Friday, July 3, 2020

Memories by James Rumpel

James Rumpel's character has a job collecting donations for a billionaire, and he's questioning his choice of career.

"Did I ever tell you about the Christmas when I was twelve years old?" said my boss. He had that nostalgic grin on his face, the one that meant he was going to tell me the story, whether I had heard it before or not. "I, like most boys my age in the 1960s, wanted a Davey Crocket coonskin cap with all my heart. Times were tough. We were poor. My parents had been trying to hint to me that I had to be able to handle disappointment. You know, side comments about how men don't cry or how a twelve-year old should get practical gifts for Christmas. Well, that night, I prayed and wished with all my heart, but I knew there was not going to be a coonskin cap under our tiny, sparsely decorated tree. When morning came..."

I tuned out his words and focused on his face. With each sentence, the sparkle in his eye grew just a tiny bit. It was obvious how the tale was going to end. The fact that my boss was barely thirty years of age and that his parents would have barely been born during the time the story took place did not strike me as strange. I had only been working for him for two months, but this type of journey down memory lane was very common.

Monday, June 29, 2020

A Body Swinging Like the Clapper of a Bell by Robert Kinerk

Robert Kinerk tells the morbidly humorous story of three Alaskan ambulance attendants: Casey, Jason and Cranmore.

It's a rainy night in the panhandle part of Alaska, 1966. We're three men on an ambulance crew and we've hauled our gurney up a flight of narrow stairs. A woman's lying across a bed. She's on her back with her bra and panties on. Her head hangs off the mattress, her face completely bloody. Even her hair is soaked. Blood stretches out its strings, falling - drip, drip, drip.

The bleeding woman's boyfriend, in his baggy underpants, is standing by the window with a steak knife. "We were just having fun," he says.

His girlfriend croaks the same thing. She says she doesn't want to go to the hospital. What she means is she doesn't want her boyfriend to have to answer for the stab. The cops would ask a lot of questions. Jail time.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Skeleton in the Cellar by Alexander Richardson

A jilted lover visits a bucolic cabin with a talking skeleton in the cellar; by Alexander Richardson.

Lou Sanders swung the axe again, and the tree splintered. Several more strikes and it was down. He spat and looked back at the cabin.

"Goddammit."

He chopped up the wood and carried the first stack to the open cellar. Stepping within, he dropped it with a yelp; in front of him was a skeleton, dressed in a red turtleneck and beret, sitting before an easel, brush in one hand, palette in the other. The skeleton turned and shrieked, dropping its instruments and stumbling off the stool.

"The hell's this?"

The skeleton pointed at Lou. "What in the grave are you doing here?"

Lou picked up a log and, holding it like the baseball player holds a bat, advanced on the skeleton. The skeleton put up its hands and retreated to the wall.

"Wait! You don't have to do this. If it's money you want, I - well, I don't have any. Haven't for a long time. But I'm sure I can give you something."

Monday, June 22, 2020

Not Another Fish Planet by Margret A. Treiber

15-year-old Zunzheim has been rescued from a death camp by a spaceship from the future, with a skeleton crew that's barely holding it together; by Margret A. Treiber.

"I still don't understand how you became captain."

"Acting Captain," Day corrected.

"Acting Captain." Zunzheim rolled his eyes.

"Because after the accident I was the only one qualified. I tried to turn it down. When all the dust settled, it was me, a nurse practitioner, three marines and half of the maintenance department left onboard. Maintenance didn't want marines in charge, so it's me. Boucher was the ranking marine, so she is the first officer."

"Maintenance would rather have a suicidal, misanthropic captain, than a marine?"

"Maintenance is suspicious of authority figures," Day answered. "They have their own informal command structure. I don't pretend to understand it. After you're loose for a while, you'll see how they get. Things are a little different here."

"I've noticed." Zunzheim shook his head. "Every day I'm here, I find out something new and weird. What kind of ship is this, anyway?"

"The kind that saved you from the death camps," Day replied. "Can't be that bad."

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Innocent and the Beautiful by Iftekhar Sayeed

In Bangladesh, CIA agent Maryam becomes a target for assassination and flees with her lover - but neither are sure where their loyalties lie; by Iftekhar Sayeed.

"The death of 1.7 million children through sanctions in Iraq has aroused no interest whatsoever in the drawing rooms of Bangladesh, as far as agent Maryam has been able to judge."

Something seemed to trouble Maryam, as her fingers hovered above the keyboard; the hum of the air-conditioner rose above the tap-tap of her fingers; she smelled the starched pillows and breathed heavily; in the light from the quite redundant lamp, she deleted 'death' and typed 'murder'. She sighed relief, turned off the laptop, disengaged the wireless modem, switched off the lamp, and turned on her side to get some sleep.



I hated her. So I avoided the street - road 9A, Dhanmandi - where she worked and waited for a trishaw or an auto rickshaw every weekday at around 5:00.

The situation was dire. After the Gulf and Af-Pak wars, the mujahideen had grouped themselves together, as elsewhere, in Bangladesh, as freedom fighters. No empire can exist without collaborators, and the local elite and government both sided with the American and European powers. A death-squad was formed with the aid of the imperial west, and an unknown number of jihadis died in so-called 'cross-fires', the euphemism for assassination.

Monday, June 15, 2020

A Higher Court by Patrick Ritter

To what lengths will the director of a Rochester hospital go to protect his staff? By Patrick Ritter.

Doctor Andrew Hanlon jogged down the middle of an empty street. Without people or cars, it was eerily quiet for a Rochester suburb. Even the dogs were sheltering in place. Despite the deserted streets, Hanlon's morning runs were about the only normal thing in his life. As director of the Rochester Memorial Hospital ICU, it was a welcome break from the pandemic.

Getting close to his home, he turned onto Park Street. The sun spilled over the roof of a large colonial house onto a wide lawn. Doctor Hanlon breathed deeply and for a moment forgot about all of it. But only for a moment. Then the troubling thoughts flooded back, uninvited and unwanted, like his merciless enemy, the coronavirus. As director of the ICU, Hanlon faced a snowballing set of challenges: insufficient beds and equipment, exhausted doctors and nurses, and lack of masks and personal protective equipment.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Crystal's Night by Alexander Schuhr

Alexander Schuhr tells the story of a tough night in the life of a Los Angeles prostitute.

It was midnight, when Crystal reached her regular spot at Santa Monica and St. Andrews. She had tried other locations. But this one worked best. Sure, there was more action westward, near Highland by the 7-Eleven. But the girls there didn't like competition. Only last week, these vicious queens had beaten the shit out of a rival and clawed her face into a bloody mess. It would be weeks before she could even think of earning money again. Plus, they had protection. The kind of protection Crystal didn't have, nor want. After all, she was here to make money for herself, and herself only. She had also tried working up East, but she had soon crossed into Spanish terrain. And the welcome there hadn't exactly been warm either. Her work was dangerous. But she had a goal. And she had long decided that it was worth the risks.

Eventually, she had settled for Santa Monica and St. Andrews Place. It wasn't the best area, but it had its advantages. Nobody seemed to be bothered by her. Sometimes a few other girls, mostly black or Spanish, worked the streets nearby. But there was no bad blood. Also, from her corner, she could see patrol cars approaching from a mile away. That way, she could easily retreat when the cops were bored and out to harass people.

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Giant Worm by Frank Beyer

Frank Beyer's glimpse into the life of a vagrant.

Don't sleep much, it's the first cool night of the year. I get up because it's light, drink a glass of hot water at the corner and check out ulcer on my leg; foul, and walking it rubs against my rough trousers. Will catch the bus down to the plaza later, I can't walk it. With time to kill, I sit on the curb and people watch, the beautiful are not up at this time of the morning. Not sure how today will be, the hunger pangs are no problem yet.

I live under the giant worm, our name for a stretch of elevated highway not far from downtown. There are two colonies below the worm, the first sleeps opposite the subway stop, they recycle rubbish and their worst habit is drinking rum. The police don't bother these poor souls, once functioning members of society - every night they pass under the worm, the chances of them functioning again diminishes. The second group, the crackheads, reside a few blocks on. The police operation at their old stomping ground by the train station drove them here. At night they are a force to be reckoned with, by day they are like dug-up rotting bodies. Blankets are their only possessions: they love them for the warmth, and hate them for the smell. I've been a member of both camps in my time.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Swim by Christopher K. Miller

Christopher K. Miller's character is tired of ageing and called by the sea.

Every February, for the past nine years, you and your second husband, Jack, drive down from Ottawa to Anna Maria Island. Official snowbirds now. Always stay at the same rental semi on the beach: a well-appointed cabin, really, with cable TV and high-speed internet. Central heat and air - most days you need both. Shared cedar deck with a big gas barbecue, saltwater pool, and hot tub, too, of course. Mornings you drink coffee with whipped cream and watch pelicans dive-bomb for fish. Last year, a woman you met on an island boat tour said she'd heard they eventually go blind from all those eyes-wide-open impacts, and starve. So no pelican ever dies of old age.

Afternoons, it's burgers and beer at Skinny's. A snack shack with a bar. Close enough to walk. Decorated totally with dollar bills. Thousands of them. Like the owner tacked up the first one he made, but then couldn't stop. Then, after a nap, dinner someplace nice. Evenings, unless it's cloudy, you watch the big orange blob of a sun sink into the Gulf. Drink pink Zinfandel you buy at the local Publix for twelve dollars a gallon. Lean on the railing. Talk to the couple next door. Last year, dairy farmers from Wisconsin. From the moment the sun's orb touches the horizon until it's completely gone takes only a few minutes. You can stare without hurting your eyes. Second time you watched, you took a cell phone video and posted it on YouTube. You don't want to die of old age, either. You've given this some thought.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Doors Opening on the Left by Raima Larter

Jason is a chemist specialising in racemization, a technique vital to defeat the lethal virus spreading across South America, but there are mysterious side-effects; by Raima Larter.

Jason boarded the train at the Medical Center Station, took a seat about halfway back from the door, and looked around. The usual morning crowd. Later, he would wonder why everything had seemed so normal that day, when it was anything but.

He stifled a yawn and glanced at his phone. Nearly ten a.m. He'd been awake for over twenty-four hours. A melodic bonging came over the speaker and the train doors slid shut as a robotic female voice announced, "Doors closing."

The train lurched into motion and Jason yawned again. He wanted, desperately, to be home, tucked into his own bed. Yes, his own empty bed, but that's the way it had been since he got this job, and how it was bound to stay. Who had time for dating? He hadn't even had friends over yet, despite having lived there for almost a year. For one thing, he had only the one chair, a pathetic frayed lawn chair he'd found discarded on a curb. No time for furniture-shopping, either. The chair sat next to his one other piece of furniture, a battered card table where he slurped down Cup o' Noodles every evening while streaming late-night talk shows on his laptop.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Liberty Station by Dan Rice

On a space station populated by humans and aliens, a lowly teacher must face a growing climate of bigotry; by Dan Rice.

My students, styluses to tablets, work studiously on the math quiz - except for Ben, a top-notch pupil if a bit entitled, and Felix, a quiet and kind lad. The polka-dots covering Felix's skin pulse yellow, contrasting against his otherwise light blue complexion. His arms are crossed before his chest, and he glowers at Ben, who is whispering something and has a broad smile plastered on his face.

I stop myself from sighing. Disciplining my students is far from my favorite task, but I can't let this go on, or the boys will disrupt the quiz. Putting on my best stern teacher face, I march in between the neatly arranged desks toward the boys.

"You know, Governor Spade is going to let us throw all your polka dot faces out the airlocks," Ben whispers to Felix. "You Starlight Missionaries aren't good for anything but taking our jobs. Good, high-paying human jobs. You're going to suck vacuum - "

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Spiral Tunnel by Harrison Kim

A five year old boy dreams of leaving his body and faces up to his mortality; by Harrison Kim.

When I was five years old I lived at Genoa Bay Farm. Its fields spread down to a cedar bordered cove way out beyond Tzouhalem Mountain on Vancouver Island. My mom and dad worked the farm for owner Tommy Lines. I was the only kid there. I slept in my bed with a stuffed bear. I held him tight and carried him everywhere during the day. I could count on Bear. The world seemed so big around me, but he remained small.

One afternoon, I threw Bear over the wood fence separating the farm driveway from a drainage ditch. He lay on the grass on the other side. I reached under and retrieved him. "Sorry," I said. "I didn't mean it." Then I threw him over the fence again.

He went further this time. I crawled under the railing and searched around. It took me longer to find him. "I'm sorry," I said again, when I discovered him, lying upside down in some thistles.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Larry's Terrible Day By James Rumpel

James Rumpel tells of a near future in which a malfunctioning phone is more than just an inconvenience.

Larry Boland glanced at his phone. He had his first phone implanted into his arm when he was fourteen, a little later than most of his peers. Now, three upgrades and nine years later, his wrist was home to the most advanced communication device bit-coins could buy.

Unfortunately, even with all that technology, he could not make the line to the med-distribution kiosk move any faster. His phone told him that it was 7:41. If he didn't get to the front of the line and get his daily dosage of medications soon, he was in grave danger of missing his train.

For a moment, Larry considered leaving the line and going directly to the boarding area but he knew that was not an option. He needed treatments to deal with his attention deficit disorder, his dry mouth, his occasional bouts of gas, and the subtle throbbing he sometimes felt at his temples. He couldn't imagine trying to survive a day having to deal with all of those maladies.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Library in White Cedar by Edward Ahern

John Willman attends the death of a library, and stands to inherit its books; by Edward Ahern.

The two-day drive from Connecticut to White Cedar, Michigan was endless neon chain links - the same motels, gas stations, and restaurants sprouting up about every ten miles along the interstate.

I was on my way to assist at the funeral of the library in White Cedar. My great, great grandfather, Thomas Willman, had provided the money to build the library and on his death had bequeathed his books to it. He'd specified that if the town closed the library the books should be returned to his heirs. I was the only surviving descendent the town had found, and I'd rented a large SUV in case the books were worth claiming.

Cathy Bender, the town librarian, had been the one to call. Her voice had that slight midwestern nasality that some easterners find annoying but I had always liked.

"Mr. Willman, praise the Lord I was able to find you. We need to talk about the Willman books in our library."

Friday, May 15, 2020

The White Cadillac by Robert Funderburk

In god-fearing Louisiana, on the west bank of the Mississippi, fourteen-year-old Chris faces a tragedy and finds a true friend; by Robert Funderburk.

I grew up in Algiers, on the 'Point,' and when I played on the grassy slopes of the levee as a child, I would look across a half mile of rolling muddy water to the twin spires of the oldest cathedral in the country. To the left was the six-storied bulk of the Jackson Brewing Company, makers of Jax Beer. Both buildings were purposed as escape routes from the drudgery of the world. They were separated by: Jackson Square, with its piked iron fence and artists and entertainers and tourists; the horse-drawn carriages that clattered along St. Peter Street; and the bright endless span of eternity.

My first memories were of the smell of sweat and grease and Dixie beer, and my dad's calloused hands, as he held me in the garden behind our house. By the time I was five or six, my mother would send me around the corner to CJ's bar to get my dad's daily beer. It was never kept in the house, and I never saw him have more than one.

The three of us would sit on the brick patio with palm fronds rattling against the stone wall in the breeze off the gulf. The smell of jasmine and gardenia and my mother's roses would move in slow waves on the textured air of evening.