Welcome to the Defenestrationism reality.

 

And the winners are…

What is a FLASH SUITE, you may ask?

 

meet the finalists

guidelines

 

Finalists:

Jenean McBrearty: Growing Up, Cold, Hot

Barry Basden: We are Frantic in Baton Rouge

Anne Waldron Neumann: Monologues with Euphemisms

John Vicary: the End of the World (as we know it)

Amy Severson: Human Error

Julie Duffy: Broken Toys

Martha Hubbard: Birds of Italy

Andrew Leon Hudson: The lines, the trees, the cliffs, the eaves

Rhonda Eikamp: Our Ghosts Read us Bedtime Stories

 

copyright by author, defenestrationism.net: 2013/2014

defenestrationism.net does not support any actions or opinions endorsed by this contest.

 

1.) Growing Up, Cold, Hot

 

Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, a former community college instructor who taught Political Science and Sociology, and is finishing a certificate in Veteran Studies. Her fiction has been published in a slew of print and on-line journals including Cigale Literary Magazine, 100 Doors to Madness Anthology, Mad Swirl and The Moon, and her poetry has been accepted by Van Gogh’s Ear and Page & Spine. Her photographs have appeared in Foliate Oak Literary Journal and Off the Coast Magazine among others.  Her novel, The 9th Circle was published by Barbarian Books.

 

Growing Up

Donna Weatherly was often awakened in the early hours when the bars closed and the half-drunk dogs would come sniffing around the bedroom window of the house at the corner of Alexia Place and E. Mountain View Drive. They’d stand outside on the old crushed gravel drive-way—mostly college boys and sailors—whispering dares, hoping to get a whiff of estrus.

“Chase them off, God” Deanna would pray, while Donna lay still, clutching a knife under the pillow, one finger lodged in the phone’s “Operator” hole. The plan was to hold the knife straight so, if the guy got on top of her, he’d be stabbed once, as she dialed the operator and yell, “Get the police to 3609 Alexia Place!”

Prayers and pans were all the protection they had because Mama didn’t believe them. It was a tale they told to get her to quit her grave-yard shift at Aunt Emma’s Pancake House, the one that paid more in tips than wages, a fanciful tale like all the others they told to get attention.

It was 1960. The shadows on the shade were still too scared to try the window. After a while, the boys would leave, mumbling about snipes and kickin’ somebody’s ass, not knowing the lock was broken.

 

Growing Cold
A man of God s still a man, and a young priest is the worst of men. He’s fighting a battle of the flesh the faithful believe he’s already won. His white plastic collar proves it. Only the young guys understood, the ones he met in the bar on Friday nights when Father Sinnic took off his medal and joined the trench troops in the pussy war. Like Jesus preaching to the Samaritans on a midnight mission.

The studs would tease him, but they shut up the night he told them his medal got him a glimpse of the ‘little girls who liked sex’ . It’d been easy. He’d walked up on the porch in afternoon light when Mama wasn’t home, and they’d said, “Come in Father.” One after another, they made their confessions in the bedroom where it was quiet and private, so he’d seen the inside of their window shaded-room. There were two beds and a black phone on a table between them. Nothing else. Except one of them had two small pictures taped on the wall, above her bed: a holy card of the Sacred Heart and a magazine photo of a horse.

But they were little girls. Twelve and Fourteen. Their sins were little sins, like not bringing the laundry in off the clothesline before the air turned dewy.

It was alright. He hadn’t broken the seal of the confession, just cracked it. He hadn’t told them the younger one confessed mama had a boyfriend who visited when she was home alone, and the older one that she’d met a senior boy at Hoover High who had a car and had gone for a ride with him without asking Mama’s permission. The Catholic school uniform must belong to the younger one, then. He’d seen in laying on the ironing board,  ready for pressing. A freshly pressed white blouse was on a hangar hanging from the kitchen door jamb.

 

Growing Hot
“Is Summer Weatherly your real name?” The University of Kentucky advisor had underlined her name in red ink. Summer could see it from across the table, and wondered why it mattered. The issue they were supposed to address was whether she qualified for a minority for a scholarship, not whether she lied about her name.

“My mother was a quasi-hippie. What can I say?” She gave Mizz Shannomi a laughing eye roll. “Ya’ gotta love those crazy late-blooming Boomers.” It was a well studied response she’d perfected over the twenty-some years since she learned her real name, one designed to elicit instant camaraderie in people who thought parents were passé’.

But Shannomi’s face remained bureaucratically inscrutable.  “You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”

Confessing California heritage would be tantamount to confessing she WAS the daughter of the notorious Donna Weatherly, although why the sins of the mother should be visited on the daughter she’d never fathomed.  With a full-ride gift-horse staring her in the face, a pity-plea was worth a shot. “Id. rather not go into that part of my life,” she said through crocodile tears and a well-practiced half-sob.

The bureaucratic facade became benevolent. “I understand.” Summer watched her scrawl a large O.K. next to her name in blue ink. “Well, we can’t qualify you by race. There’s no way you can pass for even mulotto. ”

Just give me the money. There are other things other than race that can qualify me. I know that. Like I know the value of a petition. Read the pro se ones I wrote. To the California court demanding it open my adoption records so I could learn about Donna Weatherly—the youngest girl on record to have given birth.  To the California Department of Corrections  for a DNA test on behalf of an admitted child molester who served twenty-five years for a rape he didn’t commit. UK Law would be lucky to have me as a student. So what if I’m old. Shades of Erin Brockovich!

“But age is a protected category. Let me talk to the Dean,” Mizz Shannomi said, “I’ll mail you his decision.”

The mailman came late. 2:10. Thank God the kids were still in school when Summer opened the letter and read she’d been denied admission. She’d have a good cry before they came home with their homework and soccer practice. She got her grieving paraphernalia ready—latte from Starbucks, chocolate bar, string cheese, raspberries, an Oldies of the 60’s CD—and reread the rejection words…unable to admit you at this time…apply again next fall…signed Dean Sinnic…

Did he figure she’d seen the name in Donna’s diary and tried to find him? Father Sinnic is no longer with the Church, the Bishop’s letter read. We do not know his whereabouts.

 

 

 

2.) We Are Frantic in Baton Rouge

Barry Basden lives in the Texas hill country with his wife and two yellow Labs. He edits Camroc Press Review and is coauthor of CRACK! AND THUMP: WITH A COMBAT INFANTRY OFFICER IN WORLD WAR II. His shorter work has been published in Atticus Review, decomP, Matter Press, Northville Review, PANK, Prick of the Spindle, Thrush, and many other fine journals. He is currently working on a collection of compressed pieces related to war.

 

We Are Frantic in Baton Rouge

When I get to the docks, the negroes are burning the cotton. They cut open the bales and pour buckets of liquor over them. They set them ablaze and push them into the river. The bales, puffing like little steamboats, float off into darkness. The owners stand in the torchlight watching their livelihood, their way of life, drift away. When it’s over they order the rest of the whiskey dumped in the gutters to frustrate Yankee thirst.

I feel the house shake from cannons firing down by the library. I go to the piano in my nightgown and play some of the old hymns. It is a comfort. In the afternoon a Yankee ship sails into view around the bend. Men scurry across the decks. Its guns belch smoke and flame. Shells scream overhead to fall on the unfortunate.

I hide in the root cellar. I pray. When the city surrenders, I have only cornmeal and marmalade in my cupboards. I run to the market. The doors are thrown open, the shelves empty.

I pack a running bag and leave the house after midnight, aiming to sneak through the lines into the interior. Old Mr. Sarter stops me at the corner. It’s impossible, he says. They hanged three guerrillas yesterday, just schoolboys they were. Nothing to do but go home.

Today, a new proclamation. Henceforth I will need a pass signed by the commanding general to leave my house. Imagine that. The same kind of pass we give our negroes. Rumors are flying that the Federals will soon arm them against us.

Yankees are everywhere, marching up and down, sleeping on the sidewalks, gambling, swearing dreadfully. At the commons, in front of a line of tents, a bluecoat officer comes up to me with two negroes I do not recognize. Both are wearing colorful head scarves tied Creole style to celebrate the occasion.

The one with green eyes steps closer. She touches my necklace, smiles, lifts it gently over my head.

===

 

 

After the Colonel Was Shot

Me and a bunch of the boys broke into a secesh woman’s house looking for the sharpshooter. We checked every room, even under the beds, but we didn’t find nobody. Then we went on a rampage. Bill split open the sideboard with an axe and threw china at mirrors and pictures, laughing at all the broken glass flying around. Tommy pulled dresses from an armoire and stomped them with his muddy boots. Then he unsheathed his sword and slashed furniture until there was stuffing everywhere.

We broke open a locked desk looking for silver but found only papers and a bottle of ink, which got poured over everything. Bill pushed the piano into the middle of the room and took a swing at it with the axe. It sure didn’t sound like music. In the library I found $420 of secesh money in a book of poems. Wouldn’t buy a biscuit.

After our bile was spent, not much was left intact, though Tommy came downstairs wearing a bonnet and twirling a fancy cane that had somehow survived. Looking at the mess we made, I thought it fortunate we didn’t find that secesh woman, or there’d likely have been even more shameful doings. Made me think about my wife back home in Cincinnati.

That brought me up some and the things we done began to pain me. On the way out, I picked up a Bible off the floor and placed that good book back on a shelf where it belonged.

===

 

 

W.P.A.

A white man stopped by today. Said the government hired him to talk to us ex-slaves about those times way back when. With so many out of work in this here Depression, a job’s a job, I reckon. Sat on my porch and wanted me to tell him all about them terrible days, get it recollected down on paper while there’s still time, he said. Like I would tell some white man the truth about slavery. Could’ve been Jim Crow hisself sitting there for all I know.

No, I didn’t say much about the pattyrollers and they dogs chasing runaways around the countryside, or overseers with whips and chains, or the way mothers out in the fields keep they heads down and pray not to be separated from they children when speculators come round buying us up by the wagon load.

No, but I did tell him a little bit. How, after my mama’d been sold off, Master Jim’s daddy gave me to him when he was only three and I was but five. My job from then on was to watch after him and be his companion, except of course I couldn’t go to school with him. They didn’t want none of us to learn to read and write, but Master Jim took me out in the woods on Sundays after church and taught me anyways. Then he give me a little Bible to read, but it got away from me a long time ago.

Later, when the war for emancipation came, his company voted him captain, though he was still just a boy. I went with him and cooked and kept his camp and tended the wounded.

After about a year, the Johnny Rebs got so wore down, I knew the South was done for. Finally, one sunny day over in Louisiana, I looked down the valley and saw more Yankees coming than I ever knew existed. I heard the drums and then the Yankee bugles sounded and they come screaming and running straight toward our rifle pits half a mile down the hill from me. Guns fired all along the line and our cavalry swept in from the side but they got swallowed up. The Yankees just kept coming until men was killing each other in the pits.

By late afternoon, bodies were laid out all over the field, and two soldiers brought Master Jim up the hill out of the smoke and haze, shot through both lungs. There wasn’t nothing I could do but hold his head in my lap and try to keep him from strangling hisself while he wheezed and moaned. It was a mercy when he finally stopped breathing. I prayed for the South to lose but, Lord, not for Master Jim’s terrible death.

That day marked the end of the Southerners. They had no real army afterwards, just small bands of men trying to keep alive, and soon as I could, I headed home to my so-called freedom.

Right after the war the Ku Klux started up and things was real bad for a long while, what with the lynchings and the fiery crosses and all. Still bad today, truth be told, all these many years later. But I knew no white man wanted to hear me complain about my troubles today, so I didn’t say nothing about that. Nary a word.

 

 

3.) Monologues with Euphemisms

Anne Waldron Neumann teaches creative writing to adults and has completed a collection of literary folktales, Bedtime Stories for Mothers.  She is currently working on a book, Reading and Writing with Jane Austen, that combines an appreciation of Austen’s novels with a fiction-writing handbook.

 

Decisions

They have some big decisions ahead of them.
Well, I said to them, you have to decide
one way or the other,
don’t you?
It doesn’t really matter how they decide,
does it?
She’s not going to know
either way.
Just make that decision, I told them.
Just put it behind you.

 

Some Issues

We’re going up for the weekend.
Pop has been having some issues.
The weekend.  We’ll be at the hotel.
Not with Pop.
As I said, he has
some issues.
We may have to bring him home
with us.  Unless
we get those issues addressed.

 

The Problem

They’ve been having problems with her.
She’s been having problems.
She was always a problem.
She’s fine now.
She’ll be staying there for a while,
just until they see.  No, she’s fine
now.  Really.
No problem.

 

A Blow

Well, I said, that must have been quite a blow.
A terrible blow.
She feels terrible, of course.
Understandable.
It’s the sort of blow a person might
never
get over.
Time is the great healer, I told her.
But nobody really believes that.
At first.

 

The Thing

Here’s
the thing.
I don’t give a damn what
he thinks.
He can do what he likes.
And here’s the thing.
He always did.
Even then.
That’s the thing of it.  He never gave a damn what anyone else
thinks.
That was always his thing.
He did
his thing.
Now I do mine.

 

A Solution

So what’s the solution? he says,
What do you think the solution is?
I can think of lots of solutions,
I say,
but they won’t solve anything.
I don’t know,
he says,
There must be some solution
somewhere.

 

 

4.) the End of the World (as we know it)

John Vicary is the pseudonym of an author from Michigan. He began publishing poetry in the fifth grade and has been writing ever since. He’s published in many fiction compendiums, but his most recent credentials include short fiction in the collection “The Longest Hours”, “Anthology of the Mad Ones” , “Midnight Circus” and issues of “Alternating Current”, “Timeless Tales”, and the Birmingham Arts Journal. He has stories in upcoming issues of Disturbed Digest, “Creepy Weird Horror Stories”, a charity anthology entitled “Second Chance”, and “Dead Men’s Tales”. He is the proud parent of five kids. You can read more of his work at  keppiehed.com.

 

Chasing Butterflies

“I’m going to tell you a story,” he’d say. “One with a princess and a tiny gold dragon—”

“Butterflies,” you’d insist, every time. It was something of a game.

He would groan, slightly less amused. “Not again. Aren’t you tired of that? At least let me tell you one with fairies or something a  little bit magical. What do you say?”

But you would smile and shake your head and he’d give in, just like you both knew he would. And he would tell you stories of his trips down the Amazon, of how he hiked through a dappled forest in Paraguay in search of the rarest of them all. He never understood that no fairy tale could ever compare to his own adventures, that you were content to imagine him in the exotic flora of a world you would never see for yourself.

“You’ll come with me someday. I need a navigator, you know,” he would say. “Sometimes the river floods and washes away the footpaths, and I could use some help with the maps. You’ll love it. Cool under pressure, you are. That’s my girl. My little girl.”

You’d nod, but your eyes were already closed to sleep, your dreams full of floating.

You were sick then, too sick, but he wouldn’t admit it. He could never accept those things. Not that you blamed him. He was made for chasing butterflies, and that’s how you liked him best. He wanted to tell stories, make it right, but the end came anyway and the day you died he cried as no one has cried before or since. You wanted to tell him that, later. You saw how much he missed you. You thought he might want to know that.

Sometimes you think he knows you are there. It’s hard to leave when he still holds onto the memory of you. You see him staring at the space you left behind. You see him sitting in the dark.

His actions are without meaning now, like when he sat for days and days bent over his worktable. You watched over his shoulder as he picked apart the wings of the very creatures he loved. The morpho rhetenor flaked under his watchful gaze and unwavering hand. In the end he crumbled whatever he had made into his fist, the blue dust rising in iridescent elegy.

“I’m going to tell you a story,” you whisper, and sometimes, once in awhile, you think that maybe he can hear you through the static of his grief. You will keep trying until you finish the tale, until he hears that there is a happy ending. You have not disappeared, you are just floating. Until then you are never far, and you hope that while he sleeps his dreams are full of floating, too.

 

In Consolation

If it had not been for the larkspur, they might have forgotten. There had been a chance that this July would have been the first to go unmarked in a slew of years that added up to an ocean’s worth of time as uncountable as the tide itself. Tears might be tallied, and shovelfuls of dirt, but not the static between seconds that stretched into infinity. It seemed that they existed more in that space, not less, and people could only offer casseroles in consolation. The larkspur bloomed as it did every season, the blue blossoms a reminder of eyes now closed.

 

What Remains

They threw me off the hay truck about noon after we’d been riding the rutted roads for the better part of six hours. They gave me a dented canteen still mostly full of warm water and pointed me north to a border that no one but me wanted to cross. I shook hands with all of them except Wilford and I would have watched them pull away, but there wasn’t any point. They were already gone, whether I watched it happen or not. I hitched my pack onto the shoulder that wasn’t broken and started walking.

A different sort of man might have enjoyed the scenery; the ruined path that had proffered pain in the riding now provided a breathtaking vista by foot. Perhaps that same man would have taken the chance to turn inward along the way to examine the thoughts and conscience that had led him to undertake such an arduous journey. I was not such a man, however, and I walked northward with a numbness of purpose. Each step was a buffer against pangs and ruminations until I found myself alone in some dark unknown place.

Even a man such as I must rest sometimes, and that place between sleep and dreams is when memory lays down the weapons of day and allows unwelcome remembrance to breach the gate. There is nothing left in this wide world during the nighttime except the star lanterns shining overhead; that is when what is left of you crept in. I saw your face in Andromeda and Virgo, and the cloud veil hid your smile. I knew then that they were right to leave me at the border. They were right about all the things they’d said. Even Wilford hadn’t been half wrong, but I’d broken my hand in two places against his jaw trying to shut him up and make the words stick in his throat. It hadn’t worked.

The next morning the stars had burned themselves out against the trenchant dawn, and I was alone again. This time, I hefted my pack onto the injured shoulder and pretended the tears were for that tender broken spot. A slight breeze brought the smell of hay from the west, where I imagined they had made good time and were safe by now. But, then again, it might have been my imagination and I was just picking up a whiff from a fallow field down the road. Whatever the case, I had my own sojourn to make. I drained the last sip of water from the canteen and left it in the hollow where my head had rested last night. If my finger lingered in the dent, it was just for a moment, then I placed it with care against the cradle of dry prairie grass. I turned my back to the rising sun and headed into the unknown to find you in the missing blue of every day.

 

Advice

Death takes time to mend
Let him scream, his broken heart
will yet mend itself

 

Cincinnati

The inkstained paper is the only thing to connect them, the only remnant she has that he exists somewhere in time and space other than her own imagination. Sometimes she fears she may have dreamed him, that she called him forth in longing from the confines of the fragile bones that house her thoughts, spilling.

Then another day comes and there is one more letter in his handwriting, so distinctive. There are things she wonders but will never know about him: why are his Hs so different from hers? Did he save the last bite of pie for good luck? Was he afraid of the dark and sleep with his closet light on, ashamed, long past the age he should have given up terror of the night? Somehow she thinks not but wonders anyway these questions with no answer, contenting herself with the slant of his script, the blot of the blurry i. As if the fabric of his character might be discerned by the downward strokes of his pen and absorbed as easily as page mates ink. It is not much, not nearly enough, but it is all she has and she holds it as dear as she dares.

Her world is the smallest thing, the squeak of the hinge, the opening of the post-box door. Before him, she did not know that love existed in between lines and in spaces silent. She holds in her hand the bit of himself he has sent with no return address and the rain falls in steady drops around her, but she pays the weather no mind. She only watches the rivulets as they collect around her feet, as they trickle down the path that winds to the street that runs to the great highway that surely connects them in this vast world. Their feet are sharing the same road that brought her this very letter. She has only to take a step forward … And one day she would.

But for now she holds the letter close and breathes in the faintest scent of him that still lingers and takes comfort that he is out there, somewhere, waiting just for her.

 

You and Tomorrow

“I had that dream again last night,” I say.

“Oh?” you ask, tilting your head. That’s how I can tell you are interested.

“The same one,” I continue as I open the cupboard. Our mugs are there, side by side. I take them down and pour us each a cup of coffee: yours first, as always. “I was walking in a field. The grass was really long. It was almost to my knees.”

You reach for your mug, your fingers wrapping around the cup itself instead of the handle, and I am momentarily enchanted. I have always loved your fingers. “Go on,” you prompt, smiling behind the rim as you take your first sip and sigh into the rising steam.

“It was morning. Dawn. And I was walking into the sun,” I say, lost in the memory.

You swallow. “It sounds lovely. Peaceful.”

I nod. “But I was searching for something. I can’t remember what.”

You make no sound. But then, you were always comfortable with silence.

“Anyway, there were all these dandelion heads. You know how we call them wishes when they’ve gone to seed?” I ask.

You nod and take another sip.

“Well, the rising sun had lit them all up. The whole field. They were like little lanterns the way they were glowing with the light and dew. It was so beautiful. I can’t describe it; I wish you could have seen it.” I pick up my own mug and take a drink. It burns my throat, but I blink back the tears.

“Then what happened?” you ask.

I stare at the tile countertop. There is a crack in one behind the canister of flour that always draws my eye. No one else can see it, but I know it’s there. I keep meaning to replace it, but I haven’t yet. I probably never will. “The same thing. It always ends the same way.”

You set your mug down without making a sound. “How is that?”

“I come to the edge of the field, and there’s a fence with barbed wire. I want to cross because you’re there, but I can’t. I know you’re out there, somewhere, but I can’t get to you. I put my hands on the wire and try to pull it away, but the barbs cut me. Then I wake up.” I clench my fists as I remember the end of the dream and how the blood trickled through my fingers.

“It’s just a dream,” you say.

It’s just a dream

And I realize it’s true, either that or I am going crazy; your cup sits across from me, untouched. I am still as alone here as I have been, talking to an empty room, every morning as I have been in what feels like forever. I drain my cup and wonder if I’ll have the memory of you to keep me company tomorrow or if that will finally be the day when I’ll be left truly alone.

I still don’t cry, but I pour your cold coffee down the sink and wait for you and tomorrow.

 

The Endurance of Lovely Things

He isn’t here.

There are two mugs set out by rote; her hand moves through the motion worn familiar by time before the fact of his absence can stop it from unfolding. She frowns at the counter, the twin cups an ambiguous assault.

She pours the coffee—Arabica now, instead of the French he always insisted upon—and forgoes the creamer she always preferred. She is different now. She lets the coffee scald her tongue and does not—will not—wince at the bitterness as it slides over her tongue.

As she sips, she lets her thumb worry the old chip in the handle. A memory rises of how she dropped the mug while unwrapping the set from the box.

“Oh, it’s broken!” She frowned, disappointed. “I’ve ruined it. And all the way from Italy, too.”

He took it from her hands and held it up to the light. “It’s fine, love. You’ve christened it. This one will be mine and I shall always think of you when I drink from it.”

“You’ll always think of me when you see a broken mug?”

“No, silly. It isn’t broken. You demonstrated that beauty is not as fragile as it appears, that even lovely things have the ability to endure some bumps. This mug has some staying power, you wait and see if it doesn’t. We’ll be drinking from this set on our fiftieth wedding anniversary.” He laughed, but his eyes were serious.

She took the cup from his hand and turned it over in her own. He was right, it was barely a scratch …

She swallows her tears with the coffee as she thinks of how not everything is made to last forever.

END

 

5.) Human Error

Amy Severson was about thirteen when she learned that the only thing more fun that reading science fiction and horror was writing it herself. Her work has been featured in various on-line magazines and one horror short story, “The Box,” was published this year in 100 Doors to Madness by Forgotten Tomb Press. Amy recently finished her first novel, a sci-fi comedy about monsters, and is trying to find an agent who loves it as much as she does.

 

In A Mood

At the sound of high-heels clacking in the distance across the polished concrete floor, Maurice scrambled to clear his workstation of empty Red Bull cans and candy bar wrappers. He then smoothed his hands down the front of his lab coat as Jennifer Barber, the head of Research and Development, rounded the corner and stalked toward him. Her black hair and dark navy suit stood in stark contrast to the gleaming white laboratory. Richmond, her faithful assistant, scurried close behind, scowling while he poked at a tablet with a stylus.

“The new prototype is ready is it not?” Ms. Barber said as she rested her palms flat on the metal surface of the lab table.

Maurice pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Yes, ma’am. I just put the finishing touches on it this morning.”

“Excellent. Let’s take a look.”

He led them over to another table where his latest creation was displayed – an eighteen inch tall, brightly colored robot with large round eyes that, at the moment, were closed.

“What do you call it?” asked Ms. Barber.

Maurice ran a hand through his unruly mop of brown hair. “Um, I usually let the marketing department come up with names for the toys, but I’ve been calling him Steve.”

Richmond looked up from the tablet and Ms. Barber cocked an eyebrow. “Steve?”

“The processors respond better to single syllables and I’ve always liked the name Steve.”

Ms. Barber cleared her throat. “Right. Moving on.” She motioned to Richmond and he handed her the tablet. “The spec sheet said that this robot . . .” She scrolled through a document then read aloud from the page, “analyzes biometric data to gauge the emotional state of the user and then alters its behavior accordingly.”

“That’s right,” said Maurice. “He scans for things like body temperature and heart rate as well as taking cues from facial expressions and tone of voice.”

“So if the user is sad . . .”

“Ste-, um, the robot will see this and will say something to try to cheer them up. If the person is happy, the robot will be happy with them.”

“Well then, let’s wake it up and try it out, shall we?”

Maurice leaned over until he was level with the robot. “Good afternoon, Steve. It’s Maurice.”

The robot opened its glowing eyes. “Good afternoon, Maurice,” a staccato voice replied. “You are in a good mood today.”

Maurice grinned wide at the robot. “Yes, I am. I have some friends I’d like you to meet.” He straightened and turned around. “Would one of you like to talk to him?”

Ms. Barber typed some notes into the tablet. “Richmond, go ahead.”

Richmond’s scowl deepened. “Ma’am?”

“Talk to the toy.”

The assistant sighed and walked forward. Looking into the wide, child-like eyes of the robot he said, “Um. Hello. Nice to meet you.”

“You need to be cheered up,” said the robot. “I can sing you a tune.”

Richmond shook his head. “That won’t be necessary.”

“Would you like to hear a joke?” asked the robot.

“No, thank you. No jokes.”

Maurice clapped Richmond on the back. “Oh, come on. Steve knows some real knee-slappers.”

“I don’t need to be cheered up.” He adjusted his tie and noticed that the robot’s eyes had changed to a look of concern.

“You are displeased,” said the robot.

Ms. Barber looked up from the tablet. “Not with your job, I hope.”

“No, ma’am.” He sighed. “I’m ecstatic working for you.”

Maurice chuckled. “Well, Steve seems to think otherwise.”

Richmond held up his hands. “Okay. I’m done playing with your little toy now.”

“No,” said the robot. Its eyes had changed to an angry glare. “You are unhappy and you do not want me to cheer you up. There is only one solution.”

“And what is that?” asked Richmond.

“End your suffering.” A bolt of blue-white light shot out of the robot and struck Richmond square in the chest, throwing him back against the lab wall. He slid down and landed splayed out on the floor, smoke wafting up from the charred hole in his shirt.

Ms. Barber screamed and ran over to kneel next to the lifeless Richmond, uttering a creatively blasphemous curse under her breath.

Maurice turned to the robot, grabbing it by the arms and shaking it. “What did you do? Why?”

“I couldn’t cheer him up. So I turned him off.”

“But, Steve,” Maurice almost whispered, “you can’t do that.”

“You are sad, Maurice.” The robot’s eyes were concerned once again. “Would you like to hear a joke?”

 

Don’t Panic
A slab of plaster broke free from the ceiling and crashed to the floor behind Sarah and the Professor as another explosion rocked the building. They scrambled down the hallway, dodging falling debris and climbing over toppled furniture. The air was thick with dust, but through a broken window Sarah could see flaming boulders, some the size of Mini Coopers, falling from the sky and slamming into the south wing of the building and the surrounding campus grounds. Insanely, she found herself trying to remember if they were called meteors or meteorites once they hit the Earth. But once an impact tremor almost knocked her off her feet, all she could think about was keeping up with the Professor.

They reached the end of the hall and half fell/half ran down the emergency stairwell to the garage level. From there they felt their way through the rubble and smoke until they reached the fortified bunker that housed some of the Professor’s more sensitive experiments. After heaving the thick metal door closed, the sounds of explosions were muffled, but Sarah could still feel the vibrations through the floor and walls. Thankfully, the emergency generators had kicked in, so the lights worked, although the assault outside caused them to flicker.

“Sarah, help me with this!” The professor waved her over to a tarp-covered form in the middle of the lab.

She ran over to him and raised an eyebrow as the tarp fell away to reveal a squat, gray robot with stocky arms and legs, and a wide, rectangular head. “What does this do?” she asked him.

“It’s designed to emit ultra-sonic frequencies,” said the professor as he pushed a few buttons on the robot’s front panel. “Anything will disintegrate under the right frequency.” He turned to Sarah and grabbed her shoulder. His white hair was tinted brown with dust, making him appear years younger. “I told those bastards in D.C. that this was coming, but they didn’t listen to me.”

A particularly large meteorite–that’s what they’re called after they hit the ground, she’d remembered–must have landed nearly on top of them, because the whole lab shifted two feet to the left. Sarah was thrown against a nearby desk, which she clutched like a life raft, while watching the lights flash and bits of the ceiling rain down. “Professor?”

His head popped into view from behind the robot’s right shoulder. “I’ve got it all warmed up. All I have to do is push this red button back here and it’ll calibrate the frequency needed to blast the meteors into sand before they hit the ground.” He pushed the button and took a step back with an expectant grin.

The robot’s optical sensors glowed bright blue and a screen across its front panel flashed with indicator bars of different colors.  To Sarah, it looked like a slot machine from the future.  Then the metal beast released a squelch of feedback and fell over flat on what could be considered its face. The Professor and Sarah stood over the prone robot and watched, stunned, as its head and limbs retreated within the body like a mechanical turtle. All its lights and indicators then switched off and the machine just lay there, dark and silent.

Sarah turned to the Professor for some sort of explanation, but he only scratched his head, dust falling from his hair. She stepped closer to the robot and tried to ignore the lab trembling around her. From this new angle, she could see two words printed below a large red circle on the robot’s back: PANIC BUTTON.

Turning to the Professor, she said, “Was it supposed to take the command literally?”

 

Trigger Happy
Presidents of the two warring factions glared at each other across a metal table, their armies at attention on the cratered, shell-ravaged field surrounding them. This was an uneasy truce, but one necessitated by exhausted resources and decimated populations.

General Zoder stood a few paces behind President Stanton, trying to ignore the tight, starched collar of his dress uniform. He turned to his Lieutenant, Combat Protocol Droid 008. “Looks like this bloody mess is finally at an end, Ocho.”

The droid didn’t reply, but its single optical sensor scanned the enemy, President Caine, as he read the peace treaty holographically projected on the table. Security Status Alpha was still in effect, so the droid remained on high alert, its twin .50 caliber shoulder-mount machine guns locked and loaded.

The General lifted his chin to stretch his neck when a large fly buzzed his ear and he reflexively swatted it away. He watched as the blue-black insect circled the air in front of him then flew straight for the table, hovering a moment before landing just inches from where President Stanton rested his elbow.

President Caine also saw the fly and slowly raised one gloved hand, then slammed it down on the table to dispatch the creature.

Realizing how this sudden action could be perceived by the droid, the General yelled, “Ocho, stand down!”

But it was too late.

The droid let loose with both barrels, effectively vaporizing President Caine from the waist up.

President Stanton remained seated, too shocked to even wipe away the blood splattered across his face, while the armies on both sides of the field readied their weapons and opened fire.

As General Zoder unbuttoned his collar and drew his sidearm, he snarled at the droid, “If I get out of this alive, I swear I’m turning you into a toaster!”

 

 

6.) Broken Toys

 

Julie Duffy is the host of the StoryADay.org creative writing challenge for short story writers, held annually in May. She first came across the term ‘defenestration’ in a high school history class and blames it for her subsequent degree in History. A transplanted Scot, she lives and writes in Pennsylvania and blogs at julieduffy.com

 

BROKEN TOYS

See John.
See John laugh.
See John laugh and smile.
See John laugh and smile and touch his wife Jane on the elbow.
Look, John, look into Jane’s eyes.
See Jane smile.

See John walk.
See John walk around the party.
Mingle John, mingle.
There is Alice.
Alice is watching John.
See Alice frown.
Here comes Mary.
Mary walks to the bedroom.
See John watch Mary.
John and Alice look at Jane.
See Jane talk.
See Jane laugh.
Jane does not see John or Alice or Mary.
See John walk to the bedroom.
Walk John, walk.
See Alice refill her glass.
Drink Alice, drink.
Where is John?
Where is Mary?
Drink Alice, drink.

Alice sees Jane.
Alice walks to Jane.
See Alice speak.
Jane frowns.
See Jane shake her head.
See Alice lean too close.
See Jane push Alice.
Alice grabs Jane’s arm.
Jane and Alice walk to the bedroom.
Jane runs out of the house.
Run Jane, run.

See John run out of the house.
(Good luck, John.)

Alice is in the kitchen.
See Alice’s mascara run.
Listen! A car door slams.
A man says a bad word.
Hear the engine roar.

Mary walks to the back porch.
See Mary light a cigarette.
Smoke Mary, smoke.

 

FLUTTERING

Fluttering. Yes, that was the right word. Not a word she used much anymore, but there it was, still in her brain, patiently waiting to be needed, appreciated. And here was its moment. The patterned cotton—all manly grays and blues—fluttered as it fell: air flooding in through the ridiculous flapping leg-holes, ballooning until it escaped through the ‘comfort waistband’; tumbling down from the bedroom window to the neatly-mown grass below. (She did the mowing.)

She clapped a hand to her mouth to catch the giggle that had erupted from nowhere. Ridiculous. No-one really does this—his voice drawling in her head—no-one does this in real life, Jane. Grow  up. But she had grown up and look where it had got her. She turned to the tall-boy dresser and plunged, both hands now, deep into the top drawer, coming up with handfuls of boxers (his ‘smalls’, he called them without a trace of irony). In a long-forgotten move, she pirouetted—right leg relevee—back to the window once more and flung her arms wide. Fireworks, she thought, as the bundle of clothing flowered open: stunning for a moment, then fizzling to the ground.

Biting air from the open window reddened her cheeks—close the windows, Jane, you’re letting all the heat out—and she gulped in its freshness, filling her lungs with tiny daggers of ice. Sharp cold abraded her from the inside out, scraping away the dull layers that had formed through all the years—all the endless hours—inside these walls. There was fear, yes, that it might cut too deep, but the fear brought along its friend: thrill. Jane stood, unmoving, by the open window and simply waited. Life or death. Which would it be?

Through the window frame she could see her neat square of grass, her neat garden path, her garden wall with its neat wooden gate. Beyond that, a neat street of red-brick houses all with their own neat squares of grass, brick garden walls, and painted wooden gates, some with little carved decorations or bundles of dried flowers tacked on to them, some without. She could see Poppy and Oliver Mason across the street, unnecessarily bundled in snowsuits, playing with something in the flowerbeds of their front garden—safe behind the garden gate. Jennifer would be out any moment to put a stop to that. Couldn’t have her perfect children, perfect life, marred by mud. And here came Mrs McIver rolling slowly down the street in her gold Daihatsu, doing her 21st century curtain-twitching from behind the wheel of her little bubble car; looking askance at Jane’s open window blighting the sleek row of wintering houses. Jane spun again, grabbed another pair of boxers and flung them out of the window while Mrs McIver’s rearview mirror was still in range. She laughed out loud this time. Perhaps she would go mad. Perhaps she had been mad all along and now she would suddenly go sane. It wasn’t fashionable, but maybe she would start a new trend.

Another pirouette. To the wardrobe this time. The muscle memory was there, but it had been too long and her relevee was disappointingly delevee. So many things she had once known and practiced, now flaccid and underused—like that word, ‘fluttering’. She had never, not once, had cause to use that word since she allowed herself to grow up. What kind of a way was that to live? But there was still so much inside her waiting to be found again.

The big question now was: what word would spring free from her brain to describe the way a knock-off “Harris” tweed sports jacket made its heavy downward way through the cold morning air?

TWO FRYUPS, PLEASE. ALL THE TRIMMINGS.

“Bloody women!”

“I know, mate.”

“Bloody, bloody women.”

“Yup.”

“The thing is, they’re the ones that don’t follow the rules, but they make it like you’re the bastard.”

“Mmm-hmm…Good eggs.”

“That’s it, my son. That’s it, exactly! It’s all about their eggs! Used to be about getting a snog behind the bike sheds, having the best-looking bloke pick them for the slowdance. You could have a good time then: take them for picnics, pints in a country pub, feel them up round the back of stately home on a Saturday afternoon. But all of a sudden you’re sitting outside the changing rooms while she’s squeezing herself into jeggings, or you’re pretending you care about curtains and every Sunday afternoon you’re in her mum’s front room trying to watch the game while her Great-Aunt Lil goes on and on about how it was different in her day. Until finally it’s all about her eggs: when are we going to have a baby? Everyone else has a baby. Guess what? Tricia’s just told me she’s gonna have a baby. And then you get her up the duff and that’s the end of that. Eat, work, sleep, eat, work, sleep, with two weeks at some resort in the sun where you sit staring at her pudgy white thighs and waiting for death to take you away from it all. Jesus, is it any wonder we need a bit on the side!”

“I meant here. ‘Good eggs’, here.”

“What? Oh, yeah, well. It’s new, isn’t it? I found it after she kicked me out. And I tell you, it’s a bloody marvel, being able to eat breakfast like a proper grown up again. No rushing about, no whining, no bloody Cheerios under my feet. No, a man should be able to sit down, read the newspaper, talk to another human being over his breakfast. It’s no wonder I started inventing those business trips. It wasn’t just the sex — though I have to say the sex was bloody fantastic—it was getting up in the morning and having a bit more sex and then having a cup of coffee and a smoke and maybe a bacon roll in peace and bloody quiet. Don’t underestimate that, old son.”

“You going to eat that sausage?”

“Are you listening to me at all? Here I am, spilling my guts, looking for a bit of comradely support, and all you can…Yes, you greedy, unsympathetic bastard, I am going to eat my sausage.”

“Fair enough.”

“I mean, what did she expect? It was all about the kids, the kids, her mum, the kids, the school, and how are we going to afford university for the kids, the bloody kids? And they never get off their arses to lift a finger for themselves. Is it any wonder…”

“…you went slumming with Mary, yeah, I know.”

“Slum…wha..? Heh, well, I mean she’s not exactly hard to get, but she was far from the only, one you know.”

“Susanne from Gregg’s, Tracy up the shops, Linda from Accounts, that mental Alice, Judy from next door. You might have mentioned them once or twice, yeah.”

“Judy? I don’t think there was a…Oh, you mean Jennifer Mason from across the street—now she was a tiger! You would never have guessed, to look at her, but it’s true what they say…it’s the quiet ones you have to watch. Speaking of which, that Alice. She really is mental. Do you know, I caught her following me around the supermarket yesterday? And I keep seeing green Renaults like that little piece of crap she drive, everywhere I go. I think she’s got a thing for me. Real stalker material.”

“…such an idiot.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“I’m an idiot?”

“Forget it, OK? Eat your sausage.”

“Forg…Oh. No. I get it. I’m an idiot because I’m the one who’s been getting it away all these years while you’ve been going home to your own version of jail?”

“Keep your voice down.”

“I’m not the idiot, my old son. If anyone’s the idiot it’s you and you know it. You wish you were me.”

“Enough!”

“That’s it, isn’t it? You wish you were me: getting it where ever I want.”

“Yeah. Yeah, John, that’s it. I wish I was you. I wish my wife and kids hated me and everyone else thought I was a complete arsehead, and I was living in flatshare with some students from the technical college.”

“University.”

“Whatever. But you’re right, I wish I was eating breakfast every morning in a greasy spoon, going on and on about my conquests like it makes me a big man. And nobody, John—man, woman or child—reads a newspaper anymore, over breakfast or otherwise. Jesus, John, you’re like someone off the telly from the 70s…Here. Here’s a twenty. Make sure you leave a tip, and try to avoid sexually harassing the waitress before you leave, would you? I’ll see you at the office. Just…just don’t talk to me unless you have to, OK?”

“I’m too late then? Your wife’s already turned you into one of the girls, has she?…And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I had to get out. That, walking out the door there folks, is a prime example of a man who lets his WIFE keep his BALLS in a BOX BY THE BED! Well, nobody’s going to keep my balls in box, you hear me?!

“Alright, alright, I’m going. Money’s on the table. I was just leaving, anyway.

“Before I go, my darling, what time do you knock off? I could stop by, take you out, show you a good time, maybe we could end up back at your place…Oi, watch the coat! This is genuine Harris Tweed, this is. I tell you, you don’t know what you are missing.

“Bloody women.”

 

PARALLEL PARKING

Across the street from that little shop that sells shiny knickknacks no-one wants but everyone get as last-minute gifts, and around the corner from the new cafe, the driver of a green Renault Clio eased the car with practiced confidence from its space between a Hyundai Sonata and one of those new mega-Minis. Traffic was heavy but the driver edged into the stream with little difficulty. If she timed it right, hers would be the first car at the lights when the man in the tweed jacket stepped into the pedestrian crossing.

And if she she didn’t time it properly, that was all right, too. There was always tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next.

 

 

7.) Birds of Italy

Martha Hubbard lives on an island in the North Baltic. A place of strange gods, mysteries, tragedies and wonder, it provides the perfect bed-rock for a writer of dark fantasy. Previously she has been a teacher, cook, stage manager & dramaturge ,  a parking lot company book-keeper and a community development worker.  Her stories have appeared in the Innsmouth Free Press’ anthologies, Historical Lovecraft, Candle in the Attic Window and Future Lovecraft. Last year she served on the jury for the International SFF Translation Awards and hopes to do so again.

 

Ghost Birds

Many people like, even love, old cities. Visions of narrow cobblestone streets, twisted, tortured faces grinning above ancient lintels, or crumbling statues dozing in hidden courtyards fill their dreams with reflections of worlds and peoples long vanished. Not I. Give me a modern metropolis, any day – like Jyväskylä, all steel, glass and polished stone. Nothing sticks to those slick frontages. People come here, go about their business, and leave, taking themselves with them.

Old cities? They’re an entirely different kettle of metaphorical ingredients. Take Rome for example; my first time there I was with my fiancé Christina. On our last night we made a wish, kissed each other, then threw the coin. We held hands watching it tumble, flashing in the Roman light before splashing into the Fontana di Trevi. How trite, you think. But we were young and in love, so why not.

What did we wish? ‘Someday when we’re old, let us come back here together.’ I know I’m not supposed to tell. Bad luck – our wish won’t come true. But it can’t come true anymore. That’s why I’m here in Rome writing this. You see I lost her, lost Christina, that is.

The next day, vacation over, we returned to Finland. Years passed. We got married; had the requisite number of children. I had a good job; she had a job. The children grew up, finished their education, moved away, as children do.

One day I looked around and she was gone. I had no idea where she’d gone, or why or even when. All I know, I was sitting in the living room one evening after dinner, reading my paper, as I always did, when I noticed it was terribly quiet. The room felt unnaturally empty.
“Christina,”  I called. “ Come in here please. I need you.” There was no response. “Christina! Stop fooling around. Come here now. I need you.” She didn’t come. She was gone.

So now I’m here in Rome, alone. Except that I’m not alone. Look at them. Those damn birds won’t leave me. They squawk and rage, flapping around my head whenever I go near the Fontana. I had thought, maybe… if I waited near the fountain … she would remember and join me – it’s our anniversary tonight. But all I get are these damn screaming birds,.

“Chose me! Claim me! Get me outta here,” they beg.

I’ve been here a week. Loitering in nearby cafés, hoping to catch a glimpse of my lost love. Every time I get within 5 meters of the fountains edge, the birds descend on me. They don’t seem to be bothering anyone else. Actually, I don’t think anyone else can see them. Young couples, innocent and trusting come up to the fountain rim, watch the water burbling over the statues, make their wish and wander off for an aperitif, or whatever it is that lovers drink these days.

Tonight is my last chance. Drawing on reserves of legendary Finnish courage, I didn’t know I possessed, I walk slowly, steadily through the mêlée of beseeching fowl towards the pool around the statuary. It’s late. No one is around. Even the carabinieri seem to have gone to sleep. It’s taken me all week to figure out what the deal is with these birds. Poor desperate creatures; they are abandoned wishes, wishes that people made and forgot, or didn’t bother to come back to claim. Now they are stuck here, in an ether-limbo around the fountain, trying to find a claimer who will take them out of their misery.

I guess I’m not the first person to return here hoping to find the lost other half of a wish. The crying birds see me as a ticket to escape. They are determined I will not leave without releasing at least one of them. With gritted teeth, shielding my eyes from an assault only I can see, I reach the fountain and sit carefully on the edge. During the day you’re not allowed to sit here. At this hour there’re no guardians to move me along. Stubbornly, a maelstrom of wings and feathers flapping around my head, I remain in my place until the bells begin striking midnight. Heartsick, I know for certain, she won’t come.

Time to give up and go back to my hotel – to get away from these awful birds.  I feel sorry for them, but what can I do? Tonight, knowing it’s their last chance, they don’t leave me as I move away from the fountain. More and more descend, pecking at my head, nipping my arms as I try to shield my eyes, flapping around my legs to trip me up. Terrified of their intentions, I start to run. My hotel is not far, two or three blocks, maybe. In my fear and confusion I’m lost. Racing through shadowy streets, emptied of all life, I run and run, my breath heaving in my chest. At last, I see the hotel sign at the end of an alley. Making a last push, I am almost there when the pain strikes. A powerful fist slams in my stomach. I crumple and collapse onto the street, the birds still screaming around me.

Later, my children would be told I’d suffered a massive heart attack. Death had been instantaneous, they were told. That’s not quite true. There’d been time enough to wonder which bird had claimed my wish and flown away free.

 

Milano Gottico

“I have forgotten my umbrella,” mused Gabrielle di Bonacci. The sky above Milan’s spires and pinnacles  was a blazing cobalt. “Looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day. Maybe I’ll chance it.” This was an unusual decision as Gabrielle always appeared dressed like a proper English gentleman.

Since his return from a posting in London, Signor di Bonacci had adopted the cultural and haberdashery habits of an English banker. He ate his meals in a restaurant that provided him with steak & kidney pudding; the chef-owner privately very rude about this peculiar Italian pretending to be an Englishman in Milan. His suits were copied from Savile Row. He never appeared in public without his bowler hat and furled umbrella, until today.

During his months in The City, Gabrielle had been awed by the unceasing industry that generated so much wealth. That there were so many unwashed sleeping in doorways, extending their hands for succour, was simply a side effect of concentrating on the big picture.  Milan had its full share of beggars, pickpockets, sneak-thieves and unfortunates. Why should they not also acquire London’s financial acumen? Such were Gabrielle’s thoughts as he walked briskly through the piazza Duomo. He thought about lighting a candle, deciding as usual, he didn’t have time, hurrying on into the Galleria. He usually stopped for a ristretto, but his fine Swiss watch insisted he was late, so he kept going.

Approaching the square near La Scala where so trams many originate, he saw an unusually large, angry crowd. There seemed to be no trams. Tapping a man on the shoulder, he asked politely, ‘When is the next car to piazza Cardusio?’

“Bastardo, non ei niente!” With this and other similarly sulphurous exclamations, Gabrielle understood; there had not been any trams  – ever; that stupido! This was piazza Cardusio; and this man, personally, intended to murder the Milan-Transit Authority’s manager, his mother, sister and all his cousins.

How had he not recognised his tram stop? Maybe the loitering multitudes had made it impossible to recognise any landmarks. This would never be allowed to happen in London. He sighed. I must keep walking. Perhaps this hold-up will clear. Several trams will come along in a bunch, allowing all these people to get where they want to go.

He walked, manoeuvring  like David Beckham, as it became harder to move through the crowds. Strangely, they all seemed to be going in the same direction. Did all these people really want to go to Palazzo della Borsa? Apparently they did. Realizing there was no way he could get to work on time, Gabrielle thought to stop at Peck for a coffee. To no avail. There the press of bodies was so strong, he was caught in the undertow of people eddying towards the Stock Exchange. He could not speed up, nor slow down, nor get out of the wave.

As his section pressed into the piazza, Gabrielle became aware of an angry susurration, Nearing the Borsa, he checked his watch – after 11:00. It was closed. Impossibile! How could the greatest financial institution in Italy be closed at this hour? Retreating out to the edge of the crowd, he received another shock. All the banks lining the piazza were also closed.

“Porca miseria” Signor Bonacci never swore, but this was an extraordinary situation. He understood the crowds’ anger. If there is anything an Italian cares about more than his car, his clothes, his figura, it is his money. Today, the banks, all of them, were closed. This was intolerable.

He shivered and looked up at the sky. The brazen cobalt morning had clouded over, now presenting a face as grim as an evil magician waving a leaden cape over the multitudes in the piazza. As the first drops of rain began to descend, Gabrielle thought, I knew I should have brought my umbrella. Maybe he could squeeze into a space under one of the arcades? Not a chance. The people there were squashed as tightly as commuters on the Northern Line after a jumper on the tracks. How it used to irritate him, stuck in with all the unwashed, just because some poor unfortunate had decided to end it by leaping under a Tube train during rush hour.

Nothing to do. He pulled his collar up and turtled his head into his jacket. Maybe this won’t last long. It didn’t, in a manner of speaking. The rain turned to hail. Freezing pellets the size of golf balls bounced onto the protesting crowd. These were succeeded by clouds of black birds, wings beating helplessly as they fell and died.

Next there were rats, some dead, some not A blood-curdling shriek, made him turn his head. A buxom, bling-bedecked woman, her red lipstick smeared onto her chin, was desperately trying to bat a scrabbling creature off her head. The crowd howled their disapproval.

Dead rodents changed into coins, freezing coins, that drummed onto heads provoking more screaming.

“They came here to get money,” Gabrielle muttered. “This isn’t what they had in mind.” Soon the coins were mixed with stones that might be gold. It didn’t matter. The torrent was so powerful, so unending, no one could stoop to examine them. People were trying to run, pushing and shoving, to get away from the onslaught. Someone fell, was trampled underfoot; then another and another. Bloodied stones were covered with stinking fish and dying animals, larger and larger animals. Heaven was emptying it’s chamber pots onto this piazza.
A bellowing horse landed on a group, squashing everyone under it. A phalanx of battered old FIATs followed, bouncing and pinging through the crowd, flattening and killing all they touched.

Recognizing the intent of this awful deluge, Gabrielle began fighting like the rest to escape the square. He pushed, punched, shoved – desperate to get out of the murderous piazza. Until, tripping on a slick of blood, falling under a heavy black boot, he marveled, “No one is complaining anymore.”

 

The Beautiful Couple

He’s old, mostly deaf, obviously frail, some movements are palsied, uncertain, maybe Alzheimer’s – maybe a stroke. His dominant colour is grey; his skin, eyes, beard, skull, stray hairs pasted across bone like wandering brackish streams, all ash-coloured. Even his clothes, clearly, once well made and considered, have a too often washed, greyed-out aura. He’s not an appetising prospect – at all.

She? His consort is triangular shaped. A small orderly head with a child’s bowl haircut sits precariously atop an expanding mountain of flesh pressing down on swollen legs and misshapen feet. How they must hurt her. What kind of affliction causes a body to blow up like an over-filed sausage casing, while leaving the head so tiny, the bones of her face, fine like a small bird’s, sharp under her skin.

And yet, here’s a surprise. She loves him. See how she strokes his hand as she puts a morsel of her scallopine on his plate; pours a little red wine into his glass and waits for him to add water – just so.
… And he, her. See how he offers his arm as they enter the dining room. Whatever the ravages of age and disease have done to his mind, the memory of courtesy remains entrenched.

Her shining eyes see him as he was when they were young and first agreed to share their lives. This is a couple who will not out-live each other by more than a few anguished months.

What are they, cracked and broken shadows of a former life, doing in this funny little hotel, in the least glamorous of East Tigulio’s vacation playgrounds? For that matter, what are any of the lonely, unaccompanied, elderly women doing in this place?

North and south of here, the rich have built their playgrounds. Sestri Levante, Camogli, Porto Fino, Rapallo, all lined with boulevards of fine venerable palms, grand mansion-hotels and expensive restaurants with menus in four languages: Italian, English, French and Russian. The names slip off the tongue like exotic flavours served up in the gelato parlours in the parks. What extraordinary benefit does Chiavari, this workmanlike city at the mouth of the River Entola, offer the old, unattractive, infirm and frightened?

Ah, but have you never heard of the Madonna del Orto? Our Lady of the Vegetable Garden is the patron saint of Chiavari, but not the guardian of allotment growers as her name suggests.

After prayers to a statue of the Virgin in the back garden of a local villa miraculously – Isn’t it always so in Italy? – saved the town of Chiavari from a raging pestilence, a painting of this event was commissioned. The painting was hung in a small chapel nearby and the wonder working powers transferred themselves inside.

Through the years, and despite the best efforts of the Vatican to discredit her, the Holy Mother of the Garden blessed more and more seekers with renewed health and longer life, saving Chiavari from plague again in 1528. Finally in 1998, the old Polack himself, turned up in the Popemobile, to bless the painting and the enormous cathedral now housing it. This couple also, is here, hoping for a miracle.

It’s October, the most beautiful time of year in Italy, in my opinion. Perhaps because the oppressive heat of summer has abated, it’s also the busiest time for the Orto Madonna. Anyone reading this who is sick or old knows how difficult it is to travel when the blazing sun turns every space into an oven.

Today, like all others this week, is painfully beautiful. It’s the last day of our couple’s stay in Chiavari. After Mass, they move slowly, deliberately out of the church. He stops on the rotunda, gazing around. I suspect he knows he’ll never see this vista again.

“Let’s sit in the park for a bit. We can feed the birds. See, I brought some bread from breakfast,” he says, reaching into his jacket pocket. “We have time before lunch.”

“Of course,” she says, patting his hand.

So they sit in the golden light of an autumn morning. The birds are happy for their offering and clatter around, respectfully enjoying the crumbs he throws to them. When all the bread has been consumed, the couple rise and walk slowly back to the hotel.

“I’m too tired to go down for lunch today. I think, I’ll just sleep for awhile,” he tells her, stretching out on their bed and closing his eyes.
She understands, It’s time. The miracle they hoped for here, will not happen. Watching him sleep, his chest barely rising and falling with each ragged breath, she knows what to do.

Taking her pillow, she covers his face. He’s old and weak. It doesn’t take very long. The rasping, anguished breaths cease. Removing the pillow from his now peaceful face, she watches his soul rise up, out of his lifeless body and fly out the window, like a bird set free.

She opens s drawer from the table on her side of the bed. Removing a bottle, she shakes it … so many colours. Will it be enough? It must be. From the garderobe she brings out an open bottle of red wine and a single glass. One by one, then more quickly, she washes the pills down with the wine. Gazing up at the picture of the Madonna over their bed, she makes the sign of the cross before speaking to her God, “Give us this day our daily bread …and forgive my transgressions, as I have forgiven others.”

When all the pills have been consumed, the wine drunk, she stretches out beside her lover of forty years, fitting her body close against his. She rests her arm across his now motionless chest and sinks into her final sleep. Outside the birds have stopped singing.

 

 

8.)  The lines, the trees, the cliffs, the eaves

Andrew Leon Hudson is an Englishman resident in Madrid and has been writing full-time since the beginning of 2012, partly in an attempt to appear as unemployed as everyone else in the country, partly in an attempt to lead a fulfilling life. In preparation for this he has worked in fields as diverse as prosthetic makeup, teaching, contact lens retail, “intoxicant delivery” and the services (customer and military). He used to have his own company, but it died. His first novel, The Glass Sealing, is currently in the works at Musa Publishing and will be available in the new year. He has a variety of short stories floating around the infosphere, with directions available from his minimalist, pseudonymous blog,

 

The Lines
Mrs. Johnson reaches her bus stop in her suburb of London and settles in under the shelter for the wait. There’s a queue–two teenaged students, chattering; a young mother with baby and pushchair, prattling on at a short, fat, balding businessman out walking two small white dogs–but Mrs. Johnson doesn’t attempt to join in a conversation.

Once upon a time, people waiting in line might bob their heads to strangers, perhaps exchange a smile before they stood there, facing across the road, shoulder to shoulder. If it was just one, another lady like Mrs. Johnson, maybe they’d share a word about the weather, nice and friendly. She misses that. The effort people go to nowadays just sounds forced.

She hears the businessman say one year since, my dear, and knows they are talking about The Absence. The news on every channel had been counting down to the anniversary for weeks, but when she passed the newsagents just now the headlines on the stands were about soap stars, scandals, sports and politicians, just like always. Like they don’t feel comfortable mentioning it after all. Unless she got the day wrong, sometimes she gets the day wrong.

She looks up: it’s grey, the clouds indistinguishable from the sky, only the sharp black arcs of bare telephone lines cutting across from this side to the other. They remind her of skipping ropes, sagging, held loosely. The lines shift in the humid breeze. Mrs. Johnson thinks of being a girl in summer, back when girls still played with skipping ropes, singing and taking turns to jump. Except it isn’t summer, it’s a February in London that feels the way Augusts used to.

The telephone in Mrs. Johnson’s large handbag vibrates. It will either be her son, or her daughter-in-law, or one of the ladies of the Women’s Institute to ask if she can help out at the parish hall making tea or manning the cashbox for the books sale. She’d be happy to. There is always a nice bit of conversation over tea or when giving out change.

When she opens her handbag the trilling of birdsong emerges. The talking around her falters and she feels their sudden tension, doesn’t have to look to know disapproving glances are turned her way; but she also feels a flicker of defiance. She doesn’t care if her ringtone is considered passé, or inappropriate somehow. She likes the sound and wishes more people called her so she could hear it play more often.

The picture on the telephone’s screen shows her son. The birdsong pauses, starts again. The pouting, jowly businessman clears his throat. The young woman with the baby says something rude in a quiet voice. The teenagers mutter and giggle. Mrs. Johnson presses her son’s face and the lovely birdsong stops.

“Thomas?” she says. “It’s mum.”

“Where are you, mum?” He sounds distant, but his voice is turned up high because her ears aren’t so good these days. “Are you at home?”

“No, dear, I’m going to the supermarket.”

“I want you to go home, mum.” He sounds rather urgent.

“But I need all sorts of things. And I’m halfway there already, just waiting for the bus.”

“No!” She pulls the phone from her ear with a wince, but she’s more surprised than pained. Thomas never raises his voice, at least not to her. “Go home, right now!”

“Don’t shout, Thomas!” Mrs. Johnson fights the temptation to check if the people standing beside her are listening in. “So rude!”

“Oh, god, mum,” he says, “you have to get off the street. They’ve come across the channel at last, they’re heading for London. Brighton’s swamped already.”

She can’t remember ever hearing such a tone to his voice. “What are?” she asks, but the young woman beside her lets out a squeal of disgusted horror and Mrs. Johnson turns to look, just like everyone else in the queue.

The thing squats on the baby’s knee and the baby goggles at it. They all do. It looks like …

 

[To discover the rest of this FLASH SUITE, purchase Andrew Leon Hudson’s e-book]

 

 

 

9.)Our Ghosts Read Us Bedtime Stories

Rhonda Eikamp is originally from Texas and lives in Germany. Stories of hers appeared up to 2001 in venues such as Barrelhouse and The Urbanite, after which she climbed out the window for awhile. Since refenestrating in 2012, she has published fiction in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Birkensnake and Apocrypha and Abstractions. When not writing fiction, she works as a translator of German legalese, which is as crazy-making as one might think. Favorite story with defenestration: Village of the Mermaids, by Lance Olsen.

 

The Sane/Mad Continuum

Where you are, I am alive.

Jorge was captured first, hesitating at the top of the last staircase, and I saw him go, the knife across his throat a wine shadow, a blood smile to match the winner’s gloat of the totalitarian behind him who tossed his body aside and started down after me. Hope springs eternal, you would say, my god my only love, but hope sprang away then, in spurts from Jorge’s neck, across the landing, apple streams into the masonry, soaking the edges of the books on the bottom shelves. The totalitarian wiped his knife on his cowl as he came down the stairs after me, painting a red streak near his ear, and my heart grew to encompass me; to the tips of my fingers I was its beat, breasts and womb aching syncopation, trilling death, expanding to fill every book-lined hexagon in this honeycomb of our library universe. Run now, it gasped. My author, I couldn’t.

I clutched your book to me and it anchored me.

These are my theories that Jorge’s neck smiled for, that so many others have died for, heretical, intolerable to our government:

that there are worlds above and below and in all directions beyond the darknesses at the edge of our own hexagons, other peoples and cities if one could only cross that vast unknown, a place where the books are written;

that these unfailing sequences of letters stringing nonsense in unending rows of books on shelves in rooms and levels piled atop one another forever more are not the consequence of a universe made up of every possible combination of letters as our leaders believe, meaningless gibberish without author no no no the books speak – they mean and live and yearn to tell us things.

You are proof of that, these words you have written to me.
I stood waiting, ready to die for it.

And then Paul, lovely pale Paul, my last follower, whom I have held between my legs, leapt out from a niche to block the totalitarian, but too late, too slow, and I saw Paul’s throat grin red. Dying for me, and yet in the totalitarians’ belief an act without meaning, only one possibility out of many, a million universes in which other Pauls and Jorges choose not to save me, scenarios in which they hide or run away, in which they are the totalitarians. Infinities of worlds where the totalitarian’s robe is not covered in these red streaks or there is no robe or there is no totalitarian and we live in freedom. Where every option exists, there can be no meaning.

I chose to make their deaths mean.

I turned and ran down the hall, then through a room without making the book-obeisance and then down a staircase and another and it was as if I plunged into my own intestines, groped my way through my hexagonal heart that had stopped beating, until I knew the totalitarian was no longer behind me.

You must know this, you who wrote the book I clutch, that I am dead now, nowhere to run except the uninhabited dark that flows through infinite levels below.

I stopped beneath the last gourd lamp to read your words again. My discovery, the bible of the rebellion I began. Thumbed through letter-necklaces of nonsense to the one page, tattooed into my memory from the day I first discovered it, soiled now by my fingers that have caressed these words so often, the only coherent words ever found in any book the bridge between your eyes and mine. And further down as if an afterthought your disheveled hair.

And then into the dark, my blood throbbing, no days and nights, they were only constructs anyway. Each new staircase leading down, a dip into greater night. My fingers trail spines of books I cannot see. No light to seek more of your words, wherever you are.

Where you are, my author, I will be alive. I love you.

The dark is everywhere.

I love

 

Deconstructing

The text is a mirror with which we may view ourselves. The many ways in which we are embedded within a system of signs (= life) ensures that our own experience is the carrier of significance in our reading of any text, the contextual noumenon the only thing holding us back from the perfectly valid assumption that it was all written by a monkey with a keyboard. We understand a text by our axiological choices, which in turn allow us to order the text’s meaning along continua – mind/body, interior/exterior, sane/mad, love/hate – in accordance with the position we assume along those lines. I write words on a page and these words are the bridge between your eyes and mine. And yet are they? From what vantage point on the continuum do you the reader view the words? If there is no fixed focal point, there can be no absolute truth, no intrinsic meaning informing a particular text. Meaning becomes a moving target. The monkeys are banging away, our designata askew, authorial intent a crock.

The lover writes I love your throat, your disheveled hair in the morning, but the woman who reads his note sees only – what? – a stalker, a one-night stand gone bad, and rushes into the arms of another man.

Fuck this.

This is unpublishable. Fuck this cycle of madness that is academic life. Publish or lose tenure. Publish or die. Derrida my derriere. There is nothing outside the text. Nothing outside my office but the hallway, that short stretch to his office. C.’s over there banging away at her right now, probably got her bent over his desk, while I hold idiot conversations on paper with dead white men. “Are we animals, Uexküll, trapped inside our functional circle? Is there a message independent of us both, dear Jacques?” Couldn’t she feel her environment laced with significance when we lay beside each other, the barrier between signifier and signified severed by my cock sliding into her? How could a love note be so misconstrued? What does “moving too fast” mean if I love you in a million universes?

I want to move fast.

I want to break down all the doors, every wall in this desiccated turd of a college, shoot down the silence with a gun.

Are you over there? Did you know I fingered your skin like a reader caresses words on a page, soaking in the sandy pulse of your blood, the electric, the god/devil continuum in your eyes, your presence?

Are you there?

 

The inspector with a knife in the library

“Another faller, boss,” Kolpinski informed him.

McElroy crouched beside the junior officer examining the corpse, felt the pain in his knees. Like dice banging around in there. Snake-eyes you lose, age calling his number, though he wasn’t that old. Just bone-weary of it all. At least the body in front of Detective McElroy was a worse mess than he was. Head shattered to a purple pulp, the rest of the guy like a rag doll, most of the turquoise robe ripped away during the long fall down the shaft, probably by protruding objects: broken railings, flagpoles, dinosaur bones – hell, who knew what they got up to on the higher levels. McElroy used a handkerchief to tilt what was left of the corpse’s head and saw the crusted black slice along the throat.

“Wake up and smell your morning breath,” he told Kolpinski. “Mushhead here didn’t fall. He was thrown.” McElroy stood and stepped to the borough’s central shaft. “Someone getting rid of the evidence.” He gazed up into the hexagonal dark that yawned like a beast maw above and then peered down into the maelstrom of nothing below and as always it made him dizzy. Not good to contemplate the depths that exist both ways. A guy could lose his breakfast that way, which in McElroy’s case would be no loss – milky coffee and a filter-tip, thank you – but he pulled back before his stomach could make it reality.

“So murder,” Kolpinski mumbled.

No accelerating-at-9.81-m/s² shit, sherlock. McElroy was bored with all these corpses. The bounce factor, he called it. Bodies fell. If you hung around a shaft for an hour, you’d see at least two whistle past. Pure chance was going to throw one now and then against a balcony rail at just the right angle to land it on the level below. Splat. A college professor who’d helped McElroy on a case once had had a theory that if the levels were infinite, then the number of people tossed or offing themselves or just accidentally slipping must be infinite too, so that at some point further down every shaft must accrete into an unmoving bung of corpses. The detritus of death blocking itself up.

McElroy’d understood that. He knew from constipation.

“From how far up you think he come?” Kolpinski asked. From his crouch beside the corpse the junior officer gazed upward with his mouth open. He looked like a primitive from prehistoric times, told the shaft was a god.

McElroy shrugged. “Ever talk to Carson in pathology? He’s got this theory you can tell how far a body’s fallen. Something to do with the nitrogen in the blood.”

So it was boredom sucking the life from him. The city, laid out like a honeycomb, always the same, a logical labyrinth, nine million people – or six or eight, the census always vague on that – in their gray iterations, forever repeating their boring sins. Get that number of people together and you’d think he’d be able to find someone for himself. Her. The her. The woman of his dreams, an idea only, as non-existent as some stuffy professor’s theory. That’s what he needed. McElroy pulled a clementine from his pocket and began to peel it with a lino knife. Someone for everyone, they said, so why not for him. He felt her sometimes at night, when the beast’s maw was close, when he became its tongue, whipped about until he curled into a ball and screamed because the goddam bed was empty.

He was about to put a section in his mouth when Lopez ducked in from a side hall wearing a look.

“I’m busy,” McElroy said.

“Hate to take you away from your first love –” Lopez glanced at the body and rubbed his nose – “but patrol just picked up this nutjob wandering the trash hexes. Almost dead, had nothing but a book with her. Kept going on about some murder. Said she come down through the empty zone. Captain wants you to talk to her.”

McElroy put his knife away. He’d have to take a look at her.
So boring.

 

Falling from Grace

I tried to touch you once. This was when we were falling, you up and me down, or maybe it was the other way around. There’s only one shaft here for those who’ve slipped and started falling, but two directions to fall in, so maybe it was inevitable that we pass each other at some point, floating in that fell grace of a moment when everything seems to slow, synapses not lightning anymore but a soft dreamy thunder in suddenly hushed air. Face next to face, unexpected, close up and personal. Passing like that, it became every moment of us, all at the same time: we were in college, you were telling that professor about Kabul and I turned to see who was talking and fell in love with your hair, then we stood in the back stacks at the library, crying, and you said, Get rid of it. You took a book from the shelf and spied through the hole you’d made because you’d heard something in the next aisle, you thought someone was listening on the other side. I don’t know if I can do it, I whispered. You said, I’ll pay for it. You did. Another moment, and we were married, walking across the dunes at Ocracoke and the salt air was an ellipse in our lungs, a long line of dots making it hard to breathe or talk because we were already getting our divorce, making ellipses of ourselves to each other.

That’s when I reached a hand out to touch your face and time sped up again. It faded, we passed, me going up and you going down or vice versa. The rush of air booming back into place, and you were gone.

I saw you once in the least likely place. I shouldn’t have been in Paris anyway, because it does things to me, the miasmic canyon air above, stoned cliff buildings that march on forever, a labyrinth, so I always flee down into the Métro, where the air is hot in winter and uriney and somehow comforting. I was waiting for a train there to take me to Boucicaut, when murmurs rose and heads turned and I saw that a man who was either high or drunk or both had slipped down into the track well and was trying to cross to the other side. I felt that slippage in my gut; I’d never seen a live disaster, death or even injury close up. Most people haven’t and never will. Others were rushing to pull alarms, there was nothing I could do anyway, and I was going to look away so I wouldn’t see it happen if a train came in, I was going to look away, when I saw you standing on the opposite platform. It was so improbable – so many points in time had had to come together to get me from Charlotte to Europe that they formed a labyrinth themselves – but I wasn’t mistaken. You’d seen me too. There was that same Belstaff jacket that must have had antique value by then. Your disheveled hair. I took it all in, and all the moments that had ceased to have meaning did again. We did things wrong, went about it backwards. Forever falling in love, but never arriving in it. Talking, until we had nothing left to say, or what there was to say had become trapped in the ellipses.

The man down on the tracks had reached the other side, but he couldn’t climb up. Too drunk or broken. He’d make it halfway up and slip back down. Other men had converged on the spot but you were closest to him and you knelt and grasped his arm, dragged at his clothes. He kept making it hard. Seconds went by. I didn’t know where the third rail was, there was a rumbling in my ears, soft thunder, starting up from the tunnel.

I thought, We’ll never be here again.

 

E n d

 

 

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