Friday, March 22, 2019

The Nests of Birds of Paradise by Bailey Bridgewater

Lynn works for an answering service and starts getting regular calls from a vulnerable psychiatric patient, in Bailey Bridgewater's moving story.

"Watkins and Kinny Psychological Services. How can I help you?"

There was flat silence on the other end before a wavering man's voice cut it. "Is this the answering service?"

"Yes it is." The handbook clearly stated that we should never tell people we were a call center representative unless they asked directly - then we couldn't lie.

"Thank you for telling the truth." Another silence.

"Can I help you with something?"

A muffled thumping like he was playing with the receiver of an old wall-mounted telephone. I pictured this person wrapping the curly cord around his fingers as he hesitated.

"I don't know. Maybe. No. I don't... There's another girl that used to talk to me sometimes. Her name was Sharon. Does she still work there?"

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.