“Just one more track, please? I want to hear how it continues. I haven’t heard the end of this. What was his name again, Johnny Money?”
“Cash. Johnny Cash,” I corrected Jason and watched as he nodded thoughtfully. As I reached out and changed to the next song, he pressed his ear close to the loudspeaker to make sure he would catch every breath, noise and sound emerging from it. He was mesmerised, I could tell; his blue eyes shone and his lips parted as he pretended to sing along. He didn’t know the words. He’d never even heard of Folsom Prison before, but he still seemed to understand. In his mind everything clicked and his pupils danced along with his growing knowledge. It was amazing to watch and yet I felt sad.
It was summer and we were stuck inside. I had my window wide open to let the fresh breeze into my small room, but it didn’t stop me from sweating. I longed to put on my sunglasses and run down to the beach, feel the sand prick my bare toes and the water wash in over my red hands. But Jason’s mum had insisted:
“He’s too young to go to the beach, he's only thirteen! You can’t do that, Billy, don’t do that to me. Stay inside, play a game.” She didn’t mean videogames - she’d handed me a pack of cards and looked into my eyes as if to silently assure me that I would get in trouble if I dared to let Jason play anything but solitaire. I had a feeling I was already breaking her rules by letting him listen to Johnny sing, but I didn’t care - it kept him occupied.
I fiddled with the newspaper I’d stolen from Dad’s office. He’d dog-eared several pages, 23 out of 30 to be exact. They were all articles on the neighbourhood; one described the beautiful landscape surrounding our cottage, another the poor means of transportation between here and the city. I didn't need to read it to know that I was far away from home.
“Is there a lot like this?” Jason asked me and I looked at him.
“Johnny, like his music.”
“Loads,” I said and shrugged. Meanwhile, Jason’s eyes grew wide with curiosity; it was as if they took up more space on his face than what was humanly possible as he stared at me intensely. I felt I had to say something more, so I added: “I mean, Johnny’s pretty old by now. I just like him ‘cause Mum used to listen to him when I was little.”
“You mean he’s nothing special?” Jason asked confused.
I poked my tongue to my inner cheek trying to figure out how to explain this to him. “He is,” I said. “Else he wouldn’t still be popular. He was great for his time, just… Well, there’s just newer music.”
“All sorts. Lady Gaga, Macklemore, Robbie Wi-”
“Lady who?” Jason interrupted me.
“Gaga,” I said. “Lady Gaga.”
“I want to hear her. Put her on. What’s her story?”
“They don’t have stories. Every song is a new story, it’s not consistent, Jay,” I said, and Jason moved aside as I put away the CD with Johnny and put on one with Lady Gaga. He watched in awe; he didn’t have CDs at home and I wasn’t sure he’d ever touched one. Though he was closer to the shelf, I put the album back myself just to be sure he wouldn’t break the cover in excitement. “Have you really never heard this kind of music before?”
“Mom plays the piano,” Jason explained, “and she sings songs of praise.”
“Of praise?” I repeated, but ‘Bad Romance’ started playing in the same moment and Jason eagerly pressed his ear to the loudspeaker again as he devoured every word. He didn’t just look like someone who wanted a romance, he looked like someone who really needed one, be it good or bad. He was a teenager completely out of touch with the world. I fiddled with the newspaper again and turned to face the window as I thought to myself that so was I.
Jason wasn’t really my friend but Mum had insisted I make him one. Since there weren’t a lot of kids around I had to be happy for whoever wanted to speak with me, she said. Though Jason was odd and even Dad disliked his parents - good old Dad who couldn’t even manage to swear at the guy who punched him in the face for not crossing at a red light - I had to suck it up and act interested in his life. However different it was from mine.
I was born in the city. Mum didn’t even reach the hospital before I started popping out on the backseat of a cab. The driver stopped and assisted her in the middle of a busy street, and though he shouted at her the whole time calling her an ‘irresponsible bitch’, she still describes my birth as a wonderful time. I’m not sure what part of it was wonderful; when she got the bill for bleeding all over the floor, or when no one had any scissors so they cut the cord with Dad’s pocket knife. Either way, I was born in between cafeterias and tall buildings made out of steel and glass, and I was taught to avoid crazy drivers, not to speak to drunk homeless men, and always read the newspaper in case something important happened in our country.
But Jason was raised on the countryside, so far out that I doubt they had electricity most of his childhood. At least he never spoke of computers or televisions, of radios or videogames. When I asked him what he used to do, he started blabbering about all these drawings he did of cows and a poem he wrote about the blue sky. It all seemed a bit dense to me.
“Bad romance,” Jason mumbled suddenly and I looked at him. I’d been watching the clouds slowly drifting by as my mind started closing down and I hadn’t even noticed the music had stopped. Jason still had his ear pressed to the loudspeaker, but now he moved away and sat with his legs crossed on the carpet. “What is a bad romance?”
“A romance gone bad, I guess,” I said without being very helpful. “Don’t think too hard about the lyrics. They don’t always mean something.”
“What do you think it means?” he insisted.
I poked my tongue to my cheek again. “I guess she wants something that she knows isn’t good for her, but which will make her feel alive.” I spoke every word slowly as I’d been taught by Mrs Madison in English class. She said that if we tasted every word we would understand them better, but my little analysis still didn’t make sense in my head.
Jason wasn’t satisfied either: “Why would she want something bad though?”
“I think she means bad as in sex,” I blurted out tired, but I realised my mistake immediately. Jason was staring at me with his lips parted like a fish gaping for air on land and my cheeks blushed. “I mean…”
“That’s bad,” Jason said quietly.
I scratched my arms furiously and looked out the window. “Let’s talk about something else.”
“Have you ever had sex?”
I started really regretting my words. “Want to listen to Macklemore?”
“I’m fourteen, what do you think?” I grimaced at Jason, but he still looked clueless. I could sense another ‘have you’ moving its way through his throat, so I added: “No. You’re not supposed to have sex when you’re fourteen.”
“You should wait until married,” Jason nodded.
I just agreed. I didn’t dare to tell him my parents weren’t even engaged.
“Who are you going to marry?” Jason asked and I laughed, because I was sure he had to be joking. But of course Jason never jokes. “Don’t you know?”
“No, how could I know already?”
“Mum says I’m going to marry Irma.”
“She’s a girl my aunt knows. She lives next to her. They say she’s really pretty with red hair and green eyes. And they say she’s fun, because she always comes up with stories and draws them well. She’s in the choir. She’s a good girl, they say.”
I smiled a little at the way he described her. “They say?” I repeated and pushed the newspaper away to look down at him. I was on my bed while he was staring up at me from the floor. He was only one year younger than me, but from up here he looked to be no more than nine. “What do you think?”
Jason hesitated; he blinked in surprise and opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Then he sighed, scratched his neck and looked at the floor troubled. I realised that probably no one had ever asked him this question before and I was about to say ‘never mind, doesn’t matter’ - but then he looked me in the eyes with a grave, honest gaze as he whispered: “I don’t like girls.”
I felt my throat knot up. “O-oh,” I said and blindly reached for the paper to have something to fiddle with again, but I couldn’t find it and I couldn’t make myself break eye contact.
"I know it's weird."
“No, that’s… natural,” I stuttered. “A lot of guys don’t like girls when younger, I mean, they’re pretty weird. Romance seems far away but you’re going to grow up and-”
“No,” Jason interrupted me. “I don’t like girls.” His voice was stronger than before and it left me completely quiet. I didn’t know what to say or what to do but for nodding my head. “I don’t like girls,” Jason repeated. Then he looked down. His voice was shaking as he added in a mumble: “I’m a sin.”
“No,” I whispered but then I cleared my throat. I took in a deep breath to get more authority to my voice: “No, Jason, you’re not. You’re not a sin.”
“I want to hear some more music. What have you got?” Jason asked and pressed his ear to the loudspeaker again.
I watched him; his blue, naïve eyes had darkened as he stared at the wall in front of him. There was only one thing I could do. “I have a CD with Elton John,” I said. “I think you’ll like it.”
James Vinter is a Danish writer who has recently moved to Bristol in England to get more in touch with the art scene. He writes flash fiction and short stories which focus on people's relationships, their development and their search for a meaningful place in this world.
CHILL ~ Robert Spotts
Frank drew the pentagram in yellow chalk, measuring the lengths carefully, on the stone platform in the grove in the forest. He checked the lengths carefully a second time and, when satisfied, placed a white candle at each apex on the star. He lit the candles, knelt near the apex pointing north, opened the book, and began the chant.
Hocus Pocus, Harum Scarum!
Oh great demon, Lord of the Dark,
Into my pentagram, your backside park!
The wind increased its speed, swirling about the grove. Clouds appeared and covered the moon. The surrounding trees began to shake. White smoke began to appear in the center of the pentagram. Frank grinned; the spell worked. The column of smoke turned black, grew, and slowly coalesced in a scaly, naked, and red demon, ten feet tall.
The demon looked around, checked its appearance, and said, "Be right back!" Then he disappeared with a pop.
Frank frowned. The demon was supposed to stay and do his bidding. He blinked when the demon reappeared with a loud "POP!" Now its attire was different. It was wearing bright lime-green Hawaiian print jams and smoking a huge joint of Maui-Wowie.
"I require your services! You must obey my commands!" Frank shouted.
The demon looked at Frank and slowly shook its head.
"Man, you are so medieval," the demon stated. "Chill, dude!"
Robert Spotts has been writing for about ten years.
AN AFTERNOON STROLL ~ Fred Waiss
A year ago the Earth did not have visitors. An alien space ship passed by, scraping the Earth's atmosphere for about an hour and showering the planet with radiation and particulates human science had never imagined. Then, it accelerated to beyond the speed of light and vanished. Thirty-six hours later another ship, possibly in pursuit of the first, shot along the same path at the same speed, again showering the planet with radiation and substances that human scientists had never conceived possible. And then it, too, sped up and vanished.
The worries over what effect the dregs of those passages would have on the next generations were quickly dispelled when it was discovered that the changes wouldn’t wait for the next generations.
The sparrow was not paying attention and the squirrel was. Silently it crept closer to the bird, taking advantage of leaves and branches to cover its approach. The bird was simply sitting, perhaps dozing. It perched well out on a thin branch that was too weak for any predator. Perhaps it thought it was safe.
The squirrel crept closer, to the base of the bird’s tiny perch branch. The squirrel opened its mouth. A tongue longer than the squirrel’s length shot out and wrapped around the sparrow and dragged it back to a waiting extended maw.
The sparrow screamed an eerily human-sounding screech and dug its claws into the wood to resist the drag. It folded its wings forward and the tiny hands on the ends of its wings grasped the tongue and tried to pull away from it. It pecked and bit viciously at the organic lasso.
But the squirrel was too determined and the tongue may as well have been flexible steel for what the sparrow’s efforts accomplished. The bird was dragged inexorably and quickly into a mouth that had distended like a snake’s, and it disappeared within as the jaws closed.
We could hear the tiny bones crunching as the squirrel laboriously chewed up his meal.
Clover and I had been taking our usual afternoon walk when we stopped to witness that little drama. We’ve been pretty faithful about taking those walks since we got into our fifties.
“Do you wonder if the squirrel even remembers when he couldn’t and wouldn’t do that?” Clover asked.
“I’m sure he doesn’t. Critters like that don’t have memories like we do. For them, what is, is and was and will be. It’s up to human beings to maintain a sense of wonder and memory of how things are new and reflect on the changes.”
We continued our walk. Across the street, Bob had extended his legs to fifteen feet so he could get his dumb dog out of the tree. Actually, it was only a puppy and just wasn’t learning very quickly. This was the third time this week that the pup had chased that same cat up that tree, using his cougar-like legs and claws to bound and scramble up.
And then the cat would leap off a high branch and glide like a flying squirrel to the next tree and the pup wouldn’t be able to get back down.
I found the pup interesting. He showed that the changes wrought by the alien ships did breed true.
Further down the block two older dogs—a white terrier mix and a black lab—had torn into the two-foot anthill in front of the vacant house. Bright blue ants were pouring out of the hill like lava from a volcano, and the dogs were lapping them up like candy. The ants swarmed over the dogs, but the canines seemed not to notice.
We walked on. The ants were much too involved with survival to worry about crossing the street to bother us. There were other hazards, though.
A diamondback rattlesnake was flying right at us, mouth open and fangs dripping venom. They’ve really increased their range since they acquired flight.
By reflex, our four arms shot out and nabbed the thing in mid-air ten feet from us. Clover grasped it behind the head, very neatly avoiding the attempted bite, and in front of the first wing pair. My right hand grabbed it in front of the second pair of wings and my left behind them. It thrashed and writhed. Its tail rattles sounded like a buzz saw.
We retracted our arms and brought the thing within normal reach. Clover kneeled quickly on the sidewalk and pushed the snake’s head against the concrete while I gripped it tightly and tried to subdue the thrashing.
Clover extended her right index fingernail till it was four inches past her fingertip and shaped like a dagger blade. She drove it neatly through the snake’s head, and the thrashing stopped at once. She withdrew the nail and looked at it. The point had impacted the cement, but hadn’t chipped.
She grinned proudly. I fetched a rubber band out of a pants pocket and handed it to her. She wrapped it neatly around the snake’s mouth to keep it closed.
I pulled off the wings. They were about eight inches long each and I just left them on the grass.
I mimicked Clover’s trick with my own fingernail and slit the snake skin lengthwise. She hung onto the head while I peeled the skin off and tossed it on the grass with the wings. The vulture robins would be along very soon to tussle with the toads over the discards.
I pulled a chunk of meat off a rib and offered it to Clover. She popped it in her mouth and chewed enthusiastically. I helped myself to a piece. Raw rattlesnake is a bit gamey, but gamey is the new gourmet fare.
“Better save the rest. Daisy, Jim, and the grandkids are coming over tonight. If we don’t save them some we’ll never hear the end of it.”
“I suppose so. Daisy said they’ll bring over some of Jim Junior’s first kill. She wouldn’t say what it was, though.”
I looked around. Robins and toads—maybe a dozen of each—were lurking nearby, waiting for us to desert the area. And no doubt some of them would be eating each other before they were through.
“It’s getting crowded around here. Let’s get this in the fridge.”
We hadn’t intended to hurry, but circumstances got shaky. Some of the robins decided that they needed that snake meat more than we did and they started stooping at us, claws extended and beaks open, showing those nasty little sharp teeth. I hung onto the snake with my left hand. On my right I extended all five fingernails to about six inches, stretched the arm an extra two feet and worked on repelling the attack. Clover used both her hands and arms the same way.
Pretty soon there were three or four bloody birds flopping on the ground—which was enough for the rest of the flock to descend upon and forget about us. We hurried home and got the snake in the fridge.
Later that evening we all sat down to a dinner of grilled snake and lizard legs (from Junior’s first kill) along with fresh veggies and iced tea.
“So, how was your walk this afternoon?” Daisy asked as she passed the veggie bowl.
“Same ol’, same ol’.” I answered.
Clover added, “Nothing we haven’t seen before.” Then she turned her attention to Jim Junior. “So, Jimmy,” she leaned toward him and asked eagerly, “Tell us about the lizard.”
♦ Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher and coach who writes poetry, articles, short stories, novellas, and novels as the muse attacks; as an author he considers himself a work in progress.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.
Before he knew how to write, Travis Carter drew pictures to record his memories. Travis put a lot of detail into his artwork, getting the colours just right to capture the mood. It was hard work with just a handful of broken crayons.
“That's a beautiful drawing Buddy. You're using so many nice colours.”
Travis looked up at the kindergarten teacher to make sure she was talking to him. Lately, Mrs. Sutherland called everyone in her classroom 'Buddy', even the girls. That way she did not have to stumble over too many names, or sort out 'Jody' from 'Judy' and 'Kevin' from 'Keith'. There were no less than three boys named 'Jimmy' in the class, and a 'Jenny'. Travis was the only 'Travis' though, and he wished his teacher would make the effort once in a while.
“Thank you Mrs. Sutherland,” he mumbled. See how easy it was? He remembered her name. It wasn't that hard, and Travis was just a little kid. The drawing needed more purple and he went back to work.
“Is that a picture of your sister?”
Travis looked up. Mrs. Sutherland was still there, staring down at him. The teacher's thin, tight lips revealed clenched teeth, like she was wearing a pasted on smile but someone forgot to fix her dull grey eyes. Travis wondered if Mrs. Sutherland would make it to the end of the school year. Her eyes had lost their spark well before Christmas break and it was still only March.
Travis glanced back down at the picture in his work book. Of course it was his sister—that was the assignment after all—to draw a picture of someone in your family. Moreover, below the drawing of the girl with orange hair and blue eyes, he had written the word “Lucy” in crooked letters. It was the only word Travis knew how to write other than his own name. His sister had the habit of doodling her name on everything, usually adorned with extra hearts and flowers. Travis had skipped the hearts and flowers, Lucy didn't deserve them. Instead, he gave his sister extra big teeth and ears, but the picture still looked enough like his sister that his teacher should know. Lucy had been in Mrs. Sutherland's class six years ago and the teacher still saw his big sister every day because Lucy was responsible for walking Travis home from school.
Being in grade six put Lucy at the top of the elementary school hierarchy, and at the end of each day she walked into the kindergarten cloakroom as if she owned the place. She would grab Travis' coat without asking and stood in the hallway with her friends while he put on his outdoor runners. No matter how fast Travis tied his laces, Lucy always rolled her eyes and made a huge production about him taking so-o-o long. “Hurry up Twerp,” she called, loud enough to leave no doubt about the awful burden of minding her little brother.
Yesterday after school, Lucy was particularly insufferable because Mike Walker had asked Lucy's friend, Vivian, to be his girl friend. Travis heard all about it while standing in the hallway, waiting to go home. Lucy had held his coat hostage as she whispered and giggled with Vivian and a hanger-on named Caroline. For some reason that only twelve-year-old girls could fathom—Mike and Vivian going steady meant that Mike's friend, Kenny Becker, might ask Lucy to be his girlfriend soon. Then the four of them could go see a Saturday matinee at the Odeon. The girls went on and on about necking and petting and letting the boys get to second base. Travis had not understood any of it. Were they going to the Odeon to see The Reluctant Astronaut with Don Knotts, or to a baseball game?
Finally, Travis got tired of waiting. He really needed to go pee. He had tugged on Lucy's sleeve and shifted back and forth holding his crotch to let his sister know it was serious.
“Lucy, I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Ugh! Go then,” Lucy said. “I'll meet you out at the playground.”
“No, you have to take me,” Travis said, trailing after her. “It's your job.”
Travis knew that if he peed his pants it would be Lucy's fault and she would lose the allowance money she needed to go to the Odeon on Saturday—if Kenny actually asked her—which Travis highly doubted. However, if he took himself to the bathroom then his sister would earn her extra allowance for nothing. Travis followed her down the hall going the wrong way, still holding himself, until finally Lucy stomped back in a huff. She had grabbed Travis so roughly that he almost peed himself on the spot, and this morning he woke up with the blue pattern of Lucy's fingers on his upper arm. He thought about showing the bruises to their mother, but Mama had enough to worry about with work, and bills, and something called migraines. Travis got dressed for school and said nothing.
After Mrs. Sutherland called morning attendance, she handed out plastic cups full of crayon stubs and asked her students to draw in their workbooks. Again. Colouring was their teacher's default assignment lately, something the children could handle on their own while she sat with her head down on her desk until she found enough energy to wander around the tables calling everyone 'buddy'.
Now the teacher stared down at the picture of Lucy grabbing a small boy with brown hair. The boy in the picture wore brown pants and a blue striped shirt—completely accurate, because Travis had checked his laundry basket that morning—and there was a purple and blue bulge on the stick boy's arm.
“Nice colours,” repeated Mrs. Sutherland, before she moved along to the next student.
Travis wrote his own name below the figure of the boy and flipped the page of the workbook to start a new drawing. If he hurried, he could finish another picture before the recess bell. Only time for one more though, so he wanted to make it meaningful. There were just too many people doing bad things to him, and never enough time to draw all of them in his workbook at school. Last night,Travis had wanted to do some drawing at home, but his older brother Cameron appropriated every pencil crayon in the house to colour in maps for a junior high school project. Having Cameron hog all the pencil crayons and markers at home was a crime worth remembering and Travis felt an odd satisfaction as he used broken crayons at school to illustrate the event.
Mrs. Sutherland came with an ink stamp to put the date on everyone's artwork and handed out gold stars. Two stars for Travis. The recess bell rang and Travis tucked his workbook away for safe keeping. He knew that next year, in grade one, he would get proper pencils and learn how to mash together his ABC's to create words and sentences. Oh what evidence he would document when that time came—not just against Lucy and Cameron, but everyone—until then,Travis kept drawing.
copyright © 2014
Hermine Robinson lives in Calgary, AB Canada, where the winters are long and inspiration is plentiful.
How my siblings and I looked forward to butterfly-blue-sky summers when we would go to visit our cousins. The lure of the sea and endless play-filled days beckoned and made the elbow poking and constant brother-made car engine noises bearable. Eventually the two revving four-strokes would succumb to the power of the real car and sleep, and my sister would nod her head on my shoulder. I would stay awake to feast on every flickering view framed by our old car's window.
The road was unpaved gravel. It slithered and wound its way round the hills and cliffs. Sometimes our wheels dislodged stones that slipped and bounced down the sheer rock face to the sea.
Brave wind-swept trees mountain-climbed all the way down to the ocean, where the sea spandexed to the sky. Stretched before us were the regal, glittering waves.
Still higher we climbed, worming our way round the wind-scarred hills that looked like huge knees clad in skirts of green trimmed in cream at the sandy petticoat beaches.
They looked that way from above but bare feet told a different tale when our feet were scraped on the dead-bone driftwood that lay wrecked and heaped on the stony shore.
Dad would yell, "We're nearly there," interrupting a chorus of, "She'll-be-coming-round-the-mountain." That meant we had reached the bridge. The “temporary” bridge had been flung over the river estuary during World War II. It clanked as our car drove over it. I held my breath until we were free of the metal web that suspended us too high, over the fast racing river.
The river often flooded. When it did, the open-mouthed sea would swallow huge gulps of yellow brown silt. Several trees were beavered across the ribbons of water below. How undignified they looked with their arms and legs flung everywhere.
As the fingers of light slipped off the hills, the darkness rolled in. The small community had no electricity. So there were no streetlights. Only odd yellow lamp-lit windows winking in the distance interrupted the oncoming darkness.
Aunty had risen at five that morning to stoke the wood fire. There was a roast dinner waiting and a chocolate cake. The food tasted wonderful, as if we were eating outdoors. A generator out back, beating its rhythm, lit the house and powered Uncle John's stereo. He loved musicals, and we all sang after dinner surrounded by the Gauguin’s smiling Polynesian maidens.
We loved being with our cousins. There were four of us to match their four. Finally we were cocooned in sleeping bags wherever there was room, dreaming of going to the beach the next day.
How we loved to ride bare back on smooth driftwood horses. The boys commanded pirate ship logs and only left them when the blue sea beckoned to us to swim in her. Uncle would tie his towel on his head and take us to the best swimming hole. We ducklinged after him to swim there and splash dive from the rocks.
Back at the house we climbed the cliffs behind the school. It was great to have a whole playground to play in, but hopscotch lines were boundaries, and we were wild things. We climbed the cliffs until we felt the tangy salt wind comb through our hair. Wildly, we ran pretending to be Red Indians war whooping over the grassy hills. Always our parents would hold hands to their brows to scout for us on the horizon.
Even when rain pelted against the windows and smudged the sky charcoal-gray, we loved it there because in the hall was a chalkboard wall where we created countless worlds, even red skied worlds with blue grass. Best of all, to me, there were shelves and shelves of books. I ran my hand over them in awe, then pried one away from its neighbors and, there in a cushioned corner, I would plunge into a new world. Those books watered my mind's garden.
All too soon our summer evaporated like steam on a hot road, and we had to go back to school. But nothing could take away what we learned while Aunty stoked the wood stove and the sea constantly sang to the rocky shore.
copyright © 2014
Writer Jenny Harp is a New Zealander grandmother who lives in the United States with her husband and loves God, life and family.