Monday, January 18, 2021

Parkie, Tanker, Tiger of Tobruk by Tom Sheehan

World War II veteran Frank Parkinson tells a story he's never before dared tell; by Tom Sheehan.

Hardly with a hop, skip and jump did Frank Parkinson come home from Tobruk, Egypt, North Africa, madness, and World War II in general. A lot of pit stops were made along the way where delicate-handed surgeons and associates did their very best to get him back into working order. From practically every vantage point thereafter we never saw, facially or bodily, any scar, bunching of flesh or major or minor skin disturbance. There was no permanent redness, no welts as part of his features, no thin and faintly visible testaments to a doctor's faulty hand or to the enemy's angry fragmentation. It was if he were the ultimate and perfect patient, the great recovery, the risen Lazarus.

But he was different, it was easy to see, by a long shot.

Parkie. Tanker. Tiger of Tobruk.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Empathy by Christopher K. Miller

Emile, a teenage gun obsessive with Asperger's, connects with two suffering strangers at the Cordova Arms-Fair in Memphis, Tennessee; by Christopher K. Miller.

They met not at one of Memphis's over two-thousand Christian places of worship but at the Cordova Arms-Fair out on Trinity Creek Cove, a few blocks west of the old Walmart supercenter. Sally, who'd driven up from Germantown, was there to return a silencer she'd bought for her T4 Nighthawk. Not defective or anything. Made the 9mm semi-auto's ordinarily sharp report sound to her ears almost exactly like someone coughing spitballs through a fat plastic straw. But it also made poor little Chompy, her Doberman Shepherd cross, yelp and whine, and sometimes even squirt a little, with each wet splut. The sales associate, after explaining the only way Arms-Fair could offer rock-bottom prices on top-of-the-line ordnance was through a strict no-returns policy, admitted someone should've told her that that particular suppressor worked by venting gasses through a kind of ultra-high-frequency whistle. Suggested she try lightening her load, maybe go with the 105-grain Federal Guard Dog round. Safer for shooting home intruders, too. Designed not to punch through walls and such. Even offered to waive commission on a box. But Sally, having already spent over four grand on the premium handgun with optional aluminum frame and padded green carrying case, believed fervently that the store ought to, in her case, make an exception to its strict no-returns policy. Even went so far as to kneel down right there below the week's featured firearm, dubbed Second Amendment, a net-ready, laser-scoped, flash & muzzle-suppressed, self-propelled, .125 cal Barrett/Audi Model 6X6 military-grade sniper rifle with a programmable AI, four integrated 2420p x 1260p 120 fps webcams, a centimeter-level precision Trimble GNSS, and, best of all, remote aim & fire capability. "The drone you own," pitched the display's flawless female voice, engineered to project the same confidence and barely suppressed joy as (but come across a hint less authoritarian than) Walmart's "Please proceed to checkout..." lady. Overhead on an airscreen, a 20-point buck nibbled low-hanging acorns in the double crosshairs of a scope whose rangefinder's readout showed 2760' 7.5" through a 2.25 mph east-southeasterly cross-breeze, along with some barometric data. "Hunt anything anywhere from the comfort and safety of your home," prompted the display as Sally closed her eyes, folded her hands, bowed her head and asked Jesus to forgive this salesman his intransigence, show him the error of his ways, and let her at least exchange, if not return, the Osprey.

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Influential Amnesia of Mr. Billows by Matthew Shovlin

Phil suggests an unusual tactic for assessing whether Guy will make a good first impression on his date, and soon regrets it; by Matthew Shovlin.

In a two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment with no windows.

Guy emerged from his bedroom after an hour of preparation and asked, "How do I look?"

Phil gave him a quick once-over, said, "Good," and returned his attention to the television.

"No, man, for real though. How do I look?"

"What do you mean? You're in a white T and jeans."

"I know what I'm wearing, ass hat. I guess more what I'm asking is like is this a good choice?"

"I dunno, dude."

"Come on, don't be weird about it."

"I'm not pulling one of those quintessential '90s acts of sexual insecurity, Guy. I just have no way of knowing what this girl is gonna be into or not into, outfit-wise. Or anything-wise, for that matter."

Friday, January 8, 2021

A Commitment to Running by Laramie Wyatt Sanchez Graber

Johnathan is committed to running from his painful memories; by Laramie Wyatt Sanchez Graber.

People always say, "You can't keep running forever. Eventually your problems will catch up to you." Or at least that's what they say when they find it hard to look at me, when they sigh, when they shake their heads. But that's only because they've never committed.

When running is your way of life, the world is no longer static, trapping. It all becomes a blur, trees outside a speeding car window (like the pine trees in the Appalachians when Cynthia and I would go driving in the winter, windows unrolled, to feel the frigid blast, to celebrate that our bodies were warm and vibrant). And all the pine trees look the same, it's impossible to distinguish between them, so you stop trying. Then, you live only in the moment and you're free (there are no ends).

"Sir, uh sir, it's closing time."

Monday, January 4, 2021

Garden City by Sumita Sami

When riots break out in the futuristic city of Erva Bereo, a diplomat turns to a secret garden and its mysterious curator for help; by Sumita Sami.

In the evenings, when I'd dispatched my diplomatic duties of the day, I'd change out of my professional attire and take long walks around the city. It never really felt like a single city to me, this Erva Bereo, and the more I wandered around its neighborhoods, the less it seemed like a city and more like a collection of communities that happened to co-exist.

I found little nooks that I could call my own, a necessary and pleasant operation that helped me acclimatize to every city I visited. Small caf├ęs, friendly parks, large central locations where demonstrations usually occurred and which I could monitor in a passive fashion. I would know the layout of the city within the week, which helped me find lunch and, occasionally, safety when the gunfire started.

Friday, January 1, 2021

The Man Who Hid Music by Tom Sheehan

A traveller fixes up an old, abandoned house, and piques the curiosity of the locals; by Tom Sheehan. 

One day at the little house where the dowser used to live, a kind-looking man with a beard came carrying all he owned on an A-frame on his back. He set the A-frame on the ground and looked at the small house needing much work. Muscles moved under his shirt.

"Whose house is this?" he said to some children playing at an edge of a field. This was the place where the mountain came to a rest, but the river had not been found as yet.

One of the boys said, "It used to belong to the dowser, but he went away." The boy used a stick to walk with as one leg was slightly crooked and made him lean.

"Why did he go away?" the man said, looking closely at the stick the boy had to use.

Monday, December 28, 2020

A Simple Plan by Ross Hightower

Alar and Ukrit stop in a bustling village while fleeing Imperial soldiers, and witness the arrest of a child witch; by Ross Hightower. 

A mandolin playing the opening notes of a traditional song, soon joined by a woman's high, clear voice, could mean only one thing. Alar remembered right, it was market day in Kartok. As the two boys stepped from the hard pack surface of the Imperial Highway onto the cobbled street at the edge of the village, the festive sounds of the market joined the song. It tugged at Alar's memories of a more innocent time, a time before the Empire stole his life.

Ukrit grabbed Alar's arm, pulling him to a stop. "This is a bad idea."

"You're probably right," Alar said.

"Those Imperials soldiers must be right behind us."

Friday, December 25, 2020

Going Home by Eamonn Murphy

Patrick, now an old man, wants to move back from England to Northern Ireland, to live with his brother near their extended family; by Eamonn Murphy.

Passengers were boarding for the three-thirty afternoon flight from Bristol to Belfast, and the queue snaked forward with its usual agonising slowness. Patrick patiently waited for his turn. In a long life of seventy years he had, finally, learned patience. He was a far different man than that fiery youth who had come over on the boat to Liverpool back in the Fifties.

He felt a tap on his shoulder. 'Is that you, Mister O'Rourke?'

Turning, he saw the top of a man's head. He had to look down to see the face. Patrick stood a couple of inches over six feet, tall for his generation, and the shoulder tapper was only a small man. His bald patch was clear to see, but that wasn't the sort of thing one mentioned to an acquaintance, though you might kid about it with a friend.

Monday, December 21, 2020

From the Deep by Jon Fain

Two lovers married to other people pillow-talk about their dreams and delusions; by Jon Fain.

"Last night? I dreamt of something called Competitive Nut. You go into a store with an exotic nut, bring a few in a little box," I explained. "They clean them off for you... to your specifications, of course... and you eat it."

"What do you mean by exotic?" She gave me a smile. "Maybe because I was there?"

"No," I said. "You weren't there."

I remembered another dream from since I had last seen her. It was at work, in her office, but she wasn't in that one either. Instead, a kid I'd grown up with and who I hadn't thought about in a long time was in the dream, working where she worked, her office, at her white board.

"OK, my turn," she said. "We're at a country club, playing golf. Then we go back inside where people are lining up to dive into a pool. Pete and Kathy are there."

"Really," I said.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Jungbu's Mother by Henri Colt

A fifty-year-old divorcee sips medicinal wine in a Nepalese mountain tent in Henri Colt's atmospheric tale.

"Three nips and a cup." The shapely owner of the Himalayan teahouse smiles after filling my reusable marmalade jar with chang for the second time. I take three sips and, according to tradition, guzzle all that remains of the sweet barley wine. An empty plate of Dal Bhat lays next to my plastic lawn chair, not two feet from a cast-iron stove in the center of the room. The Nepali dish of steamed rice and lentils did little to calm my churning intestines.

"Chang better than dal for upset stomach," the owner says. A lock of black hair thicker than a yak's coat covers her face when she leans forward to pour another glass. She brushes it behind her ear with a flick of the wrist and picks at her silver loop earrings. This time, she doesn't wait for me to drink, but returns to the kitchen, pausing to remove a dish from the golden oak table in the main room. A Tibetan wool carpet with blue floral designs covers a bench under the window. Rugs that used to be hand-woven are now machine-made and synthetic, purchased in bulk from China and carried by mule, yak, or human porter to the most remote regions of Nepal.

"She's beautiful," I whisper to Mingma, the Sherpa mountain guide sitting next to me.

"Yes," he says, "but she is sad."

Monday, December 14, 2020

Queen of the Tabloids by Brian Clark

An Ontario newspaper is on its last legs when a British gossip queen arrives to stir things up; by Brian Clark.

She was the Tabloid Queen, schooled in the ways of Britain's racy scandal sheets, and someone had the bright idea of hiring her to run our stodgy old Canadian daily. She certainly caused a stir. Picture a piranha pool at mealtime.

She was young, blond, thin and pretty - not to mention relentless. She had a high-voltage personality and liked to get her way. Picture a steamroller with perfect teeth.

I had been at the Journal for 28 years when Debbie McIvor first marched into the newsroom. I was known as a survivor, having been spared the boot over countless rounds of layoffs.

The Journal was a family-owned newspaper when I arrived in 1990 to work as a copy editor. It was a busy, bustling enterprise then, an aggressive but serious newspaper that regularly exposed corruption, uncovered scandals and unearthed government waste. We dug up dirt at city hall, police headquarters, the hospital, the hydro commission.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Organic Materials by Michelle Ann King

Keith's marital neglect catches up with him, and he resorts to extreme measures to express his anger; by Michelle Ann King. 

Keith left the community centre early, since his talk on the history of housing development in East Anglia had attracted an audience of just two people - and they turned out to have got lost on their way to the Mature Ladies' Erotica Reading Group. Arriving home to find Chet waiting on the doorstep did not make him feel any better.

Chet Fortune was everything Keith loathed in a person, and particularly in a next-door neighbour: big, loud, uncouth, and possessed of a huge Irish Wolfhound that was on a mission to fertilise every square inch of grass, patio, and flowerbed in Essex. Even his name was irritating; it made him sound like a film star when he was really a window fitter from Basildon.

'What do you want?' Keith said. 'I don't suppose you've come to apologise for that wretched animal of yours, have you? Did you see what it did to my garden gnomes? It took me half an hour to clean off all the -'

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Journey to Hell by Rosemary Johnson

Rosemary Johnson's character is inducted into a polygamous religious cult at the tender age of five.

I need to do this alone.

I daren't look back, yet my ears insist on straining for the click of an opening door or the snap of a window catch. Nothing. The breath I'm holding hisses from my puffed-out cheeks and out through tight lips.

I slip behind the line of trees along the path, spindly trunks encased in orange plastic coverings, just enough to camouflage an anonymous silhouette, a bonnet and a grey full-length dress. We have planted every one of these saplings, the other virgins and I. As Ashley T Berger informs us, by live video-link every Sunday, "The Berger Community is passionate about the environment."

We live in a beautiful place. This is one of the things we in the Community keep telling one another. As I run to the gate, my eyes feast upon the radiant colours of the red and purple dahlias and yellow roses in the flowerbeds. For the last time. The red Victorian brickwork of the high wall which encloses us glows in the summer evening light. We have everything we need here: school, clinic, communal refectory meals prepared by the Cooking Heroines and our grey uniform stitched by the Needle Heroines. We donate all our money to the Community when we join, because we have nothing to buy. I've lived here almost all my life. Everybody I know resides within these walls, kind, loving people, in Heaven already as we say. Most of them, anyway.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Current Affairs by Matthew McAyeal

In 1939, 14-year-old Mary Brown's girlish obsession with Gone with the Wind matures as she becomes more aware of world events; by Matthew McAyeal.

"Hey, where's my book?" screamed Mary Brown. In an instant, her angry shriek brought tension and headache to the otherwise tranquil spring day in April.

By "my book" she meant her copy of Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell's story of the Old South was practically the most popular book in the world, and few loved it more than fourteen-year-old Mary Brown. She planned to reread it over and over again, enough to absorb every detail, before the movie came out. But now her copy had vanished. She knew she hadn't misplaced it. She knew where she kept it. Someone else had moved it.

Mary marched out to the living room only to see her parents were completely unconcerned by her beloved book's disappearance. "Where's my book?" she repeated loudly.

"Your book has been put away," said Mrs. Brown.

"What?" asked Mary, outraged. "Put away? Put away where? What have you done with it?"

Monday, November 30, 2020

Fast Times at Spiro Agnew High by James Blakey

High school student Michael Wimmer owes money to a dangerous acquaintance, and must undertake some detective work to make things right; by James Blakey.


I'm about to step off the bus and I make like a statue. Frank Samson is standing on the curb, between me and the school, dressed like an undertaker's apprentice: white shirt, dark tie, black slacks.

"Wimmer, you're blocking traffic," a voice says from behind.

Samson flashes a rat-faced smile and punches a fist into his open hand.

"Move!" Someone shoves me.

I tumble to the pavement. Frank takes two steps toward me, then I'm up and running for my life. I head left toward the staff parking lot. Two hundred yards and twenty-five seconds later, I look over my shoulder. No Samson.