“Magic, Lies, and Fireflies”

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Mankind.

The most absurd of all God’s creations.

The elder faeries would often tell us stories about them,

warning us of their dangers.

Their selfishness.

Their cruelty.

Stay to the safety and solace of the trees, they would say,

Never get too close to a human.

But I never listened.

Some mistakes you only get to make once.

It’s all magic, lies, and fireflies.

But the truth…

It is their children that should have been warned about ME.

Some mistakes you only get to make once.

 

Author’s note: This is the intro to my comic story for the Louisville Cartoonist Society’s fantasy themed anthology book, “Tall Tales & Little Lies.”

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Terrae & Maria

moonDiscarded Friday night.

I decide to walk to the gas station for a beer.

It’s dark and cold out, but I don’t have far to go.

My breath comes out like a dragon’s, as I walk awkwardly in and out of the run off on the side of the road.

When no cars are driving by I look up at the moon.

Light Terrae, Dark Maria.

I imagine this is what my life must look like from a distance.

High points reflecting more of the sunlight.

And dark, featureless plains.

I wonder if those spots are cold, the way I am cold right now.

I stop walking.

I don’t want a beer anymore.

I turn around and head back home to make hot chocolate instead.

I just want to be in the light and be warm again.

AFTERWORDS

I know, I know. Poetry from me…gross, right? I wrote this one night towards the end of 2014. I was just trying to find balance between the light and the dark whenever possible. Thanks for reading!

Dead Radio

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Copyright 2014 Bruce Thomas

Dead Radio

…will be giving away Justin Timberlake tickets during the Hot Nine At Nine countdown tonight, so make sure you stay tuned in for your chance to win!”

…it’s wet and slippery out there, so drive safely out on the roads tonight…”

…traffic reports from our news weather helicopter are coming in, a pile-up on the Watterson Expressway going eastbound…”

…in critical condition at Baptist Hospital East after sustaining injuries when a semi-truck struck their vehicle…”

* * * *

Home. It’s where the heart is, right? Always was for me. That is, until two years ago when it was ripped out and shattered across the highway.

My name is Sarah Jordan. I grew up in a small house with a big family. Two parents, two sisters, two brothers, and one hyper-active Jack Russell Terrier, to be exact. I used to complain about how loud this place was. The house was always filled with so much noise. Laughing, shouting, barking, arguing, crying, fighting, talking, more barking…

But it’s quiet now.

And I miss that noise dearly.

* * * *

I was seventeen when it happened.

Still living at home, finishing up my senior year in high school, and working part-time scooping ice cream at Homemade Pie Kitchen. When spring break came, my family decided to take a trip to the lake for some fun in the sun. They even took the dog. My boss wasn’t thrilled about me taking the whole week off, so I just decided it would be better to stay. There was always the summer.

That night there was a knock at the door. And there I was, standing on my front porch in my pajamas, listening to two police officers tell me there had been an accident on the highway and my family was all dead. Even the dog.

It’s still hard to understand they are never coming home.

I have to keep the radio on at all times now. I have panic attacks if I don’t. I keep one on in every room of the house. I need them to fight the silence, or I go crazy. Sometimes it helps.

But only sometimes.

* * * *

Tonight, the quiet is killing me.

You’d think I’d be used to it by now. But I just cannot cope.

I go to the kitchen to pour myself a glass of bourbon. I don’t even bother to cut it with water. I slam the shot back, wincing as it goes down, and then pour another. After shooting that one, I take the rest of the bottle into the living room with me, and set it on the coffee table in front of the couch. I pick up the joint I had rolled with the last of my weed, and lit it up with a match. I feel the burn in my throat from the inhale. Or maybe its from the bourbon. I don’t really care. In a few minutes I won’t feel anything.

I pour another shot of bourbon, and finish smoking the rest of the weed. Leaning back in a cloud of hazy smoke, I rest my head on the back of the couch, and close my eyes. My thoughts go to my family. I can hear their noise again. It makes me smile. I start to feel warm and gooey on the inside from the bourbon buzz. But the weed made my thoughts sticky, and suddenly I’m stuck inside my family’s over-turned Volvo with them, surrounded by crushed metal and broken glass strewn across the highway. The car is on fire. And all I can hear is my family screaming.

My eyes snap open. But I’m too drunk to focus them in the dark.

The radio in the living room is dead. I forgot to change the battery. Dammit. Dammit all to hell. Hopefully the bourbon and weed will knock me out before the panic attacks me. I don’t even care if I ever wake up. If you want to know the truth…I’m already dead. I died on my front porch that night when the cops told me my family was gone. I’m just a dead girl now.

A dead girl, with a dead radio.

A dead girl, who will soon be asleep, unaware that the match she had lit a few minutes ago was now laying on the carpet below, still burning…

* * * *

…more bad news for Coach Rick Pitino and his Louisville Cardinals…”

…in the news on Coast to Coast AM, scientists could use sharks to predict hurricane intesity, meanwhile a three year old boy remembers his past life…”

…Bible salesmen, ghosts, and strippers! Tonight on The Moth Radio Hour…”

…Sssarah…….Sarah WAKE UP!!!” *Krzzzzt*

* * * *

Dad?”

My father’s voice jolted me out of sleep. It came from the radio, but how could that be? It was dead. No time to think about that, I wake to find my couch has turned into a tiny life raft in a sea of fire. I choke on thick plumes of grey smoke, as I frantically try to wave it all away with my hands. The house is on fire, and I am scared. I don’t want to die anymore.

My heart is pounding in my chest, and a shot of adrenaline courses through my veins. My racing mind searches desperately for an escape route. Then I find one. The living room window, just twelve feet or so away from the couch. Smoke and fire stand on guard in front of it though, I won’t get by them unscathed. But its the only option I have. I grab the cushion underneath me to block as much fire as I can, and spring off the couch to make my great escape. I feel my bare legs burning as I run through the fire. I make it to the window and the pain is so severe I almost puke. I can barely stay standing. I try to unlock the window, but it doesn’t budge. I scream, but the smoke eats it. The heat on my back is intense. A lock of my hair is in flames. Only one thing left to do. I take the couch cushion, hold it up to the window, and punch it through. Shards of broken glass fall to the ground outside and I climb out the portal.

Outside, I collapse to the ground, crawling away from the destruction. My legs are simmering in the cool night air. My hair, still on fire. I panic. So I pat down my burning hair with my hand, not thinking. I burn my hand, as well as my face, when the flaming lock touches my cheek. But the fire is dead, and I am alive.

I hear sirens in the background. A firefighter races out of a firetruck before it even comes to a complete stop, and runs up to me. “Are you okay, Miss?!”

I look back at the house that is burning down. I watch the home that I grew up in, the last tangible connection I have to my dead family, go up in smoke. I say a silent goodbye, and turn towards the firefighter helping me to my feet. “I’m okay.”

And for the first time in four years, I was okay. Because I heard my Dad’s voice on a dead radio. And that was reason enough to want to keep going.

Imagine what else I might hear if I stay tuned in…

…looks like blue skies and sunshine in the forecast for tomorrow, so get out there and enjoy that beautiful fall weather! This is Bruce Thomas here at 99.5 Mind Circus Radio, signing off. Thanks for tuning in everybody, hope you all have a good evening… goodnight folks!”

Love Potion # None

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Love Potion # None

 

 

3 weeks ago…

 

 

I can’t believe this is happening.

That was Jake’s thought, as he walked Cassie home from their night out together. He couldn’t help staring at her when they’d pass under a street light. Skinny jeans, white tee shirt with a Transformers cartoon on the front, and her dirty blonde hair a mess. She was the hottest girl he had ever known.

“You know,” Jake said, smiling at Cassie, “It took me six months to build up the courage to ask you out. But I’m glad that I finally did. I had so much fun hanging out with you. I can’t believe it’s so late already, it felt like the whole night flew by in fifteen minutes!”

“Yeah, I know,” said Cassie, “Sucks that you have to work in a few hours.”

“Ah, it’s no big deal, that’s what coffee is for. Besides, it was totally worth it.”

“Well, thank you for walking me home.”

“You are very welcome. Hey, we should go see a movie or something tomorrow night.”

“We can do that. I’ll give you a call.”

“Great!”

Jake leaned in and kissed her cheek. “Goodnight, Cassie.”

“Goodnight, Jake.”

 

He waited outside to make sure she got into her apartment okay. After the door closed behind her, Jake smiled and looked up at the stars. Perfect night, he thought. Then turned around and headed home, feeling like he could defy gravity with each step.

 

* * * *

 

 

Jake sat alone at the bar, staring at the double shot of Patron Silver in front of him.

The place was quiet tonight, save for the My Morning Jacket song coming through the sound system and a few conversations going on in the booths around. But the night was still young, and the place wouldn’t be jumping for a few more hours. That suited Jake just fine. It gave him time to think.

“You’re not trying to use telekinesis to drink that, are you?” said a velvety female voice beside him, “Because I really don’t think it’s going to work.”

“Hey, Simone,” Jake responded, without looking away from the glass, “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, just checking up on an old friend. Why? You weren’t expecting to run into someone else here by any chance, were you?”

Jake glanced over at Simone, and she winked at him. Then Jake looked back to his drink. They both knew Cassie liked to hang out in this bar. “I dunno,” Jake finally said, “Maybe.”

“Jake,” she sighed, as she pulled over a barstool and sat down next to him, “You have got to let this go. It’s not good for you.”

“I know, I know. It’s just…I can’t figure it out. We had such a great time that night! I mean, it’s not like I had an engagement ring in my back pocket, I just really liked her. I was excited to see her again, and she blew me off. I just wish she would give me another chance. I wish I didn’t mess everything up.”

“Jake, you didn’t mess anything up,” Simone said, placing her hand on his arm. He felt the warmth of her touch over his jacket sleeve. “It just…wasn’t meant to be.”

“Oh, come on, don’t give me that shit,” Jake said, pulling away from her.

“No, I’m not. Listen, I talked to Cassie.”

Jake looked at Simone, his eyes wide. He could see the tiny white lights that were strung around the bar room reflected in her dark brown eyes. They looked like stars, and it reminded him of his perfect night with Cassie. “What did she say?”

“She said you were a really nice guy, and she feels terrible about blowing you off, but…she’s really into this other guy she met. Brad Something. Apparently things have been going really well with him, and I think she just didn’t know how to let you down easy.”

Jake sat in silence, the wind taken out of his sails.   “I’m sorry, Jake,” Simone said finally, “I know you really liked her.”

“Yeah,” he barely responded, while Simone searched through her purse.

“Let me get you a drink,” she said, presenting a tiny black glass bottle in her hand.

“Thanks, but I’m still working on this one.”

“This is a special drink.”

“What are you talking about? What is that stuff?”

“Listen, Jake, remember a few years ago when Bryan and I took that trip to the Caribbean together? We were having some problems, and I was kind of hoping a little getaway would help solve them. I knew something had been going on with him and that girl Holly, but I wanted things to work, and I don’t know, I guess at the time I was just hoping I could make him forget about her.”

“Yeah,” Jake said sympathetically.

“Well, anyway, on our last day there we were strolling through the market place, and we came across this strange little occult store. We went in, looked around, and I ended up buying him this bottle of “Anti-Love Potion” as a gag gift. You know, as a way of saying: if you’re willing to forget about Holly, we could still make this work. So later on that night, just for fun, he actually drank some of it. He said it tasted nasty, we had a good laugh, and that was it. The thing is, Jake, it worked.”

“Uh huh,” Jake said, raising his eyebrow at her.

“Except he didn’t forget about Holly, he forgot about me,” Simone continued, “The next morning we flew back to the states, and he broke up with me. Said he wanted to be with her. Said he was finally thinking clearly, and this was something that he had to do.”

“Simone,” Jake treaded cautiously, “I know all that had to have been really hard on you. I get it. I do. But you can’t possibly believe the catalyst for the end of your relationship with Bryan was a novelty potion you picked up in some voodoo gift shop.”

“I didn’t believe it either,” Simone stated, “Until I tried it myself.”

Jake looked at her, puzzled.

“I was fucked up after he left, Jake,” she said, looking down at the black bottle in her hand, “I just wanted the pain to go away. I just wanted to be okay.”

He wanted to tell her he understood how she felt, but he said nothing.

A moment passed between them and her smile returned. Delicately, she turned the cap off the bottle with her thin, dark fingers, and poured a few drops into Jake’s glass. Jake watched them immediately vanish into the clear Patron, undetectable. “Believe what you want,” Simone said, tapping out one more drop from the bottle, “But know this: I love you, Jake. It hurts me to see you like this. I know you are stuck, and I just want to help you move past this. You deserve so much more. You are such a great guy, and I just want you to be happy.”

“Thank you, Simone,” Jake said, “But forgetting about Cassie isn’t going to make me happy.”

“Maybe not,” she replied as she stood up to leave, “But it might open the door. And you never know when the right girl might walk in.”

She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Goodnight, Jake.”

“Goodnight, Simone.”

           

* * * *

 

Jake sat looking at his full glass for a long time after Simone left.

He knew it was over with Cassie.

A bright flash in the sky, and now it was gone.

But he didn’t want to forget.

He stood up, threw a ten down on the bar, and waved to the bartender.

“Be careful out there,” said the bartender, as Jake walked out the door.

 

* * * *

As he put the ten in the register, the bartender noticed Jake’s untouched drink. Waste of alcohol, he thought to himself. He threw his head back to swallow the double shot, winced, and when the sting passed he dropped the empty glass into the dish tub below the bar. “What can I get for you?” he asked, turning to the blonde in the Transformers tee shirt that had just walked up to the bar.

“Hey, babe!” she said with a big smile.

“Oh, hey Cassie, what’s up?”

“Just wanted to stop by and say hey. You hungry? I brought you some dinner. I thought maybe if you had a break we could hang out for a minute while you ate and stuff.”

“Oh, thank you, Cassie, yeah…but um, I’m kind of busy tonight. You know how this place gets.”

“Right, yeah, I know,” Cassie said, her smile fading, but trying to play it off, “Well, maybe we can grab a bite to eat together some other time this week?”

“Yeah, maybe. I’ll call you.”

A waitress in a short black skirt walked up to the bar beside Cassie, and stood a good six inches above her. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she smelled heavily of perfume. If she was aware of Cassie’s existence, she didn’t show it. “Hey, Brad,” she purred, “I need two Miller Lights, and a bourbon ginger, please.”

“You got it,” he said, winking at her.

She smiled, and then turned around. Cassie watched him watch the waitress as she walked away. She didn’t have to wonder what he was thinking.

“Cool, well… hope you have a good night,” Cassie said, barely concealing the hurt in her voice.

“Yup. You too,” he said, popping the caps off the two bottles he pulled from the cooler.

“See ya.”

“See ya.”

Cassie waved goodbye and walked out the door. As she got into her car, she felt a hot tear roll down her cheek before starting the engine and leaving.

 

* * * *

 

Simone turned the key in the lock to her lonely apartment, and opened the door. The space was dark, and quiet. She walked in, dropped her purse and keys on the counter top, and pulled a glass from the cabinet.

She knew Jake wouldn’t take the drink.

He was a hopeless romantic who, for whatever reason, needed that knife of sadness in his heart so he would always feel something there no matter how bad it hurt.

Maybe that was why she loved him.

Simone reached into her purse and pulled out the little black bottle. She held it in her hand for a moment, examining it. Then poured it’s remaining contents into her glass. She brought it to her lips, and closed her eyes. “Time to take your medicine again,” she whispered to herself.

Then suddenly she felt a vibration against her leg.

She opened her eyes, reached into her pocket and pulled out her phone.

It was a call from Jake.

Simone smiled, put down the glass, and answered.

 

 

~FIN~

The Night Stocker

The Night Stocker

All Hallow’s Eve.

Deep in the woods of Kentucky, on an old country road…

There is a little store called Sadler’s General.

During the day you could expect to find Vic, the store’s owner, looking over things, as well as a few locals gossiping at the register. But at night, long after Vic has closed up shop and everyone has gone home for the evening, enters one last person, to stock the shelves for the next day’s business. The night stocker. Alone in the empty store, no one ever disturbs him…until tonight.

* * * *

Graham’s nightly work started the same as always: pick up a box, move a box, put down a box, open a box. It was tedious, monotonous…and quiet. But not long into the night did he hear a strange noise coming from a few aisles away. He walked over to investigate—but all he found was a scarecrow that had a jack-o-lantern for a head and a creepy, evil looking grin carved out of it. Must be something Old Man Vic brought out for Halloween, Graham thought to himself.

He dragged the scarecrow over to the window where it could scare someone else, and Graham went back to stocking the shelves. But a few moments later…he heard the noise again. Graham slowly turned around, and what he saw he could not believe. He froze in terror, powerless to move. His heart hammered inside his rib-cage. And fear flooded all his rational thoughts…for the scarecrow was moving straight towards him!

Graham dropped the supplies he had in his hands, and bolted out the front door. “Screw this!” He yelled, “I’m switching to day shift!”

He ran as fast as his legs could carry him to the safety of the cab of his pick-up truck…and sped off into the night.

* * * *

The next day Vic walked over to the scarecrow that was standing out in the aisle, and placed his hand on it’s shoulder. “Well, Halloween is over, my friend. Time for you to go back into storage.”

He dragged the scarecrow into the storage room, stood in the doorway for a moment, and flipped the lights off. “See you next year.”

Alone in the darkness, underneath the raggedy patch-work of clothes, and straw, and inside of the jack-o-lantern, was the real old man Vic. Paralyzed in fear, forever trapped by the demon outside. A single tear rolling down his cheek.

Epilogue

Hello there, folks! The next time you find yourself in the backwoods of Kentucky, stop on by Sadler’s General Store! Where the prices are low, the food is fresh, and you always get more than you bargained for! I’ll give you such a great deal, you may never want to leave…

…or be able to…

hahahahaha.”

Phantom Crews

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Harlee is a lively girl who can talk to spirits.  John is a dead man who doesn’t believe in ghosts.  Together they investigate paranormal activity, supernatural occurrences, and other abnormal things that go bump in the night!  Don’t miss out on all the spooky fun as they dive into dark water with their newest case…

 

 

 

                                     PHANTOM CREWS

 

 

 

   A chilly October night on the Mississippi River, a small boat rocked in the dark water.  Harlee turned the motor off, and was greeted by the peaceful sound of the waves splashing against the fiberglass hull.  “Help me out here, Harl,” said the dead man in the life vest, “Tell me again what the hell it is we are doing out here?!”

   Harlee sighed.  Her breath looked like smoke from a dragon in the cold night’s air.  She turned around from the steering wheel in all seriousness to answer his question, but had to suppress a sudden urge to giggle at the sight of a skeleton in a bright yellow life vest.  Underneath it he wore what remained of the suit he was buried in.  Black shoes, dark grey pants, a white collared shirt, and a tie that hung loosely around his neck bones.  “Is that really necessary?” she asked, pointing to the vest.

   “Hey, I’ve seen the way you steer this thing,” the skeleton said, “I may be dead, but that’s no reason to disregard proper boating safety.  And I asked you a question first.”

   “I already told you, John,” Harlee answered, her blonde hair blowing in the cold wind around her face, “We are here to investigate several reports of a spectral ship being seen recently in this area.”

   “Ah yes,” John said, “The case of the missing stern-wheeler.  Would you mind refreshing me on the details?  I’m still a little drunk from all the pumpkin ale I was enjoying before I was forced aboard the S.S. Minnow in the middle of the night to go look for a ghost ship.”

   Harlee rolled her eyes, and smirked at him. “In 1882, a 180-foot-long stern wheel paddle steamer called The Iron Mountain was towing a string of barges from New Orleans to Pittsburg with a crew of fifty-five aboard when it completely vanished without a trace.”

   “Oooh,” John sang, shaking his bony hands in the air, “Spooky! Cue The X-Files theme…”

   “Another steamer found the barges floating downriver later that day, apparently having been cut loose,” Harlee continued, ignoring the dead man’s sarcasm, “But the Iron Mountain and its crew were never seen nor heard from again.”

   “I’ll admit, that IS strange,” John said, shivering, “A ship disappearing on the high seas is one thing, but on a river?” 

 

   “Of course, there are several theories as to what happened,” Harlee stated, “Some say the ship ran aground and sank, others say pirates boarded the steamer and killed everyone…”

   “Oh, dear,” John said while shaking his skull in disbelief, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

   “Riverboat captains whispered about the Iron Mountain for years after it disappeared.  They claimed it was sucked into another dimension through a ghostly portal.  Others blame the boat’s disappearance on a rip in the fabric of the space-time continuum.”

   “Sounds more like a rip in the fabric of sanity if you ask me.”

   “Regardless of what the legends say happened, the Iron Mountain is still one of the most famous ghost ships in maritime history! And I believe it wants to make an appearance.  I believe it wants to be seen again.”

   “For what purpose?” 

   “That’s what we are going to find out.”

 

* * * *

 

The next two hours passed slowly.

   They had seen nothing paranormal, or even abnormal, since they left the marina, and Harlee was starting to wonder if they should call it a night after all.  She was cold, and at the moment wanted nothing more than a cup of John’s red hot chocolate (regular hot chocolate with Red Hots candy mixed in for a nice cinnamon kick) to warm her up. But on the starboard side he had fallen asleep, and watching him rest in peace suddenly made her feel lonely and tired.  Her thoughts were getting sticky.  Silver moonlight reflected from the water, and Harlee stared at it in a trance. 

   Then she saw something. A vibration in the reflection of the moon in the water.  She looked up, feeling immediately alert, her hot green eyes searching. In the distance, something very large was headed towards their tiny boat, bringing a trail of grey-white smoke in its wake.

   “John!” Harlee shouted/whispered, “Wake up!” 

   “Wha…huh?” John mumbled as he swam back up from sleep.

   “Something is coming!”

   John sat up and turned his skull around to where Harlee was pointing, feeling a sense of impending doom.  Then he saw it, a paddle steamer with a blue-green aura surrounding it.  “No,” John reasoned, “It can’t be.”

   “The Iron Mountain,” Harlee declared, as if it could be nothing else. 

   They both stared at it in awe.  The ghost ship was alive again, the stern wheel rotated and the sound of the steam whistle filled the night air. As it came closer, it reminded Harlee of looking at an under-developed photograph.  Half in this world, half in the next, she thought.  Finally, John turned to face Harlee.  “So what exactly is our plan here?”

 

* * * *

 

John stared at her for the next twenty seconds in complete silence, expressionless. 

   Harlee looked into his hollow eye sockets. “You’re glaring at me, aren’t you,” she said.

   “YA THINK?!  No way I’m jumping onto a giant moving steam boat, hundred and thirty year-old phantom or otherwise!  I’m gonna get myself killed! AGAIN!!”

   “Relax.  I don’t think we’ll need to jump onto anything. That boat is headed straight for us, I say we just let it pass right through.”

   “Oh, I like that idea,” John said enthusiastically.

   “Really?” Harlee asked, surprised.

   “No.”  

   “Look, while it’s passing through us, maybe we can try to, you know, reach out to The Iron Mountain. Connect with its spiritual presence, grab a hold of something, anything, and if it’s strong enough maybe we can hitch a ride.  Does that make any sense?”

   “Not even a little.”

   Harlee let out a sigh in frustration, and hung her head down.  She was exhausted, and was all out of ideas at the moment.  Then she felt a bony hand place itself on her shoulder.  “But you are my partner,” John said, his tone without sarcasm, “And I would follow you anywhere, no matter how crazy I thought it was.  I got your back, Harlee.  So let’s do this.” 

   Harlee raised her head and smiled at him. “Thanks, John.”

   Then they both turned to watch as The Iron Mountain made its way to meet them.

                              

* * * *

 

The temperature dropped at least fifteen degrees when the ship touched them. 

   Harlee felt a tremendous force, cold and powerful, pushing its way through her, filling her guts with ice.  Completely engulfed in a blue-green light, it was difficult to discern much of the details of the ship in all the spiritual turbulence.  Harlee closed her eyes, and raised her arms out to the sides with her hands reaching out. “Holy ship, Harlee!” she heard John scream, “The Iron Mountain did sink after all!  Look!  There’s a huge hole in it!”

   But Harlee kept her eyes closed, and concentrated.  The Iron Mountain will have passed them by in a matter of seconds and she had to find something to latch on to.  An image of a woman flashed powerfully in her mind, and Harlee seized the opportunity.  

 

* * * *

 

“Gotcha!” Harlee screamed, as she and the woman she had a hold of hit the deck of The Iron Mountain. 

   John wiped out as well, confused and disoriented, but quickly regained his control.  “I’ll be damned,” he said, as he stood up, taking in the new surroundings, “It worked!”

   “John!” he heard Harlee scream, and snapped into action.

   “Harlee!” he yelled back, racing over to help her.  “Are you okay?”

   “I’m fine,” she said, taking John’s hand to help herself up. 

   Together they brought the mysterious woman to her feet, steadied her, and slowly took a few steps back to study her.  The woman warily watched Harlee and John, but did not move or speak.  She looked to be in her early twenties, but Harlee noted her clothing: very old fashioned, perhaps late eighteen hundreds but she couldn’t be sure.  “So you think Lady in the Water here is our key to solving this investigation?” John whispered.

   “Seems likely,” Harlee responded in a low voice, “There were several reports speculating that a woman, a chambermaid aboard this ship, was caught below decks and killed, sinking with the Iron Mountain while the rest of the crew scrambled onto one of the barges it was towing and escaped.  There is a chance this could be her ghost, but we’ll need to question her.”

   “Can I be the BAD cop this time?” John asked.

   “You’re ALWAYS a bad cop,” Harlee said, stepping towards the woman. 

   “Hahaha  –hey wait a minute!” John said, mildly insulted, and following Harlee with his pointer finger in the air, “What is that supposed to mean?”

   “Who are you? And why are you haunting the Mississippi River in this ghost ship?” Harlee asked the woman, trying to sound as diplomatic as possible. 

   “Yeah and who’s in charge of the cleaning around here,” John added behind her, “This place is a cesspool!”

   The woman’s gaze turned fierce.  “Who are YOU?” she demanded.

   “This is Agent Foxy Mulder,” John said, pointing to Harlee, “And I’m Agent Skully.  And WE are asking the questions here, lady.” 

   John tapped Harlee’s arm, grinning with all teeth, quite pleased with himself, “See what I did there?” he whispered, “I’m ‘Skully’ because-”

   “Not now, John,” Harlee said, and again directed her attention to the woman, “We are paranormal investigators.  My name is Harlee, and this is John.  Do you know what year this is?”

   “What year?” the woman echoed, “Any fool knows what year it-”

   “Just answer the question,” Harlee interrupted impatiently, and then added, “Please.”

   “It’s Eighteen-eighty-two, of course!” the woman snapped.

   Harlee and John looked at each other, reading each others thoughts.

   “Miss, I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” John said soberly, “But the year is twenty-thirteen.”

   “Twenty what?!” she said, her voice booming in anger, “What kind of nonsense is this?!” 

   Everything seemed to darken, and John and Harlee took a step back in slow motion, not wanting things to get ugly.  They had seen it happen before.  The thing about ghosts, they don’t like change.  It’s hard for the dead to let go of the living sometimes.  Most are lost souls who just need a little time to adjust and move on.  But every now and then one of them likes to make trouble.  This woman had been haunting for a very long time, and they still had no idea what her intentions were. 

   “Can you tell us the last thing you remember?” Harlee treaded cautiously.

   “Well,” she began, her eyes still wild, “I remember…”

   Suddenly Harlee and John found themselves in one of the cabins below the deck of the Iron Mountain.  The woman stood across from them, but she looked a thousand miles away as she tried to remember.  “I was cleaning one of the cabins…” she said, her voice sounding ancient, “And then I heard a crash…no, I FELT a crash, it knocked me on my feet, it did!”

  Simultaneously they heard a deep, resounding boom, and Harlee felt her organs float inside her for a second before the force of gravity pulled her back down.  The impact caused Harlee and John to lose balance, and they both struggled to remain on their feet.  The woman had been knocked down, and appeared to be badly hurt. “What’s happening, Harlee?!” John yelled, trying to help the woman back up.

   “I…I remember blood…I was bleeding…” the woman raised her hand to the side of her head, and traced the outline of an ugly cut with her fingertips, “Then there was water rushing…rushing in all around me…”

   “It’s a residual haunt,” Harlee explained, having to almost scream over the roar of rushing water filling her ears, “This moment in time is more or less repeating itself.  We are witnessing the final moment of what happen to this woman and the Iron Mountain reenacting itself!”

   Water surrounded them.  “I couldn’t get out,” said the woman, “I was trapped and…I…I knew I was….”

   “Dead,” John said, finishing her story for her.

   “Yes,” the woman said, realizing she was no longer one of the living.

   “C’mon, Harlee, we have to get her out of here before it’s too late!” John exclaimed.

   “This moment has already happened,” Harlee said, “There is nothing we can do to change the past, no matter how tragic.”

   John gave her a sympathetic look and squeezed the woman’s arm lightly in a frail effort to console her.  “I’m so sorry,” he said.  Above them was the sound of a stampede of horses. 

   “Listen, John!” Harlee said, “That noise! Must be the crew running to the barge for safety!”

   “You mean… they live?” the woman asked with some hope.

   “Oh no, that was over a hundred and thirty years ago,” John stated, “They are certainly dead by now.”

   “John!” Harlee snapped.

   “I mean, uh, I’m sure they probably lived a lot longer than YOU did, obviously,” John continued, “I’m just saying they’re all long dead by NOW.”

   Harlee smacked her face with her palm, and shook her head.

   “I mean,” John stumbled on, smiling painfully, “I wish I was dead.  Oh wait, I AM.  Harlee, you wanna take over for awhile? I’m gonna go flush myself down the toilet.”                            

   “One of them… was my husband,” the woman revealed to them, “I want more than anything to know he survived…but why did he leave me to die in this sinking ship?”

   “Surely you are aware that there is no-one left to answer those questions,” Harlee stated sadly.

   “Take it from me,” John added sincerely, “Sometimes the past is better left behind.”

   “You may never know the answers you seek,” Harlee continued, “Maybe they DID find a way to safety? Maybe they didn’t even know you were trapped below decks until it was too late?  Fifty five people are a lot to keep track of in a state of panic.  At that point it’s possible the man that loved you could not have saved you even if he had tried. Maybe he didn’t leave you.  Maybe YOU left HIM.  And I’m sure he carried the weight of your tragedy with him for the rest of his life.”  

   “You are very wise, Harlee,” said the ghost, “I may never know what happened to my husband, but I know that he loved me.  He had to move on in life without me, and so I’ll move on after death without him.  I hope someday we will be reunited.  But for now, I believe my voyage in this world is finally over.  And it’s time to go home.”

    Then the woman faded away, but her presence could still be felt as she said goodbye, and Harlee and John found themselves back on their boat, in a calm Mississippi River.  

 

* * * *

 

“Well,” John said to Harlee as they stood together on the pier, “Spirits bar is still open, shall we celebrate another case closed by sharing a pitcher of brew?”

   “Sounds good, Agent Skully,” Harlee said, smiling playfully at John.

   “Oh, and they’re having their Halloween party tonight!” John said ecstatically, “I can’t wait to show everyone my costume!”

   “Oh boy,” Harlee said, rolling her eyes, “Should I be afraid?”

   “VERY afraid.”

   Harlee looked at him with actual fear in her eyes for the first time that night, “You’re not going as a slutty nurse again, are you…”

 

                                                                                               End

 

 

 

 

AFTERWORDS

The Iron Mountain was a real ship that vanished on the Mississippi River in 1882.  What exactly happened to the ship and its crew still remains a mystery.

 

Tornado Watch

TORNADO WATCH

Copyright © 2013 Bruce Thomas

Ben woke up from a deep sleep, curled up on the comfy chair in the living room.  It was the kind of sleep that you woke up disoriented from, but he could immediately tell something was not quite right.  It was too late into the afternoon, had he really slept for so long?  He wondered.  the natural light in the room was deceiving.  Ben got up out of the chair and walked over to the window, his old bones protesting a little as he did so.  The sky had gone from a peaceful blue, to a still, ominous yellow.  Yes, something was not quite right today, indeed.

She should have been home by now.

Ben paced around on the living room carpet for a few moments, trying to decide what he should do next.  He was quite hungry, but would not consider eating a bite of food until she returned.  He didn’t like to eat alone.  After a bit more pacing, an idea struck him.  Maybe she had returned.  Perhaps she was here in the house somewhere, and he just didn’t hear her come in?  It had happened before. Perhaps she saw him napping and thought it best not to wake him.  Ben decided to wander the house a bit to investigate.  However, he could not detect a trace of her sweet perfume in any room of the house, and his explorations only confirmed that she had not returned home after all.

He was indeed on his own.

Ben moved passed the window in the living room again, and couldn’t help to notice the sky.  It was different.  It had changed.  Not by much, but enough to unsettle him.  There was also a distinct drop in air pressure, he could feel it.  Ben was suddenly nervous, without knowing why.  He lowered his head in concern, and then a moment later it hit him.

There was a storm coming.

Now the panic was setting in.  Where is she? Where could she be?!  He went to the front door, with a frail hope that he might hear her footsteps outside…nothing.  It was far too quiet out there for his liking.  No leaves rustling, no children playing, just an eerie stillness.  Ben slowly backed away from the heavy wooden door.  He did not want to know what was happening outside those walls.  All he wanted was for her to walk through that door right now and come home to him.

Ben let out an audible whine, just the kind of thing she often scolded him for.  He knew he sounded pitiful, but he couldn’t help it.  He was scared.

A horrible darkness slowly crept into his home.  It was coming from the western skyline outside.  Dark, heavy clouds blotted out the sun.  Ben stared out the window as he watched the sky move towards him.  This time, it wasn’t a whine that escaped from Ben.  Below his trembling legs, a puddle of yellow urine spread out on the carpet like blood from an open wound under a thin layer of clothing.  She will not be pleased, he knew.  But he did not concern himself with that at the moment.  Only one thought remained as he backed away from that awful sky…how could she leave him alone in such peril?

BOOM!

Ben raced into the bathroom, fishtailing on the tiles a bit as the mad, thrumming vibrations intensified outside.  The whole house began to shake.

BOOM! BOOM!

He whimpered at the loud noise attacking his sensitive ears.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Ben tried to cover his head, as he lay on the bathroom floor, but it provided little comfort.

BOOM!

That last sound felt more than just close.  And in the last instant of light in the house, he imagined she was there.

Then he was alone in perfect darkness.

Ben felt close to madness.  He wanted to cry. And probably would have, but suddenly his attention was re-directed somewhere else. He thought he heard a faint, but familiar sound in the midst of all the noise from the angry storm. His ears perked up and he cocked his head for a better listen.  It was coming from outside the front door.  He bolted upright as fast as lightning.  He recognized the sound!  It was the jingle of keys in the lock, and it was the single most joyous sound in the world to him!  For Ben knew what would soon follow was the door opening and inside would enter his heart’s desiring!  He raced as fast as he could to the front door, swishing the throw rug in the hallway around, and bumping against the furniture as he did so.  The door swung open just as soon as Ben entered the room.  It was her!  She struggled to close the heavy door behind her against the rushing winds, until finally she won.  She turned and they ran towards each other to embrace.  Ben felt the cold beads water drip from her hair.  She hugged him tightly and ruffled the hair on top of his head.

BOOM!

Another terrifying sound came from outside.  It seemed to be right on top of them now. “C’mon, we gotta get to the basement where it’s safe!” she exclaimed, snapping into motion.

Ben followed closely behind her.  She stumbled in the dark, banging her shin against the chair and letting out a small cry.  Ben guided her, right by her side, straight to the basement door.  She felt around for the doorknob and opened it, and they both entered the cool, dark portal underneath the house.  Ben glided down the stairs with ease, but she missed the last step and tumbled to the ground.  She crawled blindly until she reached a corner of the basement floor, and turned her back up against the wall. Both of them were panting heavily.  He could sense her fear, so he guarded closely beside her.  “I was so worried I wouldn’t make it home to you before the tornado,” she whispered in the dark, “I know you were scared.”

But Ben was no longer afraid.  His sense of purpose had been restored.  He would protect her, his master.  And together in the dark, they waited.

* * * *

Time passed.  And when the sounds calmed outside, Ben felt her move towards the basement door.  “I think the tornado has passed,” she said finally, “I think it’s safe now.”

A flood of dazzling white light blinded Ben as she opened the door at the top of the stairs.  When his eyes re-adjusted, Ben scanned the house and outside the window.  There were fallen tree limbs and un-identifiable materials that littered his territory outside, but nothing seemed catastrophic.  He barked once and she turned towards him and smiled.

“It’s okay, Ben,” she said reassuringly, “We made it!  It’s over!  We’re still alive!”

He was not sure he understood her sudden mood change, but he sensed it was a good thing.  They walked outside together, she picked up a few loose objects in the yard, while he noodled around with a few sticks.  And in the early evening hours, they returned to the warm interior of their home, and she made dinner.  The smells were intoxicating, and she shared her food with him, a rarity that he was not accustomed to.  But he was grateful for something else besides his dry meal from his bowl.

Not long after they ate, she was motionless on the couch, and he sensed she was resting.  He would soon join her in slumber, but he took one last trip to the window to make sure the coast was clear.

He was her watchdog, after all.

The Playhouse

PLYTTL01

Copyright © 2010 Bruce Thomas

Jennifer woke up to a loud noise outside her bedroom window.

It took her a few seconds to adjust to the world of movement after being ripped out of her dreamland.  She felt around for her glasses on the nightstand.  Putting them on her face, she got out of bed and moved sluggishly over to the window, dragging her teddy bear along side.  One look outside told her that it was sometime in the middle of the night.  A light rain pelted against the glass.  Sliding her fingers under the frame of her glasses, she rubbed the sleep from her eyes and peered out into the distance.  The noise earlier must have been thunder, she gathered.  Listening quietly for a few moments, she heard the noise again, only it did not seem as though it had come from the sky.  Far off in the darkness of the trees, Jennifer could see shiny, shimmering lights.  They were a purple-blue color that she had never seen before.  Her eyes squinted as she tried to make out what they were, but she was able to discover nothing.

“You wanna go on an adventure, Beary?” Jennifer whispered to her teddy bear, and waited for a response that only she could hear. “Me too.”

* * * *

She grabbed her pink raincoat out of the closet and put it on over her Disney Princess pajamas.  She slid on her boots and then walked back over to the window.  She could still see the purple-blue lights out there in the woods.  Jennifer was quite curious.  She scooted her chair from underneath the desk that she did her homework on, and pushed it under the window.  She climbed up and stood on the seat.  Opening it did not come without difficulty, but after a minute of struggle, the window finally budged.  She was very quiet, as to not wake her parents.  She knew they would be very angry if they found out she was going out to the woods by herself at this hour.

It wasn’t a far drop to the ground, but it was enough to knock her on her butt when she landed.  The earth was wet and muddy.  She stood up and wiped her palms on the sides of her jacket.  It was hard to see, but she walked from the grass of her backyard to the edge of the trees.  Wet leaves, and twigs snapping under her feet, Jennifer continued on into the darkness, with the distant purple-blue lights as her only guide.  For even the moon and stars were blotted out of the night’s sky by rain clouds.

* * * *

It was very black in the woods, and although she wished that she had brought her green plastic Tinkerbell flashlight that Daddy had gotten her for Christmas, she was not afraid.  “Maybe the lights are magic forest fairies, Beary!” Jennifer whispered to her teddy bear with excitement, “Maybe they’ll want to be friends with us and we can all play together!”

Jennifer traveled not much further when she finally reached the lights.  But she was confused by the sight and did not understand what she was looking at.  The pretty purple-blue lights were not at all what she had imagined.  They were a part of something she had never seen before.  She took off her hood and within minutes the rain had soaked her hair.  She stood there still, staring.  Was it a car?  No, she decided.  It had no wheels.  It was floating a few feet off the ground.  The lights shined brightly, but the body of the unidentified craft they were attached to was very black, blacker than the night, and looked scary.  Suddenly, Jennifer heard a door open on the craft.  She stepped back away and hid behind a large tree.  She saw three skinny, grayish looking men step out of the ship.  They looked around the woods as if they were searching for something.  She was frightened, but unable to look away completely.

They were very quiet, and she was as well.  Their skin looked like a dolphin and they had a heavy smoke rising from them.  They looked like they had been around Daddy and his stinky cigarettes all night, Jennifer thought.  She watched them take one last look at their craft and vanish deeper into the woods.

She exhaled a deep breath of relief, and decided it was time to head back to her house the way she had came.    “We’ll come back tomorrow Beary,” Jennifer whispered, hugging her stuffed bear tightly, “I think the cigarette men are gone now.”

* * * *

The next morning Jennifer and her mother sat together at the kitchen table.  Jennifer’s mother was in a wheelchair and did most of her work as a bookkeeper from home on a personal laptop.  Jennifer winked at Beary, who was sitting in his own chair at the table, and asked her mother if she could go play outside after she ate her breakfast.  “Yes you may, sweetie girl,” her mother responded without looking up from her computer screen, “But just stay close to the house.”

Jennifer finished up her bowl of Outer Space Cosmic Crunch cereal, grabbed Beary, and headed out the door.  Curious, she traveled again through the trees of the woods to the craft.  In the light, she decided that it wasn’t so scary after all.  It was very shiny, in fact.  The body of the craft had turned to an amber-gold color, just like the sun.  If you didn’t already know it was there, you might even miss it.  The door that the cigarette men came out of was still open.  Jennifer approached it slowly.   After a brief inspection, she peered inside.  It smelled like mud.  “Ewww,” she said as she pinched her nose.

The craft was too high off the ground for her to step up into, so she tossed Beary in first.  “Well, what do you think, Beary?” Jennifer yelled to her teddy bear, “Is it safe in there?”

Jennifer pulled herself up inside the craft next, using mostly her upper body strength, with her legs kicking wildly underneath.  When she got in, Jennifer stood up and saw that it was bigger than it looked on the outside.  Eyeing the room, she suddenly had a great idea forming that made her smile with excitement.  She picked up her teddy bear off of the floor and squeezed it with delight.  “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Beary?” Jennifer asked aloud.

“Yep…I think this will make a perfect playhouse too!”

* * * *

All afternoon Jennifer went from her house to the woods, moving various toys and the like to her new playhouse.  Soon enough, she had made the craft into exactly what she had imagined.  It was perfect.

Jennifer had positioned all of her stuffed animals around a little foam mat that was acting as a dinner table.   Each place setting was carefully decorated with fake plastic food and utensils from her restaurant play set.  As the light outside her playhouse began to fade, Jennifer decided it was time to address her dinner guests.

“Sorry guys, I have to go…my parents will be expecting me home for dinner,” Jennifer said with heavy disappointment, “But I’ll be back later tonight, when everyone goes to sleep.”

* * * *

Nightfall.

And once again, Jennifer traveled out to her new playhouse.  All her toys and dolls and stuffed animals and play sets were just as she had left them.  She smiled in the dark, and propped up her Tinkerbell flashlight in a corner for some light. “Now we can see better,” Jennifer said, as she pushed her glasses up on her nose a bit.

She continued to play into the deep hours of the night, while the crickets chirped and the leaves rustled outside.  She began to feel heavy and slow, for it was way past her bedtime.  And beyond her control, Jennifer soon fell fast asleep.

* * * *

When Jennifer woke up, there was no sound.  The lullaby the woods sang to her had ceased.  No crickets chirping, no rustling leaves, only silence.  Her flashlight battery had run down, and the inside of the craft was blacker than it was outside.   Jennifer started to panic.  She felt her face, and realized that her glasses had been taken off in her sleep.  Looking around in desperation, Jennifer could only make out three smoky grey figures standing over her in the dark.  Her eyes widened with fear.  The cigarette men had returned.  She was scared they might hurt her.  But they only stared at her as she crawled to get up from the grated floor of their craft.  They made low humming noises to each other in a kind of strange foreign melody.  The only features on their grey, bald heads seemed to be their eyes.  They were dark red and bulbous, like round Christmas tree ornaments, Jennifer thought.  She could see her own reflection in their eyes.

She was afraid, but only at first.

“You guys aren’t from Kentucky, are you?” Jennifer asked the cigarette men, as she slowly stood up before them, “You just don’t look the same as the other people here…even the ones who come out for the state fair.”

The cigarette men listened to her quietly as she spoke then continued their low humming noise to each other.

“Do you want to be my friends?” She asked them hopefully, “Can you please help me find my glasses?”

One of the cigarette men held out a mechanical device before her eyes and flashed a light.  It hurt Jennifer’s eyes a little and she winced, but the pain was brief and when it passed it seemed she could see things a lot better than before.  One of the other cigarette men held out her tiny pair of glasses with three long, skinny fingers, and handed them to Jennifer.  “Thank you,” Jennifer said politely.

She put her glasses on for the last time.  Strangely, it made everything look blurry, so she decided that she didn’t need them anymore.  Jennifer had a feeling inside that told her maybe the cigarette men weren’t here to hurt anybody…maybe they came here to help.

“I better go home now,” Jennifer said finally, “Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow…”

The cigarette men made a low humming melody together, but this time, in her mind, Jennifer could somehow understand what they were saying now.

   We will see you again

* * * *

The next day, Jennifer’s mother rolled into her daughter’s room around bedtime.  Locking the brakes on her wheelchair, she looked at her daughter puzzled.  Jennifer was standing at the window, staring out at the woods.  She was not talking or singing, but making a low humming noise.  “What are you doing, sweetie?”

“I’m talking to my new friends,” Jennifer said as she turned around to face her mother, “Come out to the playhouse with me Mommy, they want to meet you…”

AFTERWORDS

As far as the story goes, it came about in a more unusual fashion than others I have written in that while my friend Mark and I were working on a short story collection, we decided to challenge ourselves to be creative by drawing a random topic out of a hat and just go with it.   It was designed to help us think outside our normal comfort zone and be creative in a different direction.  Out of the many topics, ranging from the ridiculous to the expected, I drew out a crumbled ball of paper with one single word written on the inside:  “Aliens.”

So, without allowing any particular idea a gestation period, I got out my laptop, put on my aluminum foil hat (so the aliens couldn’t read my mind, of course) and just started to write.  I think it’s a fun story (I hope) with just the right amount of tension to keep the reader engaged.

If I was ever forced to read one of my stories aloud, I would probably choose this one.

theplayhouse

Fixer

fixer

FIXER

Copyright © 2010 Bruce Thomas

My name is Matthew Astin.  I’ll give you my card.  You may not need it now, but hold on to it.  One day you never know…

You won’t see an advertisement for my services on a billboard.  You won’t hear about me on a radio commercial or find my number in any phonebook.  But I have no trouble finding business, let me assure you.  The Armani suit that I’m wearing, the platinum watch on my wrist, the sleek and evocative car I’m driving…it was all paid for in cash.  Believe me, I always find work.  There are plenty of broken lives out there that need to be fixed.  And I have a knack for detecting when something tragic has happened to someone and left them broken, even when they try their best to mask it.  It’s a weight they carry.

So let me ask you, have you ever made a wrong decision in your life and paid for it ever since?  Ever wonder what your life would be like now if you had made a different choice?

I don’t have to wonder.  I know.  It’s what I do.  When something goes wrong in people’s lives, and I mean really wrong, I tell them to give me a call.  I can fix it for them.  My fee is fifty thousand.  No equivocations.  Don’t waste your time trying to bargain with me, I have no patience for that.

And don’t lose that card I gave you either.  It is your only chance of seeing me again.  Consider it your GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card.

This morning I got a call from a man named Dale Edgecomb.  He’s a postal worker in southern Indiana.  I met him in a grocery store just a few days ago, and we got to talking.  He was a pleasant guy but I could tell he carried a great sadness with him.  So I gave him my card.  I don’t know how he did it, but somehow he managed to scrape together fifty grand.  And that was all I needed to know.

I was already on the road in my Lotus Evora before our phone conversation had even ended.

* * * *

Four years ago, Dale had considered his life blessed.  He had a beautiful wife, two great kids, a nice home and a brand new Chevrolet.  But then something tragic happened in Dale’s life.  There was a winter storm that hit southern Indiana hard, icing everything over inches thick.  Trees sagged and collapsed under the weight of the ice that formed on the branches.  Power lines dipped with heavy icicles.  Over a hundred thousand people were left in the cold without electricity.

On the day the lights had finally come back on in Dale’s house, he decided to take a trip to the grocery store to re-stock the ‘fridge.  He couldn’t stomach another peanut butter and jelly sandwich that he and his family had been living off of since the power went out.  He just wanted a hearty and hot breakfast and there wasn’t a damn thing wrong with that.  But on his way out to his car, Dale’s nine year old son called out to him: Daddy wait!  I want to come with you!

Dale recounted every detail of that morning with brilliant and pain-filled clarity.  I could hear the tears coming through in his voice as he struggled on.  “As soon as little Tom had stepped out onto that icy driveway he…he slipped and went flailing into the air…landing on the hard ice…I remember hearing a strange click-click-click noise…it was his back breaking.”

Poor old Dale had such bright hopes for his son, who loved to play basketball with his dad every chance he could get.  One late afternoon, while shooting hoops in their driveway together, Tom had shared with Dale his dream of being a basketball star when he grew up.  And it warmed Dale’s heart to hear, for he had that very same dream himself.

But now that dream, and every other dream of Tom and Dale’s had been shattered.

And they lay broken on ice.

Turns out little Tom would never walk again.  And over the next four years, Dale’s life almost entirely consisted of caring for and rehabilitation for his son.  His marriage to his wife suffered and crumbled, his daughter felt alienated from her father, medical bills piled up and depression covered Dale like a wet, black blanket.  If only he hadn’t set out of the house that day.  If only he had opted to stay in and eat peanut butter and jelly for just one more day.

   If only.

Tragic, right?  Oh, but don’t worry.  There’s a happy ending for our Dale and his son in this story.

This is where I come in.

* * * *

First, you have to understand that there are billions of Dales and Toms out there.  And no, I don’t mean there are billions of people like Dale and Tom either.  I’m talking about the billions of Dales and Toms that exist in parallel dimensions.  Alternate realities, if you prefer.  There are billions of alternate lives of Dale and Tom, existing in a parallel universe that they don’t even know about.  No-one does.  Except for me.  I can see and travel these parallel dimensions.  It’s my gift.  I can’t see the future, and I can’t travel back in time.  But for fifty grand I can take you to just about any possible reality that you wish.

Somewhere out there is an alternate version of Dale that decided NOT to go to the grocery store that fateful morning four years ago, living an alternate life where little Tom did not slip on the ice and break his back.  He is just a happy, healthy thirteen-year-old now, starting his freshman year and playing for his high school basketball team.  This reality is a much happier place for the Edgecomb family.  And that’s exactly where I’m taking our Dale today.

As soon as I get his money, of course.

* * * *

We agreed to meet at noon, at a café close to Dale’s home.  It was raining hard by the time I pulled into the parking lot.  The sky was dark and the heavy clouds threatened to ruin my brand new Armani suit.  I didn’t linger outside once I stepped out of the car, and I targeted Dale as soon as I stepped into the café.  He was sitting alone in a booth towards the back.  He gave a polite wave and I walked up to his table and sat down across from him.  He watched me silently for a minute and then said, “I brought your money, Mr. Astin.”

Dale slid a check written out to me for fifty thousand dollars across the table.  “Never doubted you would, Mr. Edgecomb,” I said, looking into his desperate eyes.  I could see this was a man who had gotten far too used to disappointment in his life.

I stared at the check for a moment and thought about everything it meant that I had to do if I accepted it.  It would be an even trade.  A deed completely equal in good and evil.  Nothing more, nothing less.  I picked it up and nodded at Dale.  I folded the check and put it inside my Italian leather wallet.  I stuffed it into my back pocket, shifting in my seat as I did so.  Then I returned my gaze to Dale.  “So,” he said apprehensively, “Now what?”

I smiled to him and said, “Now we go fix your mess of a life, Dale.”

* * * *

Dale’s house was only a little further than two miles distance from the café, and he said that he had walked there to meet me.  I guess he needed some time to think.  I offered him a ride home on account of the rain, and on the way the clouds broke in the sky and the sun began to shine through.  Dale was mostly quiet, the disorientation settling in.  He wasn’t even aware that we crossed over into an alternate reality.

I pulled into his driveway and we both sat still for a moment.  The sun was shining brightly now and it had turned out to be a beautiful afternoon.  “Well, here we are Dale,” I said, “I’d better be going, I’ve got some other business to take care of now.”

Dale opened the door and stepped out of my car a little confused, as if he was coming out of anesthesia.  He leaned down to talk to me in the car and said, “Ummm…weren’t you here to fix somethin’ mister?”

“It’s already taken care of Dale,” I said assuredly, “Nothin’ but blue skies for you now buddy.”

Dale turned to his home dazed and then he saw his son running and shooting hoops in their driveway.  Tom was wearing his purple and gold high school basketball jersey, the number thirteen on the back.  The same number Dale had played with when he was in high school.

Dale’s wife was standing at the door.  “Come on Dale, dinner is ready!” she exclaimed, “We gotta hurry up and eat, we don’t wanna be late for Tom’s first game tonight!”

Dale smiled.  All the pain and mental suffering he had endured over the past four years washed away in the sunshine of the late afternoon.  New memories of this reality will almost instantly fill Dale’s head just as clear as if he had experienced them all himself.  He will never remember the other reality.  And if he does, it will only come to him in a bad dream, and he will wake instantly comforted by the realization that it was only a fading nightmare.

And after this day, Dale will never think of me again either.

Tom stopped shooting and walked over to his father.  “I thought you went out for a walk up to the café, Dad,” Tom stated quizzically, with his grimy basketball tucked underneath his arm, “Who’s that guy?”

“I…I don’t know son,” Dale replied in puzzlement.

Tom eyed my shiny car up and down, its candy-paint job shimmering in the sunlight.  “Cool car, man.”

“Thanks dude,” I said, “You guys take care.”

I smiled and waved, as I reversed my car out of their driveway and headed off.  They waved back and in the rear-view mirror I could see a happy father hugging his son and ruffling his hair.  Best fifty grand you ever spent, Dale.  I checked the time on my watch.  Now for the part of the job that isn’t so nice.  I gotta be quick.  Having two versions of a person in the same reality is never a good thing.  Sometimes it can get dangerous.

I pushed my foot down a little harder on the gas pedal.

* * * *

The tires screeched a bit as I bumped and halted into the parking lot.  I got out quickly and went in to find the other Dale sitting in the front of the café, toiling alone with the Sudoku puzzle in the newspaper and sipping a cup of coffee.

You still with me here?

Ok, let me break it down for you.  This Dale has lived in this happy little reality for the past four years.  This is the Dale who never set out for the grocery store that day and his Tom never slipped on the ice.  This is his reality.  Well, not anymore.

There has to be a trade.

I’m gonna try to do this as quickly as possible.  It’s better that way.

“Hello, Mister Edgecomb,” I said as I slid into the seat across from him.

“Excuse me,” he said, looking up from his paper startled, “Who are—”

“No time to explain, you have to come with me right now.  It’s concerning your son.”  A lie, of course.  But it’s the only way I can lure him out of this happy little reality.

“My son?!” Dale said alarmed, “Is he in some kind of trouble?”

“Just come with me, Dale,” I said, trying hard not to sound impatient.

He followed me out of the café and into the parking lot, asking questions left and right about who I was and what this had to do with his son.  I didn’t respond.  I just kept him reeling to buy some time.  “Just get in my car and I’ll explain everything along the way,” I said to him.

He reluctantly got in and closed the door.  As we drove off, the sky darkened above us and heavy clouds began to blot out the sun.

We were crossing over.

Rain pelted lightly against the windshield as I drove fast down the slickened, dirty streets.  Damn.  I just shined the rims on the Lotus this morning.

“Boy this rain really came out of nowhere,” Dale observed, “It’s turning out to be quite an unfriendly day.”

You have no idea how right you are, Dale.  For you, it is going to be a lifetime of unfriendly days now.

   “Look mister, will you please tell me what this is all about,” Dale pleaded impatiently,  “My son has his first basketball game tonight and I—”

“No, he doesn’t,” I stated flatly.

“What are you…” Dale trailed off.  There was a faint sign of recognition that flickered in his eyes, as if something resonated deep inside his mind that he knew to be true, but didn’t want to believe.

“Your son doesn’t play basketball anymore.  There was an accident.  He slipped on some ice in your driveway four years ago and now he can’t walk.  I’m sorry, Dale.”

And then he remembers.  I give him a moment of silence to grieve.  I feel a pang of guilt for taking this version of Dale from his own beautiful reality and dropping him off into this hellish one.  But I just try to focus my thoughts on the cool fifty grand in my wallet and concentrate on finishing the job.

By the time we pulled into his driveway any memory of his sunny reality has all but faded away.  The new reality solidifies in Dale’s mind when he sees the handicap ramp he built up to his front door.  Dale closes his eyes for a moment and faintly sighs, and all of the happiness that he had once known abandoned him forever in a final exhale of breath.

Then he opens the door and steps out of the Lotus.

“Thanks for the ride, mister,” he says, “I better be goin’ in  and checking on my son…wasn’t there somethin’ concerning him you wanted to talk to me about?”

“It’s already been taken care of,” I replied, “Good-bye, Dale.”

He closed the car door and walked up to his home.  There was a depressing sag in his shoulders as he walked.  I turned away from him and pondered for a second.  Before he opened his front door, I pressed the button to roll down the window and shouted, “Hey Dale!”

“Let me give you my card.”

* * * *

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

In all my searching, in all the many different realities that I have seen, I have never found an alternate reality for myself.  Maybe I never will.  Seems I’m singular and destined to do this forever.  It’s the price I pay for this gift, and the punishment for what I do with it.

But hey, a man has gotta make a living, right?

Somewhere out there are billions of alternate versions of you too, branching out from every little decision that you have ever made.  So, if things haven’t worked out for you, and you have fifty grand, you should give me a call.  You got my card.  Somewhere out there is a version of you relaxing on a beach sipping pina coladas right now.

They won’t even see me coming…

 AFTERWORDS

Oh man, did this story hurt ever hurt my brain!  It was very difficult to write, and unlike “Don’t Judge A Book…” and “The Playhouse” (both of which I wrote almost entirely in one sitting) took several drafts and revisions and re-working over a long period of time before I was ever happy with it.

My concept of evil is that while it seems attractive and alluring on the surface, eventually you find out that it’s not very creative and sort of self-replicating underneath.  So in a sense, evil is like the serpent that eats its own tail.  Matthew Astin is not the devil, but he is a man who continually submits to the temptation of evil.  He profits off of others’ pain.

The particularity of the car was always an important detail of the story for me.  I chose the Lotus Evora for two reasons. One, it’s a really cool, expensive car. And two, because the definition of the word ‘lotus’ has kind of a hidden meaning and connection to the story.  It’s a fruit held in Greek legend to cause dreamy contentment and forgetfulness. I wanted it to be clear that while the actual car in the story is not what allows Matthew Astin to travel to an alternate reality, it is the method he chooses to transport his passengers to other realities.  So, much like the definition of lotus, traveling in the Lotus Evora in this story needed to cause dreamy contentment and forgetfulness.  Thanks for reading!

fixerpix

Don’t Judge A Book…

DJAB1001

DON’T JUDGE A BOOK…

Copyright © 2009 Bruce Thomas

He should have been tired, but Tim Lovato was far too excited as he drove to meet Devon.  After all, this was his drug.  It was the only thing that helped him escape from his troubles, and he had been searching for it for a long time.  He had been wanting it even longer.  And tonight, it seemed as though he might actually acquire it.  His brain could barely contain a thought as he pushed down a little harder on the gas pedal.

* * * *

Officers Tucker and Monyhan sat in their patrol cruiser parked outside a gas station, winding down the rest of their shift.  Officer Tucker sipped his coffee, while Officer Monyhan quietly stared out the passenger window.  His coffee sat untouched in the cup holder.  He was still rattled from a domestic disturbance call they had investigated earlier and was afraid the caffeine would further upset his stomach.  An image of a gun barrel being pointed at him flashed in his memory.  He popped two antacids into his mouth and crunched them up as he continued looking out the window.  In the distance he saw a hooded man leaning against a building with his arms folded.  The man was wearing a dark red sweatshirt. Suddenly the voice of his daughter entered his mind and said: Daaaaaaad, it’s not called a sweatshirt anymore, it’s a hoodie! 

Officer Monyhan smiled a bit, but his thoughts remained with the man in the

distance.   He looked like he was waiting for something.

* * * *

Tim whipped his car into the empty parking lot where they had agreed to meet.  A moment of panic attacked him when Devon was nowhere in sight.  Eyes wide open, he scanned the area and for a moment felt a heavy disappointment.  But then he noticed something…movement against the shadowed wall of the building.  It was Devon.  He looked closer and his tension was relieved when he saw a light brown paper bag underneath Devon’s folded arms.

Tim could not hold back his smile.

* * * *

The headlights had lured Officer Tucker away from the love affair he was having with his coffee, towards the same empty lot across the street that Officer Monyhan had been observing.

The empty lot was no longer empty.

“Oh boy,” Officer Tucker said with mild sarcasm, “whadda we got goin’ on over here?”

* * * *

Tim opened his car door and stepped outside.  “Thanks for meeting me here this late, man,” he said as he walked up to Devon, “I really appreciate it.  I would’ve told you to just meet me at my crib, but I didn’t want my family to suspect anything.  You know how they are, always judging you, and I didn’t feel like listening to any of their crap.”

“No problem man,” Devon replied, “I understand.  I gotta hide it from my own friends sometimes.”

* * * *

“Two guys meeting after midnight in an empty lot?” Officer Tucker questioned aloud, “This can’t be good.”

“I just hope it’s not a drug deal,” Officer Monyhan stated with a depressing sag in his words, “I’ve had enough excitement for one night.”

“Are you kidding!?” Officer Tucker responded, “I’m hoping it IS a drug deal!  What if they’re meeting here for sex and we gotta be the ones to break it up!?”

Officer Monyhan forced a smile, but was in no mood for jokes.  All he wanted was to get home, give his wife and daughter a great big hug, and crawl his tired body into bed.  He was through with this night.

But unfortunately, it seemed this night was not through with him just yet…

* * * *

“I see you brought the stuff,” Tim stated with a little apprehension in his voice.

“Yup,” Devon responded, “So we cool on the price we talked about earlier?”

“Absolutely,” replied Tim, “Your price was more than fair.  And besides, I’ve been looking for that $#!% for so long, I’d pay just about anything for it!”

“Cool,” Devon said, “But do me a favor though, keep this little deal between you and me, okay?  I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m a dealer.  I decided to hook you up this one time cuz you sounded like you really needed a fix, and plus I can really use the extra money right now.  But as a general rule, I like to keep most of the stuff for myself, ya dig?”

“I understand,” Tim said with a laugh, as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled wad of cash.

* * * *

“Okay, here we go,” Officer Tucker said to his partner, as he sat up straight in his seat, “We got a brown bag and a money exchange happening between the two suspects.  Is it too late to change my mind and hope it’s NOT a drug deal?”

“I guess we had better be getting over there,” Officer Monyhan said, as he surrendered his hopes of getting home to his family anytime soon, “I’ll call it in.”

* * * *

Tim held the brown bag, almost hugging it with delight, while Devon made a quick count of the cash in his hands.  Tim was about to take his purchase out of the bag when they saw police lights flash on and a patrol cruiser pull into the lot.

“Aw hell,” Devon moaned.

The police car halted about ten feet in front of Tim and Devon.  Red and blue lights flickered around their peripheral vision.  An additional light mounted to the side of the car was shining directly on them.  They both squinted their eyes to shield them from the blinding light, but they would not raise their hands to block it.  Tim was not letting go of his bag, no matter what.  Devon stuffed his cash discreetly into the pockets of his hoodie and kept his hands inside.  He knew if they took his money he would never see it again.

Officers Tucker and Monyhan stepped outside their vehicle to secure the situation.  “What’s going on over here gentlemen?” Officer Tucker asked as democratic as he could sound, “It’s a little late to be doin’ business on private property, dontcha think?”

“Oh no, Officer, you don’t understand,” Tim explained, “This isn’t what it looks like…”

“I need to see some identification from both of you, please,” Officer Tucker requested firmly.

Tim reached his hand into the bag to show it’s contents and clear up any confusion.  A shot of adrenaline pumped into Officer Monyhan’s bloodstream.  He wasn’t aware that his hand had moved and was now hovering above his gun holster.

“Sir, just take your hand out of the bag where I can see it,” Officer Tucker demanded.

“But Officer, if you would just let me sho—”

“No, sir,” Officer Tucker said loudly, “We don’t need you to show us what’s in the bag, we will take the bag and look in it ourselves, just put your hands where I can see them.”

But Tim was insistent in resolving the situation his own way and pulled out what was in the bag.

Officer Monyhan saw a shimmer of light escape from the bag when the suspect took his hand out of it.  An image of a gun again flashed into his mind.  He just wanted to make it home to his wife and daughter.  His heart hammered inside his ribcage as he drew his firearm.  “He’s got a gun!”

Two shots were fired from Officer Monyhan’s smoking gun.

Devon removed his hands from his hoodie, as wads of money fell out of the pockets and onto the wet, dirty pavement.  “Oh, god,” he whispered, as he put both hands on top of his head.

Tim stumbled back two steps and collapsed, the brown bag and it’s contents spilling out on the ground with him.

Officer Tucker’s stomach filled with ice when he walked over to the suspect.  He knelt down beside Tim and looked at what laid a few feet away.

“What is it, Tuck?” Officer Monyhan asked shakily as he walked closer, “What’s wrong?”

Underneath a clear, polypropylene bag that shimmered in the lights of the parking lot, was “the BRAVE and the BOLD” issue #115 starring BATMAN and The ATOM.  The tagline on the cover read: The CORPSE THAT WOULDN’T DIE!

Officer Tucker looked up at the motionless body, closed his eyes and whispered, “If only…”

Officer Tucker stepped away from the scene and into the shadows.

Officer Monyhan stared at what laid before him on the cold ground.  In that moment he wished he could shrink down to the smallest microscopic size possible, just like The Atom, and never be found again.

All he wanted was a cup of coffee.

All he wanted was a little extra cash.

All he wanted was a comic book.

All he wanted was to get home to his family.

But the night was not through with him yet, Officer Monyhan thought.

Oh, how the night was not through with him yet…

AFTERWORDS

Don’t Judge A Book… won 2nd place in the Almost Famous Authors’ Faire Top 30 Short Stories and Poems contest in 2009.  It gave me a lot of positive momentum at the time, and I was very grateful.  Thanks for reading!

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