Monday, January 23, 2017

Murder in a Small Town

Winner of the January 2017 Aphelion Flash Challenge.

“Oola looks at peace. Doesn’t she, Nate?”

“I guess.”

“You did a wonderful job picking out the coffin. The mahogany with the white overlay sets off her blue uniform nicely.”

“Least I could do.”

“It is, given the circumstances.”

“I’m surprised no one else is here. Everybody seemed to like Oola.”

“It’s early.”

“I’ve never been in a funeral home before. It’s like a dungeon in here, dark carpet, dark walls, dark mood. All it needs is shackles hanging on the walls. These chairs aren’t very comfortable, either, and the music reminds me of molasses. I hate the smell of molasses."

“Maybe those folks in New Orleans have the right idea, having a parade for the departed and making a party of it.”

“You know, she’s almost pretty lying there.”

“She never was a looker.”

“No, not really. The wig helped, but the long, oval face and small slit for a nose made her stand out.”

“That and the fact she oozed orange tears when she cried.”

“I don’t remember ever seeing her cry.”

“She did right after you stabbed her the first time.”

“Oh.”

“Hey, Nate. Remember when we found her rocket half submerged in the lake?”

“How could I forget? Strangest thing ever to happen in Cranberry Bay. That and the time Jack Burks fell into the water, pickup and all, while ice fishing. Idiot should have known it was too warm to drive out on the lake.”

“He was new to the village. Didn’t know the quirks of Lake Erie like the rest of us. Anyway, she was kinda woozy stepping out of that contraption. How would you describe it? Like a big old torpedo with four wings and a tail--certainly not the flying saucer you’d expect.”

“A torpedo with four wings sounds good to me. I was surprised how folks here took to her. Especially, Edna Farber. She never took to anyone.”

“When we told her Oonah was an alien, she wanted to deport her back to Mexico where she belonged. The rest took a liking to Oonah right off. Even kept her a secret to keep Nosy Rosies away.”

“You keep doing that. Her name’s Oola, not Oonah.”

“Right. I keep mixing her up with that poet lady. Anyway, it’s too bad you had to kill Oola.”

“I didn’t have any choice, according to you. She knew.”

“Maybe.”

“What do you mean maybe? Maybe she knew or maybe I had no choice.”

“Maybe she knew.”

“You’re the one who said she positively did and that I had to do something about it.”

“Well, you should know better than to trust me. Aren’t I the one who told you to shoot out Mr. Tundrell’s bedroom window because he was sleeping with his daughter.”

“Uh huh, and it turned out she was living in Seattle with her mother. A shoulder shrug? That’s all you got? I could have seriously injured the man. I heard the fights on the TV through the open living room window. You know he refuses to wear his hearing aids. I didn’t expect him to be in the bedroom.”

“And how about the time I told you to run over Mrs. Gilbert’s dog because he tried to bite me.”

“You mean the Rottweiler with no teeth?”

“Yea, that one.”

“You should have told me about the no teeth thing before I hit him.”

“That’s not how I work, Nate. You know that.”

“I should, but you constantly bug me until I can’t seem to help myself. So, did Oola know or not?”

“Does it really matter now? She’s dead.”

“Yea, she’s dead, and it’s your fault!"

“Hey, I’m not the one who found her sneaking out of our house. I’m not the one who turned angry and red and told her to not tell anyone about the money she found, and that she could have some if she kept silent. I’m not the one who called her a liar when she denied knowing anything about the money. I’m not the one who forgot to move the bag of money you found on River Road to a safer place—like I told you to. And I’m not the one who stuck the blade in her, then dropped her in the creek behind the Miller’s place. The creek was a good idea, though, since everybody likes that spot for fishing. Lots of footprints to confuse the cops. So, what have you got to say for yourself?”

“You bastard. You did it to me, again. Imposed your will on me, even though I tried to ignore you. You’re always whispering in my ear, egging me on to do bad things. And I keep listening to you, buckling under. Why can’t my angel side ever win? Why is it always your voice that prevails? Dr. Jensen is right. I need to get you out of my head. Stop listening to you. Be my own man.”

“She does say that a lot. Maybe Doc Jensen needs to be the next one. What do you think about that, Nate?”

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Race Against Time

Troy trudged down 42nd Street, shoulders hunched, eyes toward the ground, like a hunchback, each pace having a purpose. The army had repelled the latest--and hopefully last-- of the terrorists after decades of battles; but his city, New York City, had finally succumbed. Many buildings lay in ruin. Others stood damaged, but still proud and defiant. Electricity was non-existent, and gasoline was scarce. He no longer wore his captain’s uniform. He’d left the cleanup to his men. Instead, he had on tattered jeans, a green flannel shirt, and a faded trench coat. Only his military boots remained from the past six months of his fourth tour of fighting. He adjusted the bill of his cap, moving it lower to hide his identity. Being noticed by an old classmate or neighbor might ruin everything.

He weaved a slalom course through barrels and garbage cans burning books, librettos, costumes and anything else combustible--anything that provided heat. There were no neon lights, no traffic signals, no brightly lit store windows displaying the latest fashions. Actors in costume and musicians, some also in costumes, performed songs from their respective shows, while bystanders watched and tiredly applauded. Cats and lions and princesses sang and danced as if nothing had changed, denying the reality of their situation. Troy continued his trek, sometimes walking among the performers, refusing to join in when prodded. He needed to get to Gwen before it was too late.

He turned right onto 7th Avenue and stopped when he saw the looters. He reached inside his coat for the revolver holstered on his left hip. He started to pull out the weapon but stopped. There were too many of them, and Gwen and her unborn child were more important than a few broken windows and stolen goods.

Troy continued to the next block and the next until he found an empty street. He increased his pace and focused on his task, hoping he’d make it on time. He turned down an alley, only paying attention to the other end, when he felt the arm around his neck. A second attacker appeared from behind a dumpster, a carving knife in his left hand.

Troy stomped on the foot of the man holding him. The arm’s grip loosened and Troy flipped his assailant into the man with the knife. The two men lay on the ground as Troy raced to the end of the alley and around the corner without looking back.

“Halt,” a voice said from behind. “Police. You are in a restricted area after curfew.”

Troy kept going until he heard the explosive gunfire. He lurched to the left. The gas pellet hit his right shoulder, ripping through the flesh and detonating a few feet away. Troy’s body pirouetted. He fell to one knee and scrambled behind a burnt out car.

“I know you’re wounded. Come out now and you live.”

Troy moved his hand along the dark pavement meagerly lit by a half moon. His fingers wrapped around a plastic bottle. He threw it in the direction he’d come from. He heard the cop's gun discharge. He raced into the street and delivered a kidney punch that dropped the policeman to his knees. Troy looked closely at the uniform and knew the man was a fake--an actor playing a role. The gun lay on the ground. Troy kicked it into the sewer, he didn’t want anyone else finding it, and continued his journey.

At the next intersection, he saw an ambulance stop in the distance at the clinic where Gwen awaited. He increased his pace to a run, all the time holding his injured shoulder, and covered the remaining six blocks quicker than a normal human should have.

He raced into the building and stopped at the front desk. “I’m Troy. Where’s Gwen?”

“I’m afraid it may be too late, Mr. Troy.”

“Nooo!”

Troy raced through the double doors into the treatment area. He stopped a nurse, nearly knocking a tray of blood samples from her hands. “I’m Troy. I’m here to help Gwen.”

“Room 3A. But. . .”

Troy entered the room. Gwen lay on a bed, her face ashen, her breathing barely noticeable. A female doctor looked up as he entered.

“Hurry,” she said. “We don’t have much time.”

Troy lay on a second bed, the life saving blood transfusion moving directly from his arm to Gwen’s. He watched his sister’s face and prayed for a miracle. Doctors and nurses circled Gwen blocking Troy’s view of what was happening. He was tired and began to fall asleep when he heard the baby’s cry.

For the first time in days, Troy allowed his body to relax, the baby’s sounds a lullaby to his spent psyche.

“Mother and baby are doing fine,” the doctor said. “Would you like to hold your nephew, Mr. Troy?.”

“It’s Troy. Just Troy. And, yes, I’d love to hold my nephew.


Monday, December 19, 2016

The Elf Who Saved Christmas

I squinted into the sun, a hand protecting my eyes, and saw what looked like a small Christmas tree perched on the bridge ahead. As I got closer, I realized it was a little person dressed in green pants and shirt and a red cap with a white puff sitting with his legs dangling over the edge. His beard was a few days old with a mix of black and grey hairs.

“Good day, good sir,” I said. I moved next to him and placed my forearms on the railing, my fingers laced together. “Long ways down, isn’t it?”

He didn’t respond, just continued to look straight ahead.

“Sun feels good after three days of rain. Don’t you agree?” I leaned over enough to see his face. “Tough day at work?”

He remained silent. I stood beside him for a few minutes, then sat down, mimicking his pose.

“My name’s Jed. You got a name?” I waited.

He finally said,“Elf 113,” in a scratchy voice.

“Interesting name.”

“Well, it takes a lot of us to make all those toys, and Santa’s too busy to try and name everyone of us. Besides, we all look the same to him.”

“Huh,” I said and tried not to smile. “So what brings you to the bridge today. I cross it just about every day, and I haven’t seen you before.”

“I . . ..” He looked down at his hands. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Oh, I doubt it’s that bad. After all, it’s Christmas, a time to smile, and sing, and best of all, drink. In fact, I have a half-filled bottle of fine whiskey in my coat pocket. Well, at least the finest I can afford. Would you like a sip?”

“No thanks. My mom said it would stunt my growth.”

This time I choked back a chuckle, but a little seeped out. I attempted to disguise it as a cough.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to get involved, but I hated to see someone who appeared to have lost his way do something he might regret--like jump. “So you never said why you’re here.”

“I got passed over for another promotion. Three years in a row. I even had my new uniform ready.” He looked out over the water below. “Everyone sees it as a badge of honor.”

“Oh? What does it look like?”

“It’s the opposite of what I’ve got on--red pants and shirt and a green hat.” He finally looked at me.” I guess the outfit I have on will finally get washed when I jump.”

“Whoa, whoa. What do you mean jump?” I wanted to reach out and grab his arm but was afraid it might startle him. “That seems pretty drastic for not getting a promotion.”

“There’s Elfie May, too.”

“Elfie May?”

“That’s what I call her. Her real name is Elf 275. She works. . .worked. . . in the sewing department. We’d been dating for a year. I was going to propose. I thought she loved me, until she and the reindeer herder ran off. I don’t know where.” He turned toward me, pain on his face. “And I don’t care,” he said, his voice a few decibels louder.

“You sure you don’t want a little nip. It’s the best medicine I’ve found.” I removed the bottle from my coat, unscrewed the top, and took a belt.

“Well, I guess it can’t hurt.” I passed the bottle over. He put the top to his lips, tilted the bottom up, and took a bigger drink than I’d hoped he would. I was going to have to panhandle to pad my bank account, i.e., my trouser pockets, sooner than usual.

“Thanks, “ he said, handing the bottle back. “Now jumping doesn’t seem so scary.” He placed his hands on either side of his legs and lifted his butt slightly.

“Wait. You can’t jump today.” This time I grabbed his left arm. “It’s No-Jumping-Off-Bridges-Day.” I grasped harder. “You’ll ruin everyone’s Christmas if you do.”

“You’re BSing me.” He relaxed and let his body ease back onto the bridge.

“No, I’m not. Swear to His Holy Father.” I crossed myself hoping I did it right.

“No, you’re BSing me for sure.” He scooched forward with a determined look on his face.

“Okay, I was BSing. But I’ve got a friend--a female friend--who might be able to help you out.”

“She can find Elfie May?”

“Well, no, but she’s nice and friendly--for a price.”

“You mean a hooker.”

“Kinda.”

“Either she is or she isn’t.”

“Okay, she is--or used to be. She’s a little long in the tooth, as they say.” It was my turn to look down at the rippling water. “We were married once. Needless to say, it didn’t work out. She drove me to drink. And I drove her to. . ..”

“Oh, hell.” he said, standing. “I didn’t want to jump anyway.” He brushed off his bottom and strode off the bridge. “Too much of a coward, you know. Let’s go see your old lady and find out if she has any Christmas spirit.”

I didn’t know if the little guy felt any better, but I did now that he wasn't going to jump. I might even wish a few folks a merry Christmas on our way to town, something I hadn’t done myself for a couple of years.

Monday, October 31, 2016

A short-short story for Halloween

The Ghost of Camp Halloween Adventure

“There are thirteen of you tonight. Tomorrow, when you wake up, one will be gone.” I paused and panned the open-eyed faces of the boys sitting around the campfire cross-legged, Indian style. “Thanks to Camp Halloween Adventure’s resident ghost.”

“Sure,” the chubbiest one said. “Like there’s such a thing as ghosts.” He snorted in disdain.

“It’s true,” another one said. “My friend told me about it. He was here last year.”

“So I guess you didn’t believe him. . .since you’re here,” chubby said.

I know I’m not supposed to use words like chubby, but if I didn’t one would assume I like kids. I don’t. I like their parents’ money.

“It’s my mother who doesn’t believe in ghosts,” the boy said, wiping sweaty palms on his jeans.

“Well,” I interjected. “We’ll all find out in the morning—won’t we?” They looked at each other, most unsure what to think. “It’s too bad, too, since tomorrow is the day you get to go rafting and zip lining, and maybe rock-wall climbing, if you’re not too tired.”

“But it’ll be cold.” Guess who. “And we’re not strong enough or old enough to go rafting.” Chubby looked at the others. “We’re only ten.” He paused again to survey his fellow campers’ faces. “And we could drown,” he said, looking at me.

The others nodded and made various sounds of agreement.

I held up my hand, as if taking an oath. “We’ve been running this camp for years.” I smiled reassuringly. At least, it was meant to be reassuring. “We know what we’re doing.” The boys glanced at each other, their necks on ball bearing swivels.

“Anyway, you have to worry about our ghost first. He’s in one of you right now.” They gasped in unison. “That’s right. He always inhabits one camper’s body.” I looked at Chubby. “Usually the one who complains the most.”

Chubby peered at me across the campfire, his eyes two slits, the rising heat augmenting their meaning. “You’re full of sh—.”

“Ah, ah.” I wagged a finger. “Remember, only nice words at Camp Halloween Adventure. You read the rules with your parents like instructed, didn’t you?

Chubby closed his mouth.

“Anyway, our ghost reads the inhabited camper’s mind to find out which one of the others he likes the least.” I scanned the group, pausing to look each one in the eyes. “That’s the one who turns up missing in the morning.”

Chubby said, “You’re so full of it.” He pushed himself off the ground and walked away.

“I guess we’ll just have to wait until morning to find out.” I stood. “Of course, the ghost can only take one of you away if you’re all asleep.”

The remaining campers huddled together, whispering to each other, while I went to get rid of Chubby. Little did he know he’d picked himself to be sent home early. No harm would come to him. He’d simply stop being a pain in my ass.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

How to Stop a Thief

First published at CommuterLit.com.

“I don’t want to scare you, sir,” Frank said as he continued to clip his customer’s hair, “but we’re about to be robbed.”

“Say what?” The man leaned forward and put his feet on the floor.

“Wait. It’s okay,” Frank said putting a hand on the man’s shoulder and nudging him back into the chair. “Nothing’s going happen to you.” Frank continued with the haircut. “It’s just Billy Jacobsen. He’s got a little circuit of small businesses he robs once every two to three months, sometimes more often around Christmas.”

“Why don’t you turn him into the police?”

“Oh, he’s harmless. Not quite all there, if you know what I mean.” Frank picked up the clippers and began cleaning up the back of the man’s neck. “We all know his schedule, so we make sure we have some extra money on hand. That way, he and his dog don’t starve.”

“What about his parents?” the customer asked.

“They passed in a car accident. Another stupid drunk driver.”

“Ouch.” The man flinched, wondering if the clipper had drawn blood.

“Sorry about that,” Frank said. “I get kind of riled up on that topic.”

“Yeah, well let’s not talk about it anymore.”

“Hey, let’s have some fun with Billy,” Frank said, winking into the mirror. “I’ll be right back.”

***

Billy lowered the ski mask over his face and patted his pants pocket. Satisfied the knife was still there, he opened the door, stood tall, and said, “This is a stick…Jesus, man, what are you doin’?”

“What are you talking about?” Frank said.

“You ain’t got no pants on,” Billy said.

“Oh, that,” Frank replied, “It’s No Pants Day.”

“It’s what?” Billy said.

“No Pants Day.” Frank stepped away from the chair and turned to give Billy a full frontal view. “People go to work without pants.”

“But. . .I mean…you ain’t wearin’ no underwear.” Billy reached back for the door. This guy was obviously crazy. He hadn’t noticed that the previous times he’d been in.

“Hey, no pants means no pants. I don’t make the rules.”

“I think you’re still supposed to wear underwear,” the customer said under his breath.

Frank gently cuffed the man in the back of the head.

“What he said,” Billy replied, pointing at the customer.

“All right. I’ll put them back on. Boy, you guys sure are party poopers.” Frank took a step forward, and Billy retreated closer to the door.

“Hey, what’re you doin’?” Billy said.

“My pants are on the chair behind you.”

Billy glanced to his right and saw a pair of khakis draped over the back of the chair. “You wait ‘til I’m outta here. You hear me? Then you can get your pants.” Billy backed out the door. “Crazy old coot,” he muttered.

“Wait,” Frank said. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled two twenties out. “Don’t you want your money?”

Billy paused. Thought about what to do. Finally, stepped onto the sidewalk. “No way man. I don’t know where that money’s been. You keep it.” He let go of the door and jogged down the street.

“He’s right, you know,” the customer said. “You are crazy.”