Monday, August 19, 2019

The Neighbor by Jason Kreth

John is more frightened by his sister-in-law than the inter-dimensional being that lives next door; by Jason Kreth.

"John, you have to go talk to him," Angela said from across our faux-wood kitchen table. She had started in on me as soon as I woke up and stumbled my way down to the kitchen. I looked like death, but that wasn't going to deter her.

I was wearing an old bathrobe from college that had more holes than actual fabric and my hair was a disheveled and thinning salt-and-pepper catastrophe that matched the two-days-worth of stubble on my face. To top it off, my skin was a pale, sickly shade of green that Crayola would have named "plague victim." I looked like a walking hang-over and I thought, once again, that I needed to cut back on my drinking.

I caught vague bits of her complaints as I made my way through the kitchen. I tried my best to ignore her. It wasn't that I didn't care about my wife, but there was a drumming in my head that had me convinced that a woodpecker had taken up residence inside my skull. I knew that as soon as I started paying attention, there would be no escape and I needed at least a few minutes to try to counteract the alcohol-induced ruination of my body.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Beyond Repair by Nancy Beach

Nancy Beach's character loses her temper at her husband and stalks out of the house in a whirl of anger and guilt.

Allie's breath caught in her throat as she stumbled down the stairs. Her husband stood frozen, slashed by her weapon of choice - her words. She hadn't meant for it to happen, again. But when words volleyed back and forth, the volcano erupted without warning. She'd looked like a two-year-old, her voice squealing and her arms flailing like the geese in the back yard.

She shuffled through the pile of papers on the washing machine, receipts and junk mail flying to the floor until she found the keys. She didn't pause when the door slammed behind her. She threw the car into reverse and roared away. It felt good, the cool wind rushing in the windows as she sped down I-71. As the miles sped past, her temper raged. How could he, after all these years, still push her buttons? He was wrong. He was an idiot. He could go crawl in a hole and never come out for all she cared. Past Medina. Past Lodi. She didn't recognize the landscape any longer. She zoomed around a truck and pressed her foot to the pedal again. Stupid, slow drivers. Faster. Freedom. Maybe she'd never stop. Except she'd need gas sooner or later. Gas. She'd forgotten her wallet. Oh well, at least she could pay for gas with Apple Pay on her phone.

As the miles passed, her anger at Rodney turned to disappointment towards herself. She shouldn't have lost her temper. Again. If she could have stayed calm, they could have resolved the dumb disagreement. Granted, his mom was out of line, for sure. And he was defending her. Again. But she could have handled the whole thing better. When would she learn? If only she could put a muzzle on her mouth when she started seeing red. No matter how hard she tried, she always seemed to end up back in the same mess, her temper flaring without warning. It wasn't as often as before. But still.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Vet Cemetery by R.R. Trevino

...In which a teenager steals from the dead. By R.R. Trevino.

My life ceased being my own on Veterans Day, 2013. It started with my mother rousing me at the crack of dawn and dragging me from my bed to the car so that we could stick to our annual commitment of visiting Rick, her dead brother, who was buried at the local veterans cemetery. The fact that I had never met Uncle Rick, due to him bleeding out in a Vietnamese jungle decades before I even was born, wasn't justification enough for her to exclude me from the tradition.

The gates to the cemetery didn't open until 7am, but there we were, waiting diligently near the front of a long line of cars. "Almost time," my mom said, "so go on and start getting up." I sat up in my seat and looked out on the rolling hills of granite headstones, spaced at perfect intervals. I turned my attention to the passengers in the other cars, all somberly waiting to pay their respects.

"Still don't get why we have to wake up so early," I said. "It's not like there's going to be a line at his grave."

She turned to me and glared. "Please, please, don't be asshole you right now," she said. "Not today."

Friday, August 9, 2019

Put Your Money on Ted by J. D. Hager

Ted is starting a new job as a school bus driver - but does he know what he's getting himself in for? By J. D. Hager

McFarlan described the district's situation as desperate more than once. He used the word emergency. He said drastic times called for drastic measures, and mentioned something about circumventing the background check if needed. He spoke of a loophole that offered an emergency permit if working part time and taking classes on the weekend. McFarlan wanted Ted to start the next morning, if Ted thought he could handle it. For thirteen thirty-seven an hour, Ted thought he could handle just about anything. McFarlan then flogged Ted with the glory of the manual.

"Study it. Memorize it. Keep it with you at all times in case you forget what you've memorized. If you encounter any problems while driving your route, just refer to the manual." McFarlan gripped a rolled up copy of the manual between short sweaty fingers, waving it around as if swiping at mosquitoes. "You're inexperienced, but I like your enthusiasm. Reminds me of myself at your age. But I'll be honest with you, Todd."

"Ted," Ted corrected.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Vmbra Wormwood by Leila Allison

Since her mother died, in place of the sun, Claire has only seen the suppurating star Wormwood; by Leila Allison.

And the name of the star is called Wormwood...
- Revelation 8:11

Pus star Wormwood glowers ceaselessly in the cigarette sky. Although it is only midday, Wormwood pulls long shadows from the sour crabapple trees, whose fruit not even the crows will eat. Embittered little trees, Scotch broom, feral blackberries and scrub grass are all that grow in the brief ridges and ravines and knolls that serve as the community "backyard" throughout the valley. During wildfire season the broom pods burst and the smoky wind disperses their dusty spore. During wildfire season it's easy to believe in hell.

At sixteen, Claire has spent her entire life at one of the sturdy white farmhouses so dominant in the valley. Unless you count the people who grow weed under artificial Wormwoods in their attics and basements, there isn't a single farmer in the valley, yet everybody lives in a farmhouse nonetheless. Local farming began its long dwindle into obsolescence when the interstate arrived in the 1960s; money could be made easier elsewhere then brought home. Times change.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Burrbrook by Joseph Burns

In the small Canadian town of Burrbrook, Ashlee is starting a new life, Lynne runs an elitist daycare centre, and someone is burning down churches; by Joseph Burns.

She was lost
Now found, redeemed
Her paws splayed wide and nailed to the oak
Belly split, birthing entrails
Cold

He found her there
A night spent searching, vainly hoping
His flashlight passes her eyes
Glinting, unglinting
The oppressive presence of nothing

Below, white lines - chalk scraped on granite
A five-pointed star, encircled
A feeble concession to meaning
He heaves and one edge is erased in acid
Another offering

Her canine shell vacated,
He stands there, flesh upon bone
Under starlight unseeing
The smell of iron and bile
Just so much meat



Slabs of gray rock emerged from the rise and fall of the roadside, their primeval, rain-blunted faces wreathed by browning scrub grass. Perched atop them or crowded between were aging blueberry plants, nearly bare, their dry sockets long devoid of fruit. The treeline began to thicken here, where the balding maples and birches were outnumbered by their needled brethren - an ancient acquiescence by the keyed to the coned. The tall pines, though evergreen, were washed red by the setting sun.

Ashlee removed her sunglasses and dropped them on the dash. She rubbed her right eye and scratched absently at her nose. Her chipped purple fingernail found the spot where the bridge of the plastic shades pinched her skin. In the rear-view mirror she saw Zachary, very much awake but spellbound by the old smartphone he held in his tiny hands. He rocked gently in his car seat in time with the undulating road as their rusted sedan skittered northward.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Sin Eater by James Ross

An odd couple meet a tramp with an impossible promise; by James Ross.

Babe needs new boots.

We're down at the river on a market day. A hard sun is shining on the crowds, on the stalls, the polis, more people, parked vans, buskers, the glistening river. I count four Big Issue sellers in less than five minutes:

'Big Issue?'

No thanks.

'Big Issue! Help the homeless?'

No thanks.

Men in ponchos are banging out Chilean folk music on leather drums and electric pan pipes. I've just been paid and Babe needs new boots, so I'm going to buy him a pair.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Bye-Bye by Phil Slattery

A former naval officer tells a stranger a story of young love from his time on Aircraft Carrier USS Enterprise; by Phil Slattery.

I was sporadically dozing in my seat at an airport gate at Dallas-Fort Worth, waiting for my wife to return from ladies' room, when another late middle-aged man with close-cropped white hair sat a couple of seats down from me. He opened up a paperback book he had been carrying, A History of the Aircraft Carrier USS Enterprise, CVN-65.

"You interested in maritime history?" I asked.

"That's right," he said.

"I was on the Big E for two deployments with VA-95, the Green Lizards, an A-6 squadron, in 1986 and '88. I was an intelligence officer. It was a great time."

"I was on her then too," said the man. "I was ship's company."

Monday, July 22, 2019

The North Window by Judson Blake

Sheila Tamm lives in the kind of small American town where nothing ever happens, until a dead body is found with its hands missing; by Judson Blake.

"There's a man in that house," said the child. His face dipped as he spoke. His voice was mewling. Sheila Tamm stepped back to look around the fir trees. It was a house she knew well. She turned back to the child.

"That's not so odd," she said and then wondered if she might be wrong. It was the house of Coleen, who had a dog Sheila sometimes cared for. An aging solitary, Coleen had never married.

The child squinted under the blinding angle of the sun. So softly she could barely hear, he hummed a song as if he knew she was thinking of something else. Then he stopped without any reason.

"There's a man in that house."

Friday, July 19, 2019

Jory's Grove by David W. Landrum

A powerful witch is called upon to help protect a group of young girls who are dabbling with forces they do not understand; by David W. Landrum.

As a strega, Alessia knew that there were still places in the world where the natural and the supernatural intersected. There were portals or, as she had once read in Neil Gaiman's novel, Neverwhere, places that had a lot of time, where all the time did not get used up, and so one encountered "bubbles" of it here and there. If you entered such a site you would end up in the period and era the bubble contained. Such places had always existed. And they did not just contain time.

The problem began when a group of young women in her community began going to one such place and engaging in what they thought was occult practice. A mother of one of the girls came to Alessia and told her what was going on.

"My daughter, Angela, and her friends are going out to Jory's Grove," the mother told her.

"Why are they going there?

"Oh, you know: they got into the occult - wicca and all that. They're into casting spells - the whole shebang. It's a phase and a fad, but that place... well, I've heard it's really haunted. And I don't like them going there at night."

"What do you want me to do?"

Monday, July 15, 2019

Louie the Hatchet by Mark Tulin

When his father befriends a hitman, Mark's character feels the consequences; by Mark Tulin.

My father did not discriminate when it came to choosing his friends. So, it wasn't a big surprise that he befriended a notorious hitman. This particular hitman didn't wear a shiny suit, have gold chains around his neck, or wear a pair of sharp alligator shoes, but he did have a scary scar on his hand and an aura that made my teeth chatter.

I remember staring at this hulking man like an infamous celebrity, looking at his big, stubby fingers that could probably tell of a thousand deaths and the keloid scar on his right hand the shape of a lightning bolt. Those bear-like claws of his were capable of things that my naive mind could never imagine. He had the power to destroy life without the least bit of hesitation.

It was interesting to see how relaxed my father was with such a hardened criminal, almost as if he were a respectable member of society.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Of Forests and Fathers by Christopher Johnson

Herbie, a kid from Ohio, tells about the innocent wonders of his first camping trip; by Christopher Johnson.

"Will there be bears and wolves?" I asked.

Dad looked at me and narrowed his eyes the way he did when he was irritated with me. "What do you think, Herbie?"

"I... I don't know. When I watch Davy Crockett on TV, there's all kinds of wolves and bears."

"Oh, for God's sake, Herbie, that was one hundred and fifty years ago! And that's TV. And that was in Tennessee. We're in Ohio, and it's today, not one hundred and fifty years ago."

We were driving to pick up Steve Sable and his father and start our journey together on a camping trip, which I was worried about because I'd never ever been on a camping trip in the forest before. We turned into the Sables' driveway, and Dad honked the horn. "Get in back, Herbie, so Mr. Sable can ride in front and we can listen to the Indians."

Monday, July 8, 2019

St. Isabelle's Downfall By Tiffany Renee Harmon

At St. Isabelle's Home for the Mentally Disturbed it's not clear whether the sole patient needs the staff, or the other way around; by Tiffany Renee Harmon.

Each day at St. Isabelle's Home for the Mentally Disturbed was the same as the last. The residents would wake up, cope with being abnormal, and then go to bed. Meals and medication were promptly served at 8am, 12:30pm, and 7:00pm. Bedtime was 10:00pm. There were no exceptions.

St. Isabelle's stood on a sprawling green manor, surrounded by trees as lifeless as the hopeless patients who entered. The trees created a canopy that shrouded St. Isabelle's in a constant, ominous shadow. A small pond, no longer home to any fish ever since a patient had taken an interest in them and they had all disappeared, was nestled in the back yard, behind the looming old Victorian building. Ivy ran along the exterior wooden paneling in upward spirals.

Friday, July 5, 2019

The Wall by Dan Rice

In a totalitarian future America, a 16-year-old girl's life is about to change forever; by Dan Rice.

The minute hand of the analog clock edges with agonizing slowness toward 3:45pm, release time. I hate the way the hands move around the clock-face as if stating: this boring class is almost over, but not quite. I prefer digital clocks, just like everyone else with a half functioning brain and a heart made out of anything other than stone. Mr. Brown, our genius teacher, decided in all his wisdom that to pass his class, all of us spoiled brats need to be able to read an analog clock. Stupid? Yes, but that's Mr. Brown, and he lectures, drones is more accurate, on the most fascinating topic imaginable: Founding Utopia, The Fall of the Two-Party System and The Rise of the American Prosperity Party. Fun? Not so much. Required for graduation? You bet.

"Miss Harris," Mr. Brown's voice rings in my ears. "Staring at the clock won't make time pass any faster. Now, answer the question."

My peers' twittering laughter echoes through the classroom. I blush. I'm in trouble. It's just like Mr. Brown to ask me a question while I'm not paying attention. I meet his gaze. His piercing blue eyes stare out at me from under a heavy brow. He looks dapper in his starched white shirt and neat blue and red tie with the conspicuous exception of an oil stain on the shirt's left breast.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Pacific by Ky Hensley

On an excursion to Costa Rica, Ky Hensley's character visits the ocean for the first time.

Pacific waves are powerful.

I can tell from a considerable distance, as the whitecaps crash on the bright reflective sand and roll up the long stretch of beach. The cars and trucks seem to ripple in the heat of the day. We aren't even there yet, still shielding the sun from our eyes as we attempt to cross the road. Quite frequently, cars honk at the slow-moving trucks, all while seemingly oblivious to the beach stretched out before them like a framed landscape piece. I see a car slowing, and begin to dart across.

Damien's grip tightens around my hand as he pulls me back. "Hold up, Maggie." The car I was watching vrooms past as if frustrated by my indecision. "You trying to get us hit? It'd be a shame to lose my girl like that." Damien laughs at what he thinks is incredible wit. He barely looks both ways before making the decision to drag me into traffic himself.

If that's what it takes.

My lips stay sealed. The beach. I am here for the beach.