Unholy Bond

Unholy Bond

by Nathaniel Bivan

The crumpled paper had rolled off the little girl’s palm, landed in a spot that will remain engraved in her mind when she makes slow calculated steps from the door of the church to the front of the pulpit. There, she will hear her fiancé say “I do” and later wonder if she actually responded amidst the screams in her head. And still later, the frighteningly familiar sensation as he hung over her, heavy breath like that first wind of damnation, making her lips tremble as though in revelation.

There will be none.

A headline from the past will quickly surface: ‘Girl aged eight defiled’ and a courtroom drama to prolong the agony. So she will fight terror with ecstasy, close her eyes to naivety’s landmark—a fifty naira bond and memory to last a lifetime.

“Kasham,” her husband will whisper, but it is another’s breath that will cause the tremor, the moaning, and the tears. It will sting her eyes and he will happily mistake them for pure passion. Innocently, he will strive to take her to where he hopes she will beg him to stop.

He will succeed.

Only, she will not be in that soft bed and candlelit room, but on a flat mattress, on a hard floor, in a compound of twenty rooms and an outhouse. There, where everything was taken from her—her childhood, her joy, her innocence.

* * *

That morning Kasham’s joy was stolen; she was out hawking doughnuts in her neighbourhood. She first went to Sani’s mechanic workshop, where the men patted her fondly and bought half what sat on her wide tray. Happy, she went to the marketplace. There, she sold everything. “Don’t come back to this house until you have sold everything,” her mother had said.

Kasham trotted home by twelve noon.

Then it happened.

Her wrapper came off and gripping the folds, she realised the money, all the money, was gone. She cried. Weeping, she walked home.

“Why are you crying? What happened?” A voice called. It was Teju the barber, standing outside the compound where he lived. Everybody knew the house. It was even called the bachelors’ den.

She told him and he promised to give her what she lost.

“But only if you come into my room and do exactly what I say.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Nathaniel Bivan
Nathaniel Bivan is a journalist living in Abuja, Nigeria. he is married to Winnie and they have a daughter, Swaan. Sometimes, when he is in the mood, he writes poetry. He is presently working on a novel.

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Who Sat Down Beside Her

Who Sat Down Beside Her

by Joseph Cusumano

Using the bottom of a coffee mug, Lara crushed the caffeine tablet, chopped the small particles into a fine powder with a razor blade and snorted all of it up with a short length of rolled paper. Compared to the blast she still craved, rehab or no rehab, intranasal caffeine was a poor substitute. For the moment, however, she had borrowed enough initiative to shower, dress, and make herself a decent breakfast. Lara was still underweight, and she wanted her boobs back.

After breakfast, she slipped into a pair of low-heeled pumps, grabbed her jacket and stepped outside. Had it not been another day of gray skies and rain, she might have made it. After staring at the dreary landscape for several moments, Lara abruptly turned and reentered her apartment, her pulse already beginning to climb.

The silver-gray, hard-cased Samsonite suitcase scraped the bottom of her bedframe as she pulled it out. After unlatching the top and removing a zip-lock bag, she placed a small quantity of its white powder onto the top of her dresser and used the razor’s edge to form a line. As long as she didn’t bang it into her veins, she wasn’t a total addict, at least not like the crew she’d met in rehab. Those burn-outs, as she referred to them, had already lost their teeth while she still turned heads.

Fifteen minutes later, she was barrelling down the highway to her office, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” booming from the Bose. With her entire nervous system set to blitz mode, it was a lot easier dealing with the decision she’d postponed. Ron, her business partner and on-again-off-again thrill, should be told the news of her recent windfall, at least the cash part of it. It would allow their fledgling business to avoid bankruptcy.

Two days ago, she had returned to the Seattle airport after a fruitless trip to San Francisco and was among the first travellers to exit the plane. Her Samsonite was among the first pieces of luggage to reach the carousel, and by the time the last passenger got off the jet, Lara was on her way to short-term parking.

After arriving at her apartment, she tossed the suitcase onto her bed, undressed, showered, and dried herself. Still having some clean clothes in the suitcase, she flipped it open and was stunned. On the left side were half inch thick bundles of Jacksons plus a few stacks of Franklins, more money than she had ever seen at one time. On the right side were four large zip-lock bags filled with white powder. Naked and damp, Lara stared at the contents until she shivered.

Ron arrived at the office about five minutes after Lara. Although none of their employees were in their cubicles yet, Lara asked him to come into her office and close the door behind him. By then, she had decided that the cash and drugs she’d found were a gift from heaven, not someone else’s dangerous ill-gotten gains. But Ron was a four per-center, one of the very few who had stayed clean after a couple of days in detox. Almost everyone else needed months of rehab to kick the habit. He was the exception to a rule that got tossed around in rehab regarding cocaine, that the first time you tried it, you were signing over durable power of eternity to a molecule. She couldn’t bring herself to tell Ron about the cocaine.

“Well, shit! You’re cranking again!” Ron said. It wasn’t a question. Lara’s first impulse was to deny it, but her runny nose and constant movements made that impossible, especially to a former addict. No way I can take the Fifth in this court, Lara realized, so she pled guilty and braced herself for a lecture she didn’t want to hear. But instead of playing drug counsellor, Ron surprised her by focusing on a more immediate issue, one to which she had given little thought.

“Can you tell if somebody took your suitcase, emptied it out, and then refilled it with the coke? Or do you think it’s not even your suitcase?”

“It’s not mine. It just looks like mine” Lara said.

“How do you know?”

“All the internal compartments for storing separate items have been torn out. I also found some scratches on the outside that mine doesn’t have, and it smells funny on the inside.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know … some weird chemical smell.”

“Does it have an I.D. tag on the handle?”

“No.”

“Did yours?”

“No,” she replied. Ron appeared to relax a little.

“So whoever packed the money and drugs in the suitcase that you took home likely has your suitcase and clothes.”

“Yeah, but like I said, there was no I.D. tag on mine.”

“Was there anything in your own suitcase that could identify you?” he asked. From the look on her face, Ron saw that she hadn’t considered this.

“Well?” he prodded.

“Give me a moment, will you?” she shot back.

“What about the documents for the group in San Francisco? Were they in the suitcase?”

“No. I carried them in a briefcase along with my tablet.”

“Did you have any personal items in the suitcase?”

“Like what?”

“Like…prescription medicines with your name and address on the label. Or mail. And what about your travel expense receipts?”

“I keep my meds in my purse, and the travel receipts are in my briefcase.” She lifted her purse and the dark brown leather briefcase off her desk to show him, her arm trembling.

“And what about mail? Did you take any mail with you, even junk mail?”

“Yeah, I did…”

“And where is it?” Ron asked.

“I read it and threw it away at the hotel. Most of it was women’s magazines.”

“You threw all of it away before you packed your suitcase in San Francisco?”

“Yeah, I think I did.” She wanted to kick herself.

* * *

It would have to be Connie. Two years ago, Connie had been so helpful when Lara had her abortion, driving her to and from the clinic and spending the first night sleeping on a cot alongside her. In other circumstances, Lara would have used the word godsend to describe her. But when the ordeal was over, Lara drifted away. She still had some guilt about it—the separation from Connie, not the abortion—and decided that she must have needed to close an entire chapter of her life, one that had included her closest friend. Now she needed Connie again.

Lara arrived at her favorite coffee shop five minutes early and twelve pounds underweight. She had no appetite but ordered a pecan-filled pastry with her coffee. The coffee came in an old style, heavy white ceramic mug, just like the ones from which she’d sipped hot chocolate while in grade school. The pecan pastry lay on a plain white china plate, and the silverware was stainless steel. Nothing fancy, but the place had none of the cheap, disposable feel she encountered nearly everywhere else. After meandering around the coffee shop, Lara found an empty table at the rear.

She still hadn’t decided how much she would have to tell Connie and how much she could keep to herself. The financial predicament of her company? Her cash windfall? That she was cranking again? Her uncertainty about whether she had left personal information in the suitcase, the one that the smugglers now possessed?

Suddenly aware of someone standing at the edge of the table, Lara looked up and saw her friend. Like herself, Connie was tall, brunette and fair. Unlike herself, Connie had curves.

Connie gave Lara the smile she remembered, the one that said everything is going to be okay. Lara jumped up, hugged her and didn’t want to let go. Neither did Connie.

In minutes, they were conversing as if their separation had never occurred, and Lara remembered what she most admired and envied about her friend; Connie saw life as an adventure, and she still trusted her own judgement.

With a two-year hiatus, they had some catching up to do, and there were enough safe topics that the time passed easily and quickly. But Lara knew that Connie would eventually prod her with the question that was the reason for their tête-a-tête.

“Lara, is something getting you down? You don’t look well, and you’re too thin.”

Lara glanced at her coffee and untouched pastry, still undecided about how much to reveal. She would just have to begin and trust herself to say the right thing.

“It’s not completely my fault,” Lara said.

“I read the article in the paper a few months ago about the business you started,” Connie replied. Lara remembered the friendly note that Connie had sent at the time, one to which she should have responded. “Is your business in trouble?”

“That’s a big chunk of it. You don’t know my partner, Ron, but we met on a detox ward.”

“Strange place to formulate a business plan.” Connie smiled.

“For sure, but I needed something to work toward, not just something to get away from. Without a project like this, it would have taken me a lot longer to get clean.”

“What kind of business is it?”

“Crowd lending. People with money to invest who can’t earn much more than two percent in CDs can get up to five percent if they loan their money to us. Then we loan the money out at seven percent to small business start-ups. Each investor’s money gets spread out over a large number of different start-ups to minimize risk. It’s a neat business model. We have much lower overhead than a bank does because we do relatively little investigation into the people we loan to. Of course we provide information to our investors regarding the nature, size, and number of start-ups in our loan portfolio.”

“Most of this is done online?”

“Exactly. We almost never meet face to face with investors or borrowers, and that saves a huge amount of overhead and time.”

“Sounds efficient. Is it working out?”

“Sort of. The trick is simply having enough borrowers and lenders, so I was really excited when I got a call from a larger company based in San Francisco. They’re in the same business we are, and they wanted to explore a possible merger with us.”

“That sounds great. What happened?”

“I went to meet the CEO in person. I showed him our current balance sheet, the profit and loss statement for the most recent quarters, and our projections.”

“And?”

“He lost interest, fast. He thought the projections were unrealistic and said we had made the most common mistake start-ups make.”

“Let me guess,” Connie interrupted. “Beginning without enough capital to stay afloat until the operation becomes self-sustaining.”

“You’ve obviously seen this before. From the CEO’s point of view, we would be a drag on his company. It was a huge let-down.”

“Do you think he was right?”

“It looks that way. If we don’t get bigger very soon, we won’t be able to pay the salaries or the rent. We’re going through our cash too fast.” Lara took a large swallow of coffee, hoping to warm herself without having to force food down her gullet. Closing her eyes, she felt the warmth spread through her chest and stomach. “About a month ago, I started doing something risky.” She paused, and Connie gave her the encouraging nod she needed. “I started paying the interest owed to the early investors with money coming in from new investors.”

“You mean a pyramid scheme?” Connie seemed horrified.

“Not like Madoff!” Lara insisted.

“How is it different?”

“Well for one thing, Ron and I aren’t living some extravagant lifestyle. I’m just trying to keep the business alive until it reaches a size where it can generate a profit.”

“Does Ron know what you’re doing?”

“No. I’m keeping two sets of books.” When Connie remained silent, Lara looked down and fidgeted with her napkin and silverware. The pastry on her plate looked even less appetizing now than when she had bought it, and after cutting it into small bites, she lifted the plate to her friend. Connie took a piece, held it between thumb and forefinger, and continued to wait. “But I’ve been given a way out,” Lara finally said, and she amazed Connie with the story of the switched luggage and cash windfall, not mentioning the plastic bags filled with cocaine.

When she finished, Connie asked, “And what does Ron think?”

“That I have to turn the money over to the police.”

“And you?”

“If he doesn’t let me save the business with the cash I’ve found, I’m going to buy him out.”

Connie left the coffee house fifteen minutes later, wondering why Lara had bothered to ask her opinion.

* * *

Shit! Shit! Shit! Is this for real? Lara read the email for the third time.

Ms. Wilson: You are in possession of property that is not yours. We are referring to the contents of a suitcase that you took from the airport on December 3rd. We believe you took it from a carousel by mistake and that you wish to return it in exchange for your own. Park your car at the lot on the corner of 27th and Carter this coming Tuesday at 4 PM. Leave it unlocked with our suitcase on the floor of the back seat and leave the area immediately. You may return to your car after 4:30 PM. Your own suitcase will be in the back seat.

I did leave some kind of I.D. in my suitcase, Lara realized. But how did they get my email address?

In less than a minute, she had her answer. Using Google, she found all sorts of online services that would provide that information and much more. Lara jumped up from her desk and quickly headed into her bedroom. After tossing the suitcase on top of the bed, she opened it and stared at the contents. Although she had taken some of the cocaine from one of the plastic bags, the bag was still over three-quarters full. The other bags were untouched. As for the cash, she had taken only two of the bundles of twenty dollar bills, leaving well over $300,000.

If they had contacted me right away, I wouldn’t have dared touch it. Why the hell did they wait? Do they expect me not to have used a little coke and cash after two whole weeks? What are they going to do when they discover that some of their stash is missing?

Lara didn’t have any answers, and pacing the rooms of her apartment didn’t help. She stopped to glance at the clock on her fireplace mantle. It was 9:30 PM. No wonder she was crashing. It had been over fourteen hours since she had snorted her daily allotment. Maybe she could get some sleep and face things with a clearer mind in the morning, especially after her morning fix.

After undressing in her bedroom, she entered the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Not good. Red-rimmed eyelids. Patchy discoloration on her left cheek, typical of coke users. Her face was gaunt and the bathroom scale confirmed it; she was down an additional four pounds. I’ve got to start eating! she vowed. I’ll get a solid breakfast in the morning.

Lara leaned over the bathtub to turn on the water but immediately jumped back. A spider the size of her hand was inside the tub. She quickly backed out of the bathroom and closed the door. The space under the door was too narrow to permit the thing to crawl through. This calmed her somewhat, but re-entering the bathroom was out of the question. The landlord could deal with the spider in the morning. Alone, she wouldn’t have faced it with anything less than a flame-thrower. She tugged on the door again to make sure that it was completely closed, headed for the half bath off the living room, and washed her face and hands repeatedly.

Lara knew she needed a sedative and took a double dose. When she finally relaxed enough to fall asleep, her dreams were overrun by spiders which had long, bony human fingers in place of legs. She whimpered and thrashed about in bed, but the sedative prevented her from wakening. The spiders climbed all over her, used their human fingers to pull her hair, and bit her arms and legs. When she couldn’t seem to swat them away, Lara glanced at her hands. Her fingers had turned into bristly spider legs.

* * *

“Ms. Wilson, there’s nothing in your bathtub.”

“What about the rest of the bathroom? Maybe it crawled out of the tub and is hiding in the closet,” Lara said.

“I checked everywhere,” Rick answered while walking into the kitchen where Lara waited. “It must have gone down the drain. I’ll run some hot water in case it’s still in the pipe.”

When he finished, Rick told her to call if she saw the spider again; then he returned to his office. Lara stepped gingerly into the doorframe of the bathroom and looked around. Her search included all four corners of the ceiling. The last place she wanted to find it was on top of her head, but Rick had been right. It was gone. Lara pushed the rubber plug into the bathtub drain as far as it would go, aware that it would be difficult to remove later. She then filled the tub with enough hot water to fog the mirror above the sink even with the bathroom door left wide open. Next came the lavender bath salts. Once settled into the hot water, the tension in her neck and traps begin to ease.

Thirty minutes later when Lara had finished dressing, she went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator in hope of finding something palatable. But having neither added anything fresh nor removed any of the older items, she caught a whiff of something that had spoiled and quickly shut the refrigerator door. Her final preparation for work was a long line of white powder.

* * *

Lara exited the freeway at 27th street and headed south toward its intersection with Carter. The clock on the dashboard read 3:45 PM, and the parking lot designated in the email was less than a mile away. Even with fur-lined gloves, the steering wheel sucked the warmth out of her fingers, and the mirror on her visor had been especially unkind. Sunken eyes, patchy discolorations all over her face, dark stains on her teeth.

Several minutes earlier, she had jerked the steering wheel when the spider crawled across her windshield and been buffeted by the blaring horns of other drivers. In the previous days, Lara had seen it multiple times. At the office, she had watched it climb onto Ron’s lap and settle in. When Ron continued to calmly sip his coffee, she knew the spider wasn’t real, but Lara believed it was something she could handle. It couldn’t be any worse than what she had experienced years ago with ketamine.

However, this had been a turning point for Lara. Ron was aghast when she showed him the anonymous email. He begged her to follow the instructions that had been sent. It meant she would have to surrender her windfall and go back into detox and rehab, but he insisted there was no alternative.

Eventually Lara agreed, knowing full well that the business might fail, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell Ron about the second set of books she’d been keeping. If she ended up in prison for defrauding their investors, Ron would be left to pay both Peter and Paul.

Lara was three blocks away from the parking lot when everything suddenly became clear. She immediately pulled into an empty parking space and sat with her heart pounding.

How could I have been so stupid? she wondered. The anonymous email was sent by Ron, and he’s the one coming to switch the suitcases! Then while I’m in rehab, he’ll try to buy me out for a song, maybe even force a sale in court by claiming that I’m a hopeless addict who was committing fraud and destroying the business. Nobody will understand that I’m the only one who can save it.

Devastated by the betrayal, Lara sat a few more minutes before another suspicion crept over her. Was Connie in on this too? Was Connie going to be Ron’s new partner? Given her own wasted condition, curvaceous Connie might already be Ron’s new love.

She swore out loud and angrily shoved the gearshift back into drive, made a hasty U-turn, and headed back to the highway. Instead of heading north on the interstate back to her apartment, she took the southbound ramp. Five minutes later, she crossed the river and the state line. With the suitcase in the back seat, she didn’t need anything or anybody.

Lara glanced at the rear-view mirror and saw two large spiders crawling on the inside surface of the rear window. Although her hands instantly gripped the steering wheel tighter, she kept the car in the center of the lane.

◊ ◊ ◊

Joseph Cusumano
Joseph Cusumano is a physician living in St. Louis. His major hobby, other than writing, is the design and construction of radio controlled airplanes. His piloting skills need a lot of work.

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A Calendar of Days

A Calendar of Days

by Sue Ellis

Cameron’s harvested wheat fields lay waiting for tillage. He could plow blindfolded, he thought, having memorized the sweep of every hilltop and valley on the farm. He drove the tractor with the six-bottom plow onto the nearest forty-acre section of his hundred and sixty acres and lowered the plowshares. Twisting around in the seat, he made sure that the ground was properly sliced and rolled, turning wheat stubble underground and leaving mounded, lineal rows of black earth in its place. Satisfied, he slipped on sound-dampening ear muffs and relaxed into the muted squeak and clatter of the steel tracks that propelled him. Once the field was outlined, he followed the inside furrow of the previous round as a guide, working turnaround loops on the sharp corners as gracefully as a skater on a frozen pond, dust swirling around him. Lulled by the mundane nature of the task, his thoughts drifted to other subjects, and inevitably, to Lila.

She’d come to his house on a fall day like this one in 1969, and knocked on the door as he ate his lunch. “I’m glad someone’s home,” she said, relief evident in her expression, and raised the empty gas can she carried to explain the reason for her visit. He sat down on the porch and put his boots back on, then took the can from her and headed toward the gas tank. She followed, tie-dyed skirt trailing in the dust.

“I’m Lila,” she said.

“Cameron,” said Cameron.

“It’s beautiful here, and I love the wind. It’s almost constant, isn’t it.”

“Almost,” he said. “Although I’ve seen hot days during harvest when you couldn’t catch a breeze to save your soul.”

When she smiled, he saw that she was more handsome than pretty, with jutting cheekbones and graceful posture. He guessed her age to be early-twenties. The state route in front of his place saw a stream of traffic on weekends when Washington State University students from Pullman visited the larger city of Spokane. It being Sunday, he assumed that Lila was one of them. He felt awkward and dazzled standing beside her, like the quintessential clod he imagined himself to be—the progeny of geriatric parents who’d both passed on by the time he was twenty-three. They liked to brag that he was an adult at ten. He switched churches after they died because he liked the Presbyterian minister better than the Lutheran’s, but other than that his life continued as it always had, taking care of the farm.

Lila’s car wouldn’t start. He towed it to his shop, telling her to take shelter in the house as a light rain began to fall. He tinkered with the engine, discovering that it needed a part he couldn’t manufacture. He found her at the dining table taking in the view: his mother’s vegetable garden, which he still maintained, and beyond, the expanse of hilly fields blending into a copse of poplars. She rode with him to Colfax to buy the part and watched as he installed it.

She appeared again the next weekend—flagged him down from the road as he plowed. He cut the tractor’s engine and climbed down.

“I’m helping with a fundraiser sponsored by the Arts Department at WSU,” she said. “Would you consider letting us take aerial photos of your fields?”

“I don’t see why not,” said Cameron. “How are you going to use them?”

“They’ll be featured in this year’s calendar.”

Silence intervened as they stood at the edge of the field, he calculating the time required to finish his task, she oblivious to her intrusion, shading her eyes with a forearm across her brow, lost in the swollen hills and complacent lowlands of the Palouse landscape. She was so caught-up in her thoughts that Cameron began to worry that he’d have to initiate a new topic.

“Do you suppose I could ride on the tractor?” she said. “I’d love to watch how it’s done.”

The seat was only meant for one person, but Cameron had ridden with his Dad when he was a kid, happily foregoing comfort for the experience. He gave Lila his ear muffs, relieved that he wouldn’t have to engage in small talk while her nearness threatened coherent thought. When the ride ended, she jumped lightly down, then turned to thank him.

“Your fields are so beautiful, Cam,” she said, and he was struck dumb by his luck—that she could find anything appealing about either himself or his fields—and that she’d abbreviated his name to suit her. She finished the fall quarter at WSU and they were married just after Thanksgiving.

He was in his mid-thirties then, she twenty. They were a source of gossip among the locals, which he easily ignored although it was hard for Lila, who loved people and social events. He met her parents, which was awkward only until they witnessed Lila’s pride at being a farmer’s wife, and her unmistakable devotion to Cam. Lila had two miscarriages, devastating events that prevented Cam from protesting when she told him she didn’t want to try again. They were busy enough between church and farm, he assured her, and there was her part time teaching position at the Colfax Elementary School.

Time eventually blunted some of Lila’s sharp, bright edge, a fact that didn’t escape Cam. He knew he was partly responsible for the change in her, but couldn’t access a more garrulous version of himself. He tried to make it up to her in other ways: annual vacations, a remodeled kitchen—a new car now and then. They’d been married twenty-six years when he came in from the field one day and discovered her absence. He sensed it when he walked into the house—an emptiness that pervaded the place. She’d left a note:

“I don’t want to hurt you, Cam, but it wouldn’t be right to lie to you. I ran into an old friend, a man I’d given up for lost before I met you. I won’t explain any further except to say that I will always cherish my time with you. Please understand that life eventually leads us onto the path we were meant to follow.

It didn’t occur to him to check the bank account for several days, and when he did he discovered that she’d taken very little. As the months stretched into a year, he began to accept that she wasn’t coming back. Sometime in the eighteen years since, his sorrow had shriveled into the driving force that kept him stubbornly working, never mind that he was well past retirement age. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d gone to church.

He finished plowing at dusk and turned the tractor toward home, leaving a perpendicular mar on the otherwise perfect, centripetal pattern he’d left on the field. The bite plate his dentist insisted he wear wasn’t doing enough to ease the pain of his jaws. He took it out and dropped it onto the tracks and let their forward motion crush it into the ground.

◊ ◊ ◊

Sue Ellis
Sue Ellis lives and writes in Washington State. Some writing credits include Prick of the Spindle, Rose and Thorn Journal, Front Porch Review, and The Cynic Online Magazine.

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Carpenter, Demon Hunter, Father

Carpenter, Demon Hunter, Father

by Sara Codair

2:00 a.m.
I sneak back into the house. Despite my stealth, Erin hears the door and screams. I stash my Glock under that loose floor board Grace complains I never fix and rush up stairs.

Erin is heaven in my arms after a night chasing nightmares down dark alleys. I savor the sound of her little heart beating. I love my family, but often feel cursed to be an Evanstar, a scion of an old demon-hunting family.

My daughter looks so much like me with her leaf-green eyes and fluffy red hair. I change her soiled diaper, feed her and just hold her before I take off my clothes and slip into bed. Grace rolls over. “Thanks, Liam. I’ll change her next time.”

“I love you,” I whisper drinking in the sight of her coffee eyes and maple hair.

“I love you too.” She closes her eyes and falls back to sleep.

6:00 a.m.
I’m at the job site unloading the trailer. My subs shoot envious glances at how easily I carry sheets of drywall. They don’t know I could take three times the load without breaking a sweat. If they weren’t there to see, I would carry it all myself. I’d move so fast they would only see a blur. Sometimes, I wonder why I spend the money on their salaries.

Then Dawn cracks a joke, I smile, and we get to work. Pneumatic guns shoot nails into walls. Sharp blades slice through wood like butter. Our laughter and curses float up to the heavens. We finish framing the first floor before lunch. They guys invite me to the pizza shop with them, but I have other plans.

12:00 p.m.
Grace and Erin meet me at the diner.

“I swear this girl is nocturnal.” Grace sips her coffee with shaking hands. “Cries all night, sleeps all day.”

Erin’s eyes are closed and she is sucking her thumb. Dark circles surround Grace’s sunken eyes and her hair sticks up five directions. Six months after giving birth, she is the thinnest I’ve ever seen her.

“What are your plans for this afternoon?” I tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear.

“Yard work—your sister said vinegar will kill the weeds that keep growing between the pavers.”

“When did you talk to Lucy?”

“This morning. I woke up to Amelia rummaging through our fridge.”

I nearly choke on my coffee, hiding fear with a laugh. “How’d she get in?”

Grace shakes her head and twirls hair around her fingers. “She found the spare key and piled up a bunch of toys to help her reach the lock. When I caught her, she just looked up at me with wide eyes and asked for bacon.”

My laughter comes easier when I realize Amelia was just looking for food and not on some foolish mission to tell Aunty Grace the Truth. “So did you feed her?”

Grace nods. “My call woke Lucy. She hadn’t even realized her daughter was gone. I didn’t want to give Amelia the wrong idea, but Lucy said she would learn her lesson either way.”

“Sounds like I missed a fun morning.”

“Lucy said she wants you to stop by after work. She needs you to fix something.”

“Alright,” I sigh, wondering how many nights I can sneak out before Grace gets suspicious.

4:15
I stop by my sister’s on the way home.

Nothing is broken at Lucy’s house that I can fix. She’s perfectly capable of repairing broken banisters, leaky plumbing, and shorted wiring—she worked construction with me until Amelia was born.

With a sigh, I raise my hand and knock on her plum colored door. It opens before my hand hits the wood. A ball of blinding light flies at me with enough force to knock me off the steps.

“Uncle Li Li!” squeals Amelia as she wraps her tiny arms around me. “Aunty Gracie cooked me the best bacon ever!”

I pick Amelia up and spin her around, resulting in a flurry of bell-like giggles.

“Mommy thinks you’re going to have to go hunting tonight,” she says as the question forms in my mind. “I told her you don’t like hunting and that you wish you were a stay-at-home daddy, but she says you have to do it because it’s your blood, but that doesn’t make any sense. How can—”

“Amelia, do you remember that talk we had about privacy and mind reading?” scolds Lucy as she stomps out to the porch.

Light fades from Amelia’s swirling green and blue eyes. “But Uncle Li Li is family!”

“Go play with the kitties. Uncle Liam and I have business to talk about.”

5:00 p.m.
I’m greeted by the warm aroma of meatloaf and the sound of Grace’s angelic voice singing to Erin.

She yawns through dinner and passes out on the couch soon after. Her snores serenade me while I load the dishwasher.

I choose not to wake my wife. I tell Erin stories Grace wouldn’t believe. I know Erin can’t understand and won’t remember, but I tell her anyways, because I’m not sure I’ll see her grow up.

I’m never there when I dream her future.

12:00 a.m.
I get the call. Pixies spotted a pack of demons roaming through an abandoned factory. I gather my weapons and conceal them under my coat.

12:15 a.m.
I’m speeding down 495 in my sister’s Chevy.

12:45 a.m.
I’m surrounded by teeth and cold, black eyes and bone white bodies. I unsheathe my sword and time slows down. I’m faster than them, faster than anything else man or monster.

12:46 a.m.
Seven demons are vanquished.

My sister is laughing. “You never let me have any fun.”

I shake my head. Hunting isn’t fun. It’s a life that burns like vinegar. It taxes my sanity. I’m a carpenter and father. I’m not cut out to be a soldier.

1:15 a.m.
I’m home, changing Erin’s diaper.

◊ ◊ ◊

Sara Codair
Sara Codair writes because her brain is overcrowded with stories. If she doesn’t get them out, she fears her head will explode. When she isn’t making things up, she is teaching, binge reading fantasy novels or enjoying nature. She won second place in Women on Writing’s 2016 Winter Flash Fiction Contest and her work has appeared in several e-zines including 101 Words, Foliate oak, Sick Lit Magazine and Mash Stories. You can find her online at https://saracodair.com/ and @shatteredsmooth.

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Those Three Little Words

Those Three Little Words

by Karen Heslop

I’ve gotta tell ya, I said it but I didn’t mean it. How could I? Let’s keep that between us though, alright? I mean there he was looking at me with those sappy-please-don’t-kick-me-kick-me-like-everybody-else puppy dog eyes, silently pleading with me to say it back. Of course the first words that came to my mind was Are you crazy? You’ve known me for like a month for Chrissake! But my mama didn’t raise no blabbermouth.

“Janet,” she used to say, “You take care o’ that tongue o’ yours. Don’t let out nothin’ you can’t take back.”

So I think a lot more than I talk but I gotta tell ya, I almost let those words in my head get out. Even with my tongue just about glued to the roof of my mouth.

We were just sitting there eating our ice cream like every other Sunday and this dude goes and turns it into a big deal. If I know Dave and I’m pretty sure I do, he probably rehearsed saying those three little words a thousand and twenty times before he even picked me up. I wondered how the conversation had gone in his head. Did I tear up, grab his hand and say it back all dramatic like in the movies? Did I just take my ice cream sundae and walk out? Maybe I pretended I didn’t hear him. Kind of like I did for about a minute after he said it. I couldn’t even pretend like my mouth was too full to answer cause we were eating ice cream, not the big thick burgers we had the night before.

But while I’m slowly chewing on the cherry from my sundae, I hear my mama again.

“Janet, we was never meant to be alone but lemme tell you somethin’. You better stick with a man who treats you right and loves you more than you love him.”

She should know too cause she loved my Daddy lots and all that got her was some hospital visits and a cramped little spot in the cemetery across the way when he was done pretending to love her. So I said the three little words back and his face lit up like a kid who’d got a candy jar that ain’t never gonna run outta candy.

All I know is some love type kinda feelings better start growing in me real soon cause if I know Dave and I’m pretty sure I do, he’s got a ring picked out somewhere. And I gotta tell ya, I’ve faked a lotta things in my life but a marriage ain’t gonna be one of ‘em.

◊ ◊ ◊

Karen Heslop
Karen Heslop writes from Kingston, Jamaica. Her short stories have been published or are upcoming in a Devolution Z anthology, 101 Words Magazine, Bloodbond Magazine and Bards and Sages Magazine.

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Night of the Living Shed

Night of the Living Shed

by DJ Tyrer

It wasn’t Hallowe’en, but it should’ve been. Hallowe’en is the sort of night such weirdness should occur, not a warm summer’s evening. Equally, had it been a gazebo, I would have found it more believable; I’ve always felt that word should be the name of a monstrosity. But, it wasn’t. It was a shed, and it was a balmy summer’s evening and I was terrified out of my mind.

It all began innocuously enough. I’d offered to help my girlfriend’s father out, for the same reasons young men have made such offers since time immemorial. He’d bought a rundown house he planned to rent out for an income and the garden needed dealing with. You doubtless have seen such overgrown plots filled with chest-high grass and brambles, with the odd shopping trolley concealed amongst the growth. In the hopes of increasing the chance of physical pleasures, I was busy hacking away at it all with a strimmer and had been for some time. I’d uncovered the aforementioned shopping trolley and the shed and had stumbled into a weed-choked fishpond. The garden still looked awful.

As I worked, the full moon rose in the sky and a pallid glow washed over the garden.

I was startled by a sudden wrenching sound and was startled to see the shed tearing itself free from its foundation to stand on a pair of spindly legs that looked like garden hoes. The door flapped open like a misplaced jaw to reveal teeth made of shears. To either side of it, two small windows stared balefully at me.

It began to chase me.

Have you ever been chased by a shed? Of course not. You probably haven’t even been chased by a tiger and that at least, compared to this, would be a mundane occurrence. Well, let me tell you, being chased by a shed is a terrifying, confusing experience. And, when it chases you down a street and people stare at you in surprise, rather embarrassing, too. After all, nobody should be scared of a shed.

But, believe me, it was scary.

Now, I’d abandoned the strimmer and so was quite unarmed. I called the police as I ran, but the moment I shouted that a shed was trying to eat me, they hung up.

What was I to do? What would you do?

Not one of the gawking onlookers moved to assist me.

I was on my own and I was screwed and not in the manner I’d hoped the gardening would lead to.

A bonfire might have done, but you don’t see too many of those these days.

The shed’s door-jaw snapped open and nearly bowled me over; it was right on my heels.
Then, a thought struck me and I ran towards the highway, the shed snapping at me as I went.

I dodged out amongst the traffic. Thank goodness folk drive out to clubs and pubs in the evening! Horns blared and brakes screeched as I leapt around cars. Then, came an almighty, splintering crash as an SUV ploughed into the shed. I felt fragments of wood strike me.

I let out a cry of delight and began to dance for joy: I was safe!

That was when a Ford Fiesta clipped me, putting me here in hospital. But, still, I was safe.

Only…every now and then, I’m certain I hear the click-clack sound of hoe-blade feet on the passage floor outside the ward…

No; it must be my imagination.

◊ ◊ ◊

DJ Tyrer
DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing, was short-listed for the 2015 Carillon ‘Let’s Be Absurd’ Fiction Competition, and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Warlords of the Asteroid Belt (Rogue Planet Press), Strangely Funny II and III  (both Mystery & Horror LLC), Destroy All Robots (Dynatox Ministries), Steam Chronicles (Zimbell House) and Irrational Fears (FTB Press), as well as issues of Tigershark ezine, and also has a novella available on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor). http://djtyrer.blogspot.co.uk/

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