Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Short stories

Old Bones: A Collection of Short Stories

 

Old Bones

 

A Collection of Short Stories

 

Copyright 2013 Steven L. Campbell

Published by Steven L. Campbell at Shakespir

Cover design by S.L.Campbell Graphics and Books

 

Originally titled Ridgewood Sparks, this book is a collection of stories centered on the fictional town, Ridgewood, based on the author’s hometown in Pennsylvania.

All characters, organizations, places, and events portrayed in this book either are products of the author’s imagination or are fictitiously used. Any resemblance to actual persons—living or dead, locales, organizations, or events is purely coincidental.

 

Shakespir Edition License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book is a licensed copyrighted property of the author. However, you are welcome to copy and share it for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. If you enjoyed this book, please return to your favorite ebook retailer to discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support and respecting the hard work of this author.

 

To Jennie and our children and their children

Always.

 

Table of Contents

Tales for Young Adults

Are We There Yet?

The Thing in the Mirror

Something Special

A Fantasy Trip

Night of the Hell Hounds

Bottom of the Seventh

The Trespasser

 

Oddities

Dead Rabbits Don’t Run

In the Wake of Annihilating Kings

A Child’s Tale of Learning

 

Tales for Adults

Dragon Slayer

A Matter of Time

A Buzzing of Bees

A Sinister Blast from the Past

Ghost Lights

A Haunting

Into the Void

Different Perspectives

Behavior Unkind

 

Afterword

About the Author

Connect with Steven L. Campbell

 

Tales for Young Adults

 

Are We There Yet?

With all its blemishes, I wrote the strange and creepy “Are We There Yet?” in 1999 and published it at my old no-longer-in-service website. Since then, I have recycled parts of it for an upcoming novel, Margga’s Curse.

*

ON A PARTICULAR August day, not far from Ridgewood, Pennsylvania, a black Grand Cherokee wound its way over a hilly countryside. The closer the Coleman family got to Ridgewood, the harder the rain fell. Fifteen-year-old Douglas Coleman pulled at his sweaty T-shirt and wished that the air conditioner in his parents’ Grand Cherokee worked. The “grand” had left the vehicle several years ago. Same with their lives. Their fortune had been yanked away over the summer by a cruel twist of fate, right before the dog days of August had hit.

He didn’t care if they ever got there, but he asked anyway: “Are we there yet?”

“Almost,” his mother said. “Another half-hour is all.” She looked unhappy, as though she had done something wrong. Douglas sighed and crossed his arms. It wasn’t she who had made a mess of things.

Next to him in the back seat, Douglas’s eleven-year-old sister, Keera, snored. Drool leaked from the corner of her open mouth and formed a puddle along the front of her pink T-shirt. Douglas wondered how she could sleep when it was so hot and their lives had been ruined—thanks to him, of course, though his mother and Dr. Jarvis insisted that it wasn’t his fault.

He clenched his jaw and deepened his frown, if that were possible. No matter how many times his mother said that things were going to get better, he knew they would never be as good as when they had lived in Minneapolis.

Keera took a breath and snored louder. Douglas jabbed her shoulder until she turned her head and quieted. Then he tilted his own head and let the warm spray from his open window douse his sweaty face.

The landscape of woods and occasional farm and cornfield looked like home. But it wasn’t. Minneapolis and everything that had been theirs were a long ways behind them now. There would be no going back until he turned eighteen. Then he could go to college at Minnesota State where many of his friends planned to go, and be far away from a place where the state depended on a captive groundhog to predict their springs.

We have no other choice, Dougie! His mother’s words still resounded in his ears from the days they had spent packing. They were SFC: strapped for cash, a term his father had started using after lightning had struck him three months ago. It was a term that Douglas hated hearing. It ranked up there with SOL, which was how he felt most of the time.

In the front seat of the old truck, Adriana Coleman banged an open palm against the dashboard. The engine was overheating again.

“We there yet?” Douglas’s father asked as he awoke from his nap.

“Almost,” Adriana said. She pointed to a giant, white billboard sign ahead of them that read WELCOME TO RIDGEWOOD in large, blue letters.

Maurice Coleman rubbed his right temple as he turned in his seat to look at Douglas. “We’re muh-moving, son,” he said. “Nuh-new home, new town, new people. New, new, new.”

Douglas’s face soured. “I don’t want to make new friends,” he said. “It’s taken me all my life to make the best of the ones I’ve left behind.”

Adriana said, “When we get settled, you can e-mail your old friends, or call a couple next weekend. I know they would love to hear from you.”

Douglas sighed. “Like they’re gonna care about my new life. I saw their looks. They were glad it wasn’t any of them heading to a new a place.” He sputtered as a realization clawed at his mind. “I’ll be the new kid at school. The one everybody’ll pick on.”

“It’s tenth grade. You won’t get picked on.”

Before Douglas could argue, Adriana said, “I know you’re going to like your new bedroom. You’ll have plenty of space for your easel and desk and all your paints and canvas and—”

“Whatever. I’m not painting anymore.”

“Anyway,” Adriana said and sighed, “it’s a beautiful home in the country, just down the road from Uncle Jason’s farm.”

“Great. I love the smell of cow manure.”

Adriana set her mouth firm. Her expression was one of iron now. Douglas returned to gazing out at the lousy rain. The move was his fault, after all. If he had put away the lawn mower before going to Kenny’s house, then his father wouldn’t have been struck by lightning while putting the mower into the shed. But he had been in a hurry to see Kenny’s new computer, and so the storm came and knocked Maurice Coleman from his shoes with a lightning bolt that left him with impaired short-term memory.

Blame and guilt weighed Douglas’s shoulders. If not for his carelessness, his father would still be employed as a lawyer. And not just any lawyer. Maurice Coleman, the man about Minneapolis, had been successful as a private practice lawyer, earning as much as six figures last year. But now, he wasn’t well enough to be an ambulance chaser.

“Nobody’s fault,” Maurice said from the front seat.

Douglas clenched his jaw, turned away from his father, and glared out his window at downtown Ridgewood. The streets appeared barren and so did the stores—a steady conglomeration of brick and cement shops that shoved against each other. Their windows looked dark and lifeless, though all were open for business. Even the tiny McDonalds and Burger King—cramped between more brick buildings—looked dingy and deserted. At a street corner, Douglas looked at a discolored tavern on the left, its only visible window sporting a black sign with white letters that announced fifty-cent wings on Friday nights. Below it, neon signs advertised a selection of beer inside. On the uneven sidewalk in front, three young girls around the ages of ten or eleven came around the corner and passed by on Rollerblades, each of them teasing each other with obscenities. An old, sickly looking man in a tattered Army jacket stepped out of the tavern, turned up his collar to the rain, and then looked at Douglas and grinned. Douglas shuddered at the rotting teeth he saw and looked away. Icy pain sliced through his stomach.

“I spy … muh-my right eye,” Maurice Coleman said, “suh-something blue.” His stutter caused Douglas to clench his jaw tighter as another icy feeling jolted through his stomach.

“C’mon Duh-Douglas,” Maurice said cheerily, “play along.”

Douglas crossed his arms and held in his anger. “Later, Dad. Okay?”

The light changed and Adriana drove them deeper into an increasing murkiness of more constricted stores that looked empty of any life. They crossed over a cement bridge and a wide gray fording called Myers Creek. On the other side, a gothic stone church called St. John’s Cathedral sat large and tall. Its tower bell was in mid-procession of peeling four o’clock.

Past the church, St. John’s Cemetery rolled wide and far with many tombstones marking the dead there. Keera awoke and screamed.

Douglas jumped and nearly screamed as well. Alarmed, Adriana turned to Keera, and then returned her attention to her driving when a car horn sounded at the stop sign she almost ran. Maurice made hushing sounds, but Keera sobbed louder.

“The cemetery … it scares me,” she said. “I saw myself buried beneath the ground.”

“It’s okay,” Adriana said. “It was just a dream.”

Keera turned to Douglas. Her tears dropped to her chin. “I saw you in a coffin,” she said between sobs. “I saw Mommy and Daddy, too.”

Pain knifed through Douglas’s stomach. He shuddered.

“Bad dream,” Maurice said. “Bad dream tap-tap-tapping.”

Douglas’s stomach lurched. “Mom,” he cried and hiccupped. “I don’t feel good.”

“We’re almost there. Just two more miles.”

Maurice made more hushing sounds as he turned and looked out his rain-covered window. “Almost home,” he said. “No more tap-tap-tapping.”

Douglas pressed his hands against his stomach as his mother drove south and into the murky countryside, past woods and occasional clearings of soggy cornfields and pastures with waterlogged fences and muddy cows, and farms with rusted trailers and car skeletons in the yards.

They stopped at an intersection and Adrianna waited for a semi decorated in yellow running lights to speed by before she eased the steaming, chugging vehicle into the intersection.

Douglas saw the other semi come at them from the corner of an eye.

Instantly, a thousand screams filled his head. His world exploded, which deafened the screams. Then all sound and sight went dark. He flew in darkness a long time before he awoke.

He stared out his window. The closer he and his family got to Ridgewood, Pennsylvania, the harder the rain fell.

The move was his fault. He pulled at his sweaty T-shirt and asked, “Are we there yet?”

“Almost,” his mother said. “Another half-hour is all.”

She looked unhappy, as though she had done something wrong.

#

The Thing in the Mirror

INSIDE A SINGLE yellow eye of a two-story brick house, fifteen-year-old Randy White sits at his bedroom desk and stares into a rectangular wall-type mirror propped in front of him. He draws a few lines to his portrait, trying to capture a convincing likeness of himself to show Mr. Evans, his art teacher, on Monday.

A crowd roars from outside his bedroom window; he wonders for a moment if the Fighting Eagles have scored. A half-block away, Ridgewood High School’s football team is battling a well-matched contest with their tough-to-beat rivals, New Cambridge. His parents and sisters are there amidst the fervor.

Randy glances at the radio on the stand by the side of his bed and considers turning on the game. Then, annoyed, he realizes the noise of the game has become a distraction; the skinny boy stamps to his window to close it.

Football season has ascended upon Ridgewood’s Friday nights and tonight the air is heavy in the third quarter, the game tied. Randy knows that sweat and adrenaline and coffee and soft drinks are flowing fast. He had been part of that life once.

Before he closes the window, a loud cheer follows the spinning ball kicked over the heads of the visiting blue and white team. The ball passes between white jutting poles rising toward the night sky, and then falls and bounces into a wire backstop, rattling the fence where on the other side, a few bees buzz atop the uncut field of brush and scrub in the waning September twilight.

Behind the school and beyond the field lights, portions of Myers Ridge jut like jagged canine teeth trying to bite into the remaining bands of sunset above it. The clouds are turning dark, but not because of the failing sunlight.

Randy notices a sphere of white light blinking along the cliffs of Myers Ridge and wonders what it is. The light moves back and forth and up and down, then zips away for a few seconds before it returns and repeats the pattern.

Randy thinks of UFOs, so he hurries back with a digital camera. He zooms and snaps a picture. The orb blinks off and on. Randy takes another picture. The crowd roars. The orb stops blinking.

He waits for the strange light to blink on again, but the ridge remains dark.

Bands of lightning spread out across the northern sky, streaking and skipping over the pink and purple clouds. Randy reaches to close the window when white light flashes in front of the window and sends him falling backwards. Partially blinded, he scrambles from the floor to the window and closes it. Then he ducks and waits; he wonders if little gray beings will enter his room and want to abduct him.

After several minutes, he peeks outside. Then he pulls his curtains over the window and hurries to his desk. He watches his window in the mirror for several minutes. The football crowd is muffled on the other side; there is no other disturbance out there.

No UFOs. No aliens. All is safe. Right?

Right.

And the light?

He ponders the light for several minutes. Perhaps, he decides, the flash of light wasn’t as close as he thought.

He returns to his portrait and draws. His hand, eyes and mind become synchronous and he discovers he really likes what he is doing. He understands the rules of composition and positive and negative space now. He has become an artist and he knows it. Drawing what he sees is easy to do.

He looks at his face and studies the forms made clear by the light from the lamp on his desk. Then behind his mop of brown hair where thick green curtains should cover the window he closed not long ago, he sees a closed door instead.

What? This can’t be.

He slowly puts down his pencil, rubs his eyes, and looks again at the mirror. The door is there! A plain slab of dark oak with a glass doorknob on it, all in the exact spot where his window should be. He quickly turns from the mirror and looks at his window covered by green curtain. In the mirror, he sees the door.

Fascinated and a little frightened, he repeats the procedure until he is certain the mirror is not lying to him.

He looks at his window. “Hello. Aliens?”

No answer.

He lifts the mirror from its propped up position and crosses his room. Facing the curtain, he holds the mirror by its wired back with his left hand and sees clearly in the mirror the door now next to him. He reaches out to where he knows there is curtain. He watches it happen in the mirror as he touches cold wood instead.

He yanks his hand away and blows on his fingers as though the wood had been ice.

He hears the muffled noise from the football field where his parents and two young sisters are watching the game. But he barely thinks of them now.

He lifts his hand to the curtain and watches his hand in the mirror grasp the faceted doorknob. It is solid and cold and he shivers and takes a deep breath to calm his excitement. Then he turns the knob.

The door in the mirror swings out and he feels its weight against his right shoulder as the door comes to rest against him. He moves forward and watches the door open all the way in the mirror.

Beyond the door is a hallway with a wood floor as dark as the door and just as polished. Across the hall is a plain, off-white wall where a large painting of a seascape hangs from an ornate gold frame.

He reaches back toward his window and sees his arm enter the hallway. He turns and looks at his hand pressing against the curtain and the window behind it. He does not feel the curtain or window, even when he leans his shoulder against the curtain.

When he looks again at the hallway in the mirror, he tumbles through the doorway.

In his bedroom, the boy holding the mirror falls into the curtain and window, evaporating through green fabric and window glass and wood frame and wall. His reflection continues to tumble likewise into the hall, sprawling onto the cold, hard wood.

In Randy’s room, the mirror falls to the bedroom floor and bursts into shards and slivers.

At the window, Randy White has vanished.

At the window, glass begins to chatter on the other side with the sound of rain. Two-hundred yards away the football game has ended. Several minutes pass before the front door at Randy’s house opens. His father calls upstairs to remind him of their ritual of going out for ice cream after a home game. Wear a jacket, Randy’s father says, it’s raining.

Minutes pass. The youngest girl impatiently stomps upstairs calling for Randy to hurry. Inside his bedroom, the girl sees on his desk his drawing pad and a self-portrait looking back in wonderment. Past the desk, Randy’s camera lies near a broken mirror below his window. She crosses the room, picks up the camera and turns it on. She looks at the pictures that Randy took of the flashing orb. The images are blank.

She puts down the camera and picks up a piece of mirror glass, jabbing the end of her thumb on an edge. She cries out, switches hands and sucks at the bead of blood from her injury. She holds up the knife-like length of glass and sees the door. A shadow falls across the polished floor. She looks closer. The shadow is crouched over a body. A long, smooth, gray face turns. Large glowing yellow eyes peer at her. A mouth of sharp teeth consumes the Navy blue fabric of Randy’s shirt.

The creature lunges at her. She screams and drops the broken mirror and runs from the room, crying and yelling all the way downstairs. She races past her mother and older sister and into the arms of her concerned father.

No one believes her when she tells them what she saw. Upstairs, no one else sees the door or the hall or the creature consuming Randy White’s body in the mirror. They see the broken mirror, but nothing more than shards of glass and splintered wood. Looking around, they see Randy’s drawings and evidence of a boy missing from home.

Perhaps he ran away, a police officer suggests.

He did stop enjoying sports, Randy’s father says.

Another police officer suggests abduction, which would explain how the mirror was broken.

Abducted and eaten, the little girl says. By an alien.

No one believes her. Of course.

She says no more and takes one of Randy’s sketchbooks and fills the pages with drawings of the creature she saw in the mirror.

No one pays her any attention. No one ever really believes the wild things that come from a child’s overactive imagination. Not ever.

#

Something Special

RACHEL MCCUTCHEON AND her younger sister had the house to themselves. Their parents and big brother Tim shopped thirty-three miles away at New Cambridge for groceries and a new air conditioner to replace the old one that stopped working last night. April had brought a taste of summer with it, and its sticky torment caused Rachel to pull at her green halter and white terrycloth shorts. She struggled to sit up on her mom’s plushy sofa. Then, upon sinking in a mushy spot on the middle cushion, she freed a romance paperback wedged between the cushions and leafed through it. It was from a bag of similar books Tim’s wife Josie had dropped off an hour ago. Buxom women and muscular men seduced and cheated on each other in graphic description. She threw the book back in the bag on the floor and looked over at her eleven-year-old sister Britt who lay in their dad’s huge recliner, her summer tan glowing around the pink bikini top and bottom she wore. An oscillating fan blew on her every fifteen seconds and played with her long sable hair, the ruffles on her beachwear, and the pages of her beauty magazine.

Like Rachel, Britt was barefoot. But Britt’s toenails were expertly pedicured and painted light blue to match her fingernails. Rachel’s nails were unpolished and her fingernails kept short by her teeth.

“This stuff is flower petal porn,” she declared as she stood and dropped the bag of books next to Britt, who looked up with aquamarine eyes opened in wonderment.

“Whattaya mean?”

“I mean these books are for lonely old church ladies and librarians,” Rachel said before she made her way to the kitchen and peered in the refrigerator for her leftover Italian sub from lunch. Not finding it among the assortment of diet food and drinks and several plastic dishes labeled with leftover dinners, she swore and slammed shut the door. Something fell over inside. She ignored it as the doorbell’s annoying buzz took her from her dilemma. She started for the sun porch and stopped. Two curious eyes peered in at her through the door’s three diamond shaped windows. She stopped and frowned, and then crossed her arms over her chest.

“Can we talk?” the boy on the other side asked, his voice muffled by the glass.

Rachel almost said no, but Britt, who was now behind her, pushed past her and opened the door that stuck to its jam for a moment because of the humidity and too much paint.

“Hi, Paul, come on in. I like your T-shirt.”

Fourteen-year-old Paul Joseph looked down the front of his plain aquamarine shirt and said, “Thanks.” He looked up at Britt and smiled, his gaze resting on her bikini top. “Going swimming?”

“I wish. The pool’s still covered from winter.” Britt stuck out her bottom lip.

Rachel harrumphed and returned to the kitchen. Paul quickly followed with Britt close behind.

“Can we talk?” he asked again. His squeaky voice gave away his unease.

Rachel stopped. The ache to have him back in her life stabbed at her chest. She said, “I’m still mad at you for hitting me with that tomato.”

“That’s why I’m here … to apologize.”

Rachel felt her gaze linger on his face longer than she wanted to. He was pleasant on the eyes. And she had been dreaming about him a lot lately, often lying with him in a postcoital embrace, running her fingers through his well-groomed, silky and shiny auburn hair.

Her cheeks flushed. She tightened her arms over her chest and said, “It was a rotten thing to do.”

“I know. And I’m sorry.” The serious look from his steel blue eyes seemed to penetrate her soul.

She uncrossed her arms and ran a hand through her short red hair, combing it away from her forehead.

“Forgive him already,” Britt said. Then to Paul, “You want something to drink? I could go for something cold. It’s so hot in here.”

Rachel stepped between them and took Paul by the arm. “He’s coming with me,” she said, steering him to the dining room and the stairs.

A frown replaced Britt’s flirty smile.

Rachel turned to her and said, “If you follow us or try eavesdropping on us, I’ll tell Dad what you and Taylor did at the movie theater last week.” Then she pushed Paul up the stairs.

Inside her boxy bedroom, Rachel set the ceiling fan’s speed at high, and then reclined on her narrow bed. Paul plopped down in her yellow beanbag chair—the one he had bought her last year for her thirteenth birthday. Her high school Fighting Eagles swimming, volleyball and softball trophies littered her nightstand next to him. He always admired her athletic achievements, fondling at least one or two trophies when he visited. He kept his hands free this time as he crossed his arms and looked at her with eyes still serious.

After a moment, he cleared his throat and said, “Sorry I lost my head and threw a tomato at you. But…”

Rachel’s frown deepened.

Paul sighed. “You told Justin we had sex.”

Rachel relaxed her frown and forced herself not to smile. “He saw us kissing at Pizza Hut and wanted to know how serious we were. He’s been stalking me all school year, so I told him we went all the way. Now he can’t play me like I’m some virginally challenged moron that he needs to score with.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t have to tell him we had sex.”

“Yes I did, so get over it. Besides, we know the truth and that’s all that matters.”

Paul sighed again. His face and shoulders relaxed, but his arms remained crossed and pressed against his chest.

Rachel gave him a small smile and said, “I had a good time that night, just the two of us talking. We should date more often.”

“It wasn’t a—”

“Don’t you dare say it wasn’t a date, Paul Joseph.” The frown returned. “You asked me out. You paid for my food and drinks. That’s a date. Plus, we held hands and you put your arm around me. And I know you liked it when I kissed you.”

Paul squirmed, looked out her window, and said, “Okay, I liked it. But my parents say I’m too young to date. So, if … I mean when we go out again, no kissing … in public.”

The frown left. Rachel sat up and moved closer to him. She surprised herself when she almost said she had wanted him to take her virginity that night after they left the restaurant together. Instead, she said, “We’ve been neighbors all our lives and have done things only best friends do. We know each other’s closest secrets. I’d hate to do anything to jeopardize our friendship.

“And you’re right to be mad at me,” she said, standing. “It was reckless and stupid of me to lie to Justin. I’ve been beating myself up over it ever since.” She stood in front of him, forcing him to lie back in the chair to look up at her. “Can you forgive me for telling him we had sex?” she asked.

Paul sorely smiled at her and she felt smitten all over again.

“Of course,” he said after clearing his throat.

“Thank you.” She placed her feet on either side of his legs and squatted in front of him, sitting lightly on his ankles. She bit her lower lip and let him squirm internally while she gauged the emotions on his face.

A moment later, she stood and returned to sitting on her bed.

“Thank you for not being mad at me anymore,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” Paul said; his voice was barely audible. Then, after clearing his throat again: “Have you ever noticed strange things about Ms. Umberto?”

Rachel followed his gaze out her window to the side of the yellow, square house a hundred yards away. “Other than dating Mr. Nash?’

“Like strange green lights flashing in her house at two and three o’clock in the morning.” Paul struggled his way from the beanbag chair.

“Spying on Ms. Umberto when you should be asleep? That’s pretty creepy, Paul.”

“I think she’s a witch.” Paul went to Rachel’s window. “She always seems to know when I’ve forgotten to do the homework for her class, or when I don’t know the answer to a question.”

“Pfft. All teachers do that. I think it’s called teacher’s intuition. They do it to keep us on our toes.”

“Maybe so, but even my mom mentioned something weird. She said Mr. Hallstead was a patient on her psych ward for a few days during winter break because he thought Ms. Umberto was a dragon.”

“Your mom actually told you that?”

“No. I overheard her talking on her phone.”

Rachel shook her head. “Ms. Umberto’s the coolest teacher I know. How could you possibly think she’s a witch?”

Paul stepped away from the window. “Because she moved into a haunted house.”

Rachel stared at the two-story Victorian house and its large manicured lawn shining bright in the distance. No one in the neighborhood had referred to the place as haunted since its restoration five years ago. Before that, the house had sat abandoned and rundown amidst a tangled growth of trees and brush. Some of its windows had been smashed out and its front door missing long before Rachel had been born. And everyone knew the rumors of murders, ghosts, and creepy sounds and voices at the property until old Mr. Deveraux from Ridgewood’s Savings and Loans bought and fixed up the place. Now the house was like all the others in the perpetual land development of Ridgewood’s west side. Even a modern one-story, two-car garage sat behind the house, painted the same yellow and trimmed in white.

“I don’t mean witch in a Wicked Witch of the West sense,” Paul continued. “It’s just the way she looks at me … like she sees into my soul. It’s unnerving. I can never relax in her classes.”

“So now you’re peeking in her windows, spying on her?”

Paul sat at the edge of Rachel’s bed and said, “I’m looking for proof. If she is a witch, maybe she can … you know … reverse your curse.”

“There is no cure for what I am.” Rachel forced herself not to shout. “Except…” She swallowed to keep from saying the word. “I would love to be normal.” She smiled at Paul who looked tense again. She couldn’t blame him for being afraid of her. “Thanks for thinking about me. But I’m stuck being what I am. My whole family is. As long as there is plenty of deer and cattle and other animals in the neighborhood, we’ll be okay.”

“I worry about you,” Paul said.

“Well, I think you’re being overly imaginative about Ms. Umberto,” Rachel said, directing the conversation away from her and her family. “Call me tomorrow. We should do something.”

“You want Pizza Hut again?”

“Surprise me.”

Paul stood, looked out Rachel’s window again and said nothing.

“You should probably go now,” Rachel said when he continued to stare out her window. “Unless you’re afraid Ms. Umberto will turn you into toad when you pass by her house.”

“Very funny.” Paul stumbled through the doorway and Rachel listened to him leave down the squeaky stairs. Britt called out a flirty goodbye moments before the front door opened and closed.

“Paws off, he’s mine,” Rachel yelled out. Then she turned and looked out her window again. Moments later, she saw Paul ride his bicycle along the blacktop road past their teacher’s house. His house sat unseen on the other side.

She was about to turn away when she saw Paul vanish. His bike rolled several feet before it crashed into the ditch alongside the road.

Rachel ran downstairs and out the front door, calling Paul’s name as she hurried to where she had seen him vanish. A brown toad sat in the road.

“Paul?”

She knelt to get a closer look at the toad when Ms. Umberto’s front door opened. Rachel looked up as the teacher stepped onto the porch and called her name.

“Come,” Ms. Umberto said. “I have something for you … something special. And bring Paul with you.”

#

A Fantasy Trip

THE LONG TRIP home to Myers Ridge was longer than Danny Sutton remembered. He sat feeling a bit motion sick in the backseat of his father’s Taurus, surrounded by brand-new fantasy novels and superhero comics while his parents, George and Michelle, stared straightaway at the interstate. Country music—his mother’s favorite—played low from the radio. Their three-day stay in Chicago for the Fantasy Writers and Artists Fair was over and he had plenty of new reading material. However, reading in a moving vehicle hadn’t set well with his stomach. Now, neither did watching the countryside pass by at 70 miles an hour.

The day had turned to evening and his stomach had gone from feeling lousy to feeling downright rotten. He fished some chewable antacids from his backpack, and then took out his spiral bound sketch pad and an HB drawing pencil. Drawing was different than reading. Drawing relaxed his mind and took him deep into imaginary worlds, which would take his mind off being ill.

He found a blank page and lightly drew some scribbled circles. He saw a clearer image emerge as the circles connected and the drawing slowly transformed into … a … giant … lizard. No. Keep drawing. A Tyrannosaurus rex. No. A fire-breathing dragon with long, batlike wings.

Yes.

Chills crept up Danny’s arms.

A black night sky surrounded the dragon. He imagined it flying in and out of moonlit clouds above Myers Ridge, swooping down where the woods met the cliffs near the portion that broke off thousands of years ago during an ice age, making the cliffs steep and dangerous … or so said Mr. Bailey, his ninth grade science teacher.

He drew his parents’ house on the other side of the woods while imagining that he flew with the dragon—a girl dragon.

He drew another dragon just above the first. He was the second dragon and he and the girl dragon were boyfriend and girlfriend. He liked that.

He imagined that he, the boy dragon, followed the girl dragon through the night sky, racing with her and frolicking amidst the air currents and clouds. As they flew over his parents’ house, he saw a pickup truck parked along the road. The driver stood outside the truck, looking up. He lifted a long object to his shoulder and face.

The shot from a high-powered rifle broke the low sound of wind and the lazy flapping of their wings. The girl dragon twisted, then fell to the earth on her back, landing with a thud in Danny’s front yard, dead from a well-placed shot between the protective plating over her heart.

Danny stopped drawing. He tapped the backend of the pencil against his forehead, contemplating what he had imagined. Who was the man and why had he killed the girl dragon?

He looked at the two dragons he had drawn, still flying together in the night sky. Then his attention focused on something he hadn’t drawn: the man standing outside the pickup truck. In his arms, he carried a high-powered rifle with a scope.

Danny shuddered and slammed shut the pad.

“Well, I’m done,” he announced.

His mother half turned in her seat. “Done with what, dear?”

“Fantasy, magic, dungeons and dragons … the whole nine yards.”

“I thought you had a good time?” his mother asked. A frown scrunched up her nose.

Danny looked at the drawing pad he had purchased at last year’s fair. Magic Brand Art Supplies lettered the front. His pencil said the same.

“You’ll feel better when we get something to eat,” his mother said.

Danny looked up and saw his father exit the interstate. Soon, they were ordering food at a Wendy’s drive thru.

Back on the interstate, Danny ate and thought about his drawing. Surely he had drawn the man with the rifle and pickup truck. He must have been so wrapped up in his imagination that he wasn’t aware of what he was drawing.

The triple cheeseburger, large fries, and huge soft drink actually settled his stomach as well as his nerves. He thought about drawing more but the evening sun had slipped below the horizon behind them and home was less than fifty miles away.

Danny put his head back and dozed. He dreamed about flying again with the girl dragon. Her name was Tavreth and she was nine hundred years old, barely a teenager in dragon years.

In his dream, he made a friend, which left him feeling good when he awoke.

He recognized Ridge Road and knew that he and his parents were less than a half-mile from home.

As his father cleared the bend, Danny saw the rear lights of a pickup truck parked on the road in front of their home. Mr. Langford stood at the driver’s door, bathed in George Sutton’s headlights.

Mr. Langford turned and hurried toward their car as George stopped.

“What’s going on?” Michelle asked as George rolled down his window.

A sickening feeling of dread came over Danny as he listened to Mr. Langford tell them a fantastic tale. And as he looked at the black lump of dead dragon in the front yard, his aching heart went out to her.

He had to undo this. But how?

He picked up his drawing pad, and then rummaged in his backpack for his eraser. In the dim light, he read Magic Brand Art Supplies lettered along one side. He had never used it before, so he hoped his idea would work. It was, after all, his plan all along, and he should have checked to see if it worked before leaving the house.

He opened his pad to the drawing of him as a dragon flying with Tavreth, and Mr. Langford ready to shoot. Then he busily erased the old man, his rifle, and the pickup truck.

Outside, each one vanished. He erased Tavreth and she vanished from the front yard.

His mother was quick to turn on him.

He pulled from her grasp.

“It’s better this way,” George said, pulling her away from the boy.

“We’ll start over afresh,” Danny promised as he found the first drawing he had drawn the day after his real parents bought him the pad and pencil.

But as he erased his pretend parents, the ones who liked taking him places, and their pretend car, he knew that this was the end. Then, alone on the road, he erased the locked cell in the basement where his real parents were.

Picking up his backpack, he headed up the driveway and toward the front door. He paused only once, trying to figure a way to turn himself into a dragon. But he cast away the idea. His fantasy life had gone too far. It was time to face reality.

He took a deep breath, opened the front door, and entered.

#

Night of the Hell Hounds

Here is the Ridgewood short story “Night of the Hell Hounds” published January 2013 at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and no longer available to purchase at those websites. This story became the basis for my upcoming novel, Margga’s Curse.

*

IT WAS THE weekend after Halloween, dark and cold on the night Lenny Stevens parked his Schwinn bicycle next to the garage at Dave Evans’s place on Myers Ridge. Dave had told him he would be behind his dad’s barn. Lenny found him there, roasting hot dogs on a stick at a fire that failed to advance any warmth. His tent was set up behind him, and his twin sister Amy had her own tent behind her. She sat cross-legged across the fire from Dave, whispering and giggling with Vree Erickson. Lenny’s heart pattered while his gaze caressed Vree’s long hair looking golden in the firelight. Amy saw him, patted her sleeping bag and told him to sit next to her. He did, sandwiching himself between the two girls and snuggling under Amy’s blue blanket, which she draped over their shoulders. He quickly warmed, all the while smelling hot dogs and wood smoke and perfume that smelled like oranges.

They wore sweatshirts and blue jeans and jackets to ward off the night’s chill, and Vree had on white furry mittens that seemed to make her all the more beautiful to Lenny. He said hello to her and she nodded, smiled, and remained silent while Amy controlled the conversation about Mr. Baretti—a tenth grade teacher she didn’t like. When she finished, Lenny opened his mouth to make small talk with Vree. He never got a word out.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Dave said, seeming to awaken from the trance the fire had put him in. “Take a look at the old Myers place and tell me what you see.”

The old, burnt shell of Myers Mansion was to Lenny’s right and at the bottom of a hill. It languished inside a thicket of property almost a hundred yards away and barely visible in the darkness. No moonlight broke the cloud cover then, so he squinted to see the spooky remnants of the mansion destroyed in June by an unknown arsonist. The police were still investigating the fire and Lenny and his friends had their suspicions of the culprit—he figured it was Craig Coleman and his gang of toadies who liked to smoke and drink there, even though the place was supposed to be haunted.

“Dave thought he saw ghosts,” Amy said. She gave him her whittled stick and a hot dog to roast. “Always with the ghosts.”

He looked again at the house, excited about this new turn of events. The once prominent house had been built ninety years ago by a once-famous Broadway playwright named Benjamin Myers who became even more popular writing blockbuster screenplays for Hollywood before he and his wife mysteriously disappeared.

“You saw Myers and his wife’s ghosts?” he asked.

“Apparitions of some dogs,” Dave said; “three of them as plain as day. They vanished right before you came.”

“You saw his dogs? The hunting dogs that froze to death?” Lenny almost dropped his hotdog while he fumbled to pierce it with the stick.

“How did they freeze?” Vree asked. She, who had moved last year to Ridgewood, inched closer to Lenny. He began to tell her when Amy interrupted.

“It’s a dumb story that says the county sheriff found Benjamin Myers and his nine hunting dogs frozen inside the house on a hot summer day.”

“It isn’t dumb,” Dave said.

“Yes, it is. I checked the town’s newspaper archives that time I did an English paper about Cathleen and Benjamin Myers. There was no mention of anyone or anything frozen inside the house the day they disappeared.”

“So, how did they disappear?” Vree pressed closer to Lenny when she said this.

“No one knows,” he said as he relished the feel of her body against his; “but it started a half-century of ghost stories.”

“The police concluded that Mr. and Mrs. Myers died in a plane crash during a trip to the Caribbean,” Amy said.

“Which isn’t official,” Dave added. “Myers and his wife always flew using pseudonyms, and no bodies or substantial wreckage were ever found, which means there’s no confirmation that they died at sea.”

Amy sounded irritated when she groaned. “It makes more sense than believing that he and his dogs froze to death, or that Cathleen jumped to her death at the bottom of Widow’s Ravine.”

Lenny glanced at where a trickling stream separated the two properties. A half-mile away to his left, the stream fell into a steep-sided gorge called Widow’s Ravine, a place that the rest of the legend claims Cathleen Myers jumped to her death after she found her husband and his dogs frozen. He told Vree about the legend and added, “Her screams can be heard whenever her ghost relives the suicide and plunges into the ravine.”

“For the record, none of us have ever heard anyone screaming from Widow’s Ravine,” Amy said. “And I’ve never seen any ghosts.”

“Well, I have,” Dave said.

“Whatever.” Amy popped a peppermint Life Saver candy into her mouth and offered Vree and Lenny some.

“And I’m not the only one,” Dave said before swallowing the last of his hotdog. “Our cousin Ricky says Alan Baker was driving up here one night after the fire when he saw a pack of wild-looking dogs on the Myers property. When he aimed a flashlight at them, they vanished. Then, as he was driving away, he felt the weight of invisible animals jumping on the hood of his truck. He hurried home and discovered that something had scratched the truck’s paint and dented the hood.”

Amy shook her head and said, “I wouldn’t believe anything Alan Baker says.”

“I’m just saying what Ricky told me, is all.”

“Whatever.”

They quieted and Lenny cooked his hotdog and ate it without a bun or any dressing, just the way he liked them, and snuck glances at quiet Vree cloud gazing. He looked up once or twice and wondered what she saw there.

A stick snapped behind Amy’s tent and caused him turn partway to the left. The dark shape of a human figure stepped around the tent and into their midst.

“Who are you?” Dave said, almost shouting, which drew Vree’s and Amy’s attention. “This is private land.”

Fiery hues of the campfire revealed a stunning woman. Flame glinted from her long black hair, her bronze face, and her long, sweeping black dress tied off at the waist. A white lace collar hung around her neck, and pearl buttons sparkled in a row between her ample breasts. Tall and curvy, she looked at the four teenagers with mesmerizing and penetrating eyes—blacker than either her hair or dress, or the rubies set in the gold rings that she wore on eight fingers and two thumbs.

“This parcel of land is owned by Margaret Evans,” she replied as she strolled to stand next to the fire between Dave and the rest of them.

“She’s our grandmother,” Dave said. “Our dad lives here now.”

“Yes, I know of your family, David,” she said to him. “And Amy.” She smiled and looked kindly at Amy, beaming those mysterious charcoal eyes. Then she looked at Lenny and lingered with a puzzled, yet bewitching gaze.

He held her gaze until Dave asked, “How can we help you?”

She looked away and said, “I must rest a moment. The journey here has tired me.”

She sat with a grace that made her seem to glide to the grass. There, she tucked her legs delicately beside herself and covered her bare feet beneath her dress. Her gaze shifted back to Lenny, then to Vree, and then to him again.

“I don’t know you two,” she said.

“I’m Lenny Stevens,” Lenny said. “This is Vree.”

“My full name is Verawenda Erickson,” Vree said. “Well, actually, Verawenda Renee Erickson. My friends started calling me Vree because of my initials.”

“I am Ademia Consuela Ramona Cathleen Savakis,” the woman said to her. “I have been called all of these names and more. But you can call me Ademia.” Her eyes narrowed and the corners of her mouth lifted for a moment as she smiled at Vree. Then she asked, “Do you and your family live on the ridge, too?”

“Yes. My parents and I moved just down the road almost sixteen months ago … from Pittsburgh.”

“My parents and I live in town,” Lenny said. “My dad—”

Ademia’s stern gaze caused him to close his mouth with a clack of teeth striking together. He saw a flicker of sadness cross her face before she turned and looked at Dave. “And why do you mistake me for—” she leaned closer “—a gypsy … no … a witch?”

Dave stiffened and said, “I don’t.”

“I suppose I do look like a gypsy. My mother was Brazilian, my father Greek. But I’m neither gypsy nor witch, although—”

She paused and looked thoughtful. Then she glanced in the direction of the burnt remains of the old mansion and said rather sadly, “I must go now.”

She stood as easily and gracefully as she had sat.

“Good night,” she said before turning and heading toward the Myers property.

The four watched her until the night made her invisible. Then Amy said, “Did you guys notice that she had no shoes on her feet?”

“And on a cold night like tonight,” Vree said. She shivered and tightened the blanket around her. “It feels like it might snow.”

Dave stood and said, “Lenny, throw some more wood on the fire. I have to see a man about a horse.”

“Cute,” Amy said. “Water some weeds for me while you’re at it.”

Lenny sighed that the woodpile was at the far side of the barn and that he had to leave Vree’s side. Icy air latched onto him and left him shivering when he stepped from beneath the blanket and away from the fire.

He had taken eight steps toward the barn when Dave came quickly to him and pointed down at the Myers property.

“Look,” he said with a voice that was barely audible. Then it rose as he said, “Don’t you see it? It’s Ben Myers’s ghost!”

Lenny turned in time to see the glowing apparition of a man in a white shirt and dark pants walk through the Myers house’s burnt remains. Then the ghostly image wavered and disappeared.

“Tell me you saw that,” Dave said.

“Saw what?” Amy asked as she and Vree huddled beneath the blanket and peered out at them.

“Ben Myers’s ghost,” Dave said. “It was just there. Just like the dogs I saw earlier.”

As if cued by Dave’s words, Lenny heard dogs bark from the ruined house. He said, “When Myers’s dogs died, their spirits came back as hellhounds to guard the house from trespassers.”

“Another dumb tall tale,” Amy said to Vree.

“Dumb or not,” Lenny said, “I hear them barking.”

“I do, too,” Dave said.

“You do?” It was Vree who spoke. She flung away her end of the blanket, stood, and peered down the hillside. “Where are they? I want to see.”

A pack of nine dogs charged from the ruins and lined at the bottom of the hill, all of them glowing an aura of green light. Lenny went to Vree and stood at her side as the dogs looked up at them, snarling and baring teeth.

“I don’t see anything,” Vree said to Lenny.

“Because nothing’s there,” Amy said. She had stood and now peered down the hill, too.

But Lenny saw the dogs as clear as though they stood beneath a noon sun. There were white hounds with black and brown patches, some rough-coated terriers, and a brown Rottweiler that stood in the middle and slobbered white foam from its mouth.

“I see them,” Dave said as he joined his friends. “And they don’t look happy to see us.”

The Rottweiler growled low and guttural. And the red ember of fire in its eyes caused Dave to step backward.

“Let’s go inside the house,” he said. Then he said it again, louder, as the other dogs joined in. As the growls rose in both pitch and volume, Lenny agreed with Dave’s suggestion. He tugged at one of Vree’s arms and told her and Amy to follow Dave who had turned and now hurried past the barn, toward the house.

“But I don’t see or hear anything,” Vree said.

“Because there’s nothing’s down there.” Amy wrapped her blanket around Vree’s shoulders and said to Lenny, “We’re staying here and camping out tonight, even if it snows.”

The growls stopped.

Lenny looked down the hill and saw that three of the seven dogs had vanished, which included the Rottweiler.

“It isn’t snow I’d worry about,” he said, seconds before vicious barking came from the driveway.

“They’re after me,” Dave yelled as he ran from around the side of the barn and headed toward them. “Get in the tents. Hurry.”

In a puff of red smoke, the Rottweiler appeared in front of Dave, blocking the way.

Dave skidded to a stop and stared wildly at the dog. Then he bolted to his right and vanished into the field and darkness there.

Two hounds glowing green raced into view from around the side of the barn and charged after him.

The Rottweiler followed, almost flying across the ground as it too vanished in the dark.

“They’re heading toward Widow’s Ravine,” Lenny said. “We have to help—”

Just then, horrible howls from below the hill filled the air. Amy and Vree screamed as they stared down the hillside. The remaining dogs charged the hill.

“They’re real,” Amy said before she tore past Lenny, the blanket dropping to the ground. Vree followed, close at her heels.

Lenny looked once more at the hellish ghost dogs coming at him before he raced after the girls heading to Mr. Evans’s house, which was lit up inside and looked so safe and inviting.

“But what about Dave?” he called out.

The girls kept running, but he stopped. His best friend was being chased to a dangerous place with sinkholes and cliffs. He turned and hurried after Dave as the remaining hellhounds crested the hill and raced after him.

He plowed blindly into brambles and thorny weeds that slapped and poked and grabbed him, scratched his face and hands, and scarred his clothes and shoes.

The hellhounds closed their distance quickly. His drumming heart climbed into his throat when he realized he couldn’t outrun them. Still, he shielded his face with his arms as he pushed on.

The dangerous terrain looked foreign in the low-lit night, yet he followed the sound of the hellhounds ahead of him and thought only of Dave’s safety.

His inhales and exhales sounded like whimpers and moans when moonlight broke through the clouds and he burst through the confining brambles at a clearing atop a steep cliff of Myers Ridge.

Dave was there, at the edge but safe for the moment, doubled over and breathing hard. The hellhounds that had followed him had their heads lowered and their rear ends in the air like wolves that had just pinned their prey.

Lenny hurried and kicked at the Rottweiler’s backside, hoping to punt it over the cliff. Instead, his foot went through the apparition and he landed on his backside.

Quick to get up, he hurried to Dave’s side as the rest of the pack caught up and formed a line, boxing him and Dave at the edge of the cliff. The hellhounds glared with red eyes and growled with slobbering mouths. One of the hellhounds howled and Lenny lashed out at it, this time with words.

“Leave us alone.”

The Rottweiler growled and leaped at him. Its forepaws struck his chest and sent him stumbling backwards, his arms flailing. For a moment, it seemed that he had stabled his balance. Then the evil apparition barked sharply at him from where it had landed. Lenny flinched, lost his footing, and stumbled over the precipice of Widows Ravine.

He plummeted on his back one hundred feet through icy air to the icier waters of Myers Creek. When he entered the T of the tributary and creek, his aching throat released a yelp of surprise as the water enveloped him like a brutal winter blast.

He remembered then that he did not know how to swim.

He sank quickly into darkness until his backside struck the rocky creek bottom. He rested there a moment, dazed. Then he pushed off and struggled toward a sliver of moonlight barely rippling on the water’s surface far above him. His arms and legs felt encumbered by his heavy clothes. Worse, his lungs ached to release the little breath he held. He fought an intense, overwhelming urge to breathe deeply; he was only halfway to the surface when he knew that he could hold his breath no longer. He was going to drown.

He looked at the rippling moonlight and wished to see Vree one more time.

Just then, shimmering outstretched hands broke through the water’s surface and came for him. The nearest hand bore five black ruby rings, blistering from the gold of each ring. That hand grabbed the front of his jacket and pulled him from the depths of Myers Creek.

His lungs sucked in air and bits of water. He coughed and sputtered fitfully while Ademia managed to get him to shore. There, lying on his stomach, he vomited creek water and bits of chewed hotdog on the bank of Myers Creek until he caught his breath.

“Your friend David is safe,” Ademia said, helping him to stand. “I stopped the dogs from attacking. But I was too late to keep you from falling.”

Still weak and exhausted, he fell to the ground.

“Who are you?” he asked, looking up at her. He shivered wet and cold at her bare feet, and looked at her, puzzled. She was as dry as when she had sat at the fire earlier.

“I am someone you beckoned,” she said. “Now I ask the same of you, young man. Who are you?”

He paused and wondered what she meant. And while he wondered, he suddenly knew.

“You’re Cathleen Myers,” he said. He forced the words through a clenched mouth that trembled from the cold that burned at his bones. “And it’s true. Your husband … and his dogs … froze to death.”

She was quiet while she studied him with darkened eyes below a troubled scowl.

Finally, “I am the scorned wife who called forth an ancient, evil power from Myers Ridge,” she said. “A power that froze to death my unfaithful husband and cruelly cast me to my grave.”

At that moment, they heard Dave crying out Lenny’s name from atop the ridge. Lenny trembled too much to holler back. Ademia placed her hands atop his head and filled his body with warmth.

“Answer your friend,” she said; “you’re safe now.”

“Thank you,” he said to her. Then he called out and told Dave that he was okay. Dave told him to go to the bridge on Russell Road and to wait.

“I owe you my life,” he said to Ademia. The rubies of her rings began to glow, turning from dark to bright white light. She held her hands to her face.

“I am forgiven,” she said before the light from her rings engulfed her and she vanished.

Lenny stumbled upright. Ice water fell from his clothes but he was not cold. As he headed toward Russell Road, he wondered about his rescuer Ademia, the ancient power she had called from Myers Ridge, and whether he would see her again.

He would.

#

Bottom of the Seventh

I wrote this short story in 1974 when I was in high school and edited it 2000 when I published it at my website. In this story presented in 7 parts, love helps win a high school baseball game in the BOTTOM OF THE SEVENTH.

 

Now

 

MY NAME IS Tyler Lake. I’m a junior at Ridgewood High School. Today is the first Thursday in June and the last day of school. It is also the last regulation Varsity baseball game of the season.

It’s the bottom of the seventh inning, the last chance my team has of scoring two runs and winning this game. Coach Walker is reminding us of that as I peek into the bleachers behind our dugout. The pretty blonde-haired girl, Julie Sommers, sits in the third row. The evening sun seems to spark her hair and I see a halo of white around her from the dress she wears. I avoid making eye contact.

“Do you really see her?” my friend Derek Hampton says next to me in the dugout as I twist and crane my head to get a better look at her.

“I do,” I tell him, thankful he isn’t questioning my sanity.

I look away and try to focus on the game. Coach Walker’s pep talk is over and Danny Richards now watches the coach give him signals from the third base coach’s box. Coach Walker is a short, heavy man who always has a pipe clamped between his teeth. He smokes his cherry tobacco only when our games are over. Never before and certainly never during our games. He’s superstitious that way.

I steal another glance at Julie and shiver while Danny approaches the batter’s box at home plate.

 

 

Then

 

“I HAD MY first chance to kiss her when we were in seventh grade,” I said to Derek in the lunchroom at school almost a month ago, “Remember? It was three days before Halloween at my snooty cousin Lisa’s house, during a party for her fourteenth birthday.”

Derek and I sat across from each other, avoided eye contact, and kept our voices low. I reminded him how my Aunt Debbie had invited the neighborhood boys and girls over for cake and ice cream. Aunt Debbie was always generous to us kids, so it wasn’t unusual to see twenty or thirty of us hanging around. And, she had a heated in-ground indoor swimming pool unlike the rest of us with above-ground outdoor pools, so it was possible to swim yearlong there. I loved to swim but couldn’t stand my cousin, so I wasn’t complaining too loudly when I was late for the party because my mom’s fIx-or-repair-daily automobile blew a back tire.

When we arrived, I tossed Lisa her present along with the card my mom bought and made me sign, gobbled down a big bowl of strawberry ice cream topped with chocolate syrup, and practically flew to the pool. There were almost twenty kids in there when I cannon-balled into their midst. I maneuvered around other kids and swam until I came to a circle of six girls playing Blind Man’s Bluff. They were classmates from school, and they surrounded another girl wearing a white bikini and a red neckerchief blindfold. She tried tagging one of the girls who crouched low, while the others snuck up and yelled “Boo.” I watched as the stunning “blind man” waded through waist-high water toward me.

A beach ball bounced off the back of my head and I turned partway around to see Derek and some of my other friends laughing. Just then, the “blind man” stumbled into me, fell, and accidentally pulled down the back of my trunks. I squirmed around to haul them back up as the two of us went underwater. My legs tangled with hers and for a moment her body was on mine and had me pinned to the pool floor, her stomach pressed into mine. When we stopped struggling, she and I floated into a gentle embrace. Then she took off the blindfold. It was Julie Sommers. Our faces were inches apart and I wanted to kiss her. But she disappeared from view and a strong arm pulled me up. Uncle John and Cousin Paul brought us to our feet and asked if we were okay. Julie said “yes” and I mumbled an affirmative. Julie returned to her game and I sat on the sidelines and daydreamed about what-ifs.

“You should have kissed her right then and there,” Derek told me that day in the lunchroom.

He was right.

 

 

Now

 

THE FANS IN in the rickety metal and wood bleachers behind me jump to their feet as Danny laces a hit over the second baseman’s head. The spectators on the Franklin High School’s side of the diamond moan at first, and then shout encouragement to their pitcher. The Franklin Yellow Jackets players do the same.

I glance again at Julie and forget about the game happening in front of me. I think of the past month when it became hard for me to stay focused on anything for long. It was when my grades took a turn for the worse, when my hitting slump started, when—

Players dodge and dive around me and bring me out of my reverie.

“Fire in the hole,” someone shouts as the foul ball skirts past me and ricochets off the bench, and then sails back onto the field. I sneak another glance at Julie. Her face and hair glow more luxurious as the evening sun reddens toward the horizon.

Never have I seen such beauty. I am stricken.

 

 

Then

 

IT WAS LESS than three months ago when I finally became less petrified talking to girls and asked Julie Sommers on a date. I tried so hard not to act like a jerk that I wound up acting like a jerk.

We met for pizza at the local pizza shop. We sat at a window seat with Derek and his girlfriend where the evening sun glowed against Julie’s perfect skin. She was like an artist’s finest creation. To be in her presence made me a nervous wreck. I tried to lighten my jitters by telling jokes, but I was late with some of the punch lines, and forgot them altogether and had to start over. The best I could do was fill my mouth with pizza and be quiet, but I even failed at that. Derek had to hammer me on the back to dislodge the pepperoni wedged against my windpipe.

When my breathing became regular again (although looking at Julie made inhaling difficult). I ended our date by reaching for a napkin and knocking over my cola, spilling it into the lap of Julie’s pretty dress.

After that horrible event, I entered a funk and spent some time at a safe distance, dreaming of Julie and achieving the perfect date with her.

Our next date went well. She came to a baseball game, I hit a home run, and I gave her the ball after the game. She kissed me on the cheek and made me forget my name for a moment.

“It was the perfect hit,” I said when mind returned to reality. “It’s such a wonderful feeling when a batter connects with the ball and hits the perfect hit.”

“What’s the perfect hit feel like?” she asked.

“The ball feels soft against the bat. Sometimes there is barely a feeling at all.”

“How soft? Like hitting butter?”

Yes. Like hitting butter. She was perfect.

 

 

Now

 

DEREK POKES ME in the ribs with a bony elbow and tells me I’m on deck. I seem to float from my seat and up the steps. In foul territory, I almost hover above the on-deck circle where I swing a weighted bat, all the while dreaming of hitting another home run for beautiful Julie Sommers.

I put on a batter’s helmet and observe the scoreboard telling me there are two outs. I wonder if Petey Wilson will be the final out, but he answers my question by placing a hot bouncing double between left field and center field. However, the center fielder is quick to catch up with the ball and throw it to his shortstop, thereby keeping Danny Richards from rounding third base and scoring the tying run.

The Yellow Jackets’ coach calls for a pitcher change and Coach Walker is at my side giving me a gut wrenching pep talk.

“Forget about those last two strikeouts,” he says, which causes those last two strikeouts to loom large in my mind. “Just get a hit, Tyler. Just get a hit.”

I steal a glance at Julie. Coach Walker tells me to get the crowd out of my mind, but their excitement fills my head and their noise drowns out Coach’s words. He places a beefy hand on my thin shoulder and his touch brings the sight of him back in focus.

“You can do this, Tyler. All you need to do is empty your mind of everything around you and focus only on the ball. Can you do that?”

I nod and wonder if I can forget about the anxiety dancing across my back.

Coach Walker puts an arm around my shoulders. “Imagine yourself hitting the ball … connecting,” he says.

My mind is searching. I know what he means. Whenever I connect with the ball, it feels soft against the bat. Sometimes there is barely a feeling at all, like—

“Like hitting butter,” I cry out.

“Sure. Butter. Why not?” He smiles. “Now you go to that plate and you imagine you’re going to hit a stick of butter. See it in your mind. When that pitcher throws the ball, it’s nothing but a stick of butter.”

 

 

Then

 

“A LOAF OF bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter!”

Derek and I laughed at my mom’s shopping list for bread, milk and butter as we walked beneath the gentle May sun to the grocery store. We had my eight-year-old brother with us, and the three of us sang again the segment from television’s Sesame Street.

“A loaf of bread… a container of milk… and a stick of butter!”

We carried on, two high school eleventh graders and a third grader sharing a wonderful moment together. Then Derek and I got into a serious conversation about school and classes and girlfriends.

“Julie and I have a date to the movies Friday night,” I told him. I’m sure my face beamed as bright as the high beams on headlights as we made plans to double date.

When we left the store, an ambulance screamed past us toward the hospital as we came to an accident scene three stores down. While we waited for the police to let us cross the street, someone—an elderly woman—told us a car had run a red light and hit another car broadside. The driver from the second car was okay, she said. However, a passenger in the car was in critical condition.

We stared at the dented cars and broken glass on the street. I’m sure I prayed for the injured passenger. Derek and I even reflected on our own mortality. It frightened me to think someday I would die and never play baseball again. When my little brother began to cry, we detoured the scene and took the long way home. The accident was soon out of mind.

“A loaf of bread,” Derek sang out.

“A container of milk,” sang my brother. He looked up at me and waited for me to finish.

 

 

Now

 

“A STICK OF butter,” I say.

“Whatever it takes.” Coach Walker nods and returns to his spot next to third base. I watch the pitcher throw bullets to his catcher until the home plate umpire tells him he’s thrown enough. The umpire beckons me to enter the batter’s box. A Yellow Jackets’ fan demands that the pitcher strike me out. My teammates plead for me to get a hit. Coach Walker gives me the take sign and then swings his arms to try to fool the other team into thinking I’m hitting away. My self-assurance teeters; my boosted spirit descends for a moment. I dig my cleats into the dirt anyway and swing my bat menacingly at the pitcher. He responds with a nod to his catcher, mimics a professional pitcher’s windup, and blows a letter high fastball past me.

“Stee-rike one!” the umpire bellows.

I try to shut out the voices around me as the catcher taunts me with “No batter no batter no batter.”

Coach Walker gives me the swing away sign.

This time I shut out the crowd until I only hear the sound of my heart thumping in my ears. I lace the next fastball pitch behind Coach Andrews standing foul of first base.

The umpire’s voice is far away. “Foul ball,” he says.

Coach Andrews gives me a nod and raises his thumbs. Coach Walker gives me another sign to swing away. I dig in at the plate and want to rip the cover off the ball if I should I hit it. I look at a fastball just below my kneecaps.

I stare at another swing-away sign, dig in, and see another low fastball.

After the same sign and a high fastball for a full count, Coach Walker calls time and hurries to my side. I meet him halfway. “Butter pitch,” he says.

I gulp and nod and enter the batter’s box with wobbly legs. Beyond the pitcher, Petey Wilson is dancing at second base. Over at third, Danny Walker is taking a big lead. The pitcher is eyeballing Danny as the third baseman leans toward third base and the second baseman charges second base. Nothing happens, so I step out of the batter’s box and sniff at the dust in the air while my heart rate decreases. Danny and Petey return to their bases until I step back into the batter’s box. Then the dances and my racing heart start again.

The pitcher nods to his catcher, mimics a professional pitcher’s windup one more time, and sends the ball my way. I’m afraid to swing!

“Hit the ball!” Julie’s voice breaks the barrier. It seems like she is standing behind me, reaching around me and grabbing my wrists, forcing me to swing at the pitch.

And she is.

I feel her embrace, smell her rosy perfume, and hear and feel the clunk of the baseball as it strikes a thin section of the ash bat directly above my right fist. The ball shoots high above the infield. It’s a pop up heading between the third baseman and the shortstop, sending them into the outfield grass.

With my shoulders slumped in defeat and my face pasted with disappointment, I lope to first base and never see the third baseman and shortstop collide or the ball fall safely to the ground. When I reach the bag and kick it, I hear cheers come from our side of the field. Looking across the diamond, I see Petey Wilson on the heels of Danny Walker. The two of them race toward home. The right fielder fumbles the ball that got away from the other fielders, and Danny and Petey score the tying and winning runs.

Our dugout and bleachers erupt with whoops and shouts and boisterous cheers. Coach Andrews hugs me and slaps my back. “Luck be a lady tonight,” he says. As we leave the field, Coach Walker hands me the game ball. “It wasn’t the prettiest of hits,” he says, “But it got the job done.”

My teammates mob me and a few of them remind me how lucky we were to win.

“An error is an error and two runs scored,” Coach Walker says as he fills his pipe and lights it. He parades us to the infield where we congratulate the other team with handshakes and hand slaps. When we return to the dugout, I see Julie leaving the bleachers with the rest of the crowd. Suddenly, I don’t care what others may think of me. I know I want to talk to her before she goes, so I run to her. Somewhere inside the mass of bodies, I lose her for a moment. Then I see her through the shifting mass. Her head turns and our gazes meet before she disappears again. A beefy hand touches my shoulder and a waft of cherry scented smoke warms my nose.

“That’s one pitch I would have tried harder to connect with,” Coach Walker says.

I nod. “I’ve missed a lot of good pitches,” I say.

I return to the dugout and retrieve my baseball glove. Derek and I walk down the left field foul line, following the others to the parking lot. Inside his car, I tell him what happened while he drives away from the school, past the football field, and toward the sun sinking to the gentle hills of Ridgewood Cemetery.

Derek stops and I get out. The cast shadows of daylight cover me. I say another prayer for the passenger who the ambulance rushed to the hospital a month ago. At a large and pink marble headstone, I place the game ball on her grave. A breeze stirs through the trees of Ridgewood Cemetery and I embrace its warmth. Julie whispers in an ear, “It didn’t feel like hitting butter.”

I laugh and share her warmth, and the two of us talk—boy and girl, mortal and spirit—until, in the final moments of twilight, a cooler breeze stirs through the trees of the cemetery and I embrace Julie’s love one last time.

#

The Trespasser

FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD Vree Erickson finished mowing the lawn an hour before the Pennsylvania weather forecasters’ predictions of heavy evening snowfall for Ridgewood began. Satisfied with her achievement, she drove the mower to her father’s shed, then dismounted and propped open its double doors, unaware of the magma that exploded one hundred miles beneath her. The explosion slammed superheated carbon toward the earth’s surface at supersonic speed, shoving tons of carbonic graphite into the deep bowels of the ridge she stood on. The limestone remnant created by an ice age more than ten thousand years ago shook, and portions of Myers Ridge splintered and opened, including the spot where Vree stood. She scrambled to climb from the ground falling with her, but the hole beneath her feet swallowed her and her grandfather’s riding mower.

Her landing was softer than she expected despite the rock and stone she fell on. The John Deere’s landing, however, sounded worse. From skylight filtering through the eye of the hole, she could make out the crumpled edges of the overturned mower a few feet away. She smelled gasoline fumes mixing with the cool, earthy air, and knew that rock had punctured the gas tank.

On her backside twenty feet below her grandparents’ backyard, she shivered and rubbed her arms through her jacket. A miserable wet chill penetrated her clothes and stabbed her skin like a thousand icy knives. She looked around and saw a boxy chamber of stone—a cave no bigger than her bedroom. As she sat up, dim green light from a long protrusion of crystal next to her right leg caught her attention.

The crystal rose diagonally almost fifteen inches from the floor and was nearly six inches in diameter. When she took hold of its smooth and angled sides, the crystal brightened and warmed her palms. She pulled herself closer, wrapped her arms around it, and let its heat and blazing emerald light consume her until she felt her backside stop throbbing and the chill inside her leave.

She marveled at the crystal’s heat, tried to recall if all crystals produced heat, and then wondered how she was going to get out. No one was home to rescue her; her mother had gone shopping in town and her grandparents and siblings were picking out Thanksgiving turkeys at a farm on the other end of the ridge. And now, the gray sky began to unleash a chilly rain that would eventually turn to snow. The thought of dying of hypothermia left her trembling. She hugged the crystal and wished she could magically fly from the hole.

As she pressed her forehead against the crystal and told herself she would be okay, that someone would rescue her as soon as they got home, the ground shook again.

Tumbling sod from above fell around her as the sinkhole widened. Then the cave floor collapsed and sent her deeper into Myers Ridge. She screamed moments before she landed face down on sod and rubble; a blanket of straggling stone followed and covered her until the second quake stopped. Stunned and dazed, she rested inside her burial mound, the crystal still glowing and in her embrace. Then, coming to her senses, she rose to her hands and knees and pushed away the rocks and dirt and tried to stand, but her lower back felt sprained from the hard landing. She felt battered and bruised, and blood oozed from cuts on the backs of her hands, but none of her injuries seemed life threatening.

Icy air crawled inside her clothes and icier rain fell on her face from where the dismal skylight revealed a larger underground chamber, perhaps forty feet from the top; she prayed there were tunnels to lead her back to the surface.

The rain increased and the skylight almost vanished. She looked down, saw a shimmer of green light in the rubble in front of her, then rescued the crystal and cradled it in her arms until it blazed again and its heat warmed her and stopped the pain in her back. Then she used the rock’s green light as a beacon to look for a way out.

Away from where the topside earth had fallen into the cavern, rainwater streamed across a granite floor and filled centuries-old furrows, turning them into rivulets where the floor sloped down. She followed the largest rivulet for several minutes to a narrow passage. There, the rivulet became the passageway’s floor, so she sloshed cautiously along, keeping her footing until the floor steepened and angled down almost forty-five degrees. She thought about turning around and looking for another way out, then considered she had to be close to an exit, and continued.

As soon as she stepped on the angled floor, gravity yanked her feet from under her. Like a hapless rider on an amusement park’s waterslide, she plummeted along the slippery floor until the hill’s interior ejected her and the rainwater.

The cliffs of Myers Ridge rushed past her and upwards as she followed the rain down. Her sudden entry into bristly treetops along the bank of Myers Creek sounded like gunshots as boughs of pine broke against her tumbling body.

When the fall ended, she lay on her back on a mattress of pine needles, catching her breath. When she tried to sit up, her lower back screamed with pain again, so she used pine branches overhead to help pull her to a seated position.

Lightning flashed and the sky opened. Through the downpour, she saw the green crystal glowing brightly on the ground ten yards away. She shielded her eyes and looked away when the crystal became too bright. Its heat came to her like wildfire then, entered her clothes and dried her, mended her bones and took away the pain, and filled her mind with new purpose. She stood—a slim figure suddenly strong inside a burning array of emerald light—and locked her mind on a familiar’s thoughts miles away.

 

AT A NEAR near-empty Walmart parking lot in Ridgewood, a heavy man leered across the passenger seat of a white Impala and out a partially open window. A middle-aged woman bundled in black imitation fur slid from a silver SUV’s driver’s seat and dropped onto the black pavement. She wore her auburn hair in a pixie style and was dressed in blue jeans and black pumps. She opened a yellow umbrella, looked up at the dark, galling sky, and held up a hand as though trying to catch raindrops. Then she reached far inside the van for a black purse before she hurried across the sparsely lighted lot and entered the store.

The man heard no blip from the automatic door lock on her keychain or the horn honk and lights flash to tell him she had locked the doors. He waited a moment, then wiped away fingerprints with a rag from under the seat before he squeezed his large body from behind the steering wheel and wiped away prints from the door. Then, as he crossed behind the Sorento, he looked at the vehicle in contempt.

“Honor this,” he said as he raised a middle finger at the MY CHILD IS AN HONOR STUDENT bumper sticker.

He opened the side door and climbed in on all fours.

The roomy rear interior contained two rows of seats. A magazine titled Elle Decor, some paperback books, and a box of glitter crayons littered the first seat. A day planner had fallen behind the passenger seat. He opened the notebook.

“Karrie Erickson,” he said, reading the name of the book’s owner. “A school teacher.” He smiled, looking pleased. “I got something for ya, teacher, but it ain’t no apple.”

He flipped away the planner, closed the door, and hunkered on the floor of the back row seat. He snatched a crumpled bag from McDonalds beneath the seat in front of him and ate some old fries.

Drippings of sweat pooled across his forehead and mixed with the rain there. He undid the top three buttons of his flannel jacket before he wiped his fat face with his sleeves. He was a short, floppy man with graying hair that seemed to explode from his head. He had a mocking thick-lipped face that appeared angry from behind pudgy grease-stained fingers always lurking there. And his bulbous brown eyes—not so much looking as unable to relax—were forever in motion.

After many minutes, Karrie Erickson returned to her vehicle, got in, tossed two plastic bags on the passenger seat and started the ignition. A pleasant tone from the dashboard reminded her to buckle up. She jabbed at the radio and a lamenting song about lost love encircled her and the mostly concealed intruder behind her.

Large wipers slapped across a panoramic windshield in tune to the music as she put the Sorento in gear and drove away from the stolen Impala that had lost its shine somewhere in Ohio and was now showing rust around the wheel wells. Even the chrome that its dead owner had once been proud of had turned dull.

Karrie drove to the nearly deserted main street and headed south away from downtown Ridgewood, back toward Alice Lake and the road to Myers Ridge. Along the way, she increased the volume of a favorite song.

After they had gone about a half mile, the man crawled to behind Karrie’s seat, took a black Smith & Wesson M&P from the belt holster of his sagging blue jeans, and pressed the pistol against the back of her neck. She jumped and the man grinned at the sudden intake of air as she gasped.

“Pull over, Karrie,” he said. “Pull over or I’m gonna blow your brains out.”

“Who…” She trembled and no longer looked at the road. She had turned in her seat, looking over her shoulder at him. “Who are you?

“Turn around and pull over,” the man hissed.

She turned around and stared instead in the rearview mirror, trying to see the man’s face behind her. The SUV was on the wrong side of the two-lane highway.

“Pull over!” The man shoved the barrel of the pistol against the base of her skull. She cut the wheel sharply to the right and drove the Sorento hard onto the berm. He ordered her to park at the roadside and to leave the engine running. When she did, he grabbed her purse and bags from the passenger seat and ordered her to the vacant seat.

“Buckle up good and tight,” he grumbled at her when she crossed over to the passenger seat. Then, keeping the gun aimed at her head with his right hand and holding her purse and bags with his left, he climbed to the driver’s seat. It was a difficult maneuver because of his size.

Karrie remained buckled to her seat, trembling.

“Thanks for not trying to get away,” the man said and settled behind the steering wheel. “Nothing I hate more than shooting someone before I’ve had the chance to know them better.”

As he adjusted the seat to his liking, Karrie rattled out several questions in a raspy voice: “Why are you doing this? What do you want? How do you know my name?” She began to bawl.

He took her cell phone from her purse and tossed it out the window. It clattered on pavement and landed in a large puddle. He kissed the wet air before he rolled up the window.

“I have money,” Karrie said. “Please … just take my money and leave me alone.”

The man threw the purse and bag at her. They landed in her lap.

“Get comfy,” he said and pulled the SUV back onto the road. They hadn’t gone far when Karrie began to hiccup.

“Please … pull over,” she said. “I’m … going to throw up.”

“Forget about it. If you’re gonna hurl, Karrie, you’ll have to hurl in your lap. I ain’t stopping.”

She pressed the button to roll down her window.

“Roll that window back up or I’m gonna shoot you where you sit. Now! And turn off that damn music! Stuff makes a person insane.” The pistol cracked to life, thunderous and disquieting as he fired a .40 caliber slug that tore through the Sorento’s roof.

Karrie leaped to obey his orders. While she did so, he attacked the automatic door lock on the door panel and locked the two of them inside. Then he smiled big yellow dentures that appeared sinister and green from the dashboard’s electronic lights. “I bet those hiccups are gone now.”

Her question came on a whisper, “Where are you taking me?”

“You just get comfy and enjoy the ride, honey,” he said. He picked his fat nose and drove past Alice Lake, heading deep into the woods south of Ridgewood. The rain stopped and that made him grin again. After the rape, he planned to drive all night and be in Virginia by morning, long before those roly-poly Ridgewood donut eaters or the PA patrol boys started their searches for Karrie’s missing body and vehicle. By then, she would be long dead like the others, her body deep in some mountain woods in northern Maryland.

That was the plan and it made him giddy. He almost giggled until shimmering green light appeared ahead and a human figure inside the light stood in the middle of the road.

The man pulled Karrie’s SUV to the left lane, punched the gas pedal, and plowed into the light as the figure stepped in front of him. Karrie screamed as green light exploded around them.

The engine stalled. The man threw the gearshift into neutral and tried to restart the engine, but it squawked in protest. He coasted the SUV to the side of the road and pressed the pistol against Karrie’s skull as the figure approached the passenger door.

“I’ll blow her brains out,” he shouted when Karrie’s locked door opened.

“You’ll do no such thing,” the figure said.

The pistol jammed and Karrie struggled from her seatbelt. She fell freely into Vree’s waiting arms. When she recognized her daughter, she cried out. “Vree. What are you doing here. That light—”

“There’s a house a quarter-mile up the road,” Vree said. “Call the police.” She touched her mother’s forehead and Karrie’s expression calmed. “You won’t remember seeing me.”

Karrie looked hypnotized as she left the SUV and walked casually along the berm of the road, oblivious to the rain drenching her.

Vree hurried to Karrie’s seat. She was untouched by the rain, and a halo of green light shimmered around her as she turned to face the trembling man. A more trembling hand pointed the Smith & Wesson at her.

“Are you going on another joyride to Virginia?” Vree asked. “Or are you going to Florida like last year? Biscayne Bay wasn’t it?”

“How … how?” The man shielded his eyes from Vree’s brightness with his left hand. Then, trying to sound tough, he said, “Who are you? You’re just a girl. What d’you want from me?”

“Where’d you get the gun?” Vree asked. “And don’t lie to me.”

“It’s mine.”

“That’s a police officer’s weapon. It was stolen five years ago from the Ridgewood Police Department.”

The man choked out a denial.

“It belongs to a missing police officer named Rita Malloy,” Vree said. “Remember her?”

The man shook his head. He pressed his back against the door. His left hand searched for the door handle behind him.

Vree scowled at him. “Were you gonna shoot me with Rita’s gun?”

The man shook his head again and managed to utter a whispery uh-uh.

“You were gonna shoot Karrie. After you raped her.”

“I-I … no.”

“Are you sure?”

The man stretched his right arm at Vree, aimed the pistol at her glowing face, and squeezed the trigger. Again, the pistol jammed.

He slumped in his seat.

Vree reached out and effortlessly took the gun from him.

“Isn’t that why you kidnapped Karrie tonight?” she asked. “Weren’t you planning to rape and kill her like the other women?”

The man’s voice sounded weak as he denied it.

“But you were. I know you were. Let me show you how you were gonna do it.”

The windshield lit up like a TV screen and showed fractured moonlight streaming past bare tree branches inside a clearing surrounded by dark woods. There, Karrie’s Sorento was parked in the clearing and facing them. The driver’s door opened and the man stumbled out. He hurried to the passenger door and pulled a semi-conscious Karrie out.

As they watched, Vree said, “You know those pictures of sad clowns and homeless puppies and starving children? That’s how Karrie looks there. It’s in her eyes, just like the others. Just like Rita’s when she begged you for her life.”

“No,” the man next to her said. “Stop this. I don’t wanna see no more.”

“Are you gonna vomit? If so, hurl in your lap. I ain’t stopping.”

When the man in the windshield finished raping Karrie, he collapsed on her and rested for a minute, then rolled away from her body that now looked lifeless next to his. His great stomach heaved as he caught his breath. Then he sat up, wheezed, pushed himself to his knees, wheezed some more, and stood and staggered toward the van while zipping his pants.

“Watch this,” Vree said as Karrie’s left arm moved. The woman’s fingers wrapped around a dark object. Then she rolled on her left side and fired the fallen Smith & Wesson until the man dropped to his knees, wheezed deep and hard, and fell backwards and stopped breathing. The windshield went dark.

“She would have killed you in those woods. But I’m not gonna let that happen,” Vree said.

The man turned and cast a bewildered gaze at her. “You’re not?”

“No.” Vree opened the door. “Someone wants to see you.”

She stepped out and another glow entered and took her seat. This glow was ghostly white, and the figure was a young woman wearing a black sweatshirt with Ridgewood Police lettered across the front. Sadness edged the woman’s pale blue eyes framed by ragged and dirty hair that had once been short and strawberry blonde.

“I’m Rita Malloy,” the ghost’s papery voice hissed, although her pallid face remained calm while she addressed the man. “You kidnapped me one night in my driveway five years ago when I was leaving to go to work. I never made it to the station because you raped me at knifepoint and then stabbed me in the stomach when you were through. But I was slow to die, so you shot me with my weapon and left my corpse for the wild dogs and coyotes. My remains have never been found.”

The man looked at Rita’s pistol pointed at him. He pulled at his door handle and pushed his left shoulder against the door. It didn’t open. He closed his eyes.

“You took my money,” Rita said, “went to Atlantic City and won nine hundred and seventy-five dollars with it. Then you bought some hookers and killed them too.”

The man covered his ears. “No, no, no,” he said.

“You’ll never hurt anyone again.” Rita shoved her pistol’s barrel against his temple. The gun did not jam.

 

A HALF-HOUR later, Pennsylvania State Police officers found the man’s body in the driver’s seat of Karrie Erickson’s SUV. Rita Malloy’s government-issued pistol was in his right hand, his index finger on the trigger. On the dashboard, they found a crudely sketched map in glitter crayon on a McDonalds’ greasy paper napkin spattered with blood and showing them the locations of Rita’s body and the other women he had killed.

At the bottom of the map, they read these words: For my crimes, I don’t deserve to live.

A police officer drove Karrie home while a crime scene unit came to investigate the SUV. No one saw Vree hiding and watching from the woods. Moments later, she vanished, carried through space by the green light.

At the banks of Myers Creek, the green light around Vree faded. She stumbled away from where the crystal lay and stared at it for several minutes. She almost reasoned that she had imagined saving her mother from the hands of a rapist and killer. But that would be denying the truth … albeit, the weird truth. Weird things had happened to her before, and she was certain they would continue.

#

Oddities

 

Dead Rabbits Don’t Run

I SMELL IT again. Past hemlock and below hill the aroma is coming from man’s wooden lodge, drifting to me on smoke from most powerful and burning my nose with the fragrance of the blood of my sins. Although my eyes are closed, I know that if they were open I would still see the tormenting image of man eating his bloodless rabbit meal: chewing, always chewing; licking fingers clean; sucking bare every tawny bone; he will leave no bloodless meat behind. Before he sleeps tonight, he will bury bones into ground behind his lodge near where I committed my first crime. If I could move, I would run to there now and commit one last sin by digging up bones and feasting on marrow for the remainder of my short, pathetic life.

It was there that I lost my dignity by giving in to temptation. After seeing man bury rabbit bones in ground behind his lodge, I waited until just before the new day to dig them up. I wisely returned all ground before feasting under hemlock. I have returned often since then, alone, always alone, and becoming less and less of a hunter.

When man left his lodge for two summers, his woman replaced him. She did not bury rabbit bones. Instead, she threw bones with bloodless meat into high grass where it was quickly consumed by my large and stealthy body. Although the bloodless meat was dry and chewy, it had a rich flavor that was addictive. I became a scavenger and stopped hunting my meals.

If my sons should find me here, dead and broken, will they uncover the follies of a foolish old laggard who spent his final days chasing dead rabbits? Or will the hemlock hide my body as I rot away, and will my death erase all evidence of my foolish ways?

Did I cry just now or was it the hungry wail of my empty stomach?

There is a tear in my eye. No. It is snow melting and running like tears. Snow assaults my eyes like large white gnats trying to blind me of the images from the past that haunt my tortured mind and torment my conceited soul. Is this my salvation? Regret is my pardon! Is there no limit to my delusion?

Rabbits are near. The elder towers above me and looks with his laughing eyes upon my broken body. He mocks my anguish. He knows I am dying and he sneers at my torment with his taunting round face. White and smiling, always smiling, the great white rabbit runs across the sky, mocking my ruin. He has traveled quickly to pull the blanket of night over me. He is right to laugh at me, to taunt me of my predicament. I would chase him away if I could move. His children made me strong and my strength made me a leader. Now I am helpless, waiting to return to ground. I wonder if my bones will make a good meal. Or maybe man will use them instead. I’m sure my teeth would make a beautiful necklace.

Cold bites deep into my wounds. I have not lived the length of time it has taken me to survive this day. Did I cry just now, or was it the sound of my empty stomach?

I smell deer … and rabbit nearby. Man cooks the meat of their families tonight. I smell it in the smoke coming from the cabins. They will bury some of the bones in their yards, just as they do every day. That is why I stopped being a hunter. When the rabbits became too fast for me, man made it easy for me to become lazy. I robbed from their graveyards and dined on the old, cold bones of the dead.

Did I cry again? Or is the rabbit elder laughing with the stars. How many of them are dead, yet living to shine on me still? When I rise without a shadow, I think I will dig up their bones and chew on their marrow for days to satisfy my hunger. And when my strength renews itself, I shall once again be a strong and mighty hunter. I shall…

I have never been aware of death until this very hour when I have looked upon my birthplace and my gravesite with the same eyes. When I was young, I never thought about death. It either came swiftly and nobly to a warrior fighting bravely for his prince, or slowly and with pride, honoring grand old champions. But my death mocks me and threatens to leave me remembered as a fool, one that chose to live near man. It would be best for my family to forget me, allow me to become nothing, not even a memory.

Time … season … night … is late. It marches onward, never slowing, never stopping. Or does it? Has it not slowed for me tonight and made me live an eternity? Will it finally stop when I take my last breath? Or will time and I continue somewhere else, with me in some conscious form still subject to the rules of nature?

Is this daylight, or am I dreaming? I thought I saw dead rabbits running through the summer grass. It must surely be a dream. Dead rabbits don’t run. They can’t.

Or can they?

#

In the Wake of Annihilating Kings

THE BANQUET HALL was large and windowless, which, as banquet buildings go in the land of Nortepius, north of Ridgewood, was simple in design and customarily uncared-for. The dark and damp interior was carpeted throughout in fungus. A single candle, nearly spent and lumped upon a mountain of wax vaguely encasing an ancient gold candelabrum, lighted its dreary center. Suspended by dry, twisted hemp sooty and black, the waxy mountain sprouted long spidery arms of wax that descended and attached themselves to the top of a long rectangular oak table. Faint yellow light flickered as the candle flame threatened to extinguish itself. A groan came from a dark figure scaling the northern side of the waxy wattle. He had a new candlestick clenched between his teeth and he was exerting his unpracticed body to reach the dimming flame in time.

“Sulliac!” King Mimalaus called out from his dirty brown throwdown. “Don’t bite that one in half. The blue ones taste ugly.”

Sulliac the Loyal grunted in agreement and continued climbing.

“You incipient vacillator,” a shadowy figure chided from the northwest corner of the room; “The entire world knows that the blue ones are an acquired taste of the sophisticated and dexterous. Why, with just a pinch of yellow yeast glob a blue becomes the finest meal man will ever consume.”

His nasally voice echoed throughout the hall. Then a long, low belch sounded from the king’s area. This was King Mimalaus’s sound of disapproval and it made the winded Sulliac the Loyal smile as he finally reached the small and flickering candle.

“Put that in one of your pictures, Couchiniti,” the king grumbled. “If you can find the right color.”

Then a quick booming belch from the king marked an end to the conversation. After all, Couchiniti was renowned for his lengthy rhetorical rambling and the king was in no mood to be subjected to such torture. This was to be a day of respect in Nortepius and he was looking forward to the arrival of new fleece throwdowns.

The dining hall grew larger as Sulliac the Loyal lit the new candle and placed it at the top of the wax-heap. From his perch, he could see the tall and frail Couchiniti biting his right forearm. Couchiniti did this whenever halted from giving the hall a verbal round of his antiquated conjecture.

Seeing the sulking crafter suckling on his arm made Sulliac the Loyal hungry, so he stuck his fingers in his mouth and licked at the rhizopus that had accumulated from his ascent of the waxy wattle.

Hearing the sucking and slurping made the king hungry too, so he began cleaning between his toes. The three snacking statesmen did not hear the low rumbling outside, nor were they able to see the blinding white light that blanketed the countryside. Hot winds blew at the walls of the dining hall as trees and small buildings were swept away. Another rumble followed as the ground began to shake.

“Another quake!” the ever-observant king shouted as the hall began shaking. “Let’s celebrate!”

The vibrating building knocked Sulliac the Loyal from his perch and he fell hard onto the table below. Luckily, he fell feet first and was able to cushion the impact with his legs.

Couchiniti’s easels fell over and palettes of paint and brushes were knocked to the dirty marble floor. A large clay bust of Couchiniti fell from its podium and shattered. Couchiniti grabbed up his paintings while the king danced at the base of his throne. Then it was over.

In unison, the three men sat down on their tattered throwdowns and laughed. They laughed for many minutes as tears welled and flowed from their eyes. The king’s sides began to hurt, but he kept laughing. He was happy for the extra light and warmth that had crept into the hall. Moreover, he was ever so grateful that the ugly bust of Couchiniti was ruined.

“Our new throwdowns should be here by nightfall,” he cried. “I can’t wait.”

“Hear, hear, O Great King,” Sulliac the Loyal sang. “Hear, hear, O Great King.”

#

A Child’s Tale of Learning

A YOUNG BOY in Ridgewood discovered a question. It was awkward and new and he didn’t know what to do with it, so he gave it to his mother. She gently took it and with her son, looked at it in the yellow rays of the summer sunlight. Then she handed him an answer. It fit perfectly in his little hands and made him warm and happy. He found more questions in many sizes, all too many for him to carry at once, so he took what he could to his mother; she replaced each one with a perfect-fitting answer.

At the elementary school, he found many more questions and, like at home, he carried what he could to his teachers. Some gave him answers that fit well in his hands, but other teachers gave him questions—BIG questions—in return for his questions. As he grew older, the questions his teachers gave him increased in size and quantity until eventually he became overly burdened and tired from receiving their questions in return for his.

He took some of their questions home and his mother was able to give him well-fitting answers for them. But as their questions grew bigger, so did her answers until they became too big for his hands. On his way to school, he often dropped and broke the big answers and had nothing to give his teachers, except tiny answers that didn’t fit their big questions. They scolded him for mishandling his answers until he finally stopped giving them any answers at all. He even kept his questions to himself.

His mother became concerned that he wasn’t bringing home any more questions, and at school his teachers were concerned because he had stopped giving them answers.

“I don’t want to give you answers,” the boy said. “I want you to give them to me.”

His teachers said he was being selfish. “Students must give proper answers in return of our questions, not vice versa.”

“But you only want answers that fit right to your questions,” he said. “I can only give you answers that fit right in my hands. Anything more is too much to carry.”

His teachers merely looked at each other in dismay and gave him more questions. Big questions. Heavy questions. They told him to look in libraries for answers; they said to search in universities, too. But the libraries were crowded and the universities too far away, so he lugged around their questions and tried to find answers elsewhere. However, everywhere he looked was void of the right-sized answers. Along the way, he dropped and broke them. Eventually, he gave his teachers his leftover answers, which they returned unaccepted. Too small, they said; try again.

Eventually, his load of big questions became too heavy to carry, so he dragged them behind him until one day he strayed off course and ended up at a riverbank. He rested with his burden, sorted through the mess of jumbled questions, and found his own unanswered questions lying at the bottom.

He felt that he had failed his teachers and mother, and even himself terribly. Convinced that he would never find the right answers to any of his questions, he pushed them into the river until he was free of every one. Suddenly and without warning, a spinning wind swept across the water, picked up his questions, and flew them into the sky straight toward the sun. Then a hundred answers fell upon him, all perfectly sized to fit in his hands. He sprang about, gathered them into his arms, felt their perfection, and gave thanks to the wind for its bounty. In reply, a voice spoke from the sun and told him to return every day and throw one question into the river. If so, he would be blessed with many answers from above.

To this day, he has made good on that promise. And every day the river, wind, sky and sun blesses him a thousand times over with their answers.

#

Tales for Adults

 

Dragon Slayer

TALL AND LANKY Leo Nash followed short and shapely Emily Umberto from the library to the faculty lounge. It was ninth and final period at Ridgewood High School. It was also a free period for both teachers, and each of them carried a colorful wrapped gift. Leo sat at the center table and smiled when the gorgeous dark-haired woman sat opposite him; he tried not to appear anxious as he slid the long box of chocolate covered cherries to her.

“Happy birthday,” he said.

Emily smiled and said, “To you, too,” as she slid a longer and larger gift-wrapped box to him. “Open it. Hurry.” She was dressed in a simple white tunic blouse and a gray flared skirt. Her long, shiny hair and bright emerald eyes lit up her otherwise drab attire.

Leo paused, spellbound by how bright in color her eyes were. Their gorgeous green had taken his breath the first day they met a month ago August when she arrived to teach seventh grade algebra.

He pulled away his gaze, studied the gift for a moment, and then tore away the green wrapping paper that had HAPPY BIRTHDAY written on it in colorful bursts of printing. He kept his surprise and exuberance low-key when he took the gift out of its box. “You shouldn’t have,” he said as he opened the silver lid of the laptop computer.

“Turn her on. The battery is charged and she’s ready to go. She has everything, too—including some games for when you need a break.” She lowered her voice. “I added one of my favorites. I know you’ll do well at it.”

Leo powered on the computer and said, “You really shouldn’t have. These things are expensive and all I got you was—”

“Never mind what it cost. I know you need a new one, so…”

Leo grinned when the screen came on and Emily’s youthful face filled the space. “I love the desktop background,” he said. He looked around, ready to show off his gift to the two other teachers in the room. But as usual, neither seemed to notice him. Kathy Richards leafed through a Readers Digest at the beat-up brown sofa in front of the far wall. Behind her, the room’s only window wore a slatted blind that seemed to have been installed during the Nixon era. Her expensive Princess Diana hairstyle, cosmetic face and ruby red fingernails had attracted recently divorced Frank Hallstead, who had just poured himself a cup of coffee and now advanced on her like a walrus to tuna. He wasted no time trying to talk her into his leased Porsche after school.

“He’s such a pig,” Emily whispered. “Do you know he hit on me my first day?” She shook her head. “But I knew right away that you were the one for me.”

Leo blushed.

“Take her for a spin,” Emily said, nodding at the computer and smiling flirtatiously. “Just don’t show the others the photos I put in your pictures folder.”

“Oh?” Leo looked puzzled. Then, “Oh!” His cheeks reddened deeper.

Emily rose from the table and fetched her unopened chocolates. “I left my gradebook behind at the library. I’ll be back in a few.” Before she strode away, she said, “Definitely try out the game I put on there. It’s called Dragon Slayer, my favorite game of all.”

Leo looked down at his gift and knew he had found someone who truly loved him. His long fingers slid over the sleek computer and he was gladdened to know that Emily planned to stay awhile. Maybe into old age.

Grinning wide, Leo went through the menu of games: Solitaire, Hearts, Freecell, Minesweeper, as well as some he had never heard of. Then he found Dragon Slayer and opened it.

CHOOSE YOUR SKILL LEVEL, the computer screen said.

He chose BEGINNER from the options offered.

The screen came to life as a red, fire-breathing dragon swooped down from a velvet star-filled sky and laid to waste in a fiery breath the Tolkien-esque village below. Elflike people ran screaming from wooden houses and stone buildings into the cobbled streets.

Leo marveled the lifelike graphics while, within seconds, the dragon destroyed the living. Red words filled the screen as the dragon and village disappeared into blackness. GAME OVER—0 POINTS.

Leo clicked a key and brought the dragon’s fury to life again. He pressed the Ctrl keypad. A centaur stepped out of the shadows and shot gold arrows from a gold bow at the dragon. Every shot missed and the dragon destroyed the village again.

GAME OVER—0 POINTS.

He tried again with Ctrl and Alt. The centaur sent an arrow into the dragon’s tail. It screeched and banked away into the yellow glow of a full moon. Then it veered back. Little people ran. The centaur shouted orders to unseen comrades. A maiden stepped from an armament shop and gave the centaur a blue arrow.

“Shoot at its heart,” the dark-haired maiden said.

Leo was stunned to hear Emily’s voice come from the computer’s speakers. He looked up. Frank had pulled his attention from Kathy and was looking over at him.

“What’cha doin’, Nash?” the almost-bald man called out. “Playing one of those new computer games? I’m surprised. I took you for a book nerd only. Never thought you were a game nerd too.”

“Well, I … it’s a birthday present,” Leo said and smiled modestly.

“From Emily Umberto,” Kathy said from a disapproving face. “They’ve been dating.”

“Dating? No way.” Frank came and clapped Leo on the back. “You dawg! Good for you. No more blisters on your putting hand, if you know what I mean.”

Leo stabbed the Pause/Break key on the keypad and wished he had a button that could pause Frank’s nasty mouth too.

Kathy joined Frank and stood on the other side of Leo. She admired the computer, though her face looked like she had just tasted something bitter. Frank, on the other hand, looked like a kid in a toy store.

“What’cha playin’?” he asked.

“It’s called Dragon Slayer.”

Frank leaned over and touched the keypad. “What’s this button do?” He thumped on the spacebar with a middle finger. “Make it work. I wanna see what this game does.”

“It’s on pause,” Leo said. “Stop hitting it.”

Frank pulled the laptop away. “Lemme see it for a moment … I’ll give it right back.”

Leo sighed and resigned the computer to Frank. Kathy smirked at the fat man. “You? A dragon slayer, Frankie? Yeah, right!” She chortled and returned to her seat and the three-year-old copy of Readers Digest. Frank followed with Leo’s computer and returned to his spot next to her.

“Whoa! Check out the dragon and these characters,” he said. “These graphics are awesome.” He attacked the keypad and made explosion sounds with his mouth. “Take that, dragon. And that … and that.” His stumpy digits blurred. Bombing noises from his flatulent lips and cheeks drowned the sounds of the game. Spittle showered the computer in his lap. The dragon sounded angry.

Leo looked at the door. Emily would be back any moment. What would she think if she saw Frank with his gift?

“Okay, Frank,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. Then he raised his voice. “Okay, Frank. I think it’s time you give it back.”

“In a minute.” Frank bounced in his seat and made more bombing noises. Then, “Crap, I’m dead … I mean, you’re dead, Nash.” He thumped at the keypad and said. “You were playin’ at the Beginner level, for cryin’ out loud. Everyone knows you don’t learn a game ’less you go full speed. Lemme show you what a Master can do.”

Frank returned to attacking the computer with his hands and spittle. Leo winced and waited for Frank to finish.

“Damn,” Frank cried, “I’m out of arrows.” He thumped the Enter key. “Hey, this maiden with more arrows looks like Emily,” he said and sounded delighted.

“Shoot at its heart,” the computer said in Emily’s voice. Frank looked over at Leo and grinned. “Awesome, dude.” Then he looked at Kathy. “Why don’t you do something like that for me?”

Kathy frowned and glowered at Leo. He looked away. She flipped a page of her Readers Digest and returned to reading.

“Shoot at its heart,” the computer repeated. “Hurry, before he kills you.”

“I’m tryin’,” Frank said.

“Hurry,” the computer said. “The dragon is coming for another attack. Shoot!”

“Shut up. I’m hurryin’.”

“He’s coming.”

“Shut up I said.” Frank’s fingers were a blur once more. Sweat appeared on his cheeks.

A terrible roar sounded from the computer. Kathy jumped and looked annoyed. “You guys and your stupid toys,” she said. She glowered and Leo looked away again.

“It’s not a toy,” Frank said. Sweat covered his reddened face.

“Kill the dragon,” the computer demanded.

“Shut up already,” Frank said. He panted and pounded the keypad. The screen emitted a green glow that billowed like a sudden fog around Frank’s body. Kathy spun in her seat and shouted at Frank, but no sound came as the glow swallowed her as well.

Leo stood, transfixed by the glow until it exploded in a flash of white light that sent Leo falling backward over his chair. When he scrambled up, Frank, Kathy and the green glow were gone. His computer rested on the cushion where Frank had been sitting.

“Game over,” the computer said. “You lose.” He thought he heard Emily’s voice snicker.

He stared at his gift, uncertain of whether to go near it.

He picked up his overturned chair, sat, and watched the door.

Why wasn’t Emily back yet?

I need answers!

He waited for her, uncertain if what he had seen had really happened. But it must have. There was Kathy’s Readers Digest next to his computer.

He replayed the scenario in his mind several times and shook his head every time. What kind of computer does that to people? How?

Questions riddled his mind while he watched the door and waited. Five minutes later, he paced the room.

Maybe he should go look for Emily.

He started toward the door and stopped.

Should he leave the computer here? Would Emily be upset with him if he did?

He paced and pondered what to do.

He jumped and held back a cry when the faculty lounge door opened. Emily smiled at him as she strolled inside. The smile froze. Then it vanished as she stepped back and studied his concerned face. “I’d never do anything to hurt you,” she said.

“But Frank and Kathy … what happened to them?”

“It’s okay. It’s only temporary.” Emily pointed at the computer. “They’re safe. Inside. See?”

She waved a hand and the computer turned until Leo could see that the game had started again. Frank was part of the game now; he busily shot arrows at the red dragon.

Leo peered at Emily. “What are you?” he asked.

“I hope I’m the best thing to ever come into your life.” She laughed a sweet laugh.

Leo looked again at Frank.

“Die, you bastard,” Frank screamed at the dragon that flew above him. Then he turned and looked at Leo from inside the screen. “I don’t know how you did this, you geek,” he said, “but I’m gonna—”

“Shut up, Frank,” Emily said. “You just fight those dragons and try to rescue Kathy if you two ever want to get out of there.” She winked at Leo, but he still frowned at her.

“Don’t be frightened,” she said, “or mad at me. I promise no harm will come to them … or you. I love you, Leo.” She took a step toward him and he backed away. Tears welled in her eyes. “Do you love me, Leo?”

Leo rubbed his forehead. “I … I—”

“Answer the bitch,” Frank yelled. “I want outta here.”

Leo looked at tiny Frank Hallstead ducking from a stream of dragon fire. He suddenly needed to laugh. “Yes,” he said to Emily amidst his laughter. “You are the best thing to ever come into my life.”

Emily rushed into his embrace, her lips meeting his.

“Get a room,” Frank yelled.

Leo went to his computer and closed the lid. Frank and the game were silent. “Shut up, Frank,” Leo said and laughed again.

“You have a contagious laugh, Mr. Nash,” Emily said. “You should use it more often.”

Leo nodded. Emily took him by the arm and led him to the door. He saw by the old clock on the wall that last period was almost over. He looked at the computer and said, “As much as part of me doesn’t want to, I think it’s time to let Frank and Kathy out.” He sighed. “Frank’s never gonna stop harassing me over this.”

“Don’t worry,” Emily said. “They won’t remember a thing that happened. And every time Frank gets out of line, I’ll send him back inside to fight dragons.” She opened the door, waved a hand, and then took him by the arm again and led him into the hall.

Before they left, Leo glanced into the room and saw Frank and Kathy reappear on the sofa. There was no green fog or white light this time. Both yawned and stretched and looked like they had awakened from a nap.

Leo and Emily went arm in arm from the school, almost skipping into the warm afternoon air and sunny daylight outdoors, and laughing the way all lovers do when their futures look brightest.

#

A Matter of Time

THE BEST WAY to describe the room is that it looked old—ancient-20th-century, single-bare-light-bulb, yellowed-wallpaper old. The room was small and square, sans any windows to clear away the smoky light that filled the place with nothingness. It smelled of dust and rotted upholstered furniture, but there was neither to be found. The wood floor with warped slats that held two wood chairs facing each other was clean. It was always clean, yet no one cleaned here. Ever.

The chairs were straight high backs, their cheap wood painted oily black except where the paint was chipped away like aging wounds. In one of the chairs sat a man in a dark gray suit, silver tie and black loafers. Gray argyle socks peeked from between the shoes and pants cuffs where his ankles were crossed right over left. In the other chair, a woman sat upright, her hands folded elegantly in the lap of her black, strapless gown. Her hair was as dark as her dress and her skin glowed ivory. She was studying with doe-like eyes the man in front of her.

He drew his large left hand through his short, thick brown hair, then brought the hand to the back of his neck where he stopped and rubbed it. Behind him was a door as old as the room. It was closed. Its handle was round, smooth and bone white. There was a keyhole below where light never passed through from the other side.

“The prosecuting lawyers think Don Calloway killed his wife,” he said with a tired voice. “Calloway says she fell down the stairs, but the lawyers think she was pushed.” He paused to reach for a cigarette from his shirt pocket, then remembered he had quit. He thought of having a cup of coffee, but the thought evaporated when the woman spoke. Her voice was sweet and ever fresh.

“What do you think?”

“Only matters what the jury thinks. Court is nothing more than a room of debaters.

Whoever presents the better argument wins. Or loses.”

The woman brought a delicate right hand to the white pearl necklace around her throat. “Mr. Calloway grew up in Ridgewood,” she said with lips as red as scarlet, “prospered in high school and college events with the help of his banker father, and became prominent in New Cambridge as a TV news anchor. Lived on the north end in that ugly brick house with sandstone trimmings and cast-iron fence. Right next to the Methodist Church that he and his wife always attended, and where their only child was baptized.”

“What’s your point?”

“He’s got money.”

“But remember the circumstances,” the man went on; “Calloway was seeing that New Cambridge shrink Maxine Green, and not on a professional basis if you know what I mean. And the wife, … well, suspicion turned for a while on the young man she was seeing. Police had seen him hanging about the house after ‘the scene.’ He gave them the slip and hasn’t been seen since.”

She looked past him at the door and he turned slightly. They waited as if anticipating someone’s arrival but no one came. After almost a minute, the woman looked back at him.

“You think the boy did it?” she asked.

“Did what?”

“Push Mrs. Calloway down the stairs.”

He folded his arms and leaned against the back of his chair. “Nah. His tender relations with an older and married woman were harmless and easy to explain. But running like he did only made him appear to have much to hide.”

The woman nodded. “The fellow next door … Ted Jackson. He said he heard a crash just before Mrs. Calloway screamed, yet no one found anything broken.”

“Just her neck.”

She looked at him and frowned. “Did you know their house has a history?”

He smiled. “It’s been mentioned. Some story started years ago by some crazy writer.” He laughed and saw her scolding him with another sharp look. He stopped and licked his lips.

She dabbed twisted fingers to the corners of her mouth. “A Dr. Geddes once lived there, back in ’59. He killed his wife Sarah in the kitchen—stabbed her to death after they returned from a party. He thought she had been having an affair.”

He waved impatiently and frowned. When he had settled, she continued.

“Then in ’72, a family named Walker moved in and reported that the house was haunted by Sarah Geddes’s ghost. The grandmother, Ethel Walker had a seizure and was taken to the hospital. Right after that, the Walkers moved out and the place remained empty until Mr. Calloway bought it.”

He shrugged and their conversation stalled. He looked bored and ready to take a nap when the woman interrupted his slumber.

“She had on a black dress,” she said.

“Who?”

“Sarah Geddes. A black strapless evening gown like mine. Like the one in the newspaper article my mother has in her scrapbook.”

He coughed, then shifted in his seat. “They let you go to your mother’s?”

She bit her bottom lip. “Just once. A long time ago.”

He nodded and sighed. “Me too, but I can’t remember why.”

Then he shrugged and unbuttoned his jacket to reveal a blue vest. Except where it was stained a black, inky color, the interior jacket was three shades lighter than his suit. He pulled out a gold pocket watch and clicked it open.

“What time is it?” she asked.

He wound the watch by its stem. “Don’t know. Damn thing stopped.”

She looked at the door. “Do you think it will ever be our turn?”

“Someday,” he said and closed the watch’s cover. “It’s just a matter of time.”

#

A Buzzing of Bees

SOME WOMEN HAVE voices like angels. And Angela was the perfect name for the angel following him.

Brian listened to the gentle cadence of her voice, smiling and feeling warm and love-struck wonderful.

“Did you remember to bring your new camera?” she asked.

Brian pushed hanging branches away from his face. This part of the woods on Myers Ridge was thick with broadleaf and coniferous trees, and infested with thorny blackberry and raspberry bushes. These barbed sentries were deep in cover, away from hungry predators and ambitious and adventurous gardeners with spades and pruning shears. But few people trespassed here on his land. The terrain was rough and steep in many places and challenging to walk over. Thick and thorny underbrush, stinging nettle, and rattlesnakes were common threats, including branches falling from trees infected by disease and acid rain attacking their roots.

Overall, it was a miserable place in the summer for anyone who ventured off the large deer trail they were on. And he had no intention of leaving the trail and risk not being with Angela.

“I did,” he said, answering her question. “It’s in my pack.”

He was glad to have the heavy pack on his back again. Hiking always cleared his mind and made his lungs and legs stronger. Plus, it almost always brought Angela to him.

“I’m glad you came along today,” he said.

“I’m glad, too,” Angela said.

He glanced back at her and liked what he saw. Her one-piece calico dress looked old-fashioned in its simple, baggy design, but it made her look like a woman. The same with her long, flowing red hair. Not short and tomboyish like so many of women’s’ hairstyles today

“What time is it?” she asked him before he returned his attention to the deer path.

“Almost four o’clock,” he said without looking at his watch.

“I wish it were earlier,” she said. “I don’t want the day to end. You make everything better just by letting me be with you.”

He cleared his throat, feeling awkward for the first time today. He smiled and remembered the same feeling when he was young and uncertain. “You make me feel new and alive,” he told her. “What’s even more amazing is that someone like you could be in love with me.”

“You’re a wonderful guy. Don’t sell yourself short.”

“My ex would disagree with that.” He stared at the shadows flickering along the pathway from the sunlight filtering through the treetops, and saw painful memories in them. Some of them grew before his eyes and he was certain he didn’t want to see them again. He looked away at the clearing ahead and was glad to know the memories would not follow him there. But a few pressed their way between him and Angela anyway and lurked behind him like overgrown thieves wanting to rob him of his happiness.

He refused to look back until Angela asked: “Is that why you burned all your paintings of her?”

“I had to let go. It was the only way to heal from the heartbreak and all those drunken nights of pity dates.”

“Your portraits are very good,” she said. “I like the one you’re doing of me.”

He smiled. “Has someone been in my studio?”

“I hope you don’t mind. It’s the only place indoors I’m able to go … for now.”

Brian’s smile became a grin. The memories left him and Angela hurried to decrease the distance between her and Brian. When she was close enough to touch him without reaching out, she said, “When you take my picture this time, I want you to stand next to me.”

“Can I hold your hand?”

“Yes. Please. I love you.”

Like every time before, Brian choked up when he tried to voice his love for her. Still, as his legs began to feel rubbery, he managed not to trip along the rutted trail that wound past scrub and fewer and smaller trees. Soon they would come to the clearing that had been a pasture when his grandfather owned the land. Brian thought of the pink and blue boulders that Grandpa Eric had dug from the ground and used as fencing for his bulls before he installed the electric fence. One of those rocks would make a good place to take Angela’s photo before her time to leave.

They passed the place where Grandpa’s barn had been. The structure had collapsed years ago, its timber now covered with field grass and hidden from sight by spruce, maple, ash, and poplar trees. He listened to Angela’s voice while she continued to talk. John again. She was reliving the phone call.

He glanced back at her when they entered the clearing and midafternoon sunshine. Her one-piece baggy calico dress billowed at her hips before a breeze pressed the material against her body, revealing her pleasant figure underneath. Brian looked away, but not before he saw her fiddle with her fingers, especially the one where a diamond engagement ring occupied it.

“After leaving the hospital, I thought I was strong enough to deal with it,” she said, “but after a few lonely nights at home, I began to fall to pieces. I called mother but she wouldn’t return any of my calls. We were never that close and I think she blamed me.

“So, I began sleeping during the days and drinking at night to help along the grieving, but the booze never stayed down, so I was miserably somewhere between sober and hung-over and sick to the stomach for a while until last Sunday when I got a call from John. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t coming home after all that happened to me.”

Brian said nothing. He barely heard the words she spoke. He had heard them so many times before.

“I’m glad you found me when you did,” she said. “It’s good to be connected to people who care about me.”

Brian led her to one of the rocks where sunlight brightened its salmon colored surface. Not too far in the distance, he heard the sound of bees buzzing. Angela’s time was short.

He took off his pack, took out the brand-new camera, and positioned it to face another pink rock. He set the timer and led her to the rock.

“Say cheese,” he said as he held her hand and smiled at the camera.

She kissed him on the cheek as the camera’s timer activated its shutter.

“I don’t want to go,” she said, her lips brushing his cheek.

The buzzing grew louder.

She brushed tears from her own cheeks.

He turned, took her in his arms and kissed her on the mouth.

Would she remember this tomorrow? Some days were like starting over.

He let his kiss linger on her lips before he released her. The buzzing sounded like a windy roar now.

He felt a faraway anger coming to him from the past and waited to see if it would make him cry. It did.

He felt electricity crawl across his skin. Angela’s body—her dress, too—turned silvery blue like a distant foggy sky. For a moment, she was there. Then she wasn’t.

The buzzing stopped.

Brian fetched his camera, returned it to his pack, and started back toward home, embracing tomorrow and aching to see Angela again.

#

A Sinister Blast from the Past

INSIDE THIS COLD and sterile environment, I am a prisoner of time, a prisoner of fate, a prisoner to the cruel circumstances that have left me unable to communicate to the people around me. They pass me and I go unnoticed by them. Without a name I am nobody. Without a voice I am nothing more than a silent pet that must be fed and bathed and taken care of. Unable to move I am less than that.

Before it happened, it was supposed to be a viewing of a corpse, nothing more. But my journey had somehow strayed me from the straight and narrow and drove me into a nightmare of mystery and horror. If the road had been on a cliff, I would have been wise to have driven over the edge, plunge into a fiery death to awaken from the madness that grips my mind, and be free of the diabolical dance going on around me.

Instead, I waltz with ghosts. Trapped upon a dance floor that extends beyond my periphery, I exist disturbed and confused between the dancers I knew long ago; I’m out of time, out of step, anxious of the cold hand of death most certainly ready to tap me on the shoulder to let me know I’ve danced my last dance. How terrible to have to die here so far away from Carrie and my children, among these haunting phantoms that chill my blood and shrink my soul.

Now I, unable to move or speak, find that I must share with someone my tale of macabre circumstances before this evil dance carries me away, for surely it has to end. Thus, I pray for salvation, to return to my proper self and time, to go home to that place of familiarity that enveloped me for years like a comfortable blanket, serene and heavenly and exalting, and elevated to a beautiful shrine I never knew could be missed this much. But I fear I shall never see it again.

Unable to communicate, I send out these thoughts, and hope that someone may hear my tale upon the winds, and don’t consider me insane. Yet, insanity is where I find myself. How could anyone believe what I am about to reveal?

It began when my Uncle John died ten days ago. He was more of a father than an uncle. He and Aunt Zela raised me after my parents died when I was four. My older cousins Judy and Donald became like sister and brother, and when Judy called with the heartbreaking news, the two of us wept while we remembered John Foster’s inexhaustible kindness.

That evening without Carrie at my side (she was in Pittsburgh at an art show), I left my woodsy ranch home on the outskirts of New Cambridge and drove to Uncle John’s funeral in nearby Ridgewood. I felt alone without my wife and constant companion next to me.

(My dearest Carrie, I miss her dearly. We married the year she graduated from New Cambridge University. I was twenty and she had just turned twenty-three. The wedding ceremony turned out better than how we had rehearsed it. Even the cake turned out just right. Although Aunt Zela lamented that I had married too young, that my destiny was college and a profession as a teacher, she shared my happiness anyway when I became a writer for the New Cambridge Gazette. She and Uncle John ended up loving Carrie and the children dearly.)

During the drive to Uncle John’s funeral in Ridgewood, I realized that I had forgotten my wallet. I considered turning around but a sudden storm came on and dropped rain and hail on me south of the little town where the surrounding woods are thick with pines and the road too narrow to do a U-turn.

The rain and hail burst through the canopy of trees, and brisk winds and sheets of rainfall caused me to pull over and wait for visibility to return. My cell phone searched for a signal while I sat alone inside my cramped Toyota Camry parked dangerously along the highway.

A few yards behind me, a naked tree that had lost its bark and branches long ago toppled and splintered onto the road. Then, as I looked through the turrets of rain striking the sunroof and flowing down my windshield, I saw bolts of lightning strike beyond Myers Creek to my right. Suddenly, a whistling bolt of lightning struck the hood of my car and rocked it like a boat taking a large wake to the stern. My ears popped and a deafening ringing filled my head. My hands tingled and felt like they had been too close to a raging fire. I stuck my fingers in my mouth to relieve the burn. When the ringing stopped and the burning in my fingers had subsided, the storm was gone.

I got out and inspected a large scorch mark across the hood of my car where the lightning had turned portions of the metallic blue color to an ashy gray. Nothing I couldn’t fix I reasoned as I got back in. As I looked in my rearview mirror before driving off, something seemed amiss. By the time I had driven another mile, I realized the tree that had crashed onto the road had not been there when I pulled away.

A headache knifed at my eyes and the evening skylight seemed especially bright when I entered Ridgewood. I put away all thoughts about what could have happened to the tree as I made my way to the funeral home. When I arrived, no one was there, so I tried calling Aunt Zela, but my phone still searched for a signal. I left downtown Ridgewood and drove east to Uncle John and Aunt Zela’s house—the place where I grew up. As I turned on Hamilton Street and approached the house, a thin teenage boy darted out in front of my car. I stopped quick enough not to hit him and he was athletic enough to dodge the speeding white Mustang coming at him in the other lane. He turned and looked at me and I stared dumbly into a face I hadn’t seen for a long, long time.

A girl around the same age and a boy no older than seven came across the street next. They passed in front of the car and I watched my cousins Judy and Donald catch up to the boy—a boy that I had been in another time. Then I saw Uncle John come to the driveway, climb into his old, red ’66 Chevy pickup truck, back out onto the street and drive past me.

I don’t remember how long I sat there on my old street with the engine of my yet-to-be-built car running and my mind locked in disbelief. I turned on the radio to distract me and keep me from thinking. The Pittsburgh Pirates were playing the Cincinnati Reds and the announcer’s voice sent chills through my numb body. It was a familiar voice, one I had listened to on many summers while growing up on this very block.

I yelled at the radio, told it that what I heard wasn’t real. It was all I could think to do. Then I changed stations. Many played anti-war songs, and Watergate was still a hot topic on the news. I slid a New Age CD into the CD player and drove madly away, but the strangeness in Ridgewood remained. I saw late 1960 and early 1970 classic cars everywhere, even some from the 1950s. The streets were agleam with its insane road show. Their Pennsylvania license plates looked plain—authentic yellow and blue like the ones nailed to the wall inside my garage back home, not like the colorful and fancy wildlife one fastened to the back of my small, aerodynamic-designed Toyota.

I saw places from my childhood restored. Sam’s Diner and the movie theater were back. The little shopping mall the town officials had torn down for a Wal-Mart in 1990 was still there. Same with Chester Bailey’s farm that had become Wal-Mart’s parking lot.

I hurried away from Ridgewood and headed back to New Cambridge. Along the way, I wondered what would happen to me if my out-of-place car and I were discovered by the state police. Nowhere on the highway looked safe, so I drove the back roads toward New Cambridge and home.

Night came early as stormy clouds quickened the darkness. When I returned to the highway for the final three miles home, I could tell by the large round and yellow headlights that passed me that I was not getting closer to where I wanted to be. The strangeness had reached New Cambridge and I saw that the BP filling station where I fueled up every weekend had changed its square green and yellow signs to red and blue oval ones with AMOCO AMERICAN GAS in white letters across their blue centers. Amoco’s gas was 47.9 cents for a gallon of regular, and I laughed like a loon as I turned on the road to home and drove toward the house I knew would not be there. It wasn’t.

The road I was on came to a dead end next to the creek that wound its way behind where my home would someday stand surrounded by walnut and maple trees with a dog house and two swing sets and three tire swings below. Someday, three children would grow up at this undeveloped property. Andrew would go to college and become a sculptor and teach college art classes at San Diego, California. The twins, Haley and Becca would become geology and nursing students respectively at New Cambridge University, and Becca would fall in love with a guy that her old man would think wore too many tattoos on his arms.

After I stopped laughing at the absurdity, I cried. After I cried, I sat alone trying to figure out what to do next. For sanity’s sake, I knew I had to find someone and some place familiar. The once beautiful woods that I loved had now become ominous tree shapes silhouetted by a large spooky looking moon drifting in and out of view by dissipating storm clouds.

I turned around and drove toward downtown New Cambridge not sure of where I was going but wanting to see a familiar place. I started over the railroad tracks on Dearborn Avenue when I realized that the signal lights were flashing red.

When had they started using the abandoned railroad again?

That was my only thought when the train struck my car and shattered my world and me.

Now, I’m broken, alone, a prisoner to cruel and sinister circumstances that have left me in a vegetative state, making me unable to communicate to the medical people around me. I am Patient John Doe, nobody; no one knows who I am. I left my wallet on the dresser where Carrie has no idea that I’m here, trapped in the past.

A feeding tube and ventilator keep me alive.

God, take away my misery.

#

Ghost Lights

CHARLES DONOHUE FELL. He was on his back and for a moment he thought he was floating. Raindrops hung in the silver air all around him, which seemed weird because rocky cliff sides were rushing past him and upwards. He closed his eyes.

His sudden plummet into wet and bristly boughs of pine and spruce trees jarred his senses and caused him to open his eyes to his green attackers.

He tumbled from limb to limb, snapping small branches with his grabbing hands as he searched dizzyingly for one that would stop his fall. But the rain on every branch was like oil. He slipped through them quickly, too heavy to be cradled like the goldfinches that had been there seconds ago, roosting from the rain. As the birds flew noisily off, his left hip made contact with solid ground before his forehead did.

His landing was bristly, yet softer than he expected. Still, he saw stars and the air had been knocked from his lungs. He rolled over on his back, lying on an almost dry mattress of pine needles, and gasped for air until his lungs and stomach hurt. When his breathing became normal, he closed his eyes and rested. When he opened them, his head, lungs and stomach ached less, and the storm had lessened, though cold rain dripped on him through the towering canopy of pine and spruce branches stretched over him.

It was the rain that had caused him to slip on the smooth marble stone atop Myers Ridge and fall off the edge. If Melissa had been there he probably wouldn’t have ventured so close to the edge.

A whooshing sound caught his attention. It was far off, but definitely the sound of an automobile’s rubber tires passing over State Highway 497’s blacktop, or what the locals had named Russell Road.

How strange, he thought, that a vehicle was able to operate this close to Myers Ridge despite the high level of electronic disturbance he had found. He slowly took out his cell phone from his buttoned-down shirt pocket and prayed that the slim black phone would work. It did not. Of course it didn’t. That was one of the reasons why he, professor of sciences at the nearby Penn State campus, was here: to find whatever was jamming electronic devices on and around Myers Ridge.

He put away his phone, then turned his head to get his bearings when pain knifed through his lower back and left hip. His left leg was numb and upon slow inspection, looked twisted at the knee and ankle. He took his time and used pine branches to pull himself into a seated position so he could examine his leg. It didn’t feel broken, but the kneecap was out of place. He held his breath and yanked the patella back where it belonged. Pain shot up his leg and a sick heat filled his stomach; he almost vomited. He hiccupped instead and sent pain stabbing through his lower back and down his leg. He fell back, cried out like some wounded animal, and felt ashamed.

When he could tolerate the pain again, he sat up again. The valley felt colder. Another bout of rain began to fall. It was June and the day had been sunny and warm, but now he wished he would have worn a jacket—or a long-sleeved shirt, at least. Melissa would have reminded him to bring a jacket.

A spring-like chill latched onto him and attacked his leg with mind-reeling pain. He closed his eyes and waited for the red behind his lids to leave. When the pain subsided and he opened his eyes, lightning blinked in the distance; thunder laughed at him from above.

It was late in the evening, perhaps eight o’clock. His watch had stopped at the same time his car had stalled upon his arrival that morning. He pulled his legs up until his knees were below his chin, and then he gently worked on his twisted ankle, hoping it wasn’t dislocated. It wasn’t. He straightened his legs and felt the left kneecap lurch out of place again. He undid his pants, lowered them past his knees, and saw that the patella had shifted left again. Once more, he held his breath, forced the kneecap into place again, and screamed from the pain. What else could he do?

Upon examination, he saw that the skin at his hip had darkened to the brownish-purple color of eggplant. He babied his hip along with his swelling knee and ankle while he hitched up his pants and tried to stand, but the pain roared unbearable in his knee again and brought him down. He searched the ground for a branch long enough to use as a crutch. He found none, so he rolled onto his buttocks, and, using his good leg, he crawled backward toward the highway. Every slide across the ground felt like his lower leg was being torn from the damaged knee.

An hour later, or as best he estimated—he had crawled and rested six times and daylight was almost gone now—he reached the stream that feeds into Myers Creek north of Ridgewood. He rolled onto his good side and drank. Much of his strength returned as soon as the cold water filled his stomach. A noise in the brush reminded him it was time to move on. He crawled into the stream’s icy water and urinated for what seemed like several minutes. Then he crawled onward. The stream’s stone bottom sliced his elbows, and its chill clawed into his hip and knee and caused his whole leg to scream out in pain. When he climbed the embankment on the other side of the stream, enormous lightning flashed. For a moment, night became day. He saw that he had reached the wooded edge. A sloping field ran uphill. He was certain that the highway was on the other side.

When he reached the hilltop, he saw that the highway did indeed run along the valley, perhaps two hundred yards away. He looked for houses, a farm, anywhere there might be people. But this part of Ridgewood was desolate. His car, he estimated, was two miles south—a long way to crawl.

His cell phone still would not work. In his shirt’s other pocket was his digital recorder that he had brought along to take notes. The recorder worked now, which puzzled him. What was so different between the two electronic devices that one worked and the other didn’t?

“The batteries,” he said “I’ll have to experiment that.”

As he began to put away the recorder, he saw a column of silver fog settle upon the field between him and the highway. It stood, almost opaque, part of it swirling, sometimes pulsating with dim red light inside and yellow light along its narrow top that at times looked almost like a human head surrounded by a halo. Donohue pressed the record button. He said, “I speak this alone somewhere within the outer bowels of Myers Ridge. Hopefully I will survive the night to get this to publication.

“Myers Ridge is a large succession of hills outside of the town of Ridgewood. Recently, I became aware of electrical problems here, mainly car engines stalling and cell phones and digital cameras not working. At the same time, I heard reports about mysterious fog formations and red and yellow lights seen at night. My colleagues are, without evidence, claiming that these formations are hallucinations, downright lies, or at best: luminous protean clouds rising from deep within the hill.”

The fog shifted. Donohue held his breath. When nothing more happened, he said, “Long before Ridgewood was founded, the indigenous people here told tales of a cloud person with three red hearts and a head of gold that visited them after an earthquake.

“Another quake was recorded in 1702. A European settler, when upon viewing a strange fog in his potato field, killed his wife and two children and stuffed them in the belly of a slaughtered cow.”

The fog shifted again and stopped. It made no advancement.

“It’s been centuries since that earthquake and the one we had earlier this year. I believe the fog and the quakes are related somehow. Perhaps the fog was released from underground by the quakes.”

The fog shifted. Its red lights inside became brighter until Donohue saw that the lights were three distinct pulsating objects.

“Like living organs,” he said. Then to his recorder: “Daylight is almost gone. I am viewing now, as best as I can, what I believe is one of these cloud creatures.” He stopped. Why had he called it a creature? Why hadn’t he called it a subject?

“Are those hearts?” His hand holding the recorder trembled. So did his shoulders, sending small wattages of pain through his lower back and leg.

“A chill is gripping me,” he said. “I need warmth.” He once more tried his cell phone. This time he cursed, his anger directed at the fog.

“You’re the reason no advanced electrical gadget will work. What are you? Speak to me, damn it. WHAT ARE YOU?”

The fog remained pulsating but otherwise still.

Donohue shivered and cried out from the pain. He closed his eyes until the excruciation abated. When he looked down the hill, the fog was still there, its red lights pulsating faster, brighter. Around it, for several feet, the grass and ground looked dry. More than that, it looked warm and inviting.

Donohue shivered and cried out again. The he crawled backward, inching his way to the warmth.

The fog stood motionless, waiting.

Donohue crawled to within a few feet from the fog. Its heat felt like summer sunlight on a wintry day. It entered his wet clothes, steamed his back and felt good.

He inched closer. His hip stopped throbbing. He felt his knee mending. He crawled closer still; he needed more of what the creature was giving him. He crawled to within inches from the fog, did a crabwalk as he turned to face the fog, and looked inside, past the pulsating organs. There, he saw a heavenly place he wanted to be at. And despite what his scientific mind said as he stood and entered, he saw that it was real.

#

A Haunting

WHAT A CRIME it felt to Reverend Gloria Jackson to believe such a beautiful house could be haunted. To know the place, it looked no different from any other Victorian country house in Ridgewood, Pennsylvania. As Gloria walked the sunny grounds that October evening, she sensed the leftover energy of a time when wealthy Victorians spent an incredible amount of time socializing inside their homes. In Victorian America, nothing displayed one’s status like their house, and the house of a successful Victorian family was more than merely a home; it was a statement of their taste, wealth, and education.

Fiona Bay’s house was one of them, preserved to remain impressive through time by superb craftsmanship and great care. Standing in front of Gloria and surrounded by a neatly manicured lawn and shrubbery that sprawled over half an acre, the stately house seemed at first glance the most unlikely of places to house demonic spirits.

“Fiona was calling forth the dead,” Melissa Bay told Gloria after dinner later that Friday night. Melissa, a strong-backed woman, sat across from Gloria at the long table. Richard sat to Melissa’s right inside the spacious dining room.

“That’s an alarming statement,” Gloria said.

“It’s true.” Richard sounded ashamed. “She wrote all about her occult doings in her diary.”

When Gloria asked what diary he meant, he fetched a black leather book atop a china cabinet. Gloria leafed through the diary and listened over a glass of tawny port.

Melissa said, “As you know, reverend, when her husband Charles died this past summer, Fiona withdrew. But she seemed happiest inside her library, so we left her alone to paint and read there. It was the library she withdrew to after the funeral. She barely ever left that room.

“Then I discovered this morning that she had locked herself inside. She refused to let me in. Her voice sounded agitated … upset, so I called Richard.”

“I had to kick in the door,” Richard said. “And that’s when, crazy as it sounds, she wasn’t there—and all the windows were locked. I checked.” He stared at his glass standing empty on the table in front of him. “Even crazier was when we found a Ouija board and tarot cards inside, as well as her diary which tells of how she has been trying over the past several months to conjure up my father’s spirit.” Sadness and confusion twisted his features into a horrible grimace. “What’s happening?” he asked. “What has she done?” He shook his head and groaned before Gloria could answer. “Until today, I never believed in the paranormal, the metaphysical.” He searched Gloria’s face for answers. “What happened to my mother?”

Gloria’s wine glass flew from the table and shattered against the stone fireplace across the room. The Bible she had brought with her—which she had placed the diary on top of—followed her glass. The diary remained unmoved.

Surprised, Gloria and Melissa yelped. Richard cried out, “Mother.” He jumped to his feet. “Is that you?”

The air turned frigid and burned against Gloria’s cheeks. She felt a winter-blooming nip at the tips of her ears and nose.

Richard yelled at the room. “Where are you? Show yourself. Please.”

Large and heavy books thumped to the floor inside the library across the hall from the dining room. Then the chill left and all quieted.

Richard settled his nerves with a hearty gulp from the wine bottle—glasses and etiquette be damned, Gloria reckoned, considering the circumstances. Richard went to the library door where either he or Melissa had nailed a cross to the damaged door as Gloria had instructed earlier during their phone conversation. Richard looked at the cross and cursed all that is holy. When he finished, he said, “Exorcise the place, reverend. Whatever my mother has done, fix it. Please.”

Gloria joined him at the door. It had taken great force to open the large oak door. She fingered the splintered wood. “Tell me about the voices,” she said.

“Whispers,” Melissa said as she joined them. “Vague chattering whispers.”

“And laughing,” Richard added. “A woman’s laugh, but not my mother’s.”

Gloria removed the cross from the door and stepped inside the library. A chandelier lit the room and seemed to turn the oak bookshelves and furniture to gold. She helped Richard and Melissa replace the toppled books, many of them art history texts and artists biographies. Outside the room’s tall, rectangular windows, the night had become pitch black. A clock inside the dining room chimed seven o’clock.

A painter’s large easel stood near a window. As Gloria looked at the portrait, the unfinished canvas showed the swift strokes of a seasoned painter. Fiona Bay had sketched her subject with lines of umber and sienna, whisked in golden hues next to gentle blues and pink, and had started forming the glow of flesh with buttery mounds of paint. The woman in the unfinished portrait seemed to be dressed in multicolored satin linens and silk scarves. Her face was promising the color of the finest gold, ruby and sapphire. Her eyes sparkled emerald green and sky blue. Her unpainted long hair flowed down a seemingly endless body of shapely beauty.

“Absolutely beautiful,” Gloria said of the painting and the subject. “She looks familiar. Who is she?”

“I don’t know,” Richard said. “No one has been coming to the house to sit. My mother likes her time alone, even before father died.”

Gloria looked back at the painting. The cheeks and mouth looked refined, as though someone had added paint to the portrait while she had looked away.

She turned away and looked back again. There was no mistaking it: The painting appeared to be painting itself.

Melissa screamed. “The light. At her easel. What is it?”

Gold light grew suddenly in front of Fiona’s easel. Inside the brightness, Gloria saw an apparition of Fiona wearing a blue denim painter’s smock and holding a large palette in her left hand. Seemingly unaware of the people in the room, Fiona rushed her canvas and painted, and then stepped back to admire her work before repeating the process.

At Fiona’s side and facing Gloria was her soul-stealing succubus dressed in a multicolored chiffon robe—a female demon Gloria hoped never to see again.

“Keeley.” The color fell from Gloria’s face. Even the fearful cry of the demon’s name somehow permeated the room with beauty. But Gloria knew that this beauty was fleeting. Her throat tightened as she thrust her Bible at arm’s length. She had to save Fiona, no matter the consequences. “Set her loose, demon.”

Keeley laughed. Tittered, actually. “The poet is a ministrant. Oh, my long-ago lover, what have I done to you?” She took a step forward and her robe flowed with her.

Gloria yelled for her to stay back. Keeley advanced slowly, her gaze fixed on Gloria.

Melissa grasped Gloria’s left arm. “Who are you talking to?”

Gloria pulled from Melissa’s grasp. “Count to ten, then you and Richard go to Fiona. Get her out of here while I distract the demon. Then lock the door and bar it with another crucifix.” She thrust her Bible into Melissa’s arms.

“I see no one,” Melissa said, looking at the light.

“What is it?” Richard cried out. “What is that light in front of my mother’s easel?”

“Go into the light, Richard,” Gloria said. “Your mother is there. You must pull her out while I distract the demon.”

Before he could object or ask any more questions and put all their lives at risk, Gloria rushed into Keeley’s warm, tender and passionate embrace. Evil was not always cold.

“I knew I’d find you again,” Keeley said. Her fervent kiss fell hard upon Gloria’s lips.

The demon’s spicy smell and taste were more delicious than Gloria remembered. Her long, soft hair—now a gorgeous mélange of burnt sienna, gold, and black—brushed Gloria’s face. It aroused her, but not as quickly as it had done more than twenty years ago when she and Keeley were college students.

Within Gloria’s concerned gaze, she watched Richard and Melissa pull Fiona from the room. Fiona struggled but Keeley’s hold on her had weakened. Gloria expected Keeley to intervene. She didn’t. Her mouth writhed wickedly against Gloria’s and her eyes fluttered with passion.

As Gloria’s eyesight weakened with the rest of her body, she heard the door slam shut. Fiona was safe on the other side.

The kiss ended and Keeley’s embrace softened. Gloria felt Keeley take the cross from her hand. “We won’t need this where we’re going,” the demon said. Her teeth penetrated Gloria’s neck.

Gloria’s concerns for her own safety fell away as she plunged into a familiar world of darkness she found both sinful and heavenly.

#

Into the Void

RONALD PARKER’S CELL phone vibrated on his leather belt at three minutes of four o’clock that afternoon. He let the call go to voice mail while he stood with Maggie Miller and her staff on the wooden terrace of Maggie’s horse and cattle ranch. The last of the children and their luggage of suitcases and backpacks were packed and stuffed into the big lime green bus that would take them north to the highway, and then forty miles west to Erie. There, the children and their luggage of clothes, books and, of course, souvenirs from Maggie’s store, would depart for home—some as far away as California.

The children seemed happy and talkative, though some looked doleful as they waved goodbye from open windows. Maggie and her staff waved back as the bus ambled down the long, dirt drive. A tall man, dressed to the hilt in white clothes, apron and chef’s hat stared with watery eyes at the ass end of the bus. He said, “Well, that’s the official mark that summer is over, Maggie.” He lifted a bushy, black eyebrow and added, “They weren’t too bratty this year.”

“They were good children,” Maggie said. Her small, brown eyes watered as she watched the bus leave.

Ronald Parker stepped behind Maggie’s right shoulder and put on an act of kindly interest. He watched the bus pass under the arched gate that boasted Maggie Miller’s Double M Ranch in large iron wrought letters. When the bus disappeared behind a frieze of bristlecone pines, his cell phone vibrated again.

Again, he ignored the phone.

The staff filed quietly past him as they entered the main quarters. All of them gave him the once-over when they passed. Ronald ignored them and stared at the gate until he and Maggie were alone. Then Maggie turned and faced him. She was a thick woman, a foot shorter than he, and still twenty—she would have been ten years older than Ronald if she were still alive … and human. Shoulder-length auburn hair fell from her white cowboy hat and draped the top of her white, fringed leather jacket. Beneath the jacket was a red flannel shirt tucked into blue jeans that sported a belt with a buckle almost as large as the kind worn by wrestlers on TV. Hers, however, had a bucking bronco stallion on it. Her pants legs were tucked into brown, leather boots with thick heels that drummed—clomp-clomp—on the floorboards as she hurried against him.

Her kiss was direct, her mouth hard against his, her hold as strong and capable of any worker who spent fifteen hours a day, cleaning stables, caring for horses and cattle, and helping to feed fifty children and three counselors June through August with three five-course meals a day. But Ronald knew that her strength came from more than just exercise.

Despite her firmness and determination, he pushed away.

“That’s not why I’m here, Maggie,” he said and tried to cough away the green smoke-like tendrils that swirled from her and entered his nose and mouth. The floor of the terrace had begun to tilt. He swayed now and fell into her embrace. She felt soft, the way he remembered.

Everything seemed to happen instinctively and at once, though he would realize later that he had succumbed easily to her magic. When he reached and placed a palm firmly onto one of her breasts, she gripped his hand and led him around the main house—clomp-clomp-clomp-clomp-clomp—until they were inside her quarters and naked behind the locked door of her bedroom.

In bed under the blanket, lying back, she gazed up at him with a look of silent pleading. Then her arms and tendrils were locked around him. He fell upon her and she felt soft and warm and very much like a living woman.

Her tendrils entered him until he lost himself again. When his head finally cleared, he was on his back and she was sitting at the edge of the bed, her back facing him. Her shoulders shook. When he asked if she was okay, she turned and faced him. Terrible wet tears ran down her cheeks.

“Why didn’t we make a proper go of it?” she said. “All those times growing up, why didn’t you fall in love and want to marry me?” She wept giant sobs.

Ronald felt her control over him weaken enough for him to come to his senses and remember. He said, “Because you’re … you know … not human.”

Maggie stopped crying. “It’s all been such a misery and a mess,” she said. “And now that I have you again, I have to use force. FORCE. Because you don’t love me, Ronny. After all these years of wanting you, waiting for you to return, I still don’t have you. Not unconditionally.”

Ronald felt Maggie’s magical hold slip further. “I need your help,” he said. He started to sit up, but her tendrils billowed, filled his lungs and held him.

“Maggie. Listen to me,” he cried out. The bed seemed to list then. He closed his eyes. “I didn’t come to you for sex.”

“But you wanted it,” Maggie said. “I know you still dream of me, of how I seduced you back then.” She lay down next to him and ran her long tongue across his mouth. She said, “You may not love me, but we belong to each other, Ronny, united by our actions then … and now.”

“You raped me, Maggie Miller,” he managed to say. The bed stopped moving. He opened his eyes and dared to look at her. She looked curious, not angry at his words. “But it wasn’t you … it wasn’t your fault,” he added. “It was the magic that made you do it, I know.” He squirmed and felt her hold tighten. “If I hadn’t insisted on going to Myers Ridge, you would still be alive.”

Maggie peered up at him. “I love you, anyway,” she said. “I have always loved you.”

“But it was me who caused it to happen,” he said.

“Don’t.” She gave him a long sad look that made him drop his gaze.

“No. This is wrong. This isn’t what I want,” he said. He tried to pull away. She pressed her forehead against his and there was a flash in his eyes. Suddenly, he was in the woods. He was sixteen years old again, and the misty green light swirled around her naked young body that stood before him. The green tendrils—not yet belonging to her—wafted their way to him and seemed to pull him to her, into her arms.

He broke from her and somehow sidestepped the memory and returned to the present. He opened his eyes and saw that he was still in bed with her, still within her clutch. Despite the tinny taste of fear rising in his throat, delicious warmth radiated from her that he knew no other woman—alive or dead—possessed. All frustration, all antagonism dissolved.

She said, “I’ve thought of that day often, how it could have been … how our lives could have been if you wouldn’t have become frightened and ran away.” She gazed into his stare. “Your fear … that frustration you caused … at the very moment of what could have been our consummation for life … it set us against one another, made you hate me.”

He shook his head. “I never hated you.”

“But you’re still afraid of me.”

“Yes,” he said.

“We were heart to heart, all roses round the door until then,” she said. “I’m sorry too about what happened to me … to us. But even in my changed state, I still love you, Ronny. I love you from deep inside my heart. I will never hurt you.”

“Then let me go.”

“Not yet, my love.” She was warm and comfortable and soft, her arms still round him, her legs now encircling his hips. The green tendrils filled his lungs further with every breath. Her magic filled his mind until he no longer remembered why he had sought out to find Maggie Miller. He felt himself sink down, down into her darkness. Even when she rolled on top of him, he sank deeper inside her void.

This was as close to death as she would take him.

Or so he hoped as complete darkness sheathed him from all sight and sound.

#

Different Perspectives

THE COFFEEHOUSE WINDOW Larry sat beside reminded him of sitting in his car at the carwash. Except, this wasn’t Get Wet Express. This was another rainy day in Ridgewood, at Mabel’s, on Monday, around eight-thirty in the morning, and he sat across his sister Elaine, her lined face drawn up in a smile for a moment before her naked lips pursed and she blew gently at the steam rising from her white cup. Her blue eyes twinkled despite the fact that she had lost her husband a week ago.

“Damn weather,” Larry said. He clutched his cup next to his mouth and felt the heat warm his hands and face. It did not, however, go any farther. He looked at the coffee cup next to Elaine and closed his eyes.

“We’re moving,” Elaine said.

Larry opened his eyes. Elaine grinned at him.

“Stan and I found a place in Tampa. In Florida. I hear the weather is a lot nicer there.”

“Look, Elaine,” Larry said. He felt at odds to have to tell his sister that she needed to see a doctor. She had always been the healthy one in the family. “I need you to listen to me—”

“Although I’m told they get a lot of rain in the winter. But it—”

“Elaine—”

“It beats the snow,” she said happily, “and I’m getting too old for these terrible winters here.” She glanced at the empty seat next to her. Then she signaled at the waitress behind the counter near the front door.

“We need more sugar,” she said to the teenage girl who left the counter and approached their table.

The girl, whose white blouse and red skirt seemed too large on her short and thin frame, grabbed a sugar container from the table behind Larry and brought it to Elaine with a smile.

“Thank you, honey.” Elaine grinned.

“Can I get you anything else?”

“No. Thank you.”

Larry looked up at curious brown eyes.

“Sir?” the girl said.

“Uh, no, I’m good. Thanks.”

The waitress scurried back to her counter, although Larry and Elaine were the only customers in the place.

Elaine sat the sugar container next to the full coffee cup next to her. Then, “You’re welcome, dear,” she said before returning her attention to Larry.

“You were saying?” she asked.

Larry sipped at his coffee before he said, “He’s dead.”

Elaine stopped smiling. “Who’s dead?”

“Stan. He died of cancer ten days ago.”

“I know.”

Larry put down his coffee cup and sat back. “If you know, then why do you pretend he’s alive?”

Elaine smiled. “I would never pretend that he’s alive like you and I are. Stan is a Spirit. He’s here right now.”

Larry looked at the empty spot next to his sister.

“He’s just your imagination, Sis,” he said.

Elaine grinned and leaned forward. “I’m not crazy.”

“You’re acting like you are.”

The happiness weakened on Elaine’s face.

“Look,” Larry said, “I’m worried. You’ve been pretending since the day he died that you can see Stan. Hell, you even pretend to talk to him.”

“But—”

“And now you’re talking about you and Stan moving.” Larry leaned forward. “Look around you, Sis. There is no Stan.”

Elaine kept her gaze fixed on Larry. Her eyes glistened with tears but she did not cry. Instead, she said, “No, you look around. I see things differently than you do, Larry. I see a world where the dead go on living.”

“Look, have you talked to Dr. Thompson about this?”

“I’m not crazy. You need to accept that.” Elaine finished her coffee in three quick swallows. “Just because you believe something a certain way doesn’t make it so.” She stood and reached for her umbrella propped against the table.

“I wasn’t trying to offend you,” Larry said, standing and taking her into his arms.

“I love you, little brother,” Elaine said, returning the hug. “And I wasn’t trying to offend you, either. But you need to open your mind.”

“I’ll try.” Larry released her and kissed the side of her face. Then, “Sometimes people see things the way they want to see them—”

“I love that you worry about me, but please stop. I’m fine.”

Larry wanted to believe her.

He watched her leave before he sat back down and drank his coffee. His job at the newspaper started at nine. He felt like it was going to be a long day. He reached for the extra cup of coffee, eager for the caffeine.

The cup was empty.

#

Behavior Unkind

SOMETHING STRANGE HAD happened to Myers Ridge after an earthquake shook the little town of Ridgewood three months ago. Vehicles began stalling on the ridge. Not all vehicles stalled, and sometimes a day went by when no cars or trucks stalled. But when they did stall, business at Morton Twitchel’s garage was good.

Now, Mort sat in his lamp lit sun porch, reading the evening edition of The Ridgewood Gazette chocked full of Christmas ads when he glanced up and saw the car go past his house, heading toward Myers Ridge. By its sleek, aerodynamic shape, Mort knew that sensors and computer chips controlled the vehicle.

He grinned. Then, “Ma,” he hollered toward the living room where the sounds of Wheel of Fortune blared from a TV; “Hey, Ma, I’m going out. Be back later.”

“What about supper?” his mother called back.

“Keep it in the crock. I’ll eat when I get back.” He slipped on his coat and gloves.

“Pick me up some Pepsi…”

“I ain’t going to town—”

“…and some sour cream and onion chips.”

Mort sagged against the storm door and shook his head, but his voice rose with his blood pressure. “I said I ain’t going to town, you stupid old cow. You never listen. Never ever. Just moo, moo, moo, all the time.” He bolted outdoors into December’s gelidity and fought to catch his breath. There, he fired up a Marlboro when the coughing jag subsided, and he felt his strength return after a deep drag from the cigarette.

His long, weak shadow followed him across the crunchy snow. The day’s timid sun had hurried to leave Ridgewood; the last minutes of daylight clutched the western sky. Somewhere, far away, that sun was high and hot and tanning pretty girls in bikinis.

Mort spat a brown hocker—cancer?—then pulled his capillary body into his big Ford 350 with a Holmes 440 wrecker boom and bed and hurried onto Russell Road. The tow truck had no engine control unit to manage emissions. It was the only way he could rescue the damn fools from the ridge’s electrical disturbances crippling their vehicles’ fancy engines.

He spotted the dead Nissan at the intersection of Russell and Ridge highways sooner than he expected. It was a fancy car, a wannabe rich person’s car, no doubt circuited with an electronic data recorder and loaded with all sorts of the latest electrical sensors. He parked in front of the stranded vehicle, then dropped to the ground and nearly fell when his knees almost buckled. He tossed away the cigarette and spat before he approached the car.

“Everything went dead,” a woman said to him. She stood outside her car in the waning daylight and had a cell phone in her hands. “Even my phone doesn’t work.”

Mort’s heart skipped a beat. The woman was young—late twenties, perhaps—and pretty, despite her face looking a bit jaundiced.

She put the phone in a pocket of her white mink coat. Strands of her long chestnut hair lifted in the cold breeze coming at her. She shivered, though her nose and cheeks remained ghostly white. “The GPS went first, then the engine. The car’s practically brand-new, and I just had it inspected last month.”

“Ain’t the car,” Mort said, and then said no more about it. He had learned his lesson several weeks ago when he blabbed his theory to a stranded traveler from New Cambridge: “It’s this here hill … seems to knock out everything electronic … ignitions, dashboard displays, all that ultra-fancy stuff. Not sure how it happens, but it’s been good for my business.” The guy turned out to be a reporter. He interviewed others familiar with the ridge’s mysterious nuisance and wrote a news article, which brought some scientists from New Cambridge University to snoop around. Afterwards, the county wanted to close the roads to outside traffic. But the ridge’s two highways were essential shortcuts to Alice Lake, even in the winter. So far, his towing business was in the black for the first time in five years.

He jerked a thumb at his tow truck. “I’ll getcha back to my garage. Then I can getcha up and running in no time. Meanwhile, you can ride with me.”

“I’d like that, Mr. …”

“Twitchel. Call me Mort.” He kept the smile on his face despite the cold picking at his dingy front teeth, returned to his truck, opened the passenger door, and helped the woman into the truck’s cab. When she was settled, he closed the door and spun, as much as his rickety ankles and knees would allow, and went to work getting the Nissan fastened to his hitch. Then, on the way to his garage, he turned on the radio to avoid conversation. The radio played a silly Christmas song about a grandmother run over by a reindeer. Mort chuckled. The woman smiled. Both were silent until Mort parked inside his spacious garage behind his mother’s lesser house.

“This shouldn’t take long,” he told her before he set the truck’s fan and heat at high so she could wait comfortably inside the cab. Then he went to work lowering the car and pretending to inspect the Nissan’s engine. He knew the car would start on its own; they were far enough away from Myers Ridge. And besides, the electrical disturbance at the ridge never fried any circuits. But if he were to get any money out of this woman, he had to put on a convincing show.

“Mr. Twitchel,” she called out from the rolled-down window a few minutes later, “do you have any hot coffee?”

“This won’t take long.” He had forgotten to start the Mr. Coffee in his office. His beverage of choice was the Budweiser in the garage fridge and anything on tap at the tavern a mile south.

“Won’t take long at all,” he said.

He went to his workbench and returned with some wrenches. Then he clacked them against each other from time to time under the hood while he pretended to fix the engine. He even sprawled his backside on a dolly and rolled beneath the car.

“Mr. Twitchel,” the woman called out again, “do you enjoy being a mechanic?”

Mort stopped clacking his wrenches and looked surprised. It was an honest question that few people ever asked him.

He shrugged at her sincerity.

“Most of the time,” he said above the noise of the truck’s fan, “except—”

His forehead scrunched suddenly. If she wanted to be sincere, then he would oblige for the moment.

“Except when our lousy government passes stupid rules like emissions laws. You know, there was a time when a mechanic could legally build a car engine without computer chips telling it what to do. My truck’s engine is how a man free from his greedy Gestapo government intended an engine to be.”

“Yes,” the woman said, “man shall not be rewarded for behavior unkind.”

Her cryptic remark caused Mort to pause. Then he shrugged and smiled and returned to clacking his tools beneath the car.

“Mr. Twitchel, my watch must have stopped. Do you have the correct time?” The woman sounded restless, perhaps becoming impatient with his act. An unhappy customer could sour the deal. It was time to wrap things up.

“There’s a clock on the wall above my workbench.” He got up, wiped his hands on a rag from his jeans’ back pocket, then got into the car and turned the ignition. The Nissan’s engine purred to life.

A large canvas tote bag beckoned him to look inside it. He was not after money (should there be any), just something small like a fancy pen to give his mother for Christmas so he would not have to spend any money on her. He pulled out a small white box, the kind with jewelry inside. He shook it and thought he heard the delicate rattle of a chain.

He hurried the box to his coat pocket, climbed from the car, closed the hood, and went to the truck, smiling kindly as he opened the door and helped the woman out. Then he climbed into the truck’s cab and turned off the heater.

“How much do I owe you for your prompt and valuable assistance, Mr. Twitchel?” the woman asked as she retrieved a wallet from her coat pocket and opened it. Several expensive rings on her fingers flashed and sparkled under the fluorescent shop light. Mort paused to admire their value and hoped something of equal value was inside the box he’d stolen.

“Your price?” the woman asked.

Mort noticed her raised eyebrows and said, “My flat rate is fifty bucks up front for the tow, plus five for each mile. That’s fifty-five, minus the time spent working on your engine. For that, I charge twenty bucks an hour, which I know sounds expensive, but a guy’s gotta make a living, you know.”

The woman nodded. “I’ll pay you for the entire hour, although a cup of hot coffee would have been nice.” She handed him a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill. “You’ve been very professional. Keep the change.”

Mort grinned. “Thank you kindly, Miss…”

“Umberto.”

“That’s an unusual name for Ridgewood folk.”

“I moved here in July. I teach at the high school.”

Mort nodded as if he approved of her reply. Out of habit, he held the bill up to the light and found the watermark. “Well, I’m glad I saw you drive by so I could be of service.”

He left her while he wrote up a greasy receipt at his workbench and she got into the car and waited. When he handed the receipt to her through the open window of her car, he hoped she hadn’t noticed the box missing from her purse.

She took the receipt, put it in her wallet, and addressed him once more.

“Have a very merry Christmas. And make sure you spend some of that money on your mother.”

“My mother? I … I don’t—”

Mort was going to lie, tell her he didn’t have a mother. But the sudden stern look she gave him caused him to close his mouth.

She narrowed her eyes at him.

Before she did, Mort thought he saw a flash of green light pass across them.

“You have a pleasant night, Mr. Twitchel,” she said before she backed out and drove away from the garage and the road to Myers Ridge.

When her taillights were out of sight, Mort opened the box. He whistled when he saw the yellow gold necklace trimmed with diamonds. He stepped outside and grinned wide. It was going to be a very merry Christmas indeed. Ron Koehler at the pawnshop in New Cambridge always paid top dollar for jewelry with no engravings. And the diamonds were not too big that ole Ron would have any trouble selling it, either.

Mort grinned so wide that the sharp, frigid air hurt his teeth.

He held the necklace to the clear, night sky. The diamonds glistened like the stars there—all those billion sparkling lights ablaze against the night’s velvet canvas above him.

It made him feel small and insignificant … and dizzy.

He squeezed shut his eyes, then looked again at the starry sky.

The wide expanse made him dizzier. He stumbled and sat hard on the snow; his gaze, however, remained riveted on the sky. There, the stars grew suddenly larger, their light brightening as a billion planets and suns came at him at a terrible speed.

They filled his vision and he felt the weight of their magnitude descending on him.

His throat tightened. He knew what he saw wasn’t real.

Still, they fell, seen only by him.

He tried to open his mouth and call out to his mother—to scream for her to rescue him as the entire night sky seemed to drop on him, crushing the air from his lungs.

Minutes later, a film of clouds entered the vast, starry sky from the north. New snowflakes fell where Mort’s body lay on the driveway’s old snow, his wide eyes staring lifelessly at the cover of snow clouds drifting across the sky.

A green shimmer of light appeared next to him. The pretty woman stepped from the shimmer and pried the bracelet and box from Mort’s icy hands. She put on the adornment and felt her magic return. A ruddy color filled her cheeks; her eyes filled with bright emerald. She bent and placed a two-liter bottle of Pepsi and a bag of potato chips in the snow, next to Mort’s darkening head. Then she took the hundred dollars from his pocket and placed it under the bottle of Pepsi.

“For your mother,” she said, “so she won’t think too unkindly of you.”

She stood, twirled a hand, and her body vanished in a flare of green light eaten by the night’s rapacious darkness.

###

 

Afterword

Three stories in this collection feature Emily Umberto, a witch I created in 1998 for “Dragon Slayer” who was supposed to become a major character for future stories. As you see, she made appearances in two more stories before I moved on to other characters and projects. Over time, I tweaked “Dragon Slayer” and “Behavior Unkind” to fit a teenage character named Vree Erickson; they became a part of a dead-end project called The Green Crystal, which saw some print time at Amazon before I scrapped the project. It lies in wait for a major overhaul.

*

I love to write … and there are times when I hate to write. But mostly I can’t help myself from scribbling something onto paper and wondering, “Where the heck did this come from?” Unlike painting (which I also love doing), where an image comes to mind and takes on a full life of its own before I draw it out and paint it, writing explodes in my head in some sort of manic rush of ideas that I have to hurry to record before they dwindle away like sparks from fireworks. And that’s the sum of writing for me: a mad dash to record some poem or story inside my head before it fades away.

People have asked, “Why do you write instead of making more paintings?” and I’ve told them, “Because I must.” It feels as necessary to my life as eating and breathing for me to excavate the words from inside my head and record them.

A bible passage about creation, where it is written in Genesis (I think) about the beginning of all things when “…the word was with God and the word was God” makes me wonder if it’s a godlike desire for all of us to create. After all, as a writer and painter, I create many worlds.

When I’m not creating stories and art, I read. Books are my virtual reality, just as movies are for many of my friends. I’ll read anything (though paranormal fantasy is my favorite) … sometimes fast with a devouring appetite of a madman, or sometimes slow, taking my time to pluck each sentence from the page and savor its taste before swallowing. Reading is, after all, a meal for the mind.

I also delight in listening to other writers and painters and engaging in soulful conversation with them. Unfortunately, that kind of conversation is a dying art form. (I envy the old-time artists that were able to sit around all night talking and debating the sciences.) I’m sure my delight in listening and conversing came from my childhood. I grew up at a time when families gathered in the kitchen and dining room and talked. My parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins always gathered around tables and shared anecdotes of all kinds. Table talk was something I looked forward to and cherished after every visit. And at summertime, table talk often ended at a campfire outdoors at night where ghost stories and other folklore took up the conversations.

My grandparents were good storytellers. They used their voices and body language to “act out” whatever they talked about. I think this came from the vaudeville era, since they lived during that time. And they knew how to hold one’s attention with words. Certain ones still send shivers up and down my back when I hear them.

Now, when I write my stories, I always imagine myself at either a kitchen table or a campfire, telling eager listeners my tales. For there, an artist and storyteller was born. And for that, I am forever grateful.

 

About the Author

Steven L. Campbell pens contemporary, paranormal fantasy in his undisclosed lair in northwest Pennsylvania. He has a bachelor's degree in studio art and graphic design, and graduated magna cum laude from college. He has been a wildlife artist for 30+ years and an avid reader of all genres of fiction since the age of 5. His passion for writing developed during high school, but it took a backseat after college while he painted art for a living. Now, passionate again about writing, his books feature characters living in Ridgewood, a fictional Pennsylvania town based on his own hometown where his relatives fueled his imagination with their ghost stories and urban lore, prompting him to write his own fantasy tales for everyone in love with the genre and young at heart to enjoy.

 

Connect with Steven L. Campbell

Thank you for reading my book! Here are a few of my social media hangouts where you can connect with me:

 

Friend me on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/stevenleocampbell

 

Follow me on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/stevenlcampbell

 

Favorite my Shakespir author page:

https://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/CampbellAuthor

 

Subscribe to my blog:

https://stevenleocampbell.wordpress.com

 


Old Bones: A Collection of Short Stories

A collection of 19 short stories spanning 40+ years of the author's career as an independent author. The stories are divided into three groups: Tales for Young Adults, Oddities, and Tales for Adults, and center on eerie Ridgewood, Pennsylvania and some of the characters who live there.

  • Author: Steven L. Campbell
  • Published: 2016-03-22 23:05:11
  • Words: 32980
Old Bones: A Collection of Short Stories Old Bones: A Collection of Short Stories