“Authorities seek seven animals that escaped from the Phoenix Zoo after animal-rights activists used torches to break down exhibit fences early this morning. The missing animals include four zebras, a giraffe, a wallaby, and Uni, the zoo’s famous one-horned oryx.”
Nurse Edie turned off the TV, leaving the soft hum of the fluorescent lights to fill the silence. Lily, Edie’s six-year-old patient, fidgeted in the hospital bed. Lily’s left leg had been amputated to remove its bone cancer, and Lily fought against her confinement and dependence on others. Edie hadn’t known Lily before the surgery, but could imagine the study in motion the girl must have been.
“Want a ride?”
Edie lifted the small girl into the wheelchair and pushed her down the green-tiled hall to the lounge, parking the the chair at the window.
“Look! A unicorn!” Lily pointed at the shadows under the ficus trees. Edie could just make out a large deer-like shape, crowned by a spear that pointed to the sky.
“Oh, it’s the oryx from the zoo.” She patted Lily’s shoulder.
“No, I wished to see a unicorn! It’s here!”
The graceful creature, its left horn broken at the base, turned toward Lily. Edie looked past the oryx and noticed an man in uniform peeking over a bush, holding a gun.
“Time to go.” She spun Lily’s chair before the girl could see the tranquilizer hit, felling the unicorn like common game.
copyright © 2014
Anna Zumbro lives in Washington, DC and writes short literary and speculative fiction. Read more at annazumbro.com
My wife, Phillipa, had been dead a week before I discovered she'd reprogrammed the Satellite Navigation System. Every irksome instruction had been replaced with her own soothing voice, whispering directions.
I wouldn't have known how to do it, but Phil was a wizard with new technology. She spent hours online, shopping, browsing and blogging. Our son called her the Silver Surfer.
Friends told me it was morbid; they suggested I leave the SatNav in the car – or, better yet, delete it. They didn't understand why I brought it into the house, and shook their heads in stunned disbelief when I told them I'd plugged it in next to the bed.
Ted Hunter choked on his morning rasher of bacon. “You're mad!” he spluttered, spraying bits of gristle all over the paper.
Old Dave MacNish spilled half his pint down his best pair of trousers and stormed off to the bar on his own. When he returned, he shoved a half-pint of whiskey under my nose. “You need a wee dram, lad! Move on with your life!”
I thought the SatNav made a rather splendid conversationalist. Better than Frank Drummond, who only ever came over to grumble about his wife's latest hairstyle, or Bill Prendergast, who, after fifteen years of Tuesday night poker, still hadn't worked out that I had no interest in football, whatever the score.
No, the SatNav listened, and when it spoke, it spoke sense.
I lifted my head out of the financial times, my bottom lip gripped between my false teeth. “I'm thinking of investing in CalCo.”
“Turn around when possible, Jim.” Her voice was so calm and measured, I felt sure she was right. Phillippa had always been hot on the financials.
“Should I go on a diet, Phil? The doctor seems to think I've put on weight.”
“Get into the right lane, my dear.”
Each evening I plugged her in by the bed and whispered “I love you, I miss you, sleep tight,” and it felt good to hear her guiding me, this way or that, away from my home and off, off into the night.
One day I had her on in the car, driving home from a busy day at the office. It was a journey I'd made ten thousand times, if not more, but it wasn't really about knowing the way – more about sharing the journey.
“Turn left just here, Jim.” Her voice was sincere, as always, but the instruction unexpected. I slowed and stared at the gravel road she'd directed me to. My house was in the other direction.
“Turn left now, please.” She only ever said please when she was getting annoyed. I turned and felt the tyres crunch on limestone.
The road led past a copse of sycamores and turned down towards a glimmering patch of water.
“Ahead, we're to keep left,” whispered her beautiful voice.
I did as instructed, and narrowly missed a large, mean-looking pothole.
As we pulled up to the side of the water, I felt a strange sense of recognition. I'd been here before. Sometime. Yet the place was different.
“Did we come here, love? Together?” I asked.
“In twenty metres, I have reached my destination.”
I peered through the windscreen. Twenty metres? That would be in the water.
“You want me to --” I stopped, realising what she'd said. “Your destination?”
“Keep right,” she whispered back.
I opened the car door and slipped out. I recognised it now, of course. The old lovers' spot. We had made out here, long ago, in our teens. All hot bodies and passion. There had always been a few cars here, then, back in the days when rebellion was limited to certain, well recognised places. Beyond the far bank, a forest had grown, obscuring the view of the city we'd once enjoyed. But it was the same spot.
“I have reached my destination.”
My shoulders sagged. I'd been putting this off.
The latch on the trunk was sticky, but I leaned back and gave it a well-practised kick. It popped open.
“You're totally sure?” I shouted.
“Keep right,” she called back.
I hesitated, just for a moment, then picked up the urn and started down towards the lake. It was time to say goodbye.
copyright © 2014
Hailing from the south coast of England, Leo Norman is a teacher, father and teller of tall tales.
“That one!” Grandma Dora blurted out, chewing the sounds, her green eyes hot like tongs. I could not believe it: she hissed and bit the words like that when she thought of Boris. She had just come back from the front door, flushed and hot. Her blood pressure had probably reached her eyebrows and that meant death was stalking her by her easy chair. Death had been stalking grandma for eighteen years, ever since I introduced her to Boris. Since then, he had been “that one” who wanted to kidnap her only treasure, her granddaughter, on account of whom Grandma Dora made her best effort to go on living. She asked her Jewish gods to keep her whole and kicking so she could take care of me.
She had lost my father, a wise thin man, and she only had me plus two old friends, inveterate smokers, with whom she drank coffee. Occasionally, the two of them wept; not Grandma Dora. She drank vodka while her friends cried silent tears into their coffee cups.
“That one!” Grandma repeated, biting off several sounds. “I told him you were not available.”
Our sons - Boris’s and mine - were little boys. Grandma was happy they were at home, but they were “that one’s” sons and when they fought, she did not ask why; she knew. Staring at the air, foggy with feathers from their pillows after the fights, she snarled, “that one!”
“You won’t live together with him under the same roof for very long,” she often remarked. Even before Boris met “the other woman.” Grandma Dora was convinced he’d clear out. When it would happen was only an issue of time and patience.
I met Boris under the chestnut trees in the school yard of the professional school for electricians in Radomir where I taught English. The prospective electricians couldn’t care less about English grammar; most of them were only interested in learning a handful of obscene words. The present perfect tense was as remote a notion to them as tobogganing to me. Boris asked me if I had heard of a well-known local company I knew absolutely nothing about. It was a way to start a conversation.
Grandma Dora was right - I mooned about, stuffing my brain with obscure poetry or good-for-nothing novels. Boris was a physicist, a corporate manager or something, he said, but I wasn’t listening, I could hardly wait for the end of the day when I would see him again.
We didn’t go to his room in the cheap hotel in Radomir. We didn’t even go the motel five miles away from my school. Love happened quickly. There were chestnut trees, enormous ones that shone in the afternoon. The only thing I remember was how birds nestled under Boris’s hands.
On the following day, after my classes and living in the present simple tense, chestnut trees sprouted and blossomed in his wake.
“That one” gave me the sky with swallows and the winds, with old whispers and the vodka, which Grandma Dora drank. That was the medicine for her poor heart. Sometimes it pounded and thudded like the express train to Sofia, the same train that would take her to her friend--death. And yet, Grandma loved my sons.
When Boris moved into “the other woman’s” flat – she was a physicist, too, and a colleague – Grandma Dora forbade us to mention her name. “That woman is made of chestnuts and lies,” the old woman concluded and heaved a deep sigh of relief. Even when the boys fought, they did it with the summer I gave them, Grandma thought. On the other hand, she held the walking stick firmly in her hand and knocked down all chestnuts from the trees, muttering under her breath that she felt sorry for me: I was twenty five and I had two wild kids who could not sit peacefully for a minute, not if their lives depended upon it.
Sometimes Boris rang me up. Those were the days when chestnut trees blossomed and flocks of swallows came from the South. I thought about my classes. I had already learned that money meant the world, and I had none. I took on extra work, translating one more book with two million explosions and hot sex into Bulgarian. Unfortunately, I also spent every penny I earned in one week.
“Your kids are naughty,” Grandma Dora muttered. “Look at their clothes. They cut them with pairs and pairs of scissors.”
Chestnut trees grew in my sons. Boris was in them, and I could not hate him the way Grandma Dora wanted me to. My boys each wore out a pair of running shoes every month, and finished the last can of compote in the month of March.
Around this time, my car broke down and I began to walk to school and Grandma stopped drinking her vodka. Her heart turned into an express train several times a day. And it was only because she was still on friendly terms with death, that the woman remained whole and kicking.
“You are not all there,” Grandma would say. At this point she had made up her mind that although she was old like the crags, she had to do something for me, the crazy woman who knew that money was everything, but ran like mad to the chestnut trees. Of course “that one” was never there, but her granddaughter rushed to the chestnut shadows in Radomir, smiling at the sun. Why should she grin idiotically like that after the sun scorched the garden and the old car would not start?
I was happy under the chestnut trees. The birds that Boris and I had tamed together still lived there. We had tamed the wind too, and tied it in the grass to get some sleep.
One day, Grandma announced she had by chance found a tenant for one of the rooms in our two-room flat. All of us: the boys, Grandma and I, flocked together in the other. You could only call it a “room” if your imagination ran wild: four beds, two desks and a TV set – all of them battered, the TV set broadcasting either a yellow or blue tint according to meteorological conditions. If it rained, the screen was blue, if the sun shone, everything was yellow.
The tenant moved into the room we vacated. He was a quiet fellow, very clean indeed, Grandma said. He wouldn’t kill a cockroach if he saw one, a meek and mild chemist who worked in the toothpaste factory not far from Radomir.
“That guy is great for you,” Grandma said directly. She was never good at beating about the bush. “I’ve been looking for a tenant for a year now. I turned down a dozen of them, you know. This one’s good for you.”
The man stammered slightly and when he told me, “Y…y..you are pp…pretty,” he blushed furiously up to his eyebrows. Perhaps his blood pressure had reached a point not far from Grandma’s express train to death. He gave me a ride in his old Ford truck to my school in Radomir; he repaired the faucet that had been leaking since the dawn of time. Grandma Dora treated him to bean soup and asked him to solve some problems in mathematics for my sons who took advantage of the situation and badgered him into reading them a fairy tale, so docile was he.
“He’s what you need,” Grandma said.
I found nothing special about the quiet November days. I went on running to the chestnut trees by the motel, I even took Toncho (that meek and mild tenant) there, but no birds nested under his hands. He could not tie the wind in the grass and let it sleep. Toncho was grass and there was no summer in him. He was a room with four battered beds and an old TV set, which always broadcast blue movies because it rained. My sons, my grandmother and I lived in that room and it was all Toncho had.
Our daughter - Toncho’s and mine - was a green-eyed toddler. There surely was no summer, winter, spring or autumn in her. There was a warm, well-lit room in that child, and if there was any bird in her, it was still in its egg and had not hatched. Toncho however, believed the girl was everything. He took my sons to pick mushrooms and autumn leaves.
“Do you see now what I meant?” Grandma asked me triumphantly. She had again started sipping her vodka, just to slow down the express train in her heart.
“That one” had stopped calling me. I no longer taught at the professional school in Radomir. We all moved into a new flat in Pernik, a town where there was not a single chestnut tree. But I went to the birches, telling myself they were chestnut trees. I believed I tied the wind in the grass, and it was summer, and I tamed birds, waiting for Boris to ring me up. I didn’t know how things with him were.
I was grateful for the summer, for the birds and winds Boris gave me. I hope he lives happily with her, I said to myelf.
I hoped like that until the day Grandma cried out “that one!” I couldn’t believe it.
“I told him you were not available,” Grandma Dora hissed. “Hey, where are you off to? Hey, stop it. Come back. The kids will be home from school. Your husband will be back, too! You are nuts!”
“Boris!” I ran out of the old block of flats. There was not a single birch in the neighborhood. He was walking to the bus-stop, gray like the sidewalk.
After each step Boris took, directly through the asphalt, chestnut trees grew.
copyright © 2014
Zdravka Evtimova is a Bulgarian writer and literary translator whose short story collections have been published in USA (Time to Mow and Other Stories, All Things That matter Press, 2012), Canada (Pale and Other Post Modern Bulgarian Stories, Vox Humana, 2010) and in Greece (Endless July and Other Stories, Paraxenes Meres, 2013).
When the CSI expert found him, he had no face.
“Jesus Christ!” Wayne, the lead detective, exclaimed as the three of them examined the slumped body of Sonny DeMarco.
“How the hell did that happen?” asked Wayne’s partner, Angelo.
“How the hell do I know?” Wayne said. “Connie, where you goin’?
“Downstairs,” she hollered over her shoulder.
They watched the CSI agent gingerly step over Sonny’s corpse, ensuring her heels didn’t sink into the slime. She sniffed the air and then strode toward the basement, with an air of determination.
“These sob’s can be brutal if you don’t pay up,” Angelo said, shaking his head and biting his lower lip. “ Sicilians!”
“You think he didn’t pay his “insurance?” asked Wayne, raising his chin slightly in the dead man’s direction.
Angelo shrugged. “It’s the Mob.”
“After Hurricane Sandy, there’s no way Sonny could eke out a living in this hole-in-the-wall pizza joint. He couldn’t crank out enough to pay the rent, let alone…”
“Like they care!” Angelo surveilled the mess of beer cans, sand, garbage and mounds of paper and plastic bags. “Poor guy turned into a hoarder, looks like.”
In the crammed room, Wayne was forced to step over the body to reach the bathroom. He stopped outside the lavatory and peered in. “Christ sake. Good Gawd Almighty! Look in here! Seems like the commode wasn’t functioning.” Excrement had piled high for months and overflowed onto the cracked linoleum, whose color once might have been a lime green but now was taupe.
“I’m gonna gag, Boss,” said Angelo, standing behind his partner. Wayne pulled out a handkerchief and covered his mouth as he retreated from the scene. Angelo crammed his fist into his mouth and looked away.
“I’m not sure this is a murder,” Wayne said, glancing around the room.
“Hell, it’s no suicide! A man can’t chew off his own face.”
“You sure it’s Sonny?”
“Oh yeah. Me and my old lady, we been comin’ to this place here at the Jersey shore for years. In the front rooms, they served pizza. A couple of tables, a few chairs. No idea the back rooms looked like this. Pizza ain’t bad either. He used fresh mozzarella. And the canolli! Best on the boardwalk.”
Wayne gave a skeptical look. “Shit man, I don’t think I’d eat anything that fella prepared.” He pointed at the heap of bloated flesh without a face.
“You’re not going to believe this, Boss, but Sonny here used to be quite the lady’s man back in Jersey City when he was young—the Greek god, chiseled type.”
“You’re right. Don’t believe it.”
“If the mob had wanted him unrecognizable, why leave his fingers?” Angelo donning blue latex gloves picked up the deceased’s fingers examining them. “Huh?”
“Greek God, you say?” Wayne uttered as he winced at the ravaged face. That reminds me of a joke.”
“Old geezer struts around his bedroom naked and says to his old dame ‘What do you think? I still got it right?’ “Turn off the damn light and go to sleep”, she says. ‘That’s not what you said on our honeymoon. You said, back then, I looked like a damn Greek God!’ She gave him the once over and says, ‘Humph! Now, you look like a goddamn Greek!’ ”
The guys chuckled over the joke as Wayne straddled the cadaver searching it for wounds.
“Where the heck did that CSI broad wander off to?” asked Angelo. “She applying lipstick?”
Wayne stretched his back, cracked his knuckles, and studied his partner. “So what should we write up?’
“Homicide,” said Angelo. “No doubt about it. Beaten to a pulp. Maybe they used brass knuckles? His mug was smashed to a bloody, frickin’ pulp.”
They heard high heels clicking coming up the stairs from the lower level. In her gloved hand the CSI agent was holding a ratty looking dog.
“What you got there, Connie?” asked Wayne.
“A mangy, starved Chihuahua?” asked Angelo.
She stroked the dog’s head. She turned him over in her one hand and patted his full belly with the other. His ribs didn’t protrude.
“You think it’s Sonny’s dog?” asked Angelo. “An eye witness to the crime? If only dogs could talk! Hey?”
“More than an eye witness...” Connie replied. Her lip curled in a sly smile. “Sonny’s here’s a hoarder. Been dead awhile. His pet was hungry. Probably the little guy began licking his owner the first couple of days and then kissing his master’s face. As days went on and the dog starved, he began nibbling. Before long…”
“OOOH, Gawd!” Angelo uttered. Wayne’s mouth fell open as they both stared at the man without lips, eyes or a nose. Then, they turned back and fixated on Sonny’s loyal friend that was licking his chops, oblivious to his role in the crime.
“Cannibalism,” Angelo said.
“CHEW-wow-wa” is what I’ll name him,” Connie announced patting the dog’s head. With the pooch tucked under her arm, like a clutch, she left the blue- taped area.
“Man’s best friend? Huh?” said Angelo. “Got to rethink that nickname.”
“Not exactly the endearing story of Greyfriar’s Bobby, the Edinburgh Skye Terrier who spent 14 years guarding his owner’s grave. That mutt slept on his owner’s grave each night. You see that Disney flick?”
“Never die alone with your dog, I guess, that’s the lesson to be learned from this,” Angelo said and shook his head.
“No redeeming inspirational dog tale here.”
“I think I like my version of the maiming better. I’d rather the Mob did it! You know, me and the Mrs. have one of those little Taco Bell dogs at home. Come to think of it he has a bit of a Lucifer glint to his eye and a devilish grin.”
“Angelo, before you pass out on the couch tonight, tell your old lady to feed him some bacon.”
“I’m going out right now to buy Peanut the biggest chewy toy a miniature dog can fit in his muzzle.”
“Nah, you’re too cheap to waste money on a yapper.”
Angelo glanced over at Sonny’s mangled face. “Sometimes insurance is worth the investment.”
copyright © 2014
Erika Hoffman’s humorous, non-fiction stories often appear in magazines like Sasee of Myrtle Beach or in nationally known anthologies like Chicken Soup for the Soul and Not Your Mother’s Book, but what she enjoys penning are mysteries; some have been published in Deadly Ink Anthologies, 2009 and 2010 and in Tough Lit Mag ( II, IV, V).
A Word in Edgewise ~ Peter McMillan
The fluorescent lights must have grown dim to his unblinking eyes. His body hadn't been moved or turned in ... well, these charts couldn't be trusted. Since the IV diet had been imposed, the custodial care seemed to have slackened off. It got easier to be forgotten. The machinery monitoring his body was his only company.
But one day it summoned the family. Everyone gathered around. Layered voices—loud, garrulous, cloying—came together in a twangy, raspy dissonance, punctuated by coughing spasms incited by rival perfumes. The shapes of family hovered over the bed, and the staff stood back, waiting.
"Daddy, I know you can hear me but is there anything you'd like to say. Just squeeze my hand, okay? That'll be good enough for me. Daddy, this is goodbye. Not just 'bye' but really and truly goodbye. It's very important to me, Daddy, that you know I've, uh, we've done everything that could be done. You know I'd never do anything but what was best for—"
"Terrell, you never was a big talker. Matter of fact, I don’t recollect when I last heard you string two words together. But that ain't neither here nor there, cause I think you know what your little girl here is tryin to say. That she loves you, and for that matter, I think I speak for everybody here when I say we all do. I know, I know. Ya'll quit making faces. I'm talkin to Terrell. Anyhow, we didn't often see eye to eye, did we Terrell, but—and I ain't sure I ever said this to you—I did look up to you when we was growin up—"
"Lester, just keep quiet for once. This ain't neither the time nor the place for you to start eulogizing. Phony eulogizing at that, truth be told. Gotta be center stage though, don't you? And always flappin that yap of yours. That's what Terrell would've told you to your face if he'd had any gumption. But I have enough for him and me, and now, time like this, I say we don't need your long-winded—"
"Just tryin to be nice, Sis."
"Oh, I wish we could just get this over with. I've gotta be downtown in half an hour and traffic's gonna be murder. So, what else do we have to do here? I mean we're not gonna make funeral arrangements yet, are we? And the will ... well, that better not come up til after next week, because Giancarlo and I will be in Cancún—"
"I heard ole J.C. was with some new young thing. That you, darlin? You better work fast, kitten, 'cause he's not gonna get out from under this one, and there ain't gonna be much left for you. But why am I telling you? It ain't like you're one to be a day late and a dollar short, including today, ain't that right honey?"
"Shut up! Just SHUT UP, okay! You have no business speaking to me like that … and on a day like today."
"And here you are—the both of you—just waitin for the old man to kick off. I'm sure he—well, maybe not him, but his dear departed wife, may she rest in peace—would've had a few choice words for you two right about—"
"Uncle Lester, despite your silly platitudes, you want the same thing I want … the same thing we all want. Besides, you're not one to act high and mighty, you old lecher. That's right! Uncle Lester, you're a lecherous old fool. There! If anybody didn't know it before, they do now. It was the summer I finished high school. In your backyard swimming pool. Aunt Edna was drunk like always. I still remember the look on your face when I kicked you in the crotch. That comes from my momma's side. Served you right, you creep. You oughta be locked up, you perv—"
"Lester! Is that true? A child! And your own kin! My niece, too, and her momma, a saint of a woman, except for that temper of hers. She'd have flayed you good fashion, like I've a mind to do right this minute. Good god, man! What were you—"
"Shhh. I think I heard him say something. Listen."
"Come on, he hasn't said anything in months, what's he gonna say?"
"I heard something, too. Sounded like 'Oh'"
"Pain, that's what it is. He still feels pain. Poor, poor Daddy!"
"Sooner we do this the—"
"No, not yet. I wanna hear. It's something else, not—"
"Yep, could be a word. Could be 'no' or 'know,' or 'Joe.' But that don't make no sense. Do we know a Joe? I know a lot of Johns. What about—"
"He's sayin 'go.' He's tellin us it's time for him to—"
"No. The old man's tryin to tell us to 'go.' Whaddya know about that! Ole Terrell. Finally—"
"Well, I never—"
"And that might just be why—"
Peter McMillan, whose roots are in the Deep South, is a freelance writer and ESL instructor who lives with his wife and two flat-coated retrievers on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario.
Plaza ~ Christina Murphy
Goldfish circle in the plaza fountain, their mouths open for offerings. We are circling, too—the you and I of a former life, now returning to the place we spent our honeymoon—this tropical hotel with its plastic trees and plastic fruit—pineapples mostly—hanging in artificial splendor above the goldfish.
I put a quarter on my thumb and flick it into the turquoise water flowing gently over a sunset scene in the tiles.
“Make a wish,” I say, and you comply.
It would be nice if you were smiling, but you look bitter, perhaps angry, and the quarter slides off a goldfish’s back and floats lazily toward the tiles.
“Can we get a drink?” you say.
“If you want one.”
“I do. Hurry up.”
In the bar, I order the featured drink, half a coconut filled with crushed ice, rum, orange slices, and a too-red maraschino cherry.
“You want one?”
“No, too childish,” you say.
“Always a criticism, huh?”
“I guess so,” you say.
I watch small red lines leak from the cherry and stain the milky white coconut flesh.
The bartender’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a red lei. There’s something terribly sad about fake tropical settings. Everything is trying too hard to be real.
You take a deep breath. “I was wrong,” you say. “I do want a divorce. I shouldn’t have let you bring me here.”
I want to tell you something, but I feel like one of the goldfish, my mouth opening toward what will be only a bitter metallic taste, and I’ll be caught up in the emptiness, the humiliation again.
“To the tropics,” I say, lifting my drink for a toast, but managing only to spill pink coconut juice down my new shirt of beach scenes and orange-gold sunsets.
Christina Murphy's fiction appears in a range of journals and anthologies and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.