Swallow fluffed out her blue and orange feathers and shook her head. She watched for Master Owl with a careful eye from her favorite branch on the Silver Birch near the field. Today she had something important to tell him.
The barn owl swooped down to catch a mouse, grasped it with his talons, and glided up to her branch before touching down. Master Owl looked at her, clicked his beak three times, then swallowed his mouse.
“Top of the mornin’ to ya, my young apprentice,” he said, then fluffed out his own brown and white feathers.
“Good morning, Master,” Swallow said. “I have made a decision about the migration.”
Master Owl turned his head to a ninety-degree angle.
“I’ve decided,” she continued, “that I’m going to stay here for the winter.”
Swallow puffed out her pink, orange chest. She clicked her own beak several times.
“My young apprentice,” Owl said, “that is suicide. You know your tiny body cannot survive a winter here.”
“I can survive.”
“How will you find food?”
Swallow fluttered her wings and said, “I will eat the worms from Farmer’s compost and the berries I have gathered and dried over the months.”
“What of warmth? Surely you will die of cold if you stay here.” Owl turned his head upright again and stretched his legs one at a time.
“No, Master Owl, I will not die. I have the barn to keep me warm when you are gone, and when you are here, I will have your soft underbelly feathers to keep me warm.”
Master Owl hooted and looked straight at Swallow. He hopped to a higher branch, looking down at Swallow now.
“Why do you want to stay here rather than fly off with your flock?”
“I am not like my flock, Master. I am my own bird. I want to see winter and snow and feel the icy wind under my wings.”
Swallow watched as Master Owl expanded his wings to full width. They were enormous. At least ten of her fit on one wing. His feathers were longer than her entire body.
Owl took flight and circled the tree. Swallow wasn’t sure why. She only knew him to do that when he was frustrated with her not understanding her lessons. But this was different. She understood perfectly what she was doing. Knew what she wanted and had planned for months to make her dream a reality.
When Master Owl landed again, he perched even higher up on the Birch than before. He raised his head, bobbed up and down, and looked at Swallow again.
“Young apprentice, you must listen to me,” Owl began. “You cannot do this. The wise choice will be to fly south for the winter and return when the berries are fresh, flies are abundant, and the ground thawed. You risk too much.”
“I risk what I must to live my dream, Master,” she said, standing tall.
“Your dream is to die?”
“My dream is to experience winter. Whether good or bad. To be part of it. To see things die and grow again in the spring.”
“Then you are a silly swallow who does not understand what I have taught.” Owl clicked his beak in annoyance and hopped down the branch, making the entire thing wobble under his weight.
“I am not a silly swallow. I understand much you taught me, which is why I planned this out. I am not afraid to be different. Not afraid to be myself. I want to know winter, so I will know winter.”
“And what if I should get hungry and eat you? Have you thought of that?” Owl moved to the same branch as Swallow and stuck his head in her face. His beak less than an inch from her.
“Then you will be the one at a loss.”
Master Owl stumbled away from her. His eyes widened. She moved closer to him.
“How would I be at a loss if I ate you? It is you that would lose your life, Swallow.”
“I may lose my life even if you don’t eat me. That is not the point. Living my dream is. If you got hungry and ate me, I would die knowing that I lived my dream. That I wasn’t afraid to be myself and wasn’t afraid to back down even with the threat of death. I would die happy and fulfilled.”
Master Owl looked into the field, his eyes locking on another mouse.
“You, Master Owl, would die too,” she said with heavy intent.
He looked back at her.
“How would I die? I am the Master, knower of things, the wise owl…”
“Yes, a wise Master who has taught me many things.” Swallow hopped closer to him. “Including what guilt and regret do to us.”
Master Owl lowered his head.
“If you ate me, you would be filled with sorrow. You would stare at my regurgitated bones every day, knowing that you lost control and consumed your dearest apprentice and friend. Your guilt would eat you alive, and soon, you’d join me in the after.
“So, Master Owl, my plan to experience winter is not silly or unthoughtful. I have put a great deal of planning into this, and I am willing to risk what must be risked, to feel what I want to feel. But if you are unwilling to take that journey with me, because of your fear, then I will experience winter alone. The point is… I will experience it. This is my choice and I am telling you that I made my decision.”
Master Owl bobbed his head up and down again and hopped to a branch below Swallow.
“Today,” he said, “you are the Master, and I the apprentice.” Then he stretched out his wings and bowed his head.
Alaina Ewing lives in the Pacific Northwest and writes science fiction, fantasy, young adult, mainstream, and just about anything that fits her mood. Her novel The Heart-Shaped Emblor and short story “Blood of the Mother” (in the anthology Witches, Stitches & Bitches) are printed by Evil Girlfriend Media.
“Hello, Martin. Can I join you?”
“Sure, sit right down.”
“Well, Joan, how long has it been since we had a drink together? Fifty years?”
A waitress came over and took her drink order.
Martin hoisted his mug of beer.
“My wife is a fifth-generation Texas Baptist, so she never drinks. But she knows I’ll have a beer occasionally.”
He put the mug down and looked at his old girlfriend. “She’s sleeping in, it was a late night. I didn’t want to disturb her.”
“It looks like you certainly found the right girl,” Joan said. “I could tell from the way you looked at each other all night during the reunion.”
“Yeah, it took a while. I didn’t get married until I was 40, but it was worth the wait. I suppose you found the right guy, too.”
“I did, we had 45 wonderful years together. He passed away last year,” Joan said.
“I’m sorry. Do you have a family?”
“Three children, four grandchildren,” she said with a smile.
“Paula and I couldn’t have children.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Oh, it’s just as well,” Martin said. “I probably would have made a terrible father, I spend so much time writing.” He looked thoughtful.
Joan looked at him, and gasped.
He looked up. “What is it?”
“Oh, my God, sitting here up close, listening to you… It was you!”
“It was me, what?”
“It was you, the man who came up to me on the Boston Common! It was you!”
“The Boston Common? The outdoor art exhibit? That was our last date. You dumped me like a ton of bricks after that.”
“Because of what the old man said, about you. But it was you! I recognize you now! I haven’t seen you in years, but it was you! Still, you looked even older than you do now.”
“You’re making no sense!”
“Remember when you went to the concession stand to get some hot dogs and drinks?”
“Yes, it took forever, the line was very long. When I finally got back, you had a bad attitude, had it for the rest of the day. Then you dumped me.” He winced. “I never did figure out what went wrong that day. And you never told me.”
“While I was sitting on the bench, a very old man came up to me — he walked with two canes. He sat down right next to me and said, “Hi, Joan.’”
“Who was he?”
“He said he had some important advice. He said he was related to you — I assumed because of his age he was a grand-uncle or something. He knew stuff about you only a relative would know.”
“He said you really didn’t love me, you were only deeply in lust with me, that you were just a horny teenager and wanted to get me in bed and bang my brains out,” she said. “He said if I was smart I’d throw you over, that you weren’t mature enough to have a real relationship.”
Joan stared him in the eye. “You look like you think I’m crazy.”
“No, I’m amazed at what I pulled off,” he said. “Did he mention a soybean field?”
“Ahh!” she gasped.
“Thought so. It’s a joke I heard after I moved to Texas,” he said. “About the differences between what teenage boys and girls want in a relationship. The girl wants to be pampered and made to feel special and cuddled and listened to — and the boy is just looking at her, thinking “I just want to plow you like a soybean field.’”
Joan stared at him. “So it was you? But you were older, even older than now.”
“At my last check-up, the doctor said my heart is in great condition, my one problem is diabetes, and the neuropathy is slowly spreading in my legs. Which is why when I’m older I will probably need to use a cane — or two. But otherwise my health is fine for a man of 68, and I may live a long time yet — maybe long enough that in the future I can hitch a ride in a time machine,” he said. “It all comes full circle; if you hadn’t dumped me, I wouldn’t have accepted the admission from UT and moved to Texas — which is where I met Paula in 1995.”
“UT is where I joined the science fiction club.” He smiled, thinly. “I have geeky chums right now who are working on time travel. In the future, if — I guess now I should say, when — it happens, going back to 1965 and telling you to dump my ass sounds exactly like something I would do. In retrospect, we weren’t all that compatible.”
He raised his mug and took a gulp. “Years after I moved to Texas, one day I heard that joke about soybeans, and I realized that’s why you were smart to dump me, because it was true about me — I had no good intentions, I just wanted to bang you until you started singing opera. I needed a lot of maturing. That’s why I wasn’t a decent prospect for marriage until I was middle-aged. Paula was the first gal who thought I would be worth the trouble.”
He rested the mug on the tabletop. “Now with all these years under my belt, I believe your story.
He chuckled. “Back own my stab.”
“What’s that mean?” Joan asked.
“That’s ‘stab my own back’, backwards,” he said. “Which is what I did. I’m sure our marriage would have been terrible. Instead, we both have been happy, just not with each other.”
He pushed a twenty-dollar bill across the table.
“A happy ending, courtesy of my future self. This is for our drinks and a tip. I gotta go. Paula is probably up by now.”
Joan looked amazed. “It’s too crazy to believe!”
Martin smiled as he got up. “That’s why it’s called science fiction.”
A life-long science fiction reader, Lou Antonelli turned his hand to writing fiction in middle age; his first story was published in 2003 when he was 46. Since then he has had 81 short stories published in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia, in venues such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jim Baen’s Universe, Dark Recesses, Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine, Greatest Uncommon Denominator (GUD), and Daily Science Fiction, among others. His story “Great White Ship”, originally published in Daily Science Fiction, was a 2013 finalist for the Sidewise Award for alternate history.
Bitsy squeezed out the last of the baby oil and spread it on her sixth leg. She rummaged in her bag for the new bottle she had bought that morning with several other necessities. Just as she found it buried under the latest issue of Nursery Crimes, a shadow fell over her.
“It rained last night,” said a smoke-rasped voice behind her.
“The sun’s out now.” She popped open the bottle and dribbled oil onto her seventh leg.
Harry plopped down beside her, grunting a little as his fat body hit the ground. “You should have come over. I was worried.”
She snorted. “I didn’t want to interrupt your little party.”
“Hey, if the fly’s in my parlor, the old lady can’t swallow her.”
“And if she doesn’t swallow the fly, she doesn’t swallow the spider. I’ve heard that before, Harry.”
Harry puffed on his cigar and blew out a smoke ring. “That parlor could use a woman’s touch. You could redo it, redo the whole damn house. I’d give you carte blanche. Anything you want, price be damned.” Harry inched one of his feet over and slid his toes over hers.
She jerked her foot away. “Only if I could lock you out of it.”
Harry glowered at her with all six of his good eyes. “This bohemian lifestyle you’re so set on is no way to live. I promised your grandmother I would look out for you. She always wanted us to be married one day. That’s why she made me trustee of the estate.”
“Oh, go sit on a tuffet.” Bitsy closed her eyes, leaned back and angled the reflector under her chin.
“You can’t live in a waterspout forever. And you can’t afford the rent anywhere else or even this hovel for very much longer. You need to grow up, Bitsy. Remember which side of the bread is buttered, and who has the knife.”
Bitsy ignored him, humming a popular little ditty under her breath.
“You will marry me, Bitsy. I’ll even let you pick the date, as long as you make it soon.”
Bitsy hummed a little louder.
Harry loomed over her, blocking her sun for a minute or two, before she heard him stomp off.
“Soon, Bitsy. My patience won’t last forever.” His words floated back to her on the wind.
“Prick,” she muttered.
When she was sure he was gone, she opened her eyes and her magazine.
Nursery Crimes was a secret indulgence of hers. The lurid illustrations and gruff prose that filled the magazine’s pages filled her with cheap titillation and a sense of superiority when she compared her carefree existence to the sordid and often brutally short lives depicted within its pages.
She certainly needed the distraction today. Any day she saw Harry she needed major distraction, and a margarita or maybe six.
Today, however, she got something else from the stories; inspiration.
A quick trip to the corner store with a few shillings got her paper, envelopes and stamps. She worked out the wording of the notes carefully and wrote them out in her best penmanship. She addressed the first to the fly in question and the second to a voracious old lady on the next street over but one. Bitsy slipped them into the post and settled back to let nature take its course.
She worked just as carefully on the third. It was addressed to the classified department at the newspaper but she tucked it aside for later.
Things worked out a bit slower than she anticipated, but eventually she had an occasion to wear her black hat with the heavy lace veil in public.
She mailed that third letter the day before the funeral. The classifieds were tucked into her beaded black clutch at the event, folded open to a copy of the advertisement.
For Sale or Rent: House on Sycamore St., 4 bdrms/2.5 baths, gourmet kitchen, large comfortable parlor.
Even with Harry gone, she wasn’t the least interested in living in that mausoleum.
Laura J. Henson lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and daughter and one and a half cats. She is the author of Ten Little Elvi, and her award winning manuscript Quest for a Queen is currently seeking representation.
The roll of film is eleven years old. 10-20-89 is scrawled on the label in Mom’s neat scribbles. We found it yesterday, when we moved Dad into his new apartment on Dewey Street.
“I bet it’s pictures of orchids,” I say as Jenny hands the roll of film to a graying man on the other side of the CVS counter. Mom loved her orchids, but ever since the funeral they’ve just been wilting on my windowsill. Dad is starting to wilt, too. He looks eighty, not sixty-three. He aged seventeen years in the last six months.
“October twenty…” Jenny says. “That’s one week after we got back from France.”
“It’ll be about an hour,” says the film guy. “Can I have a name?”
Jenny looks at me and shrugs apologetically. “Mark,” she says to the film guy, and he scratches my name on a form. I guess that means I’m the one picking them up. Typical.
“It can’t be France, we developed all our pictures from France,” I say as we walk across the blustery winter street for coffee.
“Yeah, you’re right,” says Jenny. “That was a fun trip, though. Remember the crazy street artist who chased you down because he liked your hat?”
“Remember when Mom freaked out halfway up the Eiffel Tower?” We laugh, and for a moment I think I feel that old connection. The one we lost years ago, replaced with judgmental silence and stale grudges.
When we enter the café we’re greeted by a line that stretches halfway to the door. Hip youngsters with tattoos and older gentlemen in suits order lattes and cappuccinos and fancy, fluffy drinks I’ve never heard of.
Jenny and I stand in silence as the line inches forward. Whatever connection I felt earlier is gone; an illusion brought about by laughter and fond memories. These days, with families and kids of our own, we don’t talk much. She thinks I should have stayed with Helen, that I’ve done nothing with my life and failed my daughter. I think she spoils her sons in an overprotective attempt to keep them innocent. And her husband is a prick. Mom and Dad used to be the only subject that wasn’t tainted by battle. Now, we argue over them as well. What to do with Mom’s stuff. Where to ‘put’ Dad. Whether or not to sell the family home.
As soon as we get our drinks, Jenny finds a lame excuse to leave; something about giving a friend a lift. “I doubt there’s anything good,” she says as she collects her change, “The pictures are probably overexposed or something.”
“Five bucks says there’s an orchid in there,” I tease. Back in grade school, we used to gamble on everything from the weather to the ads on TV. But we haven’t bet a dime since I put ten dollars down on her first baby. She still owes me for having a boy.
“You’re on,” she says. She leaves, but not before giving me her best little-sister grin, all mischief and teeth. I haven’t seen that smile since before I got divorced and ‘ruined the family’s reputation.’
Too confused to be pleased by the unexpected smile, I drink coffee until my fingers shake. I ponder the loss of the women in my life. First my wife, then my sister, now my mother. My daughter’s already been sabotaged, I’m sure, but she’s still a push-up bra away from truly hating me. At 11:59, I meander back across the street.
Mr. CVS greets me with a toothy smile, his shiny white dentures on full display.
“Don’t bother paying,” he tells me with a wink. I take the envelope from his wrinkled hands and stride out of the store, wishing the rest of the world was as friendly as him.
Outside, feeling hopeful, I remove the stack of photos before thinking to worry about the wind. A picture gets blown down the street, then three more before I tighten my grip.
And there, newly exposed on the glossy paper in my hand, are my mother’s bare, sagging breasts.
I shove the stack back in the envelope and rush into the street, manically chasing after the photographs that were stolen by the wind. I’m not sure which is more horrifying — that I just developed a racy role of film starring my own deceased mother, or that her naked pictures are about to be scattered across the city.
A car screeches around me, but I manage to secure two of the photos. I don’t mean to look at them before I shove them in my pocket, but still I see it; neatly trimmed pubic hair in a perfect V, red and curly. Delicate hands circled around a glistening cock.
The third picture scampers down the street and I rush after it. I catch it outside a fruit stand; a blurry image of a hairy ass. By the time I get to the fourth picture, I’m breathing hard and people on the street are staring. I step on it before it can blow any further, and lean down to pick it off the ground.
I’m not shocked when I see that the man in the picture is naked. I’m shocked when I realize he’s not my father. I cram the final picture into my pocket and call my sister. This will change everything – for better or worse I’m not sure. Maybe it’s the wake-up call my family needs.
The answering machine picks up after three rings and my sister’s fake cheery voice tells me to leave a message. Kids in the background are yelling about whose toy is whose while her husband berates them. Every time I hear it, I think, can’t they just re-record?
Then it beeps. It’s the moment of truth. At least I don’t have to tell her to her face.
“They were overexposed,” I tell the answering machine, changing my mind at the last second. “I guess I owe you five bucks.”
Amy R. Biddle is a sailor and writer who grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Her debut novel, The Atheist’s Prayer, is a dark comedy about a fairy-worshiping suicide cult. Amy has also written a smattering of poetry and articles both online and in local newsletters, and one of her poems was selected for the 2013 Poetic Republic collection. In addition to writing, she co-runs Underground Book Reviews, a review site for quality independent literature.
Most residents of 1602 Broadway Avenue have their windows open, so one sharp bark from Mrs. Cohen’s Shih Tzu is enough to get the parrot in 306 squawking. The sound from televisions in other apartments drifts through the humid air and merges with noise from the street.
The newer Belvedere building next door has air conditioning, so everyone has their windows closed, including the couple that she watches across the alley.
The wife stirs a pot of stew. Her husband, home from a long day of work, leans against the island. He reads his tablet.
“How was your day, dear?” asks the wife.
“Wonderful. And yours? Good? Was it good? Mine was good. Yes. Very good.” He types on the tablet.
“Perfect, wonderful.” She puts the wooden spoon down and looks in the other pot where vegetables are steaming.
“You know, I love you. I love you so much. And your delicious dinner every night too. Every night.” He laughs. Then he takes his wallet out of his pocket and puts it beside him.
His wife gets plates and utensils from the cupboard and puts them on the island. “Thank you, dear.” She shakes her head. “I just want you to be happy.”
“I’m so happy I could cry.” He turns the tablet toward her. “See, that’s how I would look, if I were crying.”
She stares at the screen. Then she points at it. “I’m glad you don’t cry like that.” She gets the pot of stew and brings it to the island. “Did you put out the garbage?”
“As soon as I got home I did. Put out the garbage. I know how important it is. Right away, I did it. As soon as I came home. I like him, our garbage man. Yes. Yes, yes indeed.”
“Me too.” The wife drains the vegetables and puts the green beans in a bowl beside the stew. “I like him. As well. I like him too.”
The man leaves. “Checking on the garbage”, he says. The woman gets nice glasses from the cupboard and puts one beside each plate.
The husband comes back with a bottle. “Look what I found.” He peels off the foil and twists a puller into the top.
“I like juice.” She stirs the stew.
“It’s great that we both like juice.” He fills the glasses. “I’m so glad I moved back. I missed you so much.”
“I’m so happy you came back.” She scoops a leg of chicken onto his plate. “I thought this was stew,” she says as she gets one too.
“I like chicken.”
“Jenny? Where are you?”
Jenny scrambles to her feet, the fire escape reverberating with the clang of her shoes on the metal. She climbs through the apartment window and yells, “In the kitchen.”
At thirteen, Rick towers over her. His eyebrows furrow when he sees their mother’s high heels on his sister’s feet. “What are you doing? Mom said to get the dishes done before she gets home.”
She hops on the step stool with a clop-clop of the shoes, starts the water, and squirts Palmolive into the sink. “When is she going to be home?”
“In a few minutes, so you’d better hurry up.” Rick opens the freezer and takes out a frozen pizza.
“Is Bart coming too?”
“The guy that came over last week.”
“You mean Brett. I don’t know.” He sets the temperature on the oven.
“I don’t like him. He looks at me funny.”
“What do you mean, funny?” Rick opens the fridge, grabs the Tropicana, and takes a drink.
“He kept winking at me when no one was looking.”
“Well, it’s not up to you, is it? He’s Mom’s friend.”
Jenny pokes the water, then yanks her hand out, sending a few bubbles into the air. She turns the temperature down. “It’s just that I don’t want her to marry him.”
“Marry him? They’ve only been going out a couple of weeks.” He nudges the fridge door closed with his foot.
“If she did marry him, then Dad won’t come back.”
Rick snarls, “Don’t…” then stops. His fingers curl into a fist. “Dad isn’t coming back, Jenny. Get that through your thick little skull.” He raps his knuckles on her head.
They say nothing, staring at the sink as it fills. Jenny is blinking fast, trying to keep her eyes from overfilling. She stops the water and scrapes food off the plates into the garbage before sliding them into the bubbles. Rick watches, arms folded, leaning against the stove.
A minute later he sighs heavily, moves beside her and reaches into the soapy water to help. “What were you doing on the fire escape anyway? Spying on the neighbors again?” One corner of his mouth twitches. “Watching them have dinner?” He takes a plate from her, points out some dried tomato sauce that she missed, and slips it back into the sink.
“Not spying.” Jenny sniffs. “Just, thinking.”
Glenn Mori is learning to be a writer.