The truck stop at the junction of 64 and 81 was just what Darrel needed. Oil, sun glasses, Red Bull, beef jerky, ammo. The man at the counter had a gruff countenance and an impressive beard. He gave Darrel a plastic bag with a hole in it and K-Mart lettering on the side.
Darrel brought his recycled bag of goodies back to his beat-up station wagon and didn’t waste any time admiring the sunset.
Fuck the po-lice, thought Darrel as he pulled back on to 81 South.
There were plenty of run-ins, back in grade school, but they didn’t amount to much. Still, they would definitely have his fingerprints.
“Fuck the po-lice,” said Darrel.
A giggle erupted from the back of the car, and Darrel slammed on the brakes.
“Aw, shit no, Eleanor.” Darrel screeched across two lanes to pull to the side of the interstate, anger dripping off his forehead in fat beads of sweat.
“Hehe-eeeee,” squealed the stowaway.
The smell of burning rubber wafted about the car as they came to a stop. Darrel put the emergency brake on and turned to face his niece, who was grinning mischievously from behind the backseat.
“You been back there for an hour?” he asked. “You can’t go to the god-damned grocery store without a pee break, and you been hiding for a fucking hour?” He felt his face turning red. Leave it to a five-year-old to ruin his getaway. Leave it to his slutty sister to forget how to play mom.
Eleanor began to cry.
“If you was your mother, I’d drop your sorry ass on the side of the road,” Darrel said. There was no use even trying to calm the girl down. He ought to drag her out of the car for a good spanking, but then some buttoned-up yuppie would call the cops on his way by.
Cops were the last thing Darrel needed. Cops and baby girls.
“How am I supposed to get you home, girl?” he asked.
“Don’t wanna go home!” wailed Eleanor in a high-pitched shriek.
“Won’t.” The tears were gone, replaced by a sturdy pout.
He couldn’t go back to his sister’s, anyway. They’d be questioning her by now. He’d hoped that some misplaced sisterly obligation would keep her quiet, but now… now she’d tell them everything. He wouldn’t stand a chance. A tall, bearded redneck in a scuffed-up suit that didn’t fit and a cranky mixed-race child wearing — were those playboy bunnies on her pajamas?
“Eleanor,” he began.
“Won’t!” she shrieked. “Momma don’t want me anyway. She leave me with Gregory an he don’t even remember dinner.” Tears brewed in her eyes again. “Uncle Darrel, I’m hungry.”
“She drops you off at Gregory’s? The man who used to shoot at Maggie’s dog?”
“Yeah.” Eleanor’s bottom lip quivered.
“And he don’t feed you?”
“No. He only got tunafish inna can.”
“You lying to me?”
Eleanor shook her head. Darrel sighed.
“Climb on up here, girl.”
Eleanor scrambled to the front of the car and sat triumphantly in the passenger seat next to him. He was about to ask her what, exactly, he was supposed to do with her, when the inevitable happened. A highway cop pulled up behind him. No blinking lights, just a chubby police officer who must have gotten bored of Dunkin’ Donuts.
“Here’s how it goes, baby doll,” said Darrel. “You gotta pee, okay?”
Eleanor creased her eyebrows together and scrunched up her button nose.
“No I don’t.”
In the rearview mirror, Darrel watched the police officer get out of his car and shuffle towards them. He estimated that he had less than ten seconds to get Eleanor to play along.
“It’s pretend, see?” he said, forcing a smile. “You pretend I’m your daddy, and you gotta pee, and no matter what I say you just gotta pee worse and worse. It’s funny, right? Because that man back there, he don’t know you’re pretending. It’s just you and me that know.”
“Like a trick?” Eleanor asked, her eyes sparkling with mischief.
“Just like that,” Darrel said as he rolled down the window.
“Do you need any help?” asked the police officer.
“No sir, officer, I just stopped to look at, uh, directions.”
Eleanor began to squirm.
“Yeah, where you headed?” the officer asked.
“Headed to… Charleston. West Virginia, not, uh, South Carolina.” He cleared his throat. “I think we’re all set, though. Called and got directions.” His hands were sweating. Did the cop notice? Darrel could hear the distant squawk of the dispatch radio. Incessant.
“Daddy, I gotta pee!”
“Yep, well, you’re goin in the right direction. Visiting family?” The cop rested his chubby arm on the frame of the car above the window and leaned down.
“Thanks. Yep. Yep. Visiting grandma, right, E-? Right, Emma?”
Eleanor nodded mid-squirm, then pouted. She was doing better than him, with his sweaty palms and his stunted speech.
“Ain’t that sweet. So where you coming from? Up North?”
“Richmond.” Stupid. Stupid, stupidstupid.
“Oh yeah?” The man furrowed his brow, as if looking at Darrel for the first time. In the distance, the dispatch radio squawked away. Every other muffled word sounded like ‘bank’ or ‘robbery.’ But maybe that was his imagination.
“Da-deeeeeee!” It was the same shriek that had pierced Darrel’s ears moments ago, but this time it was almost musical. Darrel masked his grin with a reproachful glance, and winked so only Eleanor could see.
“Darlin, would you give us one moment? This officer is tryin to be helpful.”
“I’m sorry to hold you up,” the cop said. “You best be going before this one has an accident.” With a nod, he departed.
Eleanor exploded in a bout of giggles.
“All right, little lady,” said Darrel, pulling back on to the interstate. “It’s a long drive. Buckle up.”
A trunk full of twenties, a loaded gun, Red Bull, beef jerky, and a baby girl. Just what he needed to get all the way to Mexico.
Amy R. Biddle is a sailor and writer who grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Her debut novel, The Atheist’s Prayer, is a dark comedy about a fairy-worshiping suicide cult. Amy has also written a smattering of poetry and articles both online and in local newsletters, and one of her poems was selected for the 2013 Poetic Republic collection. In addition to writing, she co-runs Underground Book Reviews, a review site for quality independent literature.
Okren crested the granite cliff face with a last, shuddering heave. His muscles — though honed through labor — felt new and untried. Perhaps that was the purpose of the pilgrimage, he pondered as he knelt before the stone altar and fought to catch his breath. Not just holy sacrifice, but humble penitence as well.
He shook his sweat-slickened head. Such thoughts were beyond him. The prelates dealt with those matters, learned the secrets of plants and animals, told the stories of the skies, and predicted the coming of the blood moons. Their old throats sang the songs of the great wars and spurred the Chosen onward with righteous fury and the ghost of vengeful justice.
Okren scanned the twilit sky for the pale sister-lover of Great Herune. There, in the east, she waited, full-bellied with child. The blood sacrifice of labor had yet to mar her features. Soon, but not yet.
The icy winds shifted and bore to him the acrid scent of campfire. Okren stood, the leather of his armor creaking with the motion. There, across the clearing, tucked into an alcove in the mountain, firelight flickered. He drew his spear.
The weed-choked flagstones shushed his approach as he circled the altar towards the light. Only when he neared did he make out the figure sitting behind the flames.
“What are you doing here, female?” he barked. Okren’s grip tightened about the haft of his weapon, though he would not shame himself by bringing it to bear on a woman. Not unless he had to.
The stranger shifted, the ochre blaze of the fire casting her exotic features into the realm of daydream. She rose with care, the threadbare quilt about her shoulders parting enough to expose the mound of her belly.
“Dovik-ken,” the honorary slipped off her tongue with practiced care.
Okren inclined his head. “Wyrm-ken,” he accused, lip curling over the phrase. If she noted the insult, her dawn-rosy eyes did not tell him. “What are you doing here? You should leave before my mood sours.”
“I cannot return,” she stated, easing back to the ground. “And nor can you. Not without performing the ritual first.”
Okren shook his head. “What do you know of such things?”
“I know what all my kind know, that we must send one of our own here to die for the oaths of old souls long passed over.”
“But you are no warrior. How do you expect to fight?”
She shrugged. “I do not. I expect to die.”
Okren paced before the fire. This was not as he’d been told. He’d been sent to test his warrior’s mettle; to sanctify his people’s pact as the gods ordained. And so he’d set his feet to this journey, to preserve the balance between betrayer and betrayed.
He sat, legs suddenly heavy. “I will not kill a woman, especially one with child.”
“Why not?” she asked. “Your people have murdered countless of my male kin, turning their wives into widows. Do you think they did not suffer because they weren’t here to spill their blood upon this blasphemous ground?”
“Do not seek to cloud my judgment, belly-crawler. My people know of your wicked ways.”
The female spat into the fire. “What do you know of us beyond what lies your leaders have fed you?”
Okren turned his eyes to the sky. Above him, the grace of Herune’s sister had grown tainted with the rust of birthing blood. It was time.
He rose and made his way around the fire. The female eyed him from her nest amid the blankets, coal-black hair tinged purple in the coming night. To the Wyrm-ken’s credit, she did not flinch when he pointed his spear towards her.
“There is another way,” she whispered, eyes staring past the weapon’s tip. Okren paused, willing her to continue. “There are many ways to defeat a foe. Death is one, union is the other.”
“Union?” Okren tested the word.
“Marriage,” the female supplied.
Okren took a step back. “What foul rite do you propose?”
She scoffed. “Only a Dovik-ken would consider companionship foul.”
Okren eyed her a moment. “This is not our way.”
She shrugged, jarring her quilt. A pale stretch of unblemished skin peeked out from the succor of her sanguine dress.
“Ways change. What good is death when it serves no purpose? Too long have our peoples been apart. Would it not serve our Creators to live together as one family?”
“But the Great Betrayal…” Okren ventured. Even to his ears, the protest rang hollow.
She leaned towards him, the spear’s tip dangerously close to her neck. “An event so long past to be ancient history.” They shared a silent moment, the only sound that of the fire as it fought against the wind, casting sparks into the sky.
Okren lowered his weapon. What glory would the death of two innocents give his name? More appealing a question, what glory would bonding with a Wyrm-ken wife give his line? With their magicks, and his people’s hardiness, old rifts could be mended. The two halves of this land made whole.
“You are not…” Okren searched for the word, “…bound to another?”
The woman shook her head. “His light was diminished seasons ago.”
“And your heart?” he pressed, suddenly worried.
She smiled. “Ready to bloom amid the peace of our nations.”
Okren brandished his spear once more. With a swift motion, he passed his palm across the razor-sharp head. He squeezed his hand; let the blood drip into the dry, hungry earth.
“Then let this be the last blood shed between our kind.” He held out his hand.
The woman approached and grasped the spear, drawing her hand across the blood-kissed tip. She clasped his outstretched hand. Fingers intertwined, they stood beneath the light of the goddess moon as she bore her transformation into motherhood.
“What shall I call you?” Okren asked in a whisper.
“Nealla,” she said. “In the language of my people, it means: beloved of the enemy.”
Stephanie Bissette-Roark holds a BA from Pacific Lutheran University with a major in History and a minor in English. She judiciously ignores this education when writing and reading speculative fiction. Two close encounters with death in childhood lead to a life-long fascination with the macabre; because of this, she is a writer of horror, fantasy, paranormal romance, and poetry. She also works as the associate submissions editor for Evil Girlfriend Media LLC. Stephanie lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband, Matthew, and their two wrasslin’ cats.
My horrible brother Mike had brought home his equally horrible friend Joey after school, so I was hiding in the spare bedroom on the couch next to the “good” dollies, the ones I wasn’t supposed to play with. I was sitting there pretending I was one of them. The rules were that I couldn’t move, no talking, and no blinking until my eyes started hurting. I wasn’t doing so well on that last one.
Buster, our grey tom, came into the room and began to clean himself. A voice inside my head said, “Not bad, Katie, but I can still tell you’re not a doll. Try holding your breath.” Buster was now looking straight at me, so I sucked in a lungful of air and held it. Buster and I had a staring contest, and my practice had paid off, but after a bit my heart began beating harder and my head started to feel funny.
“Better,” Buster said looking away. “But the color you’re turning isn’t very attractive.” He hoisted one leg and began cleaning areas I didn’t want to think about. “Sorry. You suck at being a doll, but you’re alright for a kid.” He got up and started walking out of the room. “That’s why I’ll make sure you’re okay after Tuesday.” I ran after him but he was already out the cat-door in the kitchen.
For the next several days, he avoided me. It was already Sunday so I had to get tricky. Mom showed me his bag of catnip and I put some on his favorite mouse. She thought I was being “cute.” Little did she understand how important this was. I returned the mouse to his cat perch and waited. I was good at waiting.
When I woke up, he was lying on his perch all tired out, so I crept up on him with our old dog’s leash in hand. In a swift motion, I attached it to the ring that held on his license. He looked at me and began to yowl. I yanked on the leash and whispered, “You better stop if you know what’s good for you.” He glared at me angrily.
“Tell me what’s going to happen on Tuesday,” I said softly.
“C’mon Katie, I’m not supposed to say anything.” He pleaded.
As I held up one finger and touched the base of his tail, his eyes widened, “Not that!” I began scratching where his tail met his back. He raised his butt up in the air and stuck out his tongue. “Wait! Oh dear! Gosh…” He continued until I stopped. “Don’t do that again!”
I smiled sweetly. “Why not?”
“It’s very annoying but feels great at the same time,” I could hear the embarrassment in his voice, “but mostly it makes me look like an idiot!”
I held up my finger again, “Tuesday?”
“Alright, alright! Mr. Tiddles down the street has a plan. You see, we’re going to take over, at least around Leewood Court here. Everything will look normal, but you’ll have to do everything we say and dogs won’t be allowed within a block of here.” He sat back and looked smug.
“How?” I prompted.
He shrugged. “Don’t know. Tiddles has the plan. I just know that come Tuesday, Mr. Tiddles will rule the cul-de-sac. I made sure you’re safe, but your older brother Mike…” We both sat in silence for a minute thinking about what we’d like to do to my ogre of a brother.
“You won’t hurt anyone?” My voice came out small.
Buster jumped from his perch and rubbed on me, purring. “No, I promise to be a benevolent dictator.” I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded reassuring. “I just hope you like tuna,” he said, “because there will be a lot of tuna served in this house day after tomorrow.” I unclipped the leash and he bounded out of the room.
On the dreaded Tuesday morning I poured milk over my cereal and watched Mike getting ready for his bus. I just couldn’t help saying something, “You should have been nicer to Buster.” A puzzled look crossed his stupid face as I stuffed my mouth full of flakes.
Getting home from school I didn’t know what to expect, but I figured we’d be having something tuna for dinner. Maybe that weird tuna tartare mom had once, tuna casserole, or even tuna sandwiches. I hoped it wasn’t the tartare. It had been yucky and raw and didn’t have any tartar sauce that I could see.
I opened the door and went into the kitchen to see what Mom was cooking. I was surprised to smell pot roast. Mom saw me in the doorway. “What’s wrong Katie? You’ve been quiet the last couple of days, are you OK?” She took me in her arms. “What is it sweetie? Has your brother been teasing you again? You know he’s just being a jerk.”
“You don’t feel like serving us tuna?”
“No… W-why do you ask?” she said looking confused. I hugged her and ran to find Buster. I found him lying in the late afternoon sun coming through the spare bedroom window. I laid down beside him on the floor. “What happened?”
“When I went to get my orders, I found out Mr. Tiddles got fixed on Saturday.” He said dejectedly. “Tiddles doesn’t want to rule anymore, just wants to eat and then lay on the sofa. He claims he can’t remember the plan.”
Buster started to lick my face. I giggled because it always tickled. “I like it when you giggle,” he said happily, and then got serious. “Katie, you know I like you as much as any of our kind can, but we can’t talk anymore. It’s against the rules. You understand?”
I nodded and scratched him under the chin. He began purring, and then stopped. “One last thing…” I could tell this was going to be something important.
“More tuna,” and that was the last thing he ever said to me.
Brian J. Hunt is the editor of several books on vintage art including “The Outlandish Art of Mahlon Blaine”. You can find links to his published stories at gumballfiction.com. His tribute website for legendary bad sci-fi author Lionel Fanthorpe can be found at PelTorro.com and his website antiqueweird.com has been a web classic since 1996. Remember, spay and neuter your pets. It’s not just a good idea, it might just save the world.
Listen to “Rattlebone” by Bosley Gravel, read by Alexander Jones:
Bosley Gravel, eclectic hack writer, was born in the Midwest, and came of age in Texas and southern New Mexico. He writes in a variety of genres. His fiction focuses on the absurdly tragic, and the tragically absurd. He likes good black coffee, nightmares, Billie Holiday, and that hour just before the sun comes up.
Alexander Jones lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he works in video game development and indulges his love of good food and fine drink.
“Rattlebone” by Bosley Gravel was originally published on February 2, 2014.
The cigarette winked semaphore across the ruins of Beaumont-Hamel. At last, something to occupy him for a few minutes.
He brought the stock to his shoulder, inhaled, exhaled, and held it. Through the scope, the ember wobbled with lip-twitches and turns of the neck. Sometimes it disappeared and reemerged like a sunrise. The American was fiddling with it. Passing the time.
He understood; the boredom was the very worst of it.
When it was on, when the shrapnel clattered and the shells gnawed on dirt and rocks, no one had time to think much or do anything, really, but fear and react. But in these interminable silences, he just sat and licked at the mud on his teeth and watched the mute trees, no leaves to flutter, no branches to tick and moan, bone white compound fractures in the moonlight. Enough time spent like that and he wished someone would shoot at him, huddled in his nest on the hillside. But in the dark, even without camouflage, he was a ghost. He would have to settle for a diversion more fleeting.
His finger tightened, just a little. Next to him, Kinski whispered something. The red light flared brighter — his mouth tingled with the taste of the smoke — and bobbed slowly, so slowly, and the barrel bobbed with it. He reached out and cradled them in his hands, snuggled them together, the smoldering tobacco and the cold metal, and together they moved, left now, down now, semi-circle up and to the right.
His finger tightened, just a little more. The light winked, crushed by shadows from both sides, and glowed hotter after the shadows passed; two men, then, at least. Was it his accomplice in the path, or someone else, someone doomed by poor company? Difficult to tell at 350 meters. But what difference did it make? One man was the same as another.
His finger tightened.
His finger loosened and he slid down the few feet to where his blanket lay frozen to the ground. There, he inhaled and laid the back of his head against the ice.
Kinski yawned and tapped a crumpled packet of tobacco against his chest. “Zigarette?” he said, and giggled.
Kurt Hunt is, in no particular order, a father, a lawyer, a husband, a human, and a daydreamer. Sometimes he writes things, but usually he doesn’t.