Monday, March 18, 2019

The Widow's Club by John Conaway

A mischievous group of ageing widows hire a male stripper for entertainment, but they don't get what they expect; by John Conaway.

Fran gets the chocolate chip cookies started while they wait for the naked house cleaning guy to arrive. She'd found out about the service through one of her friends and talked the girls into giving it a shot. The cost, based on the number of attendees, is $350.00. The woman who answered the phone tells Fran that the house cleaning will take about half an hour and that their cleaning guy's name is Steve.

The girls get together about once a week. They talk. Sometimes they watch movies. They smoke pot, get the munchies, and bake cookies. Lately they've been watching porno on Fran's laptop, something new to all of them except Fran. They always express amazement at the endurance of the actors - if that's what you call them.

They call it the Widow's Club although they're not all, strictly speaking, widows. Sandy was a widow but remarried. Fran's husband, from whom she's presently separated, was on the plane that crashed into the Hudson so she was almost a widow. She's always telling people, "If it wasn't for that fucking Sully Sullenberger I'd be lounging on the deck of my Palm Beach condo right now." They assume she's joking. Joan's ex died after they were divorced. Only Deidre and Deb are actual widows.

The girls agree to divide the fee evenly, $70 each. "What about a tip?" Joan asks.

Friday, March 15, 2019

When Coal Was King by Gareth Clarke

Gareth Clarke's character tells of his childhood in a not-quite-traditional Welsh mining town.

I was born in the mining village of Cwmstgwynfryn. My dad lives there still, and in the same house too - in his nineties now, and still cooking for himself. I make the journey back three or four times a year, or whenever I can. One of the few original terraces left (they've pulled most of them down and built a rash of one and two bed bungalows) though you'd hardly recognise it for the smoke-grimed terrace it was when we lived there in the late Fifties and through the Sixties. Now it's all bright colours, open-plan living, teak veneer and Audis parked outside.

The pit's long gone, of course, with little sign of it now but the concrete cap over the pit shaft. The slag heap's all grassed over, and there are woods on its slopes, mixed pine and deciduous. Different as you could possibly imagine from when I lived there with my mam and dad. The kiddies from the local school are taken for walks along the nature trails through the woods where we used to scrabble for fragments of coal for the fire.

I was an only child, unusual for those times. Now, whether that's because after having me my mother turned against all that sort of thing in an outpouring of Presbyterian virtue - striding along to the chapel as she would, massive legs placed firmly apart in her Sunday best breeches and donkey jacket, breathing in the spirit of the Lord along with the smoke-laden air - or whether she'd imposed a strict no-go policy on my father for reasons of her own, and which he would have had no choice but to respect, I don't know. Doesn't bear thinking about, to be honest. Still, there it is - at the end of the day I remained an only child.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Electricity by David Rogers

A man whose life is plagued by visions is confronted by one realer and yet more fantastic than he could have imagined; by David Rogers.

The whole sky flashed, a searing electric blaze, fading to the blue-brown of the horizon. Lightning here did funny things to a man's vision. The clouds were patchy, silver gray, like the plains of an airless moon.

Masters checked the zippers on his wetsuit, snugged the goggles down over his eyes, and waded into the surf. The water was cold. He'd have to make the repair fast and get out.

This was his first real job since the last episode. He'd been turned down by half a dozen companies before he decided in desperation to change his name and doctor his resume. Not that he felt bad about the deception. At least, not most of the time. After all, didn't people usually do the opposite of what he did - claim skills and experience they didn't have, in order to get jobs they were not qualified for? But he'd been told he was overqualified enough times to know it was code for "untrustworthy." So he did what he had to, in order to survive. It was evolution at work. Natural selection. Not that it had been easy, even so. The first three employers he applied to checked his references and invited him to go away, without bothering to be polite. Not that he blamed them. That was how things worked.

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Best Revenge by Patrick Ritter

Mike fears his mother has been conned and wants revenge, but is it too late? By Patrick Ritter.

It came back right after dessert.

"Happy birthday, Mom," Mike said, unwrapping a small birthday cake. "I couldn't fit eighty candles on it, but I know you don't like too much fuss."

"It's perfect," she replied. "What a nice surprise, Michael. And I have a surprise for you too."

"Oh yeah," he said, cutting each of them a piece of cake. "What's that?"

"I know you've wanted me to sell the farm property in Merced and move into that senior home. Well, I'm finally going to do it."

"That's great Mom, you really deserve it. The money from the sale will make your life so much more comfortable. When are you going to list it?"

"Oh, I already have someone who's going to buy it," she said chomping into the cake.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Soldiers' Children by Harrison Abbott

Harrison Abbott tells the chilling tale of a wartime raid.

The villagers had been receiving panicky messages from relatives and friends throughout the night. The invading soldiers were heading north, and the village was directly in their path: they needed to escape before the soldiers reached them. There was no resistance to the invasion anymore; the capital in the south had fallen, and the soldiers were flooding across the nation. Doing what, the villagers couldn't know. In the northern mountains, few people even understood why the invasion was happening.

Only one man made it out of the village before the platoon arrived. The rest of the families were thrusting survival goods into their cars, when the platoon's jeeps appeared on the long road from the hills, just as daylight had emerged. The jeeps did not snarl or send black fumes against the snowfields. They only petered down to the village at a calm pace. Ten vehicles, clad in military gear. And all the villagers could do was stand and watch and imagine what was going to happen.

When the jeeps arrived, the soldiers alighted with controlled expressions. The morning temperature now seemed warm, the snow light, the flakes dallying about their uniforms. Slowly they approached the locals, who were terrified of their machine guns, but even more by their serenity. All the soldiers did was ask that every adult villager gather in the main street, so they could be spoken to.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Follow That Car by James Paul Close

James Paul Close foresees a fundamental problem with self-driving taxis.

I could hardly say, "Follow that car," so what else was I going to do?

I simply said "Amsterdam Avenue," because I knew it was the same direction the car in front was heading. It was late, I had just left the nightclub, and I was feeling quite tipsy. Needless to say, things didn't go to plan. The autotaxi replied with its off-the-peg voicefile, sounding all cheap and synthetic. "Amsterdam Avenue is only zero point two miles away from your current location. Travelling short distances will incur the minimum fee of twenty dollars. Do you wish to proceed?"

"Yes, dammit, go!" I barked.

I had to catch that car in front. It was getting away, the rear lights of the silver Mercedes blurring into the rain-soaked night. It was a classic model - manually driven - and I could just about make out all five silhouettes; especially his large frame filling the driver's seat. That was definitely them.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Prayer for a Punch Line by Michael Guillebeau

A priest hears a confession that creates a difficult moral quandary which makes him question his own career choices; by Michael Guillebeau.

"Forgive me, Father Carson. I've killed a girl."

I started to laugh through the confessional partition. Freddie liked to joke, or at least try. But even a priest who liked jokes in the pulpit couldn't allow jokes in the confessional - and there were enough people who thought I didn't take my calling seriously enough as it was.

"Freddie - my son - this is not a place for jokes. Begin by saying something like, 'Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.'"

Freddie was crying softly. It was the first time I had heard a man crying in confession. Of course, it was only my second year hearing confessions.

"My son," I said. "We both know you're sometimes confused. Perhaps you're mistaken."

"The news man says she's dead. They haven't found her body, but they said she's pressured dead."

"Presumed dead. OK. Perhaps we do need to talk about this."

Friday, February 22, 2019

Books to Read, Stories to Write by Mark Joseph Kevlock

Mark Joseph Kevlock's character wants more time in the day, so he duplicates himself, with unintended consequences.

It was a pretty simple decision. There just wasn't enough of me to go around. So I had to make a duplicate. After all, I couldn't afford to fall behind in my schedule. There were books to read, stories to write.

Allyce wasn't as thrilled as I'd hoped she would be with my decision.

"I don't need another you," she said. "He'll just get in the way. I don't know why you think you need another you."

"Remember how we talked about if the days were twelve hours longer, how much more I'd get done?" I said. "Well, I can't figure out how to do that, so this is the next best thing."

We were out by the wishing tree, Allyce and I. Someone had cut off all of its branches. But it could still be used as a transmitter to the stars.

"I'm wishing that I'll wake up beside myself," I said.

"I guess that's better than beside someone else," Allyce murmured.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Crow Barn by DC Diamondopolous

Calypso and Phoebe follow a dream-vision through a post-apocalyptic wasteland to try and find their sister Alawisha; by DC Diamondopolous.

The rope pulled at Calypso's waist. She staggered then stumbled as she clawed her way up the hill with Phoebe tied below. They had been searching for Alawisha, their younger sister, since her disappearance the day before. Hunger, thirst, and fatigue were ignored as panic pushed them to the edge of collapse. When sleep grabbed her, Calypso dreamt of Crow Barn.

Sweat burned her eyes. She carried a knife swathed in rags and kept it tucked into her belt. A cloth bag was strapped across her shoulder. Her feet wrapped in bark and tied with hemp made the ascent slippery. She plodded on looking at burnt hills and toppled chimneystacks, tombstone markers for homes, homes her grandmother had told her once nestled in green hills covered with orange poppies and goldenrod. Calypso had been enchanted by tales of California's central coast. Once there were streams of fresh water, an ocean to swim and surf in, vineyards, cows that grazed along miles of farmlands and Monterey Pines silhouetted against a blue horizon. There had been a highway that connected villages with towns and towns with cities.

It was dangerous to let her thoughts drift when they were being hunted. Since Alawisha disappeared, Calypso leashed herself to Phoebe.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Once a Dreamer by Terry D. Williams

A weary newspaper reporter meets an old flame who claims to have a story for him; by Terry D. Williams.

On Monday evening, June thirtieth, there was an accident on I-95 and I arrived a few minutes late for my first reporting assignment at Warren Town Hall in Fairfield County, Connecticut. I parked my Subaru alongside a new 2003 Range Rover and toe-walked (due to having one leg shorter than the other) toward an empty chair in the front of the meeting room. A handful of well-tanned and perfume-scented townspeople pattered at their seats. At the head table roosted the town clerk, Deputy Mayor DeVito, and several councillors. Behind the mayor's nameplate sat an empty chair.

As if he had waited for me to arrive, the deputy mayor said, "The meeting of the Town Council of Warren is called to order," as I settled into a seat in the front row. Compared with the outcries about drug addiction and crime that took place in towns adjacent to Bridgeport and Hartford, I expected to hear citizens of Warren discuss dreary things such as the fire department's pasta dinner or the concessions for the fall Farmers' Market. And it pretty much went that way. That is, until an attractive woman, wearing a silk blouse and plum skirt stood at the lectern and addressed the council.

I recognized Becky Schneider. Her slender body suggested she'd taken good care of herself since we were together, some thirty years earlier. A surge of nerves coursed through me. Not only had I never stopped loving her but seeing her triggered soul-shredding regret about the shameful path my life had taken since she broke up with me.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Consider Me Dead by Clive Aaron Gill

An art lecturer at the University of California shelters a homeless man in the hope of reigniting his own artistic flair; by Clive Aaron Gill.

Andrew Miller drove to 16th Street in downtown San Diego on a Monday afternoon to buy paint and paper supplies. He parked and walked toward his favorite art store, his back stooped, his head of untidy hair like a shrub. He crinkled his nose as he smelled the garbage and exhaust fumes.

Winos clung to the shadows, and arrogant young men sat in large cars, seemingly prepared to deal drugs.

Andrew's eyes traveled to a man wearing dirty jeans and a torn denim shirt who appeared to be in his early forties. The man stood on the sidewalk in front of watercolor paintings and charcoal drawings propped against a low wall. One drawing showed a woman with sunken cheeks.

"Good God," Andrew mumbled, looking at the picture of the woman.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Orville's Crop by O. D. Hegre

O. D. Hegre channels Stephen King in this creepy tale of Professor Orville Berkinbeck's experiments to make a stronger kind of corn. Dedicated by the author to the memory of Lee.

"Can the human race survive every seemingly good idea man has ever had?"
- Madame Romani


"Enjoy the weekend, Professor." Ben Jackson closed the door of the incubator and engaged the time lock. "Going out to the farm, I bet."

Dr. Orville Berkinbeck looked up from his desk and nodded. "You get going now too, Benjamin. I'll close down everything before I leave."

The Professor watched the grad student gather his gear and exit the laboratory.

Berkinbeck not only had the hobby farm - and the barn - but he also had a M.A. in Agricultural Science from Cal State, and a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Harvard. He and his lovely wife, May, lived in Ames but spent most weekends in Millsberg, out on their four hundred acres of rich fertile soil.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Rain Falls Like Rain by Richard Risemberg

Richard Risemberg's reflective vignette about a lonely but content old man.

The rain was steady now. There had been an hour of fury around four in the morning, a downpour and a few grunts of thunder, and it had awakened the old man. The gentle rain that followed had lulled him back to sleep. He had always loved the sound of rain in the downspouts, loved it since childhood. Two and a half hours later he awoke again, went to the bathroom, dressed, and made a pot of tea. Now he was sitting in the unheated front room, cozy in a sweater, cuddling the cup of tea to his chest, and watching the rain. It fell steadily onto the asphalt street in front of his apartment, made little vanishing circles in the puddles. A few drops clung to the glass of the lattice window. One of his neighbors, a younger woman whose name he didn't know, walked by under a red umbrella. She wore a puffy down parka and black tights. Her face was serene, neutral as she walked past his window. The odor of the tea rose to his face, warming him. The rain fell steadily. He was close enough to the glass that he could see the world inverted in the clinging raindrops, looking brighter than the real world.

Friday, February 1, 2019

The Interrogation Consistency by Lori Lipsky

Kara escapes heartbreak by travelling to Nepal; by Lori Lipsky.

When friends and family asked why she would quit her job in the States to move across the world where she didn't know a soul, she told everyone it was for the adventure. In part, she spoke truth. Kara did love adventure, but the real reason she quit her job - a successful position for a growing computer software company - was to flee the pain of a broken relationship. Her boyfriend of three years ended things between them, and she'd been devastated.

Kara couldn't face the questions of well-meaning friends and acquaintances. How could she grieve the loss of the man she loved when someone mentioned his name to her every day? She gave notice at the job she loved and travelled alone from her home in the Midwest to the Asian country of Nepal.

After landing at the airport in Kathmandu, Kara rode in a tiny cab to her designated training location. Because of her height she found it necessary to hunch over in the back seat the entire ride. She held her hands over her head to shield it, hoping to avoid a concussion as she and the driver travelled the bumpy roads. As she crouched in the rear of the tiny cab, she recalled a conversation with her mother only three weeks before.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Wreck by Subodhana Wijeyeratne

In this heady sci-fi, something extremely strange has happened to the inhabitants of Hozido, and Subodhana Wijeyeratne's character must visit planet Wreck to find out what.

The settlement of Hozido is six kilometres inside the Wreck. They trade ingots of Wreckmetal and cryptic old tech and sometimes, if they have a good year, the dried meat of their cross-eyed airlock goats. It is a thriving and noisy place and so when all goes silent the scavengers nearby notice. When they break through the airlock and into Hozido, twelve days after they last heard from it, this is what they find.

Empty corridors and clacking air conditioners and vending machines that stutter to neon life when someone approaches. No sign of violence. The scavengers - impoverished drifters all - are armed and tense. They keep going until they've combed every inch of the place and mulled things over and finally concluded, with much head-scratching and whispering of prayers, that everyone in the settlement has just disappeared.

Most of them leave at this point, scampering back through the lattice shadows, flinching at every drone that comes gormlessly out of doorways like a puppy, lights winking and eager to help. But about twenty of them linger, and eventually they get to talking about ransacking the place. In the freezer at the back are great haunches of meat suspended from hooks, rose-fleshed and crimson and perfect for the eating.

Friday, January 25, 2019

An Outdoor Dog By R.W. Dufresne

Near the end of World War II, R. W. Dufresne's character wants a dog of his own, but will his overbearing father let him?

Butch was a comical little puppy with short brown hair, a long tail that rolled up over his back like a big question mark, or maybe a hook to hang him in the barn with. He had a white patch over one eye and the tip of his tail was white, too, like he'd dipped it in a can of paint. The eye under the patch was blue, but the other eye was brown. His head was round, but flat in front like his father's, with pointy ears that stuck straight up, like his mother's.

It was 1944 and my father told me, "There's a war on." I wasn't sure what that meant, but I'd seen the posters at the post office: "We Can Do It," and "Loose Lips Sink Ships," and "Buy Bonds." Sometimes we'd sit around the radio and listen to President Roosevelt. He talked funny and I didn't understand everything he was saying, but I liked the sound of his voice. I remember we hated the Japs.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Bureau of Transparency by Leland Neville

Leland Neville's character gets a visit from a dystopian government agency.

There was a faint knock on the front door. My hands shook in anticipation. "Go away. I'm not interested in what you're selling."

Three sharp bangs rattled the windows. "It's only a starting pistol," he said. "You need to install a video doorbell."

"Get off my property," I said.

"I'm from the Bureau of Transparency. I'm not going anywhere."

I am often overwhelmed by the arrogance that has spread like the plague throughout this land.

"You are required by federal law to let me in."

"Do you have a search warrant?" I said.

"I don't need one. The Bureau of Transparency is a quasi-government agency. We're exempt from the restraints of the Constitution." He was indignant.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Twenty-Seven Club by Kevin McGeary

A musician looks back upon his arrogant younger self, busking and working illegally in Shenzhen and contemplating how to emulate his heroes; by Kevin McGeary.

They say there are two types of lyricist, those who write while overlooking a phosphorescent ocean, and those who write while staring at a blank wall. I always saw myself as one of the former, but that night, as I crouched over the windowsill scribbling in the notepad where I wrote all of my completed lyrics, the neon Shenzhen skyline refused to shine behind the evening shower. I still remember what I wrote:

I have never lived in prose and am no good at writing it, but I hope this provides consolation.

No matter how hopeless our lives are, there is always one door we can pass through unimpeded. This is the door I have chosen.

Do not think I have left this world in anger or bitterness. I leave behind only love and music that will live forever on the worldwide web.

I placed my notebook on the pine desk, next to a black marker I had borrowed from work.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Wingwork by Chris Panatier

An ageing fairy struggles to do her rounds; by Chris Panatier.

Carol was getting old. Real old. And her bones weren't feeling all the travel anymore. Flying first-class was okay, she guessed, if you'd never experienced the thrill and freedom of the open air as she had for so many decades - was it decades already? Airline seats cramped her fragile wings no matter the cabin.

Oh, how she wished she could hide them away. Her wings, the tools of her trade, had once been a source of pride, lustrous as pearls and whip flexible. Now they crinkled against her back, shrunken and desiccated. The older she got, the harder it was to find anything that might give them the jolt they needed to kick into gear. She'd chugged coffee, triple espressos, Kool-Aid, soft drinks, and even guzzled honey straight from the bear's head, but all failed to rejuvenate them.

Thankfully, her fellow passengers were mercifully aloof, never visibly acknowledging the obvious. Being a fairy that could no longer fly was humiliating enough. And if Jack hadn't racked up so many frequent flyer miles before his heart got him, she'd be out of the job for sure.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Common Courtesy by Steve Gergley

Wilson Clarke believes in common courtesy and respect for his fellow citizens, and he goes to great lengths to get it; by Steve Gergley.

Wilson Clark's shift had ended over an hour ago, but by 9:15 he was still stuck at the store doing cycle counts. He kneeled on the cold tile by the bargain laptops and counted the boxes stored in locked cubbies under the display shelf. The air was stale and dusty down here and a needling itch danced in his nose each time he took a breath, but the sales floor was quiet so he was able to move fast.

Soon Wilson came to the last section of his count and started walking to the video game aisles to finish up. For years this area had been his favorite part of the store. Before becoming department manager, he had often spent his lunch breaks down here, browsing the new titles with a sweating bottle of Yoo-hoo and a half-chomped Milky Way in hand; but after nine years of serving the angry customers of this store, all the thrill of conflict had been squeezed from his brain like soapy water from a sponge. These days, just the thought of playing a video game made his mouth go dry with anxiety. Now he spent his free time listening to film soundtracks and reading his old history textbooks from college.

Just before starting his count, Wilson saw a middle-aged woman tottering toward him with an iPhone case clutched in her hand. She wore a sour expression and her mouth was pinched and tight and deep vertical wrinkles fanned out across her upper lip like tire-ruts in soft dirt. Wilson swiveled his head left and right and looked around for Missy and Amanda, but they were not behind their registers or facing their aisles or anywhere else in sight, so he circled behind the service counter and pushed aside the "Next Register Please" sign and waved the woman in.

Monday, January 7, 2019

My Darling Pills by Mike Todd

Mike Todd's character is captivated by the ugliest girl in his school.

The first time I met Pills she spat in my face. It was the first day of second grade and she had just given me what she considered to be an appropriate answer to an inappropriate question.

Quite innocently, I had asked this new kid, "Why do you stink so bad, boy?" She made it clear that she didn't appreciate my reference to her odor. It wasn't until I was older that I understood she was even more insulted by my failure to recognize she was a lady.

As I stood on the playground, startled, with her spit running down my cheek, the only thing I could think to do was apologize. Then she was startled. Pills knew how to respond to insults, but apologies seemed to perplex her. She simply punched me in the chest and ran into the school building without saying a word.

I still carry a picture of Pills Carkix in my wallet. I never knew why she had such an unusual name. Her parents were obnoxious, illiterate and unshaven, so I assumed they were just plain weird, too.

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Haunted Telescope by Dave Henson

Harold is getting jealous of his wife's success at work, and begins to suspect her of something sinister; by Dave Henson.

"Harold, could you put away the dishes, please."

Harold turns toward his wife. "Denise, you might be a division manager at work now, but that doesn't make you my boss at home."

"Sweetie, I didn't mean - Oh, never mind. I'll do it myself. It's just I've got an important presentation tomorrow, and I want to practice it."

Harold walks part-way out of the kitchen then stops and turns toward his wife. He wants to say something about her getting ahead by being a kiss-up at work, but smothers the urge and goes upstairs.

Harold comes in from the patio and goes into the kitchen. "That's the perfect place for it. There's a nice clear view of the sky."

"How'd you happen to get a used telescope?" Denise says.