Castaway - Brandon Satrom
Mr. Swish - Robert Davis
Night Riders - Nathaniel Johnson
On the Greyhound to Frisco - Joel Willans
Promise of Relief - Grant Hettrick
Seven and Four - Lucien E. G. Spelman
Some Planes Just Crash - Jeff McCulley
Storms - Eric San Juan
The Cookie Jar - Matthew Dexter
The Beacon - DianeMacaraeg
Where it Lies - K.C. Ball
Charley Morse was haunted by the guilt he felt for never having danced with his wife, who now lay dead in the Parkway Funeral Home. During their entire marriage, including their wedding day, he had steadfastly refused to take the floor with her, although she was the love of his life. This always left her disappointed and him feeling like a cad and coward. He simply could not bring himself to shake his booty, as the young people called it, and besides he was certain he had absolutely no sense of rhythm and thus would humiliate himself and his beloved wife. He never wavered in his conviction even though he sensed it diminished him in his spouse's eyes. This weighed on his conscience and upset him but try as he may he could not change how he felt.
"Come on, let your hair down, you old fart. Let's trip the light fantastic," she would jest attempting to humor him out of his singular inhibition, but as always he proved an immoveable object. "Oh, you're no fun," she would reply in familiar frustration, a frown replacing her smile, and again he would feel like he had failed her. Even when her cancer had whittled away her once robust frame leaving her with only traces of the vitality and joie de vivre that had so characterized her personality, he refused to waltz to a tune on the radio in their living room where she spent most of her time reclined on a couch.
"How about fulfilling a dying woman's final request?" she asked in little more than a whisper.
"Oh, honey, you can barely stand, and you don't want to make yourself worse, do you?" responded Charley, hoping she would not continue to press him, which he long suspected was her way of avenging his intransigence on the subject.
"You silly man. Who's going to see you?" she had said on that last occasion and those words still rang in his head as he stared through the windshield of his car.
"You will, sweetheart . . . you will," Charley had replied, indeed, feeling every bit the silly man.
"That's okay, dear," she wheezed placing her wilted hand on his, "I still love you anyway."
Two weeks later she was dead and Charley was left with not only a gaping hole in the center of his small universe but an even greater sense that he had been an unforgivably callous and ungenerous man for never giving his wife the one thing she had most wanted from him. Indeed, she had never asked him for anything more. Perhaps because he had provided her with everything a good husband should . . . everything, that is, but the one thing she had desired above all else.
Now he was determined to expunge this blemish from their otherwise perfect union the only way he felt he could. As he watched the funeral home go dark and its staff exit for the night, he gathered up a delicate red rose in his thick hand and climbed from his car. During his wife's wake earlier he had unlocked the window in the men's room with the intention of reentering the building through it, and that is exactly what he did, boosting his broad haunches over the sill. Once inside, he sat on the commode to catch his breath and regain his focus. He was only a few feet away from where his cherished mate lay in her mahogany coffin and this thought restored his clarity and sense of purpose.
"I'm coming, darling," he whispered as he exited the bathroom and moved in the direction of his awaiting wife.
As he approached the casket, her voice broke the stillness.
"Will you dance with me, Charley?" she asked, and he gently lifted her body off the catafalque to the floor and presented her with the red rose, bowing gallantly.
"Of course, my dearest, I would be delighted to trip the light fantastic with you," he replied, wrapping his arms around her rigid body as tears ran down his cheeks. "There's nothing more I'd rather do."
And in the dim moonlight that spilled into the funeral home's main viewing room, they danced and danced.
Michael C. Keith teaches Communication at Boston College. He is the author of more than twenty books on media, among them Voices in the Purple Haze, Sounds in the Dark, and Talking Radio, as well as a critically acclaimed memoir, The Next Better Place, published by Algonquin Books in 2003. At the moment, he is optimistically awaiting the publication of a novel and happily writing short stories.
"Did he hit you?"
Sheila asked the question again as she sat down on the waterbed, sending waves of rubber and pink cotton towards Nikki. Nikki closed her eyes, allowing the waves to rock her up, down and into a lifeboat floating in the middle of the Pacific, with she as its only passenger.
"No, he didn't hit me."
"Why are you crying? Your face is red."
"I don't know."
"Liar." The phone rang in the hall and Sheila started out the door. "Is that him again?"
Nikki sat up and placed a hand on Sheila's arm. "Please don't answer it."
Sheila narrowed her eyes and sat back down after the phone fell silent. Nikki flopped back onto the bed sideways and felt the rubber shell of the waterbed slap her face through the thin sheets. She sighed at the nostalgia of it.
"I don't understand your relationship with him." Sheila said.
Neither did Nikki. She rocked the giant bag of water and flipped herself over onto her back. The spinning motion of the ceiling fan collided with the rocking, aquatic motion of her head.
Two years ago, he'd promised to take her out on his boat. He'd bought her this waterbed instead.
It turned out to be his wife's boat.
Sheila shook her head. "No it's not. It's simple. He's your therapist. He's married."
Nikki watched Sheila's words take form. Thirty-six point, Times New Roman black letters escaped from her mouth and rushed into the gravity of the ceiling fan. The sentences separated into words, then letters before being chopped up by the blades and merging back together like mercury into new arrangements that floated down and rested upon Nikki.
"Yeah, it is complicated. I'm not sure what to do."
"That's not what I said, Nik."
"That's not what I said."
Sheila crawled fully onto the bed and sat cross-legged near the edge. She twisted her torso, rocking them both and cresting over each commercial wave like a shaman performing a miracle. She bit her lip.
"He knows you have a sex addiction."
Nikki looked past her friend. The window behind Sheila rocked along with them like a porthole in a cruise ship, but it was only a window to the endless ocean that surrounded her lifeboat. He had promised a cruise, too. In the beginning, when the promises were sweet.
Now, his only promises were that he wouldn't be leaving his wife and that Nikki wouldn't be leaving him.
Not if she knew what was good for her, that's how he had put it.
She left him anyway.
"Did he rape you?"
Nikki laid still. The phone rang again.
"I'm calling the police." Sheila said. She balled her hands into red fists and left the room before Nikki could object. She knew that Sheila wouldn't call the cops. Something else would distract her-some other dramatic project needing her attention, or another drama with another roommate-and the salvation of Nikki White would be forgotten.
She turned to the door and willed Sheila back into the room. When her roommate didn't return, Nikki shuddered violently, sending waves crashing off railings and slamming into her body. She flipped up onto her back and looked at the ceiling fan. The words were up there again. This time it was all of them—sessions, dinners, phone calls and conversations with one arm supporting a head beneath a pillow—trapped intact in the constant spinning of the wooden blades. At her command they broke free, scattered and fell like poison rain onto the bed.
The ringing stopped. Silence filled the house. Nikki continued to rock in the middle of an endless sea. Her eyes welled.
Before the tears could come, the collusive sound of heeled footsteps rhythmically struck the wooden floors of the hallway outside her room.
"Let's go, Nik."
Sheila, Macie and Iona stood at the door. Each girl held a heavy wooden bat against a shoulder. Sheila rattled her car keys and held an extra bat out to Nikki, handle first.
"Where are we going?"
"To the batting cages at Green Acres."
The black letters that blanketed Nikki sprung back into the air, this time swirling unformed around her roommates. Nikki stared at the bat Sheila was holding out to her.
"You can thank Santo for leaving these with me when he ran off with that reporter last year. I think payment of four signed Louisville Sluggers is adequate alimony, don't you? He wants them back, of course. But these gems are The New Therapy for the girls at 514 Archer Drive."
Macie and Iona laughed. Nikki wanted to.
"The batting cages. That's supposed to help?"
"It's a start." A thin, intense smile stenciled Sheila's face. The black letters stopped spinning around the trio and re-formed underneath her chin, dancing while captioning her words. "Who knows? Once we've warmed up on the cages, maybe we can pay a visit to the Doc's mailbox. Or his garden gnomes. His beamer? Whatever you like, Nik."
Sheila extended the bat again and shook it. "Now get your coat."
Nikki grabbed the bat and smiled.
She had an oar, and land was in sight.
Brandon Satrom is a writer. He lives in Colorado (or perhaps Texas, by the time you read this) with his wife and Son. He earns his living as a Software Architect and technology consultant, but his head is always in the Story.
My third season in the NBA looked like a breakout year. I'd mostly sat on the bench the first two seasons, was rarely fed the ball, and averaged a whopping four points a game. I wasn't discouraged. Hey, I was playing pro-ball, the Knicks and Madison Square Garden another planet compared to those pickup games in the schoolyard when I was in my teens. I was pretty good then. Everyone wanted the tall gangly kid on his team. No one kept track of individual scoring, but I think I once scored forty points in a pickup game against some older kids from the other end of town.
Would I ever see forty in the NBA? Last season that seemed impossible, but at the rate I was going today, it didn't appear far fetched. I racked up fourteen points in the first quarter alone. I was Mr. Swish. When I fed the ball to either Thomas or Blake, and he didn't have a shot, he passed it back to me and I either sunk a downtowner or drove in for a basket plus a free throw. The crowd leaped to their feet every time I scored, and cheered as if I was the new Michael Jordan. I could just hear the television announcer: This Steve Ross is a dynamo. He's taken charge of the team this season, and is a cinch to make the East All Stars.
I added seven points in the second quarter and another six in the third. Forty was a long way away but I wasn't ready to give up, my three-pointers hitting the mark in the final quarter. And we had closed in on a big lead the Celtics had enjoyed, now in front by just five points with a minute to play. We had a chance to beat them for the first time this season, and if I scored forty points, what a great plus.
After they missed a basket on their next drive, and the chance to ice the game, I grabbed the rebound, dribbled down and passed to Chambers, who fed the ball back to me. Double-teamed, I sailed the ball to Blake open in the corner and up it went for three points. We were down by just two and Madison Square Garden was rocking.
So was the announcer. Who would have thought the Knicks were to challenge the Celtics like this? Well, they have, thanks to young Ross, who has turned into maybe the best point guard in Knick history. Thirty-seven points and ten assists.
The Celtics took possession and tried to freeze the ball, waiting for the clock to run out. I charged in and stole a pass, dribbled to the side in three-point range. Two seconds on the clock. I knew I could sink it.
The crowd froze, a high-pitched voice disrupting the silence. "Stevie, come in and wash up for dinner. Daddy will be home any minute, and he doesn't like to wait."
"One last shot, Mom." I soared the ball toward the driveway basket, the buzzer sounding (Mom's kitchen timer going off), and watched a perfect arc, a perfect swish.
Several of Robert Davis' short stories have been published in the small press or literary journals including: Rosebud, The Griffin, Armchair Aesthete, NEWN, Peeks and Valleys, Lines In The Sand, Post Road Review and received My Legacy's Editor's Choice Award. Others are under review. He has attended writing workshops at N.Y.U. and New School University and is active in two fiction workshops in Florida. He was previously associated with writing groups in Connecticut. His business career was in television research and sales presentations with Universal Studios and CBS-TV. He now lives the unlazy life writing short stories.
They sat together like endless rows of tilted tombstones, reposing somberly one behind the other, far-away into the horizon—ravaged hulks huddled under the desert twilight, clutched nose-to-tail and wing-to-wing, clinging haplessly to their own rusty remains. By nightfall, history had turned another dusty page over these voiceless hundred so now, they waited for the birds.
In daytime, soft winds swept waves of hot sand carelessly over their rotting tires, smelling like old shoes, long past their usefulness. A callous sun glared down upon countless cockpit windows looking like oversized aviator's goggles but devoid of the pilots' eyes and heads. Once gallant, sleek and shiny, now deposed and darkened by dust and neglect, the elderly squatted without noses or tails—dusty body parts, gaping cabins, stripped wheel gears, decapitated and discarded. The once-powerful stood sulking—herds of infirmed elephants crouched in the Bone Yard, deprived of their supremacy and prestige.
By early evening the guards had driven off towards home and to their families leaving the Bone Yard gated and unattended. As the fiery orb disappeared in a green flash over the horizon, an evening breeze sprang up carrying faint voices—fitful moans, recurring sighs and murmurs, a gathering of mourners at a funeral or graveside. Loose flaps creaked and groaned metallically, a tire squealed and exhaled while an occasional cabin door fell open and banged itself closed again, repeatedly and witlessly. A short silence—then, a battered propeller squeaked, groaned and expired, falling silently into the sand.
A new breeze rose, cooling the perfumed air that reeked of sweet cactus and desert rose and then, just before moonrise, the birds came . . . hundreds of them: Vultures, ravens and hawks, screeching and circling, roosting rudely on rusty wings and tails and split-bellies, releasing their droppings as loathsome reminders that they, after all, were still flying. Flocks of them descended, perched and became still—anthracite statues staring mirthlessly into the desert dusk.
The Bone Yard became quiet again, there was no conversation; nobody was actually awake. Soon, the whispers grew louder.
"I want to go now . . . it's my turn," said a timid voice. It was JJ, a silvery hulk once the pride of TWA - a Constellation Starliner. JJ tried turning about but could not move an inch.
"I'm afraid," was the timid reply.
"Of what, you knucklehead?" Buff was in a bad temper tonight and everyone knew it. Well, B-52's were often this way; they knew there was nothing for them beyond the Bone Yard. Only last week, a group of bomber pilots had toured the Yard looking for their old planes and when they left, some were crying.
"My old captain found me last week," replied JJ eagerly. "He said we'd fly again, I knew we would."
The Bone Yard remained silent and then Buff spoke. Buff was the most senior and the group respected his understanding. "No pilot will come, JJ. You'll have to do it alone, just like the rest of us and remember, you've got one shot at it.
So just go and have a wonderful ride, for god's sake. We'll be waiting to hear all about it."
"Like stories around a campfire," crackled a dust-shrouded Boeing 377, listing severely on its flat left wheel.
Suddenly, an odd choir of hollow voices rose in harmony, some quivering and coughing, others strong and resolute and a few so decrepit they could hardly speak, but each had their say.
"All we want is one more—"
"Why have they left us here? We can still make it."
"I am . . . I am strong enough—"
"Others went back, we want to go too."
In fact, many did make it back up one more time—one final ride, just for the memories, and there were people on the ground that could hear them, but not everyone. The rides happened only at night and although no one ever actually saw them, hearing the familiar overhead rumble of those old engines was enough—for pilots, their families and occasional friends who, if they didn't actually believe, were kind enough to pretend.
Some air-traffic controllers also heard them—first, the radio identifiers, always beginning in sporadic gasps of Morse code fading in and out of the ether . . . a few dots and dashes crying out to ask if anyone was listening:
"Hello, hello, hello . . . do you copy?"
No images appeared on their glowing green and blue radar screens, no reports were filed and although not everyone believed, the old-timers knew well enough and chose to remain silent. It was their time—private moments with tears and flecks of memories.
A few weeks later, on an uncommonly bright and star-filled night, when the guards left and the birds had gone to sleep, JJ summoned his courage and declared he'd go next—tomorrow night, for certain—no more waiting, no more excuses. Buff and the others were elated, relieved that JJ would finally have his moment and they'd all be there waiting—waiting to hear the story, eager to share every detail of his journey, from take-off to landing.
But early the next morning, barely before sunrise, just as the guards returned and the gates were opened, a small green utility truck carrying workmen wearing sunglasses with hardhats and toolboxes, sputtered across the Yard and parked right alongside JJ. In that anguished, unspoken moment, his comrades realized that old JJ had waited one day too many.
Nathaniel Johnson lives in Rockport, Massachusetts with his wife, his muse and their two basset hounds. He has written two novels, two screenplays, some poetry and a volume of short stories. He is active in local writers groups and on-line at Francis Coppola's Zoetrope Virtual Studio. Recently, he was published in AlienSkin Magazine.
When I got on the Oakland Greyhound to Frisco, the bus was full of dwarfs. I know that sounds crazy as hell, but I'm not kidding you. Every single goddamn person on that bus besides me and the driver was a little guy. Don't get me wrong; I've nothing against them. I wouldn't have wanted to shack up with one, or take one to the game, but they're human beings too, right? I mean it's in the Constitution. There in black and white. Equal before God. Big and small. But a whole busload of them. That was just way-over-the-top freaky for a small town guy like me.
So anyways, after an hour or so, I started to get real paranoid, like it wasn't them that were small but me who was frigging tall. I wiped the dirt off the window to make sure that the whole world hadn't gone dwarf, but there was just desert as far as you could see.
I checked my watch. We had at least three more hours until we got to the city. I'd never been to Frisco before, but now all the stuff people said back home started filling my head. Damn, what if the dwarfs weren't just itty bitty, but fags, too? I rummaged through my bag to see what I could use as a weapon in case they came for me. Zip. Not even a pen to poke their little eyes out with.
I punched the seat, cussing myself for not listening to Pops when he told me I should get a little firepower, a Colt 45 or a Browning maybe. He remembered the sixties. Better safe than sorry, he said, just in case it got a bit crazy down there. Well, it didn't get much crazier than riding through the desert with a busload of munchkins.
I reckoned I could handle four, maybe five, but not twenty of them. So, soon as we pulled into the next gas station, I bundled off the bus. Hitting the ground running, I went headlong into this fat trucker climbing down off his rig. His big head bounced off his door, and he fell flat on his face.
"Jees, I'm sorry, buddy," I said. "I didn't see you."
Real slow, he pulled himself off the floor, dusted himself down and all I could do was stare at his hands. They were like two joints of ham. When he frowned at me, and his brow went so low it squished his eyes into his head.
"You some clown, ain't ya?" he spat. "Saying you couldn't see me, are ya? Is that what ya saying, boy?"
I smelt him then. Sweat and gasoline and tacos all came bowling towards me like a gust of foul wind.
"Yes, sir, I was…"
He grabbed my shirt and pulled back a fist and I wished I'd never, ever left Rockford. Just then, as I waited for the pain, I heard a racket of small voices.
"What you think you're doing?
"Leave him be."
"It was an accident, big guy."
Next thing I knew, the trucker dumped my ass in the dust, and stood glaring at the dwarfs. They were circling him, waving their fists and I wondered what the hell they were playing at. One with slick back Elvis hair had a real big mouth on him and he stirred up the trucker like a rodeo clown teasing a mean old bull. It worked real good, too. The trucker swung at him and just when it looked like this baby rocker was gonna get his head knocked clean off, he did this backward roll trick, leaving the trucker's fist flying through thin air.
I shouted out for some help, but my voice was lost in the hollering and before I could say another thing, the dwarfs were spinning through the frigging air and the trucker was on the floor and they were jumping on his gut like it was a trampoline. When he was good and quiet, they clambered off and Elvis grabbed the trucker's face.
"Next time, Bud, pick on someone your own size," he said.
The trucker nodded and the little guys waddled back onto the bus. I got up, and damnit I was almost crying, so choked up I was that these tiny fellas had come and helped me out when they might just as well have watched me getting all smacked up. I stumbled back on the bus and stood up front near the driver.
"Hey guys, I just wanna thank you. You saved my ass."
The one with the Elvis hair gave me a big old Ronald Macdonald grin. "It was our pleasure, kid. We don't take any shit from dudes like that no more and you shouldn't neither."
They cheered and high-fived each other, holding up their chubby little hands so I could do the same. I walked down the aisle, slapping palms and suddenly I felt myself getting all tearful again. The last one must've seen my eyes, cause he held tight onto my hand.
"No need to get emotional, son,' he said. "You'd have done the same, hey?"
"Too right I would, no question about it." I said, letting go of his hand real quick and, without another word, hurrying back to my seat.
Born in Suffolk, England, Joel Willans currently works as a copywriter for a Helsinki ad agency. A Pushcart Prize nominated writer, his stories have been published in half a dozen anthologies and many British journals, including Pen Pusher, Flash, Brand, Southword, Penumbra, and The Delinquent. His short fiction can also be found online at places like Prick-of-the-Spindle, Pank, Word Riot and The Battered Suitcase. In 2008, he won Yeovil Literary Prize and had work broadcast on BBC radio.
Promise of Relief
"The baby's crying, Art."
Jeanette reports the obvious as she fans herself with the electric bill, slumped in the kitchen chair, legs indelicately spread. "PAST DUE" salutes from the waving papers.
It's night fourteen of the heat wave. Sweat sluices from my body. Little Artie wails. "That's his 'I want my mommy' cry," I say.
"That line's getting old." Jeanette heads for our ten-week old's room, crimson heart tattoo peeking from under her exposed bra strap, the name of an ex-boyfriend emboldened down its center. MICHAEL. Wall Street Michael. Summer house in the Hamptons Michael. No tattoos with the names of marginally-employed freelance writers anywhere on her glistening skin.
A few years ago, I barely noticed the tattoo, only mentioned it to tease Jeanette. Lying together naked in bed watching TV and eating Chinese food or feeding each other ice cream, I'd chide, "When do I get to brand you?"
"When you get your book published," she'd say, or some other pithy retort, before that became an indelicate reminder of failure.
That was years ago.
Today, Jeanette exits the bedroom, whispering into her cell phone, "I gotta go."
"Who was that?" I flip through mail that's scattered on the table.
Jeanette doesn't answer and I struggle to categorize her cold shoulder. "Who was on the phone?"
She disappears into the bedroom, returns with a crying Artie, walks past in silence.
"Third time; who was on the fucking phone?"
Jeanette places our squirming son in his high-chair and whirls. "Third time? Third time, Art?" Her eyes are wild, bloodshot with lack of sleep, both heat- and Artie- induced. "How about the third time I asked you to help quiet Artie? Or the hundredth time I've asked you to call my brother's restaurant for a job?"
She storms past and the thick air nudges me. Artie cries louder. When Jeanette returns, she holds her cell phone.
"I was talking to my mother, who the hell did you think I was talking to?" She hurls the phone and it thuds off my chest. "Fuck you and your 'third time'."
Anger and shame, suffocating heat, Jeanette's glare and Artie's screech. If I can just calm our son, I think and snatch him from his seat and head for the fire escape, if I can just calm my son.
Outside, I lift Arthur Jr. toward the moon, bathe him in incandescence, but he squirms and shrieks. I pull him to my chest. "I'll make it better," I whisper, and hold the back of his head, cries muffled against my slick skin. The more he protests, the tighter I squeeze, intent on him absorbing my promise through the membranes of our skins.
Ten months ago, somewhere between the ninth and tenth impersonal rejection of my novel proposal and shortly before our savings vanished, Jeanette made a spaghetti dinner with homemade sauce and soggy garlic bread and announced she was pregnant. She smiled and rubbed her belly against my cheek, standing next to me as I sat at the wobbly kitchen table. "You know, Art," Jeanette ran her fingers through my hair. "I spoke to my brother today. He's got an opening at the restaurant."
That was the first time I felt Jeanette's doubt.
Tonight, back on the fire escape, a breeze stirs, a genuine gust of cool. How long ago did Artie stop crying? A minute? A lifetime? I lift his head from my chest, his eyes are closed, his mouth a peaceful "O." I nudge his cheek with the tip of my nose. He remains still even as I gently shake his body.
Panic mingled with an incongruous peacefulness.
Then Artie twitches and begins to suck his thumb, cheeks rippling like fish gills.
Peacefulness replaced by a nascent shame.
A metallic thunk as a heavy drop of rain hits the fire escape above. Faster the drops come, pelting my skin with their coolness, too late with their promise of relief.
Grant Hettrick enjoys fiction of all shapes and sizes and loves to share this enjoyment with his wife and two children. His stories have appeared or are scheduled to appear in Ruthless Peoples, Peeks & Valleys, Toasted Cheese, Heavy Glow and Tuesday Shorts among others kind enough to make his day.
The taxi was running. Seven sat in the backseat scribbling into a notepad. It read:
4. Tell parents
5. Clean room
6. Study aircraft
He fished a single die from his pocket and rolled it on the seat. It landed on 4.
"Crap," he said, and handed the driver a twenty.
Inside, his parents flanked the glass coffee table. His father engrossed in The New Yorker, smoking a meerschaum pipe carved like a mermaid; his mother mending a dog sweater, peering out through coke-bottle glasses.
"Well, there you are," she said, "was that a taxi I saw outside?"
His father squinted at him over the magazine.
"Yeah," seven said.
"What happened to your car, Seven?" his father said.
"I donated it to The Raelian Church."
"Oh, for Christ's sake!" His father said, snapping the pages of the paper.
"Don, calm down," said momma, and patted his hand.
"It's a tax write off… anyway I wanted to talk to you, but not about that… I joined the Air National Guard. I leave Friday for basic training," Seven said.
His parents sat stunned on the other side of the table, his father gnawing the stem of his pipe and puffing out tiny, rapid smoke rings; his mother motionless except for her quivering lower lip.
"Why on earth would you do that?" his father said, finally.
"I want to learn a skill. I'm sorry, but I don't want to wind up like you two."
"Your mother is a neural linguist, Seven… I'm an orthopedic surgeon…"
"I know. That's what I mean. I want to have Real World skills…"
"And the Navy is going to teach you this?" His father said, leaning forward and setting his pipe on the table in front of Seven. (Pipe tobacco always had names like Kentucky Bourbon, and Black Cherry, and Vanilla Rum, but it always smelled like moldy ass cheese and burning leather as far as Seven was concerned.)
"The Air Force, and yes… they will. They're going to teach me to be an aircraft mechanic. I'll work on planes."
"So changing the toilet seat on an F-15, that's a real world skill?"
"They don't have toilet seats on an F-15 Don, it's a fighter plane. They pee in their suits like Grandpa. We love you no matter what honey… just… be safe, please," his mother said, then burst into tears, blew her nose into the dog sweater, and gathered her housecoat around her.
"Mom… Dad… There's more… I have to tell more before I leave. I have to come clean, OK? I'm gay."
"Oh hell Seven, do you think we didn't know that?" his father said.
It was Seven's turn to be stunned.
"You were in jazz dance for five-years, Seven. You collect Hummel figurines."
"Well, that doesn't mean anything. I mean…"
"You wrote poetry to the pool boy honey, and the gardener," his mother said.
Seven looked sheepish, then relieved.
"Anyway, it's quite normal at your age. Why your father had several experiences in college, and…"
"There's a little more… I'm sorry. I changed my name. I'm not Seven any more. It's legal and everything."
"Oh, honey, why?"
"It was your mother that named you that, anyway. I wanted to name you Sidney, after your grandfather."
Don glared at his wife.
"Please, guys. Please don't fight. You can call me…" and here he makes a purring sound at the back of his throat, followed by a beep, and a click of his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
"What the hell was that?" his father said.
"It's an Elohimian name. Father Rael gave it to me himself."
"It's a goddamn made-up space-alien name?"
"It's not 'made-up,' dad, it's a holy name!"
"Oh for Christ's sake," his father said through his teeth, blowing smoke back through the pipe.
His mother began sobbing again and yanked the dog sweater off of the table, blowing her nose into it.
They all three stared at one another in silence for quite some time. Finally, his father softened, stood and saluted him, and said, "OK, soldier."
His mother leaned forward and hugged him, burying her face in his shirt.
"Dad? I hate to ask, but I'm a little strapped…"
His father opened his wallet and handed him a hundred.
The son of American gypsy entertainers, author Lucien E. G. Spelman was born and educated on the road, instilling in him a sense of adventure, wonder, whimsy (some may say caprice), and the driving desire to disassemble the woof and warp of the human condition. He has most recently been published in Susurrus Magazine, Apex Digest, Blood, Blade, & Thruster Magazine, The Willows Magazine, Niteblade, with upcoming work in Absent Willow Review, and Gentleman of Horror Anthology 2009. He lives in Wayland, Massachusetts with his wife, son, and an exquisitely ugly little pug.
It wasn't a long flight, just the shuttle to New York out of Reagan National, but my seven-year-old was getting antsy. He had that vacant expression that signifies he's fighting some emotion he doesn't want to let show, fidgeting as we revved down the runway. When he spied the tattoo on the man across the aisle he started to whimper.
A snarling Grim Reaper, blood-red eyes set into his skull head with a menacing scythe slung over a black-robed shoulder, decorated the man's upper arm. "Daddy that's scary," Kenny said in a broken voice.
My son's a seasoned flier—made his first trip, halfway around the world, at the age of six months—but takeoffs and landings unnerve him. This time was worse because there'd been a big crash about a week before. Forty or fifty people had died, it was all over the news, and still no official theory about why it happened. Try explaining that to a seven-year-old.
"Some planes just crash."
"But you said planes are safe."
"They are, planes are very safe. Sometimes, though, there's a crash."
"And then people die?"
"Sometimes. But crashes are very rare. Your plane is not going to crash."
The plane tilted and we were pulled in our seats by the powerful surge skyward. As we banked out over the airport, the Virginia countryside unfurled like a model railroad tableau beneath us. Kenny planted his chin in his chest and closed his eyes.
Fly and you're putting your life in the hands of an airline, I suppose, though I've always suppressed that thought. But it was hard not to think it, sitting next to this little person intently tracing the lip of the air sickness bag with his index finger. The cool air coming out of the vents smelled musty and wafted like smoke.
In front of us a flight attendant with dark lines under her eyes ran through the emergency evacuation procedures. Her face seemed as blank as my son's. She's done this a million times, I thought. Nobody was watching her, nobody following along with the cards from the seat back pockets.
That big crash was probably still fresh in everyone's mind. The news coverage was full of criticism of the FAA, which had been slow in releasing details. Names were only just starting to come out.
We hit a little turbulence, a steady rocking of the plane that always reminds me of how it is when you're water skiing and cross out of the wake. Kenny's head slumped warm and wet with sweat against my shoulder.
Just that morning I'd seen a newspaper story about the crash, listing the crew members. Deep inside the paper, on the jump, were their pictures. I immediately recognized one. Strange how over fifteen or twenty years most of us will change perceptibly, following some orderly pattern, and others don't change at all.
What did I remember about her? The way she wore a nightgown around the dorm in the morning, when all the other girls were dressed. Her smile (perfect, though orthodontically speaking, slightly askew—like the tiny flaw Japanese potters believe makes a piece complete), the way her straight blond hair fell over her shoulders. Her optimism. "I think my thirties will be the happiest time of my life," she said once. "I'll be done with school and settled into a career." You are loved, she once wrote on my memo board—mine and everyone else's. Her hopelessly inept attempts at playing Blue Oyster Cult on my roommate's acoustic guitar.
At one of the early reunions I asked a friend if he had any news of her. "Not in years," he said, his face lighting up. "But I bet you someday I'll bump into her, in a foreign city or someplace."
The fading sun was casting orange and purple light on the clouds as the cabin intercom dinged three times, signaling our descent. I could hear Kenny's faint nasal snore. The man across the aisle put on a jacket and the reaper was gone.
Jeff McCulley is a copy editor who grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and has lived and worked in such exotic places as Tokyo, Japan, and El Dorado, Kansas. His fiction was most recently published in the New Zealand literary magazine Takahe.
A week in a trench. Mud. Every little while a machine gun barked. Chattering teeth that killed. Lieutenant strolled the line, reminding the men of why they were here. Why people were dying.
Six months ago it was an English sunrise, gold veiled by grey, and her blonde hair. Blanket. Apples on the hillock. The fragrance of her.
"Must you go?" she said.
"It is my duty," he said. "For the good of the country."
"But what about the good of me?"
"I'll be back for you."
"You are never coming back."
That morning making love. Tears at the train station. Then all was cramped and sweaty, men pressed together and into a ship and from there into lands savaged by whatever machines of death man could imagine. Rains were a tide. Shovels bit into wet earth and long holes were bored into her. From train to ship to trench, they crowded. She was left behind.
It's late June now, and he wants to go home. Doesn't even know why he's here. To draw the Germans away from Verdun-sur-Meuse, they say. It has been a week, maybe more. The trench is cold. He plays cards in the morning. When the sun climbs he's on watch. The fields are a sea of fading brown. They struggle for green but man denies them. When afternoon comes the green is washed away as the batteries open fire. More than a thousand of them scream. He does not quail only because those around him do not quail. They all wish to. But if one breaks they all break. Their world is orders.
Rawlinson wants to hold. Haig wants to break through.
The men want home.
The thunder comes and it is relentless. The green cannot last in this storm.
By the third day he has had enough. Thoom. An endless storm. Thoom thoom. Heaven has not known this since the fall.
One year ago. The letter had come. He was going. She wept. He did not. Took it in stride. What else to do? His duty as a citizen, but she would not listen. She saw only withered flesh.
"How many are already dead?" she wondered. "How many are still to die?"
"Many. There are many, but I will not be one of them."
She saw only a corpse talking. "What about the gas? They say they used it at Ypres. It ... it chokes you."
"We will have masks. I do not fear the gas."
Her eyes were distant that day, and did not again smile even on that morning six months later when they made love after the bleak English sunrise.
Thoom. The thunder still came. It is the end of June. A sort of madness has come over him. The storm has crept forward and turned the struggling green fields into a stew of mud and debris and, sometimes, but not often enough, men. Thoom thoom. How could men abide such a cacophony? Thoom. Tomorrow the storm would break. A new storm would begin.
The night is long and cold and he shivers and somewhere in the shuddering murk a man weeps for his mother, dreaming, and the other men know the taste of despair.
Dawn. It's July and there is a new smell in the air. He fixes his gear and looks upon his companions. Their eyes are empty. At 7:20 there is a faint rumble, different than that of the storm. The mine has been blown. Ten minutes later there is silence. Seven days without and now it comes, but it is not freeing, it is heavy. It presses down on his shoulders and he sees from their slump that it presses on them all. And then the order comes. Up. Onto the parapet. Climb up, out, into the open. Over the top. Beneath the torn sky. No Man's Land before them. The order has come. Break the line. Move forward.
A new storm sweeps in.
Eric San Juan is news editor for a family of six weekly newspapers in New Jersey. When not working with the words of others, he works with his own, writing about film and pop culture for the Web. His work has appeared in Weird Tales Magazine, and co-authored A Year of Hitchcock (Scarecrow Press, 2009), a book on the films of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. One of these days he'll finish that dystopian fiction novel he's been writing.
My hand was in the cookie jar when Mrs. Miller slapped it away.
"Ouch," I said.
"Not until you wash your dirty little hands," she scolded.
Abigail smiled and if she wasn't my best friend forever I would have knocked her off her chair onto the floor. Of course I would have waited for her mom to leave the room first, because I had learned that Mrs. Miller was prone to violence.
"A clean house means we wash our hands before we reach for any food." Mrs. Miller said. "Do you understand me Sarah darling?"
"Yes ma'am," I said. "I'm sorry Mrs. Miller."
"That's a good girl," she said, rubbing my head with her hand. I flinched when Mrs. Miller raised her arm toward me, but I don't think she noticed. She was focused on getting ready for an evening on the town. Apparently she had become very popular with the men since her husband left the house.
"It's a divorce," Abigail told me. "But Mama says that one day she will find a new man to take care of us and we need to keep the house clean and germ-free or he might run away."
"Makes sense to me," I said. And it did. I just wanted a cookie and after scrubbing my hands like a surgeon and searching over both shoulders to make sure Mrs. Miller wasn't watching, I removed the lid once more and reached inside the cookie jar.
"Don't worry about Mama," Abigail said. "I know you love eating cookies but she's very sensitive with that stupid jar because it was a wedding gift from Grandma. She keeps all of Daddy's letters in a secret compartment in the bottom."
"Yeah, that's what she says--but there's something more to it--something about Grandma's ashes and a fireplace…I don't know…Mama doesn't like to explain some things to me."
"I can understand that."
"Mama says Daddy is out of town for a few months fighting in Iraq, but he should be back next year sometime."
Abigail was the prettiest girl in our school and all the boys in our class wanted to hold her hand. She loved it and let them kiss her on the check and even the lips sometimes, but all the boys were afraid to get too close to her because they knew her daddy was an army soldier, and they had seen the pictures of him holding those machine guns in the desert.
"He's not a soldier," Mrs. Miller once told her, "he's a marine."
"What's the difference Mama?" Abigail asked.
Mrs. Miller lifted her tan arms toward the sky, rubbed her pale armpits with pink deodorant and took a sip of vodka from a blue bottle she liked to call "the goose who laid the golden egg."
"The soldiers are the ones who come in to clean up the mess," she said. "But the Marines are the ones who storm the castle."
Mrs. Miller was always happy when she came home late at night. We were supposed to be sleeping and often pretending to be so that we didn't upset her. I always loved sleepovers with Abigail because we would touch each other and sit in the dark and whisper till there were no words left to say.
Abigail smiled brighter than normal when her mother was laughing late at night. She told me that it was the greatest feeling in the world when her mom was not worried about Dad and the war.
"Her laugh sounds magical when she's happy." Abigail said.
I agreed, her mother definitely sounded much better than when she was slapping my hands for some reason or another. Sometimes we would hear her mother scream out in the middle of the night, and even though we knew she wasn't being faithful, Abigail didn't mind because her mother was happy and her father was in the war.
"Mama says they're playing scrabble in her room and sometimes she gets so excited she can't help but scream out loud," Abigail said.
This seemed like a logical explanation and it wasn't until years later when we started shaving our legs and putting the letters together that I realized scrabble was not such an exciting game.
Matthew Dexter is an American freelance writer living in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. He writes novels, memoirs, poetry, journalism articles, short stories of literary fiction, short stories of narrative nonfiction, and everything else in between. When Matthew is not writing he enjoys life by the ocean; beautiful beaches, breathtaking views, reading, and being inspired. But never candlelit dinners on the beach. He's afraid of Pirates.
I've learned by now that it's tacky to go over to someone's place on the first date, but something about Cass made me say, whatever. I'd already broken a personal rule by doing online dating for the first time. She wasn't bad—a little chunkier than what I'd prefer. (I expected this because of the downward angle headshot she used for her profile.) We had fun at the bar and she was easy to talk to. We both cracked jokes about the hipsters around us even though an outside observer would likely consider us one of them.
I remember when the only people I knew who did online dating were fat, unattractive, or nerd types—in other words people who weren't stereotypically impressive in person. I didn't want to be like them. I still don't want to be like them. But I'm having no luck dating, and I think perhaps the stigma of internet dating is gone.
Cass lived alone in an area of Williamsburg that bordered the Hasidic part. Maybe it was the beer we drank, or the fact that she really wanted me—she amplified her outward confidence when we got to her place. I caught glimpses of the cute hipster girl image she projected online with her tortoise shell glasses and vintage t-shirt. As soon as we walked in she offered me a PBR and turned on her TV to Cartoon Network. I wondered if she left her copy of Watchmen out on the coffee table to show how cool she was.
I was a little surprised when she kicked off her big platform sandals and saw that her head was below my shoulder. "Yeah, I know. I'm really short."
"Nothing wrong with that." She shrank away from me and quickly sat on the couch. Aqua Teen was on. "So…have you ever done this before?"
"Yeah, all the time." She was twenty-five; people in her generation had been doing this since high school. This made me feel my age. "How 'bout you?"
"A few times," I lied.
She moved closer to me, and I could feel the hair on our arms touching. It felt awkward, so I put my arm around her, but resting more on the couch than her. I was still unsure if I was attracted to her. I still wanted a thin little wisp, like Mellie, my last girlfriend, but that was three years ago in grad school when it was easier to meet people. Thus, I sat on a strange woman's couch—Orpheus seeking Eurydice in the cyper Underworld.
I figured we'd chat more about work; she was a film editor and I edited an art magazine. This was one of the reasons why I asked her out. Editing was an underrated art form—we both challenged ourselves with language and rhythm to tell stories. I noticed her Requiem for a Dream DVD, and I was about to ask her what she thought of Aronofsky's use of repetitive editing when her hand grabbed my thigh and she kissed me. She didn't understand the natural flow of narrative at all. I kissed her back, slowly and cautiously, feeling flattered yet still thinking too much to surrender. "Do you want to?"
"I don't think so." I didn't hide that I was taken aback by her wanting to have sex on the first date, not because this was wrong, but because there was no strong indication of mutual attraction.
"Nothing's wrong. It's not you. I just think you're moving too fast."
"Are you sure you're just not attracted to me?"
"No… like I said, it's not that."
"Either you're attracted to someone or you're not. Why can't you just be honest like an adult?"
If we'd been in a film, the camera would show the pink Hello Kitty lunch box and wind up robot toys on her book shelf. When I saw that she was trembling and her cheeks were flushed red, I knew she belonged to the category of online daters I felt sorry for. As if reading my mind she added, "I can tell you're one of those guys who thinks he deserves some supermodel girlfriend even though you're not perfect looking either."
"So…you've known me for a few hours and you already have me figured out. That's just great." I stood up and put on my hoodie, resigning to catalogue the date as a mere mishap. But she wouldn't let up, even though I was walking to her front door preparing an awkward getaway.
"It's really shallow how your profile says you prefer a Williamsburg girl from twenty-one to twenty-eight. You're thirty-three. Maybe you'd have better luck if you asked for height and weight requirements too."
"Maybe you'd have better luck if you provided your height and weight and quit wasting people's time."
As I walked home, I felt guilty for behaving badly. I didn't want to lash out at her, but I also didn't want to be attacked without defending myself. Mellie taught me this. I put up with her mood swings and nagging because she was pretty. After her, I told myself that I'd never do that again. Maybe Cass was like me—someone who wanted to date without feeling haunted by the identity crushing sting of past relationships. Maybe this is what online dating was about—trying to get exactly what you want with no compromise because you can always go back to your computer and browse some more.
After I got home, I thought about something I wrote in my journal after setting up my dating profile. I said I was afraid that the cute girls swarming around my hip neighborhood of Williamsburg were becoming unattainable—fading beacons as I drift further into my thirties. I used "beacon" to mean a bright point guiding me to happiness. I dictionary.commed "beacon" and remembered that it also means "a person, act, or thing that warns."
Diane Macaraeg was raised in Southern Illinois and earned her M.A. in English from Long Island University, Brooklyn.
It was a glorious day for golf. Clear blue skies. A gentle breeze from the northwest. Shirt-sleeve temperatures.
Carl Dauber stood at the big plate-glass window, looking out over the contoured eighteenth green at Beecham Run Links. His golf course. A crowd was gathered, four and five deep, at the snack bar behind him, clamoring for service.
"Hey, Boss?" It was the walkie-talkie.
The group at the snack bar fell silent; Carl lifted the two-way radio to his mouth and pushed the button.
"I'm here, J.R." he said.
"I'm out on fifteen. Three more, Boss, one on eleven and two on thirteen."
The folks at the snack bar cheered; Carl winced at the sound of their glasses clinking. J.R. continued.
"Listen, Boss, I got a problem here. I just tried to move the tee box, like you told me, but some guy took a swing at me with one of those big Cleveland drivers."
Carl scooped up the binoculars with his free hand and scanned the course. He mashed the walkie-talkie button.
"I see you, J.R.," he said. "Can you wait until he's gone?"
Across the course, J.R. shook his head; he was clutching the post supporting the hewn-wood sign that marked the tee box and he looked frightened.
"I don't think so, Boss," he said. "The fellows in the next foursome said they'd pound me into the ground and use my nose as a tee, if I so much as touch any more markers."
Carl scanned the course. There was a foursome on every green, five groups were waiting at the starter's stand and it was only ten fifteen.
"Come back in, J.R.," he said. "You can help Mary Ellen at the snack bar."
Carl was certain J.R. wouldn't be so relieved, come closing. There would have to be staff cuts; maybe Carl would have to close the place down, if the situation didn't change. All because of that damned woman.
She was in the second foursome unto the course, just after six a.m. Carl was ready to run up the bad weather flag the instant he saw her and her friends coming back in, cutting across the course.
"I want you to do something about those men!" she said, as she stomped into the pro shop.
Carl had seen her like before. Round and fussy. Never a smile for anyone, with a loud, nasty edge to her voice that promised trouble for folks who didn't do things her way. A real witch. The other three women were shadows in her wake.
"Which men, Ma'am?" Carl asked.
"The rude young men who brushed us aside," she said. "Played right by us as if we weren't even on the course!"
"Did they ask to play through?"
The vertical creases just above her nose deepened; the volume of her voice increased.
"What does that have to do with anything?" she asked.
Carl hooked a thumb over his shoulder toward a sign on the wall behind the pro-shop counter.
"Slower groups are required to let faster groups play though," he said. "That's a course rule."
"Well, I never!" she said. She didn't bother to consult the other women. "We want our money back and you can be certain we will tell our friends how you treat people here!"
"I'm sorry," Carl said. "No cash refunds. That's—" The woman interrupted.
"Another course rule," she said. "I see you have a sign for that, too."
The woman scanned the wall, reading the posted signs. After a time, she peered at Carl's name badge.
"Very well, we shall abide by your draconian regulations."
She waved her hand before her and whispered something Carl couldn't quite hear. For a second, when she snapped her fingers, he thought he saw a spark jump from the tip of her thumb.
"And you, Carl," she said; smirking. "Shall abide by them, too."
With that, she stormed toward the exit, standing aside just long enough for the other women to scurry through. Carl was certain he heard a clap of thunder when the door slammed behind her.
The first hole-in-one was reported fifteen minutes later.
A foursome from the eighteenth green pushed their way into the clubhouse, laughing and slapping at each other.
"Hey, Carl!" one of the foursome said; jubilant. "Time to make good that promise. Bobbie, Wayne and me each got a hole-in-one, and Art had two!"
The mob at the snack bar roared. Carl glanced from his spot by the window to the collection of signs in the pro shop. CARL'S PROMISE hung just above a Nike poster. The poster featured Tiger Woods touting Nike clubs. The sign read, For every hole-in-one, Carl will pay for a round of drinks for everyone in the clubhouse.
He had tried to take the sign down, after Mary Ellen set out the tenth round; it wouldn't budge. Felt markers wouldn't touch it, and the growing crowd got ugly the one time he attempted to cover it.
"Hey, Carl!" It was the delivery guy from the beverage distributor; he stood in the parking lot door. "Got a call you needed more beer."
"Back the truck up to the service door," Carl said. "And leave it."
There was another thunderclap; Carl closed his eyes and prayed that it was a sign there would be rain.
K.C. Ball grew up in Ohio, with her nose in a book, and now lives in Seattle, a stone's throw from Puget Sound. In addition to Boston Literary Magazine, her short stories have been accepted for publications online at The Absent Willow Review, Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and others. Her work has appeared, in print, in the British Speculative Fiction magazine, Murky Depths, and in the 2008 Best of Every Day Fiction Anthology. K.C. is a finalist in the 1st Quarter 2009 Writers of the Future competition. She blogs about writing at kcball.wordpress.com