Friday, August 7, 2020

In the Heart of the Woods by Christopher Johnson

Ten-year-old Herbie Hereford explores the local woods with his friends, and his courage is sorely tested; by Christopher Johnson.

The woods felt vast to me, with their deep, dark, secret places. They loomed like a sorceress at the end of our block in Upton Grove in northern Ohio, lying thick and black, feeling so different from the everyday life of school and church, tempting me yet repelling me, promising adventure like none we would ever have in the strict, narrow confines of our daily existence.

There were four of us - Darlene, Roger, Tommy, me. We were suburban kids starving for adventure, thirsting to break out. We had a voracious hunger, and the woods beckoned with seductive arms open. Yet we could not have articulated this hunger, which felt like the edge of a sharp knife held against our souls. The need was inchoate. It lay at the back of our ten-year-old collective unconscious - a yearning so acute yet so unexpressed.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Forward: March by Mike Lee

Mike Lee tells the story of two American political refugees in the South American country of Antanzia, with a complicated personal history; by Mike Lee.

"How exhausting all this was. In fact, if only people knew how madly tiresome it is to be a criminal!" 

- Hermann Hesse, Klein and Wagner 

The question was resolved with an answer I steadfastly refused to accept. My hands became putty in this memory of a profoundly painful aspect of my past. That is, doing something that seemed a good idea at the time, but really never was to begin with.

This fact was laid out before me while with my old camp mate Stefan at a table at the beach in Antanzia City.

We sat under a fuchsia umbrella chatting over some business regarding his novel and likely temporary employment writing copy for a public relations firm I had an excellent connection with.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Maestro by Lawrence Martin

A prestigious conductor auditions for a new member of his orchestra, and gets a moving surprise; by Lawrence Martin.

"Maestro, the candidates are waiting."

The fifty-year-old conductor, tall, handsome and urbane, nodded to his young assistant. They walked to the audition auditorium.

"How many performers today?"

"Four, sir. Two from Curtis in Philadelphia, two from Juilliard."

"These are a chore, Robert, but I must endure them. You have the Mahler score, so I can study it during the auditions?"

"Yes. About the performers, three are seasoned violinists, and one is a Juilliard student."

"Oh, they always try to slip in a student, heh? A waste of my valuable time."

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Trophy Wife by Rhema Sayers

When Jessica's overbearing husband has a heart attack after a skiing accident, she and her sister-in law suspect foul play; by Rhema Sayers. 

Hank Tavison, age forty-six, tanned, buff, ruggedly handsome, with his young, gorgeous, fifth wife at his side, leaned back in the ski lift chair, letting the cold wind blow through his thick dark hair.

"What a great day!" he enthused as Jessica shifted uncomfortably in the seat next to him. She kept her gaze locked on the back of the seat ahead and her gloved hands clenched on the safety bar.

"You're going to love this." Hank continued. "There's nothing like a brilliant, sunny day on the slopes with the wind in your face. You'll feel like you're flying!"

"Are you sure I ought to start on this slope? I've never skied before. It looks awfully steep."

"Don't worry. You'll catch on quick."

"I'm a little scared, Hank."

He glanced at her irritably. "Don't get whiny. You'll spoil the whole day." And he turned his attention back to the slopes.

Jessica turned her face away to hide the anger and the tears.

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Memory Keeper by Fiona Nichols

Supermarket security guard Chris harvests old photos from his ailing mother's house, and flirts with Gemma, a waitress at the supermarket café; by Fiona Nichols.

Outside, the storm rumbled on, leaving the rain-slicked carpark almost empty. Chris headed for his usual table by the window, wet hair dripping onto his tray. He had picked the wrong day to cycle. With half an hour until his evening shift started, he set down his coffee and toasted teacake and shouldered off his backpack, leaving a puddle on the floor. He'd been turning up for work early these past few months, and the rest of his day had become a prelude to sitting in the supermarket café, in the hope Gemma was working. Chris sat facing the counter, raised his mug at her and smiled. The waitress nodded back from her cash register, but she seemed tired - not her usual sparky self at all. She was busy serving the only other customer, so he dragged his eyes away and remembered to check the old shoebox in his bag.

At least by wrapping it in a plastic carrier before leaving his mum's nursing home, he had ensured the whole thing wasn't reduced to mush. The box was still dry, but the ragged corners were held together by peeling tape. Chris lifted the lid on his mother's memories to examine the contents. He considered lovestruck newlyweds on the brink of parenthood, and family snapshots with Chris on his father's sandy shoulders. It pleased him how many remnants of his mother's past they had managed to label with names and years today.

Chris yawned and ruffled his hair. He needed this coffee tonight. Packing up someone else's life was exhausting, and he welcomed the caffeine as he took his first sip. He wondered whether he could release the top button of his trousers discreetly to be comfortable, without looking creepy. His waistband had been digging into his skin lately, leaving a red stripe along his belly like a scar. He should start running or something. There were four individual butters with peel-off lids on his plate. Two were low-fat margarine, two were the good stuff. Best just make it margarine. Back when he had started here, he could chase after a shoplifter, fast as a whippet. But now? He shook his head. This whole security guard thing was only ever meant to be temporary after his redundancy, but everyone here was nice, and time kept slipping away.

Monday, July 20, 2020

My Deal With The You Know Who by Lawrence Martin

A successful author longs for some musical talent, and is prepared to sacrifice his very soul; by Lawrence Martin.

I entered Jake's Deli on Cleveland's west side and, as instructed, took a seat in one of the booths. The waitress came over and I told her I was waiting for someone, and we would order together. A minute later he walked in. From a distance, he seemed to be just another guy coming from the parking lot. Though we had never met, he seemed to recognize me right away. He walked straight to the booth, sat opposite me.

"Hello," he said, in a deep baritone voice that sounded affected. I was still skeptical at that point. We shook hands. His hand felt cool, almost clammy, and his grip quite strong.

"Hi," I said, rather meekly. "Why did you choose Jake's Deli for this meeting?"

"They have great pastrami, of course. Good enough reason."

I searched for some sign of his identity and think I found it in his face. The angles were sharper, more unnatural-looking, and his eyes were deeper into the sockets than normal, as if he was made up for some horror movie. He wore a felt hat and I am certain there were two protrusions, one on either side of his head, poking up the felt. This was no imposter, or if so, a very good one.

Our waitress returned and didn't look twice at the new arrival. "What'll it be?" she asked, after depositing two waters.

He ordered pastrami on rye. I ordered lox and a bagel.

"Are you paying?" I asked, sort of joking.

"Yes. You'll pay later." He was not joking.

I cleared my throat.

"So," he said, in a somewhat haughty manner, "what exactly do you want?"

Friday, July 17, 2020

Divergent Memories by Tim Frank

Tim Frank tells a chilling science fiction tale of the Church's capacity to foster self-denial in service of its own ends.

The congregation, consisting mainly of young couples, some accompanied by their children, the rest single men, knelt in prayer as the priest's voice boomed from the altar to the nave.

"Now," he said, placing his hand on the bible that was open at the Book of Proverbs, "I want you to access your memory chips and go to a place you dread the most - the hidden, the traumatic. Remember, we have analysed your chips meticulously and we can assure you there is nothing too disturbing recorded in them. And yet these memories must be confronted, held up to the light, because if we blot out the past we cannot truly live in the present. Well now, let us proceed, shall we?"

Malcolm grabbed hold of his wife's hand and squeezed tight. She responded with a reassuring smile and briefly rested her head on his shoulder. They both closed their eyes and began to sift through memories on their memory chips. The chips were lodged in their skulls just behind their left ears.

Now that he had been prompted, Malcolm knew exactly which memories to focus on. After all, these particular recollections had been haunting him since their inception.

His mind was transported back in time until he arrived at a flashback where he was standing in a deserted toilet. The lavatory had five cubicles, three sinks and a large mirror, reflecting the light from the windows, creating a phosphorescent cube. Staring back at him in the mirror was a youthful Malcolm, maybe aged fifteen years old, wearing a school uniform - his tie twisted out of shape and one side of his shirt untucked. He could smell a cigarette burning from the far cubicle and plumes of smoke played against the ceiling before they were sucked into the air vent. As the smoke spread throughout the room, Malcolm's lungs became constricted and he began to wheeze. He approached the cubicle from where the smoke was emanating and found the door was ajar. He pushed it open gently with his foot. He revealed a young man, roughly Malcolm's age, holding a cigarette with a limp wrist, wearing thickly applied eyeliner and lip gloss.

"Can you put the cigarette out? It's bad for my asthma."

Monday, July 13, 2020

Candy by Dave Wakely

Dave Wakely's character has to look after his estranged fifteen-year-old daughter for a few days.

"God, you're so useless!"

She stands before me, two skimpy candy-pink tops dangling from their hangers like the discarded skins of lurid reptiles, her ferocious glare expecting me to choose. Decisions, decisions... Luminous Lycra or acrylic machined-lace the colour of bubblegum.

I scratch my chin while her right foot counts out the seconds on the rough concrete floor.

Tap tap tap.

This is her second day with me after half-an-hour's notice, after what passes for an explanation from her mother. Just a text, neither predictive nor predictable. Hasn't her daughter told her? Abbreviations are sooo last year.

Moved in new house but hv chickenpox + R on business in Singapore. B not had it. Don't kno neighbours so cant ask. Yr office sed u r on study leave, so sending her over w driver. Shd be ok in 2 wks. Will xfer £s to yr a/c. Spk later. J.

Since she arrived, we might still be in my town but we're in her world now. Mine never smelt of fast food and unisex perfumes. The lighting was kinder, and it was quieter there. How's a man to think? More to the point, what would the man she now calls Daddy do? Would he even allow her in a place like this?

Friday, July 10, 2020

Crusade by Lawrence Martin

Doctor Miller will try anything to get his patient to quit smoking, but who is more determined? By Lawrence Martin.

Dr. Lewis Miller always struggled to get his smoking patients to quit. He cajoled, he pontificated, he pointed out facts. When all that failed, he used his funeral home gambit.

"Mable," he would say to his patient, when her smoking habit came up, "What funeral home do you do business with?"

This question would, of course, get Mabel's attention. After her "why-the-heck-are-you-asking me-that?" response, he would go into his the-cigarettes-are-killing-you-quick spiel. He tried some variation of this question with most of his addicted patients. Sometimes it worked, but most often not. Still, he kept trying.

And if one of his smokers was admitted to the hospital, for whatever reason, he would, in the middle of examining the patient, ask where they stashed the cigarettes.

"My cigarettes?"

"Yes, the ones you brought with you."

Monday, July 6, 2020

The Library by John Boeschen

John Boeschen bends time and reality in this mysterious adventure story about a beaten down truck-stop girl who, during the coronavirus lockdown, spontaneously hitches a ride with a charming rebel called James Dean.

Please read carefully. This story is not complete, it's evolving. What you read now determines what you and others read as the story comes together.

Reader Etiquette
  • Keep yourself out of the story
  • Remain impartial to individuals and events
  • Fill in or alter only small pieces missing from or inconsistent with the story
  • Leave large gaps and inconsistencies unread until more data are available
  • Avoid elaborating on data-complete individuals, events, and environments
  • Read no harm of your own making, intentional or unintentional, into a story



"Goddammit, Siri, stop daydreamin'. I toldcha to flip the sign to 'closed.'" Niall Mac Loughlin follows his outburst with a sharp slap to the side of his daughter's face, the slap loud as a slammed door.

Mac Loughlin's an angry man. Some might say his 'I'm bigger, tougher than you' attitude stems from his short stature and scrawny frame, the man standing 5'3" on his toes, no more than 145 lbs with a growler of Guinness clutched in his stubby fingers.
 

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.