Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Gita M. Smith

THE TRACTOR THIEF’S JACKET

This place will swallow you up. One-syllable words describe it: plain, dull, gray, and dry. Add ‘harsh’ in winter. One of the ice ages wore everything here down to a nub. If the emptiness doesn't hollow you out, the lonesomeness will. As far as you can see in every direction, the only thing taller than a man is a grain elevator. All the rest is flat, like something bit down on the earth, sucked all the juice out and left the skin.
I killed a man the other day. He tried to steal my tractor. I shot a hole in his neck and let him bleed out next to the John Deere. I'm wearing his jacket inside out, right now, and his gloves. Something of the man lingers in his clothes -- a desperate courage, maybe. By March, his bones will be bleached; by August they'll be reduced to their components. Calcium and phosphorous are good for wheat.

Under the laws of the prairie, he had it coming. Prairie law spells it out clearly. The worse your surroundings, the meaner you are allowed to get. The meaner you get, the greater the likelihood you'll overreact in elemental ways. Scorpions will sting each other over nothing. Sparrow hawks that've gone a week without field mouse flesh will try to fly away with a farm cat twice their size. A man tries to steal your thresher and ends up deader than a hammer.
Come see our laws in action for yourself.

The town, now, it has a thin veneer of civility. It had been a remote outpost until a railroad spur came to it in the ‘50s to pick up cattle hides and grains, back when America was selling wheat to the Russkies, and every stalk counted.
Main Street is a dirty thread running east-west. Ten stores, five on each side, face each other like chess pawns. The buildings are rough field stone with painted wooden facades, store names stenciled on them in the same Ponderosa style letters you’d see in a western movie. There are no traffic lights. Those cost money.
A dentist set up shop here, a while back. If every man, woman and child visited him once a year for cleanings and a filling, he’d have no more than 100 appointments. The man didn’t move here to earn a living. I’ve been pondering that for a while.
If you want a doctor, undertaker, shoe store, bicycle repair, barber or hand job, you got to drive 90 miles to Barstow on the Kansas–Oklahoma line. If you want justice, well good luck with that. You could drive to the courthouse in Wichita, but what they dispense over there is neither just nor adequate. That court is designed to put men into the new, ‘outsourced’ prisons that the governor ordered built by his brother-in-law’s construction company with kickbacks a-plenty for all the county commissioners and grain inspectors in this great state.
We have a café, Tessa’s, for coffee and pie, and a roughneck bar, The Combine, for out-of-town cowboys and grain estimators. Now and then, an insurance adjuster wanders through because someone’s barn blew down or a prize bull got struck by lightning.
Someone musta made a deal with someone, at some point, to keep whores out of this town. Even though there’s call for them on Friday nights, we have to send the drunks down the road to Barstow and plenty of them never come back alive. It’s our way of thinning the herd: natural selection.
If a man is stupid enough to drive drunk at night with a wallet full of payday, there’s all kinds of folks who’ll help him run off the road. One time, this kid from Montana came through, brand new souped-up Dodge, horny enough for a whole city. He threw back three or four whiskeys at The Combine, and when he mentioned his pecker was a ticking time-bomb, an accommodating few guys slid off their barstools and offered to show him the way to titty city.
“Naw, you ain’t drivin,” they said, shouldering him to the curb. “Ride with us and we’ll bring you back.” He slid his happy butt into their back seat and was never seen again.
After a while, the sheriff impounded the car, and a while after that was seen driving it. Those off-duty deputies who took the young man to get laid, they get to drive it, too.

What does a truly innocent man look like? I don’t believe I’ve ever met one. I’ve only known men by their shades of criminality. Some people are outright thieves and murderers who will walk up to you and say, “I’m going to kill you,” as rote as a catechism. Some are criminals-in-waiting: They have larcenous hearts but have not yet acted. The greed is there, simmering and dormant. Others wear the garments of righteousness while wielding their small amount of power like a club: the border crossing guards, the priests, the jailers. They are not what they seem until – until – you learn to see beyond the brass button and the cross. Out here, people expect very little love from their neighbors. and they are never disappointed.

I have been watching the dentist. “Stent Wiley, D.D.S.” says the sign above his window. He is a well-spoken man, a bachelor with a slight stoop and blunt features. His flesh is loose on his frame in a way that reminds me of curds or clabbered milk. He attends the Episcopal Church in Barstow. He plays pinochle with the sheriff. He keeps his overhead low by foregoing a receptionist and taking phone calls himself. His waiting room looks out on a trailer park where the Indians live.
The good doctor locks up on many afternoons at 4:15, and carries a Polaroid camera down a rocky path, through Joe Pye-weed and sage, to the center of the trailer park. There he disappears, or so he thinks.
I have seen the look of resignation on the sad, cinnamon-colored face of an 11-year-old girl whose father pushes her inside the trailer where the dentist waits. She is on the upper age range of the dentist’s tastes. There are 9-year-old girls, as well, with bruises on their forearms where they resisted, where they struggled. The dentist pays these fathers well, in whiskey and in cash. Sometimes he carries a small black satchel with him to these airless trailers, these tin cans with dirty mattresses. I hear whispers that he anesthetizes the boys whose fathers offer them up to the rich, white D.D.S., and that he throws grim birthday parties for the Indian children and takes their pictures eating cake.

I have nothing else to do today, so I decide to go to the dentist. I arrive, walking casually, just at closing time. I am wearing the tractor thief’s jacket with its deep pockets and his gloves. I carry a simple tool: heavy-duty metal snips that cut through barbed wire. Every rancher carries a pair. In the pocket of the tractor thief’s jacket is a folding knife, a skinning knife, sharp enough to shave an eyelash. I pass through the empty waiting room and into the treatment area where Stent Wiley is bent over a sink, splashing water on his face. He stinks of medicinal soap and Listerine. I stand behind him for a moment admiring his dedication to hygiene. How do those little Indian children feel, in later years, when they smell Listerine, I wonder. If they smell it on a stranger, do they experience fear? Terror? A sickening helplessness? Will they always, for the rest of their lives?

I slip one hand inside the jacket for my knife and bring around the cutters with the other. My knife opens with a quiet snick. Oblivious, the dentist swishes the mouthwash around, hands braced on the sides of the sink, head down. Tick tock, I think. Enough foreplay.

My first slice comes from behind to his carotid artery, a deep curving slash. I take one giant step back to see which way his weight will shift. He goes straight down on his knees, gargling a little. It’s not an unpleasant sound.
My second slice carves across his forehead, just above his eyebrows, prodigious bleeders for some reason. In an instant his own warm blood-salt stings his eyes.
I step back again, to see where he will end up. Some people are crawlers. They haul themselves across the floor as far as they can go, pumping blood in spurts and streams all the while, until they are dry and their hearts stop. Stent Wiley manages to travel four feet before falling flat on his face.

I am quick as a bunny with the metal snips. This must be done while he is still alive.
“Stent,” I say, “would you like to hear a nursery rhyme?”
I pick up his left hand.
“I’ll sing it for you,” I say.
Taking hold of each finger in turn, applying the cutters to the second joint in time with the tune, I sing, “ONE little TWO little THREE little Indians. FOUR little FIVE little...”
I don’t think he heard me reach TEN. It doesn’t matter. I leave him there, the tractor thief’s jacket thrown over him. But I keep the gloves.

© Gita M. Smith 2012

Author’s Note to readers: This piece was put together from a few different ideas as my contribution to the short story reading circle at HoW3, the third annual gathering of internet writing friends. It will appear in the HoW3 collection book designed by Sandra Davies. Immense gratitude to all who attended HoW3 for their encouragement.

Gita Smith is a career journalist, whose work has appeared on The Sphere, Fictionaut, Not From Here Are You (The NOT), and her reporting on the South appears at LiketheDew.com, a news site.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Sandra Davies

Return to Porthfeddon

Unlike his contemporaries the older he got the more he sought the flash and vivacity of the urban. Its haste, the potential for action, reaction; for meeting, separating, for hate and for love. For violence.
He’d long ago ceased to be interested in the rural, the coastal, though God knows there was more than enough violence to be found here. Perhaps it was just that death had coloured what had once been idyllic, had brought sickness; the sickness and the customary guilt of over-indulgence.
But coming here had been a mistake. All those negotiations, preceded by research, ending with expenditure, might well end with his death. Death from fright if not as a result of miscalculation by one of the still-learning pilots. He’d hoped to find a different inspiration, but landing lights, from this viewpoint at least, was not going to provide it.

.oOo.

Thin, with more than a trace of aristocratic hauteur – breeding – about her, her ankles especially, resembling those of an elegantly-posed greyhound, she stood in front of the painting, silently contemplating.
Its muted tones matched hers: pale creams of once-, twice- and thrice-primed canvas, aligned and delineated by several shades of grey. These ranged from the merest smudge of dampened graphite to the devil-drawn noir of compressed charcoal, shiny from the addition of linseed oil. The same could be said of her hair. The subtleties of shape and line were augmented by butterfly-blue squares that matched her eyes, as well as being sparked here and – precisely – there, with the briefest touch of slightly scorched vermilion which echoed and exchanged Morse code messages with the tips of her fingers and her toes.
This was the third consecutive morning she’d come to the gallery. Sebastian had seen her stepping from a chauffeured car, her nod of thanks to the driver, and his reappearance in the street precisely one hour later. At which point she invariably murmured her thanks and left.
Today he’d ask her.
Definitely.
Her name, at least.

.oOo.

But fright was not as ... frighteningly final as death. You could recover from fright. Compared to the pain of dying, fright was little more than stomach cramps following a dodgy curry.
And, in truth – and typically – yesterday’s terror had been converted into visual form. An unanticipated direction, true, ‘twas ever thus, and he doubted his mad, two in the morning idea of using neon light to create what he had in mind would go down well.
Come the dawn, and sanity, he’d sketched out some ideas to take to the gallery tomorrow. They excited him, at least, and while Crispin was – had to be, given the gallery overheads – as profit-driven as anyone in this business, they had a good enough relationship for Crispin to allow him a little freedom to experiment.
Although he could hear, in Crispin’s voice, the delicately-put (but potentially negative) doubt that returning to his roots might, just might, not be an entirely ... wise decision.

.oOo.

‘K-Kensington, milady?’ His Lordship was within earshot, watching her settle herself on the generous width of the back seat of the car.
Remembering the uses this self-same leather upholstery had so recently been put to, John made an extra effort to school his face to servile blankness. Waited for the automatic words of farewell to her, the usual admonition to him to ‘Drive carefully’, full knowing that his Lordship was more concerned for the vehicle's paintwork than the soft flesh of his wife.
Once upon a time he’d thought her as cold a fish as her blue-blood, half-dead husband. Until he heard the complicity in her voice as she told him of a change of destination and to drive instead to Cork Street. Watching her face in the rear-view mirror as they left the gallery and headed homewards, told him that the blood which flowed through her veins was red as his, was hot as her face when she asked him to stop when they reached the cool of the forest.
Later he’d made her laugh: ‘So his prick really is a bloater?’
‘Yes,’ she’d said, ‘But a baby one, and frozen solid.’

.oOo.

She arrived ten minutes earlier than usual. Usual calm cream clothing, her smile of acknowledgement several degrees warmer than yesterday’s merely polite, as she positioned herself once again in front of ‘Porthfeddon: line and circle’.
As was Sebastian’s. He knew the artist was due to arrive in half an hour’s time; knew that she usually stayed for at least that long. Debated with himself whether or not to tell her. Decided to keep it a surprise (while acknowledging that it was nervousness on his part that prevented him. Even though she did look less forbidding today.)
Crispin arrived, letting himself in the back door; called Sebastian through to give him instructions for the day. When Sebastian returned to the gallery he saw through the plate glass window the black bulk of the car draw up outside.
Fifteen minutes early.
Saw the man they were expecting pause on the pavement outside to look at the painting in the window.
Fifteen minutes early.
Saw her glance outside, her smile suddenly more glorious than ever before. Whew! There’d been no need to tell her about the artist’s arrival.
Saw her turn and walk to the door, watched the artist open it for her. Continued to watch as the artist stood aside, saw that his smile echoed what must have been merely her polite acknowledgement as she passed him. Saw that it was the chauffeur, already on the pavement, car door open, who smiled more warmly than usual. Watched her slide elegantly in before the chauffeur closed the door, walked round to the driver's side, still smiling, got in and drove away.
The artist, entering the gallery, paused in front of ‘Porthfeddon: line and circle’.
Smiled at Sebastian, ‘You’d better take that down – I’m about to tell Crispin I want it shipped back to Porthfeddon. I don't suppose anyone's looked at it in months.’

© Sandra Davies 2013

Sandra Davies is a recently-emerged writer of fiction and printmaker, both of which combine in the recently published ‘The Blacksmith’s Wife’. In production are books 1 and 2 of what will probably be a trilogy of romance-with-murderous-undertones, as well as the fourth in the Bridie and Sean family saga. Details of all those so far published can be found at
www.sandra-linesofcommunication.blogspot.com

Friday, January 1, 2016

Nicole E. Hirschi

HOME

Memoir of CJT – Journalist (found)
There comes a time in every journalist’s career when you hope to have the chance of a lifetime—that one story that will change your fate. That’s why we do it, to make a world-renowned name for ourselves.
I’m no different from the rest.
Chances are funny things. They come and go at the whim of Karma—as if you deserve them. I’m not sure why I feel that way; it just is.
My chance, I think, came on a stormy night while my flight was delayed. With nothing better to do than wait out the tornadoes swirling around the Dallas area, my feet finally found a resting place at the airport cantina.
I ordered my usual Jack and Coke and glanced through my notes.
“Excuse me?” A craggily woman’s voice asked from next to me. I looked over at her. Her eyes, startlingly cloudy, held me to them.
“Oh, hey, um… hi.” I blurted out, realizing that I’d been staring.
“Is this seat open?” Her voice croaked above the music.
“Sure.” I offered her a hand which she ignored as she climbed into the chair. She set her gnarled cane down on the bar with a thud.
“You don’t know me.” She half whispered after taking my drink and finishing it off. I ordered two more.
“Well, my name’s CJ, if you tell me who you are, then I guess we’ll know each other.” I felt like a smartass.
“Just call me Karma,” she said, and I snorted Jack and Coke out my nose and blindly groped for a napkin.
“Ok, Karma, it’s nice to meet you.” I stretched out my hand, but slowly pulled it back when she didn’t take it.
“You don’t want me to touch you, I promise you that.” She let out a crackly laugh, “I’m a psychic, and have only one thing to share with you.”
Psychic, really? I’d only met one other psychic. Sure, I wrote her precious tear jerker story about a dead pioneer girl, but even that was followed up with research. Her fluff was just good talk for the tabloid I was writing for back then.
I rolled my eyes and took another sip of my drink.
“Don’t,” she harshly whispered thumping her cane on the bar again, “be skeptical. I’ve seen things you’ll never understand.”
“Um… okay.” I decided I’d play along for the moment.
“CJ, I know that’s not your real name, just as Karma’s not mine, but that’s neither here nor there.”
I cleared my throat, feeling uncomfortable. It was true, I had changed my name after getting divorced, but anyone could have guessed that.
“You want,” she hesitated, her milky eyes glancing at the ceiling, “no, need, your life changing story, yes?”
My God, was I such a fool? “Yes.” I spoke barely above a whisper and leaned towards her.
“I thought so. You’ll find your story, off the beaten path, across a bay by the beach in the East. Find the place, and you’ll find yourself.”
Before I could ask another word, she finished her drink and slid out of her chair.
Curious, I quickly paid the barkeep and turned in pursuit, but alas, she was already lost in the crowd.
The old woman’s words have stayed with me for years now. I’ve searched in earnest, looked up psychics, events by every bay, but never found a thing. That is, until last week.
I’ll admit that I’ve been at wit’s end for some time now. My publishers began telling me last year that my stories are outdated and no longer hold any interest for the younger crowd.
So, there I was, reading the paper last week when I came across an article about a series of mysterious deaths deemed suicides at an old house by the Chesapeake Bay. Within minutes, I found myself booking a flight and arranging a car. I stayed up through the night looking into the haunted house, intrigued about the people who’d died there. Each, like myself, was a forgotten writer. Fourteen deaths in all. I found a phone number for an agency who was advertising tours – I called to book a stay.
“I can’t let you stay in the house.” said a woman on the other end of the line.
“I’ll pay extra, my family and I are big into haunted places.” I lied.
Finally with enough cash, she acquiesced.
The GPS in my rental car buzzed with protest at trying to locate the address, and frustrated, I smacked the damn thing. The house eventually came into view, clearly neglected – they must have posted an old photo online. Weeds and vines were growing up the walls and the front porch was hanging. It almost looked like a haunted house. I entered through the front door and despite the dust and dead bugs, I instantly felt at home.
The old woman’s words came to mind again. Was this the place she spoke of?
I walked the beach two nights ago, feeling the sand between my toes, and I swore I could hear laughter in the wind.
I awoke yesterday morning to the smell of freshly made coffee, but found the pot empty. I spent all day searching the house from top to bottom, looking for signs of anything – anyone – and what they might have left behind. Fourteen people in ten years, after all, don’t just keel over without leaving some sort of trace behind.
I came across moth balls, creaky floors, a basement room filled with old furniture, miscellaneous clutter and old photos, one of which depicted a group on the beach at sunset. Each person was looking in a different direction than at the photographer. The date at the bottom was from almost twenty years ago. I found, carefully placed above a door, a set of cutout paper dolls, yellowed from age, ten in all, as if watching the people who may have come and gone over the years. I remember thinking ‘Did you watch over those who died?’
I sat on the musty couch last night in the living room with my notebook and heard the sound of thunder in the distance. When the lights flickered and went out, I imagined others like myself, maybe the group from the picture, writing by the mere light of the moon as rain poured just outside the French doors.
I slept in a different bed. There was sand in the sheets, but I didn’t care.
I dreamed of being a part of a group who called this place their “House of Writers” and saw myself amongst a variety of eclectic people writing as if their lives depended upon it – laughing, crying, amazed at each other’s creativity.
Today, I think I will swim in the bay, taste the salt in the water, drink in the sun, and pretend that last night’s dream was real.
-CJ
* * *

“Angela,” I croak, my voice barely a wisp anymore, “Angela, read this to me.” I shakily hold out a rough feeling newspaper, my cloudy eyes too blind to read any longer.
“Woman missing, known journalist, no leads.” I can feel her staring at me. I hear her ragged breath as she tries not to sob with the vision. She shares my gift, we’re mediums, or psychics as others call us.
“Angela, please take me for one last trip.”
“But Grandma!”
“No buts.” I hack into my hand, “Just do as I say.”
It’s a long drive across the bridge to the police department in Cape Charles, but a necessary one. I knew the woman, I told her my story of Anna Marie, and years later, told her where she’d find herself if she looked.
“How can I help you Ma’am?” A man’s voice asks loudly. I’m blind not deaf, idiot. I thump my cane.
“I’m here to tell you where to find the missing journalist.” I wheeze.
“I’m sorry,” even louder, “I didn’t hear you.”
“She said,” Angela’s voice becomes louder and more despair filled with each word next to me, “that she knows where you can find the missing woman, you know, that journalist gal.”
The police station becomes deadly silent and I can feel the weight of everyone’s stares upon us.
“Who are you?”
“Call me Karma.” My voice shakes with age.
“And the woman?” He questions.
“You’ll find her body washed up on the beach at the old haunted house just outside town.” I’m straining to get all the words out before my voice is completely gone.
“You sure?” I can feel his breath.
I grab his face with my arthritic hands, my cane falls to the ground with a clatter.
“Do you think these eyes would lie?”
Silence.
“I didn’t think so.”
I suddenly feel the urge to laugh and find myself doubled over hacking, tears in my eyes.
A voice fills the air around us, and I smile knowingly in response.
“I have finally found my story… my home… we all have.”


© Nicole E. Hirschi 2013

Nicole was our first guest writer back in April 2010 and has contributed other fiction and poetry to the site since then. She is currently involved in screenwriting and loves telling stories with a touch of the macabre. One of those paper dolls has her name on it.