Hand holding a snowman/woman couple holding a heart, labeled 2012I thought I was done with crying

Somewhere in the ninth month it occurred to me
The tears had not come in quite a while
I took solace in that ninth
Having never been certain of what comes after
If reincarnation really is the truth of it
Then nine months should mark her rebirth somewhere in this world
The thought comforts me

Then the tenth month came

While putting up the Christmas tree I found our ornament
She always bought one
A couple
Placed on the tree as one
One union
One perfect match
Now here in my hand was the last of our ornaments
2012
She was too sick to get one for 2013
I was too preoccupied
So here in my hand lies our last special bauble
A snowman and a snow-woman embraced
Entwined side by side
Forever joined
My tears return
Nothing, after all,
Is forever

 

A crowded department store with holiday decorationsPhil Ackerman turned at an audible gasp and a stifled sob from just behind him. He had just pulled the last package of Sparkle Bright off the shelf. The damned doll was a hot item this year, and this was the third store he’d looked in. A little girl of about seven years of age was tearing up as her mother stooped beside her.

“But I wanted to get Sparkly Bright for Ginny,” the little girl whined. Her mother glanced up at Phil with a pained look on her face, offered him a wan smile, and shrugged.

“We’ll find one somewhere else sweetie,” she said none too confidently.

The little girl’s shoulders shook. “But what if there aren’t any more?” Tears began running down her cheeks.

Phil fumbled Sparkle Bright from hand to hand as he faced his cart and then, as if making a sudden decision he turned, squatted down to the little girl’s level, and offered her the doll. Her face lit up in disbelief.

Her mother began to protest, but Phil put the doll into the little girl’s hands and stood back up.

“It’s OK. I hate to see her so disappointed. I’ll find something else.”

“You really don’t have to do this,” the mother said, straightening but looking very relieved.

“No, I insist.” They exchanged season’s greetings and went their own ways.

 

“Well, that one was a near thing,” Helen Dunstin said as they climbed into the minivan.

Her daughter, Katie, tossed Sparkle Bright into the back seat, amongst the fifteen others they had managed to nab at the various stores they had visited.

“Yeah, what a sap,” Katie said with a smirk as she buckled in. “These things are worth a fortune on eBay.”

~

© 2014 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Photo by Neon Tommy via Flickr Creative Commons attribution and share alike license.

 

Old West Street SceneA low rumble woke the townsfolk of Bristol, Wyoming, sometime around three in the morning. Dogs scampered from yards, tails between legs. Roosters crowed, annoyed at their early wake up call. In the houses up and down Main Street lamp lights slowly came on, low and almost imperceptible at first as the flame took, then building quickly to warm glows that leaked out into the street as the wicks were raised from the base of their lamps. In ones and twos people began to step out of their homes, to look around, to assess the situation. They were comforted at the sight of Sheriff Gabe Morrison when he emerged from the jailhouse, still pulling on his left boot.

“Morning, Gabe,” Makenzie Wilson called from the front porch of the general store. “Guess we had another temblor?”

“Mac,” Sheriff Morrison greeted in reply. “Seems like. All your merchandise still on the shelves?”

Makenzie nodded. “No damage that I noticed. Reckon I’ll get a better sense of things in the daylight.”

Gabe gave Mac a general wave and began walking down the street, checking to see if everything was still copacetic, exchanging pleasantries with those he met, reassuring folks that everything seemed to be fine, go on back to bed. As he passed the saloon Celeste asked if he’d like to come in and relax a spell. He turned down her offer.

By 3:30 the last of the oil lamps went out and the little town of Bristol went back to sleep.

Everything seemed to be normal to Henry Jackson Jefferson when he opened the bank at 9:00am. But when he opened the door to the vault he fell to his knees in shock. The bank had been cleaned out. Splintered floorboards surrounded a gaping hole near the back wall. He was still struggling to his feet when Kerwin Jones, his lead teller, stepped through the front door.

“Kerwin! Quick, run and get Sheriff Morrison. We’ve been robbed!”

Kerwin stood there, mouth agape, trying to comprehend what he’d just been told.

“Get!” Henry shouted, and at that Kerwin turned and dashed for the jailhouse, just two doors down. A few minutes latter he returned panting, all out of breath.

“Sheriff’s not here,” Kerwin said as he tried to catch his wind. “Note on the door says he’s out at the Double Bar. Some cattle missing.”

“Get Deputy Wentworth, then. For crying out loud, son, don’t you have any sense?”

“Can’t find the deputy,” Kerwin explained, trying to forestall Henry’s wrath. “Jail’s locked up tight as a drum. He’s not in the saloon or down at the stable neither. I looked!”

“That can’t be right. Who’s watching the prisoner?” Last he heard there was one man in lock up being held for the US Marshall. “Well then, send the O’Mally boy out to the Double Bar. We need Sheriff Morrison right away.”

While Shawn O’Mally was away a group of men descended into the tunnel to see where it might lead. They did not go far before finding the cause of the previous night’s earthquake. The tunnel had been blown, the smell of black powder still strong from the blast.

Shawn O’Mally returned just before noon, his horse almost spent from the hard ride. He reported that Sheriff Morrison was not at the Double Bar, that no one had called for him, and no one had seen Deputy Wentworth.

It was well after noon before they finally pried open the front door of the jailhouse. It was empty. No sheriff. No deputy. No prisoner. No weapons. No key for the locked cell. It took another good hour for the blacksmith to get it open. Behind the bunk, almost expected by then, they found the other end of the tunnel.

~

The three horsemen pulled up at the crossroads to consider their options.

“Well, Wenny, what do you think?” Gabe Morrison asked of his partner.

“I hear they’ve struck gold up Alaska way,” Wentworth proposed.

“Alaska’s cold,” the third man replied. “I say we try California.”

“Alaska’s safer,” Wentworth countered.

Gabe Morrison considered the options silently for a bit before making a decision. “We got plenty of money that’ll keep you warm, Carl.”

With that the three riders turned their horses and headed north.

~

© 2014 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Image from the state of Wyoming, A Book of Reliable Information, published 1905, no know copyright restrictions via Flickr Commons.

 

 

A bar with many bottles

Typical Friday night at The Roundabout, bar packed, mostly with guys hoping to get lucky, tables full, mostly with couples who already had. A few loners, some drifting about constantly casting for a nibble, others like me, content to sit and nurse their beer. I vaguely wonder how many of them are married but on the prowl, also like me.

I come here often, ever since I found out Jeffrey was cheating on me. He knows I come, assumes I’m cheating on him. Fine. Let him think what he wants. Actually, I’m hunting. Some day I’ll find the right one.

Joe and the Stringers play from the tight little corner set aside for the band near the back, a mix of blues, jazz, and something I can only characterize as “different.” Just in front of the bandstand another little square is set aside, supposedly the dance floor. Some couples actually dance.

I watch the crowd with feigned disinterest. A guy, maybe just out of college, brushes up against me, then gives me the grand apology, purely an accident, as if he didn’t mean to bump into my boob, all the while looking me up and down assessing my potential. I probe him more subtlety, assessing his. I’ll pass.

“Get lost,” I say, taking another swallow from my bottle. He moves on, still fishing.

Four couples are dancing now, trying to follow the music without much success. Joe is playing an actual danceable tune. They just can’t dance. One lone fellow is out there too. He dances like my dad at a wedding reception after having too much Champagne. I sort of feel for him. I stare too long and he looks up, catching me watching him. I quickly look down and swivel back around to face the bar.

I feel him coming toward me. At last, I think, I may have found the one.

He slides between me and the next barstool, violating any decent sense of personal space. I look at him coolly.

“Would you like to dance?” he asks, all puppy dog enthusiasm.

I shake my head, no, then brush the hair out of my face.

He wiggles his bottom up onto the barstool and signals to Mary for two more of the same, one for him, one for me. Mary pops the tops off two bottles and sets one before each of us. I glance down coyly and blush a bit.

“You come here often?” he asks.

“Yeah, pretty often,” I admit.

He’s taken aback. “I’m surprised I haven’t noticed you before. What’s your name?”

“Marie.”

“Kevin. Kevin Waller.” He extends his hand. I just look at it.

He slowly pulls it back and wraps it around his beer bottle. “So,” he keeps casting, “do you dance?”

I nod. “I’ve been known to.”

“Just not with me?”

I laugh and give him a soulful look of commiseration. “My feet hurt, and nothing personal, I’ve seen you dance.”

Now he blushes.

“You get an A for effort though.”

“Well, I try.”

We sit there in companionable silence for a bit before he goes on, unwilling to give up.

“So, Marie, what do you do for a living?” he asks.

“I’m a research assistant at the university.”

“What kind of research?” he asks with what seems like genuine interest.

I smile and shrug. “For all you know, I’m doing research right now.” His face lights up at my warm smile. In the back of the room Joe shifts from fast-paced to slow dance.

“I’m better at slow dancing,” Kevin tells me, extending a hand. I shrug, what the Hell, and take his hand. I spend the next five minutes trying to protect my feet.

When we get back to the bar I ask him to watch my drink while I use the lady’s room. He nods and watches me walk off. From the corner of my eye I see him slip a little white pill into my beer bottle. I smile to myself.

~

I have a little difficulty getting him up the steps to his apartment. After he drops his keys for the third time I snatch them off the floor and let us in. I don’t want to attract attention out here. I lead him in, close the door, and settle him on the couch. I don’t sit down, and keep on my white cotton gloves.

Switching the bottles was easy. I just waited until his was about at the same level as mine and then laughed at some goofball out on the dance floor. Of course Kevin had to look.

I’ve always had this strange power of suggestion. If I want to make someone leave me alone, I can usually get them to wander off. But to plant a complex suggestion, perhaps a suggestion a person would strongly object to, I need the subject to be compliant. Kevin was now putty in my hands.

I took a photo of Jeffery from my purse and held it in front of Kevin.

“Look at this picture, Kevin. He’s the manager at the QuickWay on Jefferson. You know where that is?”

He nodded, yes.

“This guy’s a real asshole, Kevin. We hate him. Don’t we?”

Nod.

“In three weeks, at 8:15pm, go into QuickWay and shoot the bastard in the head for me. Will you do that, sweetie?”

Another nod.

“Make sure he’s dead.”

I repeat the routine a half dozen times to ensure it takes, then lead him into his bed room, have him strip and crawl into bed, then plant a false memory of him coming home with some blond who looks nothing like me.

I let myself out.

After I caught him cheating Jeff asked me if I wanted a divorce.

Nope.

I want the insurance.

~

© 2014 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved. Photo © 2014 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

A man from behind, standing at a fast food counter.Jackie looked at the clock on the register as she shifted her weight from foot to foot. She was twenty minutes overdue for her break, and Mister Jackson was still out back in the storage shed getting more twenty ounce cups. Was he freaking making them?

She perked up and plastered on her best fake smile as a customer stepped up to the counter.

“Welcome to Burger Den. Can I take your order?”

He stood there, studying the menu like it was the periodic table before a chemistry exam. Another man walked up behind him. Then a woman. She glanced over her shoulder to see if Bridget or Kevin were available, but they were both busy. She waited patiently for mister indecisive.

“Yeah. Yeah.” He looked back up at the big board. “I’ll have a Tiger Burger. No. No. Make that a double Tiger with cheese.”

She pressed the iconic button.

“Oh, and with bacon.”

She pressed cancel, then pressed the next icon over.

“Do you want fries with that?” she asked.

“Yeah. A large fry. And a Panther concrete. That’s the one with fudge in it, right?”

“Yes sir. Large, medium, or small?” Judging by his girth, she figured it’d be large. She was proven right, again.

“For here or to go?” To go.

He stepped aside as she handed him his ticket.

As the next man stepped up her eye was drawn to the woman behind him. She had a smug look on her face, and her eyes kept darting toward the counter, then back down. She was whispering on her phone.

“Welcome to Burger Den. May I take your order?”

This man knew exactly what he wanted, and he wanted a lot of it. “Have some friends over,” he explained after rattling off his order.

“Yes, I’m sure,” she heard the woman behind him snicker. “It’s definitely Jackie. Can you believe it?”

Jackie fumbled with the register, getting the man’s order wrong. Her ears strained to hear past his complaint.

“I’m going to wait and make her ask, ‘You want fries with that?’” The woman glanced up and their eyes met. That’s when Jackie put it together. Bethany Abrams, her nemesis from high school. Dressed to the nines, as usual. What the hell was Beth doing in Burger Den?

Jackie glanced over her shoulder to see if someone else was available to take over at the register. Still no sign of Mr. Jackson. Bridget was taking care of the drive thru, and Kevin was changing out the mix for the shake machine. Damn.

She read the lengthy order back to the man, accepted his money, and handed him his ticket. Salvation in the form of relief did not arrive. Bethany Abrams stepped up to the counter.

Jackie forced a smile. “Welcome to Burger Den. May I take your order?”

Bethany just stood there for a minute taking her in like an exhibit at a freak show. She grinned from ear to ear.

“Jackie! Jackie Freedman? From Central High? Well, how you been doing, Jackie?” Her tone was as thick as syrup. “It’s Bethany Abrams. You remember me?”

“Hi, Bethany.”

The man behind Bethany was getting antsy.

“How you been, Beth? Can I take your order?”

“I’d like a cheeseburger, and a small drink.” She stood there, smirking.

Jackie pushed the two icons on the register.

“$4.57,” she said.

Bethany frowned, and made no move to pay.

“That will be four dollars and fifty-seven cents, ma’am,” Jackie said loud and slowly as if addressing a simpleton.

“Aren’t you supposed to ask me if I want anything else?”

“You told me what you wanted. I told you what it costs. Are you unable to pay, ma’am?”

Anger flashed across Bethany’s face. “I’d like to see you’re manager!”

“Believe me, so would I. $4.57.”

Bethany quickly recomposed herself, then held up her cell phone and snapped a picture. “Haven’t seen you on Facebook in ages,” she said, once again in a sugary sweet voice. “I’m sure this will get dozens of ‘Likes’.”

Jackie could feel her face burning. The man behind Bethany was getting impatient.

“That will be $4.57.”

Bethany fumbled inside her pocketbook, never letting go her phone. She finally produced a five dollar bill and tossed it at Jackie.

Jackie entered the Amount Tendered as 5.00. The cash drawer slid open and the man behind Bethany made his move. Bethany screamed as her phone went flying when the man grabbed her in a choke hold and shoved a handgun against her temple.

“Give me all your cash, or this bitch gets it!”

Jackie saw the look of abject terror in Bethany’s eyes, flashed her best Burger Den smile, slammed the cash drawer shut, and dove for the floor.

~

© 2014 by JM Strother, all rights reserved. Photo © 2014 by JM Strother, all rights reserved.

 

A fake spider in Halloween webbingJoe Clark and Rich Sanders were looking for trouble. Well, not a lot a trouble. More like the trouble thirteen year old boys look for on Halloween. Too old for trick-or-treating, too restless to stay home, they had the itch to be out and about, and needed a decent reason. Smashing pumpkins seemed to be just the ticket.

They hung out in the park until well after dark, smoking cigarettes Joe had lifted from his older sister’s purse. They had to hide, twice: once when a police car pulled in and made a slow circuit around the parking lot, and once when Mike Mitchel and his boys came through. They weren’t looking for quite that much trouble. They watched from the creek bank as Mike and company overturned trashcans and tried their darnedest to destroy a picnic table. The hooligans finally got bored and left without accomplishing their mission.

“What a bunch of jerks,” Joe observed as they wandered back toward the pavilion. They did not go far before Rich told him to hold up.

“If a cop comes back, he’ll think we did that,” Rich said, pointing to the mess in the shelter. “Come on. Let’s go.”

So they wandered off in search of pumpkins.

It was late enough now that nearly all the actual trick-or-treaters were home reveling in their loot. They only passed two groups of kids in costumes, and they were obviously older. Last year Joe and Rich may well have been among them. But this year, being way too cool for that, they crossed the street to avoid them.

As they walked down Green Trails Drive they spied a pumpkin still feebly flickering on the darkened stoop of a modest ranch home. They started cutting across the lawn for it when Joe came up short, flailing away at something in his face.

Cursing, he pulled the sticky substance off as best he could. “I hate this fake spiderweb crap!”

Rich leaned close and pulled another strand of sticky fiber from Joe’s hair. He examined it closely.

“Uh, I don’t think this is fake…”

Joe looked up at him like he was nuts.

“Oh course it’s fake, nimrod. No spider could spin a web that thick.”

Rich trailed the strand across Joe’s arm. “That’s not fiberglass, dude.”

Movement in the bushes spooked them good.

“Let’s go,” Rich abruptly decided.

“Sure.”

They both started to make tracks toward the road.

A sinister form appeared in the darkened doorway, and gestured for them to come. They walked faster.
Then they saw it – a huge spider, the size of a beagle coming at them from the side of the house. It was spinning a web as thick as a rope as it came. With a shout they ran for their lives.

~

“Did you put that spider costume back on Tippy?” Mrs. Johnston asked her husband as she stepped away from the door.

“Yeah, I think it’s cute,” Carl Johnston answered.

“Well, you just scared the crap out of a couple of kids.”

 

Since retiring I’ve been reading more. I have been tweeting the title and author of each book as I begin them under the hashtag #AmReading. Much to my surprise, those are the tweets that get the most interaction, and not just retweets from the authors. In fact that is a rarity.

So I thought it might be interesting to make a regular post of the books I’ve read over the course of the month. It will help jog my memory and keep me from buying duplicates. Parteimer’s, you know.

I don’t really do book reviews. Why not? One, I don’t feel particularly qualified, and two, I have a hard time saying negative things about people or the works they produce and not all the books I read are necessarily great. So these will generally be unannotated unless the book was truly exceptional or really needed a lot of work. (And I feel bad about the latter.) Otherwise, you can assume I read and enjoyed them, which means yes, they are worth your time and money.

My October Reads

Rain Girl, by Gabi Kreslehnar, a murder mystery – Kindle.

Realm Shift, by Alan Baxter, an action adventure – Nook

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Stienbeck, an American classic – Nook, from the library. A must read.

Forbidden the Stars, by Valmore Daniels, science fiction – Nook, needed a good editor

Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction – Kindle

Tracy’s Hot Mail, by Trevor Belshaw, satire – Nook

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, literary – Nook audio

Seven Book Covers, four over three

As the month winds to a close my next book up is an old Agatha Christie novel, but it will wait for next month’s list.

So what have you been reading lately? Have any recommendations for me?
~jon

 

Black and white photo of headstones in the woodsThey spent a lovely afternoon hiking in the Ozarks, the fall foliage everything they had hoped for. Finding the little waterfall as the backdrop for their picnic lunch had been the absolute topper. Mary Beth took dozens of pictures with her cell phone, but was thwarted by the lack of a signal when she tried to post them online. Time enough to do that tonight. Now they just needed to get back to the car before sunset.

Tony assured her that the park rangers would not lock them in for the night, but she was not so certain.

“You worry too much,” he teased her as she set a brisk pace. “And what’s the worst that could happen? We end up sleeping in the car?” He smiled at that thought. He would not mind that at all.

The sun now angled low, cutting through the canopy above with an amber glow. Dust motes and tiny bugs swirled on eddies in the air. The thick leaves underfoot were nearly as vivid as those overhead – a jumble of rich scarlet, orange, and deep yellow, all mixed in with muted russet browns.

Any chance of spotting wildlife was ruined by the pace Mary Beth set. The the rustle and crush of the leaves underfoot could probably be heard for a quarter mile, or more. Still, Tony kept an eye out – dusk being peak activity time for deer.

Something ahead caught his eye – a bright flash of white slightly off the trail on the uphill side. He paused and called out to Mary Beth. “What’s that?”

She stopped and silence descended upon the woods.

“What?” She looked at him, puzzled.

“Up there. Something bright, in the sunlight.”

She followed the line of his point. Shrugged. “I dunno.” She continued on, but slower.

They both watched as they neared the bright spot in the shadows of the trees. There was a little clearing, probably not more than forty feet off the trail, but the lay of the land kept them from seeing the object clearly.

“Looks like a rock,” Tony suggested, a bit disappointed. He had no idea what he hoped for, but certainly not a rock.

But Mary Beth’s pace slowed until he nearly rear-ended her. Then she came to a stop.

“I think it’s a headstone,” she said in a hushed tone.

She took a few steps off the trail. Tony stood pat, unwilling to follow.

“Uh, I thought you were in a hurry to get back?”

“It’s not far,” she said. “Come on. It might be an old graveyard. They’re scattered all over in these woods.”

“I think we should get back.”

She glanced back at him, and smiled. “Scaredy-cat.” She bounded up the hill.

She paused beside an old post oak. The sunlight perfectly framed her upon the ridge line. Smitten, Tony followed.

As he crested the hill he saw it was indeed an old, abandoned graveyard. By the time he reached the post oak Mary Beth had wandered in amongst the tombstones. Roots seemed to anchor Tony’s feet to the ground. Cemeteries gave him the creeps.

She turned toward him and called out, “Come on.” She gestured with a jerk of her head. “We used to find little cemeteries like these all the time when my aunt Ruth was doing her genealogy. They’re sacred ground, but fascinating. Aunt Ruth says you just need to be respectful. So rich in history.” She squatted to read what was carved on one of the headstones, shook her head in frustration, and moved on to the next.

Tony didn’t budge.

She let out a sad moan. “Oh. This little guy was only three months old.” She moved on to another. “This guy’s four.” She moved past several that were but nubs sticking out of the ground, then stooped to read another. “Here’s a six year old. Anna Morrison. How sad.”

“Nineteen months.”

“Twenty-two months!”

“Two years.” She straightened and looked at Tony, tears welling in her eyes. “They’re all babies.” She turned in a broad circle, taking in the headstones. “They’re all dated 1918.” Realization dawned on her. “Oh my God. The Spanish flu. It had to be…”

“Come on, let’s go,” Tony called to her.

She walked deeper into the graveyard. “A boy. Michael. Samuel. Henrietta. Ooh, she was just two weeks old!”

The sun was settling on the horizon.

“The park’s going to close.”

Just as she took a step toward him they both heard it – a baby wailing in abject misery. The hairs stood up on Tony’s neck. Mary Beth turned back, looking for the source of the sound.

“Mary Beth! Come on!”

“There’s a baby!” she snapped back, searching desperately in the gathering gloom.

The cry of another baby rose off to the right. She turned toward it. Then another, behind her. She whirled round. Tony reached out to her, plaintively, beseeching her to come. She ignored him, continuing her frantic search.

She stumbled over the remnants of an old monument, landing on her hands and knees. From where he stood Tony saw her scrambling forward toward something he could not see. Then he heard the screams.

~

They found him locked in the car, mumbling, “The babies took her,” over and over again.

They never found Mary Beth.
~

© 2014 by J. M. Strother. All rights reserved. Photo by J. M. Strother, © 2014. All rights reserved.

 

A cabin in the woodsEric Hurley took pride in his woodcraft and survival skills. He used to boast to his friends that he could live off the wild with nothing but a knife, a fish hook, and a spool of ten pound line and gain twenty pounds.

It hadn’t quite worked out that way. During the four months he had spent eluding the authorities in the deep woods of Tennessee he had actually lost about that much weight. That was fine by him. In retrospect he had to admit he had let himself get soft in the intervening years since his dishonorable discharge. Now he was downright svelte. While his muscles did not bulge, they were iron hard and gave him a wiry strength that belied his five feet seven inch stature.

Since killing the old couple at the gas station in Green Springs Eric had led the authorities on a merry little chase. At first it was a local affair, entailing naught more than a little cat and mouse with the County Sheriff and his band of hapless Deputies. But once he killed that State Trooper the manhunt had gotten serious.

Not that it worried him much. Despite the added manpower, the dogs, and the aerial surveillance he continued to evade authorities. He even managed to lay down a false trail. According to the news his ploy had worked. While the search moved west, Eric moved east.

But summer had waned into autumn, and winter was fast approaching. Culverts, hollow trees, and abandoned animal dens were not going to cut it much longer. He needed to find someplace halfway decent to hole up in where he could relax in relative comfort.

Luck was with him. Three days ago he spotted this little cabin in the woods. Exercising caution he keep a careful eye on it ever since. No one had come or gone, despite the start of deer season. But the best indication that the place was truly abandoned was the overgrown path to the door. No one had been here in a long time.

Today was the time for action.

He moved cautiously toward the cabin, staying out of its lines of sight. Once next to the building he eased his way to a window to take a quick peek in. Then a longer look.

Inside seemed relatively well maintained. It had two beds – a full and a twin, a table by the fireplace, with two accompanying straight back chairs, a couple of stacked wooden crates, a three legged stool, and an ax sitting upright against the wall next to the door. He studied the ax for a long time, looking for wires to trip some sort of booby trap, but it appeared to be nothing more than an ax.

There was a crude kitchen under the window directly across from him with a hand pump for a well. If the well was not dry this place would be ideal. A cabinet next to the sink stood ajar, and he could see canned goods neatly stacked on the shelves. His stomach rumbled.

He tried the window but it would not budge. Inspecting the inside frame revealed four ten-penny nails holding it closed, the heads slightly raised so they could be pulled during occupancy. Clever bastards.
He moved to the back window in order to better examine the door. After careful study he decided it did not look to be booby trapped. Feeling more confident he walked around to the front.

He stood to the side and tried the latch. It depressed easily. This made him suspicious. He pushed the latch fully down and gave the door a shove, then flattened himself against the outside wall. Nothing happened.

He took a quick peek inside. Nothing gave him cause for alarm. He smiled broadly and stepped across the threshold.

He was nearly deafened by the roar of a blast as shotgun pellets tore into him from above. Blood gushed from his right shoulder and arm. The right side of his face felt horribly wrong, and he could not see out of his right eye. With that he passed out.

He awoke in a bed, his head, shoulder, and arm nicely bandaged. He had trouble getting his bearings at first, could not recall where he was, or how he had gotten there. He hurt everywhere – head, neck, back, right shoulder and arm, and both legs. He tried to see his surroundings but everything to the right was a void. There was a full sized bed to his left, and a small double hung window, nailed shut. If he strained to lift his head he could see a fireplace with a table and two chairs. Then he remembered – the cabin!

Christ, the door had been booby trapped after all. But how? He tried to turn his head to see the door, but the pain was too intense. He sank back into the bedding, feeling nauseous.

He heard the door open and then quickly close, someone moving into the room.

“Oh, you’re awake!” It was a cheerful, feminine voice.

He opened his mouth to talk, but his tongue seemed to be glued to his palate. Footsteps grew closer. A woman finally moved into his field of vision.

She was of an indeterminate age, had long dark brown hair and matching eyes, was slightly chubby, yet not unattractive. She examined him, or perhaps her handwork with the bandages, for a moment before moving closer to him.

He opened his mouth again and managed to rasp out, “Water.”

She nodded, turned, and disappeared once again from his field of view. He heard the pump being worked furiously for a few seconds then slower as the sound of water gushed from the spout.

He considered grabbing her when she gave him the glass, but then what? In this condition he probably would not be able to subdue her. And even if he could, to what purpose? He needed her now, needed her to nurse him back to health. He accepted the water and offered a feeble thanks.

She stepped out of his reach and smiled.

“It’s driving you crazy, isn’t it?” she asked.

He tried to frown, but it sent pain shooting through the right side of his face, across his scalp. “What?”

“The booby trap.” She stepped over to the fireplace and began adding some chopped vegetables to a pot he had not even noticed before. He suddenly became aware of the smell of something savory cooking and his stomach protested his lack of food.

“No one ever looks up,” she went on.

He dropped his head back down, the strain of trying to watch her was too much.

“It’s an electric eye mounted in the lintel. A little image processing software, and a 20 gauge shotgun shell, electronically triggered – voilà.”

Despite the pain he furrowed his brow. There was no electricity to this place. He was certain of that.

“It is amazing what they’ve done with solar cells.” She stepped back into his field of view, looking quite pleased. “They’re mounted on the top rim of the chimney. Nobody’d ever see them there. I rigged it all up myself. I’ve got a degree in electrical engineering from Tennessee State. Bet you didn’t know that.”

The gleam in her eye told him she was quite mad.

“I need to get to a hospital,” he said. Screw the State Police. Just get me out of here.

She smiled and spun away on the ball of her foot, traipsing back over to the kettle. “Oh no, they’d just arrest you. And me. We wouldn’t want that now, would we?”

She took a spoonful from the pot and smelled it appreciatively before sampling it.

“Stew’s almost done. You hungry?”

In a panic he threw back the sheet and let out a scream. Both his legs were amputated below the knees.

~

© 2014 by J. M. Strother. All rights reserved.

Photo courtesy of the Keene Public Library and the Historical Society of Cheshire County via the Creative commons. No known copyright restrictions.

 

A cartoon picture of Frankenstein.It started in middle school, when they were too old for trick-or-treating, but too young to drive. The appeal of wandering the neighborhood, smashing pumpkins or setting a paper bag full of dog poop on fire on Mister Swaney’s front walk, had quickly worn off, lasting no more than a year or two. By Seventh Grade they still wanted to go out and do something on Halloween, but what to do? Greg Lewis finally hit a homer when he came up with the idea of ghost stories in the graveyard. It was great.

Nowadays they were never destructive – oh sure, Greg had pushed over a few headstones in his adolescence – but they were older and wiser now, and gave the dead the respect they deserved.

They began to gather near the gate behind St. Martin’s Catholic Church around sundown. The four guys – Greg, his younger brother Mark, Tony Bishop, and Randy Murray – all showed up at about the same time. They lingered near the gate, glancing around furtively, until there were no passersby, then darted for Section A. It was the oldest, and therefore creepiest, part of the cemetery where the monuments rose in Gothic splendor.

“Shouldn’t we wait for Pegs and Ally?” Mark asked, jogging along side the others.

“They know where to find us,” Randy replied. “Those two are always late.” It was more bitter commentary than a simple statement.

Section A also afforded them the best concealment, with its combination of mature scatterings of trees and shrubs as well as the ornate statuary. The four guys settled near the base of Henrietta McAllister -Smith’s memorial, where an imposing figure of a severe looking angel stood over them holding aloft the hilt of a broken sword.

“I wish I had a smoke,” Tony Bishop said as he settled onto the lawn, propping himself comfortably against Henrietta’s tombstone. “Anyone got a smoke?”

Shrugs and shaken heads were his only replies.

“We could always go down to Kroger, and nab a few,” he suggested.

“Forget it,” Greg said. “You should have thought of that before you came.”

Tony flipped Greg the bird and flicked a small twig at him.

“Shh, someone’s coming,” Mark warned. They all scrambled to hide themselves from whoever approached.

They recognized the voices of Peggy Lane and Alice Spencer as they came down the long serpentine lane. They were chatting without regard of being overheard or attracting attention to themselves. The boys waited until the two girls cleared the shrubs. Without any preplanning on their part all four guys jumped out at the same time yelling some variation of, “Boo!”

“Ha ha.” Alice mocked them. “We’re so scared.”

“You’re late,” Randy snapped. Alice stuck her tongue out at him.

“Give it a rest,” Greg grumbled. As the group meandered about to find good resting places Tony Bishop and Alice Spencer gravitated toward each other, their eyes doting on one another.

“How ya been?” Tony asked her.

“’K,” Alice replied with a slight blush. They settled down as if trying to occupy the same spot of ground. Randy rolled his eyes.

They took turns telling ghost stories, each more outrageous than the last, but most heard before, so there was no real thrill in it. Yet somehow they enjoyed it, not for the stories themselves, more for the camaraderie, the sense of time well spent with good friends. They laughed, they playfully pushed at and teased each other. They shared intimate family secrets never heard before with the assurance not a word of it would ever go beyond their tight little circle.

Once or twice they had to hush, when the sound of voices carried in from the sidewalk on Washington Street, or a car seemed to pass at an unusually slow speed. On one such instance a beam of light suddenly flooded the grave markers, casting harsh shadows across the lawn. They laid flat, scrambling for those shadows, as the light played back and forth. Mark edged up to the crest of the slope and peered over toward the street.

“Cop car,” he whispered. When the light went out he sighed his relief and resumed his place in the circle. “He’s going.”

“I’m cold,” Alice said, giving a shudder.

“You’re always cold,” Randy replied with a sneer.

Tony gave Randy a warning look, and drew Alice into his arms. She settled, but still shivered.

“It’s always cold,” Tony consoled, rubbing his hands up and down Alice’s arms to no effect.

Once again a warning shush went up, and they all fell silent. Some ways down the hill, toward Oak Street, they could hear the sound of someone walking through the fallen leaves, of hushed voices whispering in the dark. All six of them scurried behind the avenging angel and peered through the night for whatever was coming.

“Zombies.” Mark teased.

“Shhh.” This from Tony.

“Is that Becca Townsend?” Peggy hissed as three teens wandered into view. “God, I hate that little bitch.”

Greg leaned forward, squinting to see. He settled back and shook his head, no. “Too young. Looks a lot like her though.”

“I think it’s Ann,” Mark said. “Becca’s daughter. She’d be about that age now.”

Peggy scowled. “Well the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree. Let’s scare the bejesus out of ‘em.”

“I don’t think we should…” Mark looked to the others for concurrence.

“Oh, come on,” Peggy urged. “It’s been years since we’ve had any fun.”

The three teens drew closer. Henrietta seemed to be a popular locale.

“OK.” Greg said, and with that the decision was made. As the three teens turned toward the angel the six friends slowly rose up from behind it. Mark must has put the idea in their heads, for they all reached out with stiff arms, miming zombies.

“Brains.” Randy moaned.

The three teenaged girls shirked in terror and ran for the fences, never looking back.

The six friends fell to the ground, laughing out loud.

“Oh, that was great!” Peggy managed to say between guffaws. “Did you see the look on their faces? I bet they peed themselves.”

“Won’t be back here for a while,” Tony said, as he struggled to get up from the ground. “Serves them right for trying to horn in on our spot.” He looked up and saw the clock tower on St. Martin’s and suddenly became somber. “Oh, crap, look at the time.”

They all glanced up. Both hands pointed to twelve.

“Well, it’s been fun,” Greg said.

Randy started to drift away.

“He still hates me, doesn’t he?” Alice asked Tony, glancing toward Randy.

Tony pulled her into a hug. “Don’t worry about Randy, he’ll get over it.”

“If I just hadn’t been late that night–”

He massaged her shoulders and leaned in close. “Don’t blame yourself, Ally. He’s the one that tried to beat the train.”

The clock on St. Martin’s began to chime midnight. As Tony leaned in to give Ally a kiss they all faded into the night.
~
© 2014 by J. M. Strother. All rights reserved.

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