Thursday, October 23, 2014

Poem published in 2014 Rhysling Award Anthology

Earlier this year my poem "Faerystruck Down" was nominated for a Rhysling Award in the Short Poem Category. Winners have not yet been announced, but an anthology containing all the nominated poems is currently for sale.

Paperback and PDF copies can be purchased through the Science Fiction Poetry Association website (you'll need to scroll down to the bottom of the page). Paperback copies are also available at CreateSpace. Amazon and a few other places will be selling the book soon.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Leaving the Old Us

It’s a perfect time to release our birds,
Caged for far too long and submerged in dark.
Constant fright has hurt their eyes,
Trembled the beak and silenced the song. 

It’s a suitable time to drain our home,
Flooded for years and unknown to breathe.
Rising water has wrinkled its design,
Drowned the art and soaked the dreams . . . 

Birds explode from waterfall windows,
Ignite their songs and fill up the trees.
Bloated sharks writhe in the sun,
Cough up the tar and spit out the bones. 

Today we sail in the wake of an albatross,
Colored by sunrise and bound for the sea.
It’s an auspicious time to leave ones past,
Desalt the eye and lift the anchor.
 
 
First published on July 20, 2013 at Dagda Publishing.
 

Girl with the Crooked Spine

Her skin is like leather. What remains of her reddish blond hair sits in a tuft beside her mummified head. She has no arms or legs, though both her feet and right hand lay alongside her torso. The eyes deteriorated almost two thousand years ago, long before her well-preserved body was dug out of the peat in the village of Yde in Bourtangermoor, Netherlands, and placed in this traveling exhibit. She was sixteen years old the day she died, and her spine, not unlike Patrick’s, was horribly twisted by scoliosis.

Archaeologists call her Yde Girl. Patrick calls her Edie.

Propped up next to the body’s display case is a reconstruction photo, a wax head that depicts what the teen might have looked like in life. Here she has long, wavy, reddish blonde hair, an oddly high forehead, and what some might consider an intelligent yet sad countenance.

Other attractions in the Bog Bodies of Europe exhibit include Lindow Man, Tollund Man, and the Girl of the Uchter Moor, among others, each fragmented body displayed in small, personalized exhibit rooms adjoined by dim corridors.

* * *

It is a late Sunday afternoon in January. Snow accumulates outside the Field Museum in Chicago, long drifts rising across the steps of the main entrance. In the distance, Snowy Owls, on winter leave from Canada, sit on elongated water breaks, their sleepy, golden eyes scanning for ducks on the gray surface of Lake Michigan. Few cars populate the streets, and despite the storm, Patrick has come to see Edie. It’s his fourth visit.

Patrick wiggles out of his backpack, letting it slide down his left shoulder, the side of him that is slightly higher than his right. Hiding behind red bangs, he glances at Edie’s reconstruction photo, the version of her he prefers (though he does address the fragmented body now and then, so as to not seem disrespectful). He unzips his backpack, retrieves a spiral notebook.

“How are you today?” Patrick asks her shyly. “Man, there’s a really n-nasty storm out there. We almost didn’t come, but I told my mom I had to take notes for a research paper on bog bodies, and that it’s due tomorrow.” He laughs. “She has no idea I made the whole thing up! Anyway, we came here on the bus today and walked around a bit. She’s over in the gift shop now.”

Though Edie’s hardships had undoubtedly been more profound than his own, Patrick did identify with how he imagined she must have felt. Surely she had been stared at, pointed at, laughed at—all by ignorant and superstitious people that did not, or would not, understand her deformity. This deformity had probably led to her death, as it was theorized she had been brutally beaten, choked, and stabbed in a sacrifice to the gods.

Now the ancient girl’s naked remains lay exposed in wizened, leathery fragments atop a sterile white slab—a static, lonely darkness curling tightly about her glass display case. Worst of all is the frayed rope, an instrument of her death, still wrapped loosely about her neck.

“You should’ve seen it, Edie,” Patrick says, shuffling closer to the photo. “There’s this gorgeous Cecropia Moth in the entomology exhibit. It’s huge!” He shifts his torso to the right in an attempt to gain comfort in his back brace. “You know, it’s the largest saturniid—I-I mean, giant silk moth—in North America. At night, in summer, you can find them by artificial lights.”

Realizing she may not understand “artificial lights,” Patrick gestures to the track lighting over her display case.

“Most people aren’t even aware those types of moths exist. It’s kinda sad, actually.” He drops his eyes, follows a swirl in the floor pattern, then quietly adds, “Before my dad died, he used to show me all the best places to find them. That’s when I really got interested in science and stuff.”

Frowning, he bites his lower lip. “I keep trying to get my mom to go find them with me, but besides butterflies, she pretty much hates insects. She thinks they’re all going to bite her. My friend Andrew, though, he used to help me catch them all the time. He even had his own net. That was awhile ago though, before he got hooked on video games n’ stuff. So . . . I usually just go out by myself now. Kinda lame, huh?”

Edie lays silent in her display case. All is quiet but for the subdued howling of the wind over the museum.

With growing acceptance, Patrick has imagined that Edie’s presence now lingers inside the tight space of the exhibit. The presence grows stronger, more feminine—more intimate it seems—with each of his visits. And today, perhaps because the museum is virtually empty, he welcomes the feeling that she has leaned up against his crooked body and under his arm for comfort, the snowstorm blowing forcefully across the high roof. In such an atmosphere, mixed with the quietude of the museum’s closing hour, Patrick thinks he can hear her breathing within the persistent drone of the heating vents, occasionally feeling a slight flinch from her asymmetrical shoulders when a far-off door slams or a noisy child disturbs the tranquility. Her hair gives off the scent of heather, or so he imagines, and this makes him feel as if they are together in a lush, boundless moor.

“I wrote you something,” Patrick confesses, opening his notebook. “It’s nothing special, just—”

He flips to the desired page, freckled face turning a light shade of red. “Well, it’s . . . it’s sort of a poem.”

He begins to read quietly, so as to not be heard outside the thin, temporary walls of the exhibit. He struggles a bit with the title: “To a Girl from Bourt-a-an-ger-moor.”

The track lighting flickers, its low, electric hum filling the boxed-in exhibit space. Yde Girl’s reconstruction photo stares across the room as Patrick begins to read.

“For Edie, from Patrick.”

Shadows pulsate across the off-white walls, stretch and retract as the display lights continue to flicker. Patrick twists his torso, presses a free hand over his back brace. His voice grows soft.

“I am here, as a friend
a kindred soul from tomorrow
to offer my heart and mind
to a girl who knows much sorrow”

The storm howls and whips across the sky. And though the massive building seems impenetrable, a rogue wind finds its way in and wanders sharply down the marmoreal, columned halls. Floor by floor it brushes against glass cases and interpretive signs of myriad exhibits, past the Charles Knight murals, in and out of gift shop and café, through the angry skeleton of Sue the T. rex.

“Oh my gawd, Brian, this one is really gross!” A woman in her early twenties, holding hands with a guy who looks visibly exhausted by the museum, comes bounding into Yde Girl’s exhibit from the corridor. Patrick back steps into the darkness. The woman snaps a few quick, thoughtless pictures of the bog body with her cell phone and the couple giggles their way out.

Patrick sighs, shakes his head as he eases back into the weak light of the display case. “I’m so sick of people like that. Stupid, self-centered idiots—I hate them!”

For several minutes he stares into a corner, lost in thought. He turns back to Yde Girl’s reconstruction photo, admires her through the curtain of his dangling hair then says, “I’m sorry, Edie. I just get so mad sometimes. I don’t get why people have to act like that. It’s beyond rude!” He regards Edie’s fragmented remains. “And you know what else? I wouldn’t care if I never saw another human being again for as long as I live. I’m serious. There isn’t anyone else besides you that I—” He turns away, blushing. “Never mind. I’m sure you’re sick of me by now, anyway. I’ll just . . . I’ll just finish reading this stupid thing and go.”

He lifts the notebook, angles it into the light. Dust falls from the edge of the display case as a large mote floats into the darkness. He finds his place in the poem.

“I give you these words
that arose from our meeting
to help end the loneliness
that the both of us are feeling

An announcement comes over the loudspeaker, indicating that the museum will be closing in ten minutes.

“Patrick, the museum’s going to close in ten minutes.” It’s Patrick’s mother. She’s sticking her head into the exhibit.

“I know, mom. Everyone hears that announcement. I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Just letting you know. We need to get going or we’ll miss the next bus.”

Her head retreats into the corridor and Patrick follows her footsteps as they move along the walls of the exhibit, going a short distance until they reach a nearby bench. He hears her sit down and rummage through her purse.

Patrick rolls his eyes. “Parents,” he says in a low voice. In the photo, Yde Girl stares off to Patrick’s left. The eye sockets of her partially collapsed head are set directly on him.

A bit unsteady on his feet, and grimacing in pain from having stood too long in one spot, Patrick supports the bulk of his weight against the display case as he recites the final lines of the poem.

“Let’s break the barrier
let’s walk hand in hand
across the moors of time & space
to a city of our own land”

A security guard approaches the exhibit as he goes about his route.

“My son’s in there,” Patrick’s mother says, pointing with one hand and snapping shut her compact with the other. “He’s taking notes for a school paper. He’ll be out in just a minute.” She smiles at the man, who responds with a lazy yawn. Outside, the blizzard presses up against the museum.

And then—pop!

Shards of broken glass crackle to the floor and echo across the museum.

The guard spins on his heel, tears a flashlight from his belt, scrambles into the exhibit. Patrick’s mother follows, slams into the man as they dead stop at the other end of the corridor. A low, rolling fog drifts past their legs. The odor of rotten peat permeates the air.

The fog, having floated out of Yde Girl’s demolished display case, starts to dissipate. Now visible on the white slab, and wobbling to a stop, is Patrick’s back brace, the rope from the bog body underneath it. Neither the boy nor Yde Girl are anywhere in sight.

Patrick’s mother screams. The security guard throws a meaty arm across her lunging body as he yells into his radio. She falls back, shouts her son’s name from the wall. The guard steps forward cautiously, shines his flashlight into each corner of the room.

Nothing.

Worried about the broken glass, and troubled by the realization that the display case blew apart from the inside out, he grabs the woman by the arm and pulls her out of the exhibit. No further trace of Patrick or Yde Girl was ever found.
 
 
THE END
 
 
First published in Volume 9, Issue 2 of Electric Spec.
 

Emily's Meadow

“I see it!”

Emily’s eyes dart from the rearview mirror back to the wet road ahead. “Shit! What do I do?”

Lana, Emily’s older sister, turns to peer out the back window. The sky is sickly yellow but for a black tornado spinning beneath a mass of rainclouds. Snake-like branches of lightening strike the earth and blast a power line. Faint beneath the storm’s din, a monotone siren blares out of some nearby town and echoes across the cornfields.

“Keep driving!” yells Lana. “We’ll outrun it!”

Emily points. “Look!”

Dozens of cars sit abandoned along the shoulders on both sides of the highway, doors open, adults and children running through the rain and throwing themselves into ditches.

“Should we stop and follow those people? We’re going to get blown off the road!”

“No! Try to reach the next overpass! We’ll be safer if we get beneath an overpass. Seriously, I’ve heard of people doing that.”

“Okay!” Emily steps on the gas, eyes locked on the rain-swept highway, her Prius jumping to sixty-five, then seventy miles an hour.

The funnel roars behind them with increasing speed. Trees are yanked out like loose teeth and sucked into its rotation. It advances along the highway, flinging people from the ditches—their helpless bodies landing in distant lawns and parking lots. Others are inhaled directly into the tornado’s belly.

“Hurry! It’s getting close!”

Emily swerves to avoid a billboard that tears across the highway in front of them, its advertisement upside down.

“Seriously Em! Gun it!”

“I know! I know! Look, there’s an overpass just up ahead!” She weaves around an abandoned car, trying her best to keep from sliding off the road. An out-of-control flock of birds comes within inches of the windshield. Wind and debris assault the car.

Lana puts a hand on her sister’s leg. “Em, listen to me. As soon as we get to the overpass, jump out of the car and follow me up the slope. We need to get way up underneath of it, okay?”

Emily stares straight ahead. “OK, got it.”

Thirty seconds later she hits the breaks and they skid to the shoulder. Seatbelts fly; coats are snatched from the backseat. After sprinting up the concrete slope, the sisters huddle beneath the overpass as the wind pounds their bodies and whips their hair, the weather siren nearly inaudible.

Wind-pressed tears stick to Emily’s cheeks. “Oh god, we’re going to die! We’re never going to see mom and dad again!”

Lana pulls Emily tight against her body. “We are not going to die, Em. You hear me? You hear me?

Just then a large, sharp object plows into Emily’s shoulder, tearing her coat. As she shrieks in pain, Lana pushes her to the ground and gets on top of her like a shield. Overhead, the concrete rumbles and cracks violently.

Neither hears their own screams as the tornado sideswipes the bridge.

* * *

It’s a summer day. Meadowlarks sing from distant fence posts. Emily is lying in a meadow of green grass and purple coneflower. She’s remembering back to when she was ten, and Lana twelve, to the day they chased each other through Mr. Dupree’s backyard, picking violets for their curly blonde hair. She can smell the vegetable gardens, the magnolia trees, can feel the warmth of that day over her skin. She remembers how the old man came bursting out of his back door, cussing and turning red. And she remembers her and Lana hiding behind a row of lilac bushes, giggling into their tiny hands. Later they had skipped through a meadow—this meadow—and lay in the grass after an hour spent kicking dandelions.

Something snakes through the grass and takes Emily’s hand. The touch is familiar.

“Lana, look!” says Emily, suddenly ten years old again, pointing to a yellow and black butterfly flitting overhead. It glides down and lands on the strap of Lana’s dress, the same dress she wore all those years ago on that summer day.

Emily turns on her side to greet her sister; but there is no face, only a flickering broadcast of Lana’s countenance at different ages, from childhood on.

“L-Lana?”

The faces stop flickering and Lana is twelve years old. Emily smiles to see the younger version of her older sister. “Wasn’t today fun?” says Emily, her voice that of a little girl. She can taste lemonade on her teeth.

“The best,” agrees Lana.

“Then let’s stay forever. Never, ever leave.” Emily twirls her hair.

Just then, a luminous white light appears in a nearby patch of coneflower. Lana morphs back to her current age of twenty. “Em,” she whispers solemnly.

“What?”

A gust of wind blows the butterfly off Lana’s dress. The coneflowers sway.

“The tornado.”

Emily lets go of Lana’s hand and sits up, the youthful glow fading from her eyes, her voice eighteen again. “It . . . killed us, didn’t it.” The light holds her attention as she speaks the words.

Lana sits up, for a moment seems to hear something off in the distance. “I think it’s happening right now.”

“But . . . but what about mom and dad? What about . . . college? Our boyfriends? What about our lives? We can’t die, not now!”

“If that’s what this is,” says Lana, “then I doubt we have much choice.” She offers her hand. “C’mon Em, walk with me. Maybe it’s not what it seems. Let’s go find out.”

Emily recoils from Lana like a frightened animal. “No!”

Three figures appear inside the light, one a small boy. Lana smiles at them, almost trancelike, points to the boy. She begins to tear up. “Em, look! Look who’s here!”

Emily shakes her head defiantly. “I don’t care. I’m not ready!”

The wind picks up suddenly and the light shimmers. The meadowlarks go silent.

“Can’t we just stay awhile longer?” asks Emily, ignoring the light.

Lana jumps to her feet, brushes the grass off her jeans. A large storm rolls in from the west, its unbroken shadow flooding the sunlit meadow. Lana watches it, her face growing stern. “Em, I know this is your favorite place in the whole world—it’s mine too—but . . . but it isn’t real.” She pauses, gives her sister a hard look as if taking on the role of their mother. “Emily, this is a transitional space. Do you understand?” She looks back at the fast-approaching storm. “It’s time for us to go!”

Emily drops her head, clutches at the grass with both hands, shoulders heaving as she begins to sob. Overhead, the sky turns sickly yellow. Storm and shadow loom closer and closer; flowers and grass buckle beneath the wind. When two or three bolts of lightning simultaneously crack the sky, images of the tornado blast through Emily’s mind. She shudders violently.

“Time’s running out, Em,” yells Lana from inside the fading white light. The human shapes gather about her. “Please, please understand. You need to come with us or you’ll be stuck here!”

“No! I can’t!”

Emily scrambles to her feet and rushes off in the opposite direction, her long hair blowing wildly. Just then, a ten foot tornado rises up and takes chase. It launches a tentacle of dusty air at her feet, yanks and slams her to the ground with a violent thud. Sharp blades of grass pelt her across the face. She is dragged, kicking and screaming, toward the swelling cloud. Then, with spinning rage, the twister whips itself down like a snake and latches onto her head. The meadow falls out from beneath it, revealing an aerial view of cornfields, flattened homes, and a road littered with cars and uprooted trees.

Now the funnel spins along the ground, gurgling debris as it swallows the writhing girl. It vanishes in a burst of light.

* * *

A few miles to the west, under blue skies, a white orb pops into existence over an earthbound meadow. There it zips around in circles before settling down in a patch of purple coneflower.

A meadowlark flies up to a fence post and starts to sing.
 
 
THE END
 
 
First published in Volume 4, Issue 17 of Schlock! Webzine.
 

Strings

A young man in shabby clothing drops off the edge of a dark, windswept cliff. Flashbacks tear through his mind: the catching glimpse of Kate’s eyes in the city park; their first kiss on a summer beach; her handkerchief waving him off to England; the final, pleading letter he failed to answer. Other flashbacks reveal what led to his irreversible despair: the empty streets of London’s entertainment district, the men having gone off to war; a dark figure scampering off with his puppet cases; coins panhandled and later spent in bystreet taverns.

Kate sleeps soundly in her lighthouse across the sea, moon full and bright over the New England landscape. On an old Shaker chair sits a marionette, sculpted by Martin in his own image: a temporary companion. The puppet is of simple design, lanky, with long arms and a soft pine body. Its yellow hair, blue shirt, and gray pants are made of paint. Tall teeth adorn a wry smile beneath sleepy eyes. It leans forward, slow and deliberate, like a plant leaning in toward the sun. Strings vibrate ever so slightly.

Cold waves crash and spray against Martin’s inert body. He begins to slide off the barnacled rocks on a layer of blood and algae, then slips into the ocean and floats facedown beneath indifferent stars. Salt water fills his lungs. He sinks into darkness.

The marionette slides off its chair to the moonlit floorboards. Kate moans and turns to her side, white nightgown stretched tight against her body. Black hair falls across her eyes where Martin, handsome and smiling, waves from a passenger ship and disappears into an Old World fog.

Tiny fish dart about the darkness, nipping off bits of Martin’s skin. There is no pain, but he is conscious of submergence, of a heaviness thrust against his head, chest, back and limbs. And there’s a pressing outward from within as seawater enters his organs. He lingers in a cloud of blood, waiting for the nightmare to end, to be released from limbo.

Wobbling on skinny legs, the marionette gets to its feet and lurches forward like a drunk. The cross-handle drags behind it. Kate sits up, still asleep. “Martin? Is that you?”

A jellyfish flits by in the pervasive blackness. It is strikingly beautiful, illuminating the dark like a green moon in a turbid sky. Kate’s face coruscates inside of it, piercing Martin’s soul, tempting him to embrace her. But his limbs are useless. So his thoughts turn to puppetry, to the manipulation of inanimate objects: he envisions strings on his arms and on his legs; strings across his shoulders; strings at the top of his bleeding head. And when thick, tangible strands suddenly appear out of nowhere, his heart rejoices, triggering a telekinetic response that plucks and dances his body toward the passing eidolon.

The marionette nears the bed and the cross-handle rises, lifting the puppet into the air. Wooden legs clank together as it floats to a bedpost and wraps its segmented arms around the ornate finial. Kate repeats Martin’s name, prompting the puppet to descend to the mattress. The girl rolls away, grabs a green bottle off the nightstand and clambers barefoot out the window between billowing curtains. She sleepwalks beneath the rotating lighthouse beam toward the sea, and the puppet, landing soundlessly in the grass, follows her.

Strings twist and tangle around Martin’s distended body in their haste to pull him along. But he knows there is no need for the grace of a stage performance here. If he can simply catch the elusive jellyfish he and Kate will enter a new world together, of that he is now certain—the strings are the proof. And the closer he gets to the apparition, the clearer her face within that ghostly green glow.

Kate meanders to the coast down a moonlit path of sand, rock and stunted pine, bottle clutched to her chest. The puppet jerks its way along a few feet behind, arms waving about, cross-handle twisting from side to side as if gripped by invisible hands. She traverses a swath of short, windblown grass and arrives at a steep ledge over the crashing sea. There she pauses, leans forward, sways. The marionette battles the wind and creeps up behind her.

Martin is now moving at a tremendous speed. Water rushes into his mouth, nose and ears like wet cement. The nervous, writhing bodies of myriad creatures press up and quiver against his blue flesh, causing him to lose sight of Kate. But he knows the strings will guide him to her, that they will wrap his arms around her at any moment.

Rolled up inside the bottle is the hardest letter Kate has ever had to write: a letter which speaks of waiting, of saying goodbye, of the heart’s need to move on. She casts it into the waves, hair blowing in the wet, salty wind. The replica of her lover wobbles up beside her and peers down at the retreating bottle. Legs twist. Knees buckle. A moment later the puppet falls to the barnacled rocks below, watching Kate to the very end.

The strings lift Martin from the sea into the cold, starry night. Water spills away in a white rush. With a wet thud he is flung across the deck of a ship where he rolls and flops in a landslide of sea things; a slimy mass of scales and fins and tiny mouths gasping for air, the jellyfish not among them. In a comforting, silent pop of light, it all disappears.

Kate returns to the nearby swath of grass and lies down, the lighthouse beam circling quietly overhead. She shuts her eyes in peaceful repose, letting new, unanchored dreams rise to the surface. Meanwhile, the marionette floats out to sea alongside the glimmering green bottle, its face full of moonlight, its body coming apart on the rolling waves. In the distance, a fishing vessel sounds its horn, heads to port.


THE END


First published in Issue 20 of NewMyths.com.

Red Icicles

A rare ice storm hit East Tennessee this morning, shutting down schools and causing car wrecks. It was strikingly beautiful though: a landscape of silver coated trees against a slate gray sky in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Countless icicles hung from telephone wires and the eaves of houses and shacks. Many folks were out taking photos.

But the storm wasn’t much of an inconvenience for me. I’m a writer, I work at home. And in that respect the morning was just like any other. That is, until around 9:30.

I was bunkered down in my writing room at the time, the location of all my books, movie posters and monster toys – action figures, I mean – working on a short story at my laptop desk. I was putting down a scene when a series of small bangs arose from the kitchen area of my prefab house.

“What the hell is that?” I said, glancing at the Wolf Man.

I walked out into the living room, all robe and threadbare socks, mug of cold coffee in hand, forehead furrowed beneath an uncombed head of hair. I made a right turn at the dining area – a spacious extension of the kitchen – and faced the sliding doors of the back patio. There, a bright red cardinal was flying against the glass.

“Dude,” I said. “What are you doing?”

The cardinal dropped onto a patch of snow, limp and exhausted.

“Don’t kill yourself, bird brain,” I said to it through the glass.

I wasn’t too concerned though, as birds, especially cardinals, had a habit of starting fights with their own reflections. A territorial thing. And they never seemed to truly injure themselves in the process.

I looked at the clock and groaned; it was too early for a beer. So I shuffled back to the writing room and took a moment to admire my favorite zombie action figure. That’s when a series of louder bangs began.

“Here we go again,” I said to the zombie. “Bird braaains,” I imagined the zombie saying back.

This time, about a dozen birds were whacking themselves against the patio doors. Pop, went a sparrow. Pop, a wren. Pop pop, a pair of titmice.

“What the hell?”

I looked slightly to my left. Frankenwhiskers, my tiger striped cat, was staring at the lower cabinet where I kept his food.

“Don’t you see this shit, Frank?”

That’s when I noticed the birdfeeder I’d hung off the eave of the roof: it was completely iced over, the tasty morsels trapped inside. “Is that what you’re all so creased about? Can’t get to the birdseed? Well that’s a dumb reason to bang your skulls against my window!”

Frankenwhiskers walked up to me and began figure 8-ing between my legs. If I didn’t feed him soon he’d open the cabinet with his paw and start biting the cat food bag. That’s when it occurred to me: the birds wanted inside the house, they wanted the birdseed in the plastic green bin near the patio doors. No doubt they’d seen me open it each time I refilled the feeder.

“Okay, you can calm down now!” I said to the birds. “Jesus.”

Two mockingbirds flew up and hopped along the doors, chattering to one another and peering into the house. I went to get my coat and boots. That’s when the phone rang: my lovely fiancée calling from Chicago where she was attending a conference.

“How’s the writing going?” she asked. I may have lied when I assured her it was going “super superbly.” She hadn’t laughed at that.

What did make her laugh, however, was my “story” about the birds. “It’s true!” I said. “Here, listen.” I put the phone next to the patio doors but all was silent. The birds had gone.

“Ah hell. You bastards.”

“Okay, well, see you in a couple of days then,” she said. “Love you.”

“Love you too.”

After turning off the phone I fed Frankenwhiskers, got distracted by another phone call, and then went back to my writing. Somehow I forgot all about the birdfeeder.

For the next couple of hours I was pretty much unaware of anything else but my story, although I did hear pitter-patter on the roof and the cracking of ice now and then.

At ten seconds to noon I was back in the kitchen eating a sandwich, patiently waiting to take a swig of beer. Suddenly, a windowpane shattered and a long stream of birds came rushing into the house. There were dozens of them – and they all had sharp icicles in their beaks.

Frankenwhiskers meowed “Shit!” and ran behind the couch. Pussy.

“Whoa, wait a minute. Waaait a minute!” I announced to the Hitchcockian gathering, my hands up, my back pressed against the refrigerator. A crow flew atop the birdseed bin and began to tap the lid aggressively with its icicle. “Okay, okay – you’re hungry. I get it. No problemo!”

I inched my way toward the bin, eying each bird cautiously. Some were perched on chairs and cabinets, others stood directly on the counter, their icicles pointed forward. A turkey – seriously, a turkey? – poked its head through the broken glass holding a large, double-spiked icicle of its own. The two mockingbirds from before zipped past me and landed on the floor by the couch.

As I reached for the bin the crow flew to the side and landed atop the kitchen table. It raised its body at me and gave me the cold eye, then “sharpened” its icicle on the edge of the table and pooped.

A second later, Frankenwhiskers yelped in pain and bolted out from behind the couch with two icicles stuck in his back. I nearly screamed and made a move to help him, but the birds were staring at me, their heads tilted. Silence followed. No sound but the drip-drip of a few icicles. So I held my breath, slowly lifted the lid off the bin and looked inside. I was all out of birdseed.


THE END


First published on December 9, 2011 in Flashes in the Dark.
 

The Unfortunate Heartbreak of Faritook the Earwig

Faritook stood on an old log in the woods of a campground, cleaning one of his antennae. Shanamook was about to come along at any moment, and he knew he had to look his absolute best if she were to stop and talk with him. When finally she emerged from the decaying bark, Faritook released his antenna and it sprang back into place. His thorax tightened with anxiety and he edged closer to where she would pass.

But Shanamook shuddered when she saw him. She was creeped out by Faritook, uncomfortable with the way he always stared at her, his mandibles moving as if eating something invisible. And although they’d seen each other a few times in passing, nothing more had ever transpired between them. They were just two earwigs that passed on the log.

Faritook wavered nervously as Shanamook approached him, his prepared compliment ready to be spoken. Shanamook was desperate to make him understand that she just wasn’t interested. An idea came to her, one she knew would rattle Faritook’s central nerve cord forever. When she got close to him she stopped, casually plopped her reddish brown abdomen against the bark, and excreted explosively, causing a nearby centipede to bolt away screaming. She wiggled out the last of it and proceeded on her way, convinced Faritook would no longer want her after such a gross-out.

But Faritook’s antennae began to twirl with excitement. “Hello Shanamook!” he said as she passed. “You’re looking quite beautiful this afternoon.”

Shanamook’s compound eyes double bugged out. Was he blind? She was in disbelief, could think of nothing to say, so she ignored Faritook altogether and kept walking. What else could she do? After reaching a patch of orange fungi she glanced back: Faritook just stood there with extended mandibles, staring at her cerci. “What a roach!” she clicked to herself.

After Shanamook disappeared behind the fungi, Faritook raced into a nearby fissure, not wanting to be seen. He paced along the length of the crack, antennae dragging, trying to figure out what he’d done wrong (the image of her unladylike excretion now a suppressed memory). Had he not spoken the words correctly, politely, and genuinely? Why had she ignored him? Perhaps it was the way he looked?

Faritook got an idea, and a short time later, was rummaging through the closet of his bachelor chamber. “Where is it? Where is it?” he muttered, using his pincers to toss out all kinds of crap he’d collected from a nearby campsite. “I know you’re in here somewhere!”

It was only after he’d made a complete mess of the place that he found what he was looking for: a piece of red frill taken from a discarded toothpick. He went over to a shard of mirror and wrapped the frill around his neck like a scarf. I look good, he thought to himself. Sophisticated. Debonair!

“Now she’ll just have to stop and talk with me!” he said with confidence.

At about the time Shanamook was due to return, Faritook stood on the earwig trail with his slick new scarf blowing in the wind. “Any minute now,” he said with eagerness. But after half an hour, Shanamook had still not returned. Faritook began to worry. Was she lost? Hurt? Drained by a spider? In the belly of a woodpecker?

Faritook cried out: “Shanamook, where are you? Why have you not returned?”

A passing banana slug stopped in front of Faritook and said, “Hey…Fari…took. Saw…Shana…mook…not…long…ago. She…is…okay. Do…not…worry. She…is…—”

“She’s what!” Faritook interrupted.

“She…is…at…—”

“She’s at what! Where is she? You fool!”

“Minta…mook’s…place,” the slug finished.

“Mintamook’s place? But what would she be doing at Mintamook’s place?”

“I…don’t…—”

“Never mind!”

“Right. No…time…for…chit…chat,” the banana slug went on. “Got…to…be…at…end…of…log…by…twi…light. Sons…of…bitches…rac…coons.”

But Faritook was already on his way to Mintamook’s, out past the orange fungi in a heavily decayed area beyond the colony. When he arrived at the entrance he noticed a peculiar thing: the hole leading to Mintamook’s chamber was stuffed with moss. That’s odd, Faritook thought, it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain.

A moan came from deep within the hole, and Faritook ran around the moss in distress. “Shanamook!” he yelled, “What is Mintamook doing to you!”

But Faritook knew. He knew because he’d seen it all before: the cruelty of his species, the pain they often inflicted upon one other. Yes, Faritook knew – knew that his beloved Shanamook was being tortured in the dark wet depths of the underbark!

“I’ll save you!” Faritook yelled as he pried out the moss with his pincers. As soon as the hole was open he leapt in, legs-a-blur as he ran to Shanamook’s rescue. His antennae flew back and his scarf blew off. Nothing could stop him.

The passageway was very dark, lit only occasionally by the smeared bellies of fireflies. Light from a chamber at the far end fluctuated with movement and Faritook sped toward it, determined to become Shanamook’s hero. When he reached the entrance he enlarged himself and burst into the chamber.

“Take your filthy legs off her, you damn dirty bug!”

Shanamook and Mintamook turned their heads with a screech, their antennae shooting straight up into the air. But Faritook screeched loudest, for Shanamook sat limberly on a patch of moss, her six legs spread eagle. Mintamook was in front of her, leaning forward, her head near Shanamook’s ovipositor.

“Get the hell out of here, Faritook!” they yelled.

“Or I’ll tear your puny thorax out!” Mintamook added, opening her pincers.

Unable to regain his composure, Faritook turned and ran down the corridor as fast as he could – completely confused, totally heartbroken, his reproductive organ stiff as a rose thorn.


THE END


First published in the July 2011 issue (#3) of State of Imagination.
 

Penumbra

An eclipse brought dusk to the morning. As sunlight waned from the busy farmstead, shadows drifted across the windmill, trees, and barns like ghostly slugs. A series of intensifying tremors shook the foundation of the settlement, sending workers fleeing in all directions. Moments later, the tremors subsided, and a thin body fell from the subfuscous sky, landing in the shadow of a grain silo.

A young slave, having watched the body fall, sensed something familiar in its aspect and ran toward the silo to investigate. She wasn’t the only witness. Three soldiers had also observed the figure, had even been close enough to see it hit the ground . . . and moments later spring to its feet. Shaken, the figure made brief eye contact with each of the soldiers before escaping down a nearby hole, the excavation of an underground storage chamber. What concerned the soldiers most, however, was not that the body had survived the long fall, but that it was significantly larger than them, bore a pair of white wings and, most troublesome of all, possessed the abhorred skin tone and odor of a slave. As it was their duty to guard and protect the settlement, the three soldiers quickly entered the hole to track down and eliminate the threat.

Meanwhile, the distillation of sunlight remained constant. The farmhands, by nature anxious, chose to remain in hiding until signaled back to work. The three soldiers, on the other hand, continued their pursuit of the winged creature along a subterranean tunnel, unaware that the curious slave was not far behind them.

The soldiers soon reached the dimly lit storage chamber and peered inside: the creature was at the far end, clawing at the dirt walls in an effort to extend the tunnel. They entered discreetly, but the thing sensed them and turned around, popping open its wings and enlarging itself. The soldiers, in a quick, coordinated move, closed in on their target like a pack of wolves.

In response to the soldiers’ actions, the eclipse produced a long stream of vibrations that burst through the darkened sky and impregnated the farmstead. Moments later, a soldier came stumbling out of the chamber and limped toward the slave, collapsing just a few steps away. The body went still, and the slave, not sensing any danger, stepped around the body and entered the chamber.

A reddish figure was pressed firmly against the far wall, its large wings contorted and severely damaged, its limbs twitching silently, its mouth agape, oozing fluid and stench. It was evident that the thing had defended itself vigorously, as two of the soldiers had succumbed to bodily gashes while the third, as she had seen, died in the tunnel. The slave approached the winged creature and looked it over. It was dead. It was also female.

The slave stared at the corpse for a long time. Although the creature was quite different than her, and although it lay lifeless before her eyes, she could not help but register a kinship with it. For one thing, its skin was pale red, just like hers. There were other physical similarities as well, and this affected the young slave greatly; so much so, in fact, that she sensed an influx of strange knowledge and a shift within her instincts, the combination of which made her realize that she did not belong at the settlement.

The slave left the chamber and returned to the surface. The eclipse had passed, and many workers had gone back to their assigned labors. Others rushed by on their way to the underground storage chamber to retrieve the crumpled corpses. It wasn’t long before the corpses were dragged to the surface and quickly dismembered, the black parts and the red parts carried off into the system of tunnels beneath the colony.

Another eclipse occurred a short time later, again preceded by intensifying tremors that gave the impression of amplified footfalls. The young slave had since revolted against her captors and was now on the roof of a barn, a dying worker in her murderous grasp.

In an attempt to analyze its essence, the slave gazed up at the object in the sky. What she saw bore a gruesome pink head topped by an entwined mass of thin antennae. A slowly swirling appendage lingered just inside a rounded opening beneath a set of what might have been eyes, though she couldn’t be sure. The head itself was connected to a wide, rounded body from which dangled two long limbs that sank beneath the horizon. It swayed back and forth ever so slightly, allowing random beams of sunlight to shoot out from behind its immense form.

This, she realized, was the entity that had dropped her within the tall transparent walls of the farmstead, the thing that had taken her away from her home, from her own kind.

Suddenly the hole in the creature’s face began to expand and contort, releasing a high-pitched stream of vibrations that the slave could not decipher. Then it raised one of its long appendages, inverted a glass container, and dumped a countless number of red bodies into the narrow landscape of the farmstead.

The slave, watching this, tossed aside the black corpse and ran down the side of the barn to reunite with her brothers and sisters.
 
THE END
 
 
First published in the April 2011 issue of Black Petals. Also an Editors' Choice for flash fiction at Bewildering Stories in 2012.
 

The Dead Man Who Appears

“Well, what did it taste like?” I asked, fighting the urge to laugh in his face.

The old man lifted his dirty head and scratched thoughtfully at his unshaven chin. His left eye blinked chronically, and he ran a grimy hand through his scraggly gray hair. “Like… chicken,” he answered in a scratchy voice. “The universe tasted like chicken.”

A short pause passed between us, his chapped lips were curled into a grin. He looked at me curiously and shook his head, as if realizing something funny, then bent over in hysterics.

“Chicken. How imaginative the demon alcohol has enabled you to become,” I grumbled.

It wasn’t the answer I was expecting, and it had deteriorated my objective to mock him. For the past twenty minutes I stood here listening to this street hobo ramble on about alternate universes and gods and life after death—I couldn’t believe it had all led to some ridiculous punch line. My next impulse was to shove him aside and continue walking home, for it had been too long a day to put up with such nonsense. Nevertheless, I accepted it as an adequate conclusion to his story, considering the potential state of mind he was in. I stared back inquisitively and waited for him to speak.

He did not, however, respond to my comment. Instead his grin dropped and his bad eye stopped blinking. He looked me dead in the eyes, his long hair blowing back with the cold wind. A faint glow emanated from his skin and his pupils went large like a cat. “You haven’t any faith, have you boy?” he snapped accusingly.

The city seemed quiet just then, as if my reply was to be heard by all.

“Well,” he asked impatiently, “have you?”

“If you’re asking me whether or not I believe in God,” I began nervously, “then the answer to that question is no. I don’t believe in a god, or an afterlife for that matter.”

His expression stood as it was, remaining so even as people bumped into him as they passed. I freed myself from his stare, noticing the shadow of a crow as it flew over the cracked sidewalk, and put a hand over the back of my neck to protect it from the cold. It seemed nearly a minute before his countenance changed.

Then, without a word, he reached out his hand and opened his palm. It was dirty and scabbed. I looked and saw that he held nothing.

“What.”

“What do you mean ‘what’? You owe,” he said dryly. “Remember our deal? I give you something to ponder over in exchange for a ‘handout’—five dollars I recall?” His concern for my lack of faith had seemed to drift away.

As his shaky hand waited, I turned my head arrogantly to the west and studied the sun as it disappeared beyond the city, watching its yellow-orange rays soak into the buildings around us, illuminating them like magnificent gold towers in some alien kingdom beyond the stars. For a brief moment I thought I’d like to visit such a place.

“Hey!” came that scratchy old voice again.

I shook myself from the daydream and stood firm.

“Well then, Mr…. Harry Earles,” I said, reading the name sewn onto his tattered gray army coat, “I suppose I did agree to a cash payment. Can’t say it was worth it though.” I reached into my pocket and withdrew a crumpled five-dollar bill. A portion of the top right corner had been torn off, but he smiled at it nonetheless. I gave it to him hesitantly, tried to give the impression that I wouldn’t be so easily taken next time—not that there would be a next time.

“Much gratitude, dear friend,” he said rather politely. “Your kindness has just opened many doors. There may be hope for you yet.”

“Whatever,” I said.

Then I pulled my crossed arms to my chest and looked up at the sky. That’s when I became aware of my breath as it glistened in the translucent orange of the setting sun, a simple observation which unnerved me after noticing no such cloud coming from my acquaintance. I looked at his face and a bluish glow seemed to be coming through the pores of his skin.

I took a step back.

“Boy, what I told you is true,” he said, noticing my discomfort. “All of it, ‘cept the whole chicken flavor thing. Needed to throw you off. Needed to beat you to the punch—Oh, I bet you didn’t know, did you? That I knew you were going to laugh at me and walk off? Leave without so much as a ‘thank you’ or that five bucks you promised?”

My heart began to race. How did he know I was thinking that? I convinced myself he had made a lucky assumption, probably having told his bizarre stories to every passerby willing to pay. I figured they too had all walked off laughing and shaking their heads.

“But everything else is true,” he went on, “because like I told you, the mighty spirit… well, he let me swallow the entire universe and all its secrets—not literally, of course. I just opened up my soul and in they went. Now I know everything. I’m a chosen one, you see. Only catch is, now I’m stuck for eternity guiding stubborn souls like yours into the right direction. If I fail, you may wind up drifting in the Void for all of forever. You think it’s cold here?”

I chose not to answer that.

“Your god wants you to believe in him, and in yourself,” he continued, pointing a grubby finger at me. “Without faith in those two things, life beyond flesh and bone will be very lonely, my friend.”

Then, seeming content with his words, he turned and began limping toward a dark alley between two rundown buildings. He disappeared around the corner, and when I ran after him he was gone.

“You’re a crazy old man!” I cursed into the shadows. “You’re an idiot!”

I swung an arm at the air and convinced myself I had won the argument. Right then a bag lady appeared from out of the dark, pushing a cart full of aluminum cans. She looked at me with a puzzled expression as she passed.

“Get a job!” I yelled after her.

The wind began to pick up as I walked home, and I shivered beneath my jacket. The old graveyard across the road, which had never really grabbed my attention before, now drew my eyes to it like some strange, newborn fetish. It gave me an uncomfortable feeling—due, I surmised, to the old man and his words, which had begun to fill my head with bizarre images of death and afterlife experiences.

That night my mind was viciously attacked by a multitude of dreams, all of which were disturbingly realistic, yet hypnotic in their grasp, and even stranger, brimming with imagery so haunting that I detected, on occasion, that I was holding my breath in sheer awe of it. And although I could not see him, I knew that Harry was in those dreams, guiding my mind’s eye across vast landscapes of images and emotions which no words can accurately describe. It felt as if I were a living shadow, observing other worlds through a reversed perspective, with distorted eyes not meant to see so much as sense. Perhaps I can call it a journey within an illusion, or a walk through the opposite side of air. The indescribable beauty of it all put my mind into a state of tranquility. And as I “drifted” past cities inhabited by myriad life forms, unbound by time and bursting with every known wavelength of light, I began to feel something akin to homesickness—all of it was somehow familiar to me. It was as if I’d been to those places before, had once encountered those same beings; yet, I couldn’t seem to figure when, because every time a memory came it would be gone before my mind could catch it.

At one point I literally jumped from my sleep into a confused, blurred state of consciousness. I looked around the room in a nervous fashion, and as my eyes ventured past the window I could’ve sworn I saw the old man’s face peering in, laughing eerily with that long hair floating up and down like snakes. When my eyes darted back for a second glimpse he was no longer there, and at that moment an overwhelming realization struck me: what I had witnessed in my dreams was nothing short of a multidimensional trip through the eternal realms of Heaven, and Hell.

I awoke late the next morning in an almost meditative state of mind. My mood was pleasant, for the sun shone brightly through the windows of my apartment, giving character to all things around me. Outside, goldfinches chased each other playfully, and I was surprised to have even noticed. There was no denying that my encounter with Harry and the contents of my “dreams” had somehow altered my perception of reality, had triggered some deeper understanding which I’d always had but that didn’t reach the surface of my conscious thoughts.

After I left for work and was outside walking, there came, naturally, a fear of running into the old man again. But the fear subsided as I observed the city, noting to myself all the details which had eluded me over the years. Unfortunately, the city did not offer many pleasant things to see, and there was such an abundance of garbage and graffiti that I wondered how I could have ever wanted to live here. Considering that thought, I decided to take a much-needed trip to the country, maybe even look for a job out there.

“The guys at work would all get a kick out of that one,” I chuckled to myself.

With my freshly-brewed ideas I began to take notice of the people around me, wondering if anyone else was having an experience similar to mine, if they too had been affected by a meeting with Harry. I focused on their breath as it rose into the brisk air, and suddenly got an urge to cross the street and visit the graveyard.

When I reached the front gate I had an overwhelming presentiment that Harry was inside—not dead, but there among the world of the dead which he seemed so knowledgeable about. I opened the gate and walked in, all the while feeling the proximity of an unseen presence. I turned and looked behind me, nothing there but a crow walking the fence top. Curiosity got the better of me, so I walked further in.

Overall, the cemetery was peaceful, silent and tucked away in its urban location. There were even trees and shrubs scattered about, their fallen leaves blanketing the overgrown grass and old tombstones which leaned and crumbled with the passage of time. I wondered about the people buried beneath me, wondered what they had believed in while they were alive, and if those beliefs had any semblance to what they knew now.

Realizing I was very late for work, I started for the gate but was stopped in my tracks by a rather plain and rectangular headstone bearing the name Harry. The last name was hidden beneath a pile of leaves, but a part of me knew what it said. I brushed the red and orange leaves aside and gasped as the full inscription lay before me. It read:

Here lies
Harry Earles
1810—1911

I was even more shocked to find, lying at the base of the tombstone, a five-dollar bill with its top right corner missing. I hesitated for a moment then picked it up. Right then a warm, soothing breeze cut through the air and blew over me, stopping only briefly to caress my face before passing through the graveyard, causing the crow to take flight.

After closing the gate behind me, I took a long, final look at the graveyard and placed the torn bill inside my pocket. I should’ve been terrified by what was happening, but I didn’t; instead, I felt calm. And as the sun arced its way toward noon I peered into the chaos of the city, catching sight of a café. I walked toward it and pulled out some change.

“Sorry Mike,” I told my boss from the café phone, “I overslept this morning and I’m feeling pretty sick. Gimme a few days to get over it, okay?”

The idea of engaging in some self-discovery seemed like a good idea at this point, not that I was planning on attending church or buying books on occult wisdom or anything. But for the first time I felt like considering my options. Perhaps this ghost, Harry Earles, was nothing more than a bizarre subconscious illusion or some strange consequence thereof. I guess it doesn’t really matter. I never saw Harry again, and I suppose I never needed to, because if a god, or gods, sent him to open my eyes, well, then he’s probably off on his next mission—somewhere out there in the cosmos, limping his way through time and dreams….

“What’ll you have, sir?” asked the waitress when I sat down at the counter.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “What’s today’s special?”

“Chicken sandwich,” she answered with a smile.

 
THE END


First published in the 1998 issue of Spire Magazine. Later nominated for a Pushcart Prize.