Good Beginnings: Fair Shopping

Good beginnings.

It’s something so delicious and delicate.

And dangerous.

Zipper down. Spinach-infested smiles. Eye boogers. Toilet paper stuck to… well, just stuck.

First impression failures line my history well.

Then there are those winning first shots.

Wind causes hair to blow lavishly behind face. Sunlight making eyes radiant. Body odor: good.

Point being, good beginnings can happen as random as bad ones.

And when it comes to good beginnings with stories, I have bucketloads. Trunk-novel-loads, in fact. Many still stuck in the mucus of my hippocampus.

What to do with good story beginnings? Write long epic novels, of course.

The frustrating part about these good story beginnings is that they don’t always promise a good long ending.

That’s what happened to my short story ‘Fair Shopping.’

It was supposed to be epic in length. An odyssey that stands ageless and full of action and intrigue.

Yeah… that didn’t happen past chapter four. Damn story.

It wanted to write itself into the truncated form it is now, the stubborn thing.

No! I want espionage. End-of-the-world cataclysm. Perspective of our current throes into modern potential warfare.

But the damned story kicked me out and said this is what will happen instead. It defied pantsing. It defied outlines.

So, I let it do its thing and write itself out.

What was supposed to be a brick of a novel became a short dive into horror for a young couple on their way to a town fair.

So happy the folks at Spectral Press liked this good beginning that wanted it to go as short as it wanted to.

‘Fair Shopping’ will be part of the fifth anthology of Spectral Book of Horrors, a wonderful series to be part of in my opinion.

Coming soon in the fall.

Hooray for good beginnings!

 

JLT

Bedtime

Child: When are we safe?

Mother: Here and now. In my arms.

Child: But your arms are soft and warm. They can’t stop monsters.

Mother: No. They can’t.

Child: So when are we safe?

Mother: Here and now. In my arms.

Child: You already said that. So, we’re never safe.

Mother: We’re together.

Child: Not all the time. Besides, that doesn’t mean we’re safe.

Mother: But I’m here now to protect you.

Child: Well how can you protect me when you’re not around?

Mother: I’ll stop the monsters now so you won’t ever have to worry about them ever again.

Child: But you’ll die if you do that.

Mother: I only want to keep you safe.

Child: I’ll be alone.

Mother: You’ll never be alone.

Child: You know, you really are starting to annoy me.

Mother: Why do you say that?

Child: Well, first of all, you come off as kind of weird every night with this ‘I’m-the-mom-everything-is-okay’ stuff that goes on and on, over and over. But it doesn’t really help me.

Mother: So you’re saying I annoy you.

Child: Yeah. Kind of. I mean if you stop to think about what you’re saying to me, it’s pretty meaningless. I’m telling you about the blood-sucking monsters that are outside my bedroom window, and you’re going on about this ‘here-and-now’ crap.

Mother: Child!

Child: And the stuff about being in your arms. Do you know how sweaty I get when you hug up on me? It makes my head itch, too.

Mother: Well then, if you find me annoying and don’t like my hugs, then you can deal with the monsters yourself.

Child: Mom? Oh come on, Babe. You don’t have to leave now. Mom?

Child: Mom?

Monster: Hey kid.

Child: Which one are you?

Monster: The choker.

Child: No. Not you. Aw, I hate it when you show up.

Monster: Hey, at least I’m not the bloodsucker. Besides, you haven’t been choked in a while. A good choking is just the thing for you.

Child: Yeah, but it hurts.

Monster: Not if I kill you. Then you won’t feel a thing.

Child: Dammit. Do you really have to choke me tonight?

Monster: I’m afraid so. Don’t struggle.

Child: MOM!

Monster: shhhh….

Child: MOM! The choking monster is in here! He’s going to choke me, Mom!

Monster: Just relax, kid.

Child: MO-gurgh–

Monster: That’s it. Turning blue. Turning blue. Baal loves you. Turning blue.

Child: gggrrruuuggghh

Monster: Turning blue. Turning-

Mother: That’s enough of that.

Monster: OW!

Child: Uu…uh. Mom… Mommy.

Mother: Honestly, you have way too many fathers that love to torment you.

Child: Mommy?

Monster: Did you really have to kick me in the nuts, Hon? I mean, geez, I have a job to do.

Mother: Et daemonium exisse.

Monster: Oh, you rotten strumpet. I hate you, you bi–

Child: It’s gone?

Mother: He’s gone.

Child: Mommy?

Mother: What?

Child: When are we safe?

Mother: Shut up and go to sleep.

 

 

©Jack Lee Taylor 2016

 

 

 

Fair Shopping

 

It starts when Nora and I see the black-and-white flyer on one of Ember’s Grocery tack boards by aisle 7.

24th ANNUAL EMBER COMMERCE STREET FAIR

SATURDAY JUNE 28

FOOD CRAFT MUSIC FUN!

We turn on aisle 8 and I stiffen, rubbing the back of my neck.

“Why do you keep doing that?” Nora says. My wife looks at me, her eyes luminous and accusing.

“Do what?” I reply.

“This.” Nora stoops forward in the cold air of the grocery store and rubs the back of her neck briskly with her left hand, her arm bracelets jangling. “Always when we get to the baby aisle.”

“I’m just walking, Nora,” I say, knowing where this is heading.

I see her let several weeks of pent up frustration go as she slap both hands to the sides of her white summer dress. She studies my face and then says, “Stop pretending, Alan. It’s not just the damn grocery store anymore. It’s everything. You go all stiff and start rubbing your neck like that. It drives me crazy!”

“What are you talking about?” I say and see a grocery stock boy walk by us, eyeing us briefly to catch our little soap-opera. I stare back at his preadolescent face and he looks away, walking past the rows of stacked Huggies.

I take a patient breath. “Do you really want to do this here?”

“Why not?” she says. “Why do you think I cut through here all the time?”

I close my eyes, letting out a long tired sigh. I then look at her and try to smile a degree below patronizing.

“Nora, all I want to do is pay for our stuff and get out of here. We’re going to the street fair. Right?”

She stares at me for a moment and then says in a gritted hiss, “Just take me home.” She drops the grocery basket full of comestibles we planned on smuggling into the town fair and storms off, tucking her purse hard to her side. I watch her leave, her thin dress flowing wildly behind her.

The miscarriage was three months ago and ended Nora’s chance of ever carrying again. After her surgery, my attempts to support seemed hollow and pretentious to her, angering instead of comforting. So I left her to herself and waited for the normality of our three years together to resume. I’m still waiting.

I run after Nora, catching her near the exit. People stare when I turn her around and hug her tight. She goes rigid and then shudders. I raise her head to look at me, seeing tears fall on her pleading eyes and knowing what we both want. We want the pain to go away.

Nora smiles slightly and skirts her eyes to see our audience. She then looks at me and crunches her brows together as if in pain.

“What is it?” I say. She goes slack, dropping her purse. Her eyes become chalky stones in their sockets. I hold her tighter in my panic when I see her mouth droop open to an impossible length, her howls of pain cut short when the lower half of her face suddenly falls off and splatters to the ground. I hear my own screaming when I see the rest of her fold inward, her skin becoming diaphanous, revealing the dark meat inside. Her bones crackle and her coppery smell ripens the air. She becomes slippery in my grasp, like a giant gleaming internal organ. She squirts out of my arms and drops to the ground in a splash and I stare in horror at the bloody dress and the clump of flesh on the tile floor, a ruined mass looking nothing like Nora or anything remotely human.

I move my head up slowly, my wide eyes searching through a haze of blood-pounding shock.

Someone has to come to me.

Touch me.

Move me.

No one does. I walk slowly in a mindless stupor. When I bump into an ice bin near the wall, I come to and see the other bodies. Bloody messes spot the grocery store like droppings from some large animal. I see the crimson-drenched garments on the floor in loose piles and I reconstruct the image of their former wearers: an overweight man in jeans, a young girl in a Hello Kitty shirt, a cashier lady in a beige Ember’s Grocery work shirt. All of them reduced to what looks like slabs of mangled butcher meat.

A car crashes through the face of the store. Brilliant shards of glass scatter. The sound of it brings me above the numbing cotton of disbelief and I start to run. The car, a pearl-like Cadillac, plows into rows of check-out counters, catapulting candy bars and magazine stands toward me. I watch the car teeter to stillness and can see through the gloom of the passenger window the writhing things that splatter dark-red into the windshield.  Outside air rushes through the gaping hole in the wall the car left in its path. Several dead birds line the sidewalk leading to the parking lot.

I run around the car and head back toward the exit where Nora is. There are sounds of collision and destruction outside; a chorus of car alarms screech endlessly in the distance. I look through the automatic sliding doors, pulled instinctively to exit this place. I pause to look back down at Nora’s ruined remains. I kneel down, feeling the loss of her strike cold and hard inside my chest.

I pick up Nora and cradle her slick form into my chest, holding her like a baby. Like our baby, the child that defied us its life and struck Nora barren before it died. I whisper the song. Hush little baby…

The car alarms continue their crying outside, blocking out my toneless singing. Nora begins to stick to me, the glistening coat of blood of her gluing against my forearms and neck.

The pain is slow, a kindling heat deep in my stomach. I cough the foaming blood up from my mouth, letting it spew onto Nora.

My eyes go dark, dissolving into mucus-like tears down my cheeks. The unseen takes me. Consumes me.

One trickling afterimage.

A parting thought.

Aisle 8.

 

©Jack Lee Taylor 2016

aisle8

Head

A smattering of saliva

wetting salty lips

stale with memories.

Protruding tongue

licking the taste of regret.

Eyes darkening,

denying sunlight.

Lifted by his hair.

Weightless and draining.

Fist opens.

The falling ball.

The rolling melon.

Colony of grit

on the stump of his neck.

Eventual rest.

Face down.

On sand.

Licking.

Licking.

Licking.

 

 

 

JLT

Morton

Holly liked his biscuits and gravy. That would be her reward this morning, Morton thought, peering through his kitchen window where the morning sun bathed his backyard more white than yellow. In the distance past his privacy fence, he could see the top of his neighbor’s bald head bobbing to the beat of a loud, blustering push mower.

Morton frowned. The morning would otherwise be serene were it not for the rackety noise his neighbor was making. Oh well, Morton thought, rubbing his index fingers against his thumbs, a gesture he would do before preparing fine cuisine. Why not? Holly deserved the best. She was eating for two now, after all these years of trying. Soon, Morton’s family would be complete — something he’s wanted his whole life. Family.

A booming series of knocks jarred across the hallway behind Morton. Now what?

Morton wheeled around and jutted his head forward, as if to lengthen his vision and hearing. Another jolt of thudding knocks filled the house, and Morton could actually see the front door across the hallway shudder with each pounding knock.

A man’s voice growled from the other side, though the speech was muffled, undecipherable. Except, no. Part of it was clear. Morton’s name.

“MORTON!” the man yelled. “MORTON CHILDRESS!”

A door creaked opened in the hallway, and long, rippling hair flowed out. Holly’s eyes sparkled between the strands of her dark hair as she stared at Morton.

“Who is that?” she hissed and then stiffened as the front door banged again with more knocks.

Morton marched down the hall, agitated. Whoever the asshole outside was, he had not only woken up Morton’s pregnant wife, but had managed to upset her with all that belligerent knocking.

Holly stepped back into the bedroom as Morton approached her. She straightened in her nightgown, the swell of her round belly stretching the floral print at her midsection.  “He sounds angry,” she whispered, cocking her head as if remembering some long forgotten song. “Who is he?”

Morton shrugged. “He’s someone who’s about to get his ass kicked,” he said. “Go lie back down. I’ll get rid of him.” He kissed the softness of her right cheek while placing his hands gently over her belly. As she retreated back into the bedroom, Morton closed the door, hoping she would be able to go back to bed after he’d send this jerk on his way.

“CHILDRESS!”

“I’m coming!” Morton yelled.

He stomped toward the front door, meaning to yank it open, but then tendrils of uncertainty cooled his blood. He peered through the brass peephole and saw the fish-eyed view of an old man’s reddened, pinched face glaring back at him. Who the hell was this? Morton wondered, but then there began a tickle of recognition, something about the shape of the old man’s raging eyes.

“I see you now, you son-of-a-bitch,” the old man said and raised a hand holding a gleaming, rectangular object. It was a small LCD screen, displaying a blotchy green image of two black lines. The black lines shifted as Morton shifted and he instinctively looked down at his bare feet. A small, black snake head poked from the bottom of the door between his feet. Morton looked back up through the peephole, seeing the black lines move as he moved his legs.

What the hell is this? Morton tried to say, but before his words could come out, the door shook loud; a small mouth splintered opened from the door’s center.

Morton fell, only it didn’t feel like falling. It felt like the ground rose up to meet him. Three more gaping holes exploded from the door, letting in shafts of morning brilliance.

The smell of spent bullets and the dust of chalky drywall filled the room. Morton tried to scramble backward with his legs, meaning to crabwalk away. Nothing. No feeling down there. He looked at the dark red drenching the lower half of his t-shirt, almost tasting the iron and meaty aroma of blood. It was then that he registered the burning pain in his stomach.

I’m shot, he realized and then thought with incredulity not that he was shot in broad daylight but on a Saturday morning.

Morton’s wife was crying. He could hear Holly’s weeping over the buzz of his neighbor’s lawn mower.

He twisted to fall flat on his stomach, meaning to crawl away from the door with his arms, but the excruciating ache in his navel forced his arms to curl into his chest.

More shots fired into the door. Morton could hear the whipping of bullets slap the carpet fabric near his right ear. He craned his neck up, ignoring the searing pain inside him. A portion of Holly’s tear-streaked face peeked out at Morton from the bedroom door. She was eye-level, low to the ground like he was. Did the bastard shoot her, too? Did he hurt my family?

“Get back in the bedroom, Holly,” he cried. “Lock the door.”

And call for help? No phones in the bedroom. No phones in the house at all.

Holly gave a small nod and pulled back out of sight. Was she smiling? The bedroom door slammed shut.

From behind Morton came the cracking of faux wood as the center of the front door caved in from a long, booted leg. This set Morton tadpoleing fast on the ground, digging his elbows in as he dragged himself forward. Get to the kitchen.

Another gunshot cracked from behind. Morton heard a sickening, wet plop as the bullet entered somewhere below in the part of his flesh that he’d never feel again. He plowed forward across the hallway, his pace quickening with his grunting breaths.

A flood of outdoor light invaded the house, the front door no longer holding the old man at bay.

Morton could no longer hear the sound of his neighbor’s groaning mower. And as he hoisted to a sitting position using the lip of the kitchen counter to pull himself up, he heard the mewling cry of sirens coming from far away.

He fumbled at a drawer with a hand, entering a code on a nearby keypad. Hearing a lock unlatch, he fished blindly inside the drawer for the large shark-tooth shaped knife he was fond of. Pain throbbed below his chest and he could smell the foulness of his innards coming through the bullet wound in his stomach.

The old man kneeled in the hallway, embracing Morton’s pregnant wife. There was a squabble of bass and treble as the two voices spoke over one another with urgency.

The large revolver dangled low in the old man’s hand, next to Holly’s hip.

Guns. Morton hated guns. He only understood knives, their quiet play he had learned early on as a child. But not guns. A gun threatened only from its black eye, while a good knife gave nuances of fear to every inch of its blade.

The old man stood up from Morton’s sobbing wife, and a question formed in Morton’s mind. How long has it been since Holly had last seen her father? Three, four, maybe even five years?

As the sirens grew louder, the old man walked slowly toward Morton.

“You don’t deserve a trial, you kidnapping son-of-a-bitch,” Holly’s father said. The old man pulled the trigger.

Morton smiled, grateful for the hollow click of the gun. His searching hand settled for a serrated steak knife in the drawer above him. He pulled it out and sat back against the kitchen counter, his resting hand over his stomach. He pointed the knife out at the old man.

“I took care of her,” Morton said, but then a pang overcame him as he looked deep into the old man’s hateful eyes — those eyes the same as those of Morton’s sweet wife. It had to be her, Morton wanted to plead. He didn’t want to trick her and steal her away all those years ago, but it had to be her. Out of all those that he had followed and shadowed, she was the one he chose to make his perfect family for him.

And now, seeing the disappointment on the old man’s face – the disapproving eyes of a parent — did Morton truly understand. The old man had become part of his family, too. Morton had put them all together: father, wife, child, and Morton.

Morton never had a father. But he could claim the old man just like he claimed Holly. Was it really that simple? Yes. It was.

“I’m sorry, Daddy,” Morton said and felt the pain ease inside him.

The old man’s thick brows furrowed in puzzlement, joining into a white caterpillar above his hardened eyes.

“I love you, Dad,” Morton said. “Holly…”

Sirens stopped and tires screeched outside.

Morton raked the blade of the steak knife gently over his neck, scrubbing the serrated edges until he hit the life artery underneath. He choked and coughed for a moment, catching glimpse of the gout of blood that poured out.

He smiled.

He was with his family.

What better way to die?

 

THE END

 

Jack Lee Taylor © 2016

Weirdbook Magazine #32

My parents did not play the guitar.

Nor can anyone in my immediate family make it gently weep (not yet, at least… I’ll be waiting on one of my youngins’ to grapple the six-string-relay baton from my cold dead hands one day and speed forth).

Yet, progeny aside, it’s interesting to see other parents out there validate the “born-not-made” principle, a debate I really don’t pay much cause to. But still…

Case in point.

Currently reading the new Joe Hill novel, The Fireman.

I’m a fan of his since the 20th Century Ghost days, before I even knew who his father was. And now that I know, it begs the question: Do the parents pass the ‘awesome-sick-talent’ gene along? Don’t know — but I guess it doesn’t really matter. What’s in my reading hands right now is well worth the read. That’s point enough for me. Regardless of how you were made, even with test tubes and Bunsen burners, you alone make you happen. And this boy Hillstrom did just that. Bang on!

But strange that I think of this now because I’m thinking about the latest short story I did that recently hit the public along with writers-greater-than-me. My little daughter asked to read it. I declined. Not that the content is sexually perverse or gore-ensued, but I just want her to find her own way right now and not be manipulated by my fledgling efforts. So far as eight-year-olds go, she’s well on her way without my interference.

Interesting side note to Clay Baby, which is the name of this particular tale released in Weirdbook Magazine #32.

I follow Chuck Wendig’s blog, terribleminds.com.  Why? Just because he digitally yells a lot and uses a lot of colorful metaphors that Spock would approve. Also, he’s a great writer (and screw you Aftermath haters).

Mr. Wendig challenged his crew with a writing prompt. I’m not a jump-right-in type whenever it comes to writing prompts. I often scoot my chair back and say, “Maybe not right now.” Yet I jumped in on this one several months back. The prompt was: Take a random picture posted by other fellow writers and come up with a string of words on your own.

I scanned through several pictures. Many were dark and disturbing, showing shadows and hidden etches of life well left hidden. Others were enchanting, showing picturesque moments of nature or florid captures of flowery lands.

Then there was this one picture posted by the talented writer, Diedra Black. It was a strange picture of some clay happy thing on a table.

I immediately thought: Okay, crazy psycho kidnaps family and this clay thing will somehow save their lives. But that didn’t work. So how about a kid comes home from school and sees this thing on the table, and it comes to life like a Smurf — zip-a-dee-do-dah. That sucked. I went over and over, trying to come up with something remotely worth writing. Couldn’t plan it. Couldn’t plot it.

In the end, I just let the words come out, and the result pleased me as much as it pleased the folks at Wildside Press. Glad to have it aboard (especially on a mag that Joe Hill’s father might remember back in the early 80’s).

It’s a short piece, though above the threshold of flash fiction.

If you’re into weird, speculative fiction, you may check it out at:
WEIRDBOOK MAGAZINE #32

Special thanks to Ms. Black for her picture contribution!

Love you guys!

weirdbook-32

Pigtails Released in CCQ #2

Independent courier.

The job sounded menial, almost mundane. Prerequisite skills were mainly having a clean driving record, being able to lift from feather-light to backbreaking weighted parcel, being on call from dawn till next dawn, and — most important — having your own set of wheels to tow all that crap around.

Many years back, while strapped for cash in my last get-me-the-hell-out-of-here year of college, I took on the job as an independent courier, with my mighty Chevy S10 pickup and Home Depot dolly.

Immediately, I learned the harsh reality of the job. Paychecks were shaved down painfully by gas and maintenance expenses. ‘On-call’ meant forget any free time to live, let alone survive. Delivery miles were grueling, whether in cramped city infrastructure or through long stretches of freeway. Residential deliveries past midnight were always odd and unsettling. And I learned how to ignore the contents of what it was I was delivering, be it a body part or horse semen (and, yes, I’ve delivered both).

There were perks during the long travels, though. You got to see much of outside. You drove through beautiful roads you’d never seen before and would probably never see again, taking you sometimes through breathtaking scenic lands where tranquility resided. Those moments of travel offset the nasty, grinding fight through heavy, human-congested traffic.

In my reverie, I like to remember those times where the beauty of nature allowed the pass of a quaint, country road.

But then some of those roads began to lie to me. They made me feel safe for a spell and then opened up their true faces. They made me feel like I had crossed over into a strange place where I was not welcomed. The placid scenery around me transmogrified into an eerie space of unkempt fields full of crowding, decaying trees. Sometimes when driving on this road where it seemed no human should dwell, I’d pass by a lone figure standing on the side, perched still like a mile marker and looking back at me with wary, mistrustful eyes.

On these roads you never want to break down. Despite our advanced navigation systems, some of these roads still remain uncharted, hidden curving and snakelike underneath the guise of the mountains and countryside that shroud them and their strange secrets.

This is what inspired the short story: Pigtails.

EMP Publishing just released Creepy Campfire Quarterly #2, and I’m thankful this story got to be a part of a wonderful collection of stories from other great writers.

If you like strange horror, please go check it out through the link below (and if you like it, please leave a review).

CCQ #2

Thanks as usual. Love to you all.

JLT

creepycampfire

 

 

Complimentary Basin

I park in front of the half-opened motel door, my headlights blazing on the tarnished bronze room-number nailed over peeling red paint: 105. Even with the brights on, the opened mouth of the door is a cavernous black, revealing nothing inside.

I turn to the woman in the passenger seat. “Is this okay?”

For a moment she doesn’t answer. Her face is hidden in darkness, but moonlight shines on the top of her tangled hair. She shakes her head and asks, “Why this place?”

I fan out a hand toward the motel room like a game show host. “Well, it comes with a lavish complimentary basin.” Though I can’t see it in the dark, I feel the heat of her frown. “Seriously, though,” I say. “I could really use a bed right now.”

“I’m staying in the car,” she says.

Sarah or Sharon. She had told me her name, mumbling it when I first picked her up two hours ago and refusing to repeat it when I asked her to tell me again. She doesn’t ask for mine.

“It’s probably not safe,” I say, scanning the empty parking lot. Through the red glow of the taillights I see the weather-beaten marquee sign behind us proclaiming F-O-R-S–L-E, an impotent arrow perched on top of the sign, pointing at me. Beyond the sign is the road and beyond that I make out dry earth and cacti. And beyond that… darkness.

“It’s safer than being trapped in some room,” she says.

I don’t argue with that because she has a point. But I’ve only seen a few of the dead lumbering about in the last fifty miles, scattered and baking in the desert heat. Plus, this abandoned motel would be too remote for a massive onslaught. I realize I’m tapping my right hip, feeling the hardness of the Glock in my jean pocket.

“I know what this is really about,” she says. She leans forward, her face now more visible from the headlights reflecting off the motel wall. Though she looks weary, her eyes shine like the surface of clear water, her lips full despite her frown.

“You really think this is going to happen, Mister?” she asks.

I sink back in my seat and then stiffen when I realize what she means. “No-no,” I say. “I’d — we’d be in separate rooms.”

“Look,” she says, her frown turning into a sneer. “You saved my life, Mister. I’ll give you that. You could’ve just drove on by, but you stopped and helped a lady in distress. But just because you helped me out don’t mean you get to sleep with me.”

There had been three of them, I remember. I had slowed down the car to watch them attack her on the side of the highway. All three were men. All three dead. Two of them were spread out a few yards behind her, flanking her from escape as the third approached her head-on. Instead of falling back, she pushed forward and managed to get past the third man unscathed and made a dash toward my car, beating on the windshield and yelling for help. I had opened the door to let her in and then gunned the car into one of the approaching dead men. It took a couple of miles from there before I told her she might want to fix her skirt because I could see her bare thigh and the white of her panties.

“I’m not trying to take advantage of you,” I say. “Two separate rooms, I swear.”

Something shifts in the headlights and I look to see the motel door moving, opening slowly.

“Drive,” Sarah-Sharon says.

I hesitate. I’m two people now: one that wants to peel away and the other that wants to see what’s behind the door.

“What the hell are you doing, Mister? Get us out of here!”

I pull out my Glock and Sarah-Sharon gasps, moving away from me. “It might be one of us,” I say. Before she can protest I see something skitter from behind the door, young eyes locking onto mine for a split-second before the shape runs into the darkness deeper inside the motel room. It moves fast, unlike the dead.

“It’s a kid!” I yell.

Something pops and flashes. The world goes half-dark as the left headlight goes out.

“Get down!” Sarah-Sharon yells. It doesn’t register until there’s another pop and a hole dots the windshield like chipped ice. Something punches me hard in the upper chest, a burning sensation in my shoulder blade. I drop the gun, my right arm useless for a moment and then it’s grabbing the gearshift, my foot jamming the accelerator pedal. I hear the car screech as I thrust in reverse and then something crunches from behind and lifts the rear of the car upward. I have time to curse the marquee sign before another pop smacks dull into the front of the car. I’m shaking. Why am I shaking so much?

Everything becomes a shade blurrier. A dream world filled with a throbbing ache.

Sarah-Sharon’s hand is reaching between my legs; the arousal is a strange mix with my pain. She gets the gun laying on my crotch and then pushes her door open. I want to tell her about the trigger safety, but she’s already shooting, two shots. Silence.

I blink and then Sarah-Sharon is gone, no longer kneeling behind the open passenger door. I blink again. Slow blinks. The car is quiet now. Still. Maybe it’s dead.

Sarah-Sharon is standing over a quivering body lying on the parking lot in front of the room I wanted to share with her. The boy on the ground is older. Much older than I thought. A teen. He has a large rifle in one hand. She kicks it away, kneels to say something to the boy and places a hand over his head, stroking his hair. She then stands back up and shoots him in the head.

Blink.

She’s sweeping through the motel door, peering inside like she’s a cop or something. Maybe she is. Or was.

Blink.

She’s over me now. Pressing the wound. Her breath is soft, her sweat almost flowery.

“Hey, Mister,” she says. “Stay with me. Keep your eyes open.”

She’s tearing my shirt open. I love her.

“I love you, Sarah…Sharon,” I say.

“Shannon,” she says with mild annoyance. She works on the wound near my neck, telling me I’m lucky that the bullet went all the way through.

I am lucky.

“You saved my life,” I say. “That doesn’t mean you can sleep with me.”

She doesn’t reply. We sit in silence inside the car as she patches me up, but I see it there briefly in the moonlight. On her face. A smile.

Just for a moment.

“What’s your name?” she asks.

I can’t wait to tell her.

THE END

© Jack Lee Taylor 2015

Pigtails

“I got to pee,” Janet said.

It was the perfect four words to break the long silence in the car. The road trip had now spanned close to eight hours since dawn, and the last two hours were the most arduous for Janet’s father as he wrestled pigtail curves across the endless countryside.

Ned Rollins glanced from the driver seat over to his wife. Maggie looked back at him with tired eyes. From behind them Janet said again, “I got to pee.”

“Honey, I asked you if you had to potty during lunch,” Ned said over his shoulder. “You said ‘no’. Even Mommy asked you.” He grunted as he made another sequence of braking and steering toward the oncoming curve.

“But Daddy I gotta piss bad. Right now! I gotta piss! I gotta piss!”

“Janet Ivy,” Maggie said, cautious not to break into laughter. She didn’t turn to give the five-year-old her expression of schoolmarm disapproval, not that she was able to do so effectively. Her eyes were kind, a soft hazel against the light of day, and the corners of her small face were round against her short-cropped hair, making her look more pixieish than womanly.

Janet started moaning and twisting in her pink booster seat, her small legs locking together. Now Maggie did turn to look at her pig-tailed daughter, feeling the tightness of her spine as she twisted to see Janet’s weary face. It was a long, relentless trip; the blurring of scenic green, mottled asphalt and yellow sunlight became a tiresome canvas spread endlessly around them. Maggie sighed and then looked back at Ned. She said, “You’ve got to pull over.”

Ned looked at her with shock. “Are you kidding me?” he said. “Do you see anywhere I can stop on this freaking rollercoaster track?”

“I didn’t mean right here,” Maggie said. She felt that familiar flush of rage that would kindle into loathing, but she doused the heat inside of her. She looked out the passenger window of the Rollin’s SUV and studied the steep decline below. From her side of the road the foothill sloped down dangerously into a chaos of thick trees and jagged rocks. She thought, Why on Earth did Ned’s parents choose to live this far out in the country? She hated every part of this impromptu trip, naturally, because she hated his side of the family – brash hicks that did nothing but cover their ignorance with stubborn pride. Pride in what? Living like hillbillies?

“Mommy!”

Maggie straightened in her chair, going into full maternal alert. She turned back to Janet, trying to find some word or action that would calm her daughter for at least a few more miles until they could reach some type of clearing. Janet looked back at her mother, defeated, and it took Maggie a moment to understand the resignation in her daughter’s eyes meant her child’s battle was over. Janet’s bladder had won.

“No Janet,” Maggie said. “Oh no!” Through the crotch of Janet’s purple shorts bloomed dark liquid, soaking out from her inner thighs; glistening streams ran down her shins and stained her white socks.

“Ned. We’ve got to stop. She’s peeing on herself!”

Ned growled, stifling the expletive under his tongue. He inadvertently yanked the steering wheel out of true and the boat-like SUV swished and screeched in and out of equilibrium.

“What are you doing?” Maggie shouted. Ned ignored both her and his mistake. He sped up at the last stretch of the latest curve and saw the road blessedly straighten for the next few hundred yards. He said, “Mag, there’s nothing we can do about it now. I’ll pull over when I can pull over.”

Maggie opened her mouth to protest, closed it and looked back at Janet. Her daughter looked away, her eyes reddening with tears. Maggie wondered if her daughter’s embarrassment would linger on past this moment, becoming a mental scab bronzed into her worst childhood memories. She let out a long breath, mentally preparing for the job of cleaning up both her daughter and the backseat.

“It’s okay, honey,” Maggie said. “You just had a little accident. We’ve all done that.”

Before Janet could hear the rest of her mother’s comforting spiel, the Rollins family came to a stop. Ned grinded the gearshift into “P” and opened his door in quick succession, leaving the SUV rocking to stillness. The heat from outside invaded the AC frost within; the smell of grass and sunbaked vegetation filled the interior. Maggie watched her husband get out without a word. He was a tall, lanky man in shorts looking up at the hot August sky. Above him were bulbous clouds that seemed unnaturally low to the ground. He shaded his eyes with a hand and then turned back to look at the rest of his family.

“Well,” he said. “You wanted me to pull over. We’re pulled over.”

“Don’t be an ass,” Maggie said. She turned and opened her door and felt it jar back against her arm. There was a dull, metallic thud from the car door rebounding back.

“I can’t get out,” Maggie said and then looked around, taking notice of her husband’s half-hearted parking efforts. Ned had nested the SUV against the right side, edging close to the flat green fields on Maggie’s side of the road. She looked through the front windshield and saw the stretch ahead was flat where the road was no longer paring into mountains but laying straight for several hundred yards.

Far ahead, the yellow glint of a sign flickered back, and Maggie was sure it was another countless warning of more dangerous curves to come.  She thought of how this area was like some sort of relief zone linking to the next treacherous climb, where during a time the old builders of this cursed road had decided to obey the flatness of this part of land.

Maggie needed to get out. She had to clean up Janet, but she also wanted to get out, stretch her legs and walk about. Only her door would not open. There was nothing she could tell blocking her, only a scattering of trees — and something else far beyond the first speck of trees. Some type of boxy thing.

“Geez, you dented the door!”

Maggie jumped back when Ned’s large face popped up from the other side of her window, consuming her view of outside.

Janet said, “Mommy, can I get out now?”

“Wait,” Maggie said and then to the monstrous face outside she said, “What do you mean I dented it? I can’t get out. There’s something blocking me.”

Ned kneeled back down out of view. Maggie heard rustling behind her and saw Janet had removed her seatbelt and was scooting down off of her booster seat.

Ned, his voice muffled from outside, said, “There’s a damn rock sticking out right here. We got to move up a bit.”

Maggie took this cue and waved her daughter back, “Wait honey, your father’s going to move the car up a bit. Then you can get out. Okay?”

Janet grimaced and made no effort to get back in her seat. Maggie let it go, seeing as moving up a few feet wouldn’t be worth strapping back in for, and she knew sitting back down in a puddle of urine wasn’t something she wanted to force Janet to do.

Ned slipped partially back into the driver seat, his door still ajar and his left leg still hanging outside. He shifted back into drive, his right foot lifting off of the brake to idle forward.

“Maybe we should get off the road,” Maggie said.

“Nah, we’re okay,” Ned said.

“It just feels like we’re still in the middle of the road.”

Ned said nothing, but the weight of the silence came through to Maggie clearly. They hadn’t come across anyone else over the past two hours since passing through this part of Tennessee, and there was nothing else on the GPS map until they reached Ned’s parents, which was another twenty miles away.

She looked behind her, looking past Janet through the rear window. She saw the road behind them veer left and then disappear behind the massive foothill they had just cleared. She could hear the contented idle of the SUV grow louder and wondered why it grew louder still after Ned had stopped. Then her mind retreated, stifling her voice when she saw a metal face suddenly appear from the road behind them, growing larger and roaring forward. Before Maggie could react, could even interpret what she was seeing, the Rollins family began to twirl.

It wasn’t a complete spin in place, and there was no hard impact, but Maggie was disoriented, for now her view ahead was the open field instead of the road. Janet, she thought immediately.

“Janet Ivy,” Maggie cried. “Janet. Are you okay?”

There was no answer. Two things immediately registered. Both Janet and Ned were gone.

“JANET!” Maggie shouted. She reset her mind through her panic and began to think back in series. She saw a car. No. A truck. Loud.

Maggie stretched through the space between the front seats and saw Janet lying on the rear floorboard, her eyes closed.   Maggie screamed and riddled Janet’s body with trembling hands, feeling for life and breath.

“JANET! Wake up baby!”

Maggie wanted to pick her daughter up, not caring about internal injuries, but it was impossible to pull Janet through the nook between the front seats, even if she was able to climb over toward the back. She called out for Ned, nearly cursing his name. She peered through the gaping hole of the driver side where Ned had just been sitting.

Through the door-less view was the road leading onward. Maggie half-expected the rusty pickup truck somewhere ahead, parked and idling, perhaps damaged. There was no truck, only the empty road and the letter ‘L’ lying on it. Maggie closed her eyes quickly, squeezing out tears and sweat down her face. She turned back to the passenger side door and pushed frantically, not caring that it had once denied her exit. Because there was no longer anything blocking her side now, she easily spilled out onto the ground. She pushed herself up and groped for the rear door, feeling exposed to the road now behind her.

Janet was still nestled on the floorboard, her still face pointed up. Maggie reached in and then broke her fast-forward motions and slowed the moment her hands cupped her daughter’s face. She was afraid to move the girl. She put her face close to Janet’s upside-down face, feeling for the feather-warmth of a child’s breath mixing with the humid air.

“Please Janet,” Maggie whispered, “Baby please wake up.” And with a rush of blissful relief, she felt her daughter cough into her face. Without the trained grace of a paramedic, Maggie fished her daughter out of the car. If there were broken bones, if there was anything wrong, it would have to wait.

Maggie hoisted her daughter against her chest and then staggered out toward the open field. Janet stirred in weak sobs, never fully awakening. Maggie shushed her, pushing back her own guilt for another moment. It was her fault, she thought. She should have strapped Janet back in.

“It’s going to be okay baby,” Maggie said, stroking the sweat from her daughter’s forehead.

“Mag?”

Ned’s croaking voice came faint through the hot air, not really coming from any direction. Maggie cleared five feet into the grass and looked around for him.   She knelt, still holding Janet, thinking that being more level to the ground would help her find her husband.

“Ned? Where are you?”

“It’s cold,” he said. His voice was louder, almost leading to echo. Maggie’s arms were near atrophy, becoming solid support beams that did best to hold and not crush her daughter, but she refused to let Janet go. She studied the SUV now perpendicular to the road, the gleaming front bumper smiling back at her. From there she traced her eyes north back to the ‘L’ shape on the road and took in the reality of her husband’s dismembered leg. Suddenly Ned’s morbid phrase he would say on occasion to her popped into her mind like a dirty joke: I love every piece of you my dear.

Call someone now!  Her mind demanded and then she remembered her cell phone was in her purse still in the blasted car. “Mag, I can see you,” Ned said and as if the sound of his voice had spiked into her eyes and pulled them down to show where he was, she found the rest of her husband sunken in long grass, nearly enveloped in green. He was easy to miss, as if he was being pulled into the ground. Beyond him, Maggie eyed the strange structure she had seen just before the hit-and-run, something like a wooden box, gnarled and dark.

“Ned!” she shouted and stood erect, keeping Janet intact.

“Don’t come here,” her husband said. “Don’t let her… see me.”

Maggie stopped and looked down at Janet. The young girl’s eyes were still closed, but they moved behind her eyelids as if lost in nightmare. Maggie set Janet down as gently as possible onto the field, feeling replenishing blood course back into her arms. She stood up, giving Janet a reproachful look, and then ran toward Ned.

“It hurts, Mag. God it hurts.”

Maggie ran fast, her sandals flapping hard against her feet through the waves of grass. When she went full stop a few feet in front of Ned, she nearly slipped in a pool of his blood. She looked with disbelief at the amount of red that puddled before her and streamed slowly between the blades of grass like a swampy murk.

Ned shook with gasping breaths, his bulging eyes darting about. He lie there clutching something tight against his chest with both hands. Maggie opened her mouth in horror, seeing him splayed out on the ground with two legs extending from his drenched shorts, one of them made of pure wet crimson.

“Janet?” Ned said. Maggie was silent for a moment and then blinked.

“She’s fine Ned. She’s okay.” Tourniquet, Maggie thought and wanted to cry. She needed help. Because she was no life-saver. She was no girl-scout. She couldn’t even begin to know how to tie a tourniquet knot or do something even more profound like cauterization or whatever the hell else trauma surgeons did. What could she possibly use? Her shirt? No, her mind objected, his belt. And with that cosmic joke, Maggie looked above the fly of Ned’s pants to see the belt loops empty. From far off, she heard Janet crying.

“I’m sorry,” Ned cried. He shook harder, his entire body quaking, his head pitching back and forth on the ground. He said again, I’m sorry, muttering it over and over. Again from far off, Janet continued crying. Only it really wasn’t crying. It was laughing.

“Don’t let her go there,” Ned cried, his voice straining in between grunting breaths. Maggie had gone into action, putting her hands down — palms flat — below Ned’s left hip where his hip bone once presided. She pushed above the torn stump of him, ignoring the disdainful voice telling her it was pointless. Ned struggled, releasing the thing clutched to his chest, his cell phone falling away greasy with his blood. He pushed Maggie’s hands away.

“Keep him away from her,” Ned said again, and then went into full convulsions. Maggie cried back at Ned, wanting him to be still — please just be still. Then in one final jerk, tensing for the last time, Ned Rollins did go still, staring with eyes that had finished crying under the vaporous sky above.

“Mommy, come here,” Janet said.

Maggie leered behind her, still in shock. She wiped hard at tears spilled more from relief than horror. Janet came into focus about twenty feet away. She was jumping up. Dancing. No. Not exactly dancing. Catching. Catching the air.

Bubbles.

They glistened in the sunlight like faint fireflies twisting around the little girl. Janet reached out into what seemed like random pockets in the air, ending the lives of these strange bubbles with her small hands.

Maggie stood up slowly. She stared silently, first at her daughter and then simply at fuzzy light. The world wavered and the acute treble of sounds around Maggie was slipping off to muffled white noise. Maggie slapped herself until she could feel the sting on her cheek. She dispelled the urge to pass out and began to breathe in and out slowly.

“Janet, stay right there,” Maggie said, her own voice a stratosphere away. She knelt back down, not looking at Ned’s eyes, and grabbed his cell phone. She then walked, lurching at first and then striding slow and careful, toward Janet. The phone was a bloody mess in her hands, but there was electronic life in the glare of the screen. She dialed 911 and increased her pace toward Janet. Because those bubbles aren’t really there. Maggie was in shock. So was Janet. So this was okay. Let them share imaginary bubbles together.

Maggie heard the unfeeling beep of a failed call and tried again, caking the phone screen with blood-spackled fingerprints. Little Janet continued running through the swarm of bubbles, heading closer to the box ahead. Maggie heard another call beep with failure, and then she dropped the cell phone to her side when she saw the person in the box.

From this close to where Maggie could see, the box was more like a dilapidated woodshed. The roof was rusted tin, ruffled with the edges curled down like dog ears. Wooden boards, aged to grayness from long years past, lined together like gaping teeth for walls; they slanted the entire structure unevenly to the left, making the small house appear tired of being upright. There were no windows among the wooden walls, or any kind of thoughtful disruption to decorate the structure.

The person sat on the ground directly in front of the house, sitting on three boards laid unevenly to what Maggie could only guess was the vestige of a porch area.   The person was shaded black under the shadow of the shed, but it was clear to see that the trail of bubbles that spewed out long and plentiful into the air came from where the person sat.

“Janet, get back here now!” Maggie shouted. Janet, ignoring Maggie, leapt forward in the next fray of bubbles, twirling about and laughing, her urine-soiled shorts now nearly dry in the summer heat. Maggie doubled-timed it and caught up with Janet. She grabbed at the little girl, gingerly at first, remembering the image of the unconscious child from before.

Forget the phone, Maggie thought. They were getting out of here. She had the car. She would take Janet and drive them far away from here. And if the car didn’t work, she had her legs. Both legs. This made her think of Ned again, the feel of his spongy stump under the weight of her hands.

The person stood up slowly. Maggie couldn’t make out any features in the shadow, but she saw the person’s frame was short and frail with drooping shoulders, clearly soft and unintimidating. Before she could think of why she said, “Excuse me.”

There was no reply. Maggie pulled Janet closer to her, considered picking her up, but then decided to pull them both back, away from the stranger.

“We had an accident,” Maggie continued. No reply, but the person stepped forward into the sunlight and Maggie saw the oldest man she had ever seen in her life. His yellow egg eyes were crossed. He was bald, his head blotched with red, flaky sores. His faded blue shirt and jeans were nearly colorless, almost blending with the dark boards behind him, stained only under the armpits and crotch from body sweat.

“I saw,” he said slowly, his southern voice low and gravelly. He raised his hand, holding what Maggie could make out as some type of bottle. It was ceramic, mud-like, riddled with cracks. The top of the bottle narrowed into a long gooseneck tip where the man put his ancient lips around and blew. Through the middle of the bottle a flap suddenly opened and a flurry of fresh bubbles shot forward. Janet giggled, reaching out for the next wave coming her way.

“You saw,” Maggie repeated back. The old man removed the bottle from his cracked lips and watched the bubbles make their way to the woman and child. Maggie looked down at Janet and then back up at the old man. Just harmless old mountainfolk. “So then you know my husband is hurt really bad.”

The old man grinned, his toothless gums showing like a second row of lips. “Naw’m,” he said. “He dead. Burnin’ in Hades.”

He started laughing in slow, soundless heaving breaths. Maggie recoiled, pulling Janet closer to her. She yelled back, “You think that’s funny? You stupid old hillbilly bastard think that’s funny?”

Bright pain suddenly burned into Maggie’s eyes when a cluster of bubbles landed on her face, bursting whatever foul juice that came from the old man’s bottle into her eyes. She blinked rapidly, feeling the burning intensify. She cried out, rubbing at her face. She tasted her tears and detected the medicinal taste of the strange bubbles mixed in. She hit the ground screaming on both knees, dropping the cell phone and letting go of Janet. Dear God I’m blind, she thought. Blinded by some backwoods moonshine.

“Janet, don’t touch the bubbles,” she cried. “Stay right here and close your eyes.”

“Come on chile,” the old man said. The music of Janet’s laugh was soft and distant. Maggie forced her eyes open, but no light came to her sight. She screamed out again at Janet, reaching blindly through the bubble slime around her.

“Chile come over,” the old man cooed. At this Maggie found direction and ran full-speed to where the old man’s voice came from, feeling more obscene bubbles burst upon her bare skin. Through the unseen air, Maggie’s groping hands found pigtails. Maggie grabbed and pulled hard, reeling Janet back into her arms. If the chile felt pain, she laughed through it. She’s gone, Maggie thought. Her mind is gone. Maggie held on tight, falling onto her back with Janet on top of her, contained in her arms.

The old man said, “Ye shall judge angels, chile. All stillborn.”

Maggie kicked out, hoping to break some fragile part of the old man. She tried desperately to see, feeling the hot wind around her eyes, but saw nothing. As she kicked away, she felt a bristled heat go down her bare thigh, the prickling sensation hardening to a grip and she understood the old man was holding her leg. Janet laughed as Maggie reeled away, nearly steamrolling her daughter as she moved from the old man’s touch. One of Maggie’s sandals flew off as her foot connected with something hard, cracking it. She heard something fall next to her with a dull thump.

“Angels be damned!” the old man cursed. Maggie heard him hawk back and spit. She felt warm liquid pelt her left cheek and she twisted her face away, her mouth gaped open in disgust and then mindfully shut.

“Stupid hillbilly!” she shrieked.

Maggie trashed her legs farther out, but hit nothing. She kept at it, scissoring her legs out blindly until the fatigue from her hysterics started burning through her body. Panting hard, she heard the low sound of an approaching car.

“He’s gone,” she heard Janet say. Only it was her own voice that said it. Not Janet.

Maggie felt her eyes cooling, her vision returning. She could now see faint sunlight trickle through. She remained still on the ground for another minute, listening to the approaching footsteps crunch through the grass, the concerned but reassuring new voices of help on the way.

Maggie touched her face, wiping away her sweat. The old man’s spit, she remembered. She smeared the sopping wetness onto the grass and then stood up, staggering for balance. A hand cupped her right shoulder, steadying her.

“Ma’am,” said one of her rescuers. She looked at the young man’s pale face scrunched under a John Deere cap. He stared back at her with wide eyes.

“What happened?” He asked, his adolescent voice breaking. “Is she…?

He pointed down to something on the ground. From behind him, a child-faced woman stepped up next to him, a hand over her mouth.

“They’re dead,” the young woman said.

Maggie ignored them both, her rescuers. She kept looking around for the old man, looking for his strange bottle, now broken somewhere on the open field. Whatever she would do, she would not look down at the two bodies on the ground. One, a man. The other a small child. Her frayed, dark pigtails buried in deep grass.

THE END

© Jack Lee Taylor 2015