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TALES FROM PLEASANT GROVE • by Steven L. Peck

So my buddy Hal went with me down to the old mom and pop place off Main in Pleasant Grove because we heard that in the back you could leave your fears behind. That was worth checking out, because who doesn’t want to get rid of fears? Right? I hadn’t even applied for two jobs because I was too scared to. One at the Mustang stop-and-rob sweeping up, and the other at the grocery store working in produce, which would have been the best job ever because you spend most of the time just misting the vegetables. How cool would that be? But I didn’t because I was sure they would turn me down, like others have lately. To top it off my sometimes girlfriend Mandy said, You are so afraid of rejection you make me sick. So I’ve been thinking about that. It was weird what Mandy said, because she was rejecting me at the same time as we were talking about it. Weird.

Old Lady Elsie was there behind the cash register, just like always reading People Magazine. She didn’t look up until my buddy said, Hey Elsie is it true that there is a place to leave your fears in the back? And she was like, Go see. Then she popped a bubble from her gum so hard it sounded like a piece of gravel hitting the windshield. So we did.  Into the way-back, you know, the storeroom where they store the food arriving on trucks. We found a room with hippy beads over the door, so we went in.

There were old wooden shelves with pint jars on every one of them and every jar was labeled with masking tape with stuff written in sharpie like, A Knock at Night or Heights or That My Husband Will Find Out, and I can tell you that one made us laugh so hard.

A sign on the wall said, You can leave a fear behind but you must take one with you and there were empty jars, a roll of masking tape, and a milk jug of green liquid with Fear Juice red-sharpied on the side. Looking at it kind of gave me the Heebie-Jeebies, you know? The room had a strange smell too, sort of like the smell of broccoli that’s been left sitting on the stove for a couple of days, with a hint of incense or something weird.

Well, I was pretty sure I wanted shake the fears I had, so I poured the juice into a jar and I labeled it REJECTION, like that with all capitals. I wanted to make sure whatever did this knew I was serious, and then my buddy says, What you going to take? Well, that required some thought. There was one that said, Lizards. That was tempting until I remembered that I sometimes like to watch the bluebellies that play on the fence in the backyard that catch those white butterflies that come early in the spring. Instead I also thought about taking the one that said, Fear. But I had an unsettled feeling about what that would do exactly, so decided against it.

Behind most of the jars was an old one that said, Mrs. Smith, My Geography Teacher, but what I didn’t get was if that would make me afraid of all teachers, or just all Geography teachers, or Mrs. Smith herself, wherever she was.

My buddy was saying, Hurry, so I grabbed one that sounded safe. It had Lawn Mowers on it, which sounded like a funny fear to have. Plus, I was thinking, I hate mowing lawns and being afraid of mowers would give me bona fides for not having to do it. I could even get a doctor’s note saying I can’t use a mower because of deep fears.

I asked Hal which one he was going to take and leave and he says, I’m keeping my fears. He made me pause. I said, What’s up with that? And he went on about how he’d spent enough time with them, They were comfortable, so no sense shaking them up.

Anyway, we went out front and Elsie says, That’ll be $2.99, and I was, like, I didn’t know it costs, and she says, We ain’t running a charity. So I scrounged it up even though I felt like I was getting taken for a ride.

Now several months have gone by and this is the bad thing, the grass in front of my house has gone to seed, and my neighbors are complaining and even called the city, and they have put notices on my door saying they’ll take this or that action, and even so, I can’t bring myself to mow the yard. I can’t even stand to hear one or even know one’s been around the house. It like tears me up even to think about it and if I pass them at the hardware store I get all panicky and have to leave. Mandy, my sometimes girlfriend said, You are such a freak, no one is afraid of lawnmowers! She hasn’t come over in a while.

Still no job. I’ve been to lots of interviews. But I don’t seem to care enough to make a show it even matters. I thought having no fear of rejection would mean something like being brave and confident. No. It just means not even caring about rejection enough to fear. Now, I go to an interview and think, Whatever. I even said that once out loud to the old codger interviewing me. He said, Why do you want to work for me, son? And I said, Whatever. Just like that. Whatever. Right out loud.

I went back to get my old fear, but Elsie don’t know what I’m talking about and the room behind the beads just has an old mop and cleaning supplies. That itself gave me another fear. A big one.

I told you, says my buddy Hal, I told you so.


Steven L. Peck is a university biology professor and teaches classes on ecology, evolution, and the consciousness of the human mind. He has published over 50 scientific articles. Creative works include three novels with mainstream publishers, including the magical realism novel The Scholar of Moab, published by Torrey House Press—named AML’s best novel of 2011 and a Montaigne Medal Finalist (national award given for most thought-provoking book). Publications in such places as Abyss & Apex, Analog (Fact Article on possible alien biology like in this story!), Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Nature Futures, Pedestal Magazine, Perihelion, and many others.


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Posted on May 20, 2015 in Horror, Stories
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LADY CINTRON AND THE BULL • by Jessi Cole Jackson

Vesper moved around the room enjoying the new muscles and movements of her sister’s avatar, Lady Cintron. She stretched and strutted. Lady Cintron was tall, lithe, controlled — nothing like the short, heavy, clumsiness of the twins’ natural physiques.  Lady Cintron’s steps were light, but Vesper could feel the idle, waiting power, the dormant strength in each miniscule movement. It was singular and wonderful.

Vesper laughed as Lady Cintron. She danced and dodged an imagined foe.

***

Sadie stomped around the still empty arena, adjusting to the body of her newest creation. She felt the bull’s muscles ripple and stretch. A small part of her missed the lean grace of Lady Cintron, but there was a joy in maneuvering a new set of limbs, a new center of gravity. With an extra thousand pounds to move, Sadie’s control was awkward. She would be much slower than her Lady Cintron’s usual opponents, but the pre-installed instincts she added would help. And her sister had never played the game before. That would help too.

Sadie bellowed as the bull. She stomped and shook her heavy horned head.

***

The first two acts of the fight went quickly, far quicker than Vesper expected. The picadores on horseback brought down the bull’s neck. The banderilleros stuck the bull with sticks, taunting and chasing to weary it.

Vesper, certain that she was to star in act three, but uncertain of exactly what to do, accessed Lady Cintron’s memory. Gathering her red cape in one hand and a heavy sword in the other, she sauntered out to the bull. Anticipation and elation flooded through her consciousness. If the feelings were Vesper’s own, or somehow part of Lady Cintron’s programming, she couldn’t differentiate them. She felt confident. Powerful.

***

The first two acts of the fight took much longer than Sadie expected. The computer-generated picadores had played with her, getting her to chase them before stabbing her in the neck. She couldn’t see well after that, barely able to lift her head. After the picadores on their horses came the banderilleros on foot. They hounded and mocked her, tormenting her with their quick movements and their endless pokes and jabs. She snorted and chased them to get them away from her, but she was weak. Weary.

Sadie was relieved to see her Vesper stepping forward as Lady Cintron. It had been excruciating to know her sister watched her suffer, but now the game was almost over. A few more charges and Vesper would throw down the cape and sword, take Sadie’s massive horns in her hands and win.

The violence and pain were at an end.

***

Vesper hadn’t expected such a lack of effort from the bull. With each half-hearted attempt at charging, she was able to dodge and slash. The bull’s red blood stained the dirt and splattered her traje de luces, but Vesper continued on. She would cause Sadie as much pain as she was physically able. If at all possible, Vesper would kill the bull. But Sadie’s pain would prove Vesper’s point — even in a virtual, false reality, what Sadie spent so many of her after-school hours on was awful. It may have made Sadie more confident than she had been, but at what cost? Vesper knew that each new “win” was a small death of a small part of her sister’s soul.

Through pain, Vesper would show Sadie the light. Lady Cintron’s heart beat fast, blood pulsing through her ears and hands and feet. Vesper had never felt so alive.

***

Sadie hadn’t expected Vesper to actually stab her with Lady Cintron’s sword, but she had thrust deep, hitting Sadie’s heart. Sadie collapsed in the dirt of the area. It was muddy with the bull’s, her own, blood. Part of her was relieved to be dying as the bull. It had been a long, hard game and she was glad to be done with it.

When the bull breathed its last, Sadie drifted out of the game and back into her self. She wrapped her human arms around her whole, human body. Shaken, she waited to for her sister to leave the game as well. Knowing that Vesper’s goal had been to get Sadie to quit playing Lady Cintron, Sadie still never expected Vesper to take it so far. Sadie had never actually killed the bulls in the arena. Why would Vesper?

Now every time Sadie played her, the memory of this kill, Sadie’s own death, would be there. Sadie didn’t want that memory. She was repulsed by the memory. And so Vesper had achieved her goal. Sadie would never play Lady Cintron again.

***

Vesper dressed Lady Cintron in the new traje de luces, discarding the old embroidered tight pants and short jacket on the floor. Their gorgeousness had been dulled by the dying bull’s blood, and a traje de luces, a suit of light, must shine. Sadie had been right when she said this body, this character, and this game made her feel powerful. Now Vesper was powerful. It was heady. It was lovely. It felt right.

Vesper restarted the game.


Jessi Cole Jackson lives and works in the pretty part of New Jersey (but she’s not from there).


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JACOB GAYNE, VICE PRESIDENT • by Aaron Emmel

The alarm went off, but the spaceship hadn’t come yet and he still needed pretzels for the bears, so Jacob hit the snooze button. Several snooze buttons later, Jacob woke with a start and realized that there wasn’t a spaceship and there were no bears. He was late to work.

Forty-five minutes later he dashed into the meeting room and took his seat. Several minutes passed. He realized that everybody was using acronyms he didn’t understand, the universal sign for being in the wrong meeting. He peered at a handout someone next to him was holding. “Strategies for Information Management,” the title read. Yep, wrong meeting. Someone must have changed meeting rooms, which he would have known had he had time to check his email, or had his work had the foresight to provide him with an iPhone. He would have to complain to HR.

He needed to leave the room, but he had been here for a few minutes, and he didn’t want to draw even more attention to himself, since he was new and he might have projects under several of the people here. He didn’t want them to know that he both went to the wrong meetings and did so late.

Jacob occupied himself for a minute or so with looking at a woman across the room. Then it began to occur to him that the meeting’s moderator was an endorser of inclusivity, which meant that she periodically asked for input from people who hadn’t spoken yet. Jacob hadn’t spoken yet. He was probably only minutes away from being asked a question that would contain an acronym he couldn’t even identify. That would be his introduction to his future project managers: Jacob Gayne, who goes to the wrong meetings, gets there late, and can’t even understand the questions once he gets there.

Clearly there was only one solution. Jacob needed to speak preemptively so that he could choose his own topic.

Jacob said, “Maybe we should combine our client and development data tags.” Then he sat back and smiled encouragingly at his colleagues.

A man who had been referred to as Ryan cleared his throat. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “The client and development tags track two different things.”

“Maybe they should be integrated,” said a guy with a fireworks tie.

Jacob nodded forcefully. Confidence. It was all about confidence.

“No,” Ryan said, “That’s completely wrong.”

Diana, whose previous comments indicated she was from accounting, was a consensus-builder. “Maybe we should set up a task force to study it,” she said.

“Maybe we should have a task force to find out why we waste time with task forces,” Ryan said.

“That’s not a very helpful attitude, Ryan,” the moderator said.

“Let’s try to be in a problem-solving mode, not a problem-creating mode,” Diana told everybody while she looked at Ryan.

Jacob nodded sagely.

The task force was given a conference room, a snack budget, a list of volunteers and a mandate to meet on Tuesdays. On the first Tuesday, an hour was spent discussing mission statements, half an hour was devoted to the election of officers—because his vision had inspired the group, he was made chair—and 94 minutes were given to the development of an agenda with accompanying schedule and task chart. Ironically, it only took Jacob two minutes, after returning to his office from the meeting, to look up definitions of client and development tags on the company intranet and discover that Ryan had been correct.

A lesser employee might have been daunted by this realization. But Jacob understood that to admit defeat would have been to declare the entire three hours and four minutes of the just-completed task force meeting a waste.

At the next Tuesday meeting, he explained that it wasn’t enough just to investigate how to combine the tags; to do justice to the faith the task force’s creators had in them, they should integrate the processes of client relations and product development. Fortunately, he had picked up an inspiring term for undesirable tasks, “improving practices and standards,” and he used it then.

To accomplish its expanded mission, the task force could no longer restrict itself to meeting on Tuesdays. And it needed resources. A project plan was drawn up, amply supported with a flowchart and a PowerPoint presentation. The effort required to produce this plan impressed Jacob’s superiors, and soon the task force had a substantial budget and was able to start recruiting people from various departments.

The department heads were not pleased that the task force was poaching their best talent. Jacob learned that they were signing a petition under Ryan’s leadership, calling for Jacob’s dismissal. A short time later, he received a summons from the president. Not good.

Jacob had learned by then that the woman who had attracted his attention at his first meeting, Dr. Marsha Greene, was a crack strategist. He went to her for advice.

“You have to show that you’re getting things done, you have plans, you’re efficient,” she said. “There’s only one way to do that on short notice. Spend your whole budget right away.”

Jacob was dubious, but he did it. When he went in to see the president, and the president learned that the entire annual budget had been spent within the first month, she was amazed. “No one else has ever been able to work that fast,” she said. She promoted Jacob to a managerial position, turned the task force into a permanent team under him, and expanded its budget.

It took another six months before Jacob was raised to vice president. In many ways, he maintained the approach that had worked so well for him as task force chair. But there was one change he held himself to: he always made sure to set his alarm.


Aaron Emmel’s short stories have appeared in The Chicago Reader, Neverworlds, Spaceways Weekly, Shadowkeep, Nuketown, Alternate Realities, Wanton Words, The Martian Wave, and other publications.


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Posted on May 18, 2015 in Humour/Satire, Stories
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AT THE MOMENT OF THE GIRAFFE • by Bernard Reed

I did not have to think of the giraffe: it simply was. It was resilient to all possible imaginations. Around the corner it appeared, half a block ahead, approaching me with patient clops. I think the only time I had ever seen an actual giraffe was when I was a very small child visiting the zoo; that giraffe, small with distance both physical and memorious, had somehow remained indelible in my consciousness. Now downtown Chicago at 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, here it was, the giraffe, or perhaps the Platonic ideal of a giraffe, both form and formlessness. Somebody screamed—one way to react, I suppose.

Up all night the night before writing poetry, or something, and now lagged by a bleary four hour’s rest I was just off the train and trying to remember where the coffee shop, my destination, was. I was to meet her there at 2:45 and I hoped that my timing would allow an espresso to myself beforehand. In my back pocket were six pages of poetry (a single poem, actually) folded hot-dog style. The poetry had nothing to do with a giraffe. Yet the giraffe that came around the corner was like a coda to the previous twenty-four hours of being hunchbacked over a typewriter, the prescribed instrument, stabbing into existence “the best poem you’ve ever goddamn written,” as Roxanne Buontempo (an impossible name I knew not to believe) had demanded. After a thousand coffees and cigarettes I was ready, I pulsed and vibrated, especially alive. There it was, a place called Spro, right on the corner. But still the giraffe.

People formed small clusters through which the giraffe wandered past; others bee-lined around it, heads down going on their way, but then craning backwards to get a look at the animal. The giraffe, for its lazy gait and look in the eye, and its jaw rolling slightly as though with chewing gum, could have been on any old savannah. Second- and third-floor windows were filling up with faces. The giraffe was miniaturely reproduced on a dozen smartphones shivering and glimmering in hands outstretched that were, similarly, giraffe-like. In a nearby cop car a pair of officers had taken off their Aviators and were leaning forward into the windshield. I stepped into a doorway and let the giraffe pass; as it did so it snorted, and gently shook its head.

In Spro, Roxanne Buontempo was already there. I went over to where she was sitting and sat down, taking the poetry out of my back pocket. “Umm, did you happen to notice the giraffe that just walked by?” She looked up from her phone and replied, “Do you have it?”

“Right here,” I said, sliding the hot-dog-folded pages across the table.

She read it while I was waiting in line. Along with the extremely bitter espresso, I was struck with an exquisite recollection of what it was that she was reading: such a labor, such a loss of dignity. First I’d had to find a servicable typewriter—more difficult than I’d anticipated in Wicker Park—which eventually involved meeting somebody in a shadowy garden apartment to purchase an Underwood from Craigslist for $45. It was beat up but would do. On the packed 74 bus I clutched the typewriter case with straining arms while surrounded by the most elegant euphonies of time and life—bubbly pentameters building up around the sides of my mouth—stanzas streaming behind like ribbons—alliterations fluttering around and getting into the eyes of the other passengers, making them blink. But my floppy little notebook for recording such jottings was deep in my back pocket, unreachable while hugging the heavy machine, keeping me unable to soak up all the scribbles verberating in my fingers. At home in front of typewriter it was gone, the poetry was gone.  I stared down the ink ribbon for thirty seconds and then got up to make coffee and find a device on which I could order my dinner delivered. My notebook sat unprepared on the table.

I wanted to ask Roxanne Buontempo, have you ever really written a poem? Have you ever had to yank one out of yourself with all time and urgency having taken hold of you? But of course she had. She was a member of THE CLUB. Here she was reading mine; of course she had. She too must have challenged herself to a race-to-the-finish slapping down of a poem, the whole typewriter and twenty-four hours and being unable to think of anything, for thinking about thinking, and thinking about a poem, a poem, a poem. And yet her eye’s cool, firm susurrance diagonal down the page was chilling, tingling. Then she set the pages on the table, facedown. She stared at me. I was afraid to say anything. Meanwhile, a block away, the giraffe had disappeared.

Gazing at my phone on the train, heading back, I saw that the giraffe had emerged onto the internet in a series of retweets and video uploads. Was it a prank TV show, a marketing ploy, or was it something vaster and more sinister? The real mystery, however, was the giraffe’s vanishing while somehow no one was looking, which made its having been there at all seem absurdly ex post facto. Area zoos all shrugged. News crews scrambled everywhere, getting tangled in each other and blocking traffic. The giraffe had returned as seamlessly as it had arrived to the once-again interior of my personal cosmology. Sitting on my sofa I looked across the living room and saw the typewriter; between the two of us crackled a few electrical verses, capturable if I’d had any care to. “Someone will contact you later tonight with a final yes or no,” Roxanne Buontempo had informed me, getting up and taking my poem with her. There are no giraffes in my apartment but who knows, really.


Bernard Reed lives and writes in Chicago. He tweets at @bernardreed.


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Posted on May 17, 2015 in Stories, Surreal
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DUMB DEBBIE • by Scott T. Harker

It’s Friday morning. December and cold. The kind of cold that chews at your bones and scrapes the skin from your face with the precision of a rusty chainsaw. I’m getting coffee from the station near Barry’s office. Barry is our CFO and not what I’d call a model conversationalist. He’s socially backward and leans on a nervous laugh way too often. But I like Barry. Barry signs my paychecks. Barry is Debbie’s boss.

Debbie works in accounting. She says things like “Is it hot enough for ya?” and “You know what they say about assuming.” The woman speaks almost entirely in cliche. It’s hard to imagine anyone being so hollow, but I remain convinced that Debbie was born to be an echo chamber for the obvious and the mundane.

So yeah, getting my coffee and I catch Debbie out of the corner of my eye. Her squat frame filling a small office chair, she stares at her monitor like a third-grader in a graduate level physics course.

How Debbie acquired a position in Accounting — and how she continues to hold it — is an office mystery.

She catches me looking in her vicinity (which is all it takes with Debbie), and blurts, “Hey Spencer, all ready for Christmas?

Ah Christ. “Yeah. Tree up and shopping done.”

“What did you buy your girlfriend?”

A bottle of Jack and a case of condoms. That was my first thought anyway. I desperately wanted to walk away with my coffee and leave her jaw agape.

“Nothing yet. I’ll get a few things online this week.”

“Oh, I don’t trust those online stores. Anyone can steal your credit card number. I saw on Oprah a while ago about…” Her voice faded into the background as she continued to ramble. I stood looking into my coffee and hoping she would perhaps vanish into her tired office chair, never to be seen again.

“Eh, I buy everything online. Saves time and money.” I started to walk away, figuring she would give it up. No such luck.

“I’ve got a friend who bought something on eBay and she got totally ripped off. I’d never put my credit card on a website. It’s not worth it, you know?”

Not possessing the words for an adequate reply, I shrugged with a pseudo-contemplative “Hmm” and took my almost-warm coffee back to my desk.

Hours later, and during my third attempt that day at a hot cup of coffee,  I was ambushed by that voice. A meek, vapid voice that could only speak in worn-out euphemisms and the occasional decades-old catch phrase. Had she started with “Where’s the beef?” I would not have been the least bit surprised.

“Whatcha doin’?”

“Working,” I said, not looking up.

“How’s that coffee?”

Fucking seriously? “It’s decent.” Then I added, “A little cold.”

“Yeah.” She stared right through me with those absent blue eyes, desperately thinking of something to say. I almost felt bad for her. Almost.

“Got any plans for the weekend?”

I pondered for a moment whether or not she really cared what I was doing this weekend. She posed the question as if it was the only thing she could think to say. Her old Friday stand-by.

“Not much. You?” I still hadn’t looked up.

“Well, I got a funeral to go to on Saturday, so there’s that.”

I raised my eyes. For the first time that day I noticed her sweater. It was big and red with green trim on the sleeves and neckline, and a giant white snowflake was knitted into the front.

“Wow. A relative?” I was surprised enough to stutter a little.

“Yeah, my brother. He overdosed last week. I just got the call from my dad a couple days ago. He lives out in California. Have you ever been to California? It’s really warm there. ”

I didn’t know how to answer. The sudden gravity of the situation caught me off balance.

“Geeze Deb. I’m really sorry. You doin’ okay?” I really didn’t want the answer, but now I was the one searching for something to say.

“Yeah. I guess so. Everything happens for a reason right? It’s all God’s plan.”

“I’m just… I’m really sorry.”

She looked at me with those stupid eyes and I knew she was somewhere else in her head. She was always somewhere else. It’s as if her brain couldn’t handle reality and just shut itself down and put on a movie.

I watched her waddle away, carrying a giant McDonald’s sweet tea in one hand and random thoughts in the other. Her polyester slacks rode up the crack between the two squishy orbs that made up her backside. She didn’t seem to notice.

I turned back to my work then, my place completely lost. Not that it mattered much. The weekend would be starting in twenty minutes, and people were already milling about the lobby in anticipation of mass exodus.

The work could wait anyway. It wasn’t that important. I sat there staring through my rain-streaked window, listening to the cars lip smacking the wet asphalt as they whizzed by the office. The sound was comforting.

An ambulance siren screamed in the distance, maybe a couple of miles away. It faded before it got closer, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Debbie’s life was like that too.


Scott T. Harker: Technical writer by profession. 47-year old single father. Lover of darts, single-malt scotch and anything worth reading.


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Posted on May 16, 2015 in Literary, Stories
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