Month: April 2015

Born of Lies

Again Elton stretched his fingers out over the far edge of his desk, and again they curled. Shy, in their own way.

Her voice hammered down.

“You impertinent little devil! What did I say?”

Elton blubbered, setting the boys in the class to snickering. He pressed his palms to the smooth oak top and pointed ten times at the chalkboard.

Miss Humphreys’ willow switch cracked down too fast to see. Elton leapt yelping to his feet and flapped his fingers in the air.

“Nose to the corner,” Miss Humphreys said. “For the rest of this Lord’s day.” She pointed with the switch, as if Elton and every other student didn’t already know which corner she meant.

Elton looked down at Royce with his slickened hair parted in a gentlemanly fashion. Royce shuffled in his desk and smiled softly.

“Please,” Elton stammered. “No. I—”

“Ah! So soon? Such moxie!”

Elton knelt by his desk and spread his fingers again but Mrs. Humphreys had seen enough. She grabbed him with a twist to the ear, adding in a pinch of her nails for good measure and, ignoring Elton’s squeals, deposited him at the front corner of the room next to the shelf of readers tattered and worn, behind the chipped enamel globe, far away from the heat of the pot-bellied stove.

“Kneel,” Miss Humphreys said, “if it suits you so. Pray for absolution. Think only of your shame.”

Elton mumbled from the corner but Miss Humphreys turned away.

“Now, where were we?” she asked.

A score of students focused upon their slates.

For the remainder of the morning, whenever Miss Humphreys was sure to be distracted, hesitant glances were cast at Elton’s back. His forehead stayed pressed to the corner. His arms hung slack at his sides.

During arithmetic facts and figures, he never turned around.

When Fabius Maximus targeted supply lines like a rabid Mescalero, Elton kept his shoulders stone-still.

Even when cinnamon-pigtailed Genevieve, whom it was rumored Elton favored, went up front to gather and pass out the readers, he didn’t offer the slightest twitch.

At recess the wind blew chill and steady through the dry grass and bottlebrush. The older children stole to the eastern side of the school.

“Can you see ‘em?” Genevieve asked.

“Shh.” Oliver, the tallest eighth grader, stood on his toes and peeked through the window. “He’s there.”

“Has he—”

Oliver ducked down quickly. The other dozen students followed suit. “She’s heatin’ a coffee atop the stove.”

The group walked back to the school’s front porch. They pressed close to the peeling white woodwork, out of the wind’s reach.

Genevieve glared at Royce. “What’d you tell him?”

“Nothin’,” Royce said.

“You said somethin’ that got him scared.”

“Ain’t so.”

“Royce Kroupa, you ain’t ever goin’ to heaven!”

Royce chuckled. “You want to know too?”

“Tell us,” Oliver said. The crowd of kids were in like agreement.

“All right then.” Royce sniffed and squinted at October’s bare horizon. “I had a tutor for a spell.”

“Yeah,” Genevieve said. “Like you ain’t brought that up none.”

“Well, it’s true and he told me stuff, on account of he knows how teachers think. ‘Cause he sorta is one, follow?”

The group agreed.

“There’s reasons why they choose the corner, and not say, the stoop or the recitin’ bench.”

Royce looked slowly from eye to eye. No one interrupted.

“There’s somethin’ there,” he said.

“What are you on about?” Genevieve asked with blatant doubt.

“In olden times. Like the General Whatsit—”

“Maximus?” Oliver offered.

Royce snapped his fingers. “Maximus. Back then they done it too. That’s where the teachers learned it. They’d perch a kid in the corner with his nose up close where he can smell the woodwork, right?”

The group muttered. They’d all had a stint in the corner at one time or another.

“Well,” Royce said. “It’s a test, see? There’s something in the corner. In every corner.” His excitement continued to build. “And when it sees a young’un that’s unwanted, just a burden on the world, why sometimes, if it’s particu-airily hungry, it reaches out and snatches ‘em up!”

“From the corner,” Genevieve said slowly with her lids half-closed.

“You bet. It’s a paper man. It sidles out edgewise. Anything in the corner is its. You stand there long enough and you’re in a serious way.”

“Paper?” Oliver asked. “That ain’t worth frettin’.”

“Naw, but it’s witchy and edge-sharp. Prunes the fingers of pilferin’ nibblers and takes the tongues of fibbers. Then, before you know what’s yours, it rumples you up like a pleat. Swallows you down then and there or fobs you in its pocket for later snackin’.”

“I oughta tell your pa,” Genevieve said. “Let him know how you spin lies and stories.”

Royce chuckled dryly.

Though Oliver also seemed unimpressed, the other students were quiet. The wind kicked up in a bluster, whipping hair and loose clothing about, yet Royce’s perfect part stayed in place.

“I’ll prove it’s so,” he said. “Watch.”

Miss Humphreys rang the class bell to end morning recess and the children hurried back inside. Elton still hadn’t moved from his place up front. Miss Humphreys gave him all the attention of a foot stool. While the next lesson was being prepared Royce raised his hand.

“Yes, Mr. Kroupa?” Miss Humphreys asked.

“I was a-wonderin’—”

Wondering,” she corrected.

“Yes’m. In olden times, those codger Romans?”

Miss Humphreys blinked rapidly, perhaps a bit taken aback that anyone in the class wanted to know more, this student in particular.

“They had teachers and such back then?” Royce asked.


“They set up the how and why of schoolin’.”

“Well—” Miss Humphreys rubbed the bridge of her long nose. She pushed her glasses back high. “To some extent, yes. The Greeks and the Romans taught us the value of a learned society.”

“But,” Royce said, his tone dramatically falling, “they had dark ways.”

“And who told you that?”

“Genny, she did.”

Genevieve pressed her lips into a dour frown.

“Well,” Miss Humphreys said, “she would be correct.”

“She says they used to fodder their kids to the coyotes.”

“Wolves. That may be—”

“Like offal. If’n a kid wasn’t fit and kelter, they had ways. Weird rites and sacrificin’. Ain’t—isn’t that so?”

Miss Humphreys gave Genevieve a knowing look. “Yes, they were most unchristian, and we will speak no more of that.”

“Sinister,” Royce said.

“I said, no more.”

Royce let the issue drop but turned with nods and winks. The younger students fidgeted in their front row seats. Elton still hadn’t moved.

The Poseidon Stones

Mike Ironbark drove the shovel into the hard dry ground. He glanced at the year-old oak seedling in the pot nearby, and wondered how many years it would take for the tree to shade the farmhouse. “This is for you, Dad,” he said.

Dad had believed that everything is connected, and he died twelve months to the day. They had potted the acorn that night in his memory. Today they’d plant the seedling in the ground and celebrate his life again. Mike’s arms and shoulders ached from the compacted soil. He blamed the early onset of summer. He stood, straightened his tight back muscles and removed his worn wide-brimmed hat. He wiped the sweat off his brow and stared at the small rise of hills in the distance. They marked the edge of the farm and had already turned a deep shade of rusty-brown. In front of them, the heat shimmered above the expanse of wheat. How could it be so hot in the morning? “Curse this heat,” he said and looked around for his crowbar. He stared up at the cloudless, indigo-blue sky, proud of his successes on the land. This was Dad’s farm, his legacy.

He turned at the sound of the back screen door spring stretching. Anna, his wife, stood by the door of their farmhouse, a towel wrapped around her slender body and her long wet hair stuck to her. Mike couldn’t help but smile. She looked beautiful, and he was the luckiest man alive.

“Mike, there’s no water for Maisie Jane’s shower,” she said.

“Have you checked the tank?”

“Yes, it’s dry.”

Mike’s heart skipped a beat and he frowned. Out here, water was their livelihood. Without it everything would die, the crops, the animals… people. Showers were the least of his concern. But it was odd. The bore pump should have automatically filled the house tank overnight. The breaker had probably tripped; it had done that a few times of late. Salt or contaminants became lodged in the pipes that stretched deep underground, into Australia’s Great Artesian Basin.

“Have we got power in the house?”

She nodded.

“Okay, I’ll go check.”

“Daddy, Daddy.” The outside screen door opened wider. Their daughter, Maisie Jane, ran around Anna and made a beeline toward him. He smiled and squatted down. She threw herself into his arms, the spitting image of Anna, except she was tall and her eyes a deeper blue—something she’d inherited from him.

Maisie Jane still looked too pale and thin, but the doctors had said that her leukemia was in remission. He hoped so. “Sleep well, Mouse?” He ruffled her uncombed hair.

The six-year-old nodded. Maisie Jane looked around him, to the small hole in the ground, at his shovel, and the oak tree. “Grandpa’s tree,” she said.

His throat tightened, and he swallowed several times to work it away before speaking. They’d made many promises on Dad’s deathbed, but it had been at Maisie Jane’s insistence that they planted an acorn in his memory.

It didn’t seem a year ago that his father had leaned forward and put his paper-thin hand on Maisie Jane’s cheek. “Mouse,” he said. “You can tell your grandchildren it was Grandpa’s tree because he loved you so much.” She’d nodded. “And by the time the tree is well established, then you’ll have the Poseidon Stones I gave to your dad. Magic stones, like Poseidon, the god of water.”

Dad had chuckled and made one last joke before he passed shortly after, his hand on Maisie Jane’s arm.

Mike’s throat tightened again. Dad had always been bigger than life, and he hoped he’d be the same for Maisie Jane. His hands went to the chain around his neck, to where the three small emeralds were cocooned in silk and their separate hessian bags. Poseidon Stones. Even now they glowed hot as if they had lives of their own. They seemed to call him. Unfamiliar images formed at the edge of his vision, and—

“Don’t cry, Daddy.”

Mike pulled himself from his memories, forced the stone’s images aside; they could wait for another time. He wiped away the tears he’d been unaware of until Maisie Jane spoke and ruffled her hair again. He didn’t trust his voice not to be twisted with emotion and nodded.

“Maisie, come inside and let Daddy check the pump.”

Maisie Jane leaned closer. “Remember?”

He nodded again, and swallowed. “If I see any, I’ll let you know.”

“But don’t hurt them,” she said quickly and held up a tiny index finger in a determined way that reinforced the impression she was such an old soul. At times she seemed years older.

“I won’t.” He stood and watched the young girl run back inside. He smiled and shook his head. There was so much of his mum in her, it was uncanny. He regretted that Mum and Anna had never met, but Mum had passed years before from the cancer. Maisie’s obsession with dragonflies always amused him and especially Dad who had given Maisie Jane his wife’s anniversary gift of an intricate, gilded dragonfly. But Maisie Jane was right; they did tend to dart around near the small, bore pump shed in search of water. They might even be at the header tank, hovering over a broken pipe that fed the farmhouse.

Eggs from the Cuckoo Clock Bird

Before I quit my job at Quality Vending earlier that morning, I was the master. I could sell snack machines to anyone. My waistline and my love for refined sugar were my arsenal. My passion for snack cakes translated into excitement during my pitch. My sincerity sold.

Until my sincerity turned to bitterness.

I still ate loads of snack cakes, but they didn’t do anything for me anymore. They’re just a habit. Like breathing. Like masturbation for the ever-shrinking satisfaction of release.

Repetition had worn me down. Eleven years doing the same thing every day will do that to you. When months started to feel like weeks, and weeks like days, I lost my connection to everything. Life was passing me by, but nothing was happening. Time moved faster than I did.

Now that it was over, I needed to retreat to a safe place to figure out what to do next. And that meant Grandma’s house. She used to host Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter, and she’d throw you a killer birthday party if you called a few days in advance. The whole family used to come before we all grew up and moved away.

I drove around a curve in the driveway and a gap in the trees revealed my Grandma’s house.

My mother, the real estate agent, called it a lovely Queen Anne Victorian. Three levels with a wraparound porch, a gable roof, and two spire-topped turrets. All of it was still perfect. Grandma had her house painted the same blue-gray every five years, and she quickly repaired anything that broke.

There were two other cars in the parking lot. One was a van for her in-home medical staff. The other was a broken down Kia: dented and rusty. I didn’t recognize it

I got out of my car and several cellophane wrappers came with me. A gust of chilly fall wind blew them into the grove that surrounded the house, where they mixed with the fallen leaves.

I crossed the lot and went up the stairs, trailing my hand along the spindles of the whitewashed railing. I stopped at the wide oak door and rang the doorbell.

I waited a long time before I heard clomping footsteps coming closer to the door. Someone fiddled with the lock, swearing all the while, and finally pulled the door open.

Shit. It was my cousin Cassie. The owner of the crappy Kia.

Cassie frowned. It was one of her two facial expressions. The other was…let me think…oh yeah, bitch. Frown and bitch. They were all she had to work with. She was dressed in a mismatched sweat suit, the top was turquoise and the bottom was pink. Her blonde hair was brown at the roots, short, spiky and angry.

“You selling something?” Cassie asked. “Because we probably don’t want it.”

“No, Cassie. It’s me. Paul.”

Her frown tightened and her lips pulled back to reveal her artificially whitened teeth.

“Your cousin,” I said.

“What do you want?”

“To come in and see Grandma.”

“She’s in the bath.”

“I’m willing to wait.”

She put her hand on her hip. “Are you looking to stay for a while?”

“Just this afternoon, overnight at the max.”

Her frown relaxed to her face’s resting bitch setting. “Come on in then.”

An Indiscernible Amount of Things

Outside there is only death. Wren had learned these words almost twenty years ago, as part of a nursery rhyme. Hunkered down in the passenger seat of the crawler, waiting to set out on his first assignment, it was all he could think. He felt small within the bulky white suit, each breath coming heavy through the mask’s filter. Reentry would mean a quarantine lasting more than a week. So far, that at least had worked; there was no record of contamination within Hub.

When the last set of doors slid open and the crawler passed through, Wren only stared without a word. He blinked at the sun until his eyes stung and began to water. Wren turned, then, to gape at the clouds. They billowed upward, dwarfing those in the museum exhibits, putting to shame the clouds in his head. Below, level with the crawler, there was just a vast, green expanse of thickets that rose and stretched about Hub. It was beautiful. Wren had to keep reminding himself that it was fatal, too.

The landscape moved along in silence for almost two hours, without a word between Wren and the driver. They passed abandoned cars and structures punctured by vines, as they navigated around dormant warheads, deep craters, and crippled, grinning signs. In the distance, a dark building loomed over the ruins, still intact, like the last bottle in a sea of glass. With each moment it seemed to grow, until the crawler pulled off the fractured highway and rumbled to a stop at the structure’s entrance.

The forward canopy snapped open and the two men climbed out, letting themselves down over the tall wheels. Wren held back as the driver approached the doors and keyed in the entry code, sending a signal to Hub. It was the only communication left outside their dome–just that request lighting up on a display panel somewhere back home.

As they waited for the Hub technicians to verify entry, Wren felt the terror all around him, creeping through the pale film of his suit. It was like knocking on a door two hundred miles away. What if the filtration on their masks broke down while they waited, as it had for the old man? Wren glanced at the driver. He stared placidly ahead, carrying only a latched tablet. Glass and fabric–that was all that protected them from the air outside. How could he be so calm?

Wren almost dropped his case when the steel doors unfastened themselves, peeling back to allow entry to the decontamination chamber. They stepped inside, and the driver tapped the lock, sealing the entrance behind them. Wren could see nothing through the mist as it pooled around their bodies, wiping them clean.

Once the second set of doors pulled back, and they entered the lobby, Wren stood silent, surveying the building’s floor. Piles of random objects clogged the hallway, nearly meeting his waist where he stood.
“Your contract,” the driver said, his voice distorted through the mask. He unlatched the imprint tablet and handed it over.

“Take off your gloves. Press here, and here, to verify that you’ve arrived and been let in,” the driver continued, gesturing as he spoke.

Wren managed only a nod in response, pushing his thumb against the lines that displayed his name and the words “Delivered.” The driver grunted and turned, pressing the lock once again. Wren watched the doors as they swallowed the man. He waited, and listened as the crawler sputtered to life outside the building and trundled away. After a moment, he turned and fell to his knees. For the first time in his life, Wren was completely alone.