Joan McHugh is currently enrolled in the Bachelor program, Creative Writing for Entertainment, at Fullsail University. She has written several flash fiction stories. Her aspirations include, writing her own horror screenplay. Please contact Joan via email JEMchugh@student.fullsail.com
Jackson tossed his lucky coin up into the air. You can never be too careful on a day like the 13th, he thought. He plopped down on his blue microfiber couch, and flipped through television channels. Black and white figures danced across the screen. His mind was set on one thing, where was Julia? She worked nights at a piano bar, and soothed lonely souls with her sultry voice.
The clock laughed in his face, as the hands ticked by. Butterflies fluttered around Jackson’s stomach. Julia always called around the same time, every night after the end of her shift. She would stay on the phone with Jackson, with pepper spray in hand until she arrived at her car. The employees parked in a back parking lot that had only one street light.
He rose from the couch, and dragged his feet behind him to the kitchen. He opened the fridge and found a six pack. Alcohol coarsed it’s way through Jackson’s veins. His nerves calmed, Jackson let out a sigh.
Jingling keys grazed along the bronze door handle. Lock mechanisms shifted back and forth. The handle of the door turned. Combat boots shuffled along the painted concrete floor. A leopard printed figure appeared against the beige and tan wallpaper. Jade eyes conjured tears that flowed down porcelain cheeks.
“Jackson?” whispered Julia.
“Julia! Thank god your home,” said Jackson. “What took you so long?”
“Shush, keep your voice down.”
“There are two masked men near the elevator and they have a gun.”
Pop! Shots fired near the hallway. Jackson and Julia crouched down on the floor. They crawled to the bedroom, and shut the door behind them. The front door pounded, as the gunmen forced their feet against it. Julia’s heart jumped with each kick. Jackson held her close to comfort her.The hinges wore and the door flew open.
“Get in the closet,” said Jackson.
Julia crawled into the closet and shut the door in front of her. She peered through the wooden panels. Her hands rustled around, feeling for an object she could defend herself with. Jackson glanced around the room. A lamp, with a round brushed nickel bottom caught his eye. Darkness filled the room.
Doors flung open and slammed around the apartment. Metal clamored around the kitchen. Shoes tip toed toward Jackson and Julia’s bedroom. Jackson waited, his arms held high behind the bedroom door. The handle turned and the door creaked open. A dark figure creeped into the room.
Jackson forced the lamp against the gunman’s head. The gunman fell to the floor. Blood poured from his skull. Julia shrieked, and flung open the closet door. She skated across the room to Jackson, slipping in the gunman’s blood. A shadow loomed in the corridor. With an elevated sense of caution, Jackson raised the lamp above his head. Julia grasped a beer bottle she found in the closet.
The shadow approached the bedroom. The chamber of his gun smacked against the door. He waved his gun around the dark room. Building her courage, Julia crept up behind the gunman. She bashed his head with the beer bottle. Concussed, the gunman aimed his gun toward Julia.
Jackson loomed over the intruder. The argent moon glowed across his face. He raised the lamp above his head, and slammed it down on the gunman’s face. The second gunman fell to the floor. Blood spewed from the gunman’s nose. Jackson grunted, as the lamp crashed down on the gunman once more. Blood poured from his skull. Vermillion dripped down the lamp stand. Jackson hyperventilated, the thought of Julia’s close demise brought tears to his eyes. Julia wrapped her arms around Jackson’s waist. She never wanted to let go, she thought if she did the nightmare would continue.
“We are safe now,” whispered Jackson. Sweat dripped from his forehead and splashed onto the floor. Thoughts raced through Jackson’s mind as he clutched his lucky coin.
If Julia had called earlier, would this have happened? He blocked the negative thoughts from his mind. Soft fingers entwined Jackson’s, and the couple met each others gaze. Overwhelmed, they both looked down at the pool of blood on the concrete floor.
“I think we need to move,” said Julia.
A LIGHT IN THE STREET
An old broken-down Sedan in the middle of the road in the middle of the night. It was all that separated me from the things outside. The old air-freshener hanging from the rear-view doesn’t work anymore and the colors had long since faded. I had the windows rolled up and the doors locked. The ignition wasn’t off by choice, but rather the old vehicle that had belonged to my now dead neighbor had died directly under the street light. The only source of light around was the streetlamp above me. Luckily these things hate the light.
The lamp flickered.
My heart stopped for the same duration the street was dark, which was only a few milliseconds in reality. Light filled the streets again. Was that movement?
I checked my dying phone, 1am, the light only had to work for a couple more hours, then I could run for it.
The light flickered again.
Was it dimmer than before? The yellow hue of the light barely illuminated the interior of the car, but it didn’t need to, it just needed to be a barrier between me and those things.
A small, lanky shape moved just at the edge of the light; they definitely know I’m here, they’re waiting for the bulb to go out. Unlike most nightmare creatures they didn’t have glowing eyes that could be seen from miles away, they didn’t ‘pierce the night’. The only way you knew they were there was if they were either ripping into you or the guy next to you, and the only sound they make were quiet hisses, they almost sound like whispers, almost.
The light flickered once again, and as predicted, the radius of the light decreased a small amount, and the beam grew dimmer. I desperately checked my purse for a flashlight.
No luck, that asshole Gerry had taken it when he made a run for it, and look how it turned out for him.
I hear the hisses, they definitely know I’m in here now. They’re taunting me. I checked my phone again.
It had only been five minutes.
The light flickered again, are those damn things trying to unscrew the bulb?
It flickered again…
and it flickered again,
but it didn’t come back on.
JD Langert is pursuing her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida. She has been published in John Hopkins Imagine Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Down in the Dirt, Scarlet Leaf Review, and other publications. You're more than welcomed to connect with her on LinkedIn or Facebook.
Melissa blinked up at the two men who had abruptly come into the bakery and threatened her as she stirred melting chocolate in the kitchen. They brandished a gun at her, the dull metal of the weapon paling in contrast to the shining silver that made up a majority of her kitchen.
“So, why don’t you just save us any trouble and just fork over the cash, sweetie?”
The two men themselves were also very contrary to the current environment. The first man was bald and a bit on the portly side, wearing a long black coat as if that would hide his obesity. The second man, on the flip side, towered above them both with long, greasy hair and a crooked smile that spoke of nothing good.
Melissa glanced over to the apple spice cake cooking in the oven before walking towards the front of the kitchen.
“Ha!” said the taller man. “What’d I tell you, Hershel? This will be a cinch!”
“Eh, thought that the owner of a shop named liked this would have a bit more ‘bite’ to them, ya know? But this isn’t the time to relax, Carmello, make sure she gets the cash.”
“You worry too much. There’s two of us and we have a gun. Besides, can’t you see she’s as meek as a mouse? What she going to do?” Carmello shrugged, pausing in front of a metal table where she had been using a mixer to beat egg whites with a lemon pie beside it.
She flicked the mixer on and yanked the second robber’s long hair into the gooey mixture. The dark strands immediately tangled with the metal whisk and, with its industrial grade strength, brutally brought Carmello’s face to the unforgiving counter.
Carmello shrieked as he fought against the mixer’s strength, causing Hershel to look over. Before he could so much as react to his partner’s plight, Melissa picked up the lemon pie and hurled it into the latter’s face, pie crust and cream splattering everywhere. He stumbled backwards, colliding with a wall, and was attempting to wipe the stinging mixture from his eyes when Melissa stabbed a knife through his coat, effectively pinning him to the jellybean-printed wall.
Behind her, Carmello had finally turned off the mixer and freed himself from its terror. He screamed in anger, fluffy foam-like pieces all over his face and his hair a tangled mess, and rushed her. She sidestepped and opened the door to the stove, heat pouring from it.
Carmello, who had not seen the splatter of pie at his feet, slipped forward towards the hot oven. He screamed as his hands caught upon the red-hot metal, the smell of burning flesh and apples filling the air. He quickly tried to retreat from the fiery pain, but found his escape halted as Melissa slammed the oven closed upon his hands, another high-pitch cry forcing its way from his mouth. A cry that quickly made an encore as the store owner took the chance to grab the melting chocolate from the store, pour it over his eyes, and give him a solid whack across the face for good measure.
“Hold it you devil woman!”
She flung the metal pot in her hand at Hershel who had freed himself from his coat; the cloth hanging from the knife. The copper-lined pot successfully collided with just below the man’s sternum, predictably knocking the wind from him and making him drop the gun as she stalked over.
She kicked the gun beneath one of the metal tables, reaching up to her shelf of spices. When he looked up at her, gasping for air, she mercilessly threw the red chili powder she used for Spicy Mexican Hot Chocolate Cookies into his eyes. He yelled in pain, his already abused eyes unable to handle the scorching heat, and, as a result, was unable to do anything as Melissa pushed him backwards into a round trash can filled with raw eggs and other ruined creations. His hands and feet flailed from just above the trash lid, but there was no escaping.
She turned around at the sound of groaning. The second robber was trying, in vain, to feel at his surroundings with his visibly reddened hands from when she had slammed them into the oven. He had no chance to see, his entire head covered in already cooling chocolate, but was still attempting to escape.
Melissa bent down and picked up a 50-lb bag of unopened flour beside her refrigerator, dropping it upon the back of the blind man who collapsed beneath its weight to the tiled floor. He sobbed in distress and she frowned. For good measure, she lifted the bag once more, a little higher this time, before dropping it again.
This time, he didn’t make a sound.
Visibly nodding, she picked up the bag of flour, now ruined with tiny holes spilling white powder, and went over to where the first robber continued to struggle within the round trash can. As she appeared above him, he noticeably froze, no doubt able to see her through stinging eyes.
Impassively, she lifted the heavy bag and dropped it within without hesitation. Any sound that Hershel could have made was muffled.
She breathed out, wiping the sweat from her forehead.
“Thank you for visiting Hell’s Confectionaries, please don’t come again.”
Published in TOWN & COUNTRY and several international editions of COSMOPOLITAN, Phyllis has ghosted a best-selling beauty book as well as a nationally-syndicated fashion and beauty column. She has written two film scripts – one of which is under consideration - and was a consultant on the award-winning indie Hurricane Bianca. She has read her short fiction at New York’s iconic Red Room Literary salon and her first novel, The Spa at Lavender Lane, is nearing publication. She is at work on her second.
Prior to leaving the corporate world to write full time, Phyllis served for nearly 20 years as Vice President of Public Relations for The Estee Lauder Companies where she was instrumental in launching some of the world’s best-known fragrances and beauty products. In addition, she managed the spokesperson careers of diva supermodels and served as liaison for the Lauder family. She is proud of having worked closely with Evelyn Lauder as Mrs. Lauder created the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the now iconic Pink Ribbon.
Phyllis holds a master’s degree in Communications from NYU, a B.S. from Temple University and is a member of The Author’s Guild, New York Women in Film and Television, American Women in Communications, Fashion Group International and The Art Students League. She administers a scholarship at The Curtis Institute of Music, has served on the board of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and has participated in the Volunteers of America after-school initiative.
THE WAITING ROOM
There were several of us in the Intensive Care waiting room that afternoon, as disparate a group as only New York City could assemble, separated by custom and ethnicity, but united by anxiety and fear. Fear of loss. Fear of death. Fear of a future deprived of someone we love.
The gaggle of women in jewel toned saris, their men in khakis or jeans but nodding to tradition with brown leather sandals...a middle-aged African-American couple, quiet, dignified, very tender with one another, an enviable unity in any environment but most especially in this one...a tall Korean teenager, captive under a state-of-the-art headset, eyes deep in concentration and body strangely still...an old Hassidic man, rocking back and forth, a small black prayer book in his ancient, gnarled hands - people who, under normal circumstances, would have been somewhat guarded with one another, if not totally distrustful, but in the cauldron of that less than welcoming space, we were all defending against palpable fear and the room's faint antiseptic smell, bonded in endless hours of waiting and hoping, if not praying for the recovery of a loved one barely clinging to life.
Notably missing were children, but such a place is not for young souls. Hushed conversations. Several days and nights of tears and hand wrenching and an occasional nervous laugh. Sad, anxious people walking in and out. Polite conversation in little pockets. Occasional pleasantries between us. Small, knowing smiles. Heartfelt condolences when their someone had lost the final battle. And constantly the same intense gaze from an attractive man in the far corner, forty or so, with abundant dark hair and a medium build. I could not ascertain his height because I never saw him standing. It seemed that he just sat, hour after hour and each time I glanced his way, he was more than glancing back at me.
As I unlocked clenched hands and wiped the tears of worry and exhaustion from my face, I could feel his eyes burrowing beneath my skin, uncomfortable, unwanted and unexpected attention under such circumstances, but I looked up, nonetheless, and found myself riveted to his gaze, hard pressed to turn away and unable to quell the response in my body that had been building with each glance and finally leaving me drenched with guilt.
My body had no right to react that way. Just yards away, my father lay tethered to drips and monitors, his body giving in to the cancer that had staked its claim several months before. It was just a matter of time - hours if not days - that I would lose him, the man who had sacrificed so much to make sure that I, his only child, would have every advantage in life.
Shame. I should have felt shame at my body’s response at such a time, but amidst the sadness, what I felt was forbidden excitement and unimagined possibilities.
I had seen the man yesterday and the few days before that, and he had kept his distance, but every time my eyes met his, I felt him moving closer and closer. It was an odd game of cat and mouse, with neither creature moving but both keenly aware of the chase. I knew nothing about him...his name, his age, the person for whom he was waiting and hoping. I knew only that just watching him and being in the same room for several days with him were running riot over the conscious caring of my dying father just yards away.
I went in and out of my father's room, hoping I would see a halt to the inevitable slide. But there was none. Just the relentless slow journey to the inevitable conclusion. And each time I was by my father's side, I chastised myself for my eagerness to go back out to the glance that would be waiting for me. The heartbeat of life - precious, glorious life. It was the only thing that enabled me to continue, and that evening when the man finally gestured toward me to follow him, there was little question that I would.
Night had stolen the afternoon light and the room was dim and quiet. Most of the others, save one or two newcomers, had gone. The man and I walked wordlessly down the endless hallway, anticipation igniting the space between us. When we finally reached the exit, we pushed through the doors and our faces were hit with cold, wet air, blessedly cleansing the smell of death from our nostrils. Finally, we looked at each other full on. He was taller than I had expected, and it was less awkward than I thought it would be, but I did not risk a smile and neither did he.
It was well past midnight, and the dark, empty parking lot loomed ahead like the deserted playing field it was, filled to capacity during the day with the vehicles of ancillary players in the recurring drama of life and death.
He led me to the far end of the lot where a lone car stood. It was deep red, low and sleek, probably some sort of European sports car, but never having been one to notice either the make or lineage of an automobile, it mattered little.
He opened the door and I slid in, barely able to capture the hem of my coat before he closed the door. Made brave by the barrier of glass, I looked up at him, my eyes reaching shamelessly for his. He held my gaze for a moment, then was gone, re-appearing in seconds on the seat beside me. My pulse began to race.
Savior and executioner, he reached for me.
“No, not here,” I tried to whisper, but the words couldn’t come. We had yet to speak, and I couldn’t allow these mundane words to be the first between us. I quickly raised my hand instead, and he leaned away. I heard the key enter the ignition and my heart jolted, and as the car eased into motion, I put my hand down on the seat to brace myself, not so much against the movement of the car, but for what was sure to come. I stared straight ahead, but I could feel his fingers sweep briefly across the tops of mine. Fire ignited in my hand and swept through every part of my body.
And still there were no words between us, only the unbearable closeness of him, his faint, musky smell, and the currents of desire coursing through my body with such intensity that I could not let my brain take hold of them lest they would burrow so deeply into my consciousness they would find no way out.
He drove slowly, navigating the dark, wet, leaf-littered streets. Bright yellow bulbs flashed a message at the approach of a deserted cul de sac. “Caution!” the signed warned. “Slippery road ahead.”
“Caution,” I read out loud, my first spoken word to him.
“Slippery road ahead,” he read with a smile in his voice, his first words to me, as he pulled the car over to the side of the road and barely stopped before reaching for me.
I don’t know how we got there that night, how we made the leap from solitary angst to something so polar opposite that it would have seemed entirely impossible to even contemplate. We clung together to seize the light in a sea of darkness, to affirm life in the face of impending death.
His mother died in the early hours of that morning and my father, just hours later. I never did learn his name, nor he, mine, and we never saw each other again.
Dede Sanchez is currently enrolled in the Creative Writing for Entertainment BFA program at Full Sail University.
“Why two beds?” he asked the middle-aged blonde that sat next to him on the hotel’s veranda. She looked up at him and inhaled from her cigarette. The tip turning bright orange as it burned. She held in the smoke for a bit before exhaling.
“Just in case you find her, she’ll want to sleep in her own bed. Always liked her own space. She’ll appreciate it,” she said. She snubbed out the spent cigarette butt in the ash tray and plucked another from the pack
“I don’t want you to get your hopes up. I already told you it’s likely, after this amount of time, we are searching for a body,” he replied. She stopped, her a lighter midway from lighting the cigarette and pinned him with a look. She snatched the unlit cigarette out of her mouth and sighed.
“Look, I know you aren’t hoping for the best. You barely knew her. But I know my daughter. I know she is alive and nothing you say will change that.” She stood up and tossed the cigarette down on the table. She walked to the balcony’s edge and looked off into the distance, her back to him. “I didn’t come all the way out here to god knows where, USA without being completely sure she is alive.” She stuck her hand in her pocket and kept it there.
“What do you have in your pocket, Mrs. Ramsey?” She looked down at her hand. She pulled out her hand and walked back to the table.
“I--,” she said as she sat down. She reached back into her pocket and pulled out her treasure. “It’s her locket.” She placed a small heart-shaped gold locket on the table. “She left it for me. She never takes it off and she somehow knew she’d be taken and so she left it for me.” He looked down at the chain and furrowed his brow.
“So, you’re saying she knew the people who took her?” he asked.
“I don’t know what I’m saying,” she responded snatching the locket from the table and shoving it back into her pocket. “It’s not my job to know what’s going on. It’s your job.” She grabbed the discarded cigarette and placed it between her lips. She lit it and took a long drag.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that every lead that we’ve had leads us nowhere.” He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed his forehead. “I’m sorry to have wasted more of your time,” he said as he stood from the table.
“Yeah we’ll its high goddamned time you stop wasting my time and go find my daughter.”
“Sure, Mrs. Ramsey. Right away.”
He sat outside a dilapidated house. Unmoving and quiet for several long moments. He looked at his watch, 4 pm. He grabbed his keys from the ignition and went inside. “Please, someone help me,” said female voice from somewhere deep in the house. He walked towards a door and pulled it open. Beyond, stairs descended downward. He followed them into a dimly lit cellar. In the center under a dim hanging lightbulb was a bed. In that bed bound by her wrists and ankles was a young blonde woman. “Please.”
“What the hell did I tell you before?” he said to the young woman.
“No, no. I’m sorry,” she replied. He knelt down next to her and grabbed her hair. He forced her to face him.
“I said, be quiet. I said things would get worse if you weren’t quiet.”
“Saw your mommy today,” he said. He let go of her hair and ran his hand down her cheek, she cringed from his touch. Her eyes filled with tears. “That bitch just won’t give up.” He pushed her back down and moved to the other side of the room. “Guess she won’t rest until I find your body.”
“No, please.” She began to struggle against her bonds.
“Shut up, goddamnit.” He turned towards her, a blade in his hand.
“You son of a bitch,” came another woman’s voice. He turned to see Mrs. Ramsey standing at the bottom of the cellar stairs, a gun in her hand. She pointed the gun at him. “I fucking knew it.”
“Mrs. Ramsey,” he said, but she didn’t hesitate. She shot, and the blast hit him right in the chest. He screamed and fell to the ground. She walked over to him, looked down and smiled.
“I knew it was you. I just needed you to lead me to her. I hope the devil is as brutal to you as you were to her,” she said. Then she walked away. He turned his head to follow her. He gasped for breath as the area he was shot became saturated with red. “Are you okay baby?” She began untying the bounds at her daughters ankles, then the ones on her wrist.
“I knew you’d find me,” her daughter said. Tears forming in her eyes. She threw her arms around her mother and wept. He could hear the sound of sirens growing louder.
“You know, it really is a shame you’re going to die here,” Mrs. Ramsey said her eyes on him. “I think jail would have been good for you.”
David Gabriel is an Orlando based writer, who has not seen the light of day in months. Please send help. You can follow him on Twitter @MrGabrielWrites.
Penny’s tapping of the keyboard ceases as a knock echoes upstairs. She opens the blinds and recoils from the sun. Her eyes adjust, and she sees a mailman walking away from her house, continuing his rounds. She sits up from her ‘desk and knocks over a mug. It spills day-old coffee that stains a photo. In the photo is a smiling Penny and a scrawny man, in times square. In the bottom corner of the photo written in pen, are the words Forever yours - Jacob. She slaps the mug aside and manically wipes down the photo attempting to preserve it. She fails, and the words end up smeared. She grips the sides of the desk, taking shallow breaths.
She looks dejectedly at the photo and shakes her head. Penny then exits the room into the hallway and avoiding half-packed boxes as she walks towards the door. On the walls a thin layer of dust outlines where pictures once hung. She reaches the door, opens it and looks down. On the welcome mat she sees a thin cardboard box, picks it up and reads over the label. It’s for her, but there’s no return address.
No, no, no.
She closes the door and walks inside with it. She opens the package; a photograph slides out depicting a single pine tree that overlooks a lake. Written in the bottom corner are the words Find Me. Her shoulders slump, and a knot forms in her stomach. The photo shakes in her hands.
Why? Why today? Why not tomorrow or a year from now? Why did you arrive today?
She takes a deep breath and tosses the box against the wall. She then walks back upstairs, holding the picture delicately. When she reaches the bedroom, she goes over to an open box. Within is photos showing various scenery: hills, lakes, skyscrapers. They all have the same hand-written words: Find Me.
How am I supposed to find you?
She carefully places the picture in the box and moves towards her computer. A half-written document covers the screen. A speech filled with hollow words describing who Jacob was, and what he meant to her.
With a few clicks, the document is erased. Before she has the chance to change her mind, she turns the computer off. An upbeat ringtone interrupts the silence. The caller ID says, In Law. Penny lets it ring twice before answering.
“Penny?” Jacob’s mother asks.
Penny doesn’t answer, and stares at the coffee stained photo.
“Penny, I know its hard right now, and I don’t want to be insensitive but… I need to know. Are you coming tonight?”
Should I? Penny thinks. She walks back over to the box, and retrieves the photo she received today, re-reading the message Find Me.
“Should I go?” she asks the photo.
“Of course, you should go, Penny. Everyone wants you to be there,” Jacob’s mother says
Penny stares at the photo taking in every detail. The room begins to smell of pine, and she hears rushing water. Jacobs mother clears her throat as if saying, well?
“I’ll go,” Penny says.
“Oh? Excellent, dearie. We will come get you in a couple hours.”
“Okay, sounds good.”
Penny feels wind brush against her hair and hears a faint voice.
“Find me,” the voice says.
“How?” Penny asks.
Margaret walked up to the single-story home of her son. The peeling yellow paint, and unkempt garden cause her nose to stay perpetually pointed skyward. A thin black veil covered her piercing eyes, that swept across every detail of the building.
“Really Jacob, this is where you lived?”
She knocked on the door, and after a minute knocked again. Then she rummaged around her purse, withdrawing a key. She opened the door, and found the home abandoned.
“Dearie? Are you home? We really must get going.”
She searched but found no one. Her phone rang somberly, and she flipped it open.
“Hello?” Margaret asks.
“Mrs. Taylor? This is Mr. Johnson from the funeral home.”
“Is everything alright?”
“Well, I don’t know how quite to explain this, but your son is missing.”
Penny groaned and pulled against the heavy weight dragging her down. Ahead she could see the outline of the lake, the trees became sparse until only one remained a tall oak. She laid down a large black bag next to the tree and sat down next to it. She looked over the lake and watched as the sun set. Far away, she heard sirens, and saw faint red and blue creep in. She looked down at the black bag.
She was cold. She should have grabbed another jacket she thought to herself as she wandered down the road. Glancing behind her she spied an old blue truck coming her way. Holding her thumb out she held back her long brown hair with her other hand. Smiling when the truck slowed down she edged to the road and waved.
“Where you headed to doll?” The elderly man asked as he leaned over to the passenger window, cranking it down.
“Just the next town over. Can I catch a ride it’s awfully cold out here.” She smiled at him.
After her nodded his head and unlocked the door she grabbed her bag and slid it in between them on the tattered bench seat. Closing the door, she buckled in as he started speeding down the road. The interior was almost as old as he was she thought as she glanced at his snow-white hair.
“Why you running away fer’?” he asked as he lit a cigarette. And looked at her from the corner of his eye.
Looking out the window she pushed her curls back out of her face and turned to him. “My step-dad is a drunk, and when he drinks he’s mean, real mean. I’m trying to get to my sister’s place. She ran away too and she’s doing good for herself. She said I could come stay if I needed.” Fiddling with a loose string on her jeans she looked down from the look in the man’s eyes, it was the same look everyone gave her sympathy and she didn’t want that or need it.
“S’long as you ain’t a criminal I don’t care, I would’ve booted you out back on the road.” He said cackling as he flicked ash from the cigarette.
Smiling at him she turned and looked back out the window. They had just passed the sign saying the town was 45 miles away. She hoped he would take the whole way. But if not, she was grateful to be out of the cold for now.
“I’m Jenny. Thank you for the ride. I really appreciate it.”
“Marty, and it’s no problem little missus. You remind me a bit of my own granddaughter I didn’t have the heart to see you alone at night traipsing down the road. She ran away too, the difference is the man who stopped for her was the last person to ever see her.”
Turning she looked and saw his blue eyes darken with, sadness and anger. “couldn’t live with myself if I just kept driving, same could have happened to you.”
He turned his head and smiled at her. “Don’t worry none about me though, I’m too old for that nonsense.”
Smiling she leaned against the windows and shut her eyes. She was so tired. She had been walking for hours before he stopped. Her legs hurt, and she was hungry. Before long, she fell asleep.
Marty looked over at the young girl and sighed. She was so young to go through what she was, but he didn’t even know her, he thought to himself so how could he really help? The least he could do was get her to her sister’s and make sure she was safe. Taking his jacket off he tossed it over her and smiled. He hadn’t planned to go to Jackson today, but it looked like that was where he was heading.
She didn’t remember falling asleep she thought as a gentle hand shook her awake. Sitting up she wiped the sleep from her eyes. “where are we?” she said as she looked out the window.
“McDonald's, I stopped and got us some dinner now, tell me your sister ‘s address and we can head that way, we’re in Jackson now girl.”
Grabbing the burger, he handed her she greedily took a bite as she rattled off an address to him. The food was almost the best she ever had she thought as it filled her belly, she washed it down with the cool coke. As they got closer she started to recognize landmarks and her excitement grew, she was really going to be back with Laurie. She couldn’t wait. Grabbing her bag, she shuffled around in it and pulled out a school photo of herself. As they pulled up in the driveway she leaned over and hugged the man. “Here I want you to have this as a thank you.”
He smiled as he watched the two sisters hug as he drove away.
Embe Charpentier's two novellas, "Beloved Dead" and "Sparks" are published by Kellan Books. She has also been published over 30 times online by journals such as "Polychrome Ink", "Poydras Review", and "The Quotable". See me on my website: embecharpentier.com or on Facebook as Michelle Fidalgo. I'm also on Twitter @embecharpentier.
NO LESS DAYS
3 October, 1918
In the airplane hangar, the uninfected soldiers set cots where planes once stretched their wings. The makeshift hospital reeks of Listerine. Wet, labored coughing echoes in the rafters. The soldiers of Camp Pike, Arkansas twist in their sickbeds, seeking a comfortable spot amidst their future shrouds. A peach-cheeked nurse speaks through her mask. “Private, you’ll be in Europe soon enough.”
Though no fever yet burns within him, Lieutenant Roy Ross feels hot breath upon his neck. Two men in his barracks lay here, their temperatures elevated, their bodies limp as though already dead.
The commander’s band plays at the edge of the parade grounds to cheer the sick as Roy heads toward the gate. The truck from the lumber yard is here. For the enlisted men, freedom from the dictates of the military rests only in the pine boxes he delivers. A day before, three of the men in the hangar died so fast their bodies became cyanotic. The officers handled the removal of their blue bodies. No need to start a panic.
Roy’s stripes allow him passage outside the gates, but he knows it’s only a matter of time before quarantine binds every soldier in Camp Pike.
The doctors borrowed every car in camp, but Tanglewood is only two miles away. Roy strides past fields of tall cornstalks. Under a blue sky strafed by thin clouds, crows pick at ears that go unharvested. As he follows a forest pathway, he envisions the hills of Belleau Woods, where the blood of both sides fed the trunks of ancient oaks. His boots crunch the browned grass. The leaning shack by the cow pond ends his journey.
Fragrant eucalyptus bunches line the walls of the hut. She left a sack of onions and a knife for him beside a sugar bowl. Roy slices the onion in half and rubs the sugar into its rings. The sweet, sharp juices mingle atop the surface of each half, and Roy slurps it up, the tang fresh as life itself. He chases it with a glass of tincture of elderberries, another remedy for the grippe. It had not worked for her brother Luke.
The taste of life from a woman who calls herself the Grim Weeper.
Up the hill to the beckoning farmhouse, a whitewashed amalgam of rooms attached to a dilapidated central core. The floors are not level nor are the door frames plumb. The living room’s player piano sits still, but the gramophone blares Over There. Dirty hands, busy hands have worn the living room wallpaper to its brown backing years before.
“Tilda," Roy calls.
She wears her pink dress only in honor of his visits, she says. The dress' hem is frayed and it falls away from her skinny frame despite the doubling of her father's belt around her waist. "You're here!" she cries, and runs to him, holds him tight enough to feel their breath come together, ebb away.
The bags under her eyes prompt his question: "You're not sleeping again, are you? Do you still hear their voices?"
"Sometimes they speak in the daytime now. They mean me no harm," Tilda says. "They just need remembering is all." She leads him to the table, set with five plates. Included are one for her father, another for her mother, a third for Luke. Mere tradition to set their places, since they lie beside the house, crosses marking their places of rest, buried by Roy’s hands, prayed for daily by Tilda.
The flu takes no prisoners.
The music stops, and Roy hears a rattling about in the cellar. “Who’s here?” he whispers.
“Men who said they was from the state health department,” Tilda says. “They said they heard my family died and had to investigate. But the two of’em had damn bad coughs. They’ve been down there for nigh on to fifteen minutes. Maybe I should check on them?”
Roy grimaces. “Don’t do anything just yet. I’m going to go outside, look at’em through that little window. I might be able to see what they’re doing down there.”
He gingerly crosses the squeaking floorboards to the sagging porch. Along the side of the house near the burial site, a dirt-spattered pane of glass lies at ground level. Laying down on his belly, he finds he cannot see anything, so he rubs the surface with two fingers until he can see a man holding a glass jar of clear liquid.
Roy, in turn, is seen. Scrambling to his feet, he rushes back into the house. As he hears Tilda scream, he runs into the living room. The muscular man hiding beside the threshold pulls him, turns him, punches him hard enough to snap his chin upward. Roy’s knees buckle. A hand snatches Roy’s Colt from its holster. In a blur, Roy sees the skinny young man push Tilda, then take his gun from the big man’s hand. As his bulky assailant’s cough explodes from his throat, he is distracted. Roy shoves himself backward, but not far enough. The acrid odor of white lightning fills his senses as the big man grabs him by the neck and drops him into the wing chair hard enough to wrench a spring.
“Shoulda left well enough alone, Soldier Boy,” the gun-toting youth says. “Saw the still’s copper pipes a’shinin’ in the sun when we was huntin’ over yonder. White lightning’s as good as patent medicine when you start with the hackin’. All we was doin’ was takin’ what we need.”
The big man offers Tilda a helping hand, but as she rose, he wraps an arm around her waist. “Nice little girl like you don’t drink no moonshine.” He twists a strand of her long brown hair. “If you’re not one of them infernal Bible thumpers, I can show you a good ol’ time.”
“Leave her alone,” Roy hollers.
“Go now, before I make you sorry. I looked death in the face.” Tilda’s sweet tinkle of a voice diminishes to an ominous whisper.
“I’m not afraid of you, l’il lady,” Big Man says, tracing Tilda’s jaw line with his finger.
The boy with the gun coughs, and Roy, seizing his opportunity, explodes from his seat. He goes for the weapon. The Colt aims up to the ceiling, down to the floorboards, then slides toward Tilda’s feet. She falls to the floor and seizes the gun’s grip. Big Man’s chest is just inches from the barrel when she fires twice. He tumbles to the floor as the young man, still grappling with Roy, gapes at what she has done. She points the gun at the boy’s face.
“Let go, boy,” she whispers.
He releases Roy’s wrists to cough until he is bent in half. “Go on and shoot,” he wheezes. “It’s you or the flu. Life don’t mean nothin’, don’t you know that? Your family’s gone --”
Tilda pulls the trigger again, the bullet striking the boy’s forehead. Roy’s breath sighs from him in a panicked rush before Tilda offers him the Colt. “Please take it back,” she says. She cries from deep in her belly, heaving and shaking.
“We have to call for the sheriff.” Roy holds Tilda in his arms. “You were defending your body and your property. They won’t send you to jail.”
From behind her tears, her eyes trace the trail of blood from the boy’s wound. “I tried to tell’em. Surer than Hells’s hot, I’m the Grim Weeper.”
They take a ride into town on the old horses that graze in the far pasture. The sheriff and his deputies follow them down the dirt road and out to the house.
She isn’t arrested. In fact, the sheriff tells her she was brave to defend herself. “A girl out here alone needs to be able to shoot and not afraid to do it,” he says.
She remains on the porch as the undertaker’s wagon bears the bodies away. Her reedy version of Amazing Grace makes Roy cry, too. She sings loudest when the lyrics consider eternity:
When we've been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Then when we first begun.
Roy overhears the captains in the officers’ mess. The camp is scheduled to go under full quarantine within twenty-four hours. Without requesting leave, suspecting he would be refused, he heads for the gate. His arms pierce the fall breeze as he marches across the parade grounds like the victorious doughboys in Western Europe.
Tilda will be home – of that he is sure.
At the gate, the sergeant orders Roy back. “Nobody’s leaving today. Commander’s orders.”
No arguing with the man. Roy turns back, recalling Tilda’s version Amazing Grace once more. Have her tears ceased? Has she slept? Have the voices of her family grown louder?
He enters the hangar, seeking his fellow lieutenants who had been carried there. Beside a man whose cheeks have already burst into blue, a volunteer nurse sits. Through her mask she reads a letter, perhaps the last he will ever hear.
“I look forward to seeing you again, my darling.”
The half-dead man may not hear the catch in the nurse’s throat, but Roy recognizes her fear. His stomach tumbles as a nearby victim vomits into a bucket.
He is halfway across the hangar floor when a familiar voice calls his name.
As he turns, Tilda pulls off her mask and walks toward him, arms open. “I came to help.” She holds him tight. “They need us women here.”
She rests his head on his shoulder as their blue eyes fill with tears. “Where did you find the strength to come here?” Roy asks.
“You can’t run from death. You gotta make it run from you,” she says.
This is Jackson Strehlow, Full Sail College student, Navy Veteran.
THE OTHER WOMAN
My hotel room was, in my own opinion, rather modest. A single bedroom, modest common room with a couch and television and a cozy kitchen, with the whole thing done up in recently painted white walls and cheap shag carpeting. But the thing that made it stand out was the sliding back door leading to an outside breakfast nook, with was currently occupied by freshly delivered bagels and coffee.
I was sitting at the coffee table, newspaper in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other, when she appeared within the doorway. For a single moment she captivated me, wearing only a pearly white nightgown that hugged the tempting curves of her body perfectly as she leaned against the frame. A playful smile graced her face as she bit her lower lip.
“Mmmm, morning handsome.”
I kept my eyes glued to my newspaper and said nothing as she sat down in the plastic white chair across from me. She picked up a bagel from the tray and spread a thin layer of cream cheese on it, her eyes never leaving my form.
“You know, I had a wonderful time last night, Ralph.”
Again, I remained silent, preferring to focus more on the paper rather than the woman in front of me trying to subtly get my attention. In this scenario, most people would call me a fool. Most people would be right.
“You were so passionate, so caring.” The woman smiled, adverting her eyes for just a moment as a light brush came over her cheeks, her smile shifting ever so slightly to betray her sense of shyness. “It was…a nice change of pace.” Her eyes came back to focus on me again. “Most men just want to be satisfied and leave when they’re done.”
I continue to avoid meeting her gaze, and instead I keep my eyes focused on the sports section of my paper, though in reality I’m not even reading it. The nagging guilt in the back of my brain won’t let me focus on the words long enough to form them together and make sense of them. So instead, I pretend to read the articles, feigning mild interest in the local football team rather than the scantily clad woman trying to share breakfast with me.
“I was hoping we could go out again.” The woman looked down to her bagel, her hand still absentmindedly spreading the cream cheese like she had forgotten about it. She set down the knife. “Maybe we could spend the day together, get to know each other a little better.” Her eyes searched my face, looking for any reaction she could find. Finding nothing, she tried again. “I know this lovely park I go to sometimes, usually to get away from the hustle and bustle of the inner city.” She gave me another once over before speaking again, her smile faltering and her voice becoming just a little quieter. “It could be nice.”
I licked my lips and stile a glance at my left hand, hidden by my paper. I looked at something that I had removed the night before in a fit of shame, only to place it back on again this morning out of guilt. I let out a quiet sigh. This woman didn’t even know what I’d done.
“Why won’t you talk to me, Ralph?” The worry in her tone betrayed the calm poker face she was trying to maintain. “You haven’t spoken a word to me. Is something wrong?” I continue to say nothing. “Did I do something wrong?”
Still nothing, though I could feel the weight in my chest where my heart was become a little heavier, a slight flinch betraying my otherwise stoic mask.
“Please, say something to me, Ralph. Tell me what’s going on.” Her bagel was now resting on a napkin, unbitten and forgotten. “Is there someone else? Is there some other woman you’re not telling me about?”
Another flinch makes its presence known in my otherwise stone-faced expression, though this time she picks up on it.
“There is, isn’t there? There’s someone else.” Her voice hitched as she spoke, the sudden realization betraying her inability to keep herself together much longer. “What’s her name?” Anger was now present in her tone. Slight, but still there. “Tell me, what’s her name? What’s the name of the woman who is apparently so important to you that you can’t speak to me?”
The moment she stopped talking, I put my newspaper down and sighed, still keeping myself from looking her in the eye. The silence that passed between us was palpable. So much so, that it could be cut with a knife. And that’s where we remained for nearly ten seconds. Ten seconds of wordless tension that felt like hours, before I finally looked at her and spoke.
“You.” I raised my left hand, the now-present gold ring on my finger making its first appearance to this woman. “You’re the other woman.” And with that I got up from my chair, set my now cold cup of coffee down on the table, and walked back into the room. Without another word, I set the room keys on the kitchen counter, made my way out the front door, and closed it behind me.
She never tried to stop me.
Joshua O'Brien hails from New York and likes pineapple on his pizza. His job is to entertain anyone he meets and everyone he hasn't. Follow him on Twitter (@JoshuaPOBrien), Facebook (Joshua O’Brien), and Instagram (joshuaobrienvo).
I can’t believe I let them bribe me into doing another stupid job. It’ll be easy they said. Just sneak in, scout out the area, and leave they said. Easy my ass. Here I am sneaking into a warehouse full of undead and all I got is a 9mm and a pack of gum. Better be some damn good pay for this or I’m gonna hang those idiots over a horde of zombies by their balls.
Balls is such an interesting word. It can either be the male genitalia or be used as another word for guts. It can be used to help show how much of a badass you really are. Hell, I’m a girl and I probably have more balls than half the folks back at base.
Anyway, back to the task at hand. Gotta stay quiet so I don’t alarm the meat bags. Let’s see here. Couple of forklifts, an office in the back corner, an endless amount of undead and sevenish unopened shipping containers. Those containers are probably what they’re looking for.
Welp, time to head back. “Shit!” Of course I’d drop my gun and hit an empty barrel, why not? “Dammit.” Okay, just find the exit and hope they didn't hear that. Nope, too late. They heard that and they’re blocking the way I came in. Great, now they’re all walking towards me. Think fast Chloe. “The back alley!”
That’s where my ride should be. But the only way to get there would be through the loading dock and that's swarmed with undead. I could make a break for the exit, but I can only run so fast. Not to mention there’s about five hundred hungry reasons I shouldn’t do that. Screw it, I’m gonna drive a forklift right through them and hope for the best. Just got done talking about how big my imaginary balls are, might as well prove it.
“Three. Two. One. Go!” Hop the railing and jump down these shipping containers. Push away the zombie on my right. Punch the asshole coming from the left. “Come on legs, don’t fail me now!” Crap! A crawler grabbed my shoe. If I don’t get him off of me, I’ll get bit. “Let me go, you rotting bag of shit!” I managed to slip out of the shoe he grabbed and took off for the forklift. “Ha! And Jack said I’d get killed wearing slip on sneakers. Eat it, Jack!”
I made it and the key is already in the ignition, awesome. It won’t start, not awesome. “Come on. Come on. Start already! Yes!” Hit the gas and go.
This is going well so far. I had no idea forklifts were so fast. Granted, I’m swerving around most of the zombies so I don’t lose speed. “Hell yeah! I made it. Now, where’s the damn?--”
“Took you long enough, Chloe! You just gonna sit there or are you getting in?!”
“No matter how many jobs we go on together, I’ll never get used to you pulling up in this thing.” Jack always drives around this old taco truck. Say’s it’s the best thing to have in an apocalypse situation. To be honest, I’ve been saved by this thing so many times, I’m starting to agree with him.
“You can say whatever you want about my ride. It’s still the only thing that’s keeping the two of us from being dinner.”
“You’re not wrong there, Jackie.”
“Would ya stop calling me that? I’m a dude. Now get back there and show these undead fuck-wads today’s specials.”
“You got it, Jackie. Time to serve our new customers.” Man, I love saying that. There she is, fully loaded and ready to go. “Did you miss me, sweetie? I promise to stop leaving you here all alone. Wow, you feel so clean and your barrel seems bigger.”
“Would ya stop having finger sex with the M60 and shoot those zombies?”
“You wanna start driving and get us out of here? And don’t tell me how to handle my guns! We’ll continue this later, sweetie. Now, it’s time to have some fun. Let’s show these bastards how big our balls really are!”