Lisa awoke to a soft thudding coming from the kitchen. Last night it had been the spare bedroom door squeaking open; the night before, the TV turning on in the middle of the night.
Her heart pounded against her ribs in rapid imitation of the thumps from the other room. Saying she would dispose of the belongings from the deceased previous tenant had been well worth the reduced rent. This, most certainly, was not. She curled into a ball under the covers and prayed for dawn.
Charlie kicked the cabinet door in frustration. His foot passed right through it. He sighed and started over, one finger on the corner. The door inched open slightly before his finger melted through the wood and it thudded shut again. The whiskey bottle remained unreachable. Every night, more of his things were gone. It wasn’t right that he couldn’t enjoy the few favorites left.
What he really wanted was to see what had become of his home office, but revisiting the scene of his heart attack still felt too weird. He stumped out to the living room instead. The TV remote had proved almost as difficult as the cabinet but he’d managed to conquer it for the first time two nights ago. Charlie picked it up and punched at the power button. Even in life his fingers had been fat and imprecise on the little controls, and he settled in for a long battle.
After a few minutes, the screen beeped twice and flickered to life. His grin faded when he realized the channel was set to Lifetime. He punched the channel button repeatedly to no effect. Blast.
Resigned to 3:00 am programming, Charlie lowered the oxymoron of his insubstantial bulk onto the floral sofa while Michael Landon and his big hair calmed a distressed woman on an old episode of Highway to Heaven. Charlie wondered again what heaven was going to be like. Hopefully, he’d know soon. Who would have thought that heaven’s bureaucracy would prove to be as inefficient as New Jersey’s?
He pulled the certificate out of his pocket and examined it again. “Admit One” it read, in ornate script. Pearly gates were embossed on the letterhead in gold. “Bring this certificate with you when summoned.” Printed in small letters at the bottom, it said: “Loss of this certificate will require a report submitted to the Bureau of Replacement Certificates. Please expect one to two months for processing.”
His admission delay was supposed to be brief, but it had already been a week. Some of the newly dead had chosen to wait in line like kids at a rock concert, some had been drawn to graveyards to be near loved ones they would see soon, and some had gone home. Charlie had gone home, but it wasn’t home anymore. A woman’s belongings were everywhere and most everything he’d owned had been thrown out like junk.
He’d never seen the woman who lived here now. He hadn’t seen anyone since coming back. It was like a weird alternate universe where there were things, but not people. Cars moved along the streets, doors opened and closed, but no one was there. It was creepy. Fortunately, he seemed to only be awake at night. He looked at the clock over the TV and wished dawn would hurry.
When the TV show ended and an infomercial for a food processor began at nearly twice the volume, Lisa snapped. Shaking with fear and furious at being so afraid, she threw the covers off and got up.
The bedroom door flew open with a bang that made Charlie jump. The certificate fell from his hands and floated to the floor, landing on the remote by his feet. Footsteps pounded toward him and he cringed into the sofa.
“That’s it,” a woman yelled. She would have been more intimidating if her voice hadn’t squeaked. “Get out!” The remote lifted from the floor into the air in ghostly fashion, his certificate levitating with it. The television abruptly switched off. “Get out!”
Creepy, Charlie thought again, watching the remote waggling in the air. He waited for her to put it down so he could reclaim his certificate, but it floated in a slow circle as if she was searching for someone to clobber with it. He tugged at a corner of the paper when it passed near him but it was impossible to pull loose. As it was one of the few things solid in his world, he suspected she didn’t even see it. He’d just have to wait her out.
A vibration buzzed against Charlie’s leg through his pants pocket. He reached in and pulled out the little pager to see blinking red lights spinning around the perimeter. He gasped as the apartment began to fade from view. The certificate was still firmly in her grip.
“No,” he wailed, “not yet!” but it was too late. His number was up.
Liz Colter lives in a rural area of the Rocky Mountains and spends her free time with her husband, dogs, horses and writing (according to her husband, not usually in that order of priority). She has been writing speculative fiction for a decade and reading it for a lifetime.
I wish I could say I understood her. The way she arrives with a smile on her face and a spring in her step confuses me. I’ve never been able to understand why she asks me for a nickel for the bus when she knows I’m dead broke; or why she says that’s okay, and then with the next breath, I love you. What have I ever done to be loved? I sit here day after day, begging for food, water, and a little sunlight, and after I get those necessities of life, I go back to ignoring her. I have tubes down my arms and down my throat. I can’t piss on my own. A tube does it for me. She persists — telling me she loves me, as if I’m paying attention. As if I care. She says she has hope I’ll get better, but I think hope is best served cut into pieces and deep-fried. There is no hope left for me.
One morning she didn’t show up on time. I waited and waited, wondering if there had been an accident. Was she now like me? Was she stuck in an iron prison with handlebars sticking out of the back like I was? Was she trapped under her car, unable to get out, like I was last June? Did her back snap in half in the wrong place? Were we now the same? When she finally showed, she apologized. Had to go to the doctor, she said. Forgot to tell me she was going to be late. It was cancer, she said. An inoperable tumor. I found myself comforting her as the tears flowed down her face, imitating the saline flowing into my arm. I fed her a bit of my uneaten hope and assured her I had enough for the both of us.
Kristin Lea Berry is a graduate of The Ohio State University’s creative writing program. She has a passion for writing fiction and poetry, the stranger the better.
Emotional radio voice in the background, praying, pleading.
“What are you smiling about? It’s cold. Sleet coming down. And the washer’s clanking again. Why you doing a wash so early anyway?”
“Because Robby’s gonna call today. I want to get it done early.”
“What makes you think he’s gonna call today?”
“I don’t think it. I know it.”
“Then how do you know it? You a mind reader all of a sudden?”
“A mother knows these things, that’s all. You wouldn’t understand.”
“He’s almost forty years old.”
“I’m still his mother.”
“And I’m still his father. Look, he hasn’t called us in what? A year? Year and a half? He hasn’t even sent us a letter since … I don’t know when. So why would he all of a sudden break down and call us today?”
“I prayed for him last night, like I do every night. But this time Jesus sent me a message. In a dream.”
“You saw Jesus in a dream?”
“Don’t be silly. I saw Robby. As clear as day. And he was on the phone.”
“Maybe he was calling one of his girlfriends. Probably got another one pregnant. He could be in jail for all we know. If he isn’t, he probably should be.”
“He was calling me. I know it as sure as I know I’m standing here. Now go fry your egg. The wash is done and I gotta get it dried. I won’t be able to hear the phone if the dryer’s running.”
Blare of the midday news, volume loud.
“Aren’t you gonna have anything to eat?”
“He might be stopping for lunch himself in a few minutes. That’s probably when he’ll call. I’ll eat something later.”
“You can’t listen and eat at the same time?”
“I’ll eat something later, I said. You want me to fix you a sandwich?”
“Bread makes a lot of noise when you spread butter on it.”
“Don’t be funny. You want me to fix you a sandwich or not?”
“Okay. Baloney and cheese. I’ll heat up the coffee. I just think you’re wasting your time. What if he doesn’t call?”
“He’ll call. I can feel it. Here. And a mother’s heart is never wrong.”
Running footsteps on the porch. Door flies open, slams against the wall.
“Close the damn door. You boys live in a barn?”
“Hi, Grandpa. Hi Grandma.”
“Will you look at those red cheeks? Bet your hands are cold, too.”
“Freezing. You got any cookies for us?”
“And hot chocolate? Like you always do?”
“Spread out on the table. Take off your coat, Jay. You too, Stevie.”
“No time to make lunch for herself but enough time to make a lot of junk food for a couple hooligans. Don’t throw your coats on the floor. You’re worse than a bunch of wild Indians.”
“You didn’t eat lunch, Grandma? Why not?”
“Yeah. You on a diet?”
“Don’t be silly, Jay. Your Uncle Robby’s gonna call this afternoon. If you promise not to stay on the phone, I’ll let you talk to him. But only for a minute. You remember your Uncle Robby, don’t you? He’s been on TV. Many times. Did you know that?”
“These are real good cookies, Grandma. I like the peanut butter kind, too. You got any of those?”
“He’s a real good fiddle player. One of the best in the country. He’s played with all the big country music stars. Keith Urban, Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney, all of them. My favorite was George Jones but they say he drank a lot. Your Uncle Robby doesn’t drink at all. He goes to church every week, too.”
“Your Grandma’s dreaming again. Your Uncle Robby’s been in rehab so many times they gave him his own parking space.”
“Don’t listen to your Grandpa. He exaggerates about everything.”
“I like Busta Rhymes.He don’t use fiddles in his videos.”
“Doesn’t use fiddles.”
“I know. That’s what I said. He uses drums mostly. You like Busta Rhymes, too?”
“Dear me, is that his real name?”
“I don’t know. Can I have some more hot chocolate?”
The whirring sound of an electric can opener.
“You want me to open another can of soup? You haven’t eaten all day.”
“Not right now. Maybe later.”
“Look, Jennie, let’s face it. He’s not gonna call, okay? He just isn’t. You got yourself all worked up over nothing. Robby doesn’t give a shit about us. He never has.”
“That’s not true. He’s just busy. Playing here and there. Always on the road. That’s why he never calls. He’s too busy.”
“He can’t be that busy. Josh has three kids, a wife, and two jobs. And he always has time for us. Day or night. What does Robby have? A fiddle, a couple fancy shirts, and a beat-up old Cadillac. If he was here right now I’d kick him in the ass.”
“You know I hate that word.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m just mad. All we did for him. All he has to do is call us once in a while. Send a postcard. Is that too much to ask? For all we know he’s dead. Killed in some bar fight somewhere. Months ago.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. I’m just blowing off steam.”
Sound of crying in the dark.
“Don’t, Jennie, please. I was just blowing off steam. Robby ain’t dead. He’s all right. I’m sure of it. He’s just busy, that’s all. Look, he’ll call us one of these days, okay? I just know he will. Maybe even tomorrow.”
Russ Heitz says: “I write novels primarily but enjoy doing flash fiction pieces, too.”
Mike squirmed in his seat. It was warm in the university auditorium, and his wife had already nudged him in the ribs once when his head ended up resting on her shoulder.
He tried to concentrate on the names the woman on stage was calling out, but, bottom line, he wasn’t interested in anything she had to say. Didn’t understand why she was called a medium. That was a sweater size, not a person.
His eyes closed and he let them. If Wendy jabbed him one more time he’d remind her, loud and long, how he hadn’t wanted to come in the first place.
Mike smiled, his eyes still closed. He’d known an Olivia a long time ago. Dark blonde hair, sweet and funny, in her first year of college. She used to babysit him when he was — what? Eight? Nine? Somewhere around there. Twenty years ago. Definitely before his tenth birthday because that’s when he went to live with Grandma Mandy, his dad’s mom. Come to think of it, Gran’s birthday was this Sunday, he had to remember to get her…
This time Wendy’s jab was punctuated with a hiss. “Mike! Clara’s talking to you.”
He jerked awake and fumbled to sit up. “What? Who?”
The woman, medium, Clara, whatever, was standing to his right, glaring down at him. “Rhonda,” she said.
“Yes?” Mike was instantly alert.
“She’s loud, is Rhonda. And very upset.” Clara spoke with a slight brogue. “Do you know her?”
Shouldn’t she already know that? Mike cleared his throat. “Um, yes, my mother.”
“Well, yes, I know.” Mike tried a small smile.
His smile tightened. “Never proven,” he said, but doubted anyone heard.
The woman didn’t move. Lingered, as if debating with herself, then gave a small shrug and continued up the stairs. “Marlene,” she said.
They had tried to pin it on his father, but he’d had an airtight alibi. Rehab. Dad picked up a nasty dependence on cocaine shortly after Mother sacked Olivia in a hushed but vicious confrontation. No one ever told Mike why she was fired. He remembered desperately hoping it wasn’t something he had done.
“No, lad,” Grandma Mandy assured him shortly after taking her only son’s child to live with her. “It was neither you nor my boy at fault for that lass leaving. It was more to do with a dirty mind and a suspicious heart.”
Mike hadn’t understood, but didn’t care. As long as it wasn’t his fault.
And then Olivia was found in the university parking lot, three months after losing her job, with what our local newspaper called an old-fashioned letter opener stuck in her heart.
“Bashed in the back of the head first,” Grandma Mandy had read aloud, apparently unconcerned of how this information would affect a young boy still recovering from the loss of his first adolescent crush. Olivia’s death devastated Mike. But it was nothing compared to what it did to his dad.
“That was exciting,” Wendy whispered in his ear. “You have got to tell me more about your mother.”
Not a chance, Mike thought, as he slouched back down in his seat. What was there to tell? Four months after firing Olivia, his mother had quit her job at the post office. To stay home with her son was the assumption, since her husband’s visits to rehab were happening more often and lengthening in duration.
But, no. She joined a gym. Spent so much time there, they made her an instructor. It was almost laughable, until the day his mother dropped him off at his grandmother’s house and never came back. And that was fine. He loved his Grandma Mandy.
Then the hospital started calling. Grandma never took him to visit his dad, even when he pleaded with her. “No, lad. He’s not the man he was.”
She did take him to visit his mother though. One time. One last time. Then he, or anyone else for that matter, never saw Rhonda again.
Mike’s eyes opened, slowly, reluctantly. Clara had returned. He didn’t respond.
“She’s quiet,” the medium continued, “but I hear her plain now.”
Mike’s breath caught. He locked his eyes on Clara’s, trying to read them, looking for clues. How much did she know?
“Olivia says you did right, you and your granny.” Clara stood for a moment longer, her gaze never wavering. “And, thank you.”
Mike didn’t want to answer. Didn’t want to engage with this — this person — any longer than he had to. But he would have given Mother’s life insurance back for one more day with Olivia.
The woman waited. “You’re welcome,” he whispered, and Clara continued on her way. “Rebecca,” she said.
A. J. Capper lives in Northern Ontario with her musician husband and their incredibly intelligent mutt, Maple. Her debut novel, A Bother of Bodies, is now available through her publisher Divertir Publishing, as well as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and The Book Depository.
Reena sauntered across the dance floor of Club Kitty, aware all eyes were on her, as expected. She worked hard for that effect. Her crimson lips curled up in a wicked smile. Tall heels clacked on the floor over the thumping beat of the music as she strode straight towards her mark. Her black skirt swished along her thighs, showing long legs covered in fishnet stockings. Lights flashed on and off to the rhythm of the music cutting the darkness in the club.
She stopped, her target close enough to taste.
“Hello, my name is Reena. And you are?” she said to a tall man dressed in dark jeans and a white v-neck t-shirt with a small lion embroidered on it.
Before he could answer, a voice spoke in Reena’s head.
“What the hell are you doing, woman?”
“Excuse me. What?” Reena said out loud.
“I asked you what the hell you’re doing? You can’t kill him here. You won’t kill him here. I won’t allow it.”
Reena’s heart thumped louder than the music. The tall man hadn’t spoken a word to her, yet the voice sounded clear as though it came from in front of her.
No, she thought. It’s coming from over there. She turned her head toward the bathroom hallway and there stood a black cat with a white stripe on its face, staring directly at her. No one seemed to notice the cat. Its green shimmering eyes were bearing down at Reena.
“That’s it, woman. I said no. Not here! Not ever!”
The man reached out towards Reena, noticing how her face twisted in confusion.
“Are you all right? My name is Tomas,” the man said. Reena nodded as her attention was drawn entirely to the cat.
“Did you hear anything?” Reena asked, her eyes still on the cat.
Tomas laughed. “Other than you and this music… no. Should I?”
Reena turned towards him, finally registering his presence. “You… didn’t? Are you sure?” She had to yell the last part over the music.
“Of course he’s sure, you idiot!”
Reena’s head whipped back to the cat. It licked its paw and rubbed its face as though nothing was odd about any of this.
“I know what you’ve got planned. I know you have your blade in that purse of yours. And you aren’t fooling anyone with that Gucci knock-off! Leave the blade alone, turn around and leave. Now! I will not tell you again.”
When the cat finished cleaning itself it sat upright, its front paws making a clean line down the front of its body with a long tail curled around them.
“Fine, I won’t kill him then! I’ll go. But if I ever find you alone, you’ll be the one with a blade in its heart!” Reena yelled. Unfortunately for her, the music stopped between songs. Everyone in the club heard her yelling at the cat.
Tomas backed away from her as though she were a leper. Bouncers ran towards her, shoving people out of their way.
As the bouncers carried Reena out of the club, Tomas turned towards the cat.
“Thanks, Marty! You saved me there,” he said to the cat. Marty turned his head upwards, eyes squinting.
In his head, Tomas heard the cat’s calm, friendly voice. “Anytime, Tomas. Just next time, please be a bit more careful. Good looks aren’t everything, you know. However, they do make a tasty treat.”
Tomas nodded his head towards Marty, winking one of his green eyes. The cat jumped up and scurried away. Outside the club, cats wailed and a woman shrieked. One of the bouncers rushed inside.
“Help! These damn cats are eating that woman! Someone get help!”
Tomas smiled. In his head, he heard Marty. “Thank you, Tomas, she’s delicious.”
Jason J. Nugent lives an alternate life as a sales rep for a screen printing/embroidery/promotional products company in rural southern Illinois with his wife and son and he’s a three-time NaNoWriMo winner. Check out his blog, (Almost) Average, for other stories and essays.