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.

7:38am


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.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Blonde Noir by DC Diamondopolous

An ageing actor-artist is interviewed for a talk show after an old video goes unpleasantly viral; by DC Diamondopolous.

Kit Covington sat on the sofa in her Pacific Palisades mansion with a cigarette lodged in the side of her mouth. A cloud of smoke floated around her head. She adjusted the oxygen tube in her nose, then brushed ash from her dog Muffin's champagne-colored curls. The miniature poodle dozing in Kit's lap startled when the camera crew from The Great Morning Talk Show banged equipment into Kit's antique furniture.

"Watch it! You scratch anything, you'll pay for the restoration." Since her left lung had been removed, Kit's husky voice had a rattle that lingered between words chaining them together like loose ball bearings.

"Sorry," the stocky, tattooed sound woman said.

Kit wondered if the all-female crew was a set-up - some kind of knife-twisting in the gut. She'd been anxious about the interview and now regretted it.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Survival by John M. Floyd

Four survivors of a cruise liner disaster compete for survival; by John M Floyd.

Ross and McLane stood together on the grassy ridge, looking down at the coastline.

"If he left this morning," McLane said, "he should be back by now."

"He'll be back," Ross said.

"I don't know. He told Susan there might be pirates about." McLane was leaning on a crutch he had made from a tree limb, and gazing at the spot where the beach disappeared around a peninsula a mile to the west. They knew which way was west, at least, from the sun. That was about all they knew.

"Let's just hope he finds the boat."

McLane nodded. "Or more survivors. Right?"

Friday, November 20, 2020

Scenario 67B - Dealing with Entitled New Hires by C.J. Heckman

CJ Heckman educates us on how not to deal with new space mining recruits.

The following transcript is provided as a training reference for prospective Corporate Family Liaisons. Let's take a look at what E[339033] did right with her orientation group and reflect on what she could have done better.


E[339033]: "Hello, Everyone! Welcome aboard Interstellar Extractions Mining Installation Maverick-34! My name is Interstellar Extractions Corporate Family Liaison Employee Number 339033, but my friends just call me Employee Number 339033. I am so excited to get to know all my new Corporate Siblings! Who here is excited to start their new life as a member of the Interstellar Extractions Corporate Family?"

The new hires cheer with an unacceptably low level of enthusiasm.

E[339033]: "Woah, sounds like some of my new corp-sibs are still waking up from cold sleep! Let's try that again. Who here is excited to become a member of the Corporate Family?"

The new hires cheer with a marginally acceptable level of enthusiasm.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Broken Shells by Bruce Costello

A woman attends her cousin's funeral and sees the kind of person he really was; by Bruce Costello.

Surrounded by daffodils and stillness, my cousin Billy lies in an eco-friendly willow coffin, serene as a wax doll. I run a hand across his once flaxen hair.

How strange. It's not him. Just a shell. Where's he gone? I bend down and kiss the shell's forehead.

We were playmates as kids. We didn't like each other much but played well together. Our families stayed the summer holidays in Long-Drop Cottage at Kai River Mouth. Billy was nearly a year older, and he was a boy, but that didn't matter to me. Neither of us had brothers or sisters. It was just the two of us, running around the sand hills, playing on the beach, looking for lizards, searching for pretty shells, mucking about, as kids do.

It came to an end when his mother and father caught us playing doctors and nurses.

"My own son... a sexual abuser!" Billy's mother shrieked.

"Hold on! They're only kids. It's just curiosity, what kids do," his father protested. But she pushed him aside, picked up a piece of driftwood and turned into a monster.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Death in Tesuque by Christie B. Cochrell

When opera singer Didi Vallance is found dead in her ex-husband's pool, handsome detective Gilbert Jaramillo investigates; by Christie B. Cochrell.

My father and I left Tesuque on Monday as soon as it got light. So when they found the body in the swimming pool later that morning, strangled and ingloriously dead, they guessed we'd had something to do with it - especially since the dead woman turned out to be my father's second and ex-wife, Didi. Diana Vallance, as the opera world knew her, the B+ lyric soprano famously given to temper tantrums in public places. She had been due to sing the following weekend, the opening of Tosca with the hot new Ecuadorian tenor, but would be singing only on pirate CDs from then on out.



We'd all been at my friend Francesca's wedding - my best friend from grade school, like a sister to me and a second daughter to Dad. We'd kept in touch when I left for college in Berkeley and then transferred to the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, wanting to be closer to home. Francesca had stayed in Santa Fe, started a small bookkeeping service in an old two-roomed adobe with fantastic light near the sometimes-river, and after a dozen defiantly feminist years scorning male company, fallen at first vexatiously then just as defiantly in love with Joseph Molino - the younger son of Didi's current husband. Which must sound both confusing and somehow incestuous, I know - though really it's just life in modern times.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Unprecedented by Adam Kluger

Bugowski tells the story of his eccentric friend Manfred Gogol, in this interview-style piece by Adam Kluger. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "If you are strong enough there are no precedents."

Manfred Gogol lived "off the grid" and was a person of many small mysteries, like Gatsby. Gogol's wealth wasn't money, though he somehow had acquired plenty of it from a mysterious trust fund that was established very early in his life. It was, in fact, his enviable ability to be completely mobile, free, unattached and without any marked responsibility whatsoever that was most singular.

Manfred Gogol's lifestyle was, as he liked to say on many occasions, "unprecedented".

Ostensibly an artist, a mimic, a raconteur, a cynic and an expert on countless topics, Gogol's antics in the art world were legend. Everyone had a Manfred Gogol story but like the blind men in the dark room with an elephant - very few could ever glean the true nature of the man, nor could any of them foretell his future actions or the bizarre events that would lead to this particular recollection.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Number 43 by Sheila Kinsella

Sheila Kinsella gives us a behind-the-scenes look at a busy restaurant, where waiters Charles and Anton are competing for a promotion.

Charles whisks the braised lamb from the serving window and marches to table two. On his way to pick up an order, Anton steps aside to allow him to pass, smiling as he does so. As the counter is empty, he pokes his head through to the kitchen. On his face he feels the steam billowing up from the boiling pans on the gas hobs. The whirr of the extractor fans drowns out his voice.

'Chef, table ten, lamb?' His voice echoes against the tiled walls of the kitchen.

'What?' Chef replies.

Anton repeats his request.

'Gone out already mate,' Chef says.

'Can't be right. Check again,' Anton asks.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Big Ma's Boys by Alexander J. Richardson

Agents Paul and Lydia respond to a shoot-out with a local gang matriarch; by Alexander J. Richardson.

Paul leaned over his desk, one elbow pressed against it. The knot of his tie was loose, and he scowled as he looked at the surveillance photos. Lydia rolled over in her office chair, grabbing Paul's desk to halt her approach.

"Anything?"

"Yeah," Paul said. "Everything, in fact. All the pieces are here, the arms deal's supposed to be happening, but there hasn't been any chatter for weeks." He sighed and stood straight. "I don't know if she finally caught wise or what, but we're sitting on our thumbs until there's movement."

Lydia rotated a pen between her fingers. "You've been on this for nine months now."

"Yeah, Lydia, I'm perfectly aware of how long I've been working this case."

Paul went to the breakroom for a cup of coffee. When he came back, Lydia was at her own desk, reviewing Paul's photos. He walked over.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Diplomatic Etiquette and the Alien Menace by Andrew Johnston

Andrew Johnston shares a hilarious guide to etiquette for dining with an alien species.

Welcome to the Exterran Federation Guide to Human-Kro'dyl Relations. Perhaps you are reading this because you are an Envoy considering a xenodiplomatic post, or a businessman seeking practical advice on alien relations, or a member of the public curious about this strange new species. The members of the Kro'dyl Dominion have a reputation for belligerence, but they are also a species marred by cruel and inaccurate rumors, as well as simple cultural misunderstandings. These guides are intended to set the record straight on this species while also helping the reader navigate their culture with caution and sensitivity.

FORMAL DINNERS

As with any other civilized species, the Kro'dyl often conduct diplomatic and business affairs in well-appointed dining halls. Our research suggests that humans make more mistakes at these functions than any other, even Envoys with prior experience in xenodiplomacy. Take heed the experiences of our dignitaries, and remember to always behave with the utmost care when dealing with Kro'dyl in such formal circumstances.

Monday, October 26, 2020

When Does a Gambler Stop? by Gary Ives

A harmless prank on a work colleague sets inveterate gambler Ray Carter on a rewarding path of criminality; by Gary Ives.

Luck, like the weather, always changes. It's inevitable, a fact. Ask any gambler. Me for instance. Much of this story is true, however names and places are changed as well as descriptions of various documents. You'll see why.

It started six years ago as a prank. Quite harmless in intent. Yancy Oats, supervisor in accounting, was retiring after 34 years of service with the super large company which will remain unnamed. Yancy, universally liked, was an ace accountant and manager with a kind heart and a sense of humor, unusual among generally dour accounting professionals. The company's retirement gift was a Mediterranean cruise for Yancy and his wife Roberta. Our department chipped in on a flat screen television, while in Ads and Graphics, my section of draftsmen decided to add a gag gift. You see, Yancy is a huge fan of old westerns, especially those of his favorite childhood star, Roy Rogers. To many of the department's under-thirties Roy Rogers and the whole genre of western movies and tv shows are as unfamiliar as rotary dial telephones and milkmen. However, it became kind of a joke for someone to purposefully distract Yancy by asking a preposterous question about Roy or an old western movie They would catch him in the break room topping off his Roy Rogers coffee mug.

"Hey Yancy, is it true that Roy's sidekick, Gabby Hayes, was really his dad, or was he Dale Evans' dad?"

"Oh no, no, no." He'd throw his head back and launch into a biography of George Francis (Gabby) Hayes or whatever nonsense had been addressed, and his knowledge of anything associated with Roy was wide and deep.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Stella's Beauty Salon by Laura Davis Hays

An alcoholic-in-remission sponging off his grandmother tries to turn his life around; by Laura Davis Hays.

So Mom and I put my Old Grandma in Friendly Acres Retirement Home last summer. Mom signed the papers with her limited power of attorney and I did all the heavy lifting. It's a nice place and she can afford it, all right? She's a rich old broad, what with the insurance money and all, and they have bingo over there and little tea socials and all the ice cream sundaes she can eat. What could be wrong with that?

Well, lots of things, you might say. Like her roommate, Stella, for instance. Stella's a real hoot. Came all the way from Brooklyn, New York, and talks a mile a minute in that accent of hers, big vowels and all. Never shuts up about her daughter, the hairdresser, back in the Bronx, and her son, the lawyer, who lives in Albuquerque but never visits, and her husband Herb, who died in like the middle of the last century. He was an airline pilot, and she was a stewardess back when they flew over to Europe in these big prop planes and had to stop in Newfoundland or Greenland to refuel. It took 15 hours or 18 hours. That's how they met anyways, on one of those long overnights.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Lost Dancer by Heather Robinson

Orthopedist Dr. Rosenberg enjoys a case of mistaken identity; by Heather Robinson.

She looked different from my other patients. My typical customer is 70 to 80 years old, suffering from joints riddled with arthritis, walking hesitantly, and in pain. But she almost flitted about the exam room, gracefully turning, hands extended elegantly. A kind of Holly Golightly meets Misty Copeland. As I stared, half-amused, she apologized for her movements, said she was nervous. She told me she was a dancer and was hoping to join Twyla Tharp's troupe. Her words came out in a lilting poetic rush, but despite prompting, she still had not explained why she was here. Finally, I asked her to sit down and told her she had nothing to be nervous about. Again, I pressed her on her symptoms - knee pain? Hip? Elbow? Now it was her turn to look confused. She blushed and told me that she had trouble reaching climax and had been advised that I was the best doctor for such things.

I must admit I was dumbfounded. The first thing which occurred to me was that Barry, my evil practical jokester friend, was involved. But this was well above his skill level. If I had been dating someone at the time, I might have thought it was a set-up, but I was celibate then. For a moment, I also thought perhaps I had misheard her, and that it could be potentially embarrassing to try to verify her statement. Then slowly, I remembered.

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Pennant of Initiation by Tom Sheehan

A high school American football team dare each other to hang a girl's panties on the Saugus Centre statue by midnight, and young Johnny Templer knows his naivety will get the better of him; by Tom Sheehan. 

Young Johnny Templer, in the summer of his sixteenth year, at the beach on a Saturday afternoon with his crowd, was at a crossroads in his life. Already he had experienced three erections on the crowded beach, any and all girls driving him into the mindless frenzy. He could have buried himself in the sand, or gone into the cool ocean water and stayed there until midnight.

The girl in the two-piece purple swimsuit was particularly dangerous, and daring, the way she absolutely was posing for him with her back against the beach wall, posing for him alone out of all the guys around. Almost snapping it at him, he could hear his brother saying, him three years in the Navy and knowing practically everything there was to know about girls. He was sure of it. Three erections told him so.

Now game time was at hand and pal and teammate Spit Kelly had their attention. Spit had a way about him you noticed sooner than later. "So, we go off to practice on Monday. We dead sure have to cap off a great summer, 'cause if we don't, we're going to forget it in a hurry." Spit looked at the dozen of them, most of them entering their senior year, Johnny Templer and Greg Wozny and Joey Turner being the only juniors-to-be in the group, babies, just out of their sophomore years, sopping behind the ears. Virgin territory, though not so readily admissible.

Monday, October 12, 2020

A Sea Of Blurred Light by Basil Rosa

Kent Paxton and his drinking buddies speculate on how their buddy Danny Rice ended up dead, in Basil Rosa's hardboiled noir. 

The shamrocks on each corner of my cocktail napkin have changed into leprechauns and jigged away. New customers have barkeep Newton Smalls jumping. Most of 'em are travelers with small Gladstone bags who sit on the stool along the far wall in the darkness under a dart board nobody ever uses. I fix my numbed senses on the sot Dooley Mullhaven whistling as he explains to pal Elton Dimmer his technique for grooming his mustache. Dooley Mullhaven refers to the mustache as his pussy pleaser and this gets a guffaw from a beefy working stiff seated elbows-up over a mug of draft to Mullhaven's right. I don't know this working stiff and don't care to. I'm kinda in a compromised position since I'm sandwiched between the working stiff and Elton Dimmer. We're what you could call Dooley Mullhaven's peanut gallery.

That ain't a good thing these days on account of Dooley's been laid off, but the man is heroically, tragically upbeat. He holds to a romantic, and what I interpret as a soon to be obsolete, form of charm. He's kinda like the boxer, Jim Braddock, with dreams to play football for the Fighting Irish that never really materialized. Another thing is that Dooley will shovel Shinola with his face before accepting a dole from Uncle Sam. The man's got moxie. He knows how to listen and make a person feel welcomed. As a clown, he'd be as appealing as Emmet Kelly. Maybe the best word is compassionate. Exudes a sense of caring for others. In my book, gotta like that about any man.

Tired of talking about his mustache, Dooley turns to me from his end position at the small bar and asks if I know why this city we live in sinks three inches a year.

Friday, October 9, 2020

The Final Summer by Tom Sheehan

Owen Blood dreams of being a baseball superstar, but his career does not play out as expected; by Tom Sheehan. 

Part One


The batter swung like a great north woodsman, and the ball and bat melded in one sound. As of one mind, the audience rose up and released a roar of tunneling wind, a loud, uproarious, expectant howl, a universal cry late-inning born, a cry of hope that pushed the ball outward toward the solitary left fielder, immersed half in shadow, half in sunlight.

Behind first base, in the first row of the box seats, Catherine MacGawran watched the ball streak toward her handsome Owen Blood, her graceful and errorless Irish god, her late-inning ball hawk, her great glove man getting his first play in the Major Leagues; up from the minors and the bases full. What small wings stirred in her then, we all have felt; suspense flighty as a bubble, the pride that is an agreeable mate to love, a chilled and momentary flash of doubt. Of course, he was her glove man, best of all, the swift leaper, ball hawk unparalleled, line drive snarer who could chase down the deer of Octobers, who would soon wait for her at the altar. Dependable. So patient. Owen Blood.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Serendipity by Marie Anderson

Jill braces herself to tell her boyfriend about her disabled mother; by Marie Anderson.

On Valentine's Day, over pasta and wine in Jill's kitchen, Felix proposed.

Jill wanted to say yes. Felix had it all. Looks, charm, a well-paying job at YouTube. It was serendipity that had brought them together one year ago. A snowstorm had delayed their flight. He'd sat on a stool next to her in a crowded airport bar. Without that storm, they never would have met. He was flying first class. She was coach, all she could afford on her teacher's salary.

She loved Felix. But she had a secret she'd have to reveal, a secret that, when revealed in the past, had killed every romantic relationship she'd ever had.

She poured them each another glass of wine. His face was flushed. His hands shook as he lifted his glass, then set it down without drinking.

"It's okay, Jill. Just say what you need to say. I thought you loved me, but if you can't say yes, I guess we both know your answer."

Friday, October 2, 2020

A Journey on the Spectrum by A. L. F. Fagan

Ian is on a long space journey, seeking habitable planets, with only an AI computer for company; by A. L. F. Fagan.

I have been traveling through space for almost five months, with at least three more months to go before I reach Planet XA34. The name of my ship is the Spectrum.

After waking up at the usual time, I hear Maya's voice coming through the speakers: "Ian, you have mail from Josh."

I look over at the computer screen, see a flashing blue light and reply, "Thanks."

Every time I hear Maya's voice, I have to remind myself that she is just a computer. The designers outdid themselves with her. All the previous artificial intelligences that I've encountered before had an annoying unnatural quality, but not her. Maya's voice is soothing. Over time, she adapts to me as well. She has become a friend on this long trip.

I open the message from Josh. He is one of my main contacts back on Earth. There is nothing special in the mail. He acknowledges receiving the data that I sent him and includes instructions for the next batch that I will transmit. There is also the latest world news. After checking to see that the DC United won, I save it on the hard drive to read later.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Don Juan and the Runaway Knight by Phyllis Houseman

Linda, feeling abandoned by her husband and children, flees for a holiday in Ecuador, where she has an unexpected encounter; by Phyllis Houseman.

Well, Linda, you've gone four thousand miles south, and sixteen years into the past - pretty good for a novice fugitive.


The tall, slender woman smiled at the wry thought as she stepped off the plane's ramp onto tropically hot concrete. Breathing deeply in the thin air, Linda instantly identified pine, a mix of exotic flowers, and dust. Even if she had been blindfolded, her nose would have told her she had landed in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, the symbol of her carefree youth.

As she looked toward the city, Linda felt a stab of dismay. Quito had changed. There were high-rise buildings everywhere, almost obliterating the umber-tiled roofs and white-capped volcanoes she had captured on slides so long ago.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Died Rich by Mitchell Toews

In Mennonite Manitoba, hard-up teenager Diedrich Deutsch is getting bullied at school, and tries his hand at basketball; by Mitchell Toews.

Part 1 - The New Shoes


"I am a true sea-dog with balls the size of cantaloupes!" Diedrich shouted, slashing at a snowy tree branch with a cutlass made from a broken broom handle.

"Diedrich! Diedrich Deutsch!" Doctor Rempel shouted from an open window. His breath turned to frozen vapour as soon as the words left the warm sedan. "Do you want a ride to school?"

Diedrich dropped his weapon but not his swagger. He walked towards the waiting car that sat idling on the rutted ice of the street. A plume rose from the tailpipe, fouling the blue of the Manitoba sky, and when the engine backfired a perfect white smoke ring shot out, twirling with delight.

"Hurry up, swashbuckler!" Doctor Rempel said with a friendly smile. He hawked and spat, then tossed out a cigar remnant and rolled up the window with a pumping arm.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Overnight by Wilson Koewing

Wilson Koewing's story of a doomed American couple touring Europe.

Two weeks into a six-week jaunt around Europe, I grew concerned about my relationship with Rae when we spent a weekend in Tuscany and didn't have sex.

I wrecked the rented moped with her on the back. That could have been part of it. The idyllic setting convinced me I could operate machinery I'd never operated. To my credit, I got us to the ninth-generation family vineyard, with only a slight topple, where we learned the finer points of tasting wine.

I almost returned us unscathed, but after stopping at a petrol station outside the walled city of San Gimignano, I tried to enter a steady stream of traffic, over-throttled and drove straight across the street into the stone wall. Three old Italian men sitting in foldout chairs watched with expressions unchanging.

The moped was mangled. Rae's feet were cut up. I was ego-bruised and embarrassed.

"You really are stupid, aren't you?" Rae said.

Friday, September 18, 2020

A Pound of Flesh by William Quincy Belle

Chuck Bianchi wakes up missing a finger, with no memory of how it happened; by William Quincy Belle.

Chuck blinked and stared at the ceiling. He turned his head to one side and looked at the dresser across the room. That was his dresser. This was his bedroom. How did he get here? He remembered dinner, cleaning up the dishes, and watching TV. Then nothing.

The digital display of the clock on the side table showed 7:28am. Twelve hours had passed. Had he blacked out? There had been no alcohol, so he couldn't have gotten drunk and passed out. Had he suffered some health event like a stroke? What the hell had happened?

The clock-radio sounded. Chuck slapped the top of the device, and quiet returned. He lay there, arm outstretched, feeling dazed. Something didn't seem right.

He rubbed his forehead, squinting as he concentrated. Try as he might, nothing came to mind. He turned his hand back and forth and examined it. He shifted position. The left leg moved, and the right leg moved. His body seemed to be functioning okay.

He raised his left hand and stared at it, puzzled. It was wrapped in white gauze, and it felt odd. There didn't seem to be a normal level of sensation. Instead, there was numbness. Was this because of the bandage?

He tried to wiggle his fingers. That seemed to be okay, just impeded by the gauze. What had happened? Had he been in an accident? But he'd been at home. Hadn't he?

Chuck rolled to his left side and propped himself up on his elbow. He looked around the bedroom. Everything looked normal, nothing out of place. If there was an explanation, it wasn't obvious.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Who To Call In Case Of Emergency by Marina Rubin

Tulip's mundane work environment is brightened by her adventurous, bubbly and promiscuous co-worker; by Marina Rubin.

You can learn a lot about other people's lives when you ask for their emergency contact number. A daunting task Tulip undertook with a mix of idealistic dedication and administrative weariness, when one of her colleagues, a senior underwriter, Didi Estefanos, fainted at work. Everyone ran around the office, scrambling to find a number for her next of kin as she lay on the floor unconscious, her feet in thick brown stockings protruding from the partition of her cubicle. As the crowd swayed above her, spewing water on her face and wailing Didi, Didi, someone found her profile on Facebook, tracked down her son and sent him an SOS message. By the time two masculine paramedics rolled in and strapped Didi onto a stretcher, someone was already on the phone with her frantic son, Nicholas, instructing him to meet his mother at Mount Sinai Hospital.

"Would you look at that man?" Senna, the new girl from marketing, whispered into Tulip's ear, smiling at a tall paramedic with a sleeve tattoo. "It's true what they say - New York has the best looking men!" Senna had recently relocated from Florida so most of her sentences began with "It's true what they say" and were awe-inspired declarations about her new city.

Tulip had seen the tall paramedic before. Twice. Once, when the Operations Manager collapsed with a stroke and, of course, the staff struggled to find his emergency contact number since the one on file in HR was from twenty years ago - his father who had long been gone; and the second time, when one of the salespeople had a seizure while closing a deal on the phone.

"What kind of business is this?" the paramedic sneered, shoving consent papers into his EMS bag. "Everybody gets rolled out on a stretcher! What do you people do here?"

Friday, September 11, 2020

In the Land of the Rain Gnomes by Harrison Kim

A retired social worker takes his lady friend for an adventure in a creepy ghost town accessible only by boat; by Harrison Kim. 

Decaying isn't that bad. It's a unification with your beginnings, a melding into the earth, a relaxing absorption where you do nothing but rot. The ego humbles itself before this ultimate dissolution, this disintegration of body and mind, this unthreading and wasting towards lightness.

I live in the ghost town of Nitnat Falls. I pace its abandoned, crumbling streets under drizzling skies, bed down on tree boughs at night, cool and damp in my lean-to under huge cedars. I've cut myself off completely from my old life. This wasn't quite what I had planned for my retirement, but it's stress-free. I've never felt such calm, such a letting go. I trace the lichen patterns growing from my navel, and wet my face in the mist.

Two months before I arrived in Nitnat Falls I'd retired from thirty years as a social worker at Riverview Psychiatric Hospital. I was ready for a lift from the bondage of routine, a permanent vacation from listening to people's delusions, being exposed to their madness day after day. I looked towards a life of travel and good times with my new friend Amanda, a thin, elegant lady semi-retired from the real estate business. This first trip of our relationship involved taking a boat up the remote west coast. The cargo boat stopped at fishing camps and Indian villages to deliver mail and supplies. Its halfway destination was Nitnat Falls, an abandoned pulp mill town located under towering mountains, with only a score of diehard inhabitants left living in a few moldy, crumbling buildings set against a view of dark clouds. I wanted to re-experience my adventurous youth, explore remote places. I'd always been fascinated by local history, and the story of Nitnat Falls intrigued me, how it began as a planned village built for the mill workers, laid down eighty years ago in one huge period of construction. The industry thrived until the company went bankrupt in the Seventies. More rain fell here than any other place in North America, no way in but by boat. The ruins of a hotel and indoor swimming pool molded away. Residential streets slowly lost their neat rows of houses to storms, floods, and decay.



As our boat pulled into Nitnat Falls, Amanda and I viewed the pulp plant's abandoned, skeletal hulk, its mossy, collapsed roof and smashed in windows open against the drizzling sky. The vessel anchored to deliver mail and other supplies for the diehard twenty-five inhabitants, and to give adventurous tourists a chance to walk the town while the ship's workers took their lunch break.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Elevated by Bruce Costello

A retired doctor confesses a long-held guilty secret to an old vicar; by Bruce Costello.

"It started as a joke," I say, feeling my heart rate quicken. "Just can't stop wondering how it ended, though I'll never know now, after thirty years."

The woman nods, one eyebrow raised. She doesn't look like a vicar except for the clerical collar. Probably near retirement age herself, but healthy-looking, blond, and clear-eyed.

"Maybe it's something important you need to work through?"

"My life's like a jigsaw I can't finish. There's a bit missing in the middle and nothing makes sense without it." I lean back and fold my arms. "I saw your sign, Spiritual Guidance and Counselling. I was hoping you'd give me some answers."

"You've known yourself all your life, but I've only just met you." She leans forward, hands outstretched, palms upwards. "The answer is in you, not in me." She settles back, hands in her lap. "Talking often helps."

The room is sparsely furnished. Our two chairs, close together, facing each other. And a desk with an incense holder from which blue smoke curls, filling the room with fragrance.

I take a deep breath. "I was a doctor for twenty-five years, recently retired."

Friday, September 4, 2020

The Canister By James Rumpel

Desperate scientists risk the Earth to send a message of warning back through time; by James Rumpel.

2063:
The canister sat in the middle of the elaborate mechanism. Its metallic surface sparkled as it reflected the device's myriad of lights which constantly flickered on and off. Two individuals, each dressed in a lab coat, stood silently staring at a control panel.

Eventually, one of the men broke the silence. "You are sure there is no one else out there?"

"I am," replied his cohort. "Since the last round of mega-storms, every known base and individual contact has been silent. It has been two weeks. If there was anyone out there, they would have answered our transmissions."

"Are we absolutely certain we want to do this?" asked the first. "Creating a wormhole on the planet's surface will destroy it. It will rip the Earth to pieces."

"The Earth is already dead. If there's any chance of us getting a warning back far enough to stop this, we have to take it."

Monday, August 31, 2020

Evidence by James Mulhern

Molly learns some questionable morality from her scheming grandmother; by James Mulhern.

Nonna slipped; her wig flew into a mound of snow. "My back!"

"Help!" I yelled.

A crowd surrounded us.

"Someone, call an ambulance," Nonna screamed. "Don't no one touch me." Her coat and pants were torn.

The bank manager said, "Let me assist you."

Nonna said, "Keep away! Your maintenance person must be a bombast. He should be fired for leaving that ice." She moaned, mascara a dirty mess on her wet cheeks.

"I've got your wig," a hunched-back elderly woman said. "Do you want me to put it back on?"

"Are you crazy? What's a wig gonna do for me? What I need is an ambulance."

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Konigsberg Affair by David W Landrum

In Nazi Germany, a US diplomat discovers a clandestine smuggling operation, and must make a difficult choice; by David W Landrum.

My secretary told me the meeting with Golper was on and that he was waiting for me at a small restaurant seven miles away. Since it was urgent, I left at once. I stuck the reports of the incident that involved him into a diplomatic case, headed to the garage, and threw the satchel into the sidecar of my BMW R75 motorcycle. I am the only US diplomat who lives in this part of the German state of Prussia. We have a Consulate in Konigsberg, but there are enough Americans in the local settlements and surrounding countryside to warrant having a representative for them so they did not have to go all the way to K-Town when they needed something or got into a scrape.

I pulled out on the road that led to the largest town in the area. To my left, the Baltic, grey and choppy, spread north toward Scandinavia and the Arctic. Gulls screeched. The road was clear that morning. I turned the throttle open and felt the cold, raw morning air buffet my face. I liked riding in weather like this. Sometimes after a long ride on a blustery day my face felt like the top layer of skin had been sandpapered off, but the pain was worth the thrill of riding fast, of wind, mist, and rain on my skin - and of nothing ahead but the air and the road.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Kind Girls by Alexander Richardson

Ethel and Elizabeth take diabolical action to avoid a visit from their abusive uncle; by Alexander Richardson. 

Elizabeth clutched the book under one arm and held the wicker basket in the other as she took the steps down two at a time. She reached the front hall, and was about to run out the door when he spoke.

"Lizzie? Just where is it you're goin' to, girl?"

She turned to her father. He wore soiled overalls, and was rubbing an oil-spotted rag between his hands.

"Up to the hills, Pa," she said. "Me and Ethel gonna have a picnic."

He nodded, moving the rag from one hand to the other. "Y'all finish cleanin' your room?"

"Yes, Pa, and I'll dust again 'fore bed."

He smiled. "Good girl, Lizzie. I want ever'thing lookin' nice for your uncle."

She felt a knot in her stomach, and swallowed. "Yes, Pa."

Friday, August 21, 2020

Lessons and Lies
 by Mitchell Waldman

In a Chicago suburb in 1975, Jewish teenager Robert Friedman tries to muster the courage to ask out his crush, Sandy Auerbach; by Mitchell Waldman.

It was the year the Nazis were threatening to march in Robert Friedman's hometown. It was another so-so year for the Cubs who hadn't won a World Series since 1908. And it was the year that Robert Friedman's interest in the Cubs was starting to be overshadowed by something else...


Robert was seventeen years old and had never been on a date. It wasn't that he wasn't interested in girls. It wasn't even that he couldn't imagine why any girl would go out with him, but instead that he didn't know if any girl on earth even knew he existed. Earth, for this purpose, being the country of the United States, State of Illinois, village of Skokie, and high school, Niles North High.

He didn't know how to act with girls, didn't know what to say to them, got flustered, sweaty palms, knocking knees, pink cheeks, just being around them. It was nuts. While other guys in the neighborhood were hanging around with all the local girls and taking them out on dates, then talking about their exploits in the park at night, smoking their cigarettes, strutting and spouting off about what base they got to with Martha Wasserman or Sharon Silverstein or Penny Moskowitz, he would sit with his hands jammed in his pockets smiling nervously at them, feigning to understand what it was all like. On the fringes of the group, while Steve Bittermyer and Ralph Goldman went on and on, showing what big men they were.

"We were at the drive-in, see," Bittermyer was saying. "You know about drive-ins, right?" The five other guys circling around them, as Bittermyer smoked his twig and bounced the basketball in the dark, broke out laughing.

"Yeah, drive-ins. Who doesn't know about drive-ins?"

Monday, August 17, 2020

A Piece of Your Mind by Ryan Collins

Ryan Collins' character tests the limits of his colleague Randy's whacky conspiracy theories.

"It tastes just like chicken, they say," Randy said as he climbed back in the truck.

"What tastes like chicken?" I asked even though I was pretty sure I didn't want to know.

"Cats." He pulled the door shut. The old delivery truck rocked and squealed.

"Who says that?"

"The fucking orientals, man. Who else?"

We just dropped off a pallet of restaurant supplies to The Golden Dragon, an all-you-can eat Chinese buffet - a damn good one - on the west side of Burton. I nodded at the hunched over old man who'd just signed for the delivery. He was still looking over the invoice. "Mr. Xiu told you that?"

Randy winced. "Naw, man. He wouldn't tell me that. I'm talking about people on the internet. I'm telling you, check out my message boards, man. You'd learn some shit." He punched in the delivery as complete in our tablet and poked his chin at Mr. Xiu. "You ever eat there?"

It'd been a long time since I'd eaten at any Chinese buffet, but as far as I could recall, I hadn't eaten any cats. "Nope."

"You'll never catch me dead in there."

"You think there was any cat meat in the pallet we just gave him?"

Friday, August 14, 2020

Astral Sex by Harrison Kim

Seventeen-year-old Matthew has an out-of-body sexual experience that gives him a new perspective; by Harrison Kim. 

It's midnight, I'm in Bonnie's apartment, I'm seventeen years old and she's a mature woman who wants astral sex, she's lying on her back in her bikini underwear. I'm on my side, my stomach, I'm flipping like a porpoise. Bonnie's going for soul travel, the ultimate high, she says. I have a hard time holding back, viewing the sheen of her legs against the moon light from the window,

"Matthew, we have to breathe in and breathe out slowly," she says. "When we hear a loud bang, that's when our souls leave our bodies, right through the middle of our foreheads."

She continues "I've made physical love with many men, but this is a spiritual calling. If I get pregnant with astral intercourse, I'll be like Mother Mary," she laughs. "We're both spiritual sex virgins, Matthew. That's a real turn-on for me."

"Pregnancy?" I pushed that out of my head. My teenage mind had room for nothing but lust.



We met as I rested by my bicycle outside Winfield Hall following my debacle premiere at the Okanagan composers' contest. I'd cycled a hundred kilometres to Kelowna, camped overnight in a baseball stadium in preparation for the event. I entered a song called "Throwback," about a small-town kid who because of his quirks and differences is doomed to work forever in a fast food restaurant.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Around Her by Bruce Costello

A Russian peasant regrets her literacy; by Bruce Costello.

Agafya hears a knocking and through drowsy eyes watches her shrivelled granny leave the table and shuffle to the door of the hut. A familiar figure stands there, silhouetted against the sunlight that floods into the gloom.

Doctor Chekhov enters, greets Granny, goes to the bench where Agafya is lying, and bends to ask how she is feeling.

"So tired. Just awful all over. Can't do anything."

"Let me take a look."

His hands, twice the size of hers, are warm and soft. He has beautiful eyes. So brown with good-natured wrinkles at the corners. And the whites of his eyes under the funny glasses are bright and clear, like the full moon on a frosty night. They say he writes stories, grows flowers and loves all animals, especially dogs. He doctors to peasants without being paid.

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."