Late on certain afternoons I often liked to climb into my small boat and row out into the pond near my cabin. Sometimes I played a flute I had carved from a hickory branch and watched the perch dart about my boat through the clarity of the water. I liked to think my music charmed them.
One evening a woman walked through the trees at the edge of the pond. She was a delicate thing, her blonde hair almost glowing by the light of the dusk-time moon. She knelt at the water’s edge, cupped her hands, and drank from the pond.
My flute was still to my lips. I stopped playing.
The woman looked up. She seemed confused and disoriented. She wore a tattered white dress of dingy cotton. A woodsman’s wife or daughter, I surmised, or perhaps one of the traveling folk–dirt poor, shady and rarely welcome in town.
“Hello there,” I called. She looked at me and I could see some fear in her eyes, which were reddened as if from tears. “It’s okay. I’m just a fisherman out tooting my flute.” I played a few measures and she seemed to relax.
“I’ll row in.” I grasped the oars and propelled myself back to the water’s edge, where I had a small fire burning.
My little boat skidded up on the shore. I grabbed the brace of perch I had caught earlier and carried them over by my fire, placing them on a stump. The woman still squatted by the water’s edge some twenty yards away.
“I’ve plenty of fish I plan to fry up.” I pulled my iron skillet from my pack and set it on the fire. “You’re welcome to some, if you like.” She simply stared at me.
I set about cleaning the fish and cutting them into filets. Next I flipped a dollop of lard into the skillet, then tossed in the fish. I then took a bottle of whiskey from my pack and took a sip.
“Care for a drink?” I asked.
“Is that whiskey?”
“My man drinks whiskey. Then he becomes angry and mean. Are you gonna be angry and mean, mister?”
“I generally stay on the congenial side of things, ma’am.”
“That’s good to know. I like your music. My folks say music’s a sin, but…I’d like to hear more.”
I took the flute out and played. The woman stood and danced about. Her bare feet gently kicked at the hem of her dress, which flew up as she pirouetted, revealing her trim ankles and calves. I finished the song and as she stopped dancing, the sad countenance returned to her face. I flipped the fish with a pair of iron tongs.
She came and sat beside me. “Your fish smell good.”
“They are. You should have some.”
When we finished eating, I again took a slug of my whiskey, and again I offered it to the woman. “They say whiskey’s a sin too,” she said, but this time she took it and put it to her lips, taking a tentative drink.
“I’ve never drank it before,” she said, a slight cough following her statement.
“It takes a little gettin’ used to, but I think you’ll find it takes the edge off the day.”
“I hope it doesn’t make me angry and mean.”
“Ma’am, I’d wager that you don’t have an angry or mean bone in your body.”
We drank more of the whiskey, passing it back and forth between ourselves long into the night. I more than once replenished the fire with small logs, and it burned bright in the darkness by the pond. At her request I brought out the flute and taught her how to blow it.
Much later, she began to grow drowsy. “Is that your cabin up there?” she asked.
“May I stay there with you tonight, or are you a hermit?”
“I come out here so I can work these woods. Trapping. Fishing. Whatnot. But I don’t guess I’d object to any human companionship.”
“I mustn’t go home tonight.”
“May we go there now?”
“I reckon. Let me get some water from the pond to put out this fire.”
“Why don’t we put it out like this?” She stood, grabbed a burning brand with my iron tongs and tossed it high into the air over the pond. Orange sparks trailed behind it like a sky rocket, then it fell and hissed as it smacked the water.
“Careful,” I said.
“Tonight I don’t want to be careful.”
“I don’t know,” I said, but I also tossed a burning log just the same. She laughed, as happy perhaps as she had ever been or would be. We kicked dirt until the last of the fire was gone, and as the moon had set, we were left in utter darkness. I could hear her breathing soft yet wild gasps of air.
We started for the cabin. I felt her groping at me until she found my hand. She clasped it in her own and a shiver passed through me. Her skin was smooth and warm and ‘I found I liked it more than I could have ever known.
“Ain’t nobody ever been nice to me like you been, mister.”
“It ain’t hard to be nice.”
“It is for some people.”
The next morning when I awoke she was gone. For the best, I reckoned–there might be trouble otherwise, but I did feel some unexpected loneliness as I lay once again by myself in my bed. Later I found she’d taken my flute, but I didn’t care. There was plenty more deadwood strewn about the forest, awaiting my carving blade. No, I was glad she had it. It was hers now; a token that at least brief happiness could be found in the world. I hoped it might continue to give her some small measure of joy, or at least serve as a balm against whatever meanness awaited her.
Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Mirror Dance, New Myths and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the Yale Summer Writers’ Conference.
Asha was my spur-of-the-moment walking buddy. She lived five houses away, and if one of us suddenly needed a break from our mom lives we’d give the other a call. Winter and summer we’d plod the two-mile loop, often grumbling about what our kids did or didn’t do, sometimes bragging about the grandkids. We’d pick apart the neighbors’ landscaping, which often amounted to little more than plugging in a feeble row of Home Depot arborvitae, and made suggestions (to each other) like clipboard horticulturalists.
Our route passed a house I’d visited many times. It was a trim two-story colonial with a wing on one side that had once been a garage. The lawn was thick then, lush, the sidewalk edged, the shrubs mulched. Inside, the rooms lulled sweetly in this tidy castle.
Over the years it had changed hands a number of times but to progressively indifferent owners. Now it had deteriorated into such a mess it brought us to a halt. We scowled at the skeleton of a tree in the side yard and overgrown shrubs that shrouded the windows. That same grass was choked with weeds that were well beyond a lawnmower and a gallon of Weed B Gon. Even the sidewalk fought to hold its own. It was a shame. It brought down the neighborhood.
It was during that scathing appraisal that we saw the girl. She was at a front window and seemed to be struggling to open it. She looked like a young teen. When she saw us she waved. We waved back. She kept on waving.
Suddenly a man emerged from the front door. He was fortyish and lean, a swimmer or runner possibly. In jeans and a pressed shirt and a stylish day-old beard, he couldn’t have been more at odds with this sorry house. Or that was our impression until he marched our way.
“Everything okay?” he demanded in a no-nonsense tone. His laser eyes pinned us down as if we’d been trespassing. The message was clear: Move on, ladies. Were neighbors giving him heat about his property?
“Yeah,” I think I mumbled, and turned away to walk on. I swiveled about once, but the girl was gone from the window and a shade pulled down. The man stood firm, watching.
It bothered me. Asha too. Had the girl been waving or beckoning, asking for help? We hemmed and hawed. Should we do something about this? Or was she just a kid sent to her room and trying to sneak out?
We made a point to check out the house the next day. This time I jotted down the address and name on the mailbox, but weeks passed before I contacted the community association and was told to share my concerns with the police; in turn, they took note, made a written report.
So it was. We did our bit, said what we saw.
Fall brought birthdays and holidays and deaths in the neighborhood. We squeezed in our walk when we could, offering up our critiques. A couple houses went on the market, polished it seemed overnight. Asha’s neighbor built a lopsided shed on a twenty-degree slope in his backyard that was supported on one edge by stilts; it and his new John Deere riding mower crashed to the bottom of their lot two months later. We might have told him so.
And sometimes I would drive by the house with the girl and see a light on, but usually it was dark, to itself.
The winter was harsh, the land hidden under a glaze of snow that leaked all day then morphed into black ice at night. Our walks were few, and we didn’t get back into the swing until March. By then neighbors were emerging like hibernated bears, poking into gardens and washing cars. One afternoon we slowed to admire a ’57 T-Bird, its owner in the driveway stroking it like a cat. I’d seen him before, similarly entranced, touching up flaws only he could see. His house, as it happened, was across the street from the house with the girl.
“Do you ever drive it?” I asked pleasantly as we came up even with his driveway.
He whirled about, snatched from his reverie. “Fourth of July parades. That’s about it.”
“I’ll have to look for you. I never miss the Catonsville parade.”
“‘I’ll be there.”
I glanced behind me. “I was wondering about that house. It looks abandoned.”
He wrung out a chamois that looked dry.
”Yeah. He… ah… isn’t there.”
“I guess you could say that.” He honed in on the passenger-side door, buffing an area under the handle. Asha and I traded looks.
“Were there children living there?”
“We saw a girl at a front window a while back. Something seemed… off… not right…”
He sighed and turned to us. “I figured they were relatives.” Then: “He was arrested a few days ago on child pornography charges. He’s… he was… a teacher.” He didn’t meet our eyes.
“Oh no!” I said.
Asha touched my arm. “Sweet Lord,” she croaked.
We stood looking at each other, the three of us. There was more but he wasn’t saying. Guilt was written on his face as if in Magic Marker.
“I’ll look for the car at the parade,” I finally said, backing off and pulling Asha with me.
“I’m sorry,” he said as if he was to blame.
Later it made the news, and in a month a For Sale sign was stuck in the mud by the driveway. No one had bothered to tame the property, so someone was going to get a good fixer-upper deal. Families clamored for homes in this school district so it would sell easily.
Though we still walk, we never speak of the girl or remark on the house as we pass. In fact, it’s as if it isn’t even there.
Steffany Willey writes in Maryland, USA.
We’re loaded down with tampons and pads, and Mom’s heading straight for the cute checker’s lane. Seriously? I’d die if I had to stand there while he rung us out. It’s obvious, right? I totally get it, she’s distracted, sad about Lance and all that, but right now we’ve got bigger issues. I steer her toward the old lady’s lane.
I woke up at the hotel this morning with blood in my underwear—Mom thinks from the stress of the funeral and the move and all. She started getting all awkward, but I told her I was thirteen, not two, and I knew what was going on. We’re here—Kansas, I mean, not Walgreen’s—because my stepdad hung himself and Mom said we can’t afford our house because insurance doesn’t cover suicide. So we’re going to live with Aunt June in Utah. Yeah, Utah. Talk about Nowheresville. Mom’s been crying a lot, which was fine at first but started getting old about the middle of Kentucky. I’m sad, too, I guess, but not that sad. Lance was just my stepdad, and he was weird. I’m not sure how Mom didn’t see it, but whatever.
We load up the belt and the checker, this stocky older woman with helmet hair, says in this crazy deep voice, “How y’all doing today?”
Her—his—nametag says Geraldine, but there’s no way.
Mom pats my back and says, “We had a pretty rough night.”
“God, Mom!” I don’t mean to say that out loud, but she’s rubbing my back like I’m still five and it just comes out.
Geraldine looks at the pink and purple packages on the belt, then Mom, who makes her annoying frown-nod toward me. Geraldine looks back at me all grandma nostalgic and says, “Such a special time.”
Really? He has no idea how un-special this feels. The black tips of his wig curl like claws into his forehead. I don’t mind guys wearing dresses. Lance used to play dress up with me and my friends sometimes, which sounds weird but it really wasn’t. Honestly, he looked better than Geraldine. It was kind of cute, but also kind of sad. Especially after I saw him in the garage, hanging there, his hands curled up like dead spiders, toes poking out below Mom’s red dress.
“Oops,” Geraldine says. “Your card was denied, hon. Our system does this sometimes. Give it another try.”
Mom swipes. An old man shuffles into line behind us. He’s hugging a giant thing of Depends in his splotchy old man arms.
Geraldine says, “How nice to see you this morning, Mr. Cathcart.”
“It’s Geraldine, Mr. Cathcart.”
“Hell it is.” He’s doing that old person thing with his mouth, sucking on something that’s not there.
Geraldine looks over us, across the lanes. ”Why don’t you go down to Thomas? It looks like he’s open.”
“I’m fine here.”
“Are you?” Geraldine says. “I’m sorry, dear, your card was denied again.” When he smiles, these great long creases fold back into his cheeks. He has a nice smile, but the powder and stubble aren’t working together.
“What’s the problem?” says the old man. He’s pushing me with his Depends.
Geraldine says, “The machine’s on the fritz again.”
“I have cash.” The old man says. Then he makes this noise, a sort of coughing belch. Half a second later I smell smoke. Oh. My. God.
“Patience, Mr. Cathcart.”
Mom’s holding a ten. “Where are we if we take the pantyliners off?”
The old man is leaning into me, pushing his Depends against my back.
“Let’s see, hon,” Geraldine says, pulling the pantyliners out of the bag.
“Cut the schoolteacher crap, Gerald.”
“Her name,” I say, jabbing my finger into his Depends, “is Geraldine.”
The old man’s face bunches up like he’s got something to say.
I stare at him. “What?”
He grumbles something, but keeps his eyes on his Depends.
“That brings it down to twenty-three seventeen.”
“Here,” I say, digging into my pocket.
“No.” Mom grabs my wrist. “That’s your money.”
“It’s fine, Mom.” I’ve been saving for an iPhone, which doesn’t seem that important right now.
When I take the bags from Geraldine, he pats my hand. His nails are painted old lady pink and are all chipped and snaggled looking. His fingers are thick, stippled with plucked pores. He says, “Y’all take care now.”
Mom starts sobbing in the parking lot. I take her keys and help her into the car. She slumps into the driver’s seat, crying, hands cupped in her lap. “W-w-why,” the words hitch as she sobs, “w-would he do that t-to himself?”
I rub her back a little, and she slumps over the armrest into me. I hug her and tell her it’s going to be okay. Her whole body is shaking and her crying is more like moaning. She hardly cried at the funeral. I lay my head on hers and say all the nice things I can think of. Kissing her head seems to help.
I watch the old man for the hour it takes him to get in his giant car and drive off. By then, Geraldine is taking a smoke break, leaning against the side of the building, his legs apart, dress stretched tight. He holds his cigarette between two fingers, his hand hanging from his wrist. When he brings the cigarette to his mouth, it looks like he’s covering a yawn.
Mom’s still crying, but she’s stopped shaking. I find a smashed-up napkin in the glove box and press it into her hand. She squeezes my hand back and sits back up. She wipes her eyes and messes with her face in the rear view mirror. “I’m sorry.”
“No big deal, Mom,” I say. “I miss him, too.”
She looks at me like she’s surprised.
Mom drives past Geraldine and I wave. He tips his head up, hand covering his mouth, fingertips curling into his cheek as he draws on his cigarette.
Chip Houser thinks of himself as a fantasy author, but hasn’t actually published in the genre. He has published fiction in Rosebud Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Gemini Magazine, Kansas City Voices, Spark IV: A Creative Anthology, and Sixfold.
I take the body out of the freezer – the middle part, stalk-like and twisted, is very brittle, so careful, there, Mike – and put the amazing body on the steel autopsy desk. The protective suit is heavy and ultra-uncomfortable. When I breathe out too much, the plexiglass visor gets misty. The scalpel feels cold even through the triplicate latex gloves.
Cameras watch me with hungry, ink-black eyes. The label under each lens, Department of Xenotaxonomy and Comparative Xenobiology, is unnecessarily large and obtrusive, still very fresh.
I cannot say I am ready. This is supposed be the chance of a lifetime but I find myself struggling to continue.
Can we start?
The huge microphone above my head seems to be watching, too. How many people are going to hear my words, just now? And then a million times in the future?
First cut. How are we with the suction, ready?
I pause in the middle of the motion I have done a million times before, my index finger trembling as a tiny butterfly wing, and stare. I stare at it.
They cannot be grasped, touched, comprehended.
Our language drops dead to the ground when faced with such a challenge. What can I say? What tools of language are at my disposal? All the pseudo-, quasi-, alter- and meta-s, all the semi- or half-, all the -likes. Not efficient, not sufficient. New comparisons and descriptions need to be created. Later on, much later, I will try. In the morning shower, during a not-so-funny comedy, while driving.
The sense tentacles as soft as a crystal breeze. The shape perhaps similar to erratic square waves. The surface like a comfortably unpleasant gravel rug. There is a sort of shell, covered in colours we have no names for. Shallow sapphired, semi-rich yellowhite. Lightepid blackness. An ultraviolet carnival on the front face plate. The smell of neck bulbs maybe described as burnt hyacinth raspberries. The consistency of some outer organs like a fossilized custard.
I move my hands away, then back. The voice of my colleague is miles away.
The scientific part of me starts to sound the alarm. I feel strange and powerless. Is it something in the air? Have they tested the odour, the evaporations? Could there be any radiation? But I know the answer. Everything is triple tested. Safe.
This is not about physics or chemistry. Human reason is suddenly put to a crash test and in doing so pulverized by our experience. The realm of ideas is bound by the earthly pull as is the material world.
My mouth goes dry and I can feel the hairs on my nape go up. I put down my tools and years of practice and research, years of dreams and hopes, and walk away.
I can’t do it, boss. I am not the first and perhaps not the last to say this.
I know it’s a chance of a lifetime. But… let someone else do it.
Mike is behind me, doing the same thing, leaving the bright air-conditioned unit, swollen in the white suit as an oversized grub, with his hands up in a gesture of defeat.
Can’t do it. We cannot cut them to pieces. Not them.
We can just wonder. And hold the memory in our heads till the end of our days.
Tom Hadrava is an aspiring Czech writer based in Prague, Czech Republic, Europe, teaching English and constantly trying to transform his mental imagery into words. His fiction has appeared in the XB-1 magazine, a Czech science-fiction magazine, and some anthologies coming from Czech speculative fiction writing competitions. He likes jogging, trying different kinds of tea and playing invisible drums (lots of cymbals included, of course). He lives in a cosy flat with his charming wife and a “curious and even curiouser” baby son.
I looked at my extensive pile of gold in disgust. Impressive, in a sense. More wealth than many countries had at their disposal. But there was so much more to be made out there and nobody carried it around in coins anymore. Everyone had credit cards and bank accounts. And I couldn’t get them on my own.
I turned my attention to my current broker. He’d just handed me a summary of the past quarter, and it was encouraging. Not only because it showed a healthy profit, (I expected that), but because he had taken his agreed-upon five percent, and not a penny more. This one was definitely smarter than his three predecessors.
“The spike in gold prices has definitely helped,” he was saying. “Our hostile takeovers are all well in hand.”
I referred back to the figures. “None of them show fifty-one percent.” I snorted a smoke ring to remind him profit wasn’t everything. I already had wealth. Power was something else.
“You’ve just got to be patient,” he said, and his scent communicated sincerity along with the expected surge of fear. “If we do this too fast, prices surge and your net gain is lost. And other shareholders may unite against you if they see it happening too fast. We’re trying to optimize your profit potential.” I barely stopped myself from blowing another smoke ring. I hated business-speak. At least I had stopped his inane chatter about paradigm shifts and synergy.
It was just as well I had turned my mind to other avenues. “I want you to investigate currencies for me.”
He nodded. “I was going to suggest it. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as making money off of money.” He embellished this with some more syllables and promised to bring me a plan next week.
I spent the intervening time investigating venture capital investments and privately held companies which were for sale outright. Nothing there. They were selling for a good reason, and I for one could read the death rattle in the neat columns of figures. And I wasn’t about to risk money on gold mines in countries that allowed strikes.
At our appointed time, my broker came to my cave and handed me his currency proposal. I gave it some serious attention. Interesting. Creative, and not too dependent on hair-trigger timing, although it went without saying he’d be watching it carefully.
“I like it. Your plan for the euro seems promising.” He stood a little straighter, which was a relief. I liked them submissive, but cringing annoyed me. “And I’ve worked up an idea for precious metals.” I indicated a proposal on the left side of the antique walnut desk.
I settled back as he read, scratching my shoulder against a particularly fine ruby-encrusted goblet. Nothing settled an itch quite like rubies. I made myself a mental note to keep it back during the next phase. My broker cleared his throat.
“It’s elegant in its simplicity, sir, but we can’t do this.”
“Why not?” I hadn’t missed anything important when it came to money in centuries.
“A plan of this magnitude… flooding the market to depress the price of gold so we can buy up more…” His voice trailed off, and he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “It’s wrong, sir. A plan like this could cause massive instability. Wars have started over less.”
I suppressed a head shake; he was already afraid enough. I supposed this was the liability that came with an honest stockbroker; none of his predecessors would have hesitated. “Very well. I will come up with a new plan.”
He turned to go and froze in agony as the flames enveloped his body. It was time for lunch anyway.
Damn. Now I needed to find an honest, unprincipled stockbroker.
Avid reader, lover of fairy tales, Cathleen Townsend resides in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California.
« Previous Entries | Next Entries »