Stories

The Uncertainty of Being Earnest, by Peter McMillan

#literary #Mental health

Earnest was not your garden variety pessimist. Like his former idol, N., he was not satisfied just complaining. He had to destroy everything he found that was hopeful or good. Hope was an emotion and could not be trusted, and goodness was for the weak who needed directions on how to live. N. had also rejected all religions as variations on the same theme of creating purpose and the evidence to support it. And it wasn’t just the inflamed radicals with deadly political objectives. It was also the ordinary believers who observed Ramadan, Easter, Yom Kippur, Vesak, or Diwali but were otherwise unremarkable. Drawing from a common belief in hope and goodness, they were all misguided.

N.’s problem had been that he was so successful, in his mind, that he lost the fire and enthusiasm that first drove him to demolish these hollow belief systems. Once done, Earnest recalled, N. became bored and turned pessimism against itself. Ironically, N. was converted to his new quest. He constructed his own elaborate philosophy and became guardedly optimistic–hopeful and in tune with goodness. In Earnest’s view, N. had betrayed pessimism.

Earnest vowed to avoid the performative contradictions that had undermined N.’s later philosophy. For that to happen, he had to avoid N.’s mistake of challenging his own beliefs. He had to take as given that critique, destruction and pessimism were the essence of the eternally real. Because it was not belief but instead the very foundation upon which belief was built, it could not be logically removed without self-contradiction. To disconfirm is as much an affirmation as any belief, and pessimism is an attitude towards or belief about something. Yet something persists that is more fundamental than pessimism, and that is doubt. Unlike pessimism, doubt can be infinitely regressed. That was Earnest’s contribution which he felt completed N.’s work.

Theoretical skepticism and practical skepticism were two different things, Earnest discovered. He ended up believing in nothing, not even doubt. He couldn’t be sure that he trusted anything, and so he decided to accept that everything could be confirmed and denied, good and bad, right and wrong, believed and doubted. To live or to die, to love or not to love, to be successful or to fail were equally good and bad. Nothing was fixed. Even his bed might not be his bed, his apartment downtown might not be his apartment and might not even be downtown. Furthermore, nothing was his–not the bicycle, the book collection, the clock on the bedside table, the toothbrush on the bathroom sink. All of these things might not even belong to him. But what was most disturbing was the possibility that his very thoughts were unreal and were not about real things and that they only appeared to be the thoughts of a person who might not even exist.

Earnest felt but stopped thinking. He felt cold, lonely, depressed, and confused, and having no home to go to or identity to fall back on, he wandered the streets and slept where he fell. But this could not last indefinitely, and it didn’t. He was picked up by the police, interrogated, and placed in a psychiatric hospital where thanks to an aggressive chemical intervention regime he discovered a new side of himself–the gullible buffoon.

Cover image: Portrait of Pablo Picasso, by Juan Gris

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Going Home, by Irving Greenfield

The morning came like any other autumnal morning in Ottawa, Canada. The trees outside of Frank Geron’s window offered a palette of dark reds, brilliant yellows, and burnt oranges interlaced with the blacks of limbs and some greens where the leaves of summer hadn’t yet changed to the colors that presaged their deaths.

Frank, a resident of The Valley, an assisted living facility for seniors, decided that day he’d decamp for home, back to New York where he belonged. This decision was not a “spur of the moment” thing. Frank realized The Valley wasn’t going to be the place for him the very first time he saw it from the roadway; even before Thomas, hi son, drove up the U shaped driveway and stopped in front of the door, already opened by a smiling man wearing a black suit, a white shirt and a green tie with small yellow circles on it. The building resembled a small hotel, or perhaps an exclusive country club. From that seminal moment, Frank began to plan his escape. It took him three months to think through all of the details, and convince the staff and the other residents that he was happy in his new surroundings and experienced hardly any trauma as a result of his move from New York to Canada and The Valley. But he was a consummate actor and they were willing to believe whatever he told them because he knew what they wanted to hear.

Frank’s going to live in Canada was an agreement between him and his son if Laura, his wife, predeceased him long before her actual death in late spring. Living close to Thomas provided him with some measure of security with regard to his father’s wellbeing. He would have his meals on time, medical care when he needed it and pleasant surroundings in which to live out the rest of his life. Frank was grateful for his son’s thought-fullness. He was all too aware that sons and daughters abandoned their aging parents to the mercy of strangers or badly managed old age homes that were nothing more than “holding pens” for the aged until death claimed them. But his son’s concern for him didn’t outweigh the reality of the situation in which he placed him. It was the daily routine of the place that finally got to him.

For most of his life, he had been a free-lance author. Time was something he dealt with in his own way. He seldom wore a watch. If he was into what he was writing, he would work at it until he was too exhausted to continue. That was his way and Laura accepted it. “Routine,” he would say, “was good for some people, but he wasn’t one of them.” Life, he maintained, should be full of surprises; so that on Wednesday you didn’t always have meatloaf for dinner. But institutions needed to regiment the lives of those who either worked in them or, like him, were committed to them for having lived long enough to become worrisome to their children.

Since there weren’t any fences or a security kiosk at the entrance to the driveway and the residents were free to walk around the grounds or even to the town, less the a half a mile from The Valley, no one would suspect he’d decamped until lunch when his place at the table he shared with three other residents two women: Sally and Tina, and one man, Gilbert, would be empty. But by that time, he would be on a train bound for Montreal and there he’d switch to the train that would take to the Grand Central Station in New York and cab back to his apartment. Actually, it once had been two apartments: a one bedroom deal and a two bedroom space. But he had the walls removed between them and used what had been the smaller one as his studio. In a rental building, he had been the only one who actually owned his apartment. And as far as he knew, he still owned it because Thomas, who managed his finances, never mentioned anything that remotely suggested selling it or it had been sold.

At breakfast, Frank was his usual smiling self, taking part in the tiresome conversation about the weather and the “gorgeous colors” of the various trees and other botanicals that surrounded The Valley’s building. He never told anyone that he was an author, not even the staff member who had interview him when first arrived… He determinedly hid who and what he had been from the staff and the residents alike. Whatever they knew about his life was a fabrication, even Thomas, who was present at the initial interviews was taken aback when Frank told the interviewer that he was salesman for a toy company for most of his adult life. And when it came to his service record, even though he didn’t serve in the Canadian Army, he never mentioned his service the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War, and the several awards that were given to him for outstanding bravery under enemy fire. None of it was any of their business; besides, when it came time for him to “make his getaway,” the less they knew about him the more difficult it would for them to track him before they became hysterical and phoned his son to notify him that his father had “skipped town,” so to speak.

After breakfast he announced that he intended to walk into town to buy a shaving cream and few other items he needed. Gilbert offered to accompany him. Frank assured that he wasn’t in need of company and that he’d only be away a short time. It was a narrow escape. He had to be at the train station by ten thirty. It was already nine-fifteen. Having walked the distance between The Valley and the train station many times at moderate pace, he knew that he would arrive at the station with fifteen minutes to spare before the train came, time enough to go to the locker where he’d previously secreted a small innocuous blue duffel bag with two changes of underwear, and pair of jeans, two pairs of socks, a sweater and a light jacket. Once he was settled in his old apartment, he would purchase what he needed for the winter. He had several credit cards and eight thousand dollars in cash which he had withdrawn from his own account before moving to Canada.

#

Because he was nervous, his pace was quicker than it had been during his dry runs to the station giving him more time to get his duffel bag out of the locker and then to sit on a wooden bench to wait for the train. The additional time increased his anxiety. Someone from The Valley might walk into the station, recognize him, and that would cause him to abort his escape and come up with the plausible reason for being there with a duffel bag filled with clothing. That possibility had occurred to him before because he gave himself a margin of only four minutes between getting his duffel bag out of the locker and boarding, buying the necessary ticket and the train. But because he’d quickened his pace, he already had purchased his ticket and was forced to wait. The situation caused his heart to race; and though it was cool in the waiting room, he could feel the beads of perspiration slid down his back.

This was his most adventurous undertaking in years. Ordinarily, he lived the quite life of a retiree; something, his son said he deserved. Deserved, he thought ought to be stricken from the language. No one deserved anything as far as he was concerned. Earned was far more to his liking, and even that word didn’t in any manner way or form explain the hours of boredom concealed within it.

He was one of the lucky few, a successful author and screenplay writer who wrote under the pseudonym of Ken White because he eschewed any sort of notoriety, even to avoiding attending the various functions that honored his work lest he betray his real identify. Only his agent, Steven Jarvis knew who he really was. The money he earned put him in the millionaire category. He’d had “a good run” as he told his son when he realized that his time was over, that what Hollywood and the Indies wanted were not in the well of his imagination, and the same condition existed in publishing. The only writing he presently did was to make entries in his journal; and those were, at best, desultory.

#

Frank looked at the large clock on the wall opposite from where he sat. There was still ten minutes to wait before the train arrived assuming it would be on time. Depending on how he defined they could feel excruciatingly longer or shorter. A jet flying at six hundred miles an hour would travel sixty miles, as distance that would be passed the border between Canada and the United States. Or, if he was making love to a woman, not that it was possible anymore and hadn’t been possible years before his wife had died, ten minutes could feel like an exquisite eternity or an ineffable momentary explosion pleasure.

Suddenly Frank smiled; not a big smile, as if his rictus muscles and not his brain remembered the previous time he ran away, made his escape from his family and became “a runaway.” Sixteen and on his own all the way to California. Hitchhiking, riding the rails, working as dishwasher when he ran out of money and sometimes taking a bus when he had the money to do it. So many adventures, being picked up by a woman and her daughter and sleeping with both of them at different times, almost having his head crushed by car. Never knowing or caring what the next day would bring. Returning home three months after he’d left to be ostracized by his sister Roslyn and be called a bum; and was told by his father that he was on his own, he would get nothing from him.

He heard the sound of the train’s horn as it neared the station and was ready to stand and walk to the gate. In a matter of minutes, he would be boarding it and on his way to – – He felt himself tightening up. Every muscle in his body seemed to constrict. Where was he going? Back to New York. What would he do there? What he was doing where he was. But he’d be totally alone. All of his former friends were either dead or living in Florida. He was caught in a sudden frisson of fear.

The train arrived and the gate to the platform was opened.

Frank looked to his right and left, though he didn’t know what he hoped to see. A friendly face maybe. He clutched his small duffel bag to his chest. And then it was over, his body sagged. He sat on the bench again. He felt the tears skid down his cheeks. He was too old, too frail and too frightened to run anywhere. He needed the security that Happy Valley gave him though he hated the place and now he had reason to hate himself and his timidity.

He looked up at the clock on the wall. If he walked quickly he would still be in time for lunch.

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London, by Tom J. Perrin

#realistic

Mark’s morning commute was a pain in the arse, but he had no alternative. Sitting on the full train heading toward the bustling metropolis of London this morning, he rued his show off younger self. Sure, he thought, I have the city job but his bank balance was pitiful, and it would be until he really found his feet at Burke and Bailey. Maybe in a year he could move into the city and never have to take this fucking train again. The forty five minutes weren’t that bad, but when you’re herded into a hunk of moving steel like sheep, pressed up against some other poor schmuck in an expensive looking suit with a briefcase, day after miserable day, it can get pretty annoying. Today he faced a fat balding man who looked just as miserable as he did. Having to run for the train this morning meant he had to stand face to face with this guy all the way into the city. They didn’t even bother with the nicety of small talk, Mark pressed play on his iPod and went into his own world. The fat guy opposite was a little more positive with his morning, and clutched a bent and well-worn paperback in his hand, gripping onto the handrail with the other free hand. How Mark longed to be one of the people in first class, who chose to live outside of London because they could afford to, who commuted through choice rather than financial necessity, and who sat back and watched the world go by and didn’t have to wrinkle their nose against the faint odour of BO floating around one of the three carriages in the Eastern Trainlines 7.47am service into London Euston.
Twelve months max, Mark thought to himself. He’d trade his flat on the outskirts for a flat in the centre. A year of thrifty savings and he’d never had to get this fucking train again. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on the music filling his ears, holding his breath against the stale smell of human sweat drifting into his nostrils.
Sophie had managed to find a seat and sat with her laptop balancing precariously on her knees, nervously looking over her presentation that she due to give that morning. Fenner Pharmaceuticals were on the verge of releasing a new drug into society. This drug would be one of a kind and was designed to help the taker tackle social anxiety. The release of endorphins into the brain as soon as the pill dissolved into the bloodstream created a sense of ease in the brain, a feeling of relaxation would soon overcome the recipient of the drug and all shades of nervousness would be counteracted. They’d tested it on a handful of subjects, and the results had been remarkable, even the shiest of their subjects had been placed in potentially unsettling social situations and excelled.
Sophie was due to pitch to the head of every major chemist in the UK. She was a little nervous but her preparation had been meticulous. She glanced up from her MacBook and noted that the train was crammed full, as it was every morning. She felt for the passengers looking uncomfortable standing but her sympathy only went so far, they should have gotten to the station earlier, and then maybe they would have got a seat, as it was she was backwards facing as the train crept towards Euston.
Malcolm was bloody miserable. He hated these horrible morning shifts when he would ferry the rich into the city, and then steer the empty train back to the outskirts, repeating until 2.30pm when he could go home for the evening. This service wasn’t bad, as people were mainly fine, heading into the city with time to kill. It was the one after this train that would be the pain in the arse, as he’d ferry the stragglers into the city. He hated dealing with those who’d slept through their alarms and would be panicking that they’d be late. There was always one rich cocksucker in a suit who would complain to him as they pulled into Euston just before 9am.
“I’m late now, fuck” they’d always complain. Like Malcolm gave a toss. He’d shrug and close the window to Mr Rolex and his briefcase. One nagging question prodded at Malcolm each and every morning that he was down on the rota for the morning stretch between Grafton and Euston, via the pleasant village of Frampley. How had he ended up here?
The radio crackled in front of him, he picked up the receiver and held it to his ear.
“Mal…Malc…Malcolm, are you there?” A female voiced came through the radio
“Loud and clear Sue, what’s up?”
Sue was at the control box at Euston, directing trains and controlling the flow of traffic in and out of the station. She was a frumpy woman with knockout tits. She and Malcom had gone out once for a date, which had ended back up at her Isleworth apartment. Relations had cooled somewhat between them as word got around of her promiscuity with other train drivers. She was what was known in the train driver’s circles as a smash and dash.
“I… I don’t know… there’s something wrong with the city. Malcom, park up half a mile away from the tunnel, will you?”
He sighed to himself “Ah, fuck, Sue. What am I supposed to tell them?”
“Signalling, until we know more…please”
He noticed the panic in her voice “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Nobody knows yet; just pull up will you… I’ll keep in touch”
The connection was ended with a short crackle of static. Malcolm sighed deeply and picked up the radio that let him communicate with the train. He paused a moment and he started to slow the train on the approach to Euston, the yellowish tint to the city that had first looked mesmerising now looked sinister to him.
“Ladies and Gentleman, this is your driver speaking, I am afraid…”
###
The vast crowds milling around London’s plush streets were all frozen to the spot and looking up at the sky. They stared stunned at the ever expanding spectre of darkness overcoming the translucent morning sky. Some were confused, some expressed fear in hushed tones as if talking to themselves and some conferred with others when normally they would walk straight on by.
For those already in the expansive offices that made up Canary Wharf, they all stood transfixed at the open windows, looking at the clouds as they rolled in. It was a mist drifting in off of the Thames that caught their attention. Only it seemed like it was engulfing everything in its path. Not only was in slow rolling in off of the water, it was approaching airborne from all directions, slowly but surely. The glass façade of Canary Wharf was slowly filled with blinking faces looking out over the metropolis.
Traffic was at a standstill. Only a handful of disconcerted people carried on with their daily routine and pushed through the crowds. Some even took advantage of the standstill traffic and navigated through the stationary cars. The lone cyclist going about his business was cycling frantically, as if he were outrunning something.
If you were unlucky enough to be on the tube that morning, you wouldn’t have known what was going on above ground. You would have been totally in the dark as to why the city above had come to a standstill. All the services were halted across the city, wherever they were, the darkness that engulfed morning commuters created an eerie sense of confusion in the steel tube trains. The electricity still hummed all around them, but nothing moved and nobody spoke. The tannoy announcement had spoken of signalling problems, and promised constant updates on the situation.
It had been a smokescreen of course; there were no updates to give, because nobody knew what was happening to the city.
London stood still, watching, waiting, and wondering.
###
The clouds that were rolling towards the city centre had enveloped Brentford and the outer districts of London when the Boeing 747 made its final approach towards Heathrow. The pilot saw the clouds from a far and radioed into air traffic control, but got no response. He radioed into the control centre again, and the same static crackling that had greeted him minutes ago met him again. It was time to put his training into action, and bring this bird down safely on the ground. The coordinates were locked. His co-pilot looked worried, he was new to the job and together so far they’d only flown in perfect conditions.
“Hey” Captain Rogers put his hand on Blake’s shoulder “It’s only a bit of cloud, buddy, don’t worry”

Those were the last words they ever spoke between them.

Mary Baggerly lived a stone’s throw from the major landing path for the new T5 terminal. She, along with other residents, protested vehemently against it, but eventually she got squashed like the insignificant little bug she felt up against the government. She heard the plane approaching from the north east, and craned her neck for a look out of her front window.
That morning she couldn’t the plane as it descended into the strange low hanging clouds. As soon as it hit the clouds, the noise dwindled down, and as the back end of the plane entered the cloud, the noise stopped all together. The plane disappeared into the cloud, but never came out, it… it… simply disappeared into the smog and never came back out. She cranked up her hearing aids in her ears, and instantly turned them back down, as she craned a well-tuned ear to the clouds, expecting engine roar, she heard screams, screams which pierced her to her very soul. She ran out of the house and out into the clouds.
She dropped dead on her front step.
###
“It’s been forty-five fucking minutes, what is going on?” An angry voiced called out over the hush of the carriage Sophie found herself sat in that Monday morning. A wall of silence met the voice, who, clearly annoyed that nobody had joined the chorus, continued. “I was meant to be in a fucking meeting ten minutes ago, fuuuuck. Let me through, I’m going to talk to the driver.” He started to push through the stationary crowd crammed inside the carriage that stood still on the tracks. People were content to let him through rather than point out that they were all late, that they were all stuck, and that they were all annoyed, they just weren’t being an obnoxious moron about it.
Sophie looked out of her window, staring into the concrete jungle that stood on the approach into London. Backwards facing, she couldn’t see the city, she could only make out its reflection in the guy’s glasses who sat in front of her, eyes fixed on the city. She was just as annoyed as the guy who was no doubt banging on the driver’s door and f’ing and blinding for no reason. She’d called her boss, who, in a confused state had told her that some kind of rolling fog was slowly engulfing the city, and that it had brought the usual bustling streets to a complete standstill. As it happened, the heads of the companies she would be presenting to were also stuck in traffic. So really, there was nothing to worry about. They were all up the same shit filled creek with the same paddle.
“What can you see?” She asked specs in the seat opposite
“I… I… don’t know” The sweat seeping through is shirt meant that he was either worried, or didn’t talk to women very often. He shuffled backwards into his seat, lifting his legs up into his chest “Have a look yourself”
Sophie did. She didn’t like what she saw.
###
The mist had fully enveloped London now. As it rolled in the people who were on the streets dove for open shop windows, they crowded down into subway stations, and generally took every single bit of evasive action that they possibly could to get out of the way. One pre-adolescent on his way to college decided to jump into the Thames to get away from the fog, but he never made it to the water. The mist spat out an arm and caught him. Anyone else who had the misfortune to be taken by the fog did so with their hands firmly clamped over their ears, trying to stifle the screaming sounds coming from the vapour.
Then it started to rain.
It instantly began to dissolve everything that it fell on, tops of buildings, cars, and the pavement below, and human flesh. The unwitting cyclist who had weaved through the traffic made it as far as Tower Bridge before the rain got him, ripping through his flesh. Until it reached his legs, he cycled on, his top half slowly dissolving, becoming a grinning spectacle of half man, half skeleton. As he splashed through a puddle the front tire gave out and he crashed down into the quickly forming puddles of rain, and he slowly dissolved away, bringing the nose wrinkling smell of rotting corpse to the air.

The rain ate through pavements, cars falling into the sewers below. The underground network was exposed like roots of a tooth after years of slow decay; cars fell onto the stationary trains, bringing with them splashes of acid that instantly tore through the roofs of the trains, rendering the people inside dead instantly, if not from the crush then from the rain soaking them. Buses ran over cars in a panic, pulverising those inside. Building were dissolving, crumbling and starting to decay.
The rain fell like an incessant monsoon for the next few minutes, eating through everything in its path. Then it stopped. Sophie had swapped seats with the guy in glasses and now sat looking into the dark nebula of the fog, imagining the rain reducing London to a slippery mess. She’d not brought her umbrella today.

Then the clouds exploded.

###
“What the…?” Sophie muttered to herself, she put her hand out of the window to catch some of the colourful rain that had just started to fall onto the train; she quickly withdrew hare hand back into the carriage, her eyes widened at the sight of the flesh disappearing rapidly, showing bone in seconds.
“CLOSE THE FUCKING WINDOWS” someone shouted, and clambered over her, knocking her unconscious as their knee connected with the side of her bowed head.
The rain fell on the train, and then quickly blew in through the open windows, dissolving flesh, creating widespread panic as people tried to flee. Some naively tried to shelter themselves with briefcases, newspapers. Some desperate people even grabbed fellow commuters and tried to use them as shields.
The screams reverberated around the train, as the engine started up and the train was quickly thrown into reverse.
The screams were now joined by the dull roar of the engine, the rain hadn’t reached the undercarriage just yet, but the screams had reached the driver, who stared transfixed at the spectre of doom befalling the city he called home.
And those screams, he could hear them in his soul.
###
London imploded.
Buildings collapsed on their foundations, shop windows blew out, taking the people inside with them, throwing out a shower of glass and bodies into the fog.
The Thames burst its barriers, creating a tsunami effect in all directions, the rapidly gushing water engulfing rubble, cars, bodies and absolutely everything else in its path.
The resulting mushroom cloud that stood over London was pulsing, like a beating heart working overtime to pump blood around the body.

It exploded again, shooting arms of vapours out in all directions; it was fast, and it spread rapidly outside of the city itself, shooting off into the countryside, out over the sea towards France and up the motorways towards the rest of the country.

The train was hurtling now, going in reverse as fast as it could.
Malcolm still clutched his one ear that hadn’t been dissolved off, trying to drown out the screams.

The fog was chasing the train
It was chasing him,
And it was screaming.
Malcolm crouched down underneath the control panel, the train growling uncontrollably into the countryside.
Malcolm prayed, but it was no use.
He knew the fog was faster.

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A Child’s Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas

One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner now, out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

All the Christmases roll down towards the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0701261h.html

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Green Town, by Michael Fontana

#fantasy #shortstories

Inside the Green Town saloon I stood four-foot-six. I wore a gray hat, purple shirt, dungarees, and boots etched in both gray and purple. My hair was long and brown and hung down into my eyes. I carried both a pistol and a whip.

I had arrived in town on a stagecoach which ought to have been robbed along its trail but instead wound unmolested through the cacti and sand of the region, bearing its currency to Green Town, where the murderers dwelled. I had no logical purpose in this world, shifting from town to town as a bootblack, sitting outside of general stores with my rags and kit to clean the dust off of shoes which belonged to better men than me.

I had heard tell of the murderers in Green Town, but that was actually more of an allure than a dissuasion. Didn’t murderers need their shoes cleaned as well? Perhaps I could even run amongst them; they might take me on as an apprentice, or a sideshow, or a mascot, depending upon their collective demeanor.

So, counter to this outlaw atmosphere, I toasted my new drifter friends inside the saloon with a glass of champagne (which was in itself suspicious). No one of any manhood drank such a concoction. The saloon wouldn’t have carried it chilled at all, except for the brothel upstairs and the occasional out-of-town lush on a spending spree of gold looking for just the right trigger to inebriate his whore-to-be.

I stood staring through my flute of champagne at the murderers who sweated behind the broken windows as they took their aim. Few of the citizens made to move outdoors because they knew the consequence. I didn’t care. I was young enough to still consider myself impervious to bullets. Besides, I was just a mellow bootblack and a dwarf, not to be considered a threat to their manhood.

So I stepped outside. The dust swirled serpentine around my ankles. I shouted “Shoeshine, shoeshine,” into the blazing sun.

The murderers trained their eyes on me but didn’t open fire because I spun around in circles like a lunatic, mimicking the vultures overhead. The murderers seemed to find this amusing; one of them even shouted at me, “Get back inside, you damned fool!”

But I yipped and yimmied like to make no consequence of his words. He then actually came outside. He was a gray man: gray hair, gray beard, bolo tie and white shirt, also dungarees and dirty black boots. Much taller than me, he had his pistol trained on my abdomen. I danced a little jig for him and this made him laugh and shoot his pistol into the dirt near my feet.

“Dance you cretin, dance,” he said.

And dance I did until at some point I clapped my hands together then clapped them on my hips. Soon he picked up the cadence. I could hear the laughter of the other murderers inside at such a spectacle until on one of the claps to my hip I removed the whip and let it unfurl with a lash to his wrist, snapping the gun to the ground. When I drew my own it was exquisite, the immediate pop of the bullet into his throat where his laughter ceased and he bunched up into a puddle of human waste.

The murderers stopped laughing, but by this time my vision had broken into that of a fly’s: a million different filaments and lenses, each capable of containing one murderer apiece and slowing their motions down to second-by-second speed. Quickly I ducked behind a rain barrel on the opposite side of the street. They opened fire and punctured the barrel, but the bullets slowed with the wall of rainwater inside and so nothing injured me, just a scratch here and there.

However, my bullets didn’t halt and I knew that one struck another murderer inside because I could hear the collective gasp, could hear the thud of the body to the ground. This emboldened me to run across the street to just beneath their window and then hurtle myself through it. It was beautiful to land among them and catch the fear in their eyes as they scattered rather than battled. All murderers are cowards at heart. They wish to eliminate other lives in lieu of their own. It is a projection of suicide.

So I gave them what they craved by unloading my weapon into them until the walls were decorated red and all the breathing in the room had stopped. From there it was simple enough to walk back out into the baking heat and conduct another jig along the street back into the saloon where the inmates sat gawking over their whiskies at what they had just witnessed. I drank the remainder of my champagne and then rolled upstairs for other pleasures due me for my conquest and my youthful invincibility and my stature which had suddenly grown elevated in Green Town.

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Amboy, by Tom J. Perrin

#horror #thriller

‘You going to Vegas?’ the pump attendant asked Mike.

‘Yes, sir, I am,’ Mike replied.

‘Fuck the sir, name’s Earl. I know a quicker route to Vegas from here.’

Earl of Earl’s Gas Station wore overalls, had huge hands and arms, teeth that were yellowing and a scarred face.

‘Okay…’

‘Take the 15 as far as Barstow; take the road that runs alongside the 40. Take the 66 until you find the 95 and then Vegas is a straight shot from there.’

Mike was skeptical. ‘Is it quicker than the highway?’

‘As the crow flies, no, but it’ll beat the traffic going to Vegas. …You’re not from round here, are you?’

‘I’m from Colorado originally.’

‘Take my advice, mountain boy; it’ll save you time. Card or cash?’

‘Card.’

‘Call it a round 70 then.’ The display showed $66.94. ‘I round up, you got a problem with that?’

‘Nope.’

He didn’t look like the kind of guy you’d like to have a problem with. Mike was just about to leave when there was a curt rasp on the window. Evidently the clerk had followed him out.

‘Take my advice mountain boy—you’ll be with your mountain friends before you know it.’

‘I will, thanks.’ Mike sped off, glad to be getting away.

Sitting in traffic approaching Barstow, the journey had already quadrupled in time. A banker based in Pasadena, Mike had done well for himself despite a tough upbringing. Losing his parents in a car crash at the age of 7, he had moved to LA to live with his grandparents. 24 years later, they were both dead and Mike was alone in the world. He considered Earl’s advice as he approached Barstow. He saw the road just off the 40, it was empty as far as the eye could see, not surprisingly. It went through the vacant desert for miles and miles. Swerving into the empty exit lane, Mike steered the Expo off the highway, silently cursing the traffic he was leaving behind.

The road ran smoothly alongside the Needles freeway until the sparsely populated town of Ludlow. A veer to the right took Mike away from the comforting lights of the freeway and into the darkness. There was nothing for miles; the vacant desert offered no evident directional signs. Not even tumbleweed offered the comfort of a stereotype. Phone signal was redundant out here, Mike was well and truly alone, trapped inside his Expedition and heading headfirst into a nothingness which quite frankly terrified him. The gas light had started glowing a few miles back, offering a dim bolt of light in the darkness. It seemed to scream YOU’RE FUCKED. He couldn’t believe he was out of gas already—he had had the tank filled at Earl’s, or so he thought. He knew there was something off about that place.

The headlights flashed the sign for Amboy, and for a split second he thought he saw somebody leaning on the sign. Mike pivoted in his seat to try and get a look back. The Expo bumped over something in the road and veered violently, and Mike was shocked into taking evasive action to stop the car from tipping over. Having managed to avoid tipping, Mike screeched beside a pump at Roy’s Motel and Café. Getting out he noticed that his front tyre had been punctured by something and was deflating, as were the other three. He walked back into the road and noticed the spike track lying across the road. Mike was suddenly terrified. There was nothing here but one lone building to offer Mike some home.

Rattling the door to Roy’s cafe, he found that it was padlocked shut. A closed until further notice sign clattered against the dusty front door. The only lights in this desert wasteland came from the headlights from his Expo; Mike was well and truly alone.

It wasn’t more than an hour before there were lights approaching Amboy, from the same direction as Mike. He’d locked himself in his car not long after finding the café locked up. The car—or truck, Mike couldn’t tell—made a perfect approach into the dusty parking lot across from the café. Where were the spikes? Mike thought. A cold shiver traveled down his spine.

Mike approached the car. He noticed the Earl’s Garage decal plastered across the side. The door opened. Earl got out of the driver’s side, smiling his yellow smile.

‘You need some help, mountain boy?’ There was something in his right hand.

It was then that Mike was struck from behind.

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John Lennon by Deana Morton

#john lennon #new york #realistic

“John Lennon is out cold,” Gabe said, pointing to table three with a cappuccino in his right hand.

“I hope he fucking dies.” He paused and then added, “I guess I don’t really mean that.”

The cafe was packed with the lunch rush. It seemed like everyone inside the place was trying to catch a glimpse of John Lennon who was sitting upright in his chair with his eyes closed and his head tilted forward, his chin almost touching his chest. I walked over to his table and saw a couple of fresh track marks up the side of his right arm that were unseen by those inside of the cafe.

“Should I call an ambulance?” someone shouted from the other side of the room.

%

At the time, I was working French cafe in Chelsea living as a struggling writer in Brooklyn. My creativity had fallen by the wayside, replaced with anger, frustration and self-pity as I waited tables, serving New York City’s elite. The cafe was a meetup for actors, famous artists, fashion editors and literary heavy hitters.

On Wednesdays, I worked the breakfast/lunch shift with Gabe who had moved to New York City from Alabama with high hopes of being a playwright. We bonded over our self-loathing, lack of success and hatred of each customer that walked into the cafe.

That particular Wednesday, I arrived forty minutes before the cafe opened to find Hank Williams blasting over the speakers of the dimly lit cafe. The green and white armless bistro chairs were still stacked on the tables and the place felt cold and empty. I knew that Gabe was in the back room squeezing lemons for our famous “fresh squeezed lemonade.” The wait staff took the lemon juice, mixed it with tap water, added a piece of mint and charged patrons $4.50.

When I heard Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin,” I knew that Gabe was either hung over, in a terrible mood or both. I dropped my coat by the cash register and opened the door to the tiny back room. Gabe stood wedged between four cases of tomatoes and a stack of frozen chocolate mousses. He looked like a giant amongst the towers of food hunched over, gritting his teeth as he placed the lemons in the juicer.

“Morning.”

Gabe looked up with a split lip. “Hey.”

“Rough night?”

“Ain’t it always rough in the city in February?”

“I guess,” I huffed, grabbing a couple gallons of milk out of the back fridge.

I retreated to the front of the cafe, put the milk in a large tray that Gabe had already filled with ice, counted the cash, stocked the napkins and made myself a shot of espresso. Gabe opened the door to the back room with gusto. “The lemon juice is done. I wonder if the customers would notice if I added some piss to it.”

I was unsure if he was serious or not so I continued what I was doing. He handed me the large plastic container filled with juice and started to take the chairs off the table.

“Fleetwood Mac?” I asked, flipping through the list of my once beloved albums on my iPod that had all been tainted by their association with the cafe.

“Tom Waits’ Closing Time. On repeat. The whole shift,” he insisted.

I clicked on the album as Waits’ piano rang through the speakers.

“Here we go,” I said, opening the front door as Gabe cracked his knuckles. The storm of regulars entered the cafe, simultaneously removing their jackets and hats.

Thirty minutes later, the place was packed. Two old ladies complained about the music. “It’s too loud!” one cried, pointing to the speaker above them. I shrugged my shoulders with a half-assed apology and lied, “The speakers are broken. There’s only one volume level.”

“Can I speak to the owner?” The other lady yelled looking over my shoulder at Gabe. I hadn’t seen the owner of the cafe in months, which was one of the best things about working there. We were our own bosses.

I sauntered over to Gabe. “Go pretend you’re the owner at table eight.”

He squinted his eyes and nodded his head. “No problem.”

After talking to Gabe, the ladies got up and walked out the front door without ordering.

“What a bunch of angry old hags,” Gabe uttered, joining me at the espresso machine. I knew without asking that he too had refused to turn down the music.

Two hours later, another regular strolled in. He was the one we all called John Lennon because he once wore the iconic navy and white ring tee with the words NEW YORK CITY on the front and a pair of wire framed glasses with tinted lenses. John Lennon was about my age and lived in a huge loft in the neighborhood where he made leather pants for celebrities like Madonna, Lenny Kravitz and Sheryl Crow.

John Lennon had curly black hair, square chin, high cheekbones and pouty lips. He was always wearing leather pants, a ratty t-shirt and black prayer beads around both wrists and today was no exception. He sat down at table three and placed his feet on the chair in front of him and leaned back like he was sitting poolside on a chaise lounge.

“I’ll take this asshole,” Gabe snarled.

“I think I can handle it,” I spoke, regretting my words as soon as they flew out of my mouth.

I walked over to his table and stood in front of John Lennon with my hands on my hips. “What’ll it be today?”

He smelled like cigarettes and Nag Champa and he was picking at his right thumb. He looked up at me like I was interrupting something important. “I want the soup du jour and it has to be hot. I mean really hot, okay?” He smiled at me with a piece of tobacco wedged between his front teeth. I started to walk away from him as he yelled, “And a cappuccino. Skim milk. Extra foam!”

I sulked over to the espresso machine. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of his cappuccino,” Gabe said, as if making his drink would break me.

After serving a German lesbian couple with matching red glasses, Gabe pulled me over to the cash register. “John Lennon is out cold,” he said.

%

I took John Lennon’s brown fur coat on the chair beside him and draped it over his chest like a blanket. It was the most maternal thing I had done since I arrived in New York. I raised my arms and turned around to face the customers and made an announcement. “He told me he might take a nap,” I lied.

This reassurance caused everyone to go back to what they were doing. People asked for the check, the German lesbian couple waved their arms to get my attention and two crepes appeared in the kitchen window waiting to be served.

Gabe leaned against the cash register sipping John Lennon’s cappuccino. “I made this with heavy cream instead of skim milk,” he stated flatly. “I want to throw it in his face.”

“I think he nodded off,” I whispered to Gabe, tapping a vein on the inner crook of my elbow. He shrugged his shoulders, grabbed an almond croissant covered in powdered sugar out of the display case and shoved it into his mouth. He then took a small bottle of Kahlua out of his back pocket, poured it into the cappuccino and finished the drink.

“Money can buy you an apartment in Chelsea but it can’t buy you a bed to nod off in.” Gabe shook his head almost taken back by his new found wisdom.

“I’m too tired to deal with this,” I said.

“Me too,” Gabe said pouring red wine into a coffee cup that he would keep next to the cash register. He held up the bottle and raised his eyebrows in a gesture to pour me a glass.

I shook my head.

Several customers started to come up to us asking us about John Lennon passed out at his table. Gabe and I took turns making up lies ranging from sleep to a new meditation trend to performance art. We said the last one to most of the art enthused tourists that had stopped in for coffee between galleries. I even took a picture of two Japanese college girls who held up peace signs while squatting on either side of him.

Thirty minutes before our shift ended, the restaurant was practically empty. I found myself studying John Lennon, who was still slumped over in his chair. I noticed the scuff marks on the tip of his black cowboy boots, how the zipper of his black leather pants was almost halfway down and the inch long scar on his right cheekbone. He seemed almost angelical with the sun gleaming off of his face and all I could think of is that even as a drug addict, John Lennon would be more successful than I ever would be. I went over to the table and took his fur coat and lifted it up over him again as his cell phone fell onto the floor with a crash. I froze, waiting for him to wake up. He stirred but continued to sleep.

I grabbed the phone and ran back to the cash register. There were several missed texts and phone calls on the screen. I clicked on the first text from someone named Patrick. dude where r u? got the dopest shit ever. u got to try.

Gabe glanced over my shoulder with an unlit cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

I typed, fuck off and leave me alone, and pressed send. Gabe grabbed his stomach and started to roar with laughter. I chuckled uncomfortably thinking about the time I vandalized the side of a school with a sharpie marker when I was twelve. I knew it was wrong but I did it anyway. “Maybe Patrick’s his drug dealer,” I remarked, trying to rationalize my actions. “Telling him to fuck off might save John Lennon’s life.”

I clicked on another set of texts from someone named Mandy. Keith Richards is in the city and wants to meet with you today. You need to call me back ASAP!

“Gimme.” Gabe reached for the phone, placing the cigarette behind his right ear.

I watched him type, tell keith he can blow me, and press send.

“Ok, I think that’s enough.”

I took the phone and placed it in my apron.

Gabe started to pour more wine into his coffee cup. “I’m takin’ a smoke break.”

Someone entered the cafe and ordered an English Breakfast tea to go as Tom Waits began to sing, “Lonely. Lonely. Lonely.” I placed my left hand on the phone in my apron and rubbed my thumb over the screen.

Another waitress walked into the cafe brushing snowflakes off of her hair signalling the end of my shift. “What’s up with John Lennon?” she asked, taking off her black pea coat.

All of a sudden, John Lennon opened his eyes and sheepishly looked around the empty restaurant, touching his right thumb on the corner of his mouth. He put his arms through the sleeves of his fur coat with a little shiver. I took a deep breath and walked over to his table. He looked directly into my eyes and tucked his curly hair behind his ear as his cell phone buzzed against my thigh.

Folding his arms over his chest, he yelled, “Where’s my soup?”

That night I sat alone on my unmade bed in my studio apartment listening to Reggaeton seeping through the walls from my neighbor’s apartment. I watched texts and phone calls file into John Lennon’s phone one by one. I went through his contacts recognizing names of people I only read about in the New York Times and Rolling Stone Magazine. There were even two texts and a voice message from him stating that he needed his phone back offering a $800 reward, “No questions asked.”

At around 10pm, I shoved his phone into the pocket of my coat and retreated down the stairs to go for a walk. Two blocks away from my apartment, a homeless man in a threadbare sweatshirt asked me for “some kindness.” I placed John Lennon’s phone in his calloused palm and gestured for him to take it. He began to thank me profusely, spit flying out of his mouth and onto my shoulder. Pulling my hood over my head, I continued down the snow covered avenue trying to convince myself that I was still a good person.

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The Stuffed Birds of Paradise by Marta Knudson

Heidi Lindberg passed away in a pond on Thursday, August 16th. She was a day short of turning seventy-nine. Heidi’s husband, George, preceded her in death. She has left us with her dog, Dot, and hearts heavier than stone. Heidi was best known for her warm smile and Japanese garden.
As sad as it is, the nature of her death possesses a teaching lesson. I shall quote one of my favorite quotes: “A society should never become like a pond with stagnant water, without movement.” Mikhail Gorbachev. Heidi brought movement to life like she brought movement to the pond. The world of taxidermy would not be the same without her contributions.
I first met Heidi at the Spring 1998 Lindberg Collection Show: the most diverse and unusual collection of its type. They had extraordinary displays, didn’t they? I kept forgetting that I wasn’t exploring a rainforest. I contacted the Lindbergs immediately following my tour. Heidi was delighted at my idea to create a book about the birds. George was not, but she persuaded him with her ladylike charm. I think that says so much about her character; she was always concerned with the public’s well being. She was a rare bird, so to speak. Well, the Lindbergs and I became great friends while I worked away on my book, and I got to know Heidi as a mother, almost.
Of course it was utterly heart-wrenching to watch Heidi gradually deteriorate after George’s death, as I’m sure it was for the rest of you. As I said, I cared for her interests deeply. She became forgetful, nonsensical, and simply confused. We hear about this happening all the time in old age, but that can’t prepare you for when someone you love is affected. Heidi remained the generous woman she always was, but sometimes she was too generous. I’m not so sure she fully realized what was happening outside her Japanese garden. She no longer considered her birds “precious” like she used to. How can I put this? The Lindberg Collection is my entire life’s work—my child—I cannot describe dreadful pain I felt as she tried to rip it from me. At least she died never knowing the hurt she’d caused. I hope you can forgive her like I did. Although our relationship took a bitter turn toward the end, Heidi was one of my closest friends and I’ll remember her fondly. All is well. We are unbelievably fortunate that the collection is still available to the public and I will ensure that it stays that way.
Now, back to Heidi, a lady of honest wit. Like a rock thrown into a pond, her laugh rippled onto anyone around her. I recall a luncheon with her a few weeks following George’s death, actually on George’s eighty-first birthday. I asked her how they would’ve celebrated. Heidi started giggling, saying she couldn’t imagine George blowing out all eighty-one candles and that he would’ve died trying! She teased about how his red face would huff and puff and huff and at some point, he’d just fall face first into his cake, dead! The way she could laugh during such a sad time…what a good, happy person she was. I will miss her like my mother. Won’t we all? We will all miss you Heidi. Thank you for gracing us with your presence—your humor, your humanity, and all those colorful feathers.
It is with great honor, but a broken heart, that I dedicate my entire collection to George and Heidi Lindberg. Thank you, and I leave you all with this quote by Robert Lynd: “In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.” Heidi, I wish you many birds to wonder at in your eternal silence.

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