Day 5 of Thrilling Fiction: Of Dystopian Futures and Missing Pieces

Greetings, fellow Fridaylings! On my part, another week survived (I think), although I did have a fascinating chat-visit from a couple ladies with the Jehovah’s Witnesses this week. They were polite, but I didn’t realize that “the kingdom” was that nigh. Yeesh; I better start writing that book as I’ll be getting burned off the face of the Earth here shortly.

Anyway, to get on task, these five days have been like clearing a 50-inch hurdle for a 65-inch woman with the raw vertical jumping ability of, say, a Spanish slug. I am in utter awe and stupefaction how some bloggers are so prolific. For instance, poet Bob Okaji, with his 30/30 Project (from August) to benefit poetry publisher Tupelo Press (here). Then again, I follow several of you big-time bloggers who could nearly put Scheherazade to shame with your dedication.

In any case, back at the Frightful Fiction Ranch, today’s sacrificial offering: it’s a bit longish (sorry, I did, er, chop it down some, but it could use more now that I re-re-re-read it). Comments, critiques, patronage, Indulgences, loving hates, helloes, hems, haws, hollers, and haw-haws always taken into consideration. 🙂


Disarmed and Dangerously Perturbed

GENRE(S): Futuristic science fiction/dystopian, cli-fi

What can I say in my defense? I’m wired for sloppy, stupid humor. In fact, my therapist and I can’t help but giggle about my propensity toward the scatological—as in, “I should do this” and “I never should have done that.” Pretty soon, and I’m shoulding all over the place.

Anyway, there was this one extraordinary day at work. It started off a good day. I am a worker drone at . . . well, let’s just say an extraordinarily wealthy global prosthetics factory on the coast of Atlanta. We’ve been in the Fortune 50,000 ten months’ running. We’d just received a rush order from Guinea-Bissau for 22,500 specialized hybrid noses to assist with breathing in a drastically changed climate.

Prosthetic foot, circa 2015

Even here in the ‘dark ages’ of 2015, prosthetics are ultra-realistic and, to be serious, they provide a good service to human beings who need them. Wow, the detail by this company!

Now, before you picture lathes and fine-grit sandpaper and rabbets’ edges humping one another on work benches, I should explain. For the most part it was take your one productivity tablet in the morning, set the program running, and call me in the mid-afternoon. Sometimes I could even sneak off to the break room with the VR glove if I thought the bot was patrolling a different section of the building. Her routines were semi-predictable that way. You only had to have hands and arms—fingers especially if you boiled it right down to it—and a little training—to sustain in this line of work.

So, there I was. I swirled my index finger in the correct ZX pattern to unlock the tablet. The proprietary software, Hands-On, which I (and probably others) nicknamed Hans, kicked in, greeting me with an affected accent of some kind, “Hell-o, Mai-ster Bhandgaresheek,” bonking only on the Mister part. It didn’t give two damns whether I identified as a male or not. That is to say, its workforce diversity protocols were dusty. At best.

I began my day running a program to assist in nose-making. For all the silliness you could make of my profession, it was secure: there was no shortage of work, especially for countries affected by what the old-timers had called climate change or those afflicted with the persistent twin gonorrheas of war and hatred.

Mijj was looking over my shoulder a lot, which was to be expected. I was teaching her how to use the software so she could become a limb designer sometime in the next decade or two. Then I could retire at 92 like everybody else in the global economy. Yet I’d put enough away . . . hell, maybe even at 84 or so I could tell this place to sod off.

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Day 4 of Thrilling Fiction: The Tilted Trope

A little bit of slipstream, I guess you’d say, here on Day 4 of Thrilling Fiction. Perhaps a touch cosmic and Lovecraftian here, a bit “bad women” trope-y there, and yet eine kleine science fiction-y over there. But you be the judge. I put most of this story together today from a cutting room-floor scrap, on the fly as it were (ha!), so do let me know if you think this skirts too close to any of the boring old tropes.

The Wrong Half-Halictid

Julian was ecstatic.

Katie, his hot, honey-pot of a study-group partner for Women’s Studies class, had finally shared her number with him. Specifically, it was a “well, I suppose so” when he’d asked, but he would take that for an affirmative.

As far as the class, he’d only admit he was in it if forced to—such as, for a strategic advantage. It’s a bae-magnet class, he’d gladly brag to the bros he knew if he thought it would elevate him in their opinions.

They’d exchanged a few texts before he’d formally asked her to hang out, mostly of the “hi, watcha up to today?” variety. She texted she enjoyed reading mysteries and thrillers, volleyball, Sudoku, chemistry, and Romantic poetry by Keats and Shelley. She said she might pursue a degree in microbiology. Never having heard of the Romantics, Julian fibbed: “Luv me sum rmntk poems! Roses r rd, IM blue, I think ur sugar and I need u.” She thought that perhaps he was being satirical in a side-wink, in-the-know kind of way. Being curious about human nature, she said yes to the first date.

He was meeting her Tuesday afternoon outside the university garden entrance, where a stone worthy of Sisyphus’ struggles was tattooed by seventy-odd years of frat-fiti exhorting a pledge to this group or that. Then he figured they’d stroll over to the Eagle Grille and let the evening swell from there.

The die was cast.

****

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Is Paradise Regained? Find out in Jack Flacco’s New Zombie Novel

Ranger Martin and the Search for Paradise
What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.
–John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1 (1674 publication)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read my Milton, but I’ll say up-front that I recall no zombies in this English poet’s masterwork of blank verse, “Paradise Lost.”

Which is precisely where Jack Flacco’s latest zombification can come in handy. Ranger Martin and the Search for Paradise is the concluding book in Jack’s trilogy. It is also one that I hope those of you interested in speculative fiction writ large, or horror in micro terms, will consider buying. When you do, you can be pretty assured you’ll be supporting a self-publishing small-business owner, father, husband, and cool guy who likes to wax philosophical on his blog about everything from fierce female protagonists to hellacious heroes, vile villains, and freedom f(r)ighters of just about every stripe.

Paradise-hunter Ranger Martin and his motley crew of teens and other dogged dispatchers of the undead are now available through Amazon in ebook form for your Kindle or in paperback.

From what I understand, the novel begins in media res, at gut-level as it were, and will continue to gnash and gnaw its way through you as you travel amid the fast-paced narrative. But don’t take my word for it; Jack has amassed an expert team of reviewers who’ve given their critiques, connectable through the link here.

I can’t wait to read it, and what better time than October? Consider this book happily at the top of my beloved to-be-read pile. Better read than (un)dead, right?

Day 2 of Thrilling Stories: The Woman Wronged

Here we are at Day 2, almost midstream in 6.66 days of thrilling fiction. This is a more real-world story, perhaps with a touch of magic to it, with what I hope is an unusual set of protagonists. The dialect is a bit tricky; I hope it sounds authentic. I’ve worked on this story for years, and it’s better than it used to be. And yet . . . likely miles to go before I can happily lay my writerly head down to rest. Anyway, you be the judge. Simple revenge/comeuppance story or no? My apologies to Flannery O’Connor for borrowing her terrific title for today’s chilling tale.


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The horror, the horror!

Thorny issue

Those thorny writer types!

Yes, my (writing) roots are showing AND I’m as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs (I know, I tote that one out a lot).

That is to say, I’ve been crafting a lot of horror or otherwise dark short stories lately (read on to learn about a writing competition now in the judging phase). I’m working on a science fiction one now with a lesbian couple and involving ants, as well as a fan fiction horror short inspired by Halloween. That’s all my internal editor will permit me to speak of just yet.

On another riff, I love this time of year. I’m not going to mention pumpkin lattes, because I’m not even hip enough to be a hipster at this point (and I’ve certainly no desire to be one). I will, however, mention Dairy Queen’s pumpkin blizzards. Or ginger snaps in something pumpkin-y. I will mention the glorious sea change, a seasonal shimmy of leaves, chemically induced, especially along the lovely mountainsides here in the Northern hemisphere. Cuddling with your special someone, even if it’s bound tightly within a cover and consists of sharp-edged pages.

Indeed, it was in the 40s here overnight and is slated to be in the 60s today. Autumn has sprung!

Finally, I will direct you to a horror writing contest that is going on now. I might or might not have a story or two entered. It will be held the ENTIRE month of October, if I understand the rules correctly, with 2 groups of stories (first round) released every other day, so Oct. 1, Oct. 3, Oct. 5, and so on. I dedicated my long morning to reading both groups, and geez, Louise. I can promise you one thing: you will enjoy, if not adore, at least one of these stories and discover an author (right now, an anonymous one) to follow. The stories are classified as horror, though some fit that only marginally, and so are friendly to those fond of speculative fiction as a widespread, wickedly pointing, fleshy bits hanging off the end umbrella (I’m thinking Sylvester McGory, fellow DW fans).

So, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thriller, true crime, horror, applelutely fabulousand, hell, even romance readers . . . come one, come all: The PseudoPod flash fiction writing contest is live, now (I believe you’ll want to navigate, with your new log-in, to the forum called The Arcade; the contest is called Flash Fiction Contest IV – Pseudopod). You’ll have to set up a free account if you wish to vote, however; voting for each set of two groups (18 groups total) will last only 7 days each time and you can vote for up to 3 stories per group.

Anyway, enjoy your week—wherever you are in the world right now, whomever with—and make it applelutely fabulous (couldn’t resist a terrible parting pun, sorry)!

Friday Fictioneers: Good Woolf

PHOTO PROMPT © Lauren Moscato

Photograph © Lauren Moscato

Good Woolf

GENRE: Fan Fiction, Science Fiction

Word Count: 161

Meg Jansen rented the flat primarily because it met her basic requirements: not so much location, location, location as cheap, cheap, cheap. Besides, it made for a tidy little writing room of her very own.

One night as she burned the mid-write oil on a fourth draft, moonlight shot a shaft of light in through the window, moving her to the weird door that connected her room to the column of air above the street.

She opened the padlocks, cultivating a fervent hope of glimpsing the dragon’s orb surveying her. Yet she didn’t expect to step out into an expansive space of machinery—pulsing wires, cable trails, a console, and a man in a brown trenchcoat bent over it as if in study.

Where's that sonic screwdriver, now?

Now where’s that sonic screwdriver?

Stranger still: When he turned and introduced himself only as “the Doctor,” all she could think of was Virginia Woolf and weeping angels. Either way, it was going to be an interesting night.

****

This science fiction flash fiction piece, created expressly for Rochelle’s weekly Friday Fictioneers, was edited down from 204 words to the more manageable 156. Of course, I had to butcher one or two darlings in the process and should have done more trimming to get it to fit the 100-word parameter better. I seldom get the chance to write any fan fiction. That said, I loved writing and editing this. And by the way, thank you for reading. Do check out the other fictioneers for some fine weekend reading.

Voyager, Voyeur

Qu’eethi pressed a naso-orbital bone to the substandard instrument. The outer-planetary object would be making its descent soon, and Qu’eethi was watching. Dorsal salivary ridges, as phantasmagoricized as Qu’eethi, underwent piloerection as the nimbus came into view. Had Qu’eethi been on ancient Earth, the object’s make-up would’ve been clear: discarded spacesuit, minus occupant.

Qu’eethi hoped they didn’t have another sticky collide-o-scope event on their hands’ hands.


The kaleidoscope pun (and attendant image of an alien peering through a telescope of some kind) arrived almost instantly when I read the Chimera 66 #11 challenge word. It then became a matter of how to spackle a decent microflash around the word. I’m not sure I succeeded—if only I had about five more words!—but it’s a fantastic exercise to work those sprint-fiction muscles . . . AND, besides, I love supporting in my own minute way what Suzanne and the ghouls have gotten tumbling with their endeavor.

In researching medical and astronomy terminology, some that I’d forgotten once upon a time (oh, for a 20-year-old’s memory capabilities!), I stumbled across this fascinating fact. Did you know that a “retired” spacesuit was rigged with a radio device and set adrift from the International Space Station in February 2006? I didn’t remember that. Specifically, it was an Orlan spacesuit. And Wikipedia said so, so you know it’s gotta be true. 🙂

Hope you enjoyed pondering the squidgy sci-fi microfiction this week, including Qu’eethi’s possible motives had the “Earth being” made a live touchdown. Do peruse the other Sixty-Sixers this week for a decadent treat, comrades (hey, I’m channeling the Russian spacesuit)!

“Clamp his two hands in strong chains” (speculative flash fiction)

I took this photo from Andree at Scribe's Cave, for a prompt she had in early March (that I missed). Apparently, it is the first photo-documented use of ether, circa 1855-1860. I was so disturbed by the photo, which I felt nefarious (especially in the "surgeon's" smug smirk), that I was compelled to write about it.

I used this photo from Andreé at Scribe’s Cave, who used it for a prompt she had in early March (that I initially missed). More info at end of story.

They caught me unawares, the young one and the two old enough to have hairy faces.

My body, their pelt, their possession. They sneered. I supposed they’d never heard tell of the Tamboti tree.

I could tell the wide blue-eyed one was scared, but he readied the trembling handkerchief anyway. Coerced, no doubt.

“We’ll make a lesson of yew, boy,” was the last sentence my ordinary limited senses lapped.

They were lucky the straps and the medication rivoted me temporarily in place as the haughty side man prepared the bone-saw and hot iron cross for my leg.

Photograph of the leopard from the African Wildlife Foundation. Please consider supporting their conservation efforts, if you can.

Photograph of a leopard, from the African Wildlife Foundation. Please consider supporting their conservation efforts.

The man under a dark drape held the box aloft, and I saw it flash through my eyelids even as I was transforming, screen of skin sliding in on itself.

I felt the color rising as my hide erupted in a riot of bristly hairs.

Soon my only instinct would be shunted toward a decision: do I play with these muslin bags of flesh before I shred them asunder?


First, more on the original photograph. Apparently, it is the first photo-documented use of ether, circa 1855-1860. I was so disturbed by the depiction, which I felt nefarious, that I felt compelled to write (or right, as the case may be) about it. After looking at the man on the table, my indignation sprang from what I interpreted as the “surgeon’s” smug look; admittedly, it’s difficult to see for certain, and I don’t have the “patient’s” backstory, although I seriously doubt informed consent was something practiced in those days, plus given the horrors of slavery, I’m doubtful the black man was either asked or told what they thought might happen during the operation. All that said, I could be incorrect, so please feel free to give me the backstory if you can provide data sources.

Now, as far as the discussion of the writing proper . . .

Please do check out One Starving Activist, where Andreé Robinson-Neal hosts Scribe’s Cave, especially if you’re a fan of speculative fiction (i.e., sci-fi, fantasy, or horror).

If you’re curious as to the partial inspiration/origin of this shape-shifter fantasy story, other than the awful legacy of slavery, particularly in American history, you have to look back to Greco-Roman myth and the character of Proteus.

“Aristaeus [the demi-god who invented beekeeping] wept, when he saw all his bees killed and honeycombs abandoned incomplete. His sea-blue mother [the Naiad Kyrene (Cyrene)] could scarcely console his pain, and attached these final words to her speech: ‘Stop your tears, my boy. Proteus will lighten your loss, and tell you how to regain what is gone. But so he does not baffle you by altering appearance, clamp his two hands in strong chains.’
The youth approaches the seer and binds the limp arms of the sleeping old man of the ocean. Proteus uses his art to shift and feign his looks, but soon resumes shape, mastered by chains.” — from Ovid, Fasti I, translated by Boyle (Fasti is the “Book of Days,” or, specifically, a partial poem in six books that detail the first six months of the Roman calendar)

In a different translation of Ovid from Latin (by James G. Frazer), Proteus is likened to a wizard rather than a seer.

Undelivered Valentines, the Conclusion

Somehow curiously apropos to my life situation, what follows is Section C (the conclusion) of the serial speculative story blending paranormal with literary fiction with romance that first started appearing on this blog, lo, back at the end of October 2014. Perhaps almost–Valentine’s Day is a good bookend for this!

To cadge a few words from a speech/passage I’ve always enjoyed:

“I regret to announce — this is The End. I am going now. I bid you all a very fond farewell.”

(Okay, this is not really a farewell, but a temporary ending to this story. Thank you for partaking of it this far. Enjoy!)


 

1873 letter, Emma Spaulding Bryant, courtesy Duke U. Library Bingham Collection

This fascinating letter, from 1873, has much different subject matter (in its frank treatment of women’s health, infidelity, & the woman’s upbraiding of her husband’s suspicions) than the one presented in Undelivered Valentines. From the Duke University Library, Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture. Information accessed here.

Undelivered Valentines, Part 4, Section C (CONCLUSION)

by Leigh Ward-Smith

 A hoarse “Mom, what’s for breakfast?” came sleepily through, as if gauzed in radio static.

Jamie startled from her chair, noticing suddenly how her back felt. A giant combine threshing her ribs was all that came to her.

“What . . . oh? Yeah, Emily!” Jamie brightened as she became more coherent.

Before the girl could continue, Jamie had shocked herself when she sprang up, with a few pops here and there percolating up from buried bones, and scooped Emily into an embrace, almost lifting her en masse from the strewn covers.

“Good to have you back, Em! How are you doing? You remember anything from last night? Are you really hungry? How you feel?”

“Whoa, Mom, whoa!” Emily mock-chided through droopy lids, moving each hand slowly in a wiper pattern, palms out. “One thing at a time!”

She shook her head slightly, as if it were glutted with mud. “Last night? Uhhhh, we watched a video . . . didn’t we?”

Jamie nodded, not wanting to spoon-feed false or warped memories to the girl.

“I had some Skittles but complained the bag didn’t have enough green ones in it—”

“To which I replied,” Jamie began but Emily finished. “To which you said ‘what difference does the color make ’cause they’re all fake anyway.’ ”

“I remember that stuff, but from your face, it seems like something else happened . . .” Emily cocked her head to the right and scrunched up her brows questioningly.

“And why do you have bed-head, like majorly, Mom? Does it have to do with why you slept in my chair?”

Jamie opted to be truthful and related what had happened earlier.

Letting it filter into her consciousness, Emily was silent—but only briefly. She called out, rising up on her bed as she did, knees still crossed in black-and-red flannel pajamas. “They were fighting!”

“Wait, what? Who? Who was fighting?”

Poltergeist 2 screenshot

Okay, perhaps not the “evil” entity Emily believed she witnessed. This one snarls from a screenshot, from the movie Poltergeist 2.

Exasperation poked its way into Emily’s tone. “Them, Mom! Ghost-Thomas and some big guy . . . I think.” And then the flood. “I just had this sensation, goosebumps and sickness all smushed in a ball, like the huge dude was wanting to bring the pain. And I was scared and couldn’t scream and light or lightning or—”

Emily peered into the air, viewing time in reverse then fast-forwarding, fretfully.

“It’s okay, Em. It’ll be okay,” Jamie crooned, putting a calming hand lightly on the girl’s upper left arm, but not in such a way as to make her feel like she was being held down. Or back.

She’d seen, or at least remembered, her mother cry or tear up on only a few occasions in her life. When their 11-year-old cat had passed on, when Emily’s grandmother had died, with Michael’s death, and when Emily had suggested them both volunteering at a homeless shelter last year.

Emily reached an index finger tenderly up toward the face, as if it were a star, but instead she caught a tear, and Jamie almost shied away but stopped herself. Now that it was just them—a duo, not a trio, not counting furball companions—Jamie figured they would have to be more honest with one another. Emotionally and in every imaginable way.

She let the tears come and only hesitantly pulled away after a few minutes of hugging and sobbing and rocking one another, each seeming to take turns as the lead comforter.

Crying was a novel kind of liquid catharsis for Jamie. This time, she didn’t fight it.

****

Sadie telephoned Jamie around 11 a.m. with news. She didn’t know the other townspeople as well as she’d gotten to know Jamie in the last few days. Plus, many had moved on as the millwork dried up and eventually completely evaporated. Still others had died or just grown distant.

“Jamie,” she began, “hello, it’s Sadie.” She paused to gather words into a better bouquet than the hogweed, corpseflower, and prickly cactus she currently held in her heart.

“Oh, Sadie. It’s good to hear from you today. Were you wanting Gladys’ papers back, because I hadn’t quite finished . . .” Jamie said.

“Oh, no, no. Keep those as long as you need. I’m afraid I’m calling about Gram.”

The ominous tone halted all thoughts.

“She’s in the hospital.”

I can imagine, Jamie thought, not really wanting elaboration. Poor girl, I hate those damned places!

To the uncomfortable silence, Jamie spoke: “I’m so sorry, Sadie. What can we do to help?”

“Probably nothing at this point other than prayer, if you’re of a mind . . . ” Jamie felt as if Sadie were looking beside her, not willing to make eye-to-eye contact just yet.

“Certainly, we will keep Wilma in our best thoughts. Can I bring you over some dinner or anything? Em and I were probably just going to hang out and get a pizza tonight.”

“No, not yet. But I’ll keep you posted. We don’t know how long she’ll be there or anything. Maybe you could even come see her as this goes on. If . . .”

Tentative plans were made, as they always were, with no expectation and, yet, every intention on the part of the speakers’ hearts and hopes of being carried through. Not many plan to experience a crisis, slip into a pitfall, or train their ears on death’s dulcet tones, in effect date-stamping sadness into their soul, pre-wiring, girding themselves for the surety of strife and sorrow.

Jamie mused that this lifelong preparation for or preoccupation with demise is not so with some people and even if it were, it wouldn’t make dying any easier. For either the deceased or the survivors, the reminders of humanity are hanging everywhere, memento mori nailed on every damn tree-limb in sight.

****

After her frank talk with her mother, Emily felt even more resolved to do what she could to patch the bridge through time, ultimately unbreakable she felt, connecting lover to his beloved.

Sure, Emily still needed time to process the events of the last couple days, but she knew what gnawed at her that she didn’t always want to accept. For all her faults, for all every human’s faults, her mother had Emily’s best interest fixed as a constant North Star in all she did.

Her mom had even helped her memorize it from freshman English, in the Julius Caesar lines she had to recite to Mr. Nguyen as part of her grade:

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

****

First that evening, she cooked up an excuse to put Rusty in his crate downstairs. And she did something a bit dishonest that she hoped she would not regret later.

She put some alcohol in her mother’s soda. Dribs and drabs, here and there, little nips at a time. And she kept being liberal with the refills. It was movie night again, and she used psychology, too. “Mom, this popcorn really is salty. I’m thirsty; would you like some more soda, too?” she’d suggested more than a few times.

She almost thought she was busted once when her mom noted how “weird” the soda tasted. “Um, maybe it’s flat or something? You know I don’t drink diet, so I don’t know, Mom.”

Emily hoped her vision of what could happen, would. Since Jamie didn’t often drink, the girl hoped just a little extra boost of booze might do the trick. Emily wouldn’t be caught in the unfolding reunion ploy, and her mom might have a less fitful sleep. It was a win-win as far as Emily saw it.

“Rusty noshed on grass outside when I took him out earlier, Mom, so I’m going to crate him tonight,” seemed to ignite no protest. The gangly dog had a nervous stomach, among other things, so indigestion wasn’t that improbable and grass-eating, for him, was a sure-fire sign of a messy impending upset.

He whined when Emily said “kennel up” earlier than he had gotten used to. She’d made the excuse that she wanted to do some reading and went up to her room, listening and waiting, waiting and wishing and pacing on cat’s soft paws.

Tonight was as good a night as any. The TV was reporting only a 20% chance of storms, the moon was very nearly full—or at least it was bright—and she had what she thought she’d need in a small satchel.

It’s up to me now to help our family and myself.

She’d seen that her mother didn’t completely embrace the prospect of ghosts. Her mother was a realist, an actualist, a here-and-nowist. As for Emily, she accepted some bend in life. You had to, or you split from your core, a spavined human branch.

She nearly silently made the call at just after 10:45. The signal came about 20 minutes later. He was outside the house, just where she’d instructed him to wait, flashlight in hand as the beacon.

The teens were going ghost-in-a-graveyard–hunting.

****

“How’d you get here so fast?” she whispered to the likewise darkly clad figure.

He jerked his head to the side. “I drove. Parked several streets away at Stein’s grocery.”

“Is that okay?” she inquired softly. He pushed the scrub away so she would have an easier path, letting it snap back after they passed.

“Should be. I’ve never seen anyone get towed before. Remember, girl, this is a hick-town. We go watch the streetlights burn out for fun.” He made a gentle move, in the cave of light provided by his hand shielding the flashlight, to mock-punch her as they paused to cross an alley.

“Too slow!” she joked, shrugging away.

With a quiet “c’mon,” he took her hand and led her through the alley and down a few streets.

Finally feeling safe to raise their voices and not furtively gorilla-walk through the small stand of trees clinging to a backyard space, she questioned. “Should we drive? I have no idea where Prairie River Cemetery even is. Do you?”

“Yeah, unfortunately, I do. My grandpa’s buried there.”

Occasionally she’d hear a bug get zapped as they walked among the mingled lights shooting shadows along the streets. She hoped Rusty was okay, and that no other dogs in the area decided to put up a racket.

“Come this way, away from the Fishers’ dog. It’s loud, and sometimes mean. Oh . . . and it’d be better to drive. It’s about, uh, 20 minutes away on some bumpy, dumpy country roads.”

In a few minutes, they’d arrived. He unlocked and opened the passenger door to a Ford Escort. “Your carriage, m’lady,” he kidded, sweeping his hand horizontally in an elegant fashion while slightly bowing. The humming streetlights near Stein’s were just enough to make everything that wasn’t deep black a garish orange.

His car smelled like cologne and some kind of air freshener, she noticed as he strode around to the other side.

“Got everything? . . . like we’d want to creep back to your house if you didn’t,” he asked.

“Yep,” she patted the Army green satchel at her right side near the door. “It’s all here. I hope.”

“Well, then, let’s do this thing,” he enthused, adjusting the radio down so they could talk on the way there. He didn’t know if she caught his low “and hope we don’t stir up the dead.”

Although it was still summer, or the tail-end of what passed for it in terms of school schedules, she felt a winter-like warmth as if from a furiously overworked car heater envelop her as they drove. In a different mood, she might have imagined a tomb smothering mortal remains. But, considering that the heater was not in use, she attributed it to the heat of the evening, which had not dissipated more than a few degrees, as well as the temperature of her taut nerves, shrieking in their shells as it were. She wondered if he felt the same.

****

As soon as she saw the small field beside a field that stood for a cemetery, not too far from the river, she was instantly relieved she’d thought to bring an extra flashlight for herself and a couple giant batteries. Although they weighed down her bag, the other freight borne inside was far weightier. It had the heavy gravity of time invading every crevassed atom. And, what’s more, it shouldered the burden of something not yet put-right, which was immeasurable by any of humankind’s current or extant tools.

She took off the bandoliered satchel and thought to leave it in the car, but something made her pick it up and draw it close over her shoulders again. It had been her father’s during his Army service in the Vietnam conflict.

“Where you think it is?” he asked.

“I was going to ask you. Do you have any idea how it’s set up? I mean, it looks like most of the stones are simple. Almost tooth-shaped pavers,” she said as she swept her light back and forth curiously. “Are they alphabetical . . . I guess they can’t be.”

She spoke aloud, not thinking they had anything to worry about, for the nearest farmhouse seemed to be about 2 or 3 miles away, set back from the road as well as behind the cemetery, which faced the dirt road on two sides.

A shadowy patch of trees looked like it guarded the back perimeter of the small cemetery, with probably 70 or 80 stones, she guessed. She wondered if the farmhouse was right on the river or a rill tracing to it. Its wet, earthy scent was already smothered in the night air.

It was almost 11:20, according to her glowing Timex. She figured they should try to be back by midnight. That was Jud’s curfew, though he said he could explain to his mom if he got home late. They sounded like a reasonable, or at least laid-back, family, from what he’d related. As they say, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, so she figured that’s where Jud got his upbeat attitude and, cyclically, he kept his parents upbeat as well, as the good-naturedness of the people swelled and crested. Sometimes it was kind of difficult to see where one person ended and the other began—or at least her mother had told her so when she noticed a habit, posture, or mannerism of Emily’s that she attributed to herself or to Emily’s father, Michael. Such as the hand-gesturing excitedly while talking.

After about 10 or 15 minutes of searching and a couple stumbles she guessed she’d covered up successfully, they located Gladys’ gravestone. Along with her full name, it read:

Born 1898. Died 1985. Loving daughter and sister. Writer and citizen of the world. Until we meet again, my love.

Emily kind of liked tombstones. A succinct summary of a life—any person’s life—boiled down to its basic soup-bones, with even the marrow and tendons snapped off. “I told you I was sick,” is what she figured hers should say. The thought that she could make someone laugh at one of the most awful times in their existence gave her some solace, although she still shivered involuntarily.

Gees, you sure think about death a lot for an almost 16-year-old, she thought. Not like you’re astride the grave. “Yet,” an ominous thought boomeranged back at her head. And she didn’t duck it.

“Psst, c’mre,” she had called, not exactly screaming bloody murder, but not low-decibeled either, lighting up Gladys’ grave. She saw a light bobbing closer, heard fast footfalls, and then Jud soon joined her. They’d split up to save time. Even so, she glanced at her watch, pushing the yellow illumination button, and noticed it was already 11:37.

“Here it is,” she dragged the light through weightier air, showing a statuary of an opened book sitting atop the stone. Dried flowers that seemed to be purply and fake lay at the base, and the pair stood on each side of the plot.

The winds were beginning to pick up and she heard some distant shushing, probably from the stand of trees at the back-side of the graveyard. Combing the trees’ hair, she thought. It was a benign vision.

Gladys’ plot was left, or east, of the approximate center, near a towering pyramidal marker that appeared to be a depressed angel covering its eyes, for Judge Herman Mott. He’d died back in the 1920s, Emily noticed passing by, giving some hint as to the age of some of the “inhabitants.”

She didn’t know whether to suggest that they see Jud’s grandfather while they were there. To pay their respects or something like that. Gravestones should have given Emily more pause, but they didn’t. She’d refused to see her father’s, however. That one was too personal. Her aunts had taken some pictures of it, though, so she knew she could view it at any time she felt ready.

Gladys’ gravesite was on a slight knoll but surrounded by other stones like a group of weathered friends.

As if reading her wanly smiling face, Jud suggested “maybe she likes company.” He shrugged, still holding the flashlight at her chest level so as not to blind her.

“Guess so,” Emily spoke. Her hair had begun to spin behind her into a kind of whirlpool-Scylla.

“It’s getting windy here. S’posda rain?” They had opted for short, simple sentences. It just seemed right.

He bunched up his shoulders in an “I don’t know” gesture. “We’d better get a move-on, either way.”

She stooped to the earth and began to unconsciously twist grass blades in her fingers. “Uh, I’m not sure what to do. I guess I should . . .” she let her voice go silent, thinking rather than saying what she ought to do. Jud made no suggestions.

Heat lightning had begun to strobe silently several miles away. “That’s probably to the north, near home,” Jud suggested, almost prodding with his voice.

Emily made the thorny decision, never noticing that someone had followed them on the journey, for they’d cut the lights while parked in the cleft of a hill a few miles back toward town, pulling off the road and watching, it seemed, from afar. She thought she would weight the letter pulled from her bag with a nearby rock and dig it a shallow—very shallow—hole with her Swiss army knife to the side of the grave. She dug while he shone the light. Her hair danced electrically in the heated gusts, and a few wisps slid into her mouth, but she didn’t stop until she’d made a cigar box–sized indentation and placed the letter in the container to place it all into the hole. After a couple size adjustments to the open earth, she then covered it over with grassy soil and stood, wiping dust from her blue-jeaned knees, which she was glad she’d worn instead of shorts. Dirty business, reuniting a secret love that society didn’t condone, she almost snickered darkly.

Should I say something? she thought as she tapped a hand against her pocket uncertainly. Then, quickly reaching down, she moved some of the plastic flowers so they stretched from Gladys’ grave to Thomas’ buried missive. Almost a cradling embrace, she thought.

Picking up on a fragment of something she’d said on the way there about Gladys tutoring Thomas in Shakespeare, Jud whispered hoarsely, not sure what he was really aiming at.

“Going from memory here, but maybe . . . ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night until the morrow.’ ”

Emily remembered her mother reading these lines from Romeo and Juliet with her when she was about ten.

He didn’t notice that the flashlight beamed into the sky as he spoke earnestly; fortunately, it was a weak light when set against a canvas of eternal, enveloping night.

He held out his other hand, hoping Emily would take it without too much more final pomp and sorrowful circumstance.

They stepped gingerly, carefully to be respectful of the dead (and the living), as they made their way back to the car. No one fell, but he stumbled once and she grabbed for him instinctively, which helped him recover quickly.

“It’s almost cold,” he said as she strode slightly behind him. They picked up speed, even though the walk to the car was only a few minutes away.

“What was that?” his voice seemed to come both from a tunnel many meters ahead and beside her ear as a crack of lightning fissured across the dome of sky, a pot left too long in the kiln.

It was near and sounded like the noise Emily imagined a shotgun would produce, except this rippled through the hollows like a none-too-rough soundwave. It made her delicate neck hairs stand on end, and if he’d been forced to admit it, Jud would have said it gave him the heebie-jeebies, too.

Both nearly jumped out of their lightly covered flesh, but only Emily saw the multi-laddered illumination ribboning down to the ground from the sky. She didn’t know if it was a portent of good or ill, but she hoped for the best. “Prepare for the worst but expect the best,” her mother’s counsel ran.

In her mind, the spiral encased Gladys’ tombstone, or somewhere near it, like a hand creating a cave to shelter something more precious than gold, silver, moon, or stone.

Her wish was that Thomas and Gladys had found peace, closure, or something akin to that whatever people attain when they bandage their own wounds over time, time tincturing all. Not forgetful, not faithful exactly, not forlorn, just an in-between waiting and watching and wondering. It all distilled down to hope, she expected.

Emily had since switched off her flashlight and bagged it, instead following the arc of light from Jud’s. Each had quickened their pace yet again toward the front of the graveyard and to the car, weaving among tombsides.

Something braceleted Emily’s ankle. At first, she thought it was only a snagging root, so she gently shook her right foot to untangle herself. Then, as she bent to examine the whatever-that-was-not-falling-away-after-vigorous-wiggling, she felt an unmistakable sensation of lowering. It was as if she were on an earthen elevator. In slow motion, she saw herself in the center with racing clods of dirt obeying gravity’s epicenter and tendrils of grassroot swaying like nature’s nooses now-unearthed. She felt she was being sunken alive, subducting with shelves of dirt into the core of the fecund Indiana land she’d just recently discovered. She thought she heard yelling but couldn’t be sure if it was hers or Jud’s. Or perhaps even the storm that seems to have been stalking them, steadily, stealthily. With some surprise, she found there’s little moisture involved when a Hadean maw wants to devour you. Jolts raced to her heart when another body slid in beside her, making a sucking noise as it sluiced down. In a frantic panic, Emily saw that she and Jud were trapped together now. A runnel of flesh. Both on their bellies on the plane of the widening hole, seemingly shaped like a reverse volcano.

They were both screaming now, and he grabbed her left hand.

“Emily, hold onto me!” he yelled.

But he can’t hoist them both up, and the blank sky began to pepper them with dribs and drabs of rain. Emily forced herself to keep her eyes up as her feet clamored blindly for a foothold. She reached one and tried to boost herself with her left foot, but the dirt fragmented and she slipped down a few inches and to the right. Then their handhold broke, but in the faintest of night-lights she could still see Jud’s form. Even if she crawled up now, adjacent to him, she was too far horizontal to grab his arm.

I’ll have to do it myself! She gritted her teeth.

She saw her mother’s face, a vein-blue crescent under each bloated eye; she’d been crying. Her mother is reaching out a hand for her.

Am I delusional? Mom, help me! The scream zigged off the walls of her mind, and she caught another root, rock, who-knows-what, and figured it might be her last chance. With all her might, Emily jackhammered her right knee down and caught the object, which seemed stable, then swiftly did a high-knees impression like they’d made her do in PE class, not to mention in track-and-field practice. It was a good thing she’d picked hiking boots. They held and she grabbed at earth and anything near what should be the top of the sinkhole. She had to delve fingernails into the almost-mud and pull with all her might, too, but as she neared the roof of earth, she poked her hand up and glanced off what felt like a welter of flesh. Repeating the half-acrobatic, half-desperation dig-jump, she seized the solid something again, aloft, and, this time, grabbed it.

More important, perhaps, than its mass was that it held to her.

Emily scrambled up the hill, thankful that she hadn’t lost too much leg-power over the summer. She flopped down flat on her stomach and reached for Jud, but lost a grip on his hand with the increasing liquidity of land, a sandy silt around them. She looked for the limb that’d helped her boost herself higher but couldn’t locate it.

Realizing the satchel was still there at her side, no longer either afterthought or agonizing reminder, she egg-toothed a very quick plan to life. God, I hope this material is strong!

She draped the bag’s sturdy canvas handle down in a half-circle, missing a couple times before smacking Jud on the hand and getting his attention in the deepening darkness. “Come on,” she grunted, through gritted teeth as she peered over the edge. Together, they ascended him out of the opening in a spin of limbs.

Both flopped down and lay still for what seemed like a whole minute but was probably closer to fifteen seconds. Hands clasped, as she’d grabbed him on the way up.

She was the first to rise. She got to her muddied knees and helped him up. Neither talked, but once they were both standing, they hugged. Hard.

Fishing sightlessly around in the bag, her squishy hand touched the inert metal of her flashlight. His rested at the bottom of the hole, he knew. Damn, this all is going to take a lot of bleach to wash, she thought, then laughed softly at such a practical and rational concern.

Emily thought to thank, in her own way, whatever root had saved them, but as she swept her light around—like the teens, it had taken a licking but kept on ticking—the surrounding area, she could see nothing firm except for gravestones.

But then something stood out, and not only because of the bird.

A dark feathered thing of some kind perched on a small cross that looked rather makeshift. She looked over at Jud and shrugged. He shrugged back. Its eyeshine did not deviate. It also appeared unfazed by their presence. Emily cautiously moved closer and shone the light down onto the small marker, then felt breath gather into a net in her chest in a sharp gasp. In handwritten text, the paver said simply:

Thomas Tillson, devoted son and brother, fearless friend.

Following it, a verse:

Whatever dies, was not mix’d equally ;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die. (John Donne, “The Good-Morrow”)

Emily was anchored in her spot, light beaming out shakily. But Jud surged forward, gently taking the light like a baton. As he moved, the bird let fly with a startled caw and rush of wings. As he neared the tomb, he pointed the light down at and saw, propped carefully at the right of the stone, a thick, splintered tree limb and the lightest of footprints in the mud, leading toward the trees. Rivuleting before his eyes, rain filled the earthen trough-marks and began to dissolve soil into its own skin.

He picked up the limb and walked it over to Emily. Tears mingled with the rain that undulated lightly and heavier. Only another crack of thunder and ribbon of lightning delivered them from a mutual wordless reverie. He again took her hand, and they walked away from the scene.

As Emily pitched a glance backward—as Orpheus had, she, too, could not resist—she realized that the hole in the land had seemed to mend itself.

She grasped the splinters harder, thinking of never letting it go.

Nothing will either shock or petrify me after tonight.

****

Emily asked Jud to crank the radio, and they drove home in verbal silence until they got back to Stein’s. The raindrops were hollyberry sized and really pelting by then.

How will I hide the muck on my clothes? she wondered.

“We could strip,” he had teased when they first got to the car, “but fortunately, I have some old towels back here somewhere. The front window on this thing was leaking and I never did get it fixed yet. Still waitin’ for the big bucks to flow in from my smooth library job.”

He peeled off his soaked, dark shirt and tossed it into the trunk while the rain was flagging. She saw him throw on a white T-shirt in its place.

“Take it,” he’d urged, pushing the dirty yellow towel at her. She smoothed it down on the back and sitting part of the seat to try to keep the fabric in the car somewhat clean.

“Don’t worry ’bout the floorboards,” he said, poking his head and body in and sitting down on his own rag.

Neither wanted to talk in-depth about the events of the evening, which still had to be parsed, diced, meted and either accepted or rejected as true memories.

“I’ll get you closer.” He pulled up to the curb a couple blocks away from Emily’s house.

To his surprise, she darted at him and placed a kiss on his cheek. “Thank you, Jud. For everything. See you . . . ?” she let him finish the sentence.

“Oh, soon. Very soon. We’re a great team, you know. Annnnnyway, I’ll call you tomorrow. I hope it goes OK with your mom.” He pointed his head toward the house.

“With any luck!” she agreed.

With that, Emily turned and sprinted toward the house, taking care to jump the puddles and dry off in the mud room off the back of the kitchen and leaving her smeared, rain-weighted boots there, too. She shucked off the wet clothes and balled them into a plastic bag, then double-bagged it, and carried them with her up the stairs, tiptoeing.

Rusty’s whines didn’t seem to wake Mom, Emily thought as she passed her mother’s room, listening and hearing nothing but breath, careful not to scuff on the carpet or shock herself on her door knob.

No trail of wetness in the hallway either, she noticed, as she bent down and felt with her hands in the absent light.

She dropped the bag of wettish clothes onto the floor in her closet and used her bath towel to dry off.

Good thing I took that winter cap or my hair’d have been a wet-rat of a wreck.

Clothes waited for her in the warm divot of her sleeping spot. She slid into the pajamas stuffed there, looking like a lumpy human body, albeit a previously absent one. One finger pressed the stereo, and melody lit the air.

Before she turned off the straining light on her nightstand, her reading light, she thought to get up and go to the closet. She didn’t feel scared going in, in the utter blackness. She felt around for the crinkle of the bags and, after locating it, untied them and retrieved the clothes. She hung them over the hamper so they could dry.

There, they’re neater. I’ll wash them first thing . . .

As she lay in the whispering room, she eased into a decision. I’m going to tell Mom everything tomorrow. I don’t know if she’ll believe it all, but the truth—my story—is still important.

Emily herself felt peaceful as dreams playfully encircled her this time, throwing a giant protective shield around her form as if she were in a science museum bubble-maker contraption. Her father and mother were there, too.

In her dreams, a voice sang its way uphill—and pulled her cheerfully along.

Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be/
It’s eeeea-sy/

All you need is love.

elderly couple statue

I picture Thomas and Gladys like this. This is a real statue in Kiev. It commemorates the relationship of an Italian man, Luigi Peduto, and a Ukrainian woman, Mokryna Yurzuk, who were imprisoned in Austria in the Sankt Pölen forced labor camp in 1943.

 

THE END

**Dedicated to R, C, and S, with all my devoted heart can creatively muster.**