Welcome to a new year of fabulous fiction. Issue 113 brings you ghosts, unusual beings and haunting memories. Kick up your feet and let the words of Rizzy Rodham, Leigha Butler, Michael Brown, Lonnie James, and Jeanette Cheezum take you somewhere special. Be sure to make another trip back here for seconds on this issue’s Editor’s Pick for “Must Read Twice” by Michael Brown.
It was early morning when I entered the bathroom. As I reached for the light switch, a woman disappeared into the shower curtain. She was clear, like the curtain, with giant red, blue and green polka-dots. But she was there.
And then she wasn’t.
I wondered if this was the ghost I had often seen as a boy at my parents’ house, always in or around the bathroom, lurking at the door; a shadow in the hallway, a flash in the looking-glass over the sink.
I cleared my throat and asked, “Are you the ghost I used to see as a little boy? At my mother’s house?”
“No,” she said.
I went to the kitchen and started the coffee. My heart was thumping in my chest. While the old pot gurgled, I crept back to the open doorway and peeked inside. At last, I saw the curtain move. I switched off the light, pulled the door and let her know, “I’ve missed you, too.”
Rizzy writes from Paris, where she sleeps under her bed and steals other people’s food.
“Shut the blasted blinds,” he would have liked to say this morning, if only someone were there to hear him. But winter had taken Gertie, along with the Black-eyed Susans and Salvia, and all the commands in the world weren’t going to bring his wife back to see spring. For a few more minutes, he lie in bed, sweat spilling forth from his chest, bleeding into the fibers of their heavy synthetic coverlet.
He couldn’t have known that it was the season to forage for the cotton duvet from the linen closet. He couldn’t have known because these things had been her province. Many parts of the house were foreign to him: the nooks, ledges, corners and shelves only visited by Gertie and, many years ago, by their daughters. Now, he would have to acquaint himself.
In March, when he first found himself alone, he would wake up to his own complaints. “Get that cursed sun out of my face.” Or, “Damned light’s in my eyes, Gert.” These had been his customary demands, delivered gruffly, and for nearly five decades he could count on being relieved of his discomfort. She would have glided into the room to close the blinds, silent except for the rustle of a newspaper or the clinking of spoon on teacup, granting him, in a gesture, a cooler and more comfortable repose. In the weeks after her passing, his morning demands would bounce off the window pane back onto his blotchy, creased face, until all that remained was a pool of perspiration and the sound of his own coarse echo. It had taken him three full months to quit nagging at no one. The empty presence hung as heavy as the West Palm steam.
Today, he shut the blinds, only to find that the bed was still too warm. He kicked at the comforter and fanned his dripping face until, finally, he said to his bedroom, “This is intolerable,” and rose to search the house for lighter bedding.
Leigha writes from New York and can be read at the infamous EverydayFiction.
Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Michael D. Brown
Alix was soaking a wool sweater. The days were getting colder and were especially harsh at dawn. She was supposed to silver-plate a mirror for Mrs. McGrath the previous afternoon, but time had slipped away again.
Alix laid the sweater on a towel on a shelf in the pantry, before preparing breakfast. As she carried the tray into the dark bedroom, something fluttered past her cheek. A moth? She opened the curtains to allow light into the room, and when she turned; her grandmother’s eyes were open.
“How are we today?” Grandma Queenie asked. “Anything happen yesterday I should know about?”
“No, Grandma, things are about the same.” Queenie always began the day with the same question. Alix always responded with the same answer. Would she tell her if something untoward had occurred? Was there any need to upset the status quo?
“Just lay the tray over here, dear, and bring me my box. I feel like wearing something pretty today.”
Alix retrieved the jewelry box. Hesitating for a moment as if she were not making her usual decision, Queenie chose the ivory and onyx cameo broach, and said “Let’s have a tea party this afternoon.”
As Alix returned the little box to its proper place, she asked, “Who would you like to invite?”
“Well, I was thinking it would be so nice to see Matt Kingman, though that might be difficult, his being on the run all the time. I don’t know why they persecute him so.” Always acquitted of whatever infractions were charged against him, he remained one of her grandmother’s fondest acquaintances. He was there to see her off.
“I always liked him,” Alix said, trying not to sound apologetic.
“He liked you too, dear. Come sit with me,” Queenie said, “Let me tell you about a dream I had.” Alix pulled the big chair a little closer to the bed. This was the part she enjoyed most of all. It was rarely the same dream.
“Well, I was sleeping as soundly as the dead, when a noise awakened me. It was a little tapping, fluttering sound at the window. So, I rose and walked over as quietly as I could and slowly pulled the curtain aside.”
She stopped and gazed toward the window, and then continued, “There was a dove perched on the sill. I have never been fond of birds of any sort. Imagine my surprise when this one began speaking to me. ‘Queenie,’ it said, ‘It’s time to stop being a burden. Come and fly with me. You’ll like the feel of air blowing through your hair, especially at night.'”
Alix did not like the turn this dream was taking. She averted her eyes, believing she might catch sight of fallen feathers.
“Don’t fret, sweetie,” her grandmother said to her. “It’s been three years. We can’t go on like this forever.”
“But, Grandma…” she began to protest.
“Hush, Alix, I’m not saying it has to be today, but soon, sweetie, soon. I just want you to be prepared.” She brushed stray hair away from her eyes. “Look, I can see I’ve upset you. Let’s talk about our tea party.”
“Good. Now, tell me, what have you been up to? You have one of your mirrors to complete, don’t you? Is it a nice piece of glass?”
Alix did not mention the mirror was for Mrs. McGrath, who never approved of Matt Kingman and said exactly what she thought of him. Alix believed there was more in her grandmother’s past than mere acquaintanceship with the man, but would not confirm her suspicions by asking.
After chatting of inconsequential matters for about half an hour, Alix said, “Oh, yes, I forgot to tell you, Mrs. Carroll’s daughter is getting married, and her son is writing a children’s book.”
“I wonder if that’s in your future,” Queenie said.
“Writing a book?”
“Getting married, dear. Whatever would you write about?”
Queenie suggested they check on preparations for the afternoon. “Help me, dear,” she said as she rose.
After glancing around the kitchen, she inspected the pantry. Everything was spotless, as always. Alix never gave her reason to find fault with her housekeeping. It was part of her promise.
Queenie remarked, “I see you’re getting prepared for the cold weather,” and then, about the two eggs with cracked shells, “Well, we can’t use these.”
Try as she might, Alix could never prevent the cracked eggs from appearing. She had tried early on inspecting the eggs the night before, but never found any damaged ones, yet always encountered them in the morning. It became part of the ritual. She expected cracked eggs might manifest themselves even should her grandmother accept the dove’s invitation.
“How do you see me, Grandma?” Alix asked, “I mean, what’s to become of me?”
“Well, I’m prejudiced,” Queenie said, “But I don’t think you should worry about what anyone thinks is in your future. It’s your future, dear. I don’t believe it’s predestined, but a little more socializing could be catalytic.”
“I see friends now and again.”
“But nobody special.” Her grandmother must have foreseen the look of loss about to appear in Alix’s eyes, and she added, “Yet.”
They sat, discussing which recipes were appropriate for light snacks, and had tea. Alix drank hers, and soon it was time for Queenie to return to her room.
Sometimes, Alix felt impatient advancing up the stairs, but not today. She wondered how many more days she would enjoy this closeness with her grandmother. In her day, Queenie had been the hostess with charm, grace, and humor. She had been a big woman whose advice was sought by many in all kinds of situations and always resolved unpleasantness. It was in her nature. She was now half the size she had been and moved more slowly every day.
When she was firmly tucked back in, she made her usual request. “Bring some flowers in from the garden, won’t you?”
Alix kissed her on her forehead, and said, “I’ll just take these things away.” She would eat the cold breakfast herself while reading a newspaper in the way mornings always ended. Later, she would silver Mrs. McGrath’s mirror.
The first days after her wish had been granted, when the garden was still blooming with a variety of flowers, Alix had chosen carefully and returned quickly to seek approval only to find her grandmother sleeping. When she looked in later, she discovered the room was empty. She realized then that they would share only mornings. This was okay, for those were the moments she had prayed to be able to relive on the day of Queenie’s funeral three years earlier.
Michael writes from Mexico, where he teaches English and blogs his life here.
Each Day I Die
May 4, 2033
It was a group of about seven or eight that filed quietly into the room this time. The pockets on their white lab coats bulged with odds and ends. Their faces were solemn, as though they were going to a funeral. Sometimes their eyes held his for a moment but then they looked away as if they were ashamed of what they were thinking. They didn’t know about him, though. They were just stupid medical students. They had no clue that he had died seven times before.
The older doctor who led the way picked up the chart from the end of the bed and began to read aloud:
“This 35 year old white male is presented with nausea, weight loss, emesis and abdominal pains with an eight on the pain scale.”
He always wondered: Why stop there? Why not continue and say, He’s about 5’10, 160 lbs, nice square jaw, blues eyes and a perpetual two days worth of beard growth.
The doctor reached across and pulled the bed sheet from the helpless man with his free hand.
“If you were to palpate here and here you will feel two rather large masses.”
He gestured to the others to feel his stomach. They dutifully fell in line and followed his lead. The old doctor always touched him just right, unlike the others whose touch was either too hard and elicited a groan of pain from him or too light and missed the masses.
“His blood pressure, temperature, and pulse are all elevated but that’s because of the pain. He’s been given a significant amount of painkillers but nothing works. What are your diagnoses?”
As they prattled on about what they thought was wrong with the man, he lay back and said nothing. He knew that he was going to die. He had died before and today was supposed to be no different. But today felt different. Other times, he was calm before he died but now he felt anxious. Each death was more painful than the last and he knew this death would be bad. At night the pain made him draw his knees up into a fetal position and rock back and forth and moan until the next shot of Demerol. It never stopped the pain completely though; it just moved it to the background.
But that was not the only thing that crowded his mind. There was so much he wanted to know but was unsure whom he could trust. He questioned a nurse once. She was wearing a piece of jewelry he’d seen others wearing.
“What is that around your neck?”
She looked down as if she’d forgotten it was there and placed her hand over it, slightly embarrassed when she saw what he was referring to.
“It’s a cross.”
“A cross? What does it mean? Who is that man hanging there?”
She pursed her lips, stared at him with an uncomfortable look on her face for long moments, then spun on her heels and left. She never came back to his room.
There were other things he dared not ask. Once, from his bed he had seen a male guard and a female nurse in a passionate embrace and he wondered what it signified. What did the pressing of lips mean? Did the melding of bodies have more significance? He had no clue.
As the doctors filed out, speaking in low tones to one another, the general consensus was stomach cancer. He lay there thinking about his predicament but didn’t like his options. He could die on his terms or he could die at their convenience.
The first time that he had died it from hepatitis. It was a quiet, somber moment that hadn’t really hurt. The next time though, he died from a gunshot wound to the chest. They worked on him for several hours before he passed. Sometimes it seemed as though he could still feel the hot searing pain even though they told him it was impossible.
It was dark outside when the next shift of nurses came on duty. He slipped out of bed and doubled over when a lightning bolt of pain seared his stomach. Tears squeezed through clenched eyelids and made their way down his cheeks. He stood still, swaying slightly as the pain eventually subsided. Anger flared inside him at his weakness and he ripped the I.V. from his arm. He took a tentative step then another.
There was supposed to be a security guard at the end of the hallway keeping an eye on him. But he was likely in the break room talking to the nurse he was always embracing.
The next time he had died was from a heart attack. They had done CPR but he had passed away. They revived him for a short while, but then he had a stroke and died on the operating table.
He stepped into the empty hallway and, despite the pain, hurried past uncollected food trays and laundry bins to the exit. The sweat poured down his face and dripped onto his hospital gown.
A rotund nurse with pitted skin stepped into his empty room, her mind elsewhere. She stood there dumbly for a second, staring at the empty bed, then turned and glanced into the bathroom, then the closet but saw nothing. She looked under the bed, hoping he was playing a joke. Muttering a curse, she ran back to the nurse’s station to call Mr. Peters, the hospital administrator. He could be a real son of a bitch. They didn’t call him Fat Bastard behind his back for nothing. He picked up on the second ring.
“Um, this is Stephanie Robinson from 2 South. I was doing my rounds when I noticed there was a man missing.”
“The Man.” Stephanie squeezed her eyes shut, her body tense in anticipation of yelling and screaming but there was silence on the other end. Shit, he’d hung up and was on his way. Stephanie rushed to turn on the hallway lights and started looking in other rooms with hopes he had just wandered off.
It was then that Fat Bastard and a powerfully built security guard who trailed behind him arrived. He was as big as the nickname implied, and short, which exacerbated his bulky appearance. He had that pasty look of someone who spent too many hours inside a dark office. He wheezed with each step he took.
“Where’s the guard? This patient is worth at least ten million dollars to this hospital! When was the last time you saw him?”
The patient in question had slipped into the stairwell and collapsed near the roof access door. Climbing eight flights of stairs had taken all of his strength. He lay there panting in the cool darkness, trying to gather himself for one last act. His thoughts turned to something he’d overheard between two nurses.
“Y’know, as I was driving in tonight I looked up and I’ve never seen so many stars. It was just beautiful.” Few conversations in that hospital were ever about the outside world. After that, he’d dreamt about the beautiful sky as he lay in bed, his knees drawn up to his chest in pain, the sweat dripping onto his pillow and sheets.
The fifth time he had died he just wasted away. They tried so many different tests on him trying to figure out the reason for the weight loss. Then he’d begun to experience difficulty breathing that came and went. Finally they had found a lesion on his spinal cord and someone pronounced MS. It was too late.
He stood up on shaky legs and pushed open the roof door and felt the cold. Biting wind greeted his face yet felt so good. An alarm sounded but he didn’t care. He was outside. He took two steps forward then fell.
The sixth time that he died was from multiple injuries from a car accident. There was so much blood that he actually wondered if there really only were ten pints in the human body. Maybe they added more for effect.
The last time he died was from third degree burns that covered eighty percent of his body. He shivered in fear and revulsion.
“Oh, God, please not that ever again. Ever!” he shouted out to the sky.
The roof door swung open and a large muscular security guard stepped through followed by a smaller fat man. Other guards fanned out behind them.
Fat Bastard leaned over him, wheezing from exertion. Eight flights were more exercise than he’d had in the last year.
“What are you doing up here? Where are you going?” Fat Bastard asked between gasps.
“Do you know that my heart beats? If I am very quiet I can feel it. Do you know that I breathe and sweat? I feel pain. I’m a man, a hu–”
“You are nothing!” Fat Bastard stopped him mid sentence. “You don’t feel pain. You are an expensive tool that we use and nothing else. Yes, you sweat and breathe and shit but only when we deem it necessary to fool the medical students.”
A pained expression crossed the man’s face.
“There. Right there,” Fat Bastard said. “I stood behind the programmer to make sure that he got your facial expressions right. You are a medical tool used to teach students. If we need to show a group of students how to react to a car accident victim or African sleeping sickness we use you. We program all of the signs and symptoms into you and your body responds. Last week, you were a burn victim. This week it’s stomach cancer. The students don’t even know that you’re an android. They believe that you’re a living, breathing human being. But you’re just a Medical Android, or MAN for short.”
Fat Bastard stood up straight and massaged his lower back.
“You’re the best prototype on the market. Reflexes, speech, heartbeat, beard growth. Everything that I would expect in a real person is there. But the bottom line is that you are not a human being. This reaction of yours is just an errant program that needs to be fixed or deleted.”
The Medical Android sighed, rolled onto his back and gazed up at the sky. He was struck by what he saw.
“You know what? The nurse was right. It is beautiful.” Then he died.
Fat Bastard looked up into the sky and scratched his head.
“Are there any instructions for the programmers?” the guard asked as they hauled away the MAN.
Seeing nothing but stars in the sky, Fat Bastard turned toward the stairs, trying not to think of the eight flights awaiting him.
“Yes. Tell them to program him with advanced AIDS for tomorrow.”
Lydia maneuvered one leg over the side of the bed in an attempt to get up, having fallen back into a drug induced sleep hours earlier.
“Oh shit!” The clock radio read ten. “Virginia Beach is an hour away if the traffic’s good.” She headed for the shower, hoping to wash away the guilt of not wanting to see the family. They all thought they were better than her, with their designer clothes and flashy cars. No time for children or marriage.
Now that Momma had passed away and wasn’t there to protect her, it made it even harder to pretend she loved them.
Lydia packed the trunk with all the usual gifts for Dad on his birthday and a little something extra for herself once she got there.
Traffic crawled to a stop and she sat on the bridge for almost an hour. These friggin people were as insane as she was to sit here in this traffic.
Afraid of her family’s ridicule for being late, Lydia got out of her car and slammed the door, leaving her keys in the ignition. She stomped down the inside of the double white lines of the road. Near the front of the line people stood around and gawked.
The lead car had a wheel wrung off its axle and some men desperately tried to free a large deer that was lodged under the front bumper and the tire. The poor thing whimpered while they struggled to get the car off him.
Back at the car, Lydia tugged at the locked door handle. Her cell phone rang from the front seat.
“What next?” She looked around, desperate. There, silver hair, warm eyes, fifty and safe. She approached his vehicle.
“Could you help me? I’ve locked my keys and purse along with my cell phone in my car.”
“You can use my phone. Or I’ll drive you somewhere nearby.” There was a twinkle in his eye.
“That’s not necessary, but I’d appreciate the use of your phone. My father and brothers are waiting for me.”
“Look, its cold out there and we probably won’t move for some time. Why don’t you get in the car with me and stay warm?”
“No, I just need –”
He grabbed her hand and pulled her against the open window. Looking down into the car, she saw he was exposed and smiling. She snatched her wrist from his grip and ran toward the flashing lights at the accident scene. Lydia spewed his license plate number to the first cop she saw.
“Calm down lady, what’s happened?”
She pointed to the end of the line, but the man had left.
“He — God how do I say this?” Lydia recounted her tale.
“Don’t let him get away.” The cop in front of her turned to his partner. “Did
you check the plate?”
“Yes, it’s Father De Angelo from over on the Eastern Shore.”
“Ma’am, we’ll find him. Now let’s get your door open so you can be on your way.”
In one split second she remembered the smack in the glove box.
“Yes.” Her palms began to sweat. “That would be great.”
Jeanette writes from Virginia Beach, where she’s a charter member of Hampton Roads Writers and can often be found crafting novels on the tenth deck of a ship.