Trent Jueckstock is an aspiring writer who grew up in Plymouth, MI and currently lives in Winter Park, FL
The Whisper of Guilt
Nothing. That is the amount of change Kevin felt, nothing. He’d been laying in his bed for hours at this point, waiting for the drug to have some kind of affect like the numerous doctors articles that advertised it. As he lay in complete darkness, he began to realize how much of an idiot he was for falling for such claims.
“One pill curing depression in just 24 hours,” he said. “Laura was right, I am gullible.”
Kevin wished he hadn’t said that, as all the bad memories he had tried so hard to forget came flooding back. The argument, the car crash, the lifeless bodies of his wife Laura and young son Jake, all clouded his mind. He threw the covers off of him and began to lightly sob into his hands. All he wanted was to free himself of the repressed pain and guilt that had been consuming him and regain the happiness he hadn’t felt since his family’s death over a year ago. After numerous prescriptions and therapy, this new ‘super” antidepressant was the only chance he had left to achieve that dream.
Just a little relief, he thought “Is that too much to ask?”
He stared into the darkness of his bedroom for a moment before a sudden flash of lightning from outside lit up his bedroom and the pitter-patter of rain hitting the roof filled his ears.
“Another thunderstorm,” He mumbled “Just what I needed to boost my mood.”
Kevin managed to stop crying and reached for the tissue box on the nearby night stand in hopes of wiping the tear and snot streaks from his face. Before he could reach it, another flash of lightning lit up his bedroom. Briefly revealing the horrifying sight of a nasty laceration covering his arm, filled with shards of glass and dripping with blood.
“What the hell!” Kevin shouted as he grabbed at his arm.
He didn’t feel anything. No blood, no glass or pain, just the feeling of skin. But, then he felt the indentation of scar tissue. That’s when it hit him. That was one of the injuries he had suffered in the car crash. Kevin grabbed the empty pill bottle off his night stand and waited for another flash of lightning to reveal the label on the bottle. After another flash brightened his room, he saw exactly what he was looking for.
“Product may cause vivid visual and auditory hallucinations during first 24 hours,” he read. This must mean the antidepressant is working! Kevin thought.
“I just have to make it through tonight and I’ll be in the clear,” he said.
He laid back in bed and shut his eyes, intending to sleep through the hallucinatory process. Suddenly, he felt a sense of overwhelming terror that he had never felt before. He tried to ignore it, but was disrupted by one of the most bone chilling things he’d ever heard.
“Hello dear.” A voice weakley said from the darkness.
The voice was course and its words were slurred, but Kevin could still recognize it with ease. He turned to face the source of the voice. He couldn’t see anything initially, but immediately afterward another bolt of lightning brightened the room and revealed what the voice had come from. It was Kevin’s wife Laura, only she now possessed an appearance straight out of a nightmare. Her skin was pale and bloody, her eyes pitch black and her cracked yellowed teeth formed into an unnaturally wide smile.
“No...you’re not real,” Kevin shouted. “You can’t be!”
“Why are you shouting?” she whispered. “You’re scaring your son.”
Kevin then noticed through the darkness that the smaller figure of his son Jake had now stepped out from behind her. They both stared at Kevin before raising their right arm to point at him.
“You killed us,” they shouted in conjunction. “It’s all your fault!”
“No it isn’t,” he shot back. “How could I have known the truck would run the red light?”
“You took your eyes off the road,” Laura said. “You felt it was more important to take your frustrations out on us than make sure we were safe.”
“I hate you, dad,” Jake growled.
Kevin’s eyes began to fill with tears again as the hissing voices of his dead family continued to call him out for his numerous wrongdoings. He tried to keep his composure, but he eventually lost control and fell at their feet in a sobbing mess.
“I’m sorry,” Kevin whimpered. “I’m so sorry!”
He pressed his face harder into the carpet. He couldn’t bring himself to look at their mangled visage again. A visage he was responsible for.
“I’m sorry about the drinking,” he began. “I’m sorry I missed Jake’s birthdays, I’m sorry I forgot our wedding anniversary, I’m sorry for the numerous fights and the car crash.”
Laura and Jake didn’t say anything, but Kevin could still sense their foreboding presence.
“They were all my fault and I should’ve taken responsibility for them instead of blaming them all on you,” he sobbed. “I was a terrible husband and father and you deserved far better than what I gave you.”
Suddenly, the thunderstorm stopped and the foreboding atmosphere was replaced by the usual sense of calm. Kevin looked up to see that Laura and Jake had vanished. He stood up and wiped the tears from his eyes. He walked out into his living room and watched as the first signs of sunlight began to trickle over the horizon. The warmth it projected on him through his window was both calming and refreshing.
I think it’s about time I paid them a visit. Kevin thought. “I at least owe them that.”
Kevin then grabbed his car keys and walked out his front door. Finally having the courage to see his family’s graves for the first time since their funeral.
Love & Horror
It had been a very long week for Seth, but the one thing that he had to look forward to was going to Horror Night at Universal Studios. So when the day finally arrived Seth was anxiously counting down the hours till it was time for him to head to the park. When he got there the spooky vibe hit him like a brick wall. The red ominous lights reflecting off of the ground was casting dark shadows of all the workers who were dressed up in creepy costumes.
As Seth walked around the park he saw people dressed up as so many of his favorite horror movie characters like Micheal Myers, Freddy Kruger, Jason Vorhese, the girl from the Ring, and hell he even saw an Ash from the Evil Dead series. The longer Seth was in the park the more he started to forget all the shitty things that had happened this past week.
A couple of hours had passed since Seth arrived at the park. When he finally saw all of the special horror themed roller coasters that they had. The first one that he came across was The Nightmare on Elm Street themed coaster. After waiting in line for about thirty minutes it was finally Seth’s turn. As he walked up to the cart, he saw this gorgeous girl who had long, curly,and silky looking red hair and light blue eyes. In that moment Seth got this panic feeling in his stomach and started to think to himself Please Don’t Sit Me Next to Her over and over again. Next thing he knew he was sitting right next to her.
“Hey there are you okay?” asked the girl.
“Yea I’m okay,” says Seth.
“Alright well what's your name?” asked the girl.
Seth looks away and then says,”I’m Seth.”
“Well, it's nice to meet you Seth,” says the girl.”I’m Rachel.”
They both awkwardly watched the people coming to fill up all the carts behind them in silence. When all of a sudden Rachel asked,”So is this your first time to horror night?”
“Is it that obvious?”.
“Only a little bit.”
Then the ride starts to ascend into a very dark hallway. Then all of a sudden they dropped down into a boiler room. As they maneuver through all of the pipes in the boiler room, they come to a giant Freddy hand with the tracks tracing over it. When all of a sudden the ride stops with them being right on the tip of one of the knives. Everyone starts to scream just as an announcer comes over the intercom saying, ”We are currently experiencing some technical difficulty. So please stay calm as we fix the problem.”
Seth looks over at Rachel and sees just how scared she is. He then realizes that he should probably talk to her and try to keep her calm. “Everythings going to be ok Rachel,” says Seth.
“How do you know that?” screamed Rachel.
“Because I’m sure that this kind of thing happens all the time.”
“I’ve been coming here for the past seven years and this is a first.”
“Well, regardless if its a first it's happening so best thing we can do is stay calm.”
“STAY CALM? We’re fucking upside down,” Rachel screamed.
Seth was struggling to stay calm in this situation let alone keep Rachel calm. “I know, trust me I am fucking terrified, but panicking isnt going to change our situation,” says Seth. Rachel just kept looking around quietly. “So why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?” Seth asked.
Rachel sighed then says, “Well, I grew up here. I am currently twenty-three and working as a bartender.”
“That’s awesome,” says Seth. “What's it like working as a bartender?”
“It's actually a lot of fun. Since I am a night person it fits into my schedule pretty well,” says Rachel.
“Do you get free alcohol when ever you want?”
Rachel laughed a little bit and then replied, “Sometimes but that's only when people buy shots for me to take with them.”
“Hmmm how often does that happen?”
“Well, considering people don’t like drinking alone pretty regularly,” Rachel says with a smile..
Seth noticing the smile says, “You’ve got a very lovely smile.”
“Thank you,” says Rachel as she started to blush.
Seth smiles back at her and then asks, “So what is the weirdest thing that you have experienced while being a bartender?”
“Well, there has been a lot of weird moments,” says Rachel. “But the one that takes the cake would have to be when this one guy was flirting with me and he asked me how much it would cost for me to fuck him.”
“Wow, that must have been terrifying more than weird.”
“No not really because I get guys who hit on me all the time.”
“Ah, I see. So what does your boyfriend have to say about that?”
“Well, I’m single so not a damn thing,” Rachel says while laughing.
Seth laughing with her says, ”Wow.”
“So tell me a little about you?”
“Alright well let's see, I am twenty-one and I’m currently a manager at a movie theater,”
“Well, that's cool,”
“So what is the craziest thing that you have seen while working there?”
“Well, this one time I caught this elderly couple fucking during a Pixar film,” Seth says while laughing. For the next three minutes Seth and Rachel were just laughing. When the next thing they knew the ride finally started moving again. They both were smiling as the ride came to a stop at the exit.
“I just wanted to thank you for keeping me calm,” Rachel says as she hugged Seth.
“Your welcome,” Seth says while hugging Rachel back.
“Would you want to go out sometime?”.
Seth smiled and says “yes.”
An amusement park dissolves its lights into the dusk night with the moon peeking through the pine trees outside. The clickety-clack of roller coasters and the screams of children can be heard from the distance. A mini donut stand spreads the smell of sugar and cinnamon across the park as a swift breeze carries along. The sweet cool breeze strikes Jack in the back, a twenty-two year old guy who is as skinny as a twig, waiting in line with his beautiful twenty-one year old girlfriend, Lucy, to ride the ferris wheel.
The ferris wheel is quite quiet as its flashing lights dance across its white metallic structure. The cars on the ferris wheel look like mini air balloons, ready to fly off into the night. They swing delicately in the air but Jack begins to realize something. Only one of the cars caught his attention. Its immense squeaking silences everything else around Jack as he focuses on the devilish red balloon. The balloon taunts Jack as it slowly approaches the loading platform. Squeak! The ferris wheel stops. The other balloons sway in the silent wind.
A guy approaches them; he works the ferris wheel gate. His hat looks like a blue girl-scout fedora which matches his blue work clothes. He opens the door for Jack and Lucy, smiling at them in the most wonderful joy. The man follows behind Jack and Lucy and meets them at the balloon. Jack watches him as he unlocks the strong metal bolt to the door and opens the door. Jack allows Lucy to walk in first and then he follows her in. The guy slowly shuts the door and dramatically, he bolts the door shut, sealing the prisoners in their cage. The ferris wheel engine kicks on as the cars jolt in the air. Jack shuts his eyes for a second but reopens them as he finds their car to be squeaking in their ears.
“Alright, can we talk?” says Lucy.
Jack still focuses on the squeaking of the balloon as he looks up to the hinges of their car.
“Ok, look, Jack,” she says. “How on Earth are we ever going to fix this if you don’t talk to me?”
Jack looks down to find Lucy’s eyes.
Lucy widens her eyes and questionably shrugs her shoulders at him.
“What is there to talk about?” says Jack.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t expect to see him here tonight, but I did. It would have been very awkward if I didn’t talk to him.”
Jack flushes a tear from his eye as he turns away and looks down to the ground. He finds the ferris wheel worker staring at him, with an extravagant smile on his face.
“Jack!” she says. “Are you even listening to me?”
“Oh, I’ve been listening to you long enough. Day in and day out, you’re always talking to him. You call him, you text him, you visit him, and you plan meet-ups with him like tonight.”
“Oh my God! You really think I planned this out?”
“Well, I will tell you what wasn’t planned. You making out with him behind the cotton candy stand.”
Lucy shuts up. Their balloon is at the tippy top of the wheel. The ferris wheel makes a rough sound, like when the brakes on a car break out. The balloons come to a halt as the ferris wheel begins to shake its own miniquake. An explosion at the bottom of the ferris wheel erupts and sends a ball of fire into the air. The fire blazes towards the top of the ride where Jack and Lucy sit in their balloon. Jack looks around the ground and notices the worker has vanished.
“Jack!” Lucy says. She scoots over to Jack’s side but he pushes her off. “Jack, please! I’m scared!”
“You know what, Lucy?” Jack says. “I’m not afraid anymore!”
Another explosion erupts from below as their car begins to sweat in the flames which roar to them.
“I’m not afraid of roller coasters,” he says.
The ferris wheel’s foundation gives out as the ferris wheel tips a little to the side. Lucy gives out a scream as Jack stands up and hangs onto the center pole that divides them.
“I’m not afraid of heights,” he says.
The flames burn the glass as the door’s glass shatters into pieces, releasing a scream from Lucy.
“I’m not afraid of death,” he says.
Jack jumps out of the balloon’s car and straight into the roaring flames. Lucy screams in terror as the stomach-churning ride gives out on its foundation. The metal supports bend as the top of the ferris wheel falls faster and faster to the ground. Lucy hangs onto the pole as the bones from her knuckles look to be growing through her own skin. She lets out one last painful scream as the ride smashes her skull into the concrete. Glass shatters everywhere and the screams begin to grow and grow from inside the park. The moon sinks into the ground as the darkness surrounds the scorching flames, burning into the night.
Conspiracy and Paranoia
Raquel Ruiz is a 21-year-old Freelance Writer and has been writing for a little over 10 years now. To improve upon herself, she spends her time creating story plots, characters, and worlds that her stories would have taken place in. Raquel Ruiz takes pride in her work, and always will. Follow Raquel Ruiz on Twitter @princessing5
The End Game
As Jennifer walks further into her home, she smells the wet freshly coated paint on the wall. The smell reminds her that her boyfriend wanted to experience an adventure on his own, painting. When entering her home, she passes by the living room admiring the new color. The walls which once were dark down were now a light pastel green accenting the room with a light and fluffy tone.
While sniffing the air, Jennifer licks her lips catching a whiff of what was currently baking in the kitchen. The faint scent of chocolate chip cookies swirled through the air mixing in with the overpowering smell of wet paint. Jennifer walked around the rest of the first floor in search of her boyfriend.
Where could he be...
Jennifer continues her search moving over to the staircase, with each step she took, the sound of her heels tapping on the wooden floor echoes throughout the large house.
When she finally reached the top, her nose wrinkled as it was flooded with more wet paint from every room in the hallway. While passing each one, she would look inside and inspect each room, then close the doors and continued the process until she found her boyfriend.
I swear if he’s trying to scare me...
When Jennifer was close to the end of the hallway, before turning the corner, the sensation in her feet finally pulsed hard enough to make her wail and hurriedly take her heels off. While unhooking the strap of her second shoe and pulling it off, she smelled the small hint of iron hit the air.
When she turned the corner, her eyes widened, and her heart picked up so much speed, she could hear it pounding in her ears. However, she was more focused on the long red trail of what looked like blood running along the white-colored hallway walls and light brown hardwood floors.
No, this can’t be…
“Babe?” Jennifer cautiously moves around the blood splats trying to avoid contact. Moving her head every which way, she starts looking for the source of the blood hoping it was just red paint set up in this decorative pattern just to scare the wits out of her. “…Babe? This isn’t funny!” Jennifer yelled out, hoping to receive an answer.
When she reached the last door of the hallway, blood was pouring from under the off black door frame. The door frame of the master bedroom where she and her boyfriend spent their days cuddling under the sheets and making love till the sun came up their domain. Jennifer mustered up all of her courage and turned the door handle, pushing the door open, but it wouldn’t budge. Assuming that the door was blocked, she continued pushing until suddenly when she made her last push, she stumbled through the doorway as if nothing was blocking the door at all. While confusingly getting up and looking around she spotted it, her boyfriend’s body, slumped up against the wall with blood gushing out of his skull and stomach, his guts spilling out of him, and his throat sliced like a cherry pie.
Why, why would someone do this. Why?!
Suddenly, the door she busted threw closed shut, revealing the person who was hiding behind it. She watched them with her eyes wide and heart-pounding, frightened as they looked back with just as big eyes with large bags underneath. Their eyes stared into Jennifer’s as if looking into her soul and licking her soon to be ripped out heart. Jennifer shivered while looking away, her aura shifted as she stood with her hand touch the black strap on her thigh. The air got heavy.
“Hello, was he your boo-bear?” Said the female killer, her voice crackled as she snickered lowly, walking slowly forward then stopping just a few feet away from Jennifer. “Not going to answer, are you scared?” The killer asked. After not receiving any sign of a response she continued “Do you want to join him?”
Jennifer looked at the killer through her bangs, her eyes glaring out of anger and frustration. Jennifer slowly faces her with her head still lowered ready for anything.
“Well, you’re next bitch!” The killer points the knife at her. Jennifer dashed forward slicing off her arm as if she was cutting meat in the kitchen.
“You dare kill him?!” Jennifer responds while stabbing her boyfriend’s killer multiple times. “You took it away, you took it away, you took…” Jennifer repeated over and over again as the killer cried in pain loudly begging her to stop. “You took my chance away, all my money, all the time it took to seduce him. You fucking bastard! I hate you!” Jennifer repeated again and again until her killer was barely hanging onto her life.
Taking a small break, she sits on the killer’s stomach. While looking at her face, she gets upset all again and says, “Your turn bitch,” as she took the killer's life by stabbing her in the eye. Blood was gushing and pouring from every hole in the killer’s body, the knife sticking out of her skull as both the killer’s blood and her boyfriend’s blood merged and mixed with one another.
Now I have to start all over.
Juliet Lockwood writes a variety of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She earned her first publishing credit at 18 when her untitled poem was published in the “Maxims” section of The Magnetic Poetry Book of Poetry under her maiden name Juliet Bishop.
Her other publishing credits include a feature article in the now-defunct Portfolio Weekly magazine out of Norfolk, Virginia and inclusion of her short story “Freeze Burned” in the feminine horror anthology Twisted published in 2016 by Lindsey Williams.
She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Transylvania University and shares her fiction and poetry on her Patreon author page at patreon.com/lockwood5.
OF KNOWING HER
“That was stunning, doll,” Whysteria crooned in her ear. “You were stunning!”
Joyce allowed herself a few precious seconds of release, hearing the audience’s roaring approval echoing through the university auditorium.
“Okay, not too much, babe,” Whysteria added. “I knew I’d have to redo your eyes, but let’s not spoil your foundation.”
Joyce gasped a few deep breaths and put on her smile. She turned, standing up tall to wave to the still-cheering crowd.
“Once again,” the emcee’s voice rang out, “that was contestant number three, Miss Joyce Burns singing ‘Reflections.’”
Whysteria gave her arm the smallest tug, steering her toward the side exit to the dressing rooms.
Five minutes later Joyce gasped with another release, peeing for the first time in more than five hours. A few tears of relief escaped the corners of her eyes. Finished, she stood up, shaking off the last few drops and tucking herself back before pulling up her nylon gaffe, followed by her underwear, tights and pantyhose.
As she washed her hands, she took an illicit glance in the mirror, despite the solemn promise she’d made to Whysteria. Through her running mascara and red-rimmed eyes, she still saw Joyce staring back at her, and she had to steady herself once more to avoid shedding even more tears for the gratitude she felt for that.
Back in the dressing room, Joyce let the chatter of her fellow pageant contestants distract her from more emotional thoughts. After extensive fanning, touch-ups and meticulous reapplication of her make-up, Whysteria had cleared her to look in the mirror again.
Joyce reminded herself it was all up to the judging panel now, a group that included university staff, faculty and even a few student council members. A token judge plucked from the actual pageant world (likely as a favor to the president or one of the deans) rounded out that group.
And it’s all in the math, she thought. The tradition of holding a pageant to choose a homecoming queen might date back to the 1920’s at her southern university, but since the 1990’s, the greatest portion of the contestants’ scores came from their GPAs. It was one more reason she thought she might actually place this evening. But, she reminded herself silently, winning isn’t why I’m doing this anyway.
After starting her freshman year under her birth name “Jerome,” Joyce had felt her true identity rising more forcefully than ever. She might still have been in the South were she’d grown up, but the university town inspired her, simultaneously nurturing and challenging her. By the time winter holidays came around that year, she’d met Whysteria, and she knew she wanted to make the transition to Joyce full time.
Her parents balked at the idea, of course. By that time, she’d begun to realize their well-intentioned concerns had little to do with her. In the end, Whysteria’s wise words had steadied her. “You don’t want to do this half-assed. You finish out this freshman year as Jerome, and then let me come visit you this summer. Let’s take that full 90 days, and I’ll help you give birth to Joyce. And, I PROMISE you, you won’t regret letting me be your midwife… and your drag mother.”
Whysteria’s promise fresh in her mind, Joyce looked back at her reflection again. What an affirming birth it had been! She’d soared high and fallen low during her sophomore year. She’d known this homecoming queen pageant would be a huge stepping-stone for her, but she’d had to wait for her junior year to enter. Only upperclassmen were allowed to take part.
And of course, she’d wanted to secure special permission from the university itself. While recent changes to the school’s gender equality policy had solidified her confidence that she couldn’t be denied entrance, she hadn’t wanted any nasty surprises. With the help of one of an English major friend, she’d drafted a letter to the president and deans, proposing her participation as the first transgender woman to compete in the annual homecoming queen pageant.
And now, here she sat, surrounded by cis women (though she knew at least one of them had attended several Unity Club meetings). She wondered what other obstacles her fellow contestants might have overcome to be here. Eating disorders, perhaps? Various forms of abuse?
“You were so beautiful!” The words broke Joyce from her thoughts, and she saw Alexis from her trigonometry class beaming at her, tiny tears at the corners of the girl’s eyes.
“Aw, thanks, Alex,” she replied quickly. Her mind raced to what Alex’s talent had been. “And you never told me you could juggle!”
Alex blushed. “I’m good at everything you can’t get paid for. Juggling falls right in with that list.”
“Whatever,” Joyce heard herself continue. “Singers and dancers are a dime-a-dozen in the pageant world. You’ll definitely get points for originality.”
“Won’t matter,” Alex said. “My GPA’s nowhere close to yours. And the way you sang! You heard the audience, right?”
Joyce recognized the truth in Alex’s words, but today of all days (and this moment of all moments), as the assembled group of ladies faced the same scrutiny of the judging panel, she wanted nothing more than to foster the feeling of community in this room.
“Don’t you make her cry again!” Whysteria’s voice commanded their attention. Joyce and Alexis laughed.
“Oh, I won’t, I promise,” Alexis said, backing up a step. But then, she looked back at Joyce and rushed in to kiss her cheek before fleeing back to her own dressing mirror. Unexpectedly, Joyce had to steady herself again to keep her tears of gratitude in check. Damn the hormone pills she’d been taking for 18 months now! She’d never guessed her fellow contestants of all people would treat her so kindly!
In fact, nearly everyone at the university had treated her with immense kindness in consideration of her participation today. She could think of only one person who’d seemed put off. Dean Hersch, the only female dean at the school, had never so much as smiled at her in the short, in-person meeting she’d attended to discuss her proposal.
The only other woman in the room that day (and the only person not smiling), Dean Hersch hadn’t asked Joyce any questions, but had only pursed her lips several times and excused herself from the meeting early after supposedly receiving a message on her phone. The other university staff had congratulated Joyce and enthusiastically endorsed her decision to participate in the homecoming queen pageant. Their encouragement and sensitivity helped Joyce gloss over Dean Hersch’s strange behavior in her mind.
“Who cares,” Joyce’s friend Alyssa had said when Joyce told her about the incident. “There’s always going to be someone trying to rain on your parade.” She lowered her voice, adding, “You know, I’m sorry her husband died five years ago, or whatever, but even if she’s still in mourning, it doesn’t give her the right to be a sourpuss to everyone about everything.”
Alyssa’s words had come back into Joyce’s mind a few times over the past several weeks, but mostly she’d been too busy with preparations to think much about Dean Hersch. She had the official approval of university staff, and she had the love and encouragement of Whysteria and so many of her friends. She even had her parents’ blessing now. One person’s unspoken disapproval couldn’t overshadow all of that.
Back on stage, Joyce used all the tricks Whysteria had taught her to stem the tears from coming on again. She couldn’t slow her racing heart, however. She didn’t need to glance from side to side to know she wasn’t alone in that.
The ladies held hands, all smiling broadly and nervously. Despite all the tension, Joyce realized she would probably look back on this moment, this moment right here, for the rest of her life. Because no matter what happened now, she stood in a line of beautiful women, feeling equally beautiful, equally feminine, equally worthy, no matter what title she might or might not be awarded in the next few minutes.
“I have in my hand the results we’ve all been waiting for,” the emcee’s voice boomed. “We have three crowns and five scholarships to give out today. Our new homecoming queen will not only attend next week’s football game, but serve as a student liaison for a number of events all throughout the remainder of the fall and spring terms. Our first and second runners-up will accompany her as princesses of the homecoming court at next week’s game, and our third and fourth runners-up will serve as alternates should anything prevent any member of the royal court’s attendance at homecoming.”
The emcee’s words seemed to drag on, and Joyce made herself take deep slow breaths, hearing her fellow contestants doing the same as the tension mounted even further.
“Fourth runner-up, and recipient of a one-year, $2,000 scholarship, contestant number 12, Miss Addison Driskell!”
Joyce applauded, carefully maintaining her smile and feeling her heartbeat quicken even more.
“Third runner-up, and recipient of a one-year, $4,000 scholarship….”
It could be… Joyce thought.
“Contestant number 16, Miss Harper Washington!”
Joyce’s heart leap-frogged. Remember, it doesn’t matter. It’s not why you’re here, she thought, but she couldn’t keep herself from wondering if it were at all possible that she could have made second runner-up.
“Second runner-up, homecoming princess, and recipient of a two-year scholarship worth up to $8,000, Miss Cassidy Owens!”
Despite her reasoning with herself from just moments ago, Joyce’s heart plummeted. With only two more winners and 14 other girls still standing in this line with her, all their hearts hoping for the same thing, she knew she hadn’t placed.
It’s OKAY, the voice in her mind began again with fervor. You did this. You did amazing. Whysteria said you were stunning. You’re standing up here, the first transgender woman to ever compete in this pageant. You did what you came to do, and tonight you’re going to party with Whysteria and Alyssa and so many of your friends. And just look at these women you’re standing up here next to now. You’ve already won. You’ve….
“Joyce, that’s you!” Alexis’s voice caught Joyce by surprise. Joyce realized the girls on either side of her were smiling at her and urging her forward.
“Joyce, you got first runner-up! He just called your name, girl!”
Joyce’s mouth fell open. She felt her mind short-circuiting.
“I think she’s a little shocked.” The announcer’s voice sounded far away, and Joyce had no idea what to do. First runner-up? She’d won? She’d gotten second place out of all these women?
A memory of Whysteria’s words from days ago snapped into her mind. “If you place in the pageant, you don’t cry. You don’t grovel. You walk up to that mic or that podium or whatever and you accept that award with dignity, because you will have earned it. You will deserve it, and you won’t owe anyone anything extra for it!”
Joyce snapped back into herself, put on her smile and walked proudly to the front of the stage. She had one last double-take as she recognized Dean Hersch walking up to her, also smiling broadly as she placed a princess sash over her shoulder and handed her a small bouquet of flowers. Joyce inclined her head as the silver-haired woman placed the princess tiara there. Joyce reached for Dean Hersch’s handshake. Their eyes met, and Joyce realized there were tears on the Dean’s cheeks.
“Thank you for what you did here today,” Dean Hersch said to her, the words too quiet for anyone else to hear. The older woman turned and walked off the stage. Joyce stared after her, so many questions whirling around in her mind. She heard the emcee name Macie Grayson the new university homecoming queen. Joyce smiled and clapped as best she could without dropping her flowers or scholarship certificate.
For the rest of the evening and into the following days, Joyce felt air-light. She floated from the after-party that evening through the weekend (during which it seemed everywhere she turned, someone offered her enthusiastic congratulations) and all the way to dinner out with her parents on Sunday evening.
In a moment so precious not even Whysteria’s practiced techniques could keep back Joyce’s tears, her father kissed the top of her head whispering “You make a beautiful princess, sweetheart.”
Walking from her first class to the student center on Monday morning, Joyce felt herself finally beginning to come down from it all. She didn’t mind. In four days, she’d attend the football game as part of the homecoming court, and the scholarship she’d won would significantly shrink the student loan debt she’d face after graduation. She’d even received a message from the local TV news station with a request to interview her about being the first transgender woman to compete in the pageant. She hadn’t decided how to respond to that yet.
As she turned the key in her mailbox near the activity desk, she saw an unmarked envelope shuffled in with her mail. Even university communications always bore some sort of address. Who with access to the back end of the mailboxes would slip her an unmarked note?
She tore open the envelope and pulled out a letter.
Dear Miss Burns,
Forgive me, but I didn’t trust myself to keep it together in that meeting, and I don’t trust myself to be able to say these words to you without becoming emotional now.
You blew us all away at the pageant. Even if you hadn’t placed, I hope you understand the considerable good you did, openly competing as a transgender woman, the first in this university’s history to take part in that tradition.
While it may be common knowledge around campus that I’m a widow, most people, even among the faculty, don’t know that my husband Arnold took his own life five years ago. I long suspected through our marriage that Arnie identified to himself as a woman, but he would never admit it, even to me.
I’ve learned to purge all the what-ifs from my mind, but as our world changes – as inspiring people like you insist on its forward motion – I can’t well enough express my gratitude for your bravery and uncompromising authenticity.
I know from very personal experience that when it comes to one’s true gender, self-denial equals self-destruction. I will always miss my husband. I realize I would have lost “him” either way, but as hard as his transitioning might have been for me, I can’t tell you how much I wish I’d had the privilege of knowing “her.”
Thank you again for your fierce and beautiful grace!
Wishing you all the best,
Dean Eliza Hersch
She sat up, stretched uncomfortably, and pulled out her journal to jot down some thoughts. Of late her thoughts lingered on her parents, immersed as she was in some of the oldest forests in Europe, along the border between Poland and Belarus. Growing up she thought it was normal to live off the grid in tents and dance around fires by night. Their families combined resources to live in a small commune in southern England at one with nature, like their ancestors. A whole different world. They grew their own food for the most part and supplemented the rest from the nearby towns. Their commune grew, but ugly rumors spread - they were inbred, or religious nuts. They were dealing drugs. All false, but a small militia formed and busted in guns blazing to liberate them, killing her parents in the crossfire.
Despite the lengthy, at times traumatic, reintegration process, here she was, enjoying a peaceful morning alone in the woods on a field research trip for her doctorate in forest pathology and mycology. Sophie unzipped the tent and lit the butane to heat water for muesli and dehydrated eggs. Barely visible was the waning crescent moon just above the brightening horizon. The water reached a rolling boil and steam billowed away towards the bushes where new buds were beginning to sprout on the woody stalks. This winter was unseasonably warm, so the forest looked like early spring, despite the equinox still being a few weeks away. Sophie normally did not pay attention to those seasonal milestones, but her colleague had brought it to her notice just before Sophie’s departure.
“Hey, want to come with me on March 20th to Stonehenge?” asked Jessica, a tour booking site open on the computer beside Sophie in their office in the Mycology department in Oxford.
“Sorry, I’m leaving for Bialystok soon and I’ll be gone a month… maybe when I get back?” Sophie suggested.
“Sorry, it has to be the 20th, that’s the vernal equinox,” Jessica stated matter-of-factly.
“Why is that important?”
“It’s one of the four days each year you can actually touch the stones! Normally it’s off limits, but since Wiccans view the equinoxes and solstices as religious holidays, and Stonehenge is a religious site, they make exceptions on those days,” she explained.
It piqued Sophie’s interest, but the tickets she had were nonrefundable.
“It’s a shame, the heads of the different Wiccan and neo-paganism religious orders will be there, head druids, self-proclaimed mages…” her colleague went on, rubbing it in a bit.
“Well, we can share pictures of our trips when I get back,” Sophie smiled, thinking of her own upcoming mushroom foraging plans.
The Bialowieski forest was ancient. Despite prehistoric human presence in the area, the trees and undergrowth hid plenty of secrets. Fungi were a microcosm unto themselves - seemingly endless varieties with different appearances and behaviors, living in diverse communities with plant root systems and bacteria. Many species yet to be discovered could have important medicinal significance or key symbiotic relationships with other organisms in the ecosystem.
Sophie set up a travel-sized lab station at her base camp to preserve and study specimens she identified. The dissecting scope was battery powered and whatever needed further study, she preserved in cross sections or isolated the spores while carefully documenting the specimen’s habitat and appearance.
As she ate her breakfast and mixed instant coffee crystals with the hot water, a chipmunk sat across from her, studying her closely.
“Sorry, I don’t have anything for you,” Sophie chuckled at the big-cheeked rodent and ate the last spoonfuls of her muesli.
She packed up her gear and consulted her map, heading along an old dry creek bed for five miles, stopping periodically to dig along promising tree or shrub bases. Damp decaying logs or shaded overhangs could conceal rare species. The older the log the better. After collecting several promising specimens, she was satisfied to call it a day and set up camp. While looking for a good plot to set up, Sophie spied a few spots of bluish color among the drab leaf litter to the left. She set her backpack down and headed up over the foot-high ridge.
Before her grew a ring of mushrooms with green moss filling the space inside the circle. Each broccoli-sized fruiting body had a warty mottled surface on its pale blue cap. It seemed to glow iridescent. The underside of the cap displayed shocking black and red gills.
“Now you are unusual beauties…” Sophie breathed quietly.
After photographing the faerie ring and digging along the edges to examine the mycelium, she collected several samples and put them aside with the rest. In her periphery, she saw several quickly darting shadows and heard light cracking of pine twigs. Every time she glanced in that direction, whatever made the noise paused and hid behind the trees. It sounded pretty small, probably another chipmunk, she decided.
The sky darkened with the coming of night and shadows blended together. It was hard to distinguish the trunks of the trees, and every snap of the brush or owl screech pierced the cold air like an arrow. The moon, now diminished to a sliver of a crescent, shone dimmer than the stars. Sophie raised her sensitive gear and bags containing food into the trees as she did every night to avoid them being pilfered by boars or other scavengers. She looked up between the silhouettes of the trees above her, the trunks creaking and aching with the wind. It was eerie watching the endlessly tall pines and alders get tossed about by gusts of air that could not be felt from the ground. It was like an invisible angry force were punishing the trees and trying to break them in half. Sophie shuddered, watching, hoping nothing would fall upon her as she slept. The next day she would return to her main camp and examine the pale blue mushrooms more closely. They were the only specimen thus far that she could not partially identify.
Before turning in, she paused to appreciate the thousands of stars she normally could not see due to light pollution in the city. She stared up in awe, relishing the feeling of insignificance in a vast universe, and the arcane connection with all of humankind. People for ages, since that miracle of consciousness and self-awareness began, had looked up at the stars and wondered, dreamed, imagined. Were they pinpoint holes in the ceiling of the sky? Distant fires of brethren long passed? With those thoughts in her breast, she stole away inside to warm up. As her mind started drifting to sleep, she thought she heard footsteps cracking in the pine needles. Warily she froze and sat up in the tent, staring anxiously through the mesh into the dark. Only the still darkness gazed back at her. The sound disappeared and did not disturb her sleep again, though her nerves remained uneasy.
The next day, she came upon a disaster zone. All her carefully secured materials at her main camp were torn apart, eviscerated. Sophie fought back tears as she collected the scattered pieces of her week and a half of work. All the samples were gone. Knifelike cuts were sliced through the insulated plastic packages. There were no bears in this area, Sophie knew. This had to be a person, or people, but why?
She circled the area, looking for shoe prints or tracks. There was nothing.
“Come on! What the hell?!” Sophie yelled out angrily at the forest, which looked as bright and pristine as all the previous mornings. The birds still chirped. Woodpeckers still hammered into tree trunks. Chipmunks still scurried in the brush. Yet something destructive had come through and destroyed her possessions with malicious intent. The woods no longer felt inviting and peaceful. The calm was broken.
She had to leave that night. After salvaging what she could, she forced herself to pack up and head back to the car parked a few miles away at the end of a fire road. She wanted to get back before it got dark. Maybe she could relocate somewhere else and start fresh. After setting off, she reached to consult her map and it was not where she had left it. Puzzled, she set her bag down and checked every side pocket and the pages of her remaining books. It was gone. Could she have lost it somewhere? Sophie felt a heavy weight in her stomach. She had to go on without it. She pressed her memory and tried to retrace her steps. As she hiked she checked her watch periodically. The sun crept lower. She should have reached the car by now. Sophie paused in place and took a few deep breaths, weighing whether to change direction or keep going. This seemed like the right way, but she should be there.
The birds became quieter as twilight fell. An owl or bat screeched overhead. She kept walking.
Her knees and shoulders were aching. The soles of her feet were burning in her shoes, but she did not want to stop. She had to leave tonight. She felt a pressing urgency moving her forward. Sophie stopped to pull out a flashlight and the sound of her footsteps kept going for a couple more steps. Freezing in place, she kept facing forward even as a chill gripped her in her ribs. She took a few test steps forward and listened more carefully - something or someone was definitely walking in time with her. When she stopped again, the steps stopped more quickly, but it was distinctly there. Sophie’s throat tightened uncomfortably and a visceral panic rose in her chest. Her mind raced desperately. Where could she go? Maybe she could run somewhere and hide. They would be able to follow her if she used the flashlight, she would have to just go for it. She had to ditch the backpack.
Swallowing with resolve, she started walking again, feigning a relaxed pace. She noiselessly unhooked the straps across her chest and hips. Holding the shoulder straps, she lifted them so they hung loosely. The steps were closer. It sounded like more than one pair of feet was stalking her.
Taking a deep breath she hoisted the pack off her shoulders and threw it backwards, bolting into a desperate sprint. The steps behind her quickened. As she ran, she kept her hands in front to guard her face from pine branches. She vainly tried to make out obstacles in the moonless night. The blood coursed through her thighs, burning as she raced forward. Suddenly she felt pulled down, as if someone had roughly shoved her. Sophie cried out in surprise and pain, realizing as she fell that a root had caught her foot. As she scrambled to stand up, hands pushed her shoulders into the ground and yanked her arms behind her. Something was fastened quickly around her wrists and ankles. She tried to scream but a thick gag was pulled across her mouth, muffling her protests. As she struggled, someone put an arm tight around her neck and covered her mouth, suffocating her. Her head swam and lungs ached as she fought to breathe before disappearing into a darker blackness than the surrounding forest.
Sophie awoke. She smelled damp earthy grass, like molding hay. Beneath her was a layer of straw piled into a springy sleeping mound. She awkwardly sat up, wrists and ankles still bound. The leather gag in her mouth was moistened from saliva and tasted like wet dog. She was alone in a small room constructed from wooden planks. A wooden pail was near her and a larger bathing basin in the far corner. The smaller bucket she imagined was for toileting. Flickering orange light projected through the slight spaces between the wall panels. Crawling on her hands and knees, she inched towards the light and pressed her face against the crack, trying to see outside.
A bonfire roared and figures wearing thick furs passed along, casting shadows from the center like spokes on a wheel. Several figures bore headdresses with horns or antlers, and there was a low thrumming murmur of voices. Sophie tried to make out any clue as to who they were, where she was. Huddled groups periodically looked or gesticulated in her direction, freezing with a sense of morbid reverence that sent goosebumps along her arms.
Footsteps pounded on the steps leading to the door of her confinement. Quickly she backed away onto the straw heap, holding her arms and legs tight in front of her. If she was going to be tortured or raped, she was not going to make it easy. The door opened with a creak and she saw two burly men standing guard outside, long beards growing down to their sternum woven in complicated braids and knots. They stared straight ahead, like statues. She only saw them in profile. Between them, entering, were two young women - one carrying several bags and the other gazing intently at Sophie.
Even backlit by the bonfire, Sophie caught her breath when her eyes met the woman’s, captivated by her tigerseye golden brown irises. An otherworldly intensity emanating from her, matched by a similarly strong curiosity and fascination. They brought bags and a stack of rags. The other woman opened a steaming animal skin and poured hot water into a cup, which she then mixed with dried leaves and powder. She handed the hot animal skin to the woman whose eyes burned golden in the dark and excused herself.
The other woman left and they were alone. She handed her the chalice with hot liquid and untied the gag around Sophie’s mouth, gesturing for her to drink. The cup was carved from wood and finely polished. An aroma of pine resin and earthy sweetness rose to her nostrils. Sophie held it reverently and lowered her lips, then thought better of it and set it down in front of her, shaking her head. The woman, her eyes glowing with frustration, picked up the cup and hoisted it back. Sophie shook her head again and the woman looked nervously at the door behind her. Seeming satisfied no one was watching through the slits, she took a sip of the drink and made a visible show of swallowing it before passing it back to Sophie.
Sophie hesitantly took a sip, washing away the wet dog aftertaste from the gag with the bittersweet hoppy pine of the infusion. The flavor was not unpleasant, and a savory undertone gave the drink a curious umami characteristic. She had not eaten dinner so her stomach was growling impatiently. Abandoning caution, she drank the entire mixture down while the woman silently observed her. When Sophie finished, she set the wooden cup aside and the two of them sat tensely in the dark, thin flickering lines of orange and yellow dancing across them.
“Who are you?” Sophie asked, met by a blank stare. Those eyes.
She tried again, “Do you speak English? Parlez-vous Francais? Mówisz po polsku?”
Recognition flashed over her eyes when Sophie tried her limited Polish, but it did not elicit a response. Instead the woman pointed to the larger basin and indicated for Sophie to stand up. Sophie’s ankles and wrists were still tied, so the woman gingerly untied them, careful not to touch her as she removed the bonds. When she stood, the woman gestured at her clothing and imitated taking off her leather tunic to indicate she wanted Sophie to undress. Blushing, Sophie backed away.
“No, I’m fine. I can wash alone,” she tried in broken Polish.
The woman grabbed the fabric of the outer jacket and tried to pull it off her but Sophie pushed her away. Angry, the woman gestured out at the door and back at Sophie, along with a string of words that seemed to say, “Undress yourself or they will make you.” Sophie felt tears welling up and unsuccessfully fought to stifle them, realizing how powerless she was in her situation. Choose your battles, she thought to herself. Turning slightly from the woman, she obediently disrobed, leaving her clothing in a pile beside the straw bed. Still trying to cover her nakedness, Sophie stepped into the basin as the woman indicated. She sat with her knees up and the woman poured water from the animal skin over her. Using a soapy lather that smelled of pork, lavender, and ash, the woman scrubbed her roughly, alternating with the water and the rags. The suds and water pooled at her feet in the tub, growing cold and slick with soapy residue as it slowly drained through the slats in the floor.
The woman toweled her off methodically and handed her a plain off-white tunic, which Sophie pulled over her head. It came down just past her knees. As the woman turned to leave, carrying the things she came in with along with Sophie’s original clothing, Sophie called out to her.
“Wait, please, look at me,” she begged. The woman turned slowly, reluctantly.
Holding her eyes, Sophie gestured to herself, “Sophie. I’m Sophie. Who are you? You?”
The woman’s eyes glinted with understanding and quietly, as if betraying a secret, answered, “Milena.”
Sophie teared up, nodding with gratitude, “Milena. Milena.”
Without another word, Milena left and swiftly locked the entrance behind her. Sophie ran up to the door and peeked through the cracks. Around the bonfire were a dozen huts, larger ones than hers, constructed with similar material. The townspeople still milled about in small clusters. The fire was flickering down, and the new moon left the sky eerily black. Once the bonfire was reduced to embers, the inhabitants returned to their shelters. Sophie waited until the last person in view disappeared then sat on her straw pile, hugging her knees to her chest. This had to be a bad dream, or a hallucination. Nothing made sense. Why would they capture her, only to clean, clothe, and feed her? Why was no one asking her any questions? What did they want? With those questions and dozens more in her mind, she fell into a fitful, restless sleep.
The next days passed the same. Milena entered, sometimes with a helper. She would only bring her the herbaceous tea, or was it soup? Its flavor was so hard to place. Sophie tried to catch Milena’s eyes to convey meaning, beg her for help, for answers. Milena’s eyes glinted with specks of green dioptase in the daylight, and Sophie said her name whenever she saw her, like invoking a prayer. She tried asking more questions, usually in broken Polish. Occasionally Milena would pause, or her eyes would dart in a way suggesting she understood, but she deliberately ignored Sophie’s grasping for information. The brothy infusions left a residual hunger in her stomach and she tried to ask for something more substantial. She smelled smoking meats from outside and it sent her stomach into violent hunger pangs. Her mouth would salivate uncontrollably and her throat gagged as she saw them feasting outside. They had other foods, but all they gave her was the strange concoction. Were they deliberately starving her? To what end?
Sophie started making marks on one of the panels in the corner by her bed to count the number of sunrises since her imprisonment. She observed the guards; there was no gap in their duties. Despite her pleas for them to talk to her, or bring someone to see her, they never answered. One time when she was too insistent, the woman who sometimes came with Milena stormed in and slapped her roughly, no word or warning. The message was clear.
After scouring every inch of accessible surface, Sophie fell into despondent resignation. The edge of the door was too narrow for her fingers to reach through to work the lock from the other side, even if the guards gave her an opportunity. Every wall panel was several inches thick and fixed solidly in place; she had no hope of breaking off a piece to create an escape. And with each day she could tell she was weakening. After several days, her forearms looked longer, gaunt. Her belly was flattening. When she felt her face, her cheeks were more concave. Even her skin smelled different.
She came to know the activities of the camp. Sometimes the inhabitants stopped and looked in her direction, but mostly they carried on seemingly as usual. Chopping wood, tanning furs, cooking, cleaning. There were some children in the town, and they would chase one another and get scolded by their parents. In the day, their voices were more distinct and Sophie strained to pick up bits to use later. It seemed like a blend of Polish and Italian to her untrained ear. Beyond the edge of the town, she spied them bringing wooden branches and pails of stones, but could not see what they were building. Most nights she heard a low resonance of voices chanting and singing in unison around the fire. It filled her with dread fascination. She learned the general pattern and could not help but hum along, letting it vibrate in the base of her throat.
The highlights of her days were the visits from Milena, her only human contact. She tested out some words she picked up, and sometimes Milena would smirk and correct her under her breath. Sophie even laughed a few times, hoping those chatoyant golden eyes would mirror her mirth. There were pregnant pauses, where Sophie knew Milena was sharing her feelings, was in tune with her and understood. When she gave her the bowl-like chalice to drink the infusion, Milena’s fingers might linger just slightly, giving Sophie a transient warmth that spread up her arm and into her chest. When Milena left her, she might look back and pause, tightening her fist as if conflicted. It gave Sophie hope.
Eighteen hatch marks on the wood. It was almost three weeks now. Sophie curled up on the straw bed and stared wretchedly at the roof of her hut, her bellyache now a familiar friend. Rain pattered down rhythmically on the roof, muddy water seeping in at the edges of her prison. Her stomach hurt and she wished for Milena to hurry up and visit. The brew they gave her better than nothing, but it was hardly satisfying, and Sophie felt herself wasting away more each day. Pacing took more effort. Sleep came earlier each night. Her once firm resolve to fight their plans for her, whatever they were, dissolved.
That evening Milena brought in the rags to bathe her per usual. Sophie offered to do it herself, but Milena always insisted. Sophie had stopped resisting it, and over time Sophie noticed Milena scrubbed her gentler and took more time on her long blond hair, admiring her flaxen locks. This time, as Milena meticulously cleaned along her neck and arms, Sophie daringly reached up and held her hand, driven by a subconscious need. She held her breath as she waited for Milena to pull away and chastise her. Milena did not recoil. That hand, foreign but now familiar, turned and caressed her wrist gently, drawing closer. The anticipation wrenched Sophie’s stomach more than the days of hunger. As they embraced, Sophie felt touched by more than her lips and hands - each daring moment filled her with adoration, trust, joy. Even as Sophie was more aware of how frail she was after days of inactivity and undernourishment, she felt cradled with unfathomable care in Milena’s arms. As those intense eyes looked back reluctantly in parting, Sophie could not help but wonder what change this discovery might bring about. She began entertaining thoughts of joining them, being accepted, freedom.
The next morning, there was no Milena. Eagerly, Sophie waited, looking through the wooden panels, but it was unusually quiet. The guards were still stationed, but morning and midday passed without interruption. The agonizing stomach cramps and hypersalivation came back and Sophie took to chewing and sucking on her tunic sleeve to stave off dry heaves. She held her body tight and wrung her hands as waves of intense food craving came and went rhythmically, sending her into shivers and teeth chattering. Sophie had never known such hunger and felt herself falling into inanition. Was this what dying felt like?
Finally, after sunset, the door opened. It was not Milena. An ancient man entered, his beard down to his belly and set with several twists in ornate designs. A headdress of black feathers and antlers adorned his brow and layers of wrinkles cascaded down his face. He carried a covered bowl and set it in front of her. After murmuring an unfamiliar chant, he left her alone with the bowl. On lifting the lid, she saw a glistening, almost glowing light blue porridge with streaks of black and red fibers.
Her heart sank when she saw the preparation of the unknown mushroom. What was this? Had they been deliberating this whole time and ultimately decided to kill her? Were they punishing her for stealing mushrooms from some sacred place? Sophie pushed the bowl beside the door and turned her back to it, lying down on the straw and willing sleep to come. As she shuddered under her thin dress, she thought of Milena and wished she was with her now to reassure her.
The next morning, a hand shook her roughly and the bowl was hoisted at her. The older man’s weathered face was no longer placid, but livid and unyielding. The guards were just inside the door, staring dispassionately at her. Her cold centurion watchmen. Sophie shook her head, saying their word for “No.” This angered the man even more. He stood up indignantly and spoke fiercely to the guards - Sophie caught one words and her heart leapt. Moments later, Milena entered, her face betraying her reluctant presence there. Trying not to feel hurt, Sophie sought her eyes but Milena kept looking down, only nodding in response to the elder’s admonishments.
Wordlessly, her gentle loving friend knelt in front of her and handed her the bowl with the now cold mushroom preparation. Sophie stared at Milena, not accepting the food. Milena lifted her head and faced her. Her eyes were red and puffy, and there was a purple bruise along her jaw and forehead. Sophie’s heart broke for her. She wanted to reach out and touch her face, but knew they would be in more trouble. Milena’s eyes pleaded with her to take the bowl. She did not want Sophie to take it, but they had no choice. For you, Milena, thought Sophie, so be it. I’m tired of fighting.
After Sophie took the bowl and spooned the bluish blend into her mouth, Milena stood and turned away. The mushrooms tasted alien, a bitter savory mixture. After a few minutes Sophie felt her mouth tingling. Once she ate a few more bites, the older man was satisfied and they left Sophie alone again, leaving her to her task. As she ate, her stomach churned in a way she barely remembered - it had something solid in it. Her wariness gave way to ravenous zeal and she nearly choked eating so fast. After cleaning the bowl and licking away every last morsel, Sophie left it by the door and paced uneasily. Initially only her lips tingled but now she felt the inside of her throat alight with a cold tickling sensation. Anxious pounding in her chest distracted her thoughts and her hands clammed up as she folded and unfolded her fingers over her belly.
“Sophie,” she heard a whisper. She turned, thinking she had heard Milena. Sophie went up to the door and looked out, pressing her ear but hearing nothing. Swallowing, her hands now starting to shake, she walked to every corner in her prison, sometimes hearing Milena’s voice utter her name in a ghostly call. Anxiously, she sat on her straw pile, rocking back and forth.
As she breathed, Sophie felt her chest falling in on itself. In and out, that hollow echo in her chest, and if she stopped breathing…
She stopped, holding her breath with anticipation, finally exhaling fearfully. It felt like any moment if she stopped concentrating, her lungs would stop working. Lying back, she stared at the ceiling, panting faster, her chest rising and falling, time seeming to dilate.
She clenched her sweaty hands together, tight, her nails digging with a surreal pinch into her skin.
Clenching tighter, Sophie curled into a ball and felt her whole body rigid, muscles spasming. Her stomach twisted with nausea. The ceiling stretched farther like in a fun house and the natural lines of the wood undulated, making her motion sick. As she reached up, her skeletal limb upward looked inhumanly long, her hand still balled in a contorted fist. She slowly opened her fingers, revealing a few bloody marks in her palm. The most vivid red she had ever seen. As a few drops dribbled out, she gently licked her wound and started laughing uncontrollably to the point of tears. It was so salty! The realization seemed hilarious to her and she savored the taste of iron and salt on her tongue, flavors she had nearly forgotten. Even once her blood stopped trickling out, she continued laughing, feeling an odd euphoria swelling in her chest. As she breathed the walls seemed to breathe in time with her and her head swam dizzyingly.
In a trance-like stupor, she stared unblinking at the walls and the patterns emerging before her eyes. Whatever came to mind materialized before her. Waves from the shores of Brighton. Cartoons she watched as a child. Animal and human figures from the Lascaux cave paintings moved across the ceiling, acting out hunts and paleolithic indigenous celebrations. There was chanting outside. The sound grew louder until it was all she could hear, and she felt the pulsing of their voices in her flesh. She opened her lips and sang aloud with them, not knowing the words but making them up as they came to her. Her vocal cords moved, she arched her back pushing her chest towards the sky and let their heathen mass flow through her body, the words emerging changed from her throat as if in tongues.
The night passed slowly. Each breath, each blink, slowed to a quarter of its usual speed as she laughed and cried and visions faded in and out across her eyes. Then, like a cool veil lifting off of her, she took a deep breath and her body relaxed from its contortions. Before she could form a cogent thought, exhaustion from the night’s exertions overcame her.
She awoke to someone gently dabbing her brow with a cool cloth. Her head ached painfully, and her arms and legs extended with effort. Sophie turned her head towards the person and smiled in relief.
“Milena, oh Milena, please, what is happening?” Sophie tried to reach up to touch her face but instead her hand fell on Milena’s forearm.
“Shhh… Sophie. Shhh…” she cooed soothingly. Her beautiful lips smiled sadly, the purple blotches on her cheek contrasting dazzlingly with her brown green eyes.
“Milena…” Sophie murmured softly, closing her eyes and appreciating the touch of the cold dampness on her skin. The elder man waited outside the doorway. The sun hung low in the sky. In his hands was another bowl with the luminous bluish concoction.
Sophie hung her head forward when she saw it, a sudden burst of despair hitting her chest like a sucker punch. She was so tired, her body weak and aching, and they wanted her to go through it all again. Bawling uncontrollably, she buried her face in Milena’s bosom, her tears soaking into Milena’s top.
“Please, no more, Milena, please, I’ll do anything, just… I can’t take more of this! Save me! Can’t you save me?” Sophie cried, knowing Milena would understand her meaning, if not her words. Milena said something reassuring and calmly caressed the back of Sophie’s head as the man approached.
Sophie shakily extended a hand to take the bowl and began eating as she knew she had to. She still did not know why they were making her do this. No explanations, no questions. Her mouth numbly worked as she swallowed the gloppy preparation of the mysterious fungus. She gestured to Milena and said the word she had learned for water, which thankfully they did not deny her. After sweating and crying the entire night, her lips and throat were parched and skin salty with residue from dried sweat.
As the effects began to flow through her again, she took note of the onset and sequence of sensations. First the tingling, then restlessness and anxiety, carnival room visual distortions, nausea, cycles of elation and anxiety. Eventually muscle contractions, visions, hallucinations.
If she stared too much in any one direction, she would feel sick, like riding in a boat on rough seas. The first two nights she did not vomit, but by the fifth day she was regularly retching half a dozen times throughout the night. Sometimes blue mushrooms, sometimes yellow bile. The contractions got worse. After a week, she was so weak that Milena had to hold the water cup to her lips, which she did so gently, caressing stray sweaty locks of hair from Sophie’s face. She was unable to sit up in the basin, so they began to simply sponge her skin with cool cloths where she lay.
After a particularly wretched series of vomiting one evening, which mostly landed in the refuse bucket, Sophie thought she heard a different voice. Not her own, not Milena’s, not anyone from the village. She crawled weakly back to her straw bed and saw her mother’s face materialize in front of her, loving and clear like in her photographs. Her strawberry blond hair curled and flowed in leafy spirals. The voice was soothing. Everything was okay, she was where she was meant to be. They were taking care of her.
“I don’t understand, Mom,” she moaned in anguish, “I miss you so much. Mom, I want to go home. I want to go home with you and Dad, back to our place where we were all together.”
The hills of southern England open up in front of her. Though unable to move, she floated through field of deciduous wildflowers and among old gnarled trees. She heard their old songs and sang them joyously, feeling her mother and father’s hands clutching hers. Her heart soared in her breast, rising in triumph. She was home. As her eyes open and closed, she was still in the same green world from her memory. Sophie rubbed her wet cheeks and felt her energy fading again as the effects of the mushrooms wore off. The effects seemed to last longer each time.
When she awoke next, Milena was holding her and Sophie tried to embrace her but her arms hung weakly at her sides.
“Milena, mother, father, I love you, I love you,” she said softly. As she spoke she felt Milena stiffen, then become soft again, dabbing her neck gently with the cool cloth. Once Sophie had quenched her thirst and been cleansed again, the elder came to the door with her bowl. Sophie limply reached for the spoon but was unable to lift it and the elder said something to Milena. Milena responded angrily and left, so the elder sat beside Milena and held the spoon to her lips. His hand was etched like clay, infinite folds and scars from decades of toiling rippled in front of her. A musty perfumed scent emanated from him, reminiscent of incense shops. Obediently she opened her mouth and swallowed the gruel, lost in her world. He clucked encouragingly in their ancient tongue. The sun set by the time she finished and he took her face into his hands, gazing upon her with a detached regard. He looked so ancient, beyond knowable time and record.
She went through the stages anew and became feverish. Despite how weak she was, her muscles still managed to tighten and torture her. Images crowded over and over in front of her eyes, leaving her semiconscious and delirious, like a lucid dream from which she could not wake.
The door flew agape. It was night. The full moon hung at the apex of the sky, overwhelming and blinding. It grew in size, crowding out the stars and the black of night. Her eyes hurt to stare at it but she could not look away. A bluish ring of light spread out from the border of the sphere and the dark patches of the moon’s face changed into an animalistic grin. Steps reverberated loudly on the wood and people entered the room, lifting her up. Sophie could not make out faces as she was carried, her feet trailing on the dirt as they pulled her upright. They supported her arms over their shoulders and chanted louder and louder, a constant thrum in the crisp forest air.
Her bare feet passed over lines of pebbles. She looked down and saw a labyrinthine design of rocks in the earth. A bonfire was alight at the center and a chair of pine and antlers waited for her at the Eastern side. She was placed on the makeshift throne, needing to be repositioned a few times so she sat upright. The trees glowed green, triangular geometric shapes mixing with the darkness. The circle glowed in front of her and faces blurred and morphed. The elder to her right chanted loudly in their unfamiliar language but she felt like she could understand him. It was their night, their clan together under the moon as in days of old, and she was going to carry them with her as she faded between the veils. Sophie stared at him and time froze, glowing specks like sand meandered slowly through the air. Her eyes lolled back to the fire at the center of the labyrinth, the burning wood a deafening roar. The colossal worm moon of the vernal equinox shone above and melted down, enveloping her in its enormity.
Her breathing changed and he brought a primeval headdress to face her. It was constructed with deer jaw bones and had a stained, off-white animal hide cover forming half a face. A dark circle of charcoal had been drawn onto part of the ancient face cover to imitate the eye. The other eye was missing, torn or mangled through hundreds of years as the crown had passed from generation to generation. The partial face stretched and she heard screams echoing in her mind as she stared, the black eye widening - she felt herself fall into that dark endless pit.
Hands pushed her shoulders forward and she bent her head, eyes closed but still seeing as he lowered the headdress, the bones cutting into her scalp. She cried out in pain, her agony partly concealed by the flap over her face. Fresh warm liquid dripped down her cheek and the elder’s tongue lapped it up reverently, his lips smacking against her skin. There was a new silence, filled only by her struggling breaths and the pounding of her heart furiously keeping blood pumping through her veins.
After what felt like hours, the elder spoke again. He let out a triumphant proclamation and Sophie felt the ground shake with the clapping of dozens of footsteps approaching her. Along her arms, she felt innumerable sharp pricks and hands and lips upon her, kissing her, draining her. Her skin was already tingling and each touch created a conduit, connecting her with everyone who approached and drank her intoxicating lifeblood. She laughed and cried, feeling embraced by all, by Milena, her mother, her father, drowning in indescribable ecstasy. The moon above her pulsed and shone like a beacon, warming her as she was moved and loved.
When the crowd withdrew from her, they took their places in the circle and chanted and moaned, joining her as she fell one with the chair, the mask, the forest, the moon, the sky. She looked down and saw her bloodstained arms, some cuts still dripping onto the dark wood of her alter. Her life was draining down to the earth and all she felt was a boundless connection to this place, the people, their world. A boundless connection flowing out endlessly.
She did not remember falling unconscious, but when she came to she was in a brightly lit room with white walls. White sheets. Electric lights. She blinked awake and tried to find her voice. Someone walking in the outside hallway saw her waking up and called for others to come. The nurse approached her and checked her heart rate with a plastic stethoscope.
“Miss Murphy? Sophie Murphy? Can you hear me?” the nurse asked expectantly.
“I...that’s my name, I’m Sophie,” she said quietly. “Where...how did I get here?”
“You were found in the woods by some rangers. You were reported missing, there was a huge manhunt for you, you were all over the news.”
“I... how long was I gone?”
“Over a month. When they found you, you were unconscious and suffering from severe malnourishment and dehydration. Your liver was inflamed - you almost needed a transplant. Your kidneys were so bad they had you on dialysis for a short while. Can you remember anything that happened?”
Sophie looked at her arms. There were dozens of healing razor cuts and her fingernails were long and craggy. Silently, she shook her head and calmly asked for some water. The nurse seemed disappointed and left to fetch her something to drink. She was asked questions by many people afterwards, doctors, psychiatrists, her friends from work - but remained silent, saying only that she got lost, that was the last thing she remembered.
“Given the state of your liver and blood test results,” one of the doctors remarked, “and the fact you were studying wild fungi, it could be you accidentally contaminated your food after touching a poisonous specimen, which could cause hepatotoxicity and memory loss.”
She considered that, wondering if perhaps that could be what happened. Everything she remembered seemed like a dream, obscured in fog and mist. If she said it aloud, she was sure that she would be laughed at, or they might go searching for her supposed captors. She did not want them to be found. Eventually she left the hospital and returned home to her small flat. Several of the bills were overdue. The electricity was off when she entered her apartment. She sat on the couch in the dark in the cold room, leaving her bags packed on the entrance mat. She sat there for a long time.
Weeks went by. She tried to fall back into her graduate school routine, went to research meetings, worked on her thesis, but it all flowed past her without evoking any emotion or feeling. Going through the motions was easy enough, but her heart tugged and she could not stop thinking of that place. Her people. Milena. Their world. Before the end of the semester, Sophie packed up her things. She put her belongings into marked boxes as if she were planning to move. When everything seem squared away, she packed a few changes of clothing and bought a ticket back to Bialystok. From there, she paid a taxi to take her into the forest, up the same fire trail she had parked at a few months ago. The tire treads from her car were lost among the countless other tracks from the search teams.
The alpenglow and scent of spruce trees welcomed her home. Pine needles crunched under her shoes as she crossed back over the threshold. She walked, instinctively, retracing her steps, guided by an unseen hand. They would hear her. They would feel her. They were there, waiting for her. As Sophie walked, she touched the trees and relished the sticky resinous sap. The same birds and small mammals chirped and skittered in the branches. She found the old creek bed she had followed and sat along the side near some dense bushes, feeling the layers of detritus between her fingers. She waited, thinking of when she would see those boundless golden eyes greeting her once more.
Her backpack, shoes and clothing were found at the lower edge of the forest without a note or tracks. A manhunt was performed for days, but no trace was ever found. Her colleagues chipped in for a memorial plaque in the mycology halls at Oxford and her story was whispered around the campus, morphing with each iteration. People were curious about her and learned bits and pieces about her past, her parents, her upbringing, adding colorful details to every retelling. The same basic story remained - a young woman entered the woods, returned a stranger, then found her way home.
Gary is a retired history teacher who has decided to try to see if he can become an author. To date he has had only one of his short stories published.
Gary taught for sixteen years and before that was in the mutual fund business for thirteen. In the past, he has written some unpublished stories for his own enjoyment. Murder mysteries are his passion.
Murder at the High School
Grant had just gotten his lunch from the cafeteria and was heading toward the room belonging to Steve Rickman. It was the room adjacent to his and he had been having lunch there for most of his time here. As always, they would be joined by a third history teacher, Jack Carville. It was information that Jack would have that most interested Grant. Last night there was a school committee meeting at which they were supposed to name the superintendent. The last six months that job had been filled by Alan Magellan, a former math teacher. He had taken over when the previous superintendent, Robert Grassley, abruptly retired in April of the last school year, citing health reasons. There was another candidate, Lana Ames, a science teacher. Word is that Mr. Magellan got the job and she did not take it well, making a scene that caused her to get ejected. Jack was the union rep to the school committee meetings and sat in on them. Grant was certain he would have a juicy story to tell.
When Grant got to the room Steve was there and Jack was just entering from the other direction. After everyone got settled, Steve asked Jack what happened at the meeting.
“Well’” Jack said, “as you probably heard Mr. Magellan got the job. No surprise as he has been doing it on an acting basis for 6 months. Apparently though, Lana was surprised. She approached the table yelling that they were male chauvinists and she had better qualifications. She kept getting more and more agitated and even threatened a sexual discrimination lawsuit before finally being dragged out of there. When she got in this morning, Sharon Perry from English told me, she had another fit in the teacher’s lounge and threatened to get Alan for this.’ “ Nothing unusual happened at school throughout the rest of the day. The students were dismissed as always at 2:15 and most were gone when the buses left at 2:20. Teacher dismissal was 2:30. Many of the teachers left at this time. There was the after school homework program daily in the library, so there were always some students and teachers on hand for that until it ended at about 4:00. After that , the only people usually left in the building would be the night maintenance crew and a smattering of teacher’s getting ready for the next day’ s lesson. The doors to the front office were locked up at 3: 30. A teacher leaving after that would return their key to the drop off box outside the office. Eventually even those straggling teachers still around would leave by 4:30. There was usually one exception, Grant Paxton. Most nights he was the last one out of the building. He liked to finish all the work from that day rather than take it home. When he went to drop off his key, he was used to seeing no one except for the occasional maintenance man. On this night however, there was a light coming from one of the offices on the other side of the locked office door. Grant glanced at his watch. It was a quarter to five. It was unusual for any of the administration to still be there. The lighted office belonged to Mr. Magellan. As Grant returned his key, Mr. Magellan popped out of his office carrying an empty coffee cup and heading toward the coffeepot in the administration break room. Through the locked glass doors he saw Grant and waved at him. Grant waved back, turned around, and made his way for the door closest to his car.
Meanwhile back inside the break room, Mr. Magellan poured a cup of coffee. Before leaving he opened the refrigerator door and reached for the coffee sweetener that only he used—CoffeePal. He poured some of it into his cup, stirred and went back into his office. While looking over some expense statements, he began to drink his coffee. When he got about ½ way finished, he suddenly began to feel very warm. He loosened his tie. He was having difficulty breathing. He began twitching uncontrollably. Not knowing what was happening but realizing he needed help, he tried to reach for the walkie-talkie radio on his belt buckle. He could reach someone in maintenance with this as they too carried radios, but he could not move his arms. By now his airway was severely compromised. He was choking to death. . He collapsed at his desk. His symptoms grew worse by the minute until he died. No help would come until hours later when a passing maintenance man would notice the lit office and his body would be discovered.
School was canceled the next day, Friday. The office was turned into a crime scene. There were no teachers and only the principal, Elaine Southworth and the vice principal, Garret Lynch, were there from the administration.
On his way in however was one teacher. It was Grant Paxton, who was asked in by the police to assist on the case. It just so happened that Grant was nearing retirement and a couple of years ago, with an eye towards supplementing his income, he started writing murder mysteries. Last year he was published for the first time. The case in his book was very similar to an actual case the police were having trouble cracking. Eyebrows may have been raised when Grant was asked to assist. His brother, Lt. George Paxton is a homicide detective and three years his junior. Having grown up with him, George knew of his brother’s love of murder mysteries and had first-hand knowledge of his almost obsessive attention to detail. He had no problem recommending him. These were assets to the police and with Grant’s help they were able to solve the case and get a conviction. Thinking lightning might strike twice, he was being brought in a second time. The fact that he was a teacher at the high school was another plus.
As Grant pulled into his parking space, he clicked off the radio which had been blaring. It was preset for Sirius XM satellite radio, the 60’s channel. This was the music he liked even though he had been only a grade schooler during most of that decade. One would have thought that the next decade, the 70’s, would have had a greater impact. Even though his teenage years were spent in this decade he identified with the movement and sub-culture of the previous one. Upon entering the building, he was met by his brother, detective, George Paxton.
“Grant,” he said greeting him. “Thanks so much for coming down.”
“That’s no problem,” Grant said. “What can I do to help?”
“First, let me bring you up to speed,” George replied. “Last night between 4:30 and 5:00, according to the coroner, Alan Magellan was murdered.’’
“I know,” a stunned Grant responded “I heard it on the news. I actually saw him going to get a cup of coffee. That must have been around a quarter to five. I was probably the last one to see him alive.”
He motioned his brother to follow him inside one of the vacant conference rooms and closed the door behind them. “We already have a prime suspect with motive. The problem we have is lack of a murder weapon. He was not shot or stabbed and there’s no sign of blunt force trauma. A preliminary examination revealed a swollen throat. He had loosened his tie. His airway may have been restricted. There was evidence of vomiting. To put it bluntly, he choked to death. We believe he was poisoned. Toxicology is looking at the coffee in his cup now to see if they can prove that. However, they cautioned me that they have to know what poison they are looking for in order to test for it. We don’t know what poison was used. “
‘Who is the prime suspect?” Grant asked. The answer was certainly no surprise.
“Lana Ames. “ George answered, “She was visibly upset by losing the superintendent’s job to Alan. She caused a public scene at the school committee meeting on Wednesday and yesterday, according to the principal and vice principal, was overheard to threaten Mr. Magellan. Neither one was actually there, however .This is where you come in.”
‘Go on, George.”
‘”We need a list of names of anyone who actually saw her teacher’s lounge outburst against Alan. We need to know exactly what she said. We’ll need that for the trial. It will prove motive.”
“You seem to me like you are already satisfied that she did it.”
“Her own actions condemn her, Grant. But we’ve got to find evidence, a smoking gun so to speak. Here’s what we want from you.”
“I’m all ears, “he said, standing to mock attention.
“First of all start working on that list. We feel it can be accomplished a lot easier by a familiar teacher rather than having the unsettling sight of having the cops in here crawling around.”
“O.K., I’ll get started,” Grant said, “but are there any other suspects?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t call him a suspect but it is someone we’d like to speak to. Your principal told me about the casino that was scheduled to open up adjacent to school property. I understand that a negotiation occurred when the state required another access road be built. There’s no room for it except on land owned by the school. The previous superintendent, Mr. Grassley, negotiated a deal with the casino owner Charles Whitehorse. The casino would pay for lights for the sports fields and in return would get the land.”
Just recently, the blueprints were found to contain an error. A building housing a black jack table and several parking spots was scheduled to be built, but because of a surveyor’s error, on land owned by the school. Having negotiated a deal before Mr. Whitehorse sought to do it again. This time Alan, the acting superintendent at the time, was dead set against it. The land in question was scheduled to be the home of the expanded bio-tech department, an extremely popular new shop. He refused to budge. This made Mr. Whitehorse angry and there was a shouting match. No threats, just shouting but there is a motive here that warrants checking out at least.”
“‘O.K. Grant said. ‘I know what you want from me. I’ll get started.”
‘Great” George said. “Oh, and Grant?”
“Look I had to stick my neck out to get you this time. You were a great help last case but you have got to keep your nose out of areas where it doesn’t belong. No snooping. Promise me.”
Now what self -respecting sleuth or writer being asked to assist the police would promise that? Still he could tell by his brother’s tone that his agreement was required or the whole deal was off. He crossed his fingers behind his back with his left hand extended the other and shook on it with George. Not wanting to lie he chose his words carefully: “I promise I will do no inappropriate snooping around.” He said goodbye to George, and headed out to his car.
Grant looked up at the clock on the wall inside his classroom. It read 2:07. There were 8 minutes left of class; just enough time. The challenge was to teach the class the meaning of the word radical in the political sense. They would need to understand that to do tonight’s homework. As he had done for many years now, he asked the following question.
“Who knows what the word radical means? “ Nobody offered a reply. Grant continued. “Radical as in the Radical Republicans of the post –Lincoln era, is a word that means extreme. Let me show you an example. He positioned himself directly in front of Jody Olson’s desk. It was the first desk in the first row. “Let’s say I look down and notice a deadly tarantula heading for Jody’s foot. There is no time to warn her verbally. The only way I can stop the deadly spider in time is to take my foot and stomp on it. This is the way most rational people would solve this problem. It is considered to be the moderate or mainstream solution.
Now if Mr. Paxton had loaded this small thermo- nuclear device into his pocket,” he showed the class an imaginary device, “he would have had another option; drop the device, detonating it over the spider’s body killing it and everything within a 2 mile radius of the explosion.” The class laughed.
“Each option accomplishes the goal of stopping the spider but the second one is an extreme or radical solution. It goes much further than most people would go. This is what the Radical Republicans in control of Congress would do after the Civil War. They would rebuild things in an extreme way going much further than moderate or mainstream people would go.” A glance at the clock revealed he had 1 minute left. “For homework read about The Radical Republicans on pages 263-265 and then answer the questions on the bottom of page 265.” There was just enough time to write the assignment down and then the bell rang for dismissal and the end of the first day of the new week.
The school day was over. Teaching had distracted Grant. He had not thought about the murder for hours. Now it was time to re-focus. During the weekend, George had informed Lana that she was a person of interest and asked that she be available for questioning. She was on temporary suspension with pay. Grant had gotten the names of the people who were in the lounge when Lana had her outburst from his good friend, Sharon Perry, who happened to be making some copies in there when this happened. There were 3 others there at the time, all para-professionals. Grant had taken the names down and arranged for George to come and question them after school. That time was nearly here. At 2:20 Grant went down to the conference room where the interviews would take place. Sharon was already there. The other three would wait in Conference Room A. Grant and his brother would call them into Conference Room B one at a time to get their stories independently. Sharon was first. The others were Mary Nobel, Dottie Lemon, and Sarah Trask. Each one was asked the same questions and each one claimed that they had heard a visibly upset Lana Ames say that she was going to get Alan. They all said they heard the same exact words. This was very damaging but there was still the matter of the murder weapon. According to toxicology it was some kind of poison, what and how was it administered was still unknown. This was vital to obtain a conviction.
George had to leave to get back to the station. Grant was given the task of trying to find out more about the murder weapon. He stopped into the office. He asked to see his good friend Garrett Lynch, the vice principal. They not only shared the same birthday but they both had a love of 60’s music, especially Motown. They had gone to a concert last Wednesday to celebrate Grant’s 59th birthday. The Isley Brothers, the Four Tops, the O’Jay’s and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were there. Garrett took the next day as a personal day but Grant was the good soldier and came in to work.
Grant wanted to look over Lana’s resume to see if there might be anything there. He was directed to Garrett’s office and knocked on the open door.
“Come in” he said dispassionately. Looking up, he saw it was Grant and his mood improved considerably. “Grant, come in. You’re here no doubt in your consultant role. What can I do for you?”
‘I’m here to try and get some information on Lana. Can I look over her resume?”
“Sure I‘ll get it for you. “.
“Garrett,” Grant stopped him as he left the office. “I am having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that Lana did this. I’ve worked with her for years. She is not the easiest person to get to know but she’s so smart. I can’t believe she would do this after publicly threatening him. Can you think of anyone else that would wish Alan harm?”
“Not really,” he said. “Everyone knows about the dispute with the casino owner, Mr. Whitehorse. I guess there’s reason to suspect him but there’s no evidence of any wrongdoing.”
“I know my brother questioned him and he has an alibi. He and his girlfriend were together all afternoon and then they had dinner at the nearby 99 Pub. There were witnesses. But you were friendly with Alan. You lived on the same street. Is there anything going on in his personal life?”
“Now that you mention it, there is something. As you probably know Alan got married last year. His new wife is a real pill. She’s all about money and material goods .When his first wife remarried two months ago, she was on him mercilessly about changing his will. His first wife was cut out completely. His new wife Jill, got her share and made Alan take out a $500,000 dollar life insurance policy to boot just last week. I have no reason to suspect her but I wouldn’t put anything past her either.”
“That’s interesting,” he said. ‘I think my brother may want to know that. “
“Let me get that resume,”Garrett said. He left and returned quickly with the resume. “Here,” he said handing it over. Diana is still here. If you finish by 4:00 give it to her. Otherwise bring it back to me.” Grant nodded and they said their goodbyes. He took the resume back into the now empty conference room. He took it out and began to look it over. There didn’t seem to be anything outstanding here at first glance. Lana had her undergraduate degree from the University of Miami in marine biology. She graduated near the top of her class. Her first work experience listed was in Australia. Grant recalled a conversation he had had with Lana years ago. She was talking about growing up as an air force brat and spending 10 years down under while her father was stationed at various bases in Australia. Every summer they would go on vacation to the shore several hundred miles away. From here they would dive and explore the Great Barrier Reef. Lana fell in love with diving. Students of marine biology at the University of Miami got to do lots of diving. It was what attracted her to that school. Diving was listed as one of her interests on the resume. Also listed on job experience is summers spent working at Northeast Aquarium in Boston. She worked in the venomous exotic fish department, at least she did when this resume was compiled 20 years ago. But Grant knew from their conversations that she still worked summers at the aquarium. Sometimes she was sent to dive for these exotic fish. She loved this job.
Suddenly it hit Grant. She had worked with venomous fish. Mr. Magellan had been killed by some unidentified poison. Could it be? He would have to do more research.
Back in his basement at home, while Grant was waiting for his computer to get set, he decided to put a little research music on the CD player. He popped in a Motown’s greatest hits CD and sat down town to the sound of ‘My Girl’ by the Temptations.
He took a sip from his coffee cup before starting. By coincidence he had visited the Northeast Aquarium last summer. They were touting the arrival of a new fish to their venomous fish collection, but what was its’ name? Grant couldn’t recall. However, he remembered the plaque outside the tank claimed this fish was found in the Pacific Ocean. He typed in ‘Pacific venomous fish ‘and the first fish that popped up rang a bell. Grant was sure this was the one. It was the stonefish. After researching more information about that fish, he determined that the venom from this fish could well be the poison that killed Alan.
He called his brother and relayed the information. Toxicology tests would have to be made. They would probably have the results by Wednesday. That would allow for some time to talk to the people at the Aquarium.
“George,” Grant said. “There may be another suspect that we overlooked.”
‘Oh, yeah. Who’s that?” he asked.
“Alan Magellan’s new wife.”
“We already looked into that,” George interrupted. “Its’ standard with any murder case. See if the spouse wound benefit financially, like from an insurance policy. Now Alan did have a small insurance policy for $20,000 and he had changed his will recently giving his new wife what
previously would have gone to his now remarried ex. But all told it’s less than $50,000, not enough to commit murder over.”
“I heard that late last week, Alan took out a $500,000 life insurance policy at the urging of his wife. Is that enough to commit murder over?”
“Late last week, you say. If it was done on Friday, its’ possible that when we checked the insurance company had not yet filed their paperwork. I’ll check again but to answer your question, yes that definitely changes things. I’ll call you tomorrow at school.”
Grant shut off the laptop and let the rest of the CD play out. Before it did he fell asleep. When he woke up, ‘My Girl’ was playing again. A quick glance at his watch showed he had been asleep for two hours. It was now 11:30. He shut off the CD player and the lights and went to bed.
The next day in school, George called Grant at lunchtime. George had found out more information but he would not discuss it over the phone. Both Jill Magellan and Lana lived close to the school. It was decided that George would pick up his brother after school and then stop by and question both of them.
The end of the day seemed like it got there quicker than usual. George picked his brother up and told him what he had learned. First, about Lana, he had contacted the Northeast Aquarium. Their copy of the shipping manifest shows that Lana signed for the most recent shipment which included the poisonous stonefish. Second, a check of the insurance
records indicated that indeed Alan had taken out a $500,000 life insurance policy. It had not been finalized until late Friday, after George had checked.
Lana’s house was the first stop. They got out in the driveway and made their way to the front door. Grant rang the doorbell. Lana answered.
“Hello,” she said. Noticing Grant was there she added: “Grant, how are you? This must be your brother the police detective. I see a resemblance.”
Showing his badge, George said “Lt. George Paxton, ma’am. We’d like to question you here about the murder of Alan Magellan.”
“Come in” she sighed. “I’ve been expecting you—what took you so long?”
They didn’t answer but just quickly stepped through the doorway. In the living room they sat down on a sofa and Lana sank into a recliner to the left. Lana was married but she was alone at the moment.
“Lana,” Grant said. “I wish we were meeting under more pleasant circumstances but we’ve got to ask you some questions.”
“I know what they are,” Lana said. “Go ahead.”
“Were you present at the last school committee meeting?” George began the questioning.
“Hah,” laughed Lana. “I certainly was, it was televised on the local cable access channel.”
“Then you know I must ask you if you had a tirade and threatened a discrimination lawsuit when you lost the superintendent’s ’job to Alan.”
“Yes. Guilty as charged. My mother always told me I had a bad temper.”
“You had to be physically removed.”
“Yes, I am a hot head sometimes.”
“The next day, Mrs. Ames, you were witnessed in the teachers’ lounge saying you were going to…” he read verbatim from a quote he had written in his notepad “get Alan?”
“Yes, I got worked up again, but you must understand. Take a look at my resume and compare it to Alan’s. His pales in comparison. We’ve both got CAGS degrees but since I was hired I’ve gotten a master’s and I nearly have my doctorate. Alan should not have gotten the acting superintendent’s job. That should have been mine as well. It is just a good ol’ boys network.
Ignoring the commentary he went right to the next question. “Mrs. Ames, were you still in the building last Thursday about 5:00 when the murder occurred?”
‘‘No, I left early and came straight home. I had given a big test that day and I had a lot of papers to correct.”
“Were you alone?” George asked.
“Yes. My husband was out of town on business that night.”
“Lana,” Grant asked “about your job at the aquarium, did you sign for delivery of a stonefish last summer?”
“Yes I did. It was added to the venomous fish collection. It is a fish that is difficult to see. It blends into its’ environment. Anybody who has ever done any diving in the western Pacific, especially in the Great Barrier Reef knows about the stonefish. It is covered with quills like a porcupine. These quills contain a highly poisonous venom. Why do you ask?”
“We have reason to believe that this was the poison that killed Alan.”
“I didn’t do it, regardless of how this looks,” she said “Am I under arrest?”
“No,” George said, putting away his notepad and rising to leave. “but, please, don’t leave town. We may not be done here.”
‘”Goodbye, Lana,” Grant said, also getting up from the sofa. “Thank you.”
They got into George’s car.
‘Well, let’s go see Mrs. Magellan,” George said “but I think we may have our culprit already.”
“It doesn’t look good,” Grant admitted, “but I don’t know…”
They approached the door at Alan’s house. Grant rang the doorbell and Mrs. Magellan answered. She was wearing a cashmere sweater and Capri slacks. She was holding a small
poodle in her arms. A glance at her hands revealed an exquisitely done manicure. Grant was surprised at the fact that she looked significantly younger than Alan, maybe 12 or 15 years.
She looked at them quizzically. “Can I help you gentlemen?” she asked.
George again showed his badge and this time identified both himself and his brother. Grant had never met Jill Magellan. “We are very sorry for your loss. We would however just like to ask you a couple of questions.”
‘Thank you” she answered back, matter of factly. “Won’t you please come in? Shotsie and I here,” she held out the poodle, “were just going to have dinner. Isn’t that right snookems?” she asked the dog and kissed him on the lips. ‘”Rosa!” she yelled. Emerging from the kitchen wearing an apron was what appeared to be the maid. Handing the dog over to this woman she instructed: “Please see to it that Shotsie gets fed.”
Grant looked around. The house was magnificent. The furniture seemed to be very expensive. There was, a chandelier, a sliding glass door to the backyard which connected to a patio and what looked to be an Olympic sized swimming pool out back. Beyond that Grant could see a hot tub to boot!
“That’s my maid,” Jill explained. “Can I get you gentlemen anything?” she asked as she went to the bar and fixed herself a mixed drink.
“No thank you” came the almost simultaneous reply from the brothers. “ George took out his notebook and pen. “Now if we can get started, Mrs. Magellan. I’d like to know where you were last Thursday around 5 p.m. when the murder was committed.”
‘Please call me Jill,” she said and then took a swig of her drink. There was an awkward pause as if she was forgetting George’s question. “Oh yeah,’ she said “your answer is -- I was right here with Rosa waiting for Alan to come home. The cook, Maria was here too. Today is her day off.”
“‘Jill,” Grant said, “we’ve discovered Alan just took out a $500,000 life insurance policy. That money, of course, will be paid to you shortly. If you don’t mind me saying so, that’s a lot of money.”
The answer shot back quickly. “If you are insinuating that I killed Alan for the money, you are wrong. Look around you.” she waved the hand with the mixed drink in it in a circular motion, causing the ice cubes in the glass to make a clinking sound. “Do you think the paltry sum Alan’s original insurance policy insured him for would pay for this? I have a cook, a maid, a Mercedes, and this beautiful home to keep up. I needed the extra money the new policy provides if Alan died. I had no idea Alan would be die so soon after the policy was bought. But I needed to think ahead in order to be provided for properly. Besides, he’d be making pretty good money in his new job, so he’d be worth more to me alive.”
Grant winced. She was hardly talking like a grieving widow. Garrett was right. He could see after 10 minutes that she was materialistic and selfish. Still, though, her arguments made sense. Grant thought she was innocent.
George got up and ended the interview, thanking Mrs. Magellan for her time. Grant followed him out. When they got to the car Grant spoke.
“What do you think?” he asked his brother.
“I don’t think she did it,” George said. “I still think it is our prime suspect. We’ll have a better idea tomorrow once we get that toxicology report. Let’s get you back to your car.”
It was a short drive back to the school parking lot. George pulled up at his brother’s car and let him out. Reaching into the back seat he grabbed his teaching bag and got out. When he got to his car and turned on the radio, the Beatles were playing on Sirius. It was his favorite Beatles’ tune, A Day in the Life. He cranked up the volume and headed for home.
The next day, an already tired Grant pulled his silver Honda Civic into its parking spot at the school. The car was 10 years old now and was developing rust spots but it still san great. Grant hated the thought of getting rid of it. He got out and began the long walk into the building. He was very restless last night and did not get much sleep. What was bothering him was this case. He knew if the toxicology test came back positive that it would most likely lead to Lana’s arrest. Even though he had helped compile some of the evidence against her, he just could not bring himself to believe she was guilty. She might have had a quick temper but she was not stupid. Who would announce that they would get Alan in front of witnesses and then move against him on the same day! Something didn’t add up.
On his lunch hour, Grant had decided to have one last look around the break area where Alan apparently had been poisoned. For some reason, perhaps that, lunch seemed to take forever to get to. Finally it was 10:50 –lunch. He hustled down to the main office. First he poked his head into Elaine Southworth’s office and got the principal’s permission. Next he went to the administration break room. It was small. One half of it contained a small copier and fax. the other half had a small refrigerator and small table. When he got there the receptionist Kerry Grable was at the table. She was pregnant and every Monday morning Grant had made it a point to inquire about her health. With all the commotion surrounding the case, he just remembered that she was absent from her desk every day this week, and it was Wednesday already!
“Hi, Grant “she said “I’ve missed you so far this week. I haven’t given you my weekly pregnancy update.”
“Yes, I know,” Grant confirmed. “Where have you been?”
“In the bathroom,” she held her stomach. “Three guesses why,” she joked. “The doctor said it would be any day now. I am just trying to make it through this week.” She glanced down at her coffee and realized she had forgotten something. “Grant, I forgot my half and half. Can you get it for me, it’s in the fridge behind you on the top shelve-in front of Alan’s Coffee-Pal.”
Grant opened the fridge, found it and gave it to her.
“Thanks” she said.
“Kerry” Grant asked. “How did you know that was Alan’s coffee- creamer in the fridge?’
“Oh, everybody knows that around here. He’s the only one that uses it. Alan loves his Coffee-Pal creamer. I mean he loved it,’ she corrected herself. “We should throw it out now, I suppose, but none of us has the heart to do it. I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
Grant wrapped a paper towel in his hand and opened the Coffee Pal. He took a whiff. It didn’t seem to smell right but he couldn’t be certain why. He’d turn it over to the police. He opened and closed the cabinet doors looking for anything unusual.
“Kerry, were you working here last Thursday?” he asked.
“Yes. I was here all day.” Kerry didn’t mind the questions. She knew he was working with the police.
“Did you notice anyone unusual come in?”
“Now that you mention it, Charles Whitehorse popped in and asked to see Alan, but he was at a conference when he came in. It was right round this time --11:00 a.m. We were in shock, given the state of the relationship between him and Alan. He said it was time to bury the hatchet and talk business.”
“Are you sure he was here? He would have had to sign the visitor’s log.”
“He did. Check it out. Oh and he wasn’t alone. His Australian girlfriend was with him.
Her name is Natalie Gibb. She worked here briefly a while ago on the nightshift She had on a short miniskirt and a low cut blouse. I remember she dressed the same way when cleaning crew. What a contrast. Mr. Whitehorse impeccably dressed with an Italian suit and a silk tie. she worked here. She must be 20 years younger than him. I am positive they were here. I remember Mr. Whitehorse asked if he could use the fax machine before he left. He had a timely business transaction to fax that couldn’t wait.”
“Kerry,” Grant said, ‘this is important. “Did he send his own fax?”
“I was going to,” Kerry answered, “then the phone started ringing off the hook. Seeing I was busy he offered to send his own and he did.”
Grant was digesting what he had found out. Had the police missed his name? He probably was not on their list of suspects and would not have been red-flagged had they caught it. The fax machine was next to the refrigerator!
“Kerry, can I get a look at last Thursday’s visitor log before lunch ends?” She showed him where they were kept and he found what he was looking for. “Here it is “, he said aloud “ you were right. Natalie Gibb and Charles Whitehorse-11:10 in, 11;20 out. Kerry, you’ve been a big help!”
“I have?” she asked. “Have I cracked the case?” she said half-jokingly.
“I’ll let you know Kerry. I’ll let you know.” Grant replied.
Quickly returning to his room, Coffee-Pal in hand, he glanced at the clock. 11:10 just five minutes left before class. He’d eat on his prep today; the last period. Right now he had just enough time left to call George.
“Homicide, detective Paxton,” he said. He must not have been looking at his caller id. or else he would have recognized Grant’s number.
“Grant, its’ George.”
“Oh Grant, I was just going to call you. The toxicology report came back positive. There’s a preponderance of circumstantial evidence now against Lana. Enough so that we’re getting a judge to write out a warrant for her arrest.”
“George, I’ve got less than 2 minutes before class. Here’s the short version. Don’t arrest Lana yet! I’ve found out some information on Charles Whitehorse. He was here the day of the murder. There’s more but I can’t talk right now. The bell is going to ring. Can you come by after school and pick me up. I think he has to answer some questions.”
“Grant are you sure? He never said that to me and everybody knows that he had not talked with Alan for months.”
“Yes, I’m positive. His name’s on the visitors’ log.” The bell sounded ending lunch. “I’ve gotta go, George.” Come by and get me after school. I have last period off. I’ll call you. Goodbye.” He hung up. The case had just gotten much more interesting. How was he ever going to get through this last period of history?
12:45. The bell rang signaling the end of the period. Grant hurried to the break room, where he wolfed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. While he ate he examined the creamer from the break room, using paper towels so as not to get his finger prints on it. He could find nothing. Then he called George.
‘Hello, Grant,” he said, remembering to look at the caller i.d this time.
Grant got right into it. “George, I found out that Whitehorse came by to see Alan, but he wasn’t here. Before he left he sent a fax himself from the breakroom. That means he could have tampered with Alan’s coffee creamer. From where it was kept, the murderer would have had easy access to it. I think that Mr. Whitehorse has some more questions to answer.”
“O.K. Grant. I’ll come by after school but I may be a little late coming out of a meeting. You’ve behaved yourself so far but promise me you’ll wait till I get there. Don’t try and do this alone. I am just as interested as you in asking him some questions. I promise I will hold off on Lana’s arrest at least until I hear what Whitehorse has to say.”
“O.K. George,” his brother said. “I’ll be here waiting for you.”
They hung up. A couple of hours later, about 3:00pm., George picked Grant up and they drove to Whitehorse’s nearby business office. The company was called Native American Realty. Whitehorse belonged to the Wampanoag tribe and through a series of shrewd investments the tribe had made enough money to open a chain of profitable casinos. The tribe was rich and so was Whitehorse.
The two brothers had called ahead and so were expected. Whitehorse was there but so was his girlfriend. Grant was surprised that she was there. Whitehorse was dressed to the nines. He had on an Italian suit and silk tie, just as he did when Kerry saw him. At least his girlfriend looked a little more presentable than before. She had on a fancy shiny blouse that came up to her neck and a pants suit with high heels.
“Come in, gentlemen, come in. Sit down,” ‘he motioned to two huge leather chairs on the other side of his desk. “Let me introduce this young lady. She is my business associate and fiancé, Natalie Gibb.”
The two brothers sat down. George spoke up first: “Mr. Whitehorse, the other day, you didn’t tell me that you had stopped by the school on the day of the murders.”
“You never asked me,” Whitehorse protested, “Is there a law that says you have to volunteer information?”
“Unfortunately no,” he answered. ”What was your reason for going there?’
“As I am sure you know, Mr. Magellan and I were having a dispute over some land. We had not spoken for weeks. It was a business matter. The only way to solve it is to talk it out. I went there to try and do that but he wasn’t in. So I left.”
‘Did you send a fax before you left?”
“Yeah, I had to reply to a business offer by 11:30. I didn’t think I would have enough time to get to my office so they let me use theirs.”
“Did you send it yourself?”
“Yeah. The receptionist was swamped with phone calls and she’s pregnant to boot. I offered to send it myself and she let me.”
‘Mr. Whitehorse, have you ever heard of a stonefish?” Grant asked.
“I have.” Natalie spoke up. ‘I used to live in Eastern Australia. Its’ not far from the Great Barrier Reef where we used to go diving every summer. Every diver there knows about the stonefish. It’s a real hazard. Camouflaged and with quills or spines that are highly poisonous if stung, It’s a danger to divers.”
“Will you dummy up,” Whitehorse said. “He asked me, not you. He turned back and looked at Grant. “My answer is no, I haven’t heard of it.”
“Miss Gibb.” Grant asked, were you once employed at the school?”
“Yes, about 4 months ago I worked for a temp agency that had a three week assignment at the school. The regular maintenance crew was working on a special assignment stripping floors in some rooms, I think. I helped out till they were done.”
“What were your duties?”
‘Basically sweep and clean out the rooms and offices at the South end of the building, including the main office. Someone else had the north part.”
“Alright,” George said ending the session. “That’s all for now but I’d like you to stick around, Mr. Whitehorse in case we have more questions.”
‘I’m a busy man:” Mr. Whitehorse complained. “If you want to talk again my lawyer will be present.”
“That’s your right,” George said. “Just make sure you don’t leave town.”
“Am I a suspect?”
“Let’s just call you a person of interest.”
“‘I don’t like the sound of that,” Whitehorse said.
George and Grant got back into the car.
“What do you think?” George asked his older brother.
“I don’t believe him” Grant said.
“Neither do I. I think I’ll hold off on that warrant for Lana Ames. We’ll test that Coffee-Pal you gave me and see what we find.”
George pulled up beside Grant’s Honda. Before Grant got out he asked George; “The first time you questioned Mr. Whitehorse, how was he dressed?”
“Italian suit and silk tie. I guess he wears them all the time.”
“Brother are you thinking what I am thinking?”
“I think so and if we could find it at the crime scene, I think it would really put a nail in the coffin.”
“I’ll have forensics come down again and do another sweep,” George said “If we find what we are looking for this could put us over the top.”
“Are you sure we aren’t twins?” Grant joked.
“If so we’d be the only twins born three years apart,” George joked back.
Grant got out of George’s car and into his Civic. He headed for home. He had a feeling he would sleep better tonight.
The next day, Thursday, one week after the murder, a well-rested Grant emerged from his Honda Civic and began the long walk to the front entrance of the high school. When he got there, as he had expected, George had the forensic team all over the administration break room again. If Grant and George were correct they would find the evidence that could crack this case wide open. George felt confident they had a good case, but he knew the forensic results could clinch it. George would have a busy day. The lab found that the coffee creamer had contained several milligrams of stonefish venom, probably injected into the creamer with a syringe. George had to try and figure out how this happened. Also he had secured a search warrant for Whitehorse’s home looking for a silk tie. It all came together by the day’s end.
George called Grant and got him up to speed. If everything went according to plan, he would bring Whitehorse in tomorrow. He’d call Grant at school.
Friday was a gloomy, cloudy day but you could not put a damper on the enthusiasm Grant felt that the case might be solved today. Grant walked into school and waited for George’s call. It finally came at 2:30 He had called Whitehorse down and invited Grant to come as well.
.When Grant got to the station, he had a quick powwow with his brother. The two of them then went into the interrogation room. Just before entering, someone handed George a sealed plastic bag containing evidence. He also had a printout in his hand.
In the room there was a long table in the middle, perpendicular to the door. On one side were seated Mr. Whitehorse, his girlfriend and a well-dressed man which Grant guessed was his attorney. He was right as the gentleman introduced himself. His name was A.G. Holmes. The brothers sat at the opposite side of the table.
George spoke first. “Mr. Whitehorse we have compiled evidence recently which is very damaging to you. As you know Alan Magellan was poisoned by stonefish venom. We now know that it was injected into his coffee creamer. Mr. Whitehorse, you told us that you were in the break room area by yourself. Did you inject this poison into the creamer?”
“No, I did not.” Mr. Whitehorse said, indignantly.
Grant addressed Natalie. “Miss Gibb, do you take drugs?”
“You don’t have to answer that,’” Mr. Holmes said, then. turning back toward Grant, he said: “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Let me explain,” George said. Whoever poisoned Alan had to get the syringes from someplace. I didn’t think the murderer would be dumb enough to use his own credit card but I ran a check anyway. You were clean Mr. Whitehorse. But 10 days ago, if you will take a look at
this printout, Miss Gibb, you used a LL Bean credit card to buy 8 syringes from a medical supply store.”
Natalie ripped the paper out of George’s hand and looked it over carefully. “You son of a bitch,” she yelled at Mr. Whitehorse. “I remember now. We were in Acapulco and you said you needed to order something on line but your wallet was still locked in the hotel room safe. I let you use my credit card but I didn’t know it was for this!” She had to be kept apart from Mr. Whitehorse by the attorney.
“Let’s have order,’ George said. “Mr. Whitehorse,” he said addressing him. “you know yesterday you were served with a search warrant for a silk tie. He deposited the very same silk tie, which was in a plastic evidence bag. “Let me tell you why. You see when you signed in as a visitor to the school last Thursday, you had your picture taken. It’s standard procedure for all visitors. I have here a reprint of that picture. Please note that you have on a royal blue tie. Now Mr. Whitehorse, we took this royal blue tie from your house yesterday.” He pointed to the evidence bag on the table. “Our forensic people combed the administration break area and found a concentration of microscopic fibers with a blue tinge. We also found them the first time but because we knew Alan wore a royal blue silk tie occasionally, we thought nothing of it. At that time we had no idea you were at the school the day of the murder. We compared the fibers we found there with those from this tie we took from your house yesterday. They match- the fibers at the scene are from this tie.”
“Let me sum up, Mr. Whitehorse, George continued. “ First, motive; you wanted the land that Mr. Magellan refused to sell. Getting that land would mean lots more revenue for you. If he wouldn’t sell, you decided to get rid of him. Second: opportunity. You were alone in the break room and took that time to inject the venom into the Coffee-Pal. It was well known that only Alan used coffee creamer. Your girlfriend worked here briefly, maybe you found out from her. Anyway, you knew. As far as your pick of poison to use, the stonefish was your choice. Maybe you overheard your Australian girlfriend talk about it. The Western Pacific is their natural habitat after all. Maybe you just searched the internet. Bottom line is you learned of this and decided to use it in your deadly scheme. As far as the murder weapon, it would be the poison but that would be useless without a syringe. I think that little scene we all witnessed here today proves that you ordered the syringes on line using your girlfriend’s credit card. Mr. Whitehorse, you are under arrest for the murder of Alan Magellan.” As he read him his rights, he took out a pair of handcuffs and put them on. A police officer came into the room and led him away.
“Don’t worry we’ll beat this rap,” Mr. Holmes assured him. “I’m going to go right now and get you out on bail”
Mr. Whitehorse was silent as they took him away.
“What about me?” Natalie asked.
“The D.A. will look this over. Its’ possible that he could charge you with being an accessory but I doubt it. You are free to go,” George told her. “Do you need a ride?”
“If you don’t mind. I came with Charley. I don’t have my car.”
‘I’ll have a police officer drive you home. Excuse me.” He left the room to make the arrangements. This left Grant alone with Natalie.
She looked at Grant. “I remember you from my time at the school. You were the one that played 60’s music from your room after school. What are you doing working with the cops? “she asked.
“I am a mystery writer part time in the summer. Because of that they sometimes ask for my help.” Grant replied.
“Oh, like Jessica Fletcher,” she said, referring to the old TV series in which a writer helped the police solve crimes. Her ride arrived and as she walked out the door, she turned around and said: “I wish you had just stayed teaching. Now I may have lost my meal ticket.” She left with the police officer.
The weekend passed quickly and soon it was time for school again. Unlike last week though, when it felt like the proverbial Sword of Damocles was hanging overhead, this Monday morning felt much different. Grant could sense it as soon as he stepped into the front office to sign in. The tension was gone. As he signed in a temp who was covering for Kerry Grable spoke to him.
“You seem to match the description I got about what you looked like. I have a message for Mr. Paxton from Mrs. Southworth. Are you Mr. Paxton?" she asked.
“Yes, I am, Grant Paxton’” he replied. “but I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage. You seem to know who I am, but I do not know you.”
“I’m’ sorry, “she apologized. “My name is Darla Robinson. I am filling in for Kerry today. She had her baby yesterday, see.” she pointed to a photograph which read: Linda Grable born Sunday October 26 at 7:08 a.m. Weight 7 lbs. 6 oz. “There’s a card if you want to sign it after. Mrs. Southworth would like to see you in her office when you are finished.”
Grant signed the card and then knocked on Elaine’s open door. She was sitting at her desk. When she saw Grant, she smiled broadly. “Grant, come in and sit down,” she said warmly. She got up and closed the door behind him. “I just want to thank you on behalf of the school for the fine work you did in finding Alan’s murderer. “
“Well, you’re quite welcome,” he replied. “‘I was only one member of a team, though. I was only doing my part.”
“Well it’s a mighty fine part you played let me tell you. Being a vocational school, as you know, we have to recruit 8th graders to come here. That task would have been greatly complicated if we were the school whose science teacher killed the superintendent. It means a lot to this school that you proved that was not the case.”
“I played a part in setting the record straight and I was happy to do it.”
Elaine thanked him one more time and then sent him on his way. Everyone he met in the hallway seemed happier. From lunch with the guys to the end of the day it was as if a dark cloud had lifted and the bright sun was shining through again. After school Grant had a lot of work to do. He had to correct some homework, copy some handouts for tomorrow, and then get set up for the next lesson. Being a substitute teacher for 3 years at the start of his career he never forgot to always leave things in place for a sub, just in case he had to call in.
As he was contemplating how long all this would take him to finish, there was a knock on his open door. He was sitting at his desk and glanced up to see that it was Lana Ames. Her suspension had been lifted and today was her first day back.
‘”Hello, Lana,” Grant said. “How was your first day back?”
‘Like riding a bike,” she told him. “Grant, I was just on my way out and I wanted to stop by to say thank you for helping to clear me. I know it looked pretty bad there for a while and I know I have my hot temper to blame. Thanks for saving me from myself.”
“Even when the evidence seemed to point in your direction, I could never bring myself to think it was you.”
”Well, maybe you felt that way but I was getting the distinct impression that there were others who felt differently. Anyway I just want to say thanks for having faith in me. I’ll never forget it and I appreciate it more than I can say.”
“If I played a role in clearing you, I was happy with the result,” he magnanimously said.
“Oh you definitely played a key role. “she said “You are pretty good at this sleuthing stuff. Are you planning to do it again? “
“I won’t pursue it. I am currently writing murder mysteries in the summer. I may do that full time after I retire in a couple of years. If the phone rings and the police ask for my help again? Well…let’s just say never say never.”
“O.K., Grant. I’ll be on my way. I just wanted to say thanks again for getting me out of a deep rut. I appreciate it and will never forget it,” she said. “If you ever go to the Northeast Aquarium again let me know and I will get you a free pass.”
‘Alright,” Grant chuckled. “have a good night.”
Lana left the building. Grant knew he would be at his desk for the next several minutes. He got up and closed the door behind him, then found the song he was looking for on You Tube and played that on the Smart Board. The song was a Bobby Fuller Four cover of an early sixties tune. The name of the song was: I Fought the Law (and the Law Won). It seemed appropriate.
Abhirup Dutta was born in India and currently resides in California. When he doesn’t code, he blogs about solo-travel (https://earlgreykick.com), participates in Toastmasters, and promotes immigration rights and neurodiversity events. He has been published in the Corner Bar Magazine and the Literary Yard, and has read at San Jose Flash Fiction Forum.
It was a crisp Monday morning, and Zsofi was showing around a tour group of elderly American couples in straw hats and cargo shorts, a gang of British lads pretending to be of age, an extended Chinese family. The tour had ended on the shores of river Danube lined up with shoes.
She had a new job as a tour guide, and was financially stable. Her father was in the police. Her coworker Fani and her boss Erzebeth were well-connected. She knew Krav Maga and could kick down a man.
And yet, it was not a man - not a mortal human.
Zsofi grew up in the Magyar country of castles overlooking the lush-green countryside, ornate cathedrals towering over cobbled streets and lores of saints and demons from the antiquities retold by puppeteers and folk-dancers. But Hungary, Romania and Serbia held secrets too - of the dead rising from their graves and feasting upon the life-force of the living.
Rubbing her eyes, fighting to keep off her exhaustion, she said, “These shoes belong to the dead. People were forced to drown in the Danube, but not before they were humiliated. You will find more memorials of the Holocaust in the Jewish quarters but that will be a separate tour in the evening. Thank you all for choosing this tour with me. You will be emailed a satisfaction survey. Mention the guide’s name as Zsofi Jozsef. I need all the 5-stars and tips I can get. So please please please show me some love.”
“Tonight I will come”, she heard a voice growl from inside her, a voice which no one else could hear. And no one believed when she told them.
She tried to get as much sleep as possible in the afternoon before she would have to yield to her vampire.
Then, when night fell, he came.
It was a lucid dream. Zsofi found herself leaving her sleeping body behind and gliding to the windows where a red-haired man awaited her - his hands outstretched, floating in air.
“No garlics, prayers or cheap trinkets today?”, he asked, “I’m glad you’ve overcome your usual stubbornness and have embraced adventure. I’ve planned a wonderful night for us. Make most of what no mortal man can give you.”
Zsofi thought about protesting, but knew she was powerless. She quietly allowed him to fold his fingers around her wrist and together they flew over the Jewish Quarters, repurposed into a nightlife district with music and chatter booming to the sky above.
He smiled and glided carefully over the Szechenyi Bridge guarded by giant lions on its towers and reached the Buda side of the city - the previous home of royalty and aristocracy who, from the fortified hills looked over on Pest side across the river - the flat side for the commoners.
“Speak, my love”, the vampire commanded, “Silence and introversion is not a virtue.”
“I didn’t mean to be rude”, Zsofi found herself justifying, “I was just appreciating the view.”
“Do you know what I like?” The vampire said, “I love what’s underneath all of this beauty. Do you know what’s below this castle and the towers and the cathedral?”
“The Atom Bunker. The evacuation space if America had decided to vaporize this city.”
“That’s … that’s horrible.”
“Funny you should say that, I’m quite attached to it, for it speaks to me. All of these beauty around us - do you know why you humans do it? It is to be immortal in some way - to leave something behind. All art comes from one place deep within the soul - fear. Fear of being left behind, abandonment, aging, decay and death, with nothing and no one to be remembered by. When you peel away the skin, deep down, creatures of the day are the same as creatures of the night - we all fear the inevitable - underneath the cafes and wineries and gardens, we all have an atom bunker. That is our true home.”
The sun rose and Zsofi found herself on her bed, having lost a lot of time and having only hazy memories of it.
The past few days Zsofi was aggressively keeping an online journal, lest the Vampire took away her memories. Vampires possessed powerful magic, but they would be useless against modern marvels like computers.
Zsofi remembered how it all started.
She kept Skyping her boyfriend with the usual promises of long-distance for the first few days, and then, after the calls became less frequent, she began to record them, and listen to them before sleeping. Soon, she began to have lucid dreams and felt his presence in the space between sleep and wake.
Her dreams became more concrete, as she began to see him sitting on the chair next to her, smiling at her with love in his eyes, kissing her feet, squeezing the back of her neck and running his fingers over her back just like she liked it. It didn’t matter that she felt drained of energy and life by the day, she needed this at night.
It had already been a few months when she realized that the creature that was visiting her, despite looking exactly like him down to every spec of red hair on his beard and every freckle on his cheek, was not really him. It was someone else, deceiving her with his form.
Zsofi led another tour group through the wine-tasting inside medieval cellars, tasting stalls with elderly women rolling dough over a spitfire and topping them with nutmeg and honey, and cable cars running through pastel neighborhoods beneath criss-crossed wires.
After that, she didn’t remember anything until the point the Vampire was sitting next to her at night.
He said, “ I love you, because I am bonded to you, and because you belong to me, right here” he said pointing at his chest, “And people who love each other never abandon.”
Zsofi tried to move away from him but her body couldn’t move.
“Abandon? I am not going to abandon you”, she said, attempting to placate a rising anger in him.
“Of course you are, you are thinking of it. I’ve read your messages on the automaton you use. You are thinking of abandoning me, the same way your lover abandoned you.”
“He did not abandon me”
“He did, because it is in his nature. You creatures of the day are fickle. We creatures of the night know what eternal love means. Eternity is in our nature while abandonment is in yours.”
“If you are above him, then why do you take his form?”
“I do not”, the Vampire hissed, “I appear like him to you.”
“Really?”, Zosfi said, “And you appear just like other people’s love when they see you?”
“That is how our creator made me.”
“What do you see when you look into the mirror?” Zsofi asked, waiting for any hint which might bring her close to his true nature, and find a way to beat him.
“What do I see when I look into the mirror? I see nothing. In the mirror, I don’t exist. I only exist with you, in your heart and spirit. That is why you must not abandon me, and if you do, I will make sure you don’t exist either. It is only fair, don’t you think?”
Zsofi even began to distrust her online journals, and they no longer resembled her writing style. Either the vampire hacked into her accounts or she was gradually losing her own essence to him.
Zsofi found several fake emails from her account - to her father asking him not to contact her again, to Fani saying to her their friendship was over, and to her boss Erzsebeth saying she was quitting her job.
After work, Fani, concerned by the hacking of Zsofi’s account, took her out for drinks. They went to a Ruin Pub which was made by spreading tarp over the remains of a bomb-shelled building and attaching surround-sound systems that boomed the latest EuroPunk hits.
Fani led Zsofi by her arm through the crowd between discarded dolls and teddy-bears that once belonged to children now hanging from the room and up to the bar and ordered two glasses of Bull’s Blood - a melange of finest reds of Hungary.
After they clinked glasses, Fani opened the leather pouch and pulled out a medieval book - Traité sur les a les Revenans. Fani explained it was a book written by a French monk who travelled east to Moravia and Hungaria to round up False Prophets, Specters and Revenant Dead. The styles of burying the dead recommended by him were still followed today in Hungary, Romania and Serbia until such traditions were banned to create a better national image during the bid to join the EU.
When the rituals stopped to court the modern sensibilities of Western Europe, Vampires flourished even more and deaths and disappearances increased, which were attributed to Turks or “Gypsies” instead.
“Zsofi listen, yeah?”, Fani said, “The only way to kill a vampire is to go to where he is buried and face him directly, and stall him till sunrise.”
Zsofi glanced at Fani in fear. Where did she know about this? Did she let something slip? Was she conspirng with the vampire? Or was Zsofi losing her mind?
“Haunted tour!” Fani said, “They have it in Prague and Vienna. We must do one here too. How about a Vampire theme?”
“Oh yes, of course, but Fani, I want to tell you something”, Zsofi said, “I am leaving the country.”
“Yes, I have a cousin in America. I have been saving up for a flight. It’s tomorrow.”
“How come nobody knows?”, Fani said, “sudden, yes?”
“I didn’t want anyone to find out”, Zsofi said.
Fani gave her a long hard look as the music changed to trance, and said, “You are in some trouble. I understand. No questions.”
Sofi held the train ticket in her hand - a MAV ticket with reservations which would carry her from Budapest Keleti Station to Vienna HauptBanhof, from where her flight to JFK was scheduled.
The Keleti Station was one of the most beautiful stations in Europe. With ornate pillars and gargoyles, statues of angels and saints and a giant archway entrance, one could easily mistake it for an Opera House, if it weren’t for a giant old clock at the center of the arch.
As she entered the station, the scene was different from what she expected. Under the light of exquisite chandeliers, lined up in every platform were several hundred men, women and children, laying on flattened cardboard boxes with the police patrolling around them. Sofi walked up to a pony-tailed blonde policewoman carrying a cardboard box with supplies.
Zsofi smiled at her. She nodded in acknowledgement and came forward. She eyed the people on the floor and said, “Syrians. Came this morning from Serbia. We have no instructions on what to do. Such confusion.”
“I’m sorry to hear that Ma’am, anyways, I have a ticket and seat reservation for the train to Vienna”, Sofi said showing her ticket, “Which platform should I go? I’m in a hurry, I have to catch a flight from there.”
The officer laughed. She said, “Today is - very bad day for you. All trains to Austria cancelled. Border Control. Austria is asking us to register a minimum number of refugees before opening the border.”
Sofi was shocked. She didn’t know what to say. After all these efforts, she was slapped in the face by fate. She felt anger surging through her veins. They were interrupted by the wailing of a toddler next to his mother. The policewoman walked up to them and handed them an old discarded teddy bear from the cardboard box and a water-pouch.
The officer turned back and said, “You seem like a nice girl. I have a sister that looks like you. Do you have a copy of your flight tickets? I can talk to my superiors and see if anything can be done - maybe a flight directly from Budapest Airport, or maybe some government convoy allowed to Austria?”
Sofi handed her the tickets and rested herself on the floor. She felt a chill up her spine as the last rays of the setting sun entered through the giant glass clocks and turned the whole station red with shadows of the ticking hands. She could feel His presence rising within her - the feeling of a predator watching - coming from a deep primitive reptilian part of her mind.
The sound of sirens outside and vrooms of several vehicles brought Sofi back to this world. The policewoman came back to her, panting, and said, “Sorry. You have to leave the station. Go home, right now.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“You don’t understand, silly girl. Something terrible happened. ISIS released a video about forced conversion followed by beheading of a Hungarian woman. There is chaos. We received reports of a Nationalist Rally coming towards this station. It is obvious why!”, she said waving a hand at the tired Syrian people on the floor, “We have to protect them. You need to get out.”
At the front, a motorcade of Budapest Police formed on their bikes. Then another group came in with riot shields and formed a circle defending the entrance to the Keleti Station.
Sofi found herself walking away from the station taking random turns at alleyways without any awareness. Tears streamed down her eyes. Through the gap between the buildings to the street parallel to her, she saw several young men - bulked and broad-shouldered - chanting slogans and marching forward. They all wore Hungarian Football T-shirts as if it were their military uniform. They were headed to the Keleti Station. “Defend Europe from Turks”, they were screaming, “Expel the Ottomans”.
Sofi said a prayer for the Syrian woman who had sat next to her, but God did not answer her back, instead something else did. It was Him and his voice appeared in her ears.
“The creatures of battle - such music they make. The Crusades between the East and the West are upon us again. I have never felt stronger. The longer I wait, the more you try to run away. Tonight I shall claim you as my bride.”
Zsofiofi was in the underground Atom Bunker, along with a Roma family and some Chinese tourists who were hiding from the commotion above ground. Sofi looked at the weather app on the phone which said she had 20 minutes until sunset.
Fani was right. It was time to take the battle to him. Zsofi had already done her research - the fallback plan if escaping the country doesn’t work - slay the vampire.
Zsofi left them behind and crawled deeper into older parts through a labyrinth of medieval tunnels, which still had remains - old utensils, shoe soles or towels - from noblemen who hid there when the villagers revolted. She refused to use the flashlight on her phone to conserve battery, but felt quite at home with darkness, like a beast herself.
The casket had several latches around it. Zsofi unlatched them one by one and the clicks echoed in the hollow room. She had to bend over to avoid the low ceiling. She finally opened the casket and peered inside.
The lid opened and she stared into a skeleton and the skeleton stared back at her through its hollow eyes. She couldn’t see its jaws as they were covered with a brank-bridle - a metallic device to lock the mouth in place so it cannot open.
On the skull’s forehead in the center above the eyes was etched the sign of the cross and the words - Nyugodjbékében. Tobbe ne Edbredj - “Rest in Peace. Do not rise.”
She noticed the rib cage was broken. There was also a piece of dried flesh with a rusted nail through it - the heart.
She looked up from the casket. Staring at her was her boyfriend - red hair, lining of red beard. Except one thing - there was no face, just flat pale skin, where eyes, nose or mouth should be.
A voice emanated from the mouthless face - “Tell me, do you want the Vampire’s kiss to be pleasantly numb, or do you want it to be painfully memorable for the rest of your life? If you wish the former, invite me in voluntarily.”
“Why? Why are you after me? After women? I don’t love you, never did.”
“We children of this land - human and Strigoi are bonded. You humans lived off my lands and I lived off your daughters. A man owns lands and shares its fruits. A woman shares herself in exchange. Those are the rules of love and they serve us well. But in this era, you change the rules. Does that serve you well?”
No it does not, Zsofi thought, here she was broke, without love, without any friends, and wasted her last savings on a flight that she would never catch. She was a nobody, a no-face, just like the creature before her, hiding from a medieval crusade that was repeating itself above ground.
“You will not find anything within” the Vampire said, “except the crevice of nothingness that we all slip into in our nightmares - the eternal sewer that both man and monster came from and will be discharged into. Give me your heart. Wed me. Become my host and let me crawl inside you. Let me devour you and grind your bones with my teeth. Become the compost from which harvest will abound, and spring shall come upon my lands. Be worthy of something.”
The faceless face of the vampire morphed into the mouth of a giant lamprey, with concentric circles of tiny teeth and suckers. Tormented howls of hundreds of young women came from within it. The mouth of the lamprey lunged towards her bosom, and the buzzer on the phone beeped.
“Sunrise - Budapest - 4:52 am”.
The Iron Toys Make A New Year's Resolution
There comes a day, not marked on any calendar, when a child no longer plays with the toys of childhood - in olden times, a son crossed the sea in a soggy, malodorous ship, or a daughter was told to marry the son of a shoemaker or egg candler in the next village over. And so it is true, especially in Europe, but also in the homes built of hand-sawed planks of oak built by wealthy sea captains above the shores of Maine, that precious toy chests have survived for many years, filled with toys made of wood or tin, perhaps in an attic or even in a basement. Indeed, a shout out must be given here to the trade in antique toys, which has always preserved toys and toy chests made long ago. Naturally, such antiques need tlc, and crazy glue or beeswax, along with fresh paint, and pins and new padding, but, the effort has been made, and even in recent times there were still a handful of toy chests still around that were first made by woodworkers who sang sea chanteys that recalled their younger days as sailors chasing the last pirates of the Caribbean.
There is a house in Maine that was owned by a sea captain who built it for his new wife, a maiden of nineteen, who waved a handkerchief at him from the rainy dock as he left for his final voyage over the deep sea. No one knew it would be his final voyage, of course - if they did he would have stayed in bed, and never left. Yet, even without whales and sharks, the sea is a dangerous place, and was especially so in those days, filled, as the seas were, with pirates, storms, ill-conceived diets and maps made by chubby landlubbers who never really wanted to make maps at all, but instead had desired since their youth to paint tall murals with scenes of Roman landlords eating red grapes and similar scenes of ancient grandeur. Such maps, creative though they were, often led a sea captain with a starving crew to look for a mountain that never existed as a landmark to a river that was equally fanciful. Oh yes, the sea can be a dangerous place, and it was so for the sea captain.
The word spread that, when the sea captain drowned, he went down with his ship, smoking a corn cob pipe to the last.
Back when the sea captain married the maiden in the Whaleman's Chapel, her family gave them a toy chest made of a bright orange tiger wood with hinges of bronze. The maiden's family thought that the newlyweds would have many children: a wagonful, at least, they thought. It was a large wooden chest, which opened at the top and had no lock. Inside the chest were dozens of wood and tin toys, and at the bottom of the chest was a motley collection of iron toys, though, to be honest, the iron ones only looked like toys when you picked one up and looked closely through a squinty eye. The fact is that the iron toys were never molded very well and some of them were never even painted. And the ones that were painted did not hold the paint very well, and the paint soon flaked and chipped. So, even by the time the pastor had pronounced the sea captain and the maiden man and wife, the iron toys were part green, and part black, and part orange, and rusty, chipped, oily and sooty. They were, in the eyes of the other toys, a real mess.
It was not long after the sea captain exhaled his last blue smoke and began his underwater travels as a drowned man through the seven green seas among octopi and slowly waving pink plants in his never-ending search for the coast of Maine, that his bereft wife gave the toy chest away to a family with eleven children. That began a custom that lasted among generations of children until the times of the radios, when toys became plastic and stayed red or blue forever and shiny, too. The custom was that no kids wanted to play with the iron toys, and the iron toys stayed in the toy chest while the kids played with the well-made and brightly colored toys of wood and tin. One spoiled boy, upon seeing the iron toys piled and clasped together like a maddening crowd, cried: "What's that? A pile of junk?"
It is time to learn about the wood and tin toys in the toy chest; many toys would have belonged to the children of the sea captain and his wife, if they had ever had any; many toys were added over the years by families who said, "That's an adorable toy chest for the kids!" We have learned about the iron toys. What else was in the toy chest at the time that this story begins?
These were the small wood toys: a team of four white horses with blinders who pulled fancy carriages with seats like couches and a drum horse of gray with thick white hair over its hooves and a saddle that held drums on either side of the cavalryman. There was a rocking horse - a white Arabian with gray knees and a dark muzzle and a long light colored mane draped down one side of his head - he was mounted upon a rocker, and had a fancy harness and stirrups, and his tail reached the floor.
There was also a tiny wooden Viking with an ax, and there were two medieval archers with their bows pulled back and ready to unleash deadly arrows with sharp tips of splintered coal, along with a group of little Roman soldiers with helmets and swords and shields and red capes and also a sharp looking group of West Point cadets standing ramrod-straight and carrying white-handled swords.
Each wooden toy was made of invincible woods, for it is often a fact that vivacious children play with great verve and without finesse. And wooden toys are easy to paint, so the wooden toys looked brand new for many years.
Now we need to describe the tin toys. It should first be noted that tin does not rust. So, tin toys stay bright and shiny on and on into time, and now and then are pleased to have a sword straightened out with a pair of pliers, or to receive a fresh coat of paint or a dollop of hair coloring.
It should also be pointed out that tin is a soft metal, and easy to mold and cut, so tin toys are made with clean edges and excellent form.
The tin toys included a Russian soldier from the war of 1812 - he had a long coat, for he had fought in the winter, with gold buttons, a rifle in one arm and a sword in the other. There was a British officer with a white sash and white pants and gold epaulets, who permanently pointed the way forward with his arm. There were three members of Napoleon's Imperial Guard, and one of the men had a horn. There was a samurai swordsman with his hair tied back and crouched in a ready-to-strike pose. There was a sturdy cannon with red wheels.
The tin horses were made by craftsmen who studied all of the breeds in the known world for strength, speed, beauty and bravery. There were two taut and controlled thoroughbreds from Kentucky with fine, silky untrimmed tails; a Russian war horse from the steppes with a neatly trimmed mane; and three white Appaloosas with brown spots and yellow tails and strong necks and legs, speedy descendants of the Appaloosas belonging to the Nez Perce Tribe, who fought the U.S. Army and won for a while.
Sometimes children would play with just the wood toys; sometimes a mix of wood and tin toys. A brother and a sister, at the time of this story, had the toy box in their house, and it was chock full of toys. It was winter time, and the freezing wind and mounds of snow kept the children indoors by the fireplace for many days. On more than one of those chilly days, the brother and sister had, after three hours of play, all of the wood toys and all of the tin toys spread out on the floor. "Look, Momma," they would cry, "we're playing with all of our toys!"
These words from the brother and sister were not true for two reasons. Firstly, forgotten at the bottom of the toy box - once again - was a pile of discolored, disjointed metal, clumped together by gravity and misuse. Secondly, the boy had another toy that he had just gotten for his Christmas present - a red magnet shaped like a horseshoe, which he kept under his bed. The iron toys were used to being forgotten by children; but this was the first time for the magnet; she wasn't sad, she was mad.
"My name is Maggie and I'm brand new and I can lift up a hammer!" said the magnet loud enough for the toy box, and everything in it, to hear. "I thought I'd get a better welcome in this home."
The iron toys were too preoccupied at the time to give much thought to Maggie's predicament. For, as crusty, rusty things all crumpled together at the bottom of the toy box, those with legs could not stretch their legs, and those with wheels could not spin very easily, and iron is quite stiff to begin with.
It is time to take a look at the iron toys. There was a young woman with a banjo, a bearded man with a fiddle, and a pirate with an eyepatch and a dagger. There was a black man sitting hunched over a stand-up piano and a wooden pull toy with heart shapes in the iron wheels and a brass bell in the middle of the iron wheels which clanged when it was pulled by a string. There was a horse-head made of felt with an iron bridle and four missing wheels. The horse-head had no body: it sat atop a smooth piece of wood with rounded edges, like a skateboard. Back when it had wheels, a child just pulled a string attached to the horse's rein, and the horse-head was thusly able to travel. There was a wind vane made of an arrow with a little red rooster on top. There was a Chinese boy on a sled, stomach down, facing forward. There were two fighting Mexicans from the Mexican-American War, sporting tall black hats with gold chinstraps, along with dark blue coats and scarlet cuffs and collars; each carried a musket.
And there was one more thing made of iron: a cap gun that was plated with nickel.
The last iron toy that must be mentioned wasn't made of very much iron and wasn't even a toy. It was a tall marionette: a figurine of a wizard, with a long white beard made of white strings and a long, white mustache and a long, loose dark gown that once sparkled with stars. In his left hand he carried a staff with a white globe on top; he wore sandals. Strings attached to nothing fell from his wrists and knees. His staff was made of iron, and for that reason alone he had been rejected by both the wood and tin toys.
One night, just two days after Christmas, Maggie got even. She leaned her whole horseshoe-shaped body against the side of the toy box and said, "Here comes the force, people, prepare to be dazzled!" And Maggie's magnetic powers were felt inside the toy box by each and every iron toy, and they began to move up the side of the box, with the cap gun on top, and the other iron toys below it, with larger toys attached one by one and smaller toys attached two by two. The wood and tin toys did not feel a thing, and, in any event, the wood and tin toys were asleep.
"That's curious," said the wizard, "we are moving. It must be that the little boy knows a special trick."
But the little boy was asleep, too.
Soon, the lid on the toy box opened as the iron toys were lifted by Maggie's magnetic powers up and out of the toy box and onto the floor. The wizard, who was old, stayed laying down on the floor and stretched his legs, and the capgun, a heavy thing, sat still next to the wizard. But the other iron toys jumped into action. The piano guy struck up a bouncy tune and the young woman with the banjo and the fiddler joined in; the two fighting Mexicans looked on, tapping their feet all the while; the fingers of the Chinese boy on the sled kept time on the side of the sled.
The pirate pulled the string of the pull toy with the brass bell and faced the pull toy towards the band; the pirate also pointed the horse-head that sat on the smooth wood towards the band. The wind vane was already pointed in the right direction, for, if there is one thing that a wind vane knows, it is direction.
The wizard stood up and looked around by the light of the fireplace; he was still wondering how it was that the iron toys had been pulled out of the toy box. As Maggie explained her magnetic powers to the wizard, who was fascinated and entranced by her explanation, the pirate snuck away into the kitchen. The pirate returned from the kitchen with a thimble-full of rum. "Ahoy, maties!" said the pirate. "Let's boogie!"
It is perhaps true that it might be best to skip parts of a story, for the sake of the very young and the ultrasensitive, and this must be done here. A few hours later, it was the middle of the night. The man still played the piano, but it was a slow, quiet blues in the key of E, and he closed his eyes and truly hunched over for the deepest notes. The young woman with the banjo was asleep, as were the Mexican soldiers and the Chinese boy on a sled. The bearded fiddler had fallen asleep sitting up against the right side of the piano, and the pirate had fallen asleep on the left; they snored loudly in the wrong key. The rooster snored, too, and was in no condition to announce the coming dawn. Maggie and the capgun were in the shadows together; the wizard spoke.
"Wake up, wake up! Our secret will be betrayed if a human comes into this room while we are still here!" said the wizard.
And one by one the iron toys roused themselves, grousing all the while, moaning for aspirin; they were lifted back shortly before sunrise into the toy box by Maggie. Maggie returned to her spot under the boy's bed.
That day, the brother and sister played with the wood and tin toys in front of the warm fireplace. They arranged the wood and tin toys like an army: six tin horses stood at attention with a team of four white wood horses along with a sturdy drum horse with two kettle drums on either side of his saddle. There was also a rocking horse that was far bigger than the other horse. Behind all those horses stood the cannon with power. A French soldier blew his horn. Nearby, with discipline and strength, was a formation of Roman soldiers and graduates of West Point, keeping ranks with exactness. On either side of the formation stood the samurai and the Russian. On a command by the British officer, who pointed towards the fireplace, the archers let loose a volley of arrows that lit like firecrackers when they reached the flames.
While this crisp and noisy military drill went on outside the toy box, inside the toy box the piano player and the Mexican soldiers had joined the fiddler in a chorus of snoring, and the rooster called in sick.
"We are pathetic," said the wizard.
That night, Maggie hoisted the iron toys out of the toy box again; again the music played, again the pirate stole rum from the kitchen, and again the rooster was too lazy to crow for day; noon saw a snorefest of iron.
On the fourth day after Christmas, Maggie lifted the iron toys out of the toy box, while the army of wood and tin slept a healthy, sound sleep, and the well-fed and muscular horses slept standing up; the wooden Viking dreamt that he wore a silver crown. Before any party could start, the wizard spoke.
"Heed my words, my fellow iron creatures. We have been treated poorly for generations, and we simply do not get any respect from the humans. Maggie has done us a great service by using the power of magnetism to liberate us from the forgotten bottom of the toy box. But, for we iron creatures to be free, we must be strong and organized like the wood and tin toys. They have fast horses and clean and powerful weapons and superb soldiers. Frankly, I fear that either the wooden Viking or the tin samurai with the scary sword could defeat us all by himself," said the wizard.
"Defeat us?" cried the pull toy with the brass bell. "Like we'd ever fight them! Why on earth would we fight them? Life at the bottom of the toy box is not so bad and anyway we can sneak out at night and have parties!"
There were murmurs of approval.
The fiddler growled to the wizard: "You just can't have a good time. You spend too much time thinking and not enough time having fun."
The wind vane with the rooster on top said: "It's the holiday season, we should be celebrating, not getting caught up with war talk!"
The others agreed, except for the Mexican soldiers and the capgun, who stayed silent.
"We could have the toy box to ourselves if we could defeat the wood and tin forces," said the wizard as he pounded his iron staff on the floor, "and then the human children would play with us every day."
The capgun spoke up. "What would we have to do?" he asked.
"To begin with we have to assemble our weaponry. If you have a rifle or bullets, come forward!" shouted the wizard.
The banjo girl, who luckily spoke Spanish, whispered to the Mexican soldiers: they stepped briskly forward.
The capgun said: "I'm here too."
But that was all there was: two muskets, sold to the Mexican government a century earlier by the British though largely unworkable even then, and a capgun.
"Now," said the wizard, "if you have military training, step forward."
The banjo girl whispered to the Mexican soldiers again and again those two men stepped forward.
The wizard stroked his long, white beard. "How, in the name of all of the stars and planets, will we ever stand up to the cannon with red wheels, not to mention many ferocious soldiers on horseback with their swords and axes?" asked the wizard.
The assembled iron toys sensed the wizard's doubt and the meeting broke up; soon, however, there was singing and dancing, and the piano player shouted: "I wrote this one myself!"
That night, the horse-head lost his voice from singing so loudly, the pirate took out his glass eye and scared the banjo girl with it, and the rooster announced that he had never really been a morning person. Maggie left the party early with the capgun. The next day, the wizard was alarmed at the fearsome noise of the military drills of the wood and tin toys.
"Perhaps," thought the wizard, "war is not the answer."
The next night the wizard again addressed the iron toys.
"Tomorrow night is New Year's Eve," the wizard said. "We must resolve to start the New Year as free iron toys." He banged his staff. "There is a way to do this without war. We must escape this house, and go on a journey, a trek, a march, to find a human family that loves its iron toys."
The pirate spat on the floor. "No offense, but if we get out, I'm going to go my own way. I like you people, but I'd rather rob and pillage."
"That's fine," said the wizard, "but we may run into a fight. You have to be ready to sacrifice your life for the sake of the others."
The banjo girl translated for the Mexican soldiers. "Claro!" said the Mexican soldiers with pride.
The fiddler flexed his iron muscles; the piano player flexed his, and the pull toy shook his brass bell.
Then the capgun spoke: "Will the fiery redhead - Maggie - be coming with us?"
"You'll have to ask her," said the wizard.
"What's the plan?" asked the wind vane with the rooster on top.
"Everyone come closer and I will tell you the plan," said the wizard.
That night there was no party, and no rum; the piano player played a somber classical piece by Chopin, and the banjo girl and the fiddler played along with respectful and measured high notes; the fiddler had even trimmed his beard. The rooster expressed his regrets for slacking off and made a somber promise to do his duty.
Just before dawn the next day as a snowfall fell gently, gently falling, Maggie used her powers and slid the latch open on the front door of the house; the relieved hinges of the heavy wood door growled for a moment as the door opened a couple of inches. Through the opening came the iron toys. The pirate said, "I love fresh air!" gave a high five to the piano player, gave an unexpected hug to the pull toy and winked with his one good eye at the banjo girl, before setting off for the sea.
If you had been out and about as the snow fell that day, and been close by, you would have seen quite a sight! Maggie was in front of the parade and with her magnetic powers she pulled the capgun, who had the piano and the piano man on top. Behind them came the pull toy with the brass bell, which, if you listened closely and there was not too much wind in your ears, was ringing chimes of freedom. On the pull toy sat the Mexican soldiers, alert for signs of danger, and the wind vane, pointing wherever Maggie was headed. Behind them, the Chinese boy on the sled whisked merrily along carrying the banjo girl and the fiddler; the fiddler's beard flowed in the wind. Last, but not least, a string attached to the back of the sled pulled the horse-head along quite easily, for the smooth, waxed wood that the horse-head sat upon was like a ski on the snow. Surfing aboard was the wizard. The wizard's white globe glowed triumphantly among the dawn-kissed snowflakes, he wore socks with his sandals, and it was said that, every night forever after, his stars twinkled.
ANN J. BRADY
BRIAN LEE YEARY
CARLOS A. ALMARAZ
CURTIS A. BASS
DR. PAT SPENCER
DYLAN "NITE" ORR
ED N. WHITE
ERIC D. GOODMAN
FERNANDO E. IRIARTE RIVERA
GARY P. PAVAO
HILARIO LEE HERNANDEZ
H. L. DOWLESS
RUTH Z. DEMING