Alb and I always call in for a pint after work on a Friday, our ritual to celebrate another week’s work. I mean nobody likes a dead end job in insurance sales but times are hard and money’s tight. I was glad to get this even though it meant move to the city. It’s something to be gainfully employed these days and Alb’s a good mate — the only one I’ve found here.
In the pale evening light, I saw the resident beggar crouched beneath a street light in the tree-lined square. He looked like nothing so much as a misplaced garden gnome; face set with submission and ingrained with grime. The fur collar of his great-coat which he wore like a kind of aloof dignity, was turned up against the frost and he played high and forlorn notes on a battered flute. It was his only possession, his only mode of expression; a random kind of music made of loneliness and cold.
I was acutely aware of him, perhaps because of the promise of snow and so I asked Alb because he knows everything round here. “How did he end up like that anyway?” I said, digging into my pocket for the usual change and finding none. “Drink I suppose?”
“Ah, Cromer Daily — he’s a bit of a legend here in the Cube,” Alb said. “Used to be someone. He controlled Cube Corporate.”
“The main bank? Controlled it?”
“General Manager. Never a day off. Work, work, work. That was before the accident.”
“Nope. One night he went home early and accidentally walked in on his wife and his best friend — then he accidentally shot them six times and turned the gun on himself. It made headline news.”
“Did he do time?”
“He suffered an acute memory loss afterwards and couldn’t stand trial so he spent years on a psyche ward. They closed the hospital and he’s been in community care ever since.”
“Isthat what they call this?”
“He’s never spoken a word since that day. Just keeps playing tuneless tunes on that flute. It’s as if there’s nobody home, you know? Well, in a sense there isn’t. You can go right up to him and stare him in the eyes and you get no reaction whatever. Try it.”
I did. Those eyes were disturbingly vacant; deep as the universe and like a shallow grave. Poor soul! I took a large note out of my wallet and stuffed it into his pocket. Time was all he was doing anymore.
I told Alb I’d take a rain check and called my wife. Told her I’d be home very soon, any minute in fact and that I was taking her out on a date so be ready.
“Hell – it’s only money,” I said.
Sometimes I think about Cromer Daily when I’m fed up mid-week and about how it’s a pity we so often measure our happiness by other people’s misfortunes.
Oonah V Joslin is Managing Editor at Every Day Poets. She has 3 Micro Horror prizes, an honorable mention in The Binnacle’s Shorts Poetry comp 2009 and 2011. Inclusion in several anthologies, A Man of Few Words, The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 and 2009 and Toe Tags. Read her at Static Movement, The Shine Journal, A View From Here, The Ranfurly Review 10FLASH Quarterly and most recently in New Rising Sun — a Red Cross book for Tsunami victims, Twisted Tales and Ether Books and Writewords’ own Anthology Pangea. You can find links to these at Parallel Oonahverse. Oonah reads some of her poetry here. Other work including her Novella, A Genie in a Jam, can be found at Bewildering Stories. The list is updated in The Vaults at Parallel Oonahverse and on her Facebook. Oonah’s ambition is to have a book published.
Chandra walked through the apartment one more time. It was old, but well maintained, and clean. “What do you think, Monique?”
Her daughter shrugged. “It’s all right.”
“The park is right outside our door.”
Monique didn’t even look out the window. “Yeah.”
Chandra gave the realtor a nervous smile. The woman knew their background. Foreclosure. Bankruptcy. Chandra hadn’t enough money to buy a gift for Monique’s twelfth birthday.
“It’s hard, moving to a new city,” the realtor said to Monique. “But you should know, the centennial unicorn migration is coming up this summer.”
Monique’s eyes lit up for the first time in months. “Unicorns?”
The realtor nodded and smiled, and averted her eyes.
Chandra was weary to her bones. Daniel’s death and the money problems had sucked the joy out of her, but watching Monique’s face in that moment, she suddenly wanted nothing more than to give her daughter something to smile about again. “We’ll take it.”
Two months after moving in, the unicorn mares began drifting down from the mountains. Tourists had invaded the town, but they had to watch miles further down the valley, and in specially located quarters, so as not to disturb the unicorns. Chandra thought herself lucky, landing an apartment along their migration path.
“We have a great view,” Chandra said as Monique joined her on their ground-floor balcony.
Monique fiddled with their old camera. She sat on the edge of her seat. “I hope we get a good look at them. Oh! I can see them.”
The unicorns moved through the parks and open spaces of the city, headed towards the river and the caves where they met the stallions and bred before disappearing back into the mountains for another hundred years.
Other people sat on their balconies like Chandra and Monique. Their apartment complex was filled with folks from all over, many of them with girls around Monique’s age, and none native to the area. It had eased Chandra’s mind, knowing that Monique had so many new friends, although she couldn’t understand why none of the locals wanted to live here.
“Here they come, Momma,” she said, her voice filled with awe.
The unicorns crested a hill and thundered through the long, narrow park. Chandra wasn’t sure which view was more beautiful, the unicorns, or her daughter’s beaming face.
Then one of the mares broke off from the herd and leaped onto a first-story balcony where a young girl watched. The unicorn speared the girl and tossed her over the railing where more of the creatures fell upon her, followed by the sounds of bones crunching and flesh tearing.
Monique screamed. Chandra shoved her daughter into the apartment and locked the door behind them. No sooner had she pulled the curtains closed than a unicorn shattered the glass door, sending shards flying everywhere. Blood and bits of flesh stained the mare’s snow-white face and legs.
“Jesus,” Chandra said. She kept herself between Monique and the beast and herded her daughter backwards, towards the kitchen. “In the pantry. Shut the door.”
“Momma — ”
The mare snorted and rolled her eyes, prancing through the living room, her steps shattering the coffee table, the TV, and and old family photo. Behind Chandra, Monique sobbed, but the girl stepped into the pantry and closed the door.
Chandra grabbed a knife and brandished it. “You can’t have her.”
The beast lowered her head. That horn ended in a point sharp as an ice pick, and already a gory mess covered it. Chandra’s stomach turned. She didn’t stand a chance against the unicorn, not even if she had the sharpest knife in the world.
She’d already lost her husband, her old life, even her pride. Now this beast wanted to take the only thing left to her, Monique.
She didn’t see the unicorn anymore. She saw the debt collectors, the guy who repo’ed her car, the co-workers and family members who thought she’d made a mess of things when it was all too complicated to pin on any single person or action. She saw the lonely nights spent awake, worrying until it gnawed her stomach raw. She saw how everybody wanted a part of her and took it until she wasn’t whole anymore. She saw herself slinking away to start a new life.
And now this beast was trying to rip that apart, too.
She roared, and for a moment, she felt like a lioness with claws bared, and she charged the unicorn.
The mare squealed and backed hastily out of the apartment. She scrambled at the balcony railing, trying to get over. Chandra sliced at the mare’s hindquarters. The unicorn squealed again and made a desperate lunge. Chandra made another cut.
“Get out of here,” she yelled, waving the knife.
Blood flowed freely from the gash as the mare leaped over the railing and ran to join the others.
Chandra cracked open the pantry door. Monique sat in one corner, curled tight as a ball, sobbing. Chandra flicked on the light and shut the door behind them. She set the knife down, pulled her daughter into her arms, and rocked her.
“It’s all right,” she whispered.
The unicorn blood glimmered on the knife, bright red with sharp pinpoints of light scattered through it. There was magic in that blood. It must be worth enough to buy their way out of this town, pay off Chandra’s remaining debts, and get a belated birthday gift for Monique. Chandra let out a deep breath, and smiled.
Rebecca Roland lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she writes primarily fantasy and horror. Her first novel, Shards of History, is forthcoming from World Weaver Press. Her short fiction has appeared in Uncle John’s Flush Fiction and in Stupefying Stories, and she is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. When she’s not writing, she’s usually spending time with her family, torturing patients as a physical therapist, or eating copious amounts of chocolate.
“You remember the way, sweetheart?” Debra’s mother said. She was leaning against a battered yellow station wagon with old-fashioned wood paneling adorning its sides. Clutching a child’s lunchbox and schoolbag, she stood before her daughter, fresh and crisp in her starched navy blue uniform, her habitually disobedient hair stuffed into a bun at the back of her head. Her ugly black work shoes tap-danced nervously over the asphalt and her cheeks were flush with excitement. It was a big day for both of them.
Debra smiled. Her sneakers were engaged in a jittery tap-dance of their own. They didn’t know how determined she was not to let on she was scared.
“Right on Orange, left on Revere,” she recited. It was a song she knew by heart. Her mother had begun teaching it to her the day the factory called to tell her they were finally hiring again.
“That’s my good girl,” her mother beamed. She handed Debra her things. “Peanut butter and jelly again,” she apologized. “Next week, when I get paid…”
“It’s fine, Mom,” Debra interrupted. “I don’t mind.”
Peanut butter sandwiches were okay. But she’d had one every day since Dad had gone away.
Debra’s mother knelt and zipped up Debra’s jacket, running her hands along the too-short sleeves. “We’ll get you a new winter jacket, too,” she promised.
“It’s all right,” Debra answered quickly, tugging the sleeves down over her wrists. “Aren’t you going to be late?”
“I got permission to be late today so I could see you off. Tomorrow you’ll be on your own.”
Debra swallowed the painful lump in her throat and forced a cheerful nod.
Her mother’s eyes were very bright. “You will be careful, won’t you, dear?”
“Don’t worry,” Debra said. “I walk to my friend’s house by myself, right?”
“But that’s just down the block! This has turns, and a traffic light…”
She broke off suddenly and reeled Debra into her arms. The lump rose again in Debra’s throat and she was afraid she might cry. “I’d better go,” she said, wiggling her way out of the embrace.
Her mother sighed and clambered to her feet, using the wagon’s bumper for support. “You’re right,” she said, straightening her collar. “Just remember what I told you, okay? Goodbye, Debra.”
Debra glanced down the long street that stretched out before her, dim with the early-morning fog. It was six blocks until the first turn. She couldn’t even see it from here.
“Bye, Mom,” she croaked. It seemed to stick in her throat.
She stepped backwards as her mother climbed into the car. Its horn honked playfully.
“Bye to you, too, wagon!”
Debra waved, then turned away and didn’t look back.
“Right on Orange, left on Revere,” she repeated. Her feet were leaden but she forced them along the sidewalk, kicking away the crisp dead leaves that snapped at her ankles like untrained puppies. Her mom would be upset if she missed the bell.
At last she reached the end of her street. She held her breath as she turned right. A car engine revved somewhere behind her, and she jumped even though she wasn’t crossing yet. She felt dizzy. Her mother’s advice was swimming through her head like sums on a math test. What if she got lost? What if she got hit? What if a stranger spoke to her?
It was another block to the light, and when she reached it she stopped dead, waiting cautiously for the green, both feet planted firmly on the sidewalk, not even touching the curb. When her turn came she looked both ways, repeating and exaggerating the motion, and through the fog she thought she caught a glimpse of a yellow station wagon on the side of the road behind her.
She rigidly faced forward, pretending not to notice. The road ahead was cleaner, brighter; the sun was peeking through the clouds on the horizon. Her feet grew lighter, too, as she crossed, shifting the schoolbag in her left hand and gripping the lunchbox tightly in her right, swinging both in steady rhythm as she walked. Halfway down the block she knelt and fiddled with her shoelaces. Peeking over her shoulder as she bent forward, she spotted it again, the yellow wagon, which had rounded the corner after her and was still following at a respectful distance.
There was a skip in her step as she pressed on, on towards the schoolyard, now only a few blocks away. She could hear the cries of the kids on the playground, see the sash of the crossing-guard directing traffic, smell the exhaust of the buses that brought the children who lived on the far side of town. And suddenly she was on the last block and she was running, running towards the final intersection, the one guarded by the gentle white-haired man with the threatening crimson sign, and then she had flown across it and was vanishing into the thick crowd of students and teachers. She turned, breathless, and caught the full view of it at last: a yellow station wagon trimmed with brown wooden panels, its driver dressed in navy blue.
It was four o’clock when Debra’s mother returned home, looking tired but pleased, her hair and clothes no longer so tidy. She smiled when she found Debra sitting quietly at the kitchen table, poring over her sums, also looking tired but pleased.
“How was your day, sweetheart?” she inquired cheerfully, enfolding her daughter in a grateful hug. “Were you scared walking to school by yourself?”
“Nope,” Debra replied without hesitation.
“Did you remember to look both ways and cross with the light?”
“Yes, Mom,” she said, smiling, glad her mother already knew the answer to that question.
“You’ll be all right walking, then, when I take the car to work tomorrow?”
“Of course!” Debra answered. She went over to the window and looked appreciatively at it, the familiar yellow station wagon with the wood paneling, parked, once again, comfortably in front of their house.
Lori Schafer is a part-time tax practitioner and part-time writer residing in Northern California. Her short stories, flash fiction, and essays have appeared in numerous print and online publications, and the manuscript of her first novel, My Life with Michael: A Story of Sex and Beer for the Middle-Aged, is currently under review by an Australian publisher. Her second novel, an erotic romantic comedy entitled Just the Three of Us, is out on query. You can find more of her work on her blog at lorilschafer.blogspot.com.
The inhabitants of Rainbow Sparkly Happy Fairy Valley woke up one morning to find a most unusual visitor had arrived during the night.
“Brrraaaains…” their new friend said.
Twiggly the unicorn whispered to Jub-Jub the fairy, “I don’t ever like to say anything negative about anyone, but I think our new friend needs a bath. He kinda smells.”
Jub-Jub nodded and flew up out of the reach of their new friend as he lurched forward to give her a hug. Hugs were a good thing. Hugs were encouraged in Rainbow Sparkly Happy Fairy Valley, but seeing that his clothes were covered with the remnants of whoever his last meal was, as well as bits of his own rotting flesh, she didn’t want to get “new friend” on her pretty leafy outfit.
A rotund cat in an old-fashioned suit came forward. “As mayor of Rainbow Sparkly Happy Fairy Valley I want to welcome you. I’m Rumpletum the Mayor. May I ask what your name is?”
“Brrraaaaains…” replied their new friend, while still trying unsuccessfully to give a great big hug to any of the inhabitants of Rainbow Sparkly Happy Fairy Valley that would stand still.
Mishmash the Patchwork Boy spoke up from the back, “Hey, everybody, I know! Let’s play hide and seek with our new friend!” The rest of the community found this to be an excellent idea, and before you could say licorice bubble-bub bush, their new friend Brains was the only one left standing in the town square.
When they met later in the hollowed out tree that was home to Chipperskip the squirrel, the normally upbeat and smiling inhabitants of Rainbow Sparkly Happy Fairy Valley looked tired.
Harmony the frog was the first to say what they all were thinking. “I don’t think I like our new friend Brains.”
A collective intake of breath came from the rest of the crowd, but no one contradicted him. Emboldened, he continued. “In fact, I’m frightened of his hugs. You saw what happened when he caught Diggeroo the badger. Now Diggeroo wants to give the not-nice hugs. I’m not afraid to say it, I’m scared.”
“But what can we do?” whined Chipperskip the squirrel.
“We can try a sparkle fairy conversion.” Queen Katherine’s sweet voice calmed her assembled subjects. “I’ve been having Jub-Jub save up her fairy dust for just such an emergency. It worked on Vampire-Man, and look at how popular he is now.”
It was extreme, and the inhabitants of Rainbow Sparkly Happy Fairy Valley usually tried to solve their problems with love and hugs, but in this instance, hugs were the problem. Armed with only bags of fairy dust and determination, they set out to find their new friend.
He wasn’t hard to find as he moaned his name out repeatedly and his voice carried for some distance. Cautiously the citizens surrounded him. Jub-Jub the fairy flew over him and released the first volley of her sparkle fairy dust.
It adhered to the blood and other bodily fluids covering him. Even after only one application, he already looked better. He stopped shambling forward and lowered his arms, a puzzled look on his face.
“It’s working!” she yelled. “Everybody, use your fairy dust.”
Cautiously the inhabitants of Rainbow Sparkly Happy Fairy Valley came forward and flung their loads of sparkle fairy dust all over their new friend Brains. Well, everyone except Humpalump the donkey, but that was okay, as everyone already knew he was a fraidy-cat.
Straightening his back, Brains spoke something other than his name for the first time. “Thank you, my new friends, my real name is Joseph. I’m so sorry for the problems I have been causing, but I’ve been sick and now you’ve made me all better!”
Katie knew Mom would be calling her downstairs anytime soon and began putting away her toys. She placed her brother’s action figure in an old shoe box at the bottom of her toy chest, as the paste that held on the glitter wasn’t quite dry yet.
When Katie arrived in the kitchen, the smell of pancakes made her mouth water. As she got into her chair, she found that Mike the hideous troll was annoying Mom as she finished fixing their breakfast.
Mom looked exasperated. “Mike, if you can’t keep track of your toys you’ll have to do without. We’re not buying you another one. Just yesterday, I had to buy your little sister a new stuffed badger after you used that horrid doll of yours on her old one!”
He crossed his arms and his face screwed up in annoyance, “But mom, what’s the use of having a Zombie-Joe ‘Action Figure’,” he stressed the last two words, “with biting action, if you can’t bite something with it?” Seeing he was getting nowhere with her, he sat down at the table and quickly stuck his tongue out at Katie while their mother couldn’t see.
“Anyway, I said I was sorry,” he said unconvincingly as he tried to kick Katie under the table. She dodged the blow with a well-practiced move.
Mom turned around and glared at him, “Well, you’re just going to have to figure out where you put it — your father and I aren’t made of money, you know.” With a visible effort, she calmed herself and began plating the pancakes.
Katie picked up her glass and took a sip of orange juice to hide the smile on her face.
Brian J. Hunt is the editor of several books on vintage art including “The Outlandish Art of Mahlon Blaine”. He wants to continue to stress that he ISN’T a zombie-centric writer despite the fact that three of his four sales to EDF have involved zombies. He is currently working on a post apocalyptic zombie novel. (D’oh!) 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.
Be brave and be strong. You have not been forgotten. Memorize these words like you memorized The Fifty Chronicles of Humanity in primary school. Recite them each time you lose your way. They traveled great distances and changed many times before they reached you.
Tonight, after you arrive at the fortress, when the one who is called master asks you, say yes. If you refuse, the pain will be much greater. When he finishes, lie still, wait for him to sleep, then go. Wash everything away. Make this your practice. Despite appearances to the contrary, your species is compatible with his, and you must live on this planet unencumbered.
When you’re done bathing, you will be curious. You will walk down the hall and see a child’s quarters. There is a dollhouse, and you will wish to play with it. The master’s offspring will not stir; take this opportunity and play. When you grow tired, reach inside the dollhouse fireplace; a key is hidden for you.
Take it. One day in the future, it will be of use. The fortress doors will remain locked throughout your captivity.
Go to sleep. Try not to think of what happened. Try never to think of it. The next time will always arrive before you are ready.
Speak Lagarian when you’re alone. Speak it out loud so you will remember how it caresses your ears and how it tastes in your mouth like candy.
The master will doubt your intelligence. Let him. He will not view you as a threat, and your freedom will be much greater. When alone, write down all the stories and poems you can remember. Later, you will have need of them. Chronicle every event that occurs during your captivity. This record will save many lives.
The years pass slowly, but they do pass. One fall night, you will stand at an open window, overcome with loneliness. You will yearn to jump. The air will steam like dry ice and smell of apples, even though there are no apples on this planet. You will believe it is your imagination, as you have imagined apples before. But remember this letter and don’t jump. Your life is important.
Months later, when you smell apples again, you will be waiting for him to fall asleep. This time is real.
This time, wash nothing away. Retrieve your writings and the key. Use the kitchen door. It’s the only lock they have not changed. Hurry to the clearing where the ship landed when you first arrived.
I will be waiting there. You will recognize me from your earliest days on Saturn. I am the traveler who handed you this letter and smelled of apples.
The journey to rescue you was more difficult than I imagined. I tried and failed many times. I will remember nothing, not even who I am. I will need your help to find our craft. It is hidden deep in a forest of trees that look almost human, beside a green sea that bubbles. The craft is programmed to take us home.
Once we board, collect all traces of the master from your body. Submit them to the computer for our scientists to study. Then you may bathe in the healing waters I carried from home.
When you have finished, you will lock yourself in your quarters. You will be afraid. I promise, I will not disturb you. Go to sleep. You’re very tired.
The following day, submit your observations about Saturn into the computer. By the time we arrive home, the enemy will be destroyed. The master can never hurt you again.
During our long return, read to me from your compilation of poems and stories. These days with you on the ship will be my first memories. You will teach me to speak, and to read, and to laugh. You will be my first teacher and my first friend.
When we arrive home, you will be celebrated as a hero. I will be a hero also, but I won’t understand why until I travel again through space and time to where I left clues. Princess Sorah was taken prisoner during a Saturian raid on Lagaria in 6458 when she was eleven. She sacrificed herself to save her family. Exactly fifty years later, her hybrid son attacked Outer Lagaria with a fleet of warships and slaughtered half the planet’s population in three days time. This began the Saturian occupation of Lagaria.
I will not understand who I was before I met you until I locate my personal journal. 12/3/6600: I am leaving today on the first of a projected four leaps through dimensional space and time to change the lifeline of Princess Sorah Tijah. Her line is the key to saving Lagaria from future annihilation. A small ship has been prepared for me. Dried apples and crystallized water will sustain me during the dark days that follow a leap. I regret I cannot rescue the princess yet. She has tasks to complete before the future of Lagaria will be secure. I hope my words to her will be sufficient.
In the years that follow our return, you will confide in me, and I will be an avid listener. You will teach and I will travel time once again. A day will arrive when your nightmares retreat and never return. When they do, I will be honored that you wish to marry me.
I will tell you I loved you from the moment I read of you in a history book when I was a young boy. Rescuing you became my life’s purpose. You will tell me, during your captivity, these words are the only thing that kept you alive.
Wait for me, Sorah. I will come.
Von Rupert lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. where she homeschools her children and carries far too many books home from the library. On the web, she’s a writing mentor at Writer’s Village University and F2K.