their story and that they where happy to finally sit comfortably for the first time since before sunrise. Soft moans could be heard coming from one of the round huts surrounding the fire, and, Stembile could not hold back her own tears as she felt the pain the mourners felt.
An elderly lady sitting close to them started sobbing too, uncontrollably. She spoke with a shaking voice that was filled with emotion. "He was only twenty, oh Lord, why why why?"
Two young ladies wearing sarongs came up to her and put their arms around her shoulders, murmuring soft words of comfort. Her sobs subsided but the pain could still be seen in her eyes, and this was too much to take for Stembile who was using the color of her dress to wipe her own tears. She looked at her friends. They did not seem a bit moved by what was going on and she had to fight hard to clear her memory of what she had, or thought she had seen early on. She got into some small talk with the other ladies who were sitting by the fire. At least the home owners were happy to offer them accommodation for the night. What did not stop bothering Stembile was how her two friends kept looking at each other in a weird way, glancing at their wrist watches as if they were worried about time. Their minds seemed so far away from here, and, at this point, she knew she should not have come on this journey. Regrettably, it was too late.
As the night wore on, the singing and dancing intensified- beautiful round-assed middle aged women displayed their worldly possessions without fear or remorse, in the most entertaining erotic of ways. They took turns entering center stage to outperform each other, their hips and waistlines vibrating in a way no one had ever seen before. This was their one of very few chances to show off their moves without fear of being judged, demonized or condemned by the so-called holier than holy. At funerals anything went and if you had a problem with it, you were free to up and leave, no one cared a brass farthing. At some point, Stembile was tempted to join in but shyness got the best of her. While contemplating this, she had not noticed Madhuve and Masivanda getting up and disappearing into the dark behind one of the huts. Suddenly anxious, she looked around, her eyes searching all around the fire but to no avail. She wanted to ask one of the ladies there to help her look for her friends but realized she may have just been overreacting. What if they had just gone to answer the call of nature? What if they had gone to retire in one of the houses? Not wanting to embarrass herself, she settled back down and diverted her attention back to the entertainment. A few moments later, when she instinctively turned her head towards where her friends had been, her heart skipped a bit. They were back, sitting there, staring at her with glaring eyes that seemed to speak a horrifying language. They had that, 'what the hell' look in them that sent shivers down her spine. It was as if they had never left. She couldn't hold their stare, instead, she decided it was time to go to bed.
She rose and went into one of the huts closest to the fire. A lot of other women lay on their sides on the floor; a few were snoring and someone mumbled something in their sleep. She found herself a small gape enough to wiggle her slim body in and was fast asleep in no time at all; last thing she remembered was her praying silently to God that those two would not follow her here.
As if Stembile's departure from the fire had been their queue, Madhuve and Masivanda exchanged knowing looks, then Madhuve surreptitiously opened her small hand bag, reached in and took out something that looked like a small woolen sachet, stuffed with a substance only known to themselves. She looked around to make sure none were watching before casually tossing it into the fire. A tiny spiral of smoke rose from the burning sachet into the air and disappeared without anyone noticing.
A few moments later, one by one, people around the fire started yawning and falling asleep. The singing and dancing around the other fire started to slowly subside until every single one of the singers and dancers could not keep their eyes open. Within a few minutes, silence replaced all the noise and only a few hee, hees from an awl somewhere in the trees nearby could be heard amid the snoring all over the yard. A happy black smith lapwing flew overhead, letting you a loud clack clack sound, before disappearing into the dark. For Madhuve and Masivanda, it was time to act. They had four hours before sunrise and that was more than enough time. They both seemed to transform into super humans that could float just above the ground. They went into the hut in which Stembile was sleeping, found her and stood above her.
Madhuve leaned over, slapped Stembile lightly on the face and when she snapped her eyes open, recognizing them, Madhuve waved her open hand three times from side to side above her face and suddenly, Stembile found herself getting up and, following them outside with a blank look about her face. She had been hypnotized by Madhuve's hand and started to enjoy their company as they floated in the direction of the termite mound, behind which a fresh grave awaited them.
Stembile would later remember feeling light headed and amazed by the fact that she could just float through the air, her feet barely touching the ground; how it felt so cool to be able to see all the way across the fields as if a big light had been switched on and placed over the whole area; how, like a helicopter, she had the lift, drop, forward thrust and reverse without using her feet, just her invisible wings.
At the grave site were several graves, some of them very old with only an old granite tombstone sticking up, probably belonging to some ancestors, and a couple of others could have been anything between one and many years old. They were not interested in those ones, their sights were on the freshly built one, one without a tombstone yet. While Stembile watched in ewe, Madhuve pulled out from under her dress, some kind of a leather whip, went to stand at the head of the grave and gave it a hard smack, while mumbling some words Stembile memorized. Masivanda stood by the foot of the grave, whistling softly, her eyes sparkling. The top of the grave opened up like sliding doors and revealed nothing but chilling darkness inside. Performing some kind of a ritual dance, with their arms flailing, Madhuve and Masivanda circled the grave twice before Madhuve walked up to Stembile and handed her the whip.
In an echoing, hoarse voice, she said. "You wait out here and stand guard, just before light, do what I just did to open the restaurant up, so we can come out. Understood?"
Stembile just nodded, a distant tingling sensation crawling up the back of her neck into the back of her head. The two disappeared into the grave and it closed up again. Later, Stembile would vaguely recall going to sit on the grave, burying her head between her drawn up knees, before everything went blank.
Early morning birds singing woke her up with a start, wondering where she was. The rising sun's rays blinded her and she had to hold her open hand just above the eyes to see a big crowd of astonished people staring at her from a good thirty yards away, their eyes wide with horror. She looked around herself and shot to her feet, stepping away from the grave. The people staring at her were angry but also confused. They were saying something she could not make out. She opened her mouth to say something but nothing came out. Her knees buckled and she collapsed on to the ground, suddenly aware of what was going on. She had been sitting on a grave, for how long, she had no idea; why, she could not comprehend. The crowd slowly and cautiously approached her. Terror gripped her as she watched them edge closer and closer through her long braids that hung loosely over her eyes. Some were carrying long whips, some knobkerries and some, long curly ropes. This told her they had seen her a while back, gone back to gang up and come back to deliver mob justice. It is customary in many African tribes to visit a fresh grave early the next day just to make sure it has not been tempered with. How could she get out of this, how had she gotten here in the first place? All these unanswered questions flooded her head as she tried to recall.
The crowd stopped about ten yards away and one elder came closer and stood above her. He was not carrying any weapon but his eyes were red with anger. His chest was rising and falling as he struggled to rein in his rage. Stembile recognized him. She had seen him before. Wait a minute, from last night. He was the elder that had welcomed them.. them. What, them? She and who? Then, suddenly her memory came back, and so did her voice and sanity. The funeral, the food, drinks, the song and dance, the fire. Where were her friends, Madhuve and Masivanda? Had these people hurt them in some way? Was this a man-eating tribe? She could not bear the thought of being devoured alive by these hungry looking people. She had to run away from here. She felt cornered like a wounded animal. Her only weapon maybe anger.
Then on top of her voice, she screamed, "Where are my friends! Where are they?" She was now up on her feet, looking around frantically.
The old man 's anger immediately turned into concern. With a soft voice that was barely audible, he spoke.
"Young lady, are you okay? Do you understand where you are and how you got here?"
"I am okay," she screamed, stomping her feet against the hard ground. "Where are my friends, what did you do to them? " She broke down and started sobbing loudly through short deep breaths.
Someone in the crowd screamed, "Witch! Let's deal with her!" Everyone else joined in and instantly, it was a chorus of, "Whip the witch! Human eater! Whip the witch! Human eater!" They were now surrounding her and raising and waving their weapons, waiting for the old man to give them the thumbs up. The old man did not. Instead, he reached out his hand and carefully led Stembile through the crowd towards a big loquat tree about twenty yards from the grave. He sat her down and gave her enough time to calm down. Someone from the crowd ran up to them, holding some kind of leather whip. "Uncle, uncle," he shouted, "ask her if this is hers."
Stembile gave one look at the whip and before the old man could say anything, she got up and took it out of the man's hand. Suddenly it all started coming back. Her friends' weird looks, the waving hand in her face, the floating to the termite mound, the...she started walking slowly towards the grave, the whip held firmly in both her hands. Everybody's gaze followed her until she stopped at the head of the grave. She raised the whip above her head and paused.. something occurred to her just before she brought it down onto the grave.
Her face twisted into a raging grin as she processed what the two ladies had subjected her to..this humiliation, the embarrassment, the fear. How would the world view her now? A witch from Nengoma Village? How would her family, friends, relatives react to this news? How would her husband regard her upon hearing this?
An avenging spirit was fast engulfing her. She thought deep, tears rolling down her chicks, and, with all her might, she brought the whip down onto the grave and a shattering noise echoed through the hills close by. Nothing happened.
Stembile realized she had forgotten the words Madhuve had spoken while slamming the whip hard against the grave, and, without saying them, the grave would remain closed. She told the chief and his people what had happened until she got to the opening of the grave part, then stopped and, crying softly, she said she could not remember the rest; only that the other two women were definitely down there feeding on the dead young man's body, and since this was taboo in this village, and, digging up a grave for whatever reason was not something allowed, everyone chose to believe her story and agreed to let her go. Back at her village, when she narrated her story, no one believed her, they brushed her aside and advised her to see the village traditional doctor, because, surely, she was losing it.
In Chamba village, where the unthinkable happened, there is talk of people hearing knocking sounds coming from deep in the grave, heard whenever they pass by at night. Nobody has ever had the nerve to stop and listen carefully. Some even claim to have heard pleading voices begging to be let out; it's been twenty years now.
But, hey, that's not what happened. Repeating Madhuve's exact words, Stembile smacked the grave again, circled it twice and all of a sudden, a strong whirlwind came out of nowhere, kicking up debris, sand and dust. Everyone closed their eyes until it passed, and when they opened them, they were horrified by what they saw. Two scary looking women were standing in front of the grave, their lips, hands and dresses covered in blood- some of it trickling down their arms. They just stood there, their eyes almost popping out of their skulls. They seemed powerless, confused, frightened and unable to move. The villagers on the other hand were equally mesmerized. Some collapsed to the ground, some had run off into the hills. Everyone was trembling except for the old man who stared back at the two ladies. He seemed to wait for a particular moment to say something or make a move. The two ladies looked at each other, at their bloody hands and understood. Their faces changed immediately from being horrifying to being afraid, ashamed and vulnerable. Simultaneously, they dropped to their knees and buried their heads in their hands, waiting for what they knew was coming.
Without anyone saying anything, the crowd moved in on them and started whipping them.
Realizing what was happening, and what would happen if he did not stop the crowd, the old men muscled through to the center where the witches lay groaning and screaming in pain and pushed away the crowd, shouting on top of his voice. "Stop stop stop! You gonna kill them and then what? Let's take them to the chief and he will deal with them according to our laws!"
Someone shouted, "kill them, the chief will just pardon them! Kill the witches, kill the human eaters!"
"No no no!" The old man insisted and after a few moments of silence, the crowd dispersed. The three ladies were taken to the chief 's house where they were locked up in a cattle kraal, waiting for elders from their village, whom the chief had sent his aids to summon, to arrive.
The old man, who at this moment could not hold back his tears, approached the kraal and spoke to the ladies with a raspy, trembling voice filled with agony, "You have no shame. I let you into my home, feed you and give you shelter and you pay me back by feeding on my grandson? Really? May the Lord punish you with the most extreme curse imaginable."
He swung around and weakly staggered back to his house.
A few hours later, when their elders arrived, after a long agitated debate, they were released after the two who had actually gone into the grave agreed to pay a fine of ten cows each. Stembile was pardoned since she had just been a victim of circumstances.
Now, I could end this story here. Yes, don't you think it would be a good ending? Something like, Stembile realized she had forgotten the words spoken by Madhuve to open the grave and without saying them, it would not open.
Lesley Mukwacha is an African storyteller who has been leading and guiding international tourists around Africa for over a decade, sharing with them his real life experiences in the safari industry, together with fictitious stories of his around campfires, and, would like to share these stories with the rest of the world. He currently lives in Zimbabwe but moves around a lot throughout Africa.
Watch Bobby Fly, by Joshua Greenleaf
Floating Baby - https://bit.ly/3W5Wh5j
When Mrs. Donna Wills went to her baby’s room to check on her one-year-old son, he was floating above the crib, in a standing position looking down at her. She rushed to him, grabbed him and held him close. “I must be hallucinating. He couldn’t have been floating in the air…but he was,” she said and put her son back in his crib. Immediately, he rose up, she grabbed him, and, as she did, her husband came home, and she hurried down to meet him.
“Hi, Donna,” he said and kissed her. “How’s my family?” He took Bobby and held him. “How’s my boy?”
“Arnie, I want to show you something.”
“What’s that, honey?”
“Put Bobby down.”
“Okay. There y’ go Bobby,” he said and put him on the floor. “Watch Bobby.” As he watched, Bobby rose up, went into a standing position, smiled, gurgled, and went to his father, who held him. “Donna, what…? Uh, let ‘s go sit down before I fall down,” he said and they went into the living room. “This is unbelievable.”
“I think we should take him to the…the…God, who would know about this?”
“Let’s start with Dr. Jones. He might know what to do?”
Donna was sitting with Bobby on her lap when Dr. Jones entered the examination room. “Hi, Arnie, Donna. What’s up with Bobby?”
“I’ll show you,” Donna said and put Bobby on the floor. Bobby gurgled, rose up and went to Dr. Jones, who held him.
“I…I don’t believe it. How does he do that?”
“We don’t know, Dr. Jones, but we hoped you might know?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t. The university has a para psychology department. I would go there.”
At the university, they demonstrated Bobby to a psychiatrist/parapsychologist, Dr. Mason. “Well, Mr. and Mrs. Wills, this is an amazing phenomenon. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I can’t imagine how or why your baby can fly. We deal with paranormal activity. If you thought your house was haunted we would investigate, but…uh, I’m sorry. I don’t know what to tell you about Bobby.”
“Well, thank you for your time, Dr. Mason,” Arnie said, and they left.
The Wills' sat in their car in silence for several minutes. “I guess we’ll have to hope he grows out of it as he gets older. What else can we do?” Donna said, and they went home.
As Bobby grew older, he didn’t grow out of it; he was still flying, and the Wills could never let him out of their site. They imagined that he would fly out of their reach. When he was five, he was able to control his flying, but Donna home-schooled him to be sure he had controlled his flying. Bobby learned so fast that she had difficulty keeping up with him. By the time he was eight, he was speaking Spanish and Russian fluently, and, by the time he was twelve, he was immersed in physics. The Wills thought he was probably a genius, so when Bobby was fifteen, they sent him to an acclaimed private school. His teachers all agreed that they could not teach him anything because intellectually he was far above them, so he was sent to a university. By the time he was twenty, he had earned two doctorates and became known as a brilliant physicist. His peers admitted that they had difficulty understanding his theories.
When he was with his mother and father, he felt like a stranger. He felt that he wasn’t in the right place, but he couldn’t define what the right place was. When he was thirty, he was given his own laboratory at a major university and a place to live on campus. No one bothered him. He sat alone for hours and produced hundreds of scholarly papers, and, as time went by, his body changed. Each hand grew a sixth finger, his arms and legs became shorter, and he shrunk to four feet. A four-inch antenna grew over each eye, his brain grew, and his skull grew to accommodate his growing brain. No one had seen Bobby in a year, so no one knew how he had changed.
The scientific community contacted the president of the university to request that he ask Bobby to give a lecture. The president contacted Bobby, who agreed, providing the lecture be held just outside the door of his apartment. His conditions were met and the day arrived. The greatest minds had gathered to listen to Bobby, and the time came. His apartment door opened, and he stepped out not looking at his audience, and went to his podium. There was a gasp from his listeners as they witnessed what they couldn’t imagine, someone who didn’t look human.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the scientific community, for several years, I have been changing and I have become what you see. For several years, I have felt like a stranger here on your planet. In fact, I am a stranger on your planet. I know now that I am from a distant planet where my brilliance is common. You have tried to understand my theories, but you could not because I and my kind are superior, and you are inferior. From the time I was a baby, I flew. No one knew how or why. Now, I know why. Look up. You can see an object. That is the vehicle that will take me home. It will not land; I will fly to it, and after I fly to it, your inferior planet and all life on it will disappear. We have decided that there is no justification for you to exist. Goodbye,” he said and flew like a bullet to the ship. The second he disappeared from sight, the earth exploded and the particles that were once earth, flew into a million directions.
While teaching communication skills and writing at a community college, Mr. Greenleaf wrote short stories and plays. Since retiring in 2000, he has written short stories, novellas, and plays. Latest publisher: Once Upon A Crocodile.
Savior, by Scott Craven
New Mexico's Very Large Array Radio Telescope
Debra lost count of the hours, days … weeks? Two things she knew: her restraints were looser and the stories more depraved.
Oh, and that she is probably going to die when this is all over. If you ask her, it’s a shitty way to treat a savior. Or, as they refer to her, The Savior.
Debra sits in a cold barren room on a sturdy wooden chair, one that had sucked the feeling from her butt within the first hour. She listens to them one by one, each story worse than the first. Not just stories, though. Confessions. She is a sin sponge, absorbing their transgressions and granting them absolution, an act that will – as she’s been told time and time again – to save the world.
She shifts to restore blood flow to at least one butt cheek, but it only aggravates the pain in her back. Debra focuses on her current confessor, as if she can concentrate the discomfort away.
“So, I continue to have sex with Toby even though I know it’s an abomination,” he says while wringing his hands.
Though Debra’s she is to say nothing until the forgiveness phase, she can’t let this one pass. What are they going to do, kill her? Yes.
She shifts again, levels her gaze at eyes that reveal a hollowness behind them. “Homosexuality,” she says, pausing a half beat, “is not an abomination.”
“Oh, I know,” the man nods. “Toby is my neighbor’s dog.”
He is followed by another and another and another, each in shapeless gray sweatsuits purchased at a thrift store’s going-out-of-business sale.
Debra remembers nothing between the accident and waking up shackled to a bed, her head throbbing and her ribcage feeling as if being squeezed by a giant nutcracker. The details over the next few days remain fuzzy, but all comes into brutal clarity with the first visit of Valkronus, surely not her birth name unless her parents knew she was destined to lead a cult.
Debra’s arrival, as if she’d had a choice in the matter, was no accident, but destiny (though Debra would come to believe it was more kidnapping than anything else). Valkronus went on to spell out Debra’s duties for the next hours, days … weeks? Those pursuing moral awakening and blessed enlightenment would sit across from Debra and divulge their deepest (and as it turned out, depraved) secrets. Debra, in turn, was to listen in silence, speaking only at the end to offer forgiveness’ and absolution.
“We do this not to save ourselves,” Valkronus said, voice dripping with grave concern, “but the world, as we have done for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”
Valkronus, a frail woman whose billowy sweatsuit suggested she could be carried off in a slight breeze, placed two fingers under Debra’s chin, their gazes meeting. “This is your duty as The Savior, and The Saviors before you.”
How many, Debra wonders, sat on this same chair in the same featureless room listening to the same degenerates mistaking hostages for saviors?
Another enters. Debra recognizes her as the woman ordered to feed Debra, emptying the bed pan as needed. She reaches into the memory haze for a name. Esmandia? Delvania? Something like that, if not more ridiculous. Wrinkles crease a forehead framed by graying brown hair. A round, soft face shows none of the anxiety of Debra’s previous visitors.
“Forgive us Savior, for we have sinned,” she starts.
Us, we? Debra thinks. For the first time, a confessor has her complete attention.
“I’m sorry for the way you’ve been treated,” the woman continues. “It’s time to atone for our greatest sin.”
In a dramatic fashion, the woman pulls off her sweats to reveal jeans and a white “I (heart) SF.” She goes to work on the restraints, Debra feeling the blood rush back into her hands. She stands but the world tilts. Debra stumbles backward, preparing for impact just as hands grip her elbows, hoisting her back to vertical. Her vision clears, revealing a second person, the one still holding her upright. He’s young, no more than thirty. His expression seems to be one of sympathy, a look Debra never thought she would see again.
“We’re getting you out of here,” he says.
“Why?” The question crosses Debra’s lips before she even knows she’s asking it. She doesn’t trust anyone, especially those who want to help her.
“Because it’s time this came to an end,” he says.
He steers her toward the door. “I’m Eric, by the way, formerly known as Osvalder. You know Bess as Marvanya.” Noticing Debra’s hesitation, he adds, “I know you have a million questions. Unfortunately, we don’t have time for answers. If you want to live, you’ll follow us.”
“They’re going to kill me, then,” Debra says.
“Yes,” Bess says, holding the door open. “Burned alive, to be exact, which happens to every sixth Savior.”
“How many have there been?” Debra asks.
“Enough to save the planet,” Bess says. “Too many,” Eric says at the same time.
Sandwiched by her two (maybe) rescuers, Debra rushes down one hallway after another before bursting through a door and into the cold night air. She briefly wonders what time it is, only because time hadn’t mattered for days.
They race through a maze of alleys, Debra keeping up because it’s the only thing she can think of doing. Every step away from the chair and its restraints was a step closer to freedom. She has to believe that if she is to cling to hope.
A door opens and Debra stumbles into a room identical to the one she left, this one without a chair but with a window high on the opposite wall, which casts a moonlit square in the middle of a concrete floor.
“They’re close,” Bess says. “I can feel them.”
“How much longer?” Eric says, nodding toward Bess’s wrist. She looks at her watch. “Sixteen minutes.”
“According to the Book of The Prophecy,” Eric says, sounding to Debra as if a challenge.
“Exactly. And as long as they believe it, that’s all that matters. We just have to-“
Shouts echo outside. Debra has no idea how far away they are, but she they make those sixteen minutes an eternity.
“What the hell is going on?” Debra manages to say. “Who are you people and what does a book have to do with anything?”
Bess and Eric exchange glances. “She deserves to know, especially if …” Eric trails off, Debra hardly needing to read his mind to know where he was going.
“Fine,” Bess says, taking a seat on the cold concrete. Debra and Eric do the same. “Welcome to the Sacrificial Order of Divine Perpetuity, keeping the world alive one death spectacle at a time. Every few months, at a specific time outlined in the Book of Prophecies, we kill someone by various and rotating means. You were to be burned alive.”
“That is fucking crazy,” Debra says.
“Yet perfectly logical to everyone’s who’s witnessed a sacrifice and woken up the next day, sun shining,” Bess says. “Small price to pay to save the planet, right? Until the day they take your brother” (she looks at Eric) “or your mother. Because just maybe they don’t believe as strong as they should.”
“But if you miss a sacrifice and the sun still rises, it ends,” Bess says. She looks at her watch. “Eleven minutes from now, with another five minutes built in to adjust for any errant timing, all this come crumbling down.”
Seconds tick as shouts approach. By the time the door is broken down, the three are surrounded by the absolved, it is too late.
Bess smiles at Debra. “You’re free,” she says. “So are we.”
The report comes up on a computer terminal rarely checked by the handful of astronomers whose days are filled with coffee and boredom.
The intern taps a few keys, double-checks the results. It’s significant enough to bring to one of the more sympathetic researchers.
“A solar ejection,” the scientist says. “Unusual given the age of the star, so catalog it-“
“That’s not the most unusual thing about this,” the intern says. “That system has, well, several planets, can’t remember exactly. But only one that’s inhabitable. And that ejection? Wiped it out, as if aiming at it.”
“Nice catch, young lady. Exceptional work. How did you find it?”
“For some reason, I had an urge to check the Deep Exploration Base Radio Array. There it was.
“Funny, I thought we’d taken DEBRA offline. Anyway, write it up the notes so we can present them tomorrow.”
“But I’m off tomorrow.”
“Finish them when you return to the office then. It’s a fascinating discovery but hardly worth sacrificing your free time.”
Scott Craven is a former journalist with more than forty years in the newspaper business, spending his retirement to spill a few stories of his own. He recently placed a twisted tale, “Gone Fishin’,” with Dread Imaginings. On the lighter side, Scott's middle-grade trilogy “Dead Jed: Adventures of a Middle School Zombie” was originally published by Month9Books and Blackstone Audio. The first book was optioned for a TV movie by Nickelodeon.
Lemons and Lippers, by Thomas M. McDade
United Talent Inc. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22732661
Conway Twitty impersonator Kirk Jensen worked the lounges. The Prospect Pike was his home base. He was so damned good that some said he must have bargained his soul. “The man injects his entire being into his Vegas worthy performance,” wrote a reviewer for The Beacon Peek, a free monthly. Jensen covered all of Conway’s tunes but didn’t open with the biggie “It’s Only Make Believe.” Fan chanting eased it out of him about halfway through a show to riotous applause. He was often teased and tested by some wise-ass screaming for an obscure number but no one could stump Jensen and that just added to the furor of more than one heckler. Who could place blame? Dates would sneak glances at him when they should have had their eyes closed, lips whispering into ears or planting kisses instead of humming along with Jensen. No disputing he was a handsome guy, 6-3 and slim, blond curly hair and full lips he often slowly licked at song pause as if sharpening his tongue to better phrase the next line. A dental tech leaked he’d spent a bundle capping his teeth. He used the microphone dramatically as a hammer, knife, or pointer to slash at a woman to make her feel chosen but only a dame new to a lounge fell for it. Jensen’s girlfriend Margo was ever on the lookout to ensure that Jensen went home with her. She was reputed to be a tough one, fists and feet. A reliable source reported that Jensen only hooked up with her because he thought she looked like Cher, with glistening black hair and front teeth that tilted inward. It was Jensen’s dream to sing duets with the star as she did with Sonny, “I Got You Babe” in particular but he was a realist. He thought Margo would do and she got off on the right foot, often dressing as Cher did in the movie Chastity, sleeveless mauve blouse and tight brown slacks. Margo held off auditioning and when she did Jensen found she couldn’t sing worth a shit but it was too late. He was in too deep. They were business partners as well as lovers. “Potty Trained” was a septic tank emptying service. The truck was pink as Pepto Bismol and the root of many a chuckle. Another joke was that Margo wasn’t built like a brick shithouse.
Mark Roland was a regular at the Lounge, music night or not. He fancied himself a songwriter. He wore a goatee and sometimes a beret. A front tooth was deadened grey. No publisher, singer or musician ever bothered to comment word one about his efforts. He managed to get what he considered his “top six” to Jensen via a one-armed bartender named Victor. Roland drifted from job to job for a purpose that was likely unique. He was depositing experience in a creativity bank. He believed that the best songs are born of hands-on doing and they could fit folk, rock or pop formats. Before this revelation, he’d been trying to get his lyrics by mixing up the clues in the daily newspaper crossword puzzle. His songs were for the blue and no collar workers everywhere he relentlessly preached so the bar stools next to him were usually empty. When he overheard someone describe him as “a piece of work,’ he took it as a compliment. Roland had been taking guitar lessons for two years but hadn’t gotten beyond strumming.
Margo returned the “big six.” She’d dug them out of the trash. She didn’t spill that news. Roland’s work ethic intrigued her. She’d been a job hopper for a good while. She told Roland about her short order cooking, construction gigs and exercising thoroughbreds at N.E. Country Fairs among others. He was amazed and certain he’d found a kindred spirit. She thought Roland was no dumbbell but he’d stumble on many primrose paths before the grave. She swore, right hand in the air that she saw promise in a couple. A landscaping song called “Balling Trees in Star Fields,” and one about driving forklifts titled, “Blades and Pallets.” “Balling is a wonderful word,” she said. Roland nodded shyly. She asked to hold onto them for a bit longer. He agreed. Roland would have fallen for Margo even if she hadn’t given him hope plus he was worried about her. Her nose was a tad off center and that signaled to Roland that Jensen had once Sunday punched her.
When Margo told Roland about the Cher connection, he imagined himself singing “What Now My Love” with her, alone and naked. He shared that, leaving out the skin part. “I Got You Babe” was a sappy piece he thought. She’d waltz with him occasionally and sexy talk parts of his two lucky songs.
Balling trees in star fields
Is a lusty phrase to choose
But a mind slips and yields
Shoveling spring earth loose
Lift man seeking sweet elevation
After a lunch of shots and chasers
Casual laborer sensing exploitation
Blades slam into pinewood spaces
Her voice carried him off the dance floor and delivered him to his brief stint at High-Green Landscaping where he often laid in a field of fir trees after busting his ass making a root ball to wrap in burlap, secured by penny nails. He associated the trees with the heavens more than Christmas. To him, each one was a triangular star point same as he drew them when he was a kid. Margo could sense his spirit was elsewhere. She’d blow in his ear. When she was treating him to the forklift lines he’d return at Crawford Glass where he’d driven one. He recalled nearly toppling it off the loading dock when distracted by a beautiful braless college girl working in the office for the summer. Five pieces of special order trapezoid-shaped glass fell and was smashed into diamonds. The college girl, Becky, held her face with both hands, and looked horrified before giving him a quick smile. She picked up two fitting pieces and held one to each ear. Roland put Margo’s head on Becky’s shoulders. After the set, he told her about the heavenly trees. She suggested “Constellation” for a title. He bought her a pair of star earrings. She offered “Spacey Pinewood” for the fork lift song. He bought her pine potpourri made in Maine.
A couple of nights later, while they were dancing to Al Martino's “Spanish Eyes,” Margo’s hand came deliciously close to his zipper. He imagined making love to her in star fields in Madrid. He wanted to feed the jukebox more quarters but she lured him to the bar offering to buy him his favorite drink, a Brandy Alexander. “A lady’s drink,” muttered Victor. She confessed she’d merged the two songs into one. She’d found an incense band called Lemons and Lippers that was interested in trying out the eight-line combination. Eight was their favorite digit. Eight Ball’s Ass was the group’s former name. She assured him they wouldn’t change a word, just include in some magical repetition for starters. She gave him their card, “Lepers” was crossed out and “Lippers” added by hand.
Balling trees in starry fields
Forker seeks higher elevation
A lusty phrase is his to choose
A lunch of shots and chasers
A mind slips and easily yields
Casual labor knows exploitation
Shoveling slim earthworms loose
Blades slam into pinewood spaces
Margo took Roland to meet the L & L group at the abandoned Cinch Tape Measure Factory that once manufactured 2-foot miniature models that companies used for promotions. The place smelled of punk sticks used to light fireworks. A light bulb flashed their music style in his head. The leader was a skinny girl maybe early twenties. She wore jeans, greasy and baggy, anchored by a rope belt. Alicka was barefoot. What looked like a daisy petal graced each toenail. She couldn’t have been more than 5 feet tall. Her hair was an off-center Mohawk. She was button-nosed and there was a red mark highlighting a piercing that must have been recent: a gold cross with claws on the vertical and horizontal ends. Her lips were canary yellow. Her eyebrows were missing. There was netting across her blouse. She wore no bra. Two lemons were embroidered above. When Margo introduced Roland, Alicka said, “No, Roll-In.” She tugged gently on his goatee. She strummed and banged her palm on her ukulele and sang “Roll-into my heart and soul, then deeper sink” about thirty times. She yelled more than sang Roland thought. She tweaked his cheek. When she caught him sneaking peeks at her breasts, she growled, “Lemon sized and proud.” Roland surprised himself by saying, “I wasn’t thinking of a defective auto.” She made Vroom noises. The drummer moved in back of her and pulled the blouse taut for an instant. He was bright-eyed and his lips were the color of mustard. He looked about 14 and his set could have come from a dumpster. The snare skin was ripped. He sat down and did a drum roll and tipped his Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap. “I’m Cloutfield,” he said. He had a high forehead and widely spaced peepers. The third member wore an egg-yolky day glow vest that looked homemade, harmonicas sticking out of 6 pockets. He stood about six-five. Tattooed on the length of his left arm was AFGHANISTAN in a striking red with a smoky gray background. What Vet would allow a color tied up with cowardice? His smile was a toothy showcase. He wore horn-rimmed glasses that lacked lenses. He blew a few train whistles. Just one yellow dot lit his fleshy upper and lower lip. He wore an engineer's cap that he removed, and spun around on a finger. His brown hair was streaked with grey. “I’m Loco-motive,” he announced. His eyebrows needed mowing. Alicka pulled a Clinch from her pocket and measured Roland’s chest and then from his belt to his crotch. “Hmm, I found a wealth of punk dimensions,” she said and they broke into the “Balling Blades” song. Margo had left the title up to them. Mark Roland was on the top of their jaundiced world. A pumpkin-hued cat named Lassie rubbed a cheek against his left shin. Alicka put on a cape of the same color.
Day after he was introduced to the L&L group, Roland picked up his ratty, pale blue, acne rusted VW Bug at Sheehan’s garage and put twenty bucks down on the valve job it sorely needed. Sheehan did his usual cursing, “Goddam Nazi cars!” Roland’s new job was at a refrigeration plant where Supermarkets stored hams and turkeys in preparation for holiday demand. It took about twenty minutes to realize he’d made a big mistake. He was freezing his ass off. He should have bought some long underwear. During coffee breaks he managed to write down some song lines. It was a chore to keep a steady pen. He wished they’d put him on a forklift to get some heat under his butt but a beginner pushed a broom. There might have been a longer eight hours in his life but they were beyond recall. He turned on the heat in his VW even though it was unseasonably hot and exhaust fumes accompanied the warmth. They provided a mini-buzz. The traffic was terrible. Finally home he used a heating pad to thaw. He drank tea so hot it burned his mouth. It took a couple of hours to decipher the lyrics but he did and he loved them. He managed to type them out on his ancient Smith-Corona.
Mid-August and I’m as cold
As a stiff Butterball turkey
And lately I’ve been told
I better get more perky
Think poultry avalanche
Tons of gobblers dropping
Not a ghost of a chance
News reports eye popping
Roland couldn’t sleep fantasizing about his new words and hoping Margo and the Lemons would dig them as written and maybe not jumble them like the others but that would be okay too. When daylight came he vowed no more Arctic job and slumber came. He slept the day away, rising at seven. He took a shower and wished the water was hotter. He’d complained but never a change. He opened a can of beef stew and gobbled it up. He had to pick some green spots off three slices of stale rye bread. He called two mushy bananas his dessert.
Margo spent the night at the bus station. A sailor laced her black coffee with vodka. He told her stories about Naples and Barcelona. He was stationed on an aircraft carrier. He made two weak passes. Margo slapped his face softly as a mother might a misbehaving child the first time then balled up her fist. He bowed and gave her the pint and its inch of remains when his bus arrived. She let him kiss her hand. Tequila smashed Jensen had accused Margo of cheating on him with Roland. She believed he was just looking for an excuse to dump her. She laughed so hard a rib hurt and shouted, “Little you know, Shitturd!” He assured her there was nothing in writing about their partnership; she had no monetary claim. He took a swing at her that she blocked as a prizefighter would. She kicked him in the gut using a cool karate move. He fell over a hassock and landed tangled on the couch. He was down for the count. She knew where he kept his greedy stash. She grabbed the $1,500 she’d put into the business. She split, and watched from behind a bush across the street as he threw all her belongings on the weedy lawn. His tipsy and wounded state produced slapstick! She viewed a lineup in her head trying to ID what dame would replace her.
It took Roland five minutes to start the VW. He feared battery death. It finally turned over with a couple of triumphant backfires that sounded like cherry bombs. He took it easy, playing the gas pedal at every stop to keep from stalling. Damned if he was going to chance turning on the heat. Feeling like a fool, he put a threadbare blue beach blanket he kept in the back seat over his legs as if he was in an old west stagecoach. Jensen and Margo were missing at the Prospect and two other lounges he checked. He kept the car running as he popped in and out. It didn’t fail him and who would steal it? Margo had given him the address of the small house she and Jensen rented. He didn’t remember why. It was in a rundown area of course. The shit truck was pink as a flamingo thought Roland. No doubt, it would have caused a revolt or mass evacuation in a neighborhood any better. No lights in the windows, His one headlight found a colorful littering of the lawn as if an outdoor rummage sale had been hit by sneaky gusts. Two dogs showed up. One wore a pink spiked collar. Roland thought that feature could make the gentlest of canines a flesh ripping menace. They might have been some kind of Doberman mix. He headed for Cinch where he found Margo, blanket wrapped around her, hair a mess and face shining with tears, sitting on a pallet with Alicka who was wearing a tiger-striped bikini bra and tight, honey-colored corduroys. Margo looked up and managed a smile. She stood. It was the first time Roland had seen her dressed entirely in black. Well, her sneakers were gold. Alicka bounced up and snapped her fingers in front of Roland’s face. “Your putt-putt announced your arrival sweet Roll-in. Sell it for whatever you can get. You’ll be taking a trip with us at dawn.” Roland’s jaw dropped. “Don’t worry Margo’s coming too.” Margo stood up and walked to him. She took his hands in hers. Cloutfield clicked on a boom-box. Roland and Margo lip-synced “What Now My Love.” Each member of the band made a hand to throat gag motion. Roland kissed Margo and found something metal on her tongue. He pulled away quickly. She winked at him. She told him about her tangle with Jensen and the lawn décor.
Roland drove Margo to retrieve her clothes. On the way, she asked if he could live with the replica of the planet Venus living in her mouth. “Might get one myself,” he said. “Get a magnetized version,” she suggested. The houses on the street were dark, all but one streetlight dead. Jensen’s Cadillac wasn’t in the driveway. The dogs dashed from under the truck barking and growling quickly up on hind legs scratching on the passenger door. “What the hell are we going to do about them?” said Roland, voice quaking. She opened the door and the dogs were all over her. In a flash she was on all-fours with them. They were named Hello and Darlin’. “Of course,” thought Roland. He cautiously exited. Margo was petting, hugging and kissing them. She removed the spiked collar. “That Son-of-a-Bitch,” she said. “I’ve thrown away a half dozen of these. She called Roland over. He slowly approached. “Look at the sky Mark, Venus.” She held the collar across his neck. “No spikes on us,” she said. “Hope never,” replied Roland. She introduced him to the dogs, showed him their sweet spots. His only pet had been a white mouse named Velveeta. He shied away from slobbery kissing. The dogs waited patiently as Margo and Roland gathered her clothing. She left all the lingerie to him, instructed how to fold. She stretched a thong on his across his face. “Hi-Yo Saliva,” she cried. He neighed.
They stuffed the VW as if doing a charitable trip to a Laundromat for a needy neighborhood. Darlin’ suddenly broke away and returned with a yellow vibrator. Margo poked Roland a few times with it all the time laughing like a maniac. He couldn’t help joining in. She slipped it into her back pocket. They succeeded in clearing the lawn. Before a tearful farewell to her pals, she lodged the spiked collar under one of the Potty tires. The dogs sat like statues as if this were not the first Margo parting experience. On the way to the VW, she took the vibrator from her pocket and threw it at the house. It was a star QB toss. A pane of glass broke. Margo yelled “Fuck Yourself, Shitty” and once more without the comma. Roland assured Margo that Jensen would certainly have the means. Margo laughed and said, “Don’t be a dildo Mark Roland.” She smirked and slipped a stick of Juicy Fruit gum in and out of her mouth before breaking it and giving half to him. He actually left some rubber taking off. Roland was relieved that she didn’t want to take the canines. He imagined them Velcro pawed to the roof .There wasn’t room enough for a Chihuahua. Clothes were on Roland’s lap from lap to halfway up the steering wheel. Margo was cradling more than that.
They spent the night together at Roland’s furnished one-room studio apartment. After unloading the VW, they peeled each other’s souls and his hands weren’t holding lemons: “What now?” needed no reply. He traced her Cher teeth with his tongue and then a finger. “Do you have orthodontist dreams?” she asked. “No, just to be your toothpaste and floss,” he said. He kissed her. She softly bit his tongue and then made gargling sounds. She wrapped her legs around him in a manner that had him wondering if wrestling were on her resume. “Are we a team, 100%?” she asked. “1000,” he responded. She used his chest for a pillow. He strummed his thumb on her hipbone whenever he awakened. In the morning she reported she dreamed of a medieval lute. They showered together. Roland recalled his short stay washing cars. He detailed her and she caught on and returned the service. They made love standing and sitting. “We’re flying,” said Roland to Margo’s delight. “We’re under Niagara Falls,” she said and asked if he’d ever been there. He had not. “You’ll see them, The Gateway Arch, Hoover Dam and more and more.” They stood on tiptoes to get closer to the showerhead. They toweled each other off as if they were top of the line Jaguars. Before going out to shop for duffel bags at an army surplus, Margo read his refrigeration lines. “We’ll see kiddo,” she said. That was not what Roland wanted to hear. After they purchased their luggage, Margo said she needed a drink. At Star Liquors she bought a fifth of vodka. Roland ran into a convenience store for orange juice. When he showed it to Margo, she said “Sissy.”
Margo was very fastidious about packing here clothes. She had a hell of a time deciding what items would be dropped in a Goodwill Box. Swigs of the booze made it easier. All the high heels except a pair of red skyscrapers were history. She’d survive with flats and a pair of zippered ankle boots. Roland wished she’d ditch the gold sneakers but she put them in a plastic bag as if they were special. She kept eight of the t-shirts with college names on them. Yale and Notre Dame were among them and three pairs of jeans. Roland sipped his screwdriver enjoying her picking method. She filled two of the duffels. What took the longest to situate were her two sets of Cher Chastity outfits. She hugged each one and rubbed her cheek against them like a cat would do a leg. Roland thought of Lassie marking him. She kept 3 turtlenecks, a jean jacket and a hooded sweatshirt with a Celtic cross on its back. His clothing consisted of work clothes he’d failed to return to jobs he’d quit, two jackets green and blue. His last name was sewn over the shirt pockets instead of just his first. He wouldn’t abandon his favorite Levi’s that he’d had for ten years. He’d lost his virginity with them down around his knees. His one dress shirt had never left its plastic bag. It was a blue Oxford weave button down. His sole necktie was black with musical notes on it. Adding his underwear, socks three berets and a couple of bandanas he filled just ¾ of his bag. His only shoes were his steeled-toed Wal-Mart brand. All that was left to lug was the guitar and a backpack full of song notebooks, photos of his mother, stepfather, actress Audrey Hepburn and toiletries; a small transistor radio, a wind-up alarm clock and a book for beginning guitarists by Burl Ives. He almost forgot his baseball cards, all of the 1954 Red Sox. They were reproductions. He started to lift his typewriter but she stopped him. “You won’t need that,” she said. “You’re in for an upgrade that will make your head spin.” Roland’s eyes welled up. Was he doing the right thing? A Twitty line dawned on him, “You rule my very soul.” Margo got a laugh when he put on his baseball cap, an upside-down question mark where a team or company logo usually lands. “Looks like a meat hook those turkeys and hams were once familiar with,” she joked. They dropped off their luggage at the Cinch. The heavy door was unlocked but the Lemons weren’t there which gave them cause to worry. Margo had faith.
He sold the VW to a shade tree mechanic intent on building an electric powered Bug fleet. That made the loss of apartment security easier to take. They walked to nearby Joy Young’s, shared a pu pu platter and nursed it until nearly dark, then took a cab back to the factory. Roland’s fingers were crossed tightly like a man foolish enough to take a Super Glue dare. Margo kept a jumpy hand on his restless thigh. Roland breathed a sigh of relief when he spotted a light in the partly opened door. Margo kissed his fingers free. The cab driver told them to be careful. “This ain’t Beverly Hills.” Margo wanted to help with the luggage but Roland insisted on lugging it all. “My stud pack horse,” she teased. “More a mule,” he said. The Lemons and Lippers were sitting on pallets in a corner. A dinged, dimpled and dented black Chevy van greeted them. Had it been parked outside a pellet gun rally? A yellow “Knup” was lettered on one side of the vehicle. It was upside down on the other. The pot aroma was strong enough to provide a contact high for every fan at a sold-out Ramones concert Margo thought and then she recalled fans of that group went for speed and cheap beer. “Welcome ‘What Nows’,” shouted Alicka from a pallet in the corner. “Hey, Roll-in, what the hell’s your name doing on your jacket? Are you here to fix the A/C? “ “I’m at your service,” Roland answered. He saluted. “You certainly will be,” she said, picking up his left hand and kissing it. She was wearing a black kimono decorated with sunflowers. Her lips were a shade of yellow that brought goldenrod to mind. Loco was sitting on the floor, eyes closed, back of hands-on knees in a yoga pose. He was dressed in black, four rows of military ribbons pinned to his chest. His shoes were either spit-shined or patent leather. They sparkled. Cloutfield wore a gray blazer, bowtie, corn yellow shirt, and a chauffeur’s cap. He strapped the duffels to the van roof. Margo instructed Roland to open the side slider door. She flipped her hair into a ponytail something Roland had never seen her do. The crew marched around the van like soldiers before entering. Lassie was in step with them, mouse in mouth. Cloutfield was the driver of course. Roland closed the slider and got in the passenger door. There was no seat. The dome light was dim. Roland crawled into the back, and sat next to Margo. She wouldn’t take his hand. She kept her eyes on Loco who’d returned to his yoga pose. Alicka lit a punk stick and was spelling something in the air with it. “This will be the wildest and most inspirational night of your life, Roll-in,” she guaranteed.
Wherever they were headed it took about twenty minutes to get there. It felt to Roland that they were going around in circles. When the van stopped, Margo duck-walked to a handle she hit to open a square panel. Roland wondered if the van had once been an ice cream truck. Alicka unzipped a canvas case and gently removed a rifle that didn’t remind him of his childhood BB gun. It looked like it could down a tank. Roland figured the extension was a silencer. Loco stuck the barrel into the night and eyed the scope. There were ten or twelve pops. Loco saluted. Alicka ordered Roland to look out the window. Margo gripped her hand on the back of his neck for three or four minutes; forehead against metal. He thought of a mischievous child forcing a big hunk of Play-Doh through a door’s mailbox slot. Alicka lived up to her name and tongued his ear. Cloutfield held a strong searchlight on the truck. Its armor wasn’t strong enough. Shit gravy seeped out the bullet holes. Roland had a coughing fit when released. Loco handed the weapon to Margo who passed it to Alicka. He dropped into his yoga pose and cried. Roland figured he’d had an Afghan War flashback. Cloutfield drove away slowly but soon hit the gas. They were tossed about like poorly packed hams and turkeys. Margo was hugging Loco.
An hour or so later they stopped. “Exit stage ridiculous,” shouted Alicka. Loco was over his distress. He played “The Star-Spangled Banner” alternating two harmonicas. Cloutfield carried Alicka’s ukulele and a bongo from his poverty-stricken set. Alicka yelled, “Cesspool” and they played and sang the most outrageous version of Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” ever imagined, scattered with profanity. Margo sang too and Jensen was right about her croaky monotone but it had matching company. When they finished a coyote was howling and geese were honking. More fakery kicked in. Margo fetched two yard-long stiff rolls from the van. Roland and Loco helped her pull away some cellophane strips covering a sticky substance. The side of the van now read “Sanctuary Gospel Singers” over a yellow cross.” The same drill for the other side but that one named them the “Ever Praising Gospel Trio.” The next musical selection was Roland’s frigid song but insanely backward to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”
dna eye snot
dloc sa m’I dna tsuguA-
dim yekrut llabrettub ffits a sa
dlot neeb ev’I yletal dna
ykrep erom teg retteb I
ehcnalava yrtluop kniht
gnippord srelbbog fo snot
ecnahc a fo tsohg a ton
gnippop eye stroper swen
It was a miracle that Roland could identify it as his own work. He shouted out, “Mid-August, and I’m as stiff.” Cloutfield pronounced him dyslectic. Back in the van and on the highway both Margo and Alicka sat down in front of Roland. “You had a good look at that punctured shit buggy, right Roland?” said Margo. He answered “fantastic” view,” sarcastically wondering what she was driving at. Alicka chimed in. “You're going to write the best song ever about that historic event, aren’t you?” Roland swallowed hard then with a cracking voice said, “I don’t think I can. It’s got to be something I worked at. I’ve told you my method. I’d have to have pulled the trigger. It would have to be my job.” Alicka looked sharply at Loco, beckoned with a head jerk. “Say what?” he shouted. Margo added her two cents. “You’re going to work it out Marky, believe it.” Margo had never addressed him that way. “Ditto,” added Cloutfield. “You can work it out” sang the band like an Un-Fab 3. Loco placed the silencer against Roland’s temple. Lassie showed her teeth. Roland closed his eyes and saw flashing black and white squares and he thought of his song writing crossword days. Three answers flashed, “SOS,” “Mayday” and “Alas.” He mumbled the last one so goddamned mournfully.
Thomas M. McDade is a 76-year-old resident of Fredericksburg, VA, previously CT & RI. He is a graduate of Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT. McDade was twice a U.S. Navy Veteran serving ashore at the Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center, Dam Neck Virginia Beach, VA, and at sea aboard the USS Mullinnix (DD-944) and USS Miller (DE / FF-1091).
Once upon a time there was the XUANYUAN hill, where more than two thousand years before our era, the Yellow Emperor dwelt on earth.
Despite his highest antiquity, the yellow Emperor was very unhappy because no one from the whole dynasty knew how to write. One day he called his ministers and said:
“We have to find a way to invent writing.”
Cang Jie then put his hands together, lowered his head and replied :
"Emperor of the warring kingdoms, by my highest antiquity, I will find the scripture."
Cang Jie had four eyes, two pupils and a leaf collar on his shoulders.
He went to sit at the edge of the Wei River to grasp the writing. But he saw nothing. After a long time, the sweetest and wisest of all birds came to him. He was composed of the beak of a rooster, the face of a swallow and the tail of a fish. He murmured :
“I am the Fenghuang, the one who reigns over all the other birds. So that you may write, these are the four treasures of the scholar.”
At that moment, the Chinese phoenix came out of his head, a bamboo stick from his wing, a stone of rocks from his back, a silk fabric made of spider threads, and his abdomen began to flow a black lacquer on the stone.
Cang Jie thanked the mythical bird and took the bamboo stick, stone, silk fabric and black lacquer. Then the Fenghuang said:
"When you write, use the four treasures of the scholar I have given you. Dip the stick in black lacquer and black lacquer on the silk fabric.”
Sitting at the edge of the Wei River, Cang Jie heard the river flow and watched nature with his four eyes and two pupils. In front of him, the Fenghuang unfolded its multicolored feathers and dropped a clump of hardened stone bearing the imprint of a hoof of Pixiu, a fantastic animal.
Looking at the shoe print, Cang jie dipped the bamboo stick in the black lacquer and began to draw on the silk fabric a character that represented the Pixiu.
For a long time the Fenghuang did not leave Cang jie. With its legs, the bird never ceased to send him many signs and Cang Jie, thanks to his four eyes, observed everything and designed to designate it an immediately recognizable mark.
When the silk fabric was filled with characters drawn by Cang Jie, he went back to the yellow Emperor and said:
"Emperor of the warring kingdoms, by your highest antiquity, I give you the writing."
The yellow Emperor looked at the fabric and was eminently satisfied. He said to Cang Jie :
"I spread your writing all over the country and I name you the inventor of all characters."
Since then, in the country of China, it is said that thanks to Cang Jie, "Calligraphy" was born.
This story is pure legend, yet in the heart of the Wei River, where the Fenghuang delivered the four treasures of the literate, and where the mythical bird inspired the whole world to Cang Jie, in the same river, still flow the thoughts of the Chinese master.
Lara Helou earned her PhD Doctor of philosophy in Literature from the Sorbonne. Her thesis was published by Septentrion and referenced in all the world by Worldcat in: New York University, Princeton University library, Center for Research Library CRL, Indiana University, UC Berkeley Libraries, Stanford University Libraries, University of California San Diego and Saatsbibliothek Zu Berlin. In 2003 Lara earned a Licence by the Ministry of Culture as producer and author. Lara has written and realized for the screen 53 stories and audio-visual books and MP4s sold on international airlines, Kidspads and the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and has 150,000 readers.
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