Old people always seem to spend a long time chewing their food, no matter what it is. It’s like they’re worried each bite may be their last. I don’t know. I guess one time it will be.
My grandmother coughs on something she hasn’t quite swallowed and her face goes from ashen white to tomato red in the space of a few frightening seconds, but I’m not worried. It happens a lot. Narrow gullet, she says. I rub her back to make sure whatever it is, goes down, and it does. I’ve done this many times before.
She smiles up at me. She says thank you in a voice that’s still riddled with phlegm, sits up straight, and her face returns to the same ghostly pallor it had before. She is content once again. As I go to fetch her a glass of water I tell her to be more careful in the future. Next time I may not be here to help her, but I doubt she is listening. She is probably wondering when it became all right for her grandson to give the advice: when the tables had turned in such a manner.
I sit down and wait for her to finish eating, just in case it happens again, and it gets me thinking about my old friend, Bobby Spears, from way back when we were kids. My grandmother’s cough is always thick and groggy; Bobby’s had been dry and short, but – just like grandma’s – it too, was never that far away.
I cast my mind back and try to pinpoint the exact moment Bobby started to fade out, but even with hindsight, it’s impossible to know for sure. I never noticed anything different. He was always just the same Bobby, with that same silly cough that never went away.
That cough, like I did, followed Bobby wherever he went. Some people bite their nails, others play with their hair. With Bobby it was that damn, barking cough. It sounded like a machine gun, spitting bullets. Sometimes, when we were playing soldiers, I couldn’t tell the difference.
There was nothing in it, nothing at all. It was just a part of who he was. Bobby loved being the centre of attention though, and I honestly just thought he was doing it to so the light stayed shining on him. I often wondered if he did it at home, and if he did, whether his parents just told him to shut the hell up and take some medicine.
At least when my grandmother does it, I know it’s real.
Even though we were in the same year at school, Bobby was like my big brother. He’d wail on the other kids when they pushed me around for being smart, and he’d always be there to help me pick up my books when they were knocked out of my hands. After a while I just kind of took those things for granted. That and the cough.
One day Bobby coughed himself right out of a game of hide-and-seek. I found him on his hands and knees, behind a tree, trying to bring something up that was never really there in the first place. The next day the doctor did a few tests, took some blood, and then his parents told him he had cancer. Twelve years old, he was. The doctors said he still had another six months or so – you know, as if it was a bonus – but that cancer ate away at him like he was its first meal, and it only gave him three.
When I sat down in the church and listened to the minister talk about hope and giving thanks for the time he did have, I couldn’t help but feel that Bobby’s funeral was as much mine as his.
An old man coughed in the back row, in that familiar way that I had grown accustomed to – that I missed so much – and I started to cry.
Those tears are as fresh upon my cheeks now as they were that day, and it feels like hardly any time has passed since then. My grandma coughs again – more to bring me back than anything else – and I am reminded that it has been a long while indeed.
Now my grandmother looks at me as if she has something important to say but wants me to ask, so I do. She smiles, toothless and tender, and in that frozen moment of calm it’s easy to forget that she is sick too. She grabs my hand in hers, as if she has been walking with me through my memory, and says:
Although I’ve heard the words before, I’m not sure what they mean, but it’s in the tone of her voice, and it’s in the way she touches my arm. She looks at me the way only grandmothers can, and behind those cloudy grey eyes of hers, I think she knows that I’ve been remembering my time with Bobby.
She says it again, and this time, I think I understand.
Brian G Ross is a thirty-something Australian, based in Scotland. He has over one hundred publications — from humour (Defenestration) to horror (Shadowed Realms), mystery (FMAM) to mainstream (Underground Voices), and everything in between. His work also appears in several paperback anthologies, including the Read by Dawn series, The One That Got Away, and Damnation & Dames. You can follow him at www.briangrantross.com.
I wait and watch for her.
The cotton-grass fights the wind, bending its tresses to tangle with the heather. The cold is pitiless as the night rises: it swells my fingers. There’s the blue-grey dash of a wheatear in the grass; one flick of his tail and he vanishes as if he was never there. If I had been one of the Nine Dancers, villagers turned to blocks of stone for their sin, I could have watched the moor change from brown to purple to silver-frost until Judgement Day and I would never have caught her eye.
But instead I wait for her and I pray she doesn’t come… and I pray harder that she does.
I first saw her shoe: grey kid with a pinked trim. The girls I know wear bulled leather on their feet, proofed against farmyard muck and bog water. I glimpsed her skirt next; a pale blue ground sprigged with red roses, like a garden growing in a clear sky. I believed myself already in love.
Then her face appeared from behind the Priest- the broadest of the Dancers. One look from her grey eyes and I was lost. She was hiding from my sister Anne, the two of them playing hide-and-seek like they were children again. The girl with the sky-blue dress caught my eye. She smiled; she shook her head and held a finger to her lips to seal a promise. I nodded, blushing with pleasure to be her accomplice.
She had me then, with one look, one finger, her lips curled in a smile.
She watched me over the edge of the box pew. Even though my back was turned I felt her eyes burn through my collar stud, heating the skin beneath until I flushed and my neck grew damp. I didn’t hear a word of the sermon.
In the churchyard afterwards she stooped to tie her lace, leaning against a headstone cracked by frost and rain. Shaded by a bough of yew she sank into a tangle of ivy, crunching fallen epitaphs underfoot. She was blinkered by the wings of her bonnet and couldn’t see me. I thought to speak, but my tongue felt swollen, trapped behind my teeth, so instead I passed by, her skirts brushing against my legs. A sudden wind tangled me in petticoats; I stumbled free, leaving her to stand alone.
I thought of that moment often; the brush of her poplin dress on the back of my hand and the smell of lilac and skin.
I knew she was not human the first day she took my hand.
It was May Day. The sun was so hot that we tied wet kerchiefs round our necks to cool us. The fiddler stood beneath the market cross, his foot keeping time. I do not dance, but she took my hand anyway. I followed like a sheep follows the lead ewe even though it can hear a blade on the whetstone. Her bones were so slight that I daren’t close my fingers around her hand in case I crushed her. Her skin felt cool but my palm burned. She smiled. I couldn’t.
The music ended and the fiddler sank to the grass to drink his ale. I was left gasping. She walked away, stealing one backward glance.
There were other times: her hair twisted around my fingers: the touch of her lips on my neck: her smell that lingered on my shirt. There was a time in the darkness, the scratch of hay against my arms. That day her skin burned me again and on coming away I felt scarred down to the bone.
There were other times: watching her turn away when I tried to catch her eye: her cheek flushing under another man’s gaze: waiting alone in the dark, not knowing if she would come, my fists bruised on the wall.
By the time my skin turned cold under her touch it was too late for us both. A worm had burrowed inside me, leaving me hollow; each wink she threw made me shiver, every stroke of her finger was like the scratch of a nail. I would check myself for wounds and was surprised when I found none.
I was cruel. But that was when she loved me best.
Last night we were together by the Dancers. It was dark when we arrived. It grew darker still; the only light the moon and its reflection in a blade.
Now I can feel myself growing solid again, the hollows in my body filled. My toes are planted in the shallow soil and soon bog moss and sundew will grow around my ankles. I am turning to rock, but the change from flesh to stone doesn’t hurt me. All my pain has vanished and the burning of my skin has eased. My heart slows; I can feel the pulse through my arms, in my head, but soon it will stop. My skin will turn grey-green like the other Dancers and I will swell their ranks: the Priest, the Surgeon, the Midwife, the Blacksmith, the Brewer, the Thatcher, the Dame, the Fiddler and the Hound. And beside them, us: the Lovers. We are drawn, one to the other, the damned to the damned.
Something moves, like the sun has risen from behind the moor… like a garden of roses planted in a blue sky.
She takes my hand.
Lynn Love is a short story and novel writer based in Bristol, England. She is a founding member of the All Write Then writing group and her short stories have appeared in the anthology ‘Still Me’, with all profits going to the Alzheimer’s Society. As well as continuing to write short fiction, she is currently working on a time-travel novel for young adults and is developing a supernatural thriller.
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editorial by Camille Gooderham Campbell
From the Editors
It’s hard to believe that a year ago we were madly pushing along with our Kickstarter campaign for Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera for a New Age… which turned out even better than we could have hoped, with positive reviews in Library Journal and Analog among others, fantastic blurbs from bestselling authors, and the thrill of having one of our books in actual libraries and bookstores. Have you read it yet? If so, honest reviews are always appreciated — or just come and chat with us about it in any of our community places.
A year later, we’re getting set to serialize our second Every Day Novel, What Came Before by Gay Degani. Look for the serialization to begin on March 3rd, and in the meantime, check out this teaser chapter and read about the author if you don’t already know her.
March as a month is mainly associated with Mardi Gras, luck and shamrocks and St. Patrick’s Day festivities, spring break for schools, Lent, and sometimes Easter (though not this year). We sadly don’t have special stories for any of those occasions, but we do have one that you might not have expected:
This month, we are pleased to feature Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s story “…With a New Afterward” on March 6th in honour of World Book Day, which is celebrated on the first Thursday in March in the UK. Since the rest of the world celebrates the same event in April, we’ll hope to have another book-related story to offer you next month as well.
EDF has undergone some staff changes this past month — we will greatly miss editorial assistant Tara Sim and slush readers Kent DuFault and J. Chris Lawrence who are moving on to other things, but we’re excited to welcome new slush readers David Beavers and Miriam Lee, and pleased to announce senior slush reader Jenn Q. Goddu‘s promotion to editorial assistant. We could still use two or three more slush readers, though; click here for details on the position and how to apply.
For targeted submissions, we still need April Fool, Easter, and Passover stories, as well as a(nother) World Book Day story and something for Tax Day; please have them in by March 27th.
And of course, here are the stories we have lined up for you this month…
March’s Table of Contents
|Mar 1||Lynn Love||Summon the Nine Dancers|
|Mar 2||Brian G Ross||Whatever Will Be|
|Mar 3||Charlie C Cole||The Opposite of Hoarding|
|Mar 4||Moriah Geer-Hardwick||The Iconoclaste|
|Mar 5||D. Thomas Minton||Wheat King|
|Mar 6||Sarah Crysl Akhtar||…With a New Afterward|
|Mar 7||Dale Ivan Smith||The Fez Shackle|
|Mar 8||James Zahardis||The Basilisk of Saint Jöhnssbury’s Cathedral|
|Mar 9||Dave Morehouse||Mandatory Medication|
|Mar 10||Stuart Larner||The Big Dream|
|Mar 11||Lynne Fort||Scale Mail|
|Mar 12||M. Elias Keller||Mental Hygiene|
|Mar 13||Jeremy Szal||Heart of Steel|
|Mar 14||Katie Cortese||In the Beginning of the End|
|Mar 15||Amy de Jong||Monster|
|Mar 16||Soren James||Andy Warhol, or My Tautologist Said the Same|
|Mar 17||Lise Colas||What Dish Did Next|
|Mar 18||Daniel Mkiwa||Pirates and Knights|
|Mar 19||Dave D’Alessio||A Spark of Life|
|Mar 20||Jez Patterson||When we lived in a House|
|Mar 21||Albert Allen||We Dream About Different Things Now|
|Mar 22||Andy Charman||Art’s Last Laugh|
|Mar 23||Daniel Schoonmaker||A Place on the Lake|
|Mar 24||Walt Giersbach||She Thought Samuel Was a Gem|
|Mar 25||Matthew Lowes||Buyer Beware|
|Mar 26||Laura Beasley||The Beginning of the Next|
|Mar 27||Frederick K. Foote||Litter Wagon|
|Mar 28||James C.G. Shirk||The Strange Wake of Louis Winsky|
|Mar 29||Jamie Hittman||The Four Billion Year Birthday|
|Mar 30||David A. Elsensohn||Vincent|
|Mar 31||Lori Schafer||Goat|
Three suns gathered over the land of Never-Night.
It was mid-mid-day, the time when light scattered most freely, and a poor shadow had little choice but to move lock-step with her caster. Zilch sighed; her caster Abigail dallied about the town, tugging first one way, then the next. Just once, Zilch reflected, instead of being dragged around, she’d like to climb a tree.
Trees! She imagined their leafy canopies casting dappled shadows, the light lancing though and glittering on the ground like a thousand diamonds. How much fun that would be to explore!
But Abigail was afraid of heights, and had different ideas besides. “I think we should visit the Maestro’s workshop.”
“Must we?” Zilch asked.
Zilch hated how the bright beams of the workshop smudged and diluted her in all directions, much preferring the high walls and awnings of the alleys, where she would snatch bare moments to dance in the shade. She would have sagged, but as Abigail stood bolt upright, all Zilch could do was stretch.
“When I’m your shadow you can choose,” Abigail taunted.
Of course, it didn’t work like that. Casters had a way of not regarding the parts of themselves they projected upon the ground. It was a tough life; not quite something, not quite nothing. As flat and malleable as Zilch was, she still had feelings. She sometimes wondered if Abigail appreciated her at all.
Sometimes they would visit with Brandon and his shadow Nix. Abigail and Brandon didn’t seem to care that when they fought with stick-swords, it forced their shadows to play along too. Shadow-sticks were just as pointy and painful as real ones, and Nix was much more fragile and sensitive than his caster. Poor Nix; Zilch had cried for what Abigail had made her do to him. The children had carried on. They laughed and played because Never-Night was theirs.
As they threaded their way through town, darkness slowly draped itself about them, a soft caress that grew thicker with each passing moment. Abigail cried out and pointed skyward. A strange shape had appeared in the sky, an inexorable sphere pushing away the light of the suns as it moved before them. Fearful, the people gathered in the streets and looked to the heavens, but amongst their shadows a tingling curiosity ran.
One by one the three suns were eclipsed, the last stretching finger of light glaring out and then ceasing.
A blessed shade fell. There wasn’t an open square, towering precipice, or endless field not cloaked by dark.
Then the strangest thing happened: Zilch drifted from Abigail’s side. Abigail eyes grew large. With growing desperations, she wiggled her fingers, waved her arms, stamped her feet, but Zilch felt no compulsion to follow.
“Zilch!” Abigail cried. ”By heavens, where have you gotten to?”
But Zilch was already away, dancing free in the falling dusk.
She shrieked with delight. The potted cobbles, the winding alleys, the gardens, shops and homes: all hers to roam. Indeed, she could go anywhere she wished, and because her steps were no longer tied to Abigail’s feet, she could think her way there. First dashing down the main road and hopping over the carriages, then tumbling into the lake and darting amongst the fish, nothing lay beyond her fleeting feather-touch. Even the sky, now shrouded in welcoming black, teased her into motion. Up above, a hundred shadows soared, unseen but felt by one another in their shared joy.
Zilch knew what she wanted the most, and so she found the tallest tree and spun around the trunk. But it wasn’t what she had imagined: when the wind rustled the branches, there was no light to break through from above. No slithering rays to lend a shifting form, no spiralling leaves to cast fluttering silhouettes below.
Captured by sudden longing, Zilch sighed.
It was one thing to travel swift and unrestrained as a thought, but quite another to hear a little pair of shoes tip-tapping their way down the pavement. She missed the bounce and jog of the step, the slithering sensation of sliding from one surface to the next, first stretched and then compressed. Missed the feel of her form cast upon grass and wood and stone, each a different sensation from the last. As a tiny speck of thought floating on air, she missed having shape.
She’d been resting at the treetops for some time when she caught a wailing down below. Abigail was at the base of the tree, tears streaming down her cheeks, fingers clawing at the bark in a clumsy attempt to climb higher. Zilch shot down through the branches.
“What are you doing?”
“Zilch!” Abigail’s face erupted in a grin. “I thought you’d gone forever!”
“Were you trying to climb the tree?”
“I thought… maybe, if I got higher up I would be able to find you.”
“But you’re afraid of heights.”
“When it all went dark and you disappeared, I got so scared that you wouldn’t come back, and I’d be alone forever. I looked everywhere for you, all the places you always wanted to go. Then I thought of the trees.” She wiped the wetness from her cheeks, and glanced around the dark. “I’m sorry I was so mean to you. Things will be different from now on. I promise.”
When Zilch saw the rawness on Abigail’s fingertips from her frantic efforts to overcome her fear, the shadow knew her caster’s promise wasn’t empty.
Soon the darkness passed and the suns returned. Zilch pooled out on the ground, her defining edges no longer the prison they once were. Swaying pin-pricks of light filtered through the boughs, golden raindrops tickling her form.
“What do you want to do now?” Zilch asked.
Abigail smiled. “Climb the tree?”
Danielle N Gales is a writer from Sunny Hastings, UK. When she isn’t reading or writing speculative fiction of all varieties, she spends too much time playing video games, fattening her rats with treats, and drinking way too much coffee. Her fiction has appeared or is upcoming in Stupefying Stories, Kazka Press, Kzine, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and the Dark Opus Press anthology Tell Me a Fable.
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It had been a Sunday afternoon. One of those days where it really feels like a Sunday, with the abysmal work week waiting just around the corner. It was about six o’clock or so when it happened. I can remember exactly where I was standing when I heard the drumming, revving sound of an engine and the bu-dump bu-dump bu-dump of something rolling — quickly rolling — across the railroad ties.
It was 1970 and I shared an apartment with two guys. We had all just finished our junior year at Oregon State.
“What the hell is that?” Bob had said from the kitchen. We were all thinking the same thing. Several seconds earlier, each of us had straightened slightly at the sound, our ears focused, our bodies frozen. Bob had been at the sink, his methodical dishwashing momentarily suspended. Dewie had been slumped in a stupor at the unclothed dining table, his right hand crunching an empty bud can and then unceremoniously drumming it upon the wooden surface in a rhythm which mimicked the mystery noise.
“Shh — Dew, would you stop?” I asked him. It was growing louder, more incessant. We all gravitated towards the kitchen window which had been flung open earlier in a pointless attempt to vent out the summer heat. It faced westwards, towards the tracks, and through it the orange sun of late August was melting us down.
“What is that?” Bob repeated.
I pushed him aside so that I could see, my eyes straining into the sun-washed view. Eventually it emerged: the boxy Cadillac zooming along the trestle, its wheels straddling the tracks and jouncing across the splintered beams.
“He’s goin’ fast!” Dewie said. We all looked at each other suddenly, a joint realization dawning. The trestle ran across the Willamette River, its tracks balanced about fifteen feet above the stiff current.
Careening down the narrow stairs, our bodies jostled towards the exit like water surging through a channel. The soles of my worn sneakers drummed in a rhythm that was much like the tires across the wooden ties.
Funneling through the back door, we heard nothing as we pushed ourselves into the parking lot behind our complex. The sound had mysteriously ceased.
We could see the train trestle above the river silhouetted against the indigo sky like a giant piling over the water. When its structure first came into vision, we all halted at first, our heads turning this way and that, listening. All was silent.
Dewie was the first to move. As he jerked in the direction of the river, we all instantly followed, our anxious hearts pounding in disbelief.
Past the green dumpster, around the back of the Mexican grill, and then into the weedy grass which was neck-high this time of year, we pushed through the green to the water.
“Holy shit,” Bob muttered. “Holy…”
There, floating calmly in the water, almost as if it had always been there, the sun-faded roof of the Cadillac was softly disrupting the currents of water that were filling and edging around it. I rushed towards it, my ratty jeans wicking up the wet as I waded in and then went under.
It was cold. A steely, pulsing cold. I dove down into darkness, the murky image of the door was barely visible to me. I thrust myself towards it, pushing my forehead against the foggy glass, my fingers cupped around my face.
A stray sunbeam had found its way through the passenger window, illuminating the interior in a watery glow. At first all I could see were the wedding rings, glimmering. They were stacked upon each other on the ring finger of the left hand which was clutching — still clutching — the steering wheel. I desperately pried the tank-like door open and it screeched like a wailing baby as I forced it away. After the rush of gray-green cloudiness, a white head emerged at my feet, the feathery hair waving back and forth like wispy silk in a breeze.
She was wearing a peacock blue dress with purple flowers. Underwater, the fabric seemed to be in its element — the flowing edges billowing like seaweed. It was soft, like the wet petals of a flower, and as I pulled her out, I was surprised how frail and thin she was, barely more than a skeleton with little flesh to her elderly bones. She easily could have been ninety years old.
Setting her down as softly as I could upon the grass, I could hear Bob telling me that Dewie had left to get help, but it didn’t matter. She was gone. Long gone. I tried not to look at the sunken bone-white face, the shocked blue eyes, the age-spotted skin. So old.
Back inside our apartment, we idled for awhile, pretending to busy ourselves. Bob slapped a rolled newspaper at a renegade fly and Dewie scanned the sports page. I stood at the kitchen window.
Was it all too much? I wondered. Life without anyone else? All I could think about was the image of those rings, soldered into my memory as something poignant that I could not grasp. So many rings for one little finger, so golden in that light.
Some weeks later I read a poem in the Corvallis Gazette. They had a weekly column where amateur poets could submit their hearts onto the page for others to quickly gloss over and soon forget.
I couldn’t wait for you my darling
The world is much younger than I am now
I seek your memory in the gold blue depth
where no one else can find me
Brittany Bilyeu Enquist says: “This is actually based on a true story from my father. When I was 27 years old, he told it to me as we drove through the town where it had happened. It seemed such a poignant and stirring memory that I wanted to set it down in words.”
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