Bedwetters, fiction by Misty Skaggs

The screeching and squawking next door stopped and through the evening silence, Charlene heard frogs peeping in the creek. And she heard her favorite rocking chair squeaking a little louder. She felt herself move and bob a little faster in her perch on the porch as she thought about how that neighbor woman rubbed her the wrong way.With her eyes squinted, she watched Mrs. Gilliam bounce and hum through the yard, teetering across the flagstone walkway between their houses on a pair of heels on a Wednesday after supper. That woman had ruined Charlene’s perfectly quiet moment with an uninvited bundt cake made out of a box and her vapid gossip. Mrs. Gilliam, Genie Jo she insisted, stomped around on the old woman’s last nerve with those cheap heels. Charlene may have been born and raised in a holler, but she knew good shoes when she saw ‘em. Back when she was young, she had a shocking sense of fashion. For a spinster. She turned heads without showing skin or feeling foolish. There wasn’t a man in three counties who could keep up with her.

Genie Jo’s voice was a nervous chirp and her hair was too blonde. Her house was too clean, her kids were too polite. Those rugrats always yes ma’amed and no ma’amed at Charlene, but she didn’t buy it for a minute. She knew damn well those smiling, polite kids were the same little hoodlums who put a dead muskrat in her mail box. Charlene had been a teacher in the same town, in the same school, most of her life. Seventy some odd years. Long enough to know kids, to see them grow up into adults. Those kids were going to grow up to be degenerates, she could see it comin’. Charlene noticed things, quietly and aptly. From behind her bulky, metal desk in the fifth grade classroom, she observed the passing of generations. And she figured she was probably the only educator in the whole United States who’d drawn a correlation between boys who wet the bed and grown menwho cheat on their wives. Nine out of ten times, those pee babies grew up to be two-timers. Charlene took mental note of every time that neighbor woman teetered toward her house with a box of wine to talk to the old maid in a pitiful whine about feeling lonely.

That neighbor woman, Genie Jo, she had married a bedwetter. A whiney, pudgy, red-headed Gilliam boy who grew into a whining, red-headed man. Charlene remembered him from the fifth grade back in 1995. And she could hear him through the fence when she was out back working in her tomato garden.

“Honeeeeyyyy hoooneyyyyyy…” he’d wail for his wife, like a sickly siren.

Grousing for her to fetch him this or that. And she did it, Mrs. Gilliam. She actually did it. In those jakey heels and a skimpy, two-piece bathing suit. She packed and pranced back and forth from the house to that above-ground pool where he floated around like a sunburnt, shaved orangutan. She delivered bottles of beer or sunscreen and cooed to him sweetly. His whole body was covered in wet, matted, gingery hair. All except for the top of his head. Charlene wouldn’t be surprised if that woman picked his nits before bedtime.

And changed the piss-soaked sheets every morning. Genie Jo smiled her fake smile with her fake teeth and waved as she toddled up the porch steps, clinging to the railing for dear life. Charlene just shook her head and rocked a little harder.

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Prime Directives, fiction by Matt Prater

 If we were all good people, we could work in perfect rhythm

If worms had daggers, birds wouldn’t fuck with em

– Todd Snider, “If Tomorrow Never Comes”

Milton Friedman used to have this theory about the pencil, used to use it to explain the holy concepts of peace and libertarianism. He said the eraser and the metal cap and the paint and the wood and the granite and the machines that put them together, and even the people who ran those machines, along with all the farms and the mines and the quarries that produced the goods – all of them had to work together and cooperate peacefully to make a single pencil; and that that made a single pencil a powerful symbol of the general resourcefulness and amiability of humanity when left to its natural devices, unecumbered by war drums or the other social engineerings of governments and their onerous regulations. Friedman’s libertarianism, as opposed to Rand’s, was a liberal, egalitarianly unselfish paradox of an economy. The self serves other selves of its own free will, and money is a currrency not of power but diplomacy.

Nog, on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, called this concept the “Great Material Continuum” – a river of goods and services, and an ethereal force that permiated all the galaxy, distributing a holy inequity of goods that forced all the sentient beings of the cosmos into contact, contract, and trade. If one could navigate this force with skill and cunning, Nog explained, they could not only fulfill every one of their own desires, but also spread growth and wealth and ever-increasing dividends and measures to all of the partners, and prosperize the cosmos. If greed was not, in this model, necessarily good, then at least the forces of everyday hunger for the belly and wallet and bed could be managed and shaped to engender peace and reciprocation.

And yet here is a story, in spite of all of that, about simple positional good.

Radney lived along the single boulevard of Archetype, Kentucky, somewhere in that big strip of strip mines between Pound Gap and eastern Adair County. A town that was proud of its Applebee’s that redacted its blue laws to accommodate it. It kept a small bit of the money that the operators of the Red Sandy Fork MTR site mad, and at least its football team, if not its school, was funded. It was a land of off-brand Dollar Generals: TruSave, GreenbucksXPress, and the town’s one independent gas station, the Holler Dollar, famous because it had a cake lady and homemade boiled peanuts and a Slushie machine and farm fresh eggs and local minnows – and, though it wasn’t quite in West Virginia, homemade pepperoni rolls (from a Fairmont transplant) on Fridays. It also didn’t put that ethanol crap in its gasoline, so everybody preferred it to the Exxon. And, maybe more miraculous of all, though it wasn’t a chain and thouse the deli closed at seven, it was open all night every night except Christmas and Easter. None of this, perhaps, is extremely important, except that it was at the Holler Dollar where Radney was when he first saw the ball.

Radney was, and had always been, the quiet, unassuming, happy go lucky, take him home to Momma, typical All-American kid from the small town, Main Street, just folks, every day people, born in the USA, sleepy little town where nothing ever happened till it did and when it did everybody already knew about it hours before it go on the radio or morning paper or the TV news. His favorite food was Nabs. His favorite thing to do was mud in trucks. He worked – day shift on road maintainence for the county. He was going to school – night school in electrical technology at the community college. And he had never before killed anything he considered sentient, a word he knew but would never of course use. The worst that you could say about him was that he had a little bit of McMurphy’s vices, that he liked to fight and fuck. In fact, on the night in question, he had come all the way back from Versailles, where he’d spent a few hours with a discrete tax attorney who was a fan of college men. So needing a drink and some kind of packaged meal and a new pack of Durexes for his wallet, he pulled in and got him some peanuts and lay down to eat in the back of his pickup (on the blanket and pillows he’d stashed in the back seat just in case).

Archetype, except for the lights at the gas station and on the street corners, doesn’t make a lot of light pollution, so even from the edge of the parking lot he could see the height was of what he soon remembered was the Perseids. And because some of those streaks burned a little green or a little blue, and because the occasional one would linger in its trail for a little while, for a little while he didn’t think that what he saw top over the hill across the road was any different. But then he realized it was slow, and that it didn’t die away.

It had no tail.

It pulsed.

It made a sound.

Radney had heard in school about ball lightning, so he thought from the first that this was what he was seeing – certainly not any kind of ET or UFO. The thing was green and the sound of it was electrical, somewhere between a transformer’s buzz and the crack of putting an old appliance in an old outlet and watching the little blue sparks almost fire up. It followed, almost, the sloping contour of the hill, and bounced almost as if it were a solid thing and bouncing on the ground. It was the color of green your spit is after chewing on a wad of grass.

And it wasn’t a hallucination. Beth Ann, the night attendent, had noticed it too, and was standing off near Radney’s truck trying to get a picture of it on her cell phone.

“Mars invades!” he hollered over at her.

“Aw, don’t say that. You’re going to get me scared.”

“You know all that thing is, don’t you?” he asked her.

“Well, no!”

“All it is is that transformer on the hill behind it got struck by lightning near it or something when it stormed earlier. It happens, you just don’t see it all the time. It’s kind of like the electric wire farted.”

Well, flatulence or visitation or haunting or other natural phenomena, Beth Ann’d finally got a good enough video of it that in a couple of days she’d got a couple hundred likes for it on Facebook. A reporter from the Mountain Eagle out in Whitesburg even came and did a little story on it. She interviewed both witnesses, and though Radney’s mother didn’t like his little farting line (“Do you always have to cuss in every sentence?”), she was happy at least that someone didn’t come across, as she put it, as the crop circled hillbilly farmer.

“I know it’s jut the paper in Letcher County, but did she really have to say she was ‘real scared like’? I mean, come on.”

“Yes, my mother is now Strunk and White.”

“Radney, you know what I mean.”

“I’m not getting in this again.”

“Well, you will if you want to get a job when you get out of college.”

“Yeah, they’re really going to worry about my grammar in east Kentucky.”

“Well, they will when you go to Cincinatti.”

“And who said I was going there?”

“You did that night.” Somebody had left his condoms on top of the dryer when they’d last washed his jeans, but neither of them’d actually talked about it directly.

Before he saw the ball of light, Radney had never harbored any conspiracy theories. He didn’t have a story about the chip that had been put in him by aliens the night they lasered the balls off his cattle. He did not have nor hold any fears about the Europeans expanding their Union worldwide and forcing him to take the Mark of the Beast – his family was Methodist, not Baptist. He didn’t think a lot about the moon landing, but when he did he assumed the thing had happened; and he’d never thought about whether the Mafia or Johnson or Hoover or Castro killed Kennedy. Marilyn Monroe did not have a butterfly tattoo, and Jimi Hendrix was not the propaganda tool of MK-Ultra. Kris Kristofferson was not a lizard. The gold in Fort Knox was not food for aliens. And anything Don Blankenship did he did in broad daylight.

He had seen the ball. And though it was not made by a man in any way he’d ever heard or had been made known of before, and though in its way it astounded him – it was rare and ephemeral and in a very real way sublime – he felt he knew enough to understand it. As it wavered and wobbled and shot up and out and left and down and back up in the sky, a brilliant green electrically crackling against the new moon, he didn’t think at all that it was supernatural, or alien, or governmental.

But someone else did.

About a week after the report in the Mountain Eagle, Radney found an unaddressed letter snuck behind the visor in his pickup. It was typed, with no indication of who had sent it or how they got it in his truck:

Though I cannot tell you why at this junction, and though I must keep my identity masked at this point in time, you need to know that you have found a friend in your situation – which is more precarious and illoquacious than you could possibly imagine – and that I mean to give you in this endeavor my full support and succour and supplementation. This I say because I have reason to believe that you are not an agent of the elite imperial corporatists, nor are you under the manipulation of American military or intellegence sources – though you are, whether you choose to believe this or not, a certain target of their surveilance as a result of what you saw on the night of the Perseids. When you talked about the event you saw, you I am sure thought you spoke reasonably, and by the knowledge you have been allowed to receive through official channels, you did. But you will learn in time, young padowan, that the reasonableness of this world is the currency of cooptation. The facts of the rulers of this world are the bricks in a prison of lies. We are dealing with reptilian minds, snake people; you, my friend – it is time to examine the mind of the gecko, to learn its inner workings and verisimilitudinies. There are those such as myself, thought insane in this world (but not insane in the eyes of Truth!), who have learned the truth which is the ignorance of fools and the Lord to the scoffers and sheeple of this world, to those under the control of the elites and their masters, whose identity you would not yet believe if I told you, who make the Masons and the Illuminati seem like bedtime stories in comparison. Yes, though you believe me or not, what you saw was not of this world, but of Zeta Reticula. It was a probe of the Grays, alien beings who are the servants of the rulers of this world, the Nibirians, reptilian beings from a planet far away from this galaxy who control the elite of this world, exchanging technology for the precious metals and other resources of this planet, rare and desired throughout the cosmos. They have marked you out; I know not yet why, but keep your head on a swivel. Stay true. You have friends, but you also have enemies. Stay alert. When the time is right, I will contact you again. Do not try to find me. I make myself as dust in the sky, darker and softer than night. This is the only way.

“You’re an asshole,” Radney texted his friend Amy, who was the first person he thought’d try and pull something like that – the only friend he had who knew that many words and knew how to jerry rig a door lock.

But no dice.

“Thanks, mommy’s little bitch,” she wrote him back, obviously knowing nothing about the letter (they would always call each other horrible things for fun).

And nobody else he talked to knew about it, either, though they all assumed it had to be a joke. Nobody, not even a dope head, could be that stupid.

But apparently somebody was, because a few days later, he got another note – same envelope, same place, same typing:

Sorry, man, to come off so strange before. I had to put a little disinformation in my letter, just to make sure if the wrong person saw it they’d think it was just a joke. I honestly didn’t know if you were with the government. But nothing came up, so I think you’re clear. A lot of what I wrote you in that last letter was bullshit, but one part of it was true: I don’t believe that what you saw was just ball lightning, and I don’t think it was any other kind of accident, either. I’m what some people call a UFOlogist, somebody who studies strange sightings to find out if they’re from outer space or the military or just really are weather balloons. What you saw was part of what we call a cluster; I don’t know if you know it or not, but on the same night as your sighting, there were at least fifteen other ball lightning reports in the eastern United States. That’s a really high number – really, really high. What’s more: almost all of them took place near military sites or industrial mines. Just like in Archetype. What this suggests to me is military experimentation. What into, I’m not sure. But my feelers are telling me it isn’t good – this sci ops stuff can be serious bad mojo, man. There are some fucked up people in sheep’s clothing, and that’s the truth. I’d like to stake them out. Would you be interested in helping me? If you are, call in sick next for next Friday at work, and meet me that morning at the Waffle House in London.

Radney, of course, went.

Surprise of surprises, the guy was real and, surprise of surprises, was actually named Dale. And while he didn’t have jars of Mountain Dew in his basement labled “Alien Urine,” nor did he keep pet racing turtles or smoke Manitobas, he was a skinny man in a baseball cap with his shortwave/AM tuned in to reruns of Art Bell. There was no way Dale should have been alive, much less this skinny. He ate no proper meals, and lived it seemed 100 percent on convenience store snacks: Combos, Riesens, half pound bags of praline pecans or dried mangos. And when Radney was driving, full Big Gulps of crushed ice and Mad Dog 20/20.

And the guy, while nice enough – he really was – in the three hours Radney had known him, still would not shut the hell up. “Now some people’ll look at me, and, as Barney Fife’d say, say ‘there goes one happy NUT,’ but I’m telling you, hand on my Bible, what I’m telling you tonight are facts,” Dale said, drinking a fourth cup of coffee while Radney tried to finish his omelet. “Bush knew, Johnson knew, Reagan knew I’m sure. Now Carter didn’t, and I don’t think Clinton did at first, though he does now – they didn’t come up bluebloods. Remember, man: the government’s full of all different kinds of people. And some of them are even alright. But the ones with the real money, there’s enough of them to pull enough strings to keep everybody else in line. You think this is about crop circles and farmers getting tubes up their buff? Oh, no. This is about oil, and war, and money. You see they know two things: we know just enough about the alien’s stuff that we could power everything – cars, houses, cities, every single bit of of electrical equipment in the world – without pollution or fuel or anything else. And the aliens will not have anything to do with us, no matter what we do, until we threaten them or come to complete world peace.”

There were, Radney and Dale came to find, no UFOs or orbs that night at the hot spot near the mounds at Chillicothe. “No matter,” Dale said. “It’s like fishing, anyway. Most of the time I just do it to spend the time. Excuse to eat out late at Bob Evan’s not have to make me anything when I get home.” So the two of them stopped at an all-nighter outside of Lexington, where Dale explained the relationship between Lockheed Martin, the Nordics, and the Trilateral Commission—using Splenda packs and ketchup bottles, of course. While he did, two truckers from Dayton came in and took the booth them. They were long haulers, both on their way to Brunswick, GA on the Hillbilly Highway.

“I hate driving through Kentucky. I’m always afraid I’m going to get stopped on the side of the road and buttfucked by Leroy,” the one trucker said.

“By your uncle! At a condo! In Gatlinburg!” said the other, and they both laughed.

Apparently Radney in his plaid and Dale in his Hank Williams, Jr. ballcap didn’t set off any radar in the men – or maybe it had, who knew? For Radney’s part, he didn’t see much difference between an Indiana truckstop with Fox News on in the background and a Tennessee truckstop with Fox News on in the background. One had better pie by a bit, and one had better gravy, but nothing else was really all that different.

Radney nudged Dale with in the arm with the bread basket.

“Hey, man.”

“Yeah, man?”

“Fuck Deliverance.”

“Yeah. Fuck Deliverance.”

The two truckers were still sitting there, eating ice cream, when Dale and Radney got their checks and got up to go. Radney walked up to the one:

“Buddy, I wouldn’t worry too much about old Leroy. You got about ten pounds to drop before you could get the old boy up.”

“Did I ask your opinion, friend?” the trucker answered.

“No, you’re right, I suppose you didn’t.”

“Well?” he answered again, noding Dale toward the door.

“Alright, then,” Dale answered, and he and Radney left the restaurant. But just as Dale was opening the door, he turned around one last time to the men and tuned up his air banjo.

“Ting-ta-ting-ting, ting ting ting!”

Radney didn’t hear from Dale for a few days after they got back, but he figured that was just what came in the package of eccentricities starter kit. But when, having gone on the UFO siting sights Dale had led him to, and having seen two sightings, repeatedly reported, in southern Ohio in the three days since they’d got back, and no word or sign or sight of Dale to tell him about it, Radney got worried. When he went to Dale’s apartment to check on him, he found a sticky note on the door with Dale’s truck key taped to it:

Go to the big hill past the gate to Warren Frye’s deer blind. What you will see you cannot unsee. But you have to go. I can’t say anymore. It would take too much to explain.

            Stay safe. My gun is in the back. It’s yours now.

            Your friend, Dale. I’m sorry I can’t say more. I’m can’t be safe here now.

            Okay, so maybe the son of a birch had absolutely lost his mind. Maybe this was the most elaborate Halloween prank anybody had ever pulled on him. Maybe this was intergallactic snipe hunting. But—the story was too interest, and Dale was too interesting, and too much of what he had said had been too out there for somebody that was just off it to be able to say it so well.

So Radney got Dale’s gun out of his truck and drove there, that night, just like the note told him to.

And he snuck up in there hoping to God he wasn’t going to get ambushed or have the county cops run by thinking he was checking on a still or some BS. None of the parts of any of it fit together, and none of it had a logic to it. But, hey—better to believe in something stupid than sit around like a log all day.

At least the logic behind why Dale thought it made sense. Aliens had to exist, Dale told him, because of Fermi’s paradox. And for aliens to get to earth, they would need to have energy sources beyond anything humans had. Certainly, certainly beyond coal and gas. The government and military knew about the aliens, and the aliens would like to make themselves revealed to humans so they could help them. But the government and military and the corporations won’t allow it, because it would destroy all of their power structures. And the aliens, well the aliens don’t interfere with people who don’t want to be interfered with, especially when they’ve got guns and nukes. Aliens might be advanced, but they can still get killed.

But the aliens, or at least of them, act like anybody from any group and go vigilante. They want human beings to know they aren’t alone. So they send messages, or they show up, or they abduct people (but since they’re not professionals they end up scaring or accidentlally hurting more people than they help), or any number of things to get folks attention. And they fuck with the military, and with the government, so that they can’t mess with the people but so much. Most of the aliens we encounter, Dale, theorized, are essentially high-tech Marxists.

Except for the few who aren’t. Aliens are are diverse as people, and just like there are vigilantes, there are sell-outs, aliens who would like to assume their own hold on power when a planet like Earth really is brought into the galactic fold. So some work with the government, some supply military secrets, some spy, and some kill people who know too much. This, Radney thought, was what Dale thought was about to happen to him.

Dale had told Radney he was a man who knew too much – too much about the Greys, too much about the Deep Web, too much about the shadow military government (and its connection to big energy). Sitting, knowing all of this in East KY, he was a marked man. And so before he got killed – in his own imagination – he’d fled. And now, Radney supposed, he was supposed to play the Padowan, and take up for Dale whatever work was going to lead him to this mountain, this night.

When Radney got to the top of the hill, there wasn’t nothing but damp and a windy sixty degrees that felt more like thirty-five. But the heater in his truck was good, and he didn’t have anywhere else to be, and if nobody had followed him or caught him there by now they weren’t going to do it the rest of the night, dark as it was. So Radney decided he’d take a nap, and let Dale or some chicken wake him up about dawn, and he’d head on back to the house and consider this whole wild goose of the past few weeks a good time he was just about done with.

But then, we he woke up, Dale wasn’t so crazy after all.

In fact, Dale was there.

Or at least his clothes were. Bloody, rumpled, and in the hands of a thing with three fingers that looked very much like what Dale had told him they were going to look like.

Radney was having a nightmare about the Greys, he realized, not so suprising being that’s all him and Dale’d talked about for the past week for so. But still, it was a little on the nose. Ttwo of them, in the headlights of the truck (now mysteriously turned on), buring Dale’s clothes with a human shovel. Well, since Radney was dreaming, Radney decided he might as well play along, pass the time until he actually woke up.

So he blew the horn. Neither of the Grey’s looked up.

So he reached for the gun, which was exactly in the dream truck where the real gun was, and opened the door.

“Hell, guys, what ya’ll doing up here so late?”

The little Grey turned to him and blinked, but then turned back to digging.

“I’m talking to you.”

He pumped the rifle and it clicked. Still nothing.

“Answer me, fuckers.”

Still nothing.

“Yeah, I know I’m a monkey to you,” Radney said, kicking up mast in the Grey’s direction, spitting at them.

The big Grey just stood there with its big eyes, not doing a thing.

“You gonna do something about it? What don’t you hit me? Why don’t you cut my nuts off? Why don’t you do something!?” Radney hollered, picking up a stick off the ground and throwing it at the big Grey.

The big Grey just stepped aside and blinked, and kept on standing there.

“Hey, hey man. Now a monkey’s going to kill your friend,” he said, and pointed the gun at the little one.

He was almost surprised at how cruel he could be in his dreams, when there were no consequences.

“Hell, I figured you didn’t have no balls to you.”

Radney put the barrel up to the little Grey’s neck, for what of that there was. He turned his head. He wheezed. It was the first kind of sound either one of the things had made.

“So what’s the little grey Picard man going to do? Pull his memory eraser out and I wake up thinking I was out hunting a buck tail, or is he going to abduct me and take me to space jail? Or is he just going to stand there and watch the monkey shoot his gun?”

The Grey picked number three.

The little one, the one with bigger eyes, clawed it feet around, like a dog goes, when it died. The other one, the one who chose, Radney shot in the back as it ran away, and it fell down flat without another step. The second that it fell, there was a bright flash in the sky directly over head, then a streak of light – but it headed off, wherever far away.

There would be no reinforcements.

Once Radney had convinced himself he hadn’t gone insane, that he was still dreaming, he squatted and examined the bodies. They had green blood, but not so thick as he’d expected. In fact, the meat inside of them was pink, and they even took on rigor mortis, just like humans. They stank like they had soiled themselves, but had no buttholes. But when Radney held his hand up to his face, which had been handling one, it smelled and felt like it was covered in cow dung. He had made the greatest discovery in all of human time – a race of green savants who toured the stars, but shat through every pore of skin.

And now here he was, a man who defended all mountaineers but had become, in one night, an expert in cruelty to outlanders. No horror movie could have been more stereotyped. No photographer from the city could have painted the place any worse. He wondered, when he woke up, if he could prey to Earl Scruggs for some forgiveness.

So he called in the sour Southern warden, wary of everyone. And when he got there, Radney found out that the warden already knew.

“These coyotes have been rotting a long time, haven’t they, Radney?”

“These ain’t rotten, buddy. Look again.”

“I know what they are. So: these coyotes have been rotten a long time, haven’t they, Radney?”

“I don’t see nothing rotten.”

“Listen, man. You need to understand what I’m saying. These coyotes. Have been rotting. A long time. You don’t have no other choice, man. That’s it.”

“Fuck you.”

“I know, man. I know,” the warden backed off. “I know it’s messed up.”

“Well, how fucked am I?”

“You’re not. How many boys in East Kentucky say they saw the sasquatch? How many of those boys go missing? You’re good, man.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“You’re gonna do something for me, though, and then you’re good.”

“What’s that?”

“Erase the pics off your phone and give it to me.”

Radney didn’t want to do that.

“You’ll get a new one in the mail. You broke this one.”

“Did Dale break his?” Radney asked, although he finally handed the warden the phone.

“You sure you don’t want to erase nothing?” the warden answered?

“I’m good, man.”

“Alright, then.”

“Is Dale good?”

“You know, I think it’s getting a little cold on this mountain, man. I think we ought to get on back to town.”

“Yeah, man. I guess we ought to.” Radney left Dale’s gun, and didn’t turn his back on the warden as he walked back to the truck.

Radney drove for a hour, he didn’t know in what direction, before the nerves wore down, and he’d calmed down enough to cry and throw up a bit. He noticed after a while his hands were still stained with dry green gunk and they still smelt a bit like poop. With the window down, it was warmer than before, strangely for that time of night that time of year. The moon was setting, but full, and the clouds had pulled back, and Radney could see as he came over the ridge, the moonscape that was scattered over east Kentucky. The whole sky smelled like cold oysters, and though he still had the green stain like the gunk of chartruese worms dug deep under his fingernails, he had to admit that the night was lovely, even the razed hills almost lovely in their perverse way.

He realized now – what he had just done, he had actually done. There was no dream. This was the world. And then he wondered if he had any friends in any other towns; none of them knew, and he knew he couldn’t tell a one of them. So he wondered if it would, in fact, be all good. He needed lye soap to wash this damn mess out. And his mother, whether he told her the true story or made any other story up, would assume he’d just taken up pills. But Stacy, Stacy didn’t ask a lot of questions. So he turned toward her house in Versailles, took the second turn to the left and went on till morning.

He turned on the radio to make some sound.

A woman calling herself Sally Dillinger (West of the Rockies) wasn’t believing the subcommitte report, and said she had in her possession a drawing of the creature’s ship she was able to recall in hypnotherapy. Art Bell did not believe her description of its headlight third eye or octopus tentacles, or its Nordic telepath ambassador, who, with power and prowess set her and a set of children on tables, and for unknown reasons took samples of their vital fluids, replaced them with a kind of snow, and let them rest, organs open and unenestitized, on tables like floating surfboards.

“They can do this because we do not have citizenship in their government!” the woman tells the local host, who says he is copying her on an email to an expert in these matters, who shares her theory of intergalactic sentient rights offenses. “What people don’t understand is that I don’t have an aluminum helmet;

I wouldn’t have believed this either if it hadn’t happened. Our U.S.A. President, our Pentagon, our whole government knows aliens are real, but I’m telling you Dave they’re all playing a shell game with the American people; this is why: if your mother was a witch, wouldn’t she want you to think that she was the most powerful one of all? This President of ours goes out bowling on our tax money and his Secret Service officers binge on cable porn in hotels in Rio de Jineiro; and this whole time they know – and we know they know, because Israel has told them – that Iran has been negotiating with these aliens to gain a strategic position in the Middle East. Dave, I’m telling you now there will be wars and the rumors of wars.”

“Now that may sound like the most absolutely craziest thing you have ever heard if your life, but I want your listeners to think on then: if Iran isn’t going to be able to build a bomb, then why are they so eager to sign this bill? They know if they can weaken our position internationally, not only will they get relief from international sanctions, but the aliens will supply them with nuclear energy. I mean, who needs a bomb when you have an internstellar sugar daddy?”

“I’m telling you, Dave, this country did not become a superpower because we won World War II. The being we are holding at Area 51 – and I have this is good authority – is considered by other civilizations

to be the finest scientific mind in the entire quadrant. All attempts to weaken America in the past fifty years – every war, every terrorist attack, every confrontation – have been orchestrated, by both terrestrial and extraterrestial forces, to steal him. Abduction and experimentation of American citizens is merely one tool these powers use. We think we can beat them, Dave. But we’re getting too cocky.”

None of it still made any sense. None of it still added together to anything at all. Everything he heard still sounded preposterous. But now he was proposterous, too, and any violence and cruelty he had shown wasn’t the violence and cruelty of his own isolated exception, of his own isolated place. Violence and cruelty were a language in the galaxy, and power was a language there as well. It was hard enough for people to be kind when the earth was the end of the map. But now he was caught green-handed, marked as a citizen of the universe. This was not Deliverance. This was not Kentucky. This was the whole lot of Earth, and as Radney drove on to Versailles, he wondered if behind him there was an angel holding a flaming sword against the other lane of the highway.

praterMatt Prater is a poet and writer from Saltville, VA. Winner of both the George Scarbrough Prize for Poetry and the James Still Prize for short story, his work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in many regional journals, including Appalachian Heritage, Appalachian Journal, Now & Then, and Still; as well as national and international journals, including The Honest Ulsterman and The Moth. He is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech.

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Hot Ticket, fiction by Larry Thacker

Pretty much every 4 am on a Tuesday found Ed loafing at the Quik Pick #2. He would slow sip coffee and flirt with Elma as much as she’d allow, all the while mindlessly shuffling through layers of tossed scratch tickets that accumulated all night in the garbage bin.

The only money he’d spend on the Lotto was from the occasional winning ticket someone tossed by mistake. It was easy to miss a winner. He resented a little not being able to afford buying his own, like some that sat around all day like it was a neighborhood casino, spending disability money on handfuls of dollar scratch tickets. He hardly fished out a winner, but he had found a fifty-dollar ticket once and was able to gorge on a big lunch at the Waffle Stop with enough left for three gallon jugs of gasoline. Mostly they’d accumulate in his wallet.

Ed wasn’t the only one that scoured these assumed losing tickets, but he was one of the few with the patience for it. Some were awfully territorial. Sammy tore into the bin about seven in the morning. John would get there about ten. You could see it in their eyes when they spotted a bunch in the garbage, swiveling their heads around like a paranoid animal. Ed was more laid back. It was a game. It just helped pass the time before the sun was up and the grass dried.

He was sipping his second cup of coffee, half-awake one particular morning, watching Elma sweep up around the Coffee Oasis, when the huge flashy neon sign over the counter flipped from 499 to 500 million dollars on the Super Lucky Ball Cash Jackpot Sweepstakes. That wadded stash of winners in his wallet sprung to life. They vibrated they wanted out so bad.

He hurried over to the scratch counter, swept the little mounds of grey shavings away and emptied his wallet of those tickets and made his way to the checkout.

“Elma, I reckon it’s time to spend these winners,” he whispered, handing over a handful of ragged tickets.

She winked. “Feeling lucky, Ed?”

He cracked a grin. “You make me feel lucky, Elma. I wouldn’t bother if you weren’t working right now. That sign just flipped over to five-hundred million.”

She looked up, blinked and gave a sigh. “It sure did, didn’t it? God, what I’d do for that kind of money.”

“That sounded like a prayer,” Ed offered as the little speaker set to yelling Yahoo! every time she scanned a ticket. “You won twenty-three dollars, honey. Not bad.”

He was looking over the thick bound rolls of scratch offs behind the counter and studied his cash.

“How many you want?”

“Let’s do ten dollars of Lucky Ball tickets. And I need seven dollars in gas.” That left him three dollars. He eyed his favorite scratch off – the “All Fired Up” one hundred thousand dollar golden ticket.

“And give me a number eight. I’m feeling all fired up, Elma.”

She smiled, attuned to his subtle joke.

 

The sun inched up, raising the temperature and new light slow-chased the shadows across the pot-holed lot. It reminded him of sunrise on the moon. Or Mars, maybe. Cratered and grey, a blanket of light seeping over the miniaturized landscape. He clinked open his silver lighter with one practiced snap of his fingers and lit a smoke. He was patient. He’d move when the light reached his back bicycle tire.

With what was left of a second cigarette smoldering from is clamped lips, he filled two gas cans he’d rigged over the back of his bicycle. He never worried about the fumes. He figured if he was bound to die in a fire that would have happened long ago.

A woman at another pump stared at his dangling cigarette as he pumped. He squinted back through the smoke’s heat.

“What?”

Her eyes rounded, surprised.

“Well, anybody who can’t wait to smoke until they’ve pumped their gas is an addict.” She huffed and bolted toward the store, to tattle obviously.

“Baby, I’m addicted to more than smoking,” he muttered with a grin. Then he peddled off to mow some yards, totting his mower alongside and whistling loud enough so Elma might could hear him heading down the road.

 

Ed accomplished more than mowing yards when he was working. It was more like scouting. People quietly knew the deal. You didn’t acquire a reputation as the county’s “go to” arsonist without good reason. Who couldn’t put two and two together? Why would he be taking care of the mowing at some seemingly abandoned property before it soon went up in smoke? Or the caretaker of a slumlord dump that was so run down not even the most desperate tenant would live there – that just happened to burn?

People knew. They just didn’t care.

Ed felt like he was offering a service of sorts. Homeowners liked it, especially if it helped put them renovate. Insurance companies were indifferent. They were charging people higher rates anyway because of the frequency of fires. They’d pay out and drop them from coverage. Landlords liked it for the insurance payout. The slumlords loved it when a place burned they were getting pressured to tear down.

State investigators were so backlogged with arsons across southeast of Kentucky they’d mostly given up on all but the fires that hurt or killed someone.

And that was a rule Ed wouldn’t break. Never hurt someone with a fire.

As for the fire departments, as long as no one was hurt, they were fine with having steady work and training. Wasn’t it the purpose of fire fighters to fight fire?

 

What little guilt Ed felt about his occupation wasn’t long lived. With so few caring and so many benefiting, there were days when being a fire bug felt like a regular job.

But most regular jobs don’t run the risk of killing you.

Gasoline is a volatile, unpredictable propellant. But it’s cheap and it works. Fumes build up and that’s what burns. Pour a thin line through a structure and wait long enough and when it ignites every window in the house will blow out. He liked old carpeted places. Wood floors took too long to catch. Old curtains were good. Linoleum. And you couldn’t just start a fire in one room, the whole structure had to catch. For a thousand dollars he guaranteed a fire so involved by the time the fire department arrived that they’d just throw some water on it to keep it from spreading. A neat pile of charred splinters was what he wanted.

Truth be told, though, he’d have done most of his jobs for free. Some ventured he had a fetish. Ed reckoned he did. Very little excited him more than fire. There was such mystic about it. The violence. The risk. The pleasantly lit decay. The artful power of it. The heat. It was a dance with a force of annihilation. Something physical morphing to no more than what a light wind might sweep away. An utter elemental disappearance. Dangerously beautiful. Addictive.

 

By late that night, Ed was rethinking this love affair with fire, though, dazed and on his back as the fingers of flames licked up the ceiling of the stairway he’d just exited through the air. He’d done everything right, he thought. Scoped out the property, estimated the inside before breaking in the back window. A gallon of gas would do the job.

He wasn’t counting on the several plastic milk jugs of old gas in the cellar. He’d set the fire down there first and was on his way out when the jugs instantly melted, spreading pools of fuel across the floor and blowing him out of the cellar stairway up into the kitchen. Now the fire was on top of him, stalking, upside down crawling across the blackening kitchen ceiling and catching the curtains of both the back door and window he’d crawled through.

He tried shaking the concussion off, close to blacking out, smoke broiling the air above his head, singeing down on the tips of his ears and nose.

This is it. You’re gonna black out.

He struggled up on his knees.

And burn.

He was always amazed how loud fire could be.

And die.

Then the voice was there.

 

You think you know me?

 

A figure, a man of sorts, immerged above him, the black above parting in a swirl to make way for his stature. His raiment was smoke, peeling from his body, twirled with the living orange of heat, eyes in dark glowing knowledge.

Ed folded his hands, forcing his gaze up into the black, lit at the fringes with orange, alive fire. He knew as surely as the pain jolting through him he was staring into a hell he’d seldom considered.

 

You think you know me?

It was the devil himself, wasn’t it?

You don’t know me. Not yet.

Tears from the smoke streamed down his cheeks.

“Don’t wanna know you one bit, you devil.”

You’re about to meet me.

 

Pain like numberless red-hot pincers clamped into every inch of his skin, bending him double. He was screaming for the Lord then, his voice only a squeak under the crackling consumption of everything around him. Had he ever done such a thing? Desperately called out to God?

Then another voice was there in the room. The smoke peeled back in swirls. A cabinet fell from the wall and exploded smoking fragments across the room.

 

You don’t know me, do you?

“No Lord…I don’t…”

Do you want to die here? So horribly?

“No,” he coughed and gagged.

Swallowed up in a Hell worse than this?

“No!”

What do you want to happen?

“I want to live, Lord! Live!”

Another explosion fired off in the cellar, pushing more black over his back, darkening the room.

“Let me live…I’ll do anything…don’t let me burn, Lord! Anything.”

Anything?

“Yes.”

You might wish you hadn’t made this deal.

 

There was a groan and crash and his back was showered in hot glass. His sleeves were smoking. His mind snapped back clearer. The curtains had burnt up and the old window glass had buckled and fallen in, a rush of night air slicing into his smoke packed lungs like ice. There were sirens. He hobbled out, the shirt on his back smoking, the stink of his own cooked hair all over him. He heard laughter as he stumbled up the back hill into the safety of the forest, half blind and barely breathing.

 

He hacked black up out of his lungs all night, shivered with fever from the pockmarks of burns on his arms, neck and back. He drank so much water his belly felt like it would pop. He’d toss and turn, get up, pace. Getting caught wasn’t his worry. But the voices. The voices relayed in his mind, tearing him away from the idea of sleep when he finally would close his eyes. Was that God? Was that the Devil? What craziness was this?

He went to the kitchen to force some food into his nauseous belly. His wallet stuck half out of his smudged jeans pooled in the kitchen floor along with his shirt. The orange-peach color of his Lucky Ball tickets stood out from the blackened mound of sodden clothes.

Ed grinned, a surge of fantasized relief flooding his imagination. He found a penny in the floor and started scraping.

 

Golden Ticket Numbers: 13. 43. 24.

  1. 17. 34
  2. Free Ticket. 35.

A free ticket. Better than nothing.

  1. 32. 26.

Thirteen?

Ed chuckled and scratched under the number, hoping for maybe a dollar. Then his fingers stopped moving and he batted his dry eyes in the kitchen’s puny light.

Under the number thirteen was $100,000 in fat golden letters.

 

“…and when you smash the red-hot glowing Gates of Hell open, soul first, and feel the condemnation both in spirit and body, you will greatly grieve the days you turned from God’s gift of grace! You’ll know in your heart, as you rot in a devil’s hell for all eternity, you turned away, brothers and sisters!”

The congregation responded.

Amen…Glory! Amen.

“I was there once…turning my greedy, deaf ears from God’s voice. Knowing God’s message was in my ear daily, around every corner, in every bad choice I made. But I heard him, finally, in my time of need and almost too late. I heard God and now I stand here today preaching my promise to him!”

Amen. Amen.

“I was broke – like many of you.”

            Amen.

“I was sad and lonely…just plain tired of living. Like some of you, maybe, here this morning.”

Amen. Bless him, Lord!

“I was burdened with evil. Not living for God!”

Amen!

“Now here we are, blessed with hope, free from Hell and Satan’s mighty and stubborn grip on this here Earth.”

Ed paused for a deep breath, dabbing sweat on his brow with his shirt sleeve. They were listening.

 

Three months had passed since Ed won the Golden Ticket Jackpot, his world instantly turned inside out. God had obviously intervened, hearing his desperation, setting his path anew. Then the hard part kicked in, to not make a fool of God for letting him escape that pit into Hell house that was burning down around him.

“Broke in my pocket and broken of spirit in the morning. Money in my pocket from the hand of God by sun down!” he’d witness to anyone that listened. “The ways of God are not mysterious to those who believe in miracles.”

He’d opted for the one time pay out. Seventy-thousand dollars. The morning the state transferred the funds there was $13.56 in his checking account. Like magic, by noon there was $70,013.56. At the bank to make a withdrawal, everyone stared, a mix of grins and frowns, all judging in some way or another.

“What do you plan on doing with all that money, Ed?” a cashier who’d never paid him any attention flirted as she flipped down a thousand dollars in hundreds. He liked the way she licked her thumb every three bills. Funny how he was more attractive suddenly.

“The Lord’s work,” he mumbled without thinking. Not a great way to flirt back, he guessed. But it was the truth, wasn’t it? He was contracted now by the spirit.

 

“You all know I’ve been on the wrong side of the law a little. That ain’t no big secret. Who of you haven’t?”

Bless him, Lord.

“We’ve all fallen short of God’s grace. But to be blessed with epiphany! You all know what an epiphany is? It’s a sudden realization. I won’t bother y’all with the details, but let’s just say I was into things I ought not to have been. And it about killed me.”

Bless him.  

“Then the voice of God All Mighty came down and wrung me up by the shirt collar and showed me Hell…”

Ed’s stinging sweat filled eyes scanned the crowd. It had doubled in the last month, filling the pews he’d bought from that failed Mount Vernon Holiness church. Now the pews were near full and the store front rental he’d leased was feeling cramped.

The morning’s preaching felt good. That is, until Dillon Hamby magically appeared on the back row. He’d snuck in. If Dillon was there it wasn’t for the preaching. He’d be bringing work. Work Ed couldn’t do anymore. Work he wouldn’t do, by God.

A noticeable stumble worked its way into Ed’s train of thought as he avoided Dillon’s eyes.

“Let us pray,” he abruptly offered the flock.

 

Talk made it to his ears as everyone milled about, hugging and handshaking and sipping coffee after the service.

“Nobody can preach hell fire and brimstone like Ed.”

“I start sweatin when he talks burnin in hell like that. It scares me.”

“Well, he ought to know fire, now shouldn’t he?” another whispered.

Ed avoided Dillon and started cleaning up the donut crumbs and coffee spills. Dillon waited.

Ed could feel him in the room, sensed the shallow wheeze from the man’s six-foot, 300-pound frame.

“Got a job for ya, Ed,” Dillon finally offered, sure he already knew Ed’s answer.

“It’s good to see you, too, Dillon,” Ed lied.

“I said I got a job for you.”

Ed huffed and glanced up from wiping down the coffee maker. This conversation was bound to happen eventually.

“Dillon, you know I’m preaching now. I’m done with that work. Told you that on the phone. I gotta be done with it.”

Dillon smirked with a grunt. “Yea, but I wanted to see myself. I tell ya, though, the Lord couldn’t have picked a better man to preach Hell, huh?” he laughed. “You almost convinced me. It’s a good scam though. How much you rakin in when you pass the plate?”

“I mean every word of it.”

“Maybe. But I got a job for you anyhow. The old Reynold’s place up on Flat Ridge. There ain’t no chance of being caught. Even by God if that’s worryin you. It’s all by itself up there, just beggin for a visit by the expert. Nobody’s lived there forever and the owners stand to make a pretty payday off the insurance. You do this job and we both make money, plus them.”

Ed drew a long steadying breath. The tug of the fire was still there, like the old coal mines burning hundreds of feet underground. Always there in a slow, hot burn, quiet and dangerous.

“You healed up from that last job, are ya?”

“Barely. But like I said, I’m not interested.” The just healing blisters down his back tightened with chills.

Dillon stepped closer, studying down on Ed. The floor gave with Dillon’s weight.

“Eddy, you and me go back. A lot of history tangled up between us. So much so, the way I see it, if I say you have a job to do, you’ll just do it.”

The voice raised in Ed’s ear.

Save this man and we’re even.

“I’m not droppin this, Ed.”

“I know you ain’t.”

 

Ed locked the front doors, swiping his shirt sleeve over the glass. The large panes across the whole storefront wanted another cleaning. He’d just detailed them last week, but the coal trucks kicked up so much dust it was impossible.  He looked up satisfied. Church of the Holy Fire of God was emblazoned dark red on black cloth stretching down the awning.

He had such big plans. It was large, an old Dollar Time store. Plenty of room for a “Tour Through Hell” festival as a Halloween alternative. A sizeable food pantry. Counseling offices. They’d have a bus. Revivals in the parking lot. A newsletter. A website. There was money for it all.

 

Wednesday morning Dillon slid into the booth seat across from Ed’s steak and eggs breakfast at the Waffle Stop. Ed’s appetite disappeared.

“I seen you praying a minute ago,” Dillon jabbed, sipping his coffee.

“Yep.” Ed crammed his mouth with a chunk of steak he hoped would keep him busy chewing rather than talking.

“You didn’t used to.”

Ed forced a swallow.

“Pray before every meal now.” He bit a roll in half.

“Yea. You didn’t use to do a lot of things. But some things you did do.”

Ed sipped a loud gulp of coffee.

“Why keep this act up?”

Ed thought on that a moment.

“Dillon, let me ask you what you might find an odd question. You think a person can tip the scales back in favor of their salvation?”

Dillon huffed. Ed’s sudden and strange religion was testing his patience.

“That’s what I’m doing. And this ain’t no act. I’m making up for what I’ve done, for what I’ve done for you.”

“You never hurt no one. Anyway, why do you think you was so good at fire buggin?”

Ed put himself back into his old way of thinking. It was a good question.

“I liked to stay in it til I can’t stand it no more. Something about it felt natural to me.”

“I was thinking more along the fact that you just like it. Still like it. ”

Dillon leaned closer.

“You’re a sick, fire lovin low-life. No better than any of us. You remember that, Preacher. And don’t get any bright ideas of being better than me with that ready cash you’ve got.”

Ed managed a turn-the-cheek smile.

“In the end, there’s something else I’d rather do for you, Dillon.”

“Oh, what’s that?”

“Savin your soul. From Hell.”

Dillon about sprayed coffee across the table.

“I’ve been there. You don’t want none of it.”

“You’ll do the job, son. Or else.”

 

Ed was in no good mood when he prayed that night.

Lord, if I can save, or help save, Dillon Hamby, that low-life, slum-pimp of an excuse of your handiwork, surely you’d forgive my innumerable sins in the end, right?  Lord, you sure scraped the barrel with him, didn’t you?

 

Ed was up on the Flat Ridge by Friday night, staring the Reynold’s place down in the blackness, reminded of Jesus and Satan fighting it out in the wilderness. The structure loomed, lightly framed along its roof line and corners by the half-hearted moon. His arms hung heavy with two cans of gasoline. No good road remained and he’d sloshed the sweet stink of fuel on his shoe’s tripping up the hill to the property.

Why was he here? He couldn’t sleep and was pacing, obsessed with temptation dressed in Dillon’s voice. Finally a drive in the dark was all he could think to do and he found himself at the Quik Pick for some gas. Elma was inside and he hesitated. He’d barely been back in since he’d won, too distracted by his new work, but mostly trying to break his habits. She was one of them. They’d never gone out, never spoken anywhere other than here. Collateral damage, he guessed. He turned on his heels and paid for the gas at the pump with his new debit card.

He’d driven, knowing he was bound for just where Dillon said he ought to be. Like a good errand boy, thoroughly cowed. It wasn’t what a man like Dillon did that made him feared, it was what such a man might do.  Imaginations grandly inflated his reputation, but not by much. Ed knew where all the bodies were, so to speak. Tempting Dillon over this house would surely run the risk of something bad eventually.

Now it was just him and his smoking ghosts, a hair from backsliding into the fire, to burn with the likes of Dillon.

 

But he wasn’t alone.

You want to burn something?

The constant chatter was confusing him.

Burn your own place. This place is no business of yours.

Was that God or the Devil whispering so close up on his ear?

“Why would you declare such a thing, God?”

Sacrifice.

“Sacrifice?”

Then silence set in and followed him off the hill.

 

Ed was rolling the next Sunday morning. The pews were crowded and he had a belly full of frustration and praise to cast on the heads of his congregation. He felt like he’d binged on two pots of coffee, his skin crawling with goose bumps, heart thumping in his ears, throat strained, sweaty chills running his spine up to the back of his head, brain twisted up like a spring, sharp and ready. Was this what the Holy Spirit felt like?

The paint was only just dry on the baptistery he’d fashioned together all night. He patted the railing, proud of how it turned out, over four feet high and ten feet across. A small pool, trimmed in stained, full up with cool tap water he’d hosed from the kitchenette all night.

 

“God uses fire! All through the Bible. ‘For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God,’ Deuteronomy, Chapter 4 and verse 24. God speaks through the fire, punishes and destroys through the fire, warms us and heals us through fire! He doesn’t speak much through the cold or ice, or through water. It’s fire! I looked up the number of times fire and flame is mentioned in the King James Bible. Care to guess? Anybody?”

“A hundred,” someone shouted.

“Nope.”

“Three hundred?” another asked.

“Nope. Five hundred and fifty one times! And this here baptistery – what getting baptized does for you – is replace that very real threat of hell fire with the fire of the Holy Spirit!”

 

Dillon made his way in. He hadn’t slept all night and was in a mood, the curiosity about Ed drove him to task. If he had to beat Ed to death in his own church he’d do it, but he would wait for the service to end before showing Ed the consequences of his stubbornness.

But what greeted Ed when he finally sat took his breath. The back wall was stacked thick with white candles, over a hundred of them, lit and bouncing light along the walls. Ed was hopping in the corner screaming chapter and verse from the lectern, shadowed and flickering with the jumpy candle light. Something in Dillon’s stomach dropped. He’d never seen such a sight.

“The Burning Bush! Fire pillars in the desert! Fire raining down on cities! The Day of Pentecost! Burnt offerings! Over and over! Now I don’t want you all,” Ed continued, staring through the dimness at who he made out to be Dillon, “bustin Hell wide open. I want you all in Heaven with me. Ever, single, one of you.”

Ed slipped a hand down as he shouted and snatched up a small glassless lamp. He fingered into his pocket and brought out his silver lighter and snapped it open and lit with three fingers, set the wick aflame and turned the knob full on. His face and chest glowed bright. He sat the lamp down and rolled up his sleeves and raised his hands to the ceiling and closed his eyes in a quiet prayer. His arms were wrinkled in scars, shiny in the light, rippled past the elbows, evidence of his close waltz with the devil those months back.

He stalked the middle aisle, eye-to-eye with his people, now passing the lamp flame under his hand and wrist, a wisp of blackened smoke twisting from his fingertips. The instant smell of smoked hair and flesh wafted and someone gagged.

Ed’s lit teeth gritted back the dam of pain, words hissing through a clenched jaw. He skipped back and leaned down face-to-face with Dillon. “By God’s grace,” he grimaced, “I know fire, brother.” He winced and shook, lifting and dividing the flame in half up his along his forearm, a severe red blotch starting to char. “Believe me.”

Dillon’s eyes stretched wide and he recoiled. A stench filled his nose, tightening his throat. The congregation was quiet but for their gasps of disbelief.

“This here is nothing compared to the soul consuming destiny waiting on the unsaved!”

Someone whispered their wonder how Ed was standing the pain.

Ed jerked the flame away finally, teetering on the precipice of blacking out. The people sighed relief in unison. Dillon was frozen in amazement.

“You don’t think I felt every second of that?” he winced. “Yes! Yes, I did. But that’s nothing compared to where I might have gone!”

He hadn’t broken eye contact with Dillon, who was squirming and nauseous.

Ed spoke low, “And you don’t think I’m willing to do anything necessary on behalf of God’s Kingdom? Be it pain or suffering? God’s will be done.”

The pain numbed and the energy surged back and Ed sprinted down the aisle and did a one handed hop into the baptistery, splashing feet first, dipping his arm into the coolness of the water and sucked in a long breath and smiled with obvious joy.

“Who among you will be baptized this day?!”

“I will,” someone shouted, bolting into the aisle. Then another came.

 

Eight baptisms in, Ed turned to help another step down into the water and a met a face he did not expect. It was Dillon, his hand in Ed’s, the candles illuminating a kind of smile he’d never seen on Dillon’s face, the evidence of tears filling the corners of his eyes.

Lord, Almighty, Ed spouted in his thoughts, what have you blessed or cursed me with here?

He helped Dillon down into the waist deep waters and raised his right hand, supporting Dillon’s back with left.

“As Jesus taught, those who confess me before men and are baptized will live forever.”

He pulled up close to Dillon, staring into his eyes and talking too low for anyone to hear.

“You for real?”

Dillon nodded.

Don’t believe him.

“I’m suspicious.”

The organ played over their conversation.

“We don’t believe you,” Ed whispered, leaning Dillon back. “We baptize thee in the name of the Father…”

“We who?” Dillon questioned as his full body fell back into the water.

He came here to hurt you.

Ed popped him back up.

“…the Son…” Down again, back up and down.

Dillon’s nose and mouth filled with the sweet sting of gasoline as he rose for the third time.

“…and the Holy Ghost…”

Dillon’s eyes stung closed. He tried to right himself, confused, coughing and crying out, flailing with a sting on his skin and face, squinting to see. Ed was pouring gasoline from a milk jug over his head, soaking his clothes.

Violent fingers tightened on Dillon’s large arm, tugging at him with authority, a heavy menace in Ed’s breathing. Dillon froze. Whatever was on him was on Ed, too, soaking them, rainbowing into the water, fumes saturating the air around them.

“Shall we finally test our faith together, brother Dillon?” Ed whispered, his suddenly calm voice punctuated with the distinct snap and clink of Ed’s silver lighter.

 

Larry D. Thacker is an Appalachian writer and artist. His poetry can be found in past issues of The Still Journal, The Emancipator, Motif 2, Full of Crow, Kudzu Literary Magazine, Pikeville Review, Country Grind, The Southern Poetry Anthology, O’ Words Anthology, Volume VI: Tennessee, Unbroken Journal, Mojave River Review, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Broad River Review, The Moon Magazine, Vox Poetica, Harpoon Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Warren Anthology on Memory, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and Appalachian Heritage. He is the author of Mountain Mysteries: The Mystic Traditions of Appalachia and the poetry chapbooks, Voice Hunting and Memory Train. A student services higher education professional of 15 years, he is now engaged full-time in his poetry MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College.

 

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Poems by John Stupp

Angels

Angels
are strangers
bumping into you
a poet wrote—
I read it in Poetry
so it must be true
if so
the odds are good
as a city commuter
I will encounter
angels
more frequently
than a farmer
in Nebraska
or a cowgirl
in Montana—
so there are
at least as many
barbed wire posts
and skinned wolves
howling
on the 16A
this morning
when the sunrise
crashes through
feet first—
while the Ohio River
is taking off her
nightshirt and panties
and folding them
one by one
by the trees to dry

This Morning

On the way to work
a possum crossed
in front of me
he was moving pretty quick
for a possum
I almost didn’t see him
I was thinking
the winter before
I took one
across the river
in a trap and let him out
in a truck junkyard
on Neville Island
everything was included
truck cabs
old tires
all the rust
he could eat
and a river view
then snow started falling
white as cigarette paper
in January’s ass—
when I opened
the trap he ran
into a pile of leaves
like it was a wedding gift from a stranger

John Stupp has lived and worked in the Pittsburgh area for 35 years as a jazz musician, waiter and paralegal.

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Coffee, poem by Rebecca Schumejda

One of the only mainstays on Broadway
is Burger King,
where I get my morning coffee.
Somehow the manager, Tony,
always sneaks in the exact number
of days he has left until retirement.
Sometimes the weather is unbearably hot
or wickedly cold,
or his joints are achy or he just got
over a flu, or an employee
failed to show up for a shift
so he had to fill in for them or
a customer was rude or the district manager
is coming in or the corporation is
trying out a new healthy item
that no one wants to order,
but he still has to push
or they have to stay open
an hour later or they have to work
some corny catch phrase into each transaction.
But no matter what is going on,
Tony never fails to remind me
that he is one day closer
to not handing me my morning coffee.

rebeccaschumejdaRebecca Schumejda is the author of Waiting at the Dead End Diner (Bottom Dog Press, 2014), Cadillac Men (NYQ Books, 2012), Falling Forward, a full-length collections of poems (sunnyoutside, 2009); The Map of Our Garden (verve bath, 2009); Dream Big Work Harder (sunnyoutside press 2006); The Tear Duct of the Storm (Green Bean Press, 2001). She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. www.rebeccaschumejda.com

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The Gun at the End of the Night, fiction by Paul Heatley

It was Saturday night. The bar was full. Bishop didn’t like it. He didn’t like weekend drinkers. He sat alone at the corner of the counter, nursing a bottle of beer that had gone warm in his hand. A couple of times he’d been bumped by passing bodies on their way to the toilet, or the makeshift dance floor in front of the wailing honky band playing hard in the corner. Each brief contact brought a fresh grimace to his face.

The bartender was called Joe. He grinned at Bishop’s displeasure. “Maybe you should skip Saturdays.”

“Fuck em,” Bishop said. “I was here first.”

“I think you’re outnumbered.”

Bishop finished the beer. He slid the bottle along the bar. “Get me another.”

Joe grabbed a new one, popped the top and passed it over.

Bishop took it without thanks. Someone brushed him and his teeth rattled against the glass. He slammed the bottle down and clenched his fists. “Some motherfucker…”

“Leave it, Bishop,” Joe said. “It was an accident. No one’s hassling you.”

Bishop looked round. It was impossible to see who had jostled him. He glared at everyone then turned back to his drink.

“Calm down,” Joe said.

“Fuck you.”

“Calm down or I’ll cut you off.”

Bishop grumbled. He turned his back to Joe, watched the room. A girl caught his eye. A pale girl with black hair like a Biblical harlot. She wasn’t wearing much – a grey vest, some black shorts that hardly covered her ass, and some beat-up sneakers. She was dancing with some chinless fuck in a trucker cap. She danced with her ass. Bishop watched it. He took a drink, mesmerised by it. It made the blood pound in his dick, and any ass did that had his attention.

Below the trucker cap was a skinny guy. Bishop could take him, easy. Could break him in half. Bishop was big. His hands were like bear claws. They were the kind of fists that aimed to knock a man out with one punch. He clenched them, squeezed them tight. His hands itched. They were always itchy.

The band finished their song and Bishop finished his beer. He got up and made his way to the girl. She wasn’t dancing anymore, wasn’t shaking her ass. She stood upright and ran a hand back through her hair while the chinless guy spoke to her. As he got closer, Bishop saw that his top lip was sporting a weak moustache, the kind of smear that looked like he’d wiped his nose with a dirty hand.

Bishop sidled up next to the girl, paid the guy no mind. “I like the way you dance,” he said.

She looked at him, startled, but then she smiled.

“Uh, hey,” the guy said. What little jaw he had hung slack, showed off his teeth. They weren’t straight, and they weren’t white. “We were talkin here, buddy.”

Bishop shot him a glance. “Son,” he said. “Fuck off.”

The guy blinked, then Bishop stepped in front of him, pushed him out the scene. The band started playing again. The people around them jumped and cheered and pumped their fists.

“Why don’t we dance,” Bishop said.

The girl shrugged. “Sure.”

“I don’t dance too good.”

“That don’t bother me.” She took his hands, led him. She rubbed herself up against him. Bishop grinned. The girl’s eyes flashed scared at his smile, like she thought he was gonna try to eat her, but then she fell back into the music and avoided looking into his face. Bishop put his hands around her waist, so small he could almost hold her all the way round. He dug his fingers in and she cried out, the sound drowned by the band. She squirmed out of his grip and spun on him, but Bishop winked at her and ran his tongue along his teeth. She gave him a sideways glance, like he worried her.

Bishop held out his arms. “Come back to me, baby.”

Bishop felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned his head, narrowed his eyes. The chinless fuck had come back, and he’d brought another guy with him, just as ugly, just as chinless. They had to be brothers, though the new arrival was bigger than his counterpart in both height and width. Chinless opened his mouth. Bishop cut him off.

“Boy, I ain’t interested.”

Chinless stuttered, his big tough-man moment not playing out the way he’d planned. He looked at his brother for help. Bishop struck him in the side of the face and he went down. The brother lunged forward, tackled Bishop across a table, scattered bottles and glasses, spilling beers. If the band noticed the fight, they didn’t stop playing.

The brother was stronger than he’d expected, but Bishop wasn’t worried. He wrapped his mouth around a hand that had landed on his face and sunk his teeth in. The brother reared back and screamed, punched at Bishop with his free fist to get him off. Bishop felt his right eye close up. He released his grip and laughed, shoved the brother back then got a leg out from under him, used it to kick him square in the chest. The brother toppled over the table they’d crashed through, but he scrambled up to his feet the same time Bishop did.

They started throwing punches then. Neither of them bothered to cover up, they just wailed on each other, headshots and body-shots. A couple of Bishop’s blows missed – he kept aiming for the chin, the knockout shot, and found himself swinging short by a couple of inches. What little chin the motherfucker did have was set back about three inches more than a normal man’s. The brother didn’t make such mistakes. Bishop felt his nose burst, felt a tooth loosen at the back of his mouth, he tasted blood as it spilled down his throat.

Bishop had experience though, and he was heavier. Eventually he started wearing the brother down. Stopped going for the knockout blow and decided to bruise and bloody the son of a bitch instead. The brother went to a knee and spat out one mossy-looking tooth.

Then Bishop felt weight on his back – the original chinless was rejoining the party. He tried to wrap a skinny arm round Bishop’s neck, punched him ineffectually in the side of the head, but Bishop just reached back, grabbed a handful of his hair, and dragged him over his shoulder and slammed him hard to the ground next to his brother. He kicked the brother in the chest for good measure, knocked him down on his ass.

The band had finished a song. People were clapping, though it was unclear whether it was for the band or for the fight.

Joe was shouting. “Hey! Hey! That’s enough!” He looked pissed. His face was red and the veins popped in his neck. Probably he’d been shouting at them a while already, but Bishop’s mind had been on other things. “Get the fuck outta here, you’re done!” He motioned to the door as if Bishop could have held doubts about where exactly he wanted him to go, then turned to a couple of his waiters and pointed at the brothers. “Get them out, too.”

Bishop sidled up to the bar, wiped blood from his mouth with one almond-sized knuckle. He grinned. “How about one for the road, Joe?”

“You’ve had enough,” Joe said, but his voice was softer now and the red was fading from his face. “Go home. Sleep it off. You’re gonna hurt in the mornin.”

“Shit son, I hurt right now.”

“Get on home, else your lady’s liable to shoot you as you walk through the door.”

“Hell, she just might at that. One of these days, huh?”

“How about tonight you get home so early she don’t even wave the gun at you.”

“Naw, she’s gonna wave the gun. People have their rituals, Joe. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Joe sucked his teeth. “Sure.”

Bishop turned, surveyed the bar. The girl was gone. Either she’d left or she was hiding from him. He spat to one side and probed the loose tooth with his tongue.

Outside, the brothers’ chinless were stood to one side, the bigger one holding the littler one up. Bishop gave them a nod. “Fellas.” He pulled out cigarettes, popped one in his mouth and lit it, offered them the pack. They each took a smoke and he lit them. “You boys have a good night?”

“I’ve had better,” the brother said. “And I’ve had worse.”

“I saw her first,” chinless said. “She was dancin with me.”

“And then she was dancin with me. Don’t let it eat you up, son. She ain’t worth it. Could be we all did ourselves a favour tonight, that’s how we gotta look at it.”

“How come?”

“Hell, son – pussy like that comes with a price tag.”

“She was a hooker?”

“Naw, but she had that look that some of them got. If it ain’t money they want from you, then it’s the fuckin marrow in your bones, believe me. They want the heart from your chest.”

“She was real pretty,” chinless said.

“She sure was,” the brother said.

“And they’s the serpents you gotta watch for the most. You ain’t got experience like me, boy. You don’t know. That girl woulda chewed you up, spat you out, then hung you to dry.”

They smoked together. The brothers listened to him talk, but he doubted they were taking in what he was saying. When he finished the cigarette he flicked the butt into the brother’s chest in a shower of sparks. “Catch you boys another time,” he said.

He walked home. It was about a mile, and the truck was in the parking lot, but he didn’t care. He shoved his hands deep in his jacket pockets and walked the quiet road, passing beneath the flickering streetlamps. The night air was cold in his cuts, made them feel like they were opening up all over again. To his left, beyond the grass, was swampland. Up ahead, in the road, picked out by the streetlamps’ yellow radius, he saw a lizard skitter across the road, it’s tongue flicking in and out of its mouth.

By the time he got back to the trailer park he felt almost sober. He reached his door and took the key from under the rock next to the porch, stepped inside to find Tilly with a handgun pointed at his chest. She had both hands wrapped around the handle and her legs were spread. Looked like she meant business.

“You fucked anyone, you son of a bitch?”

Bishop walked past her, ignored the gun. He let the door close behind him and went into the kitchen. “Maybe.”

She cocked the hammer. “Don’t you mess with me, you bastard! Tell me straight.”

Bishop took a beer from the fridge, took the top off and leaned back against the counter to drink it. He looked at his wife and raised an eyebrow.

“I mean it, Bishop!”

Bishop took another drink.

The trailer was in darkness, and he wondered how long Tilly had sat in wait for him, the gun weighing heavy in her hand while she deliberated whether or not to blast him as soon as he opened the door. When she spoke to him, he knew he was fine. She wasn’t gonna do it. The day he opened the door and she just pulled the trigger – well, he didn’t think that day would ever come. She wouldn’t do it. She couldn’t kill him.

She loved him too much. She’d leave before she shot him, and she’d never leave. He looked her up and down, and already he could see the resolve begin to falter in her face, in her grip. Her legs were bare below her nightdress, and he saw goosebumps there on her pale skin. Her dark hair was tied back and she wasn’t wearing any make up. Even in the dim light it made her look much younger. They’d been married ten years. She was still as pretty as when they’d met, but she just didn’t do it for him anymore. Credit where it was due, she’d never gotten fat like some wives had a tendency to do. He appreciated her for that.

“Put the gun down, Tilly,” he said. “You ain’t foolin nobody.”

“One day I’m gonna shoot you, Bishop.”

“You ain’t gonna kill me, woman.”

“I didn’t say I was gonna kill you. I said I was gonna shoot you. I been takin lessons.”

“That so?”

“I’m a hell of a shot.”

Bishop snorted. “A regular hawkeye, I reckon.”

“One day you’re gonna find out.”

“Yeah. Put the gun down, damn it.”

Tilly lowered the gun. She wiped the corner of her eye but she was casual about it, then she sniffed. “You been fighting?”

“Sure looks that way, huh?”

“You want me to get some ointment?”

“Nah, just leave it.”

“At least let me clean it up. There’s still blood on your pillows from the last time.”

“I’ll do it.”

“You say you will.”

“Why don’t you get on to bed?”

“You fuck anyone tonight, Bishop?”

“No.”

“You try?”

“Yeah.”

“Those girls you do fuck, you get it up for them all right?”

Bishop held beer in his mouth. He gave her a hard stare, then swallowed it.

“You never had a problem answering anything else.”

“Then yeah, I fuck them real easy.”

“So what’s your problem with me?”

“I walk through the door and you got a gun pointing in my face. Kill any man’s hard dick.”

“It wasn’t always that way.”

“Yeah, well, that kinda life and death shit will really get to a man.” He finished the beer, put the bottle to one side. “Come here.”

Tilly hesitated.

“Come on. Get on over here. Bring the gun.”

She went to him, her bare feet padding softly on the cracked linoleum.

Bishop took the gun from her, wrapped his other arm around her so she couldn’t get away, then pressed the gun to her chest. “How d’you like it? That fill you with a warm fuzzy feelin?”

“No.”

“That’s right, it don’t.” He circled the gun’s barrel on her chest. He ran it up to her neck, then along her jaw. He used his other hand to loosen the front of her nightdress, let it fall open. She didn’t try to get away. Her lips parted and he ran the gun over them. “You taste that?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“What’s that taste like?”

“Tastes like death.”

He ran the gun down her chest, between her breasts, down her stomach to her tightly curled pubic hair. She gasped in his ear. Bishop put his mouth to hers. “What’s that taste like?”

She licked her lips. “Like blood.”

He went behind her, bent her over the kitchen counter. Tilly breathed heavy. He spread her legs, stroked the insides of her thighs with the gun.

Yes,” she said.

He slid the gun inside. She gasped hard. He saw her bite her lip. He worked it in and out, gripping the handle, his finger on the trigger.

“Blood and death,” he said, while he fucked her with the gun.

Tilly cried out, reached for something to hold, grabbed onto the tap with her right hand and the edge of the counter with her left. She started to scream and Bishop slowed. He pulled the gun out and put it down. It glistened. Tilly lay flat on the counter, still bent. Her hair had gotten loose and it covered her face. Her grip on the tap and the edge had loosened.

“You get hard?” she said.

“Naw.”

“Then what good is it?”

Bishop looked at her, but he couldn’t tell if she was looking back. A few strands of hair blew up and down with her breath, but other than that she didn’t move.

He went to the fridge and grabbed another beer. He popped the top and took a long drink, then left his wife where she was, made his way through the trailer, to bed.

He hadn’t gone five steps when he head the hammer cock behind him. He stopped and slumped his shoulders, tired of this bullshit. “For Christ’s sake, Tilly.” He turned. The bottle of beer exploded in his hand, foamy suds soaking his jacket and his boots. His ears were ringing but he was too stunned by what had happened to register the pain there. He shook his head then looked at his wife.

She held the gun in both hands. Her legs were spread. Her mouth was a tight line. The gun wasn’t pointed at his head. It wasn’t pointed at his chest. It was aimed much lower.

Bishop froze. He held up his hands and realised his right was bleeding where it had been cut by exploding glass. “Tilly –” he said. He took a step forward.

Tilly squeezed the trigger.

heatleyPaul Heatley’s stories have appeared online and in print at publications including Thuglit, Spelk, Near To The Knuckle, Horror Sleaze Trash, and Shotgun Honey, among others. His novellas The Motel Whore, The Vampire, and The Boy are available for Kindle from Amazon. He lives in the northeast of England.

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Gratitude, fiction by Ace Boggess

 

“My breath tastes like coffee and cigarettes,” I said, smacking my tongue against the roof of my mouth in a gesture of disgust.

The old man looked at me and grinned, his polished-silver beard a second, wider smile beneath his lips.  His lanky arm stretched across the table, hand slapping me on the shoulder.  “Be grateful for that,” he said.  “At least it means you got both in your life.”

“You don’t even smoke,” I said.

“No, but you do, and it makes you happy.  I’m grateful for that.”

“I wouldn’t say it makes me happy.”

“Why do you do it then?”

“Because I’m miserable when I don’t,” I told him.

He laughed through his nose like a squawking hog.  “So, you’re not miserable today,” he grunted between wild chuckles.  “If nothing else, be grateful for one small blessing.”

I smiled, nodded and sipped my coffee.  I knew better than to argue gratitude with Ceff.  Politics, human nature, the best team in the NFL?  Sure.  But never gratitude.  If Ceff had a religion aside from A.A. and basic Christianity, it centered around that one concept, and he probably should’ve spelled it with a capital G as if it were another name for his god.  Ceff often wrote out a daily gratitude list on the back of his disposable placemats at the Southern Kitchen restaurant where we ate breakfast.  He filled in every inch of available space, not even guiding his pen around the coffee stains or the occasional splotch of butter.

I asked him to show me once and, when he handed me the list, I glanced at it and shook my head in disbelief.  I read a few lines aloud as if I were back in the 8th grade, standing in front of Mrs. Cardwell’s English class trying not to faint as I muttered a Keats poem I’d been assigned.  As I did then, I lost control.

“What?” he asked.  “What’s funny?”

“Electric cars?” I said.  “Really?”

He nodded.  In that deep voice of his, so much like a state trooper’s, he replied, “I’m grateful for electric cars.”

“A joke?” I asked.

“No, keep reading.  If you look farther down, you’ll understand what I mean.  Sure, I’m grateful there’s such a thing as an electric car in the world to help with the environment.  All the same, you’ll see I also wrote how grateful I am that I don’t own one.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say to that, so I went back to scanning his list.  It read like a telephone directory of unusual items:

            …tube socks, alarm clocks, ice cream, pancakes, older women,

               sunlight, the river, spicy Italian pasta, upside-down cakes,

               showers that don’t turn themselves off every 30 seconds, my

               daughter, Jesus, bubble baths…

“Bubble baths?” I said.

“Sure”

“You take bubble baths?”

“Sure do.”

“Okay, that’s disturbing, but what really gets me is how bubble baths came on your list immediately after Jesus.  Makes me wonder how your mind works.”

“What?” he said.  “You trying to tell me Jesus wasn’t clean?  That he didn’t find joy in his silky smooth skin?”

I shook my head and went back to reading his litany:

sunflower seeds, baby squirrels, eagles, my job, bluegrass music

               Republicans…

“Republicans?”

“Obviously.”

“Come on,” I whined.

“Everybody needs something to bitch about.  That’s my thing.  It makes me feel good to complain about how plum stupid they sound with some of the stuff they say.”

I told him, “You’re quite a character.”

“Be grateful,” he replied.

That was a few months ago, whereas today, I didn’t ask to read his gratitude list. I just glanced across the table from time to time to see the spot where his pen fell.  “Chicken pox?” I asked at one point, not expecting an answer. “Sometimes I think you’re making this crap up.”

“No, seriously  Had’em when I was a kid.  That’s one less thing to worry about in my old age.”  I was mesmerized by the positive attitude Ceff carried with him like a bag of breath mints.

I asked, “Is there anything you’re not grateful for?  I mean, there has to be….”

He rubbed his silver beard like a kitten’s head.  “Could be.  Haven’t found it yet, but there’s always an exception.”

“Okay,” I told him, “that’s my new mission in life.  I plan on finding at least one thing you’re not grateful for, and I won’t stop until I do.”

“Sounds like a worthy goal,” he said, grunting out a couple half-laughs.  “Good luck with that, my friend.”  Then he lowered his head, raised his hand, touched pen to paper and wrote:

people brave enough to fight against insurmountable odds….

“You’ve got hemorrhoids,” I said a bit too loudly as I stood in the checkout line behind him at Kroger’s.

The cashier grimaced, shocked at my behavior, or at least faking it.  She couldn’t have been more than twenty, with short brown hair cut above her ears.  Her ocean-blue uniform was faded, telling the world she’d worked here far too long.  “That’s rude,” she said in the soft voice of a mother soothing and scolding her child at the same time.

“Ignore him,” Ceff told her.  “His mama dropped him on his head when he was a wee thing.”  He grinned at her and tapped his forehead with a finger.

“Oh,” she sighed.

Not to be put off, I said, “Seriously, hemorrhoids.  You can’t be grateful for that.”

“Already on one of my lists,” he said.  “Remind me, and I’ll show you when we get back to the apartment.”

“Can’t be,” I said.

The girl asked, “What’s he babbling about?”

“My gratitude lists.”  Ceff paused to read the girl’s nametag.  “Linda, I write out a list every day of all the things I’m grateful for.”

“Why would you do a fool thing like that?”

“To remind me life’s good and I’ve got no reason to be miserable.”

“Awww,” she purred, “that’s sweet.”

Ceff blushed through his beard like a pink sunrise backlighting rows of cumulus.  “Thanks, Linda.  Kind of you to say.”

“Wait,” I interjected.  “Don’t get off track, man.  How can you be grateful you’ve got hemorrhoids? ”

Before Ceff could speak, the cashier said, “A little pain in the butt every so often makes it better when you sit down and don’t hurt.”  She ran his Preparation H past the laser scanner.

I shook my head.

“Don’t you shake your head at me,” she mocked.  “I bet he thinks you’re kind of a pain in the butt, too.”

Ceff reached for his wallet.  He smiled twice as wide and told the girl, “I like you, Linda.  Tomorrow, I’ll write your name on my list.”

 
I stood in the booth, payphone to my ear, impatiently kicking the metal panel beneath the shatterproof glass.  I needed a drink.  Oh, how I needed a drink.

The line rang through five times, and I expected the voicemail to pick up.  Instead, I heard a click followed by a slow, groggy voice.  “Uh huh?  I mean, hello?”

“Jail,” I said.

“What?”

“Jail.  Can’t be grateful for that.”

“It’s almost midnight,” he said.

“Can’t be grateful for that either.”

He laughed in that slow, throaty drumroll of his, full of understanding.  He’d been sober for a long time, and nothing seemed to shock him anymore.  “I guess you don’t know me as well as you think you do,” he said.  “I’m always grateful to hear from a good friend.”

“Even at midnight?”

“Sure.  Shows you care and you’re still alive.  And, at least for tonight, I’m grateful it’s not an emergency.”

“Uh….”

“Not an emergency, is it?”

“Well….”

He groaned.  It was a terrible sound coming from him, like a foghorn buried under pillows.  “Are you drunk?” he asked.

I hesitated.  “Not anymore.”

“Oh, hell.  Then what?”

“Jail,” I said.  “Can you help me?”  I felt a terrible dryness in my throat, and I didn’t know if it came from the liquor erasing itself from my bloodstream or my having to admit to Ceff that I’d fucked up.  Confessing seemed to me like the worst possible thing I’d ever have to do.

“What’s the problem?  What did you do?”

“The cops charged me with D.U.I.,” I said.  “Second offense.”

“So, you were drinking?”

“I don’t want to say over the phone.  These calls are recorded.”

“I remember.  I’ve been there.  Still, you know how this works.  You have to be honest and admit to everything.  Otherwise, nobody can help you.”

Again, I hesitated.  “Fine.  I fell off, okay?  Two days now.”

“Wondered why I hadn’t heard from you,” he said.

“Yeah, two days.  Cops pulled me over a couple hours ago.  I ran a friggin’ red light.  Didn’t even see it.  Not the cop, either.  He was parked behind a hedge.”

There was silence for a moment that weighed on me as heavily as if it were my father on the other end of the line.  Dad was a drunk, too, but he had been put in the ground years ago.  He couldn’t hurt me anymore.

“Ceff?”

“I’m here,” he said.  “Just thinking.  What do you need me to do?”

“It’s only a misdemeanor.  Five-hundred-dollar bond.  Fifty cash to the bondsman, and he’ll put up the rest.  Can you come down here with fifty bucks?”

“I like my fifty bucks,” he joked.  “I’m grateful for my fifty bucks.  I’d like to keep my fifty bucks.”

“I’ll pay you back.  I promise.”

“Not that simple.  You owe me interest, too.  I’m taking you to three meetings tomorrow.  Don’t want to hear a word about it.”

I didn’t mind the meetings in small doses, but three was too much.  To sit there for an hour apiece listening to old geezers without a third of Ceff’s happy-go-lucky personality between them as they grumbled about their years of sobriety and how tough their lives were and how they’d like a stiff shot of the Turkey but wouldn’t let themselves give in?  I didn’t think I could handle it, especially coming off a night light this.  I’d been stripped out, lice-sprayed, told to squat and cough.  I was in an orange jumpsuit so small my balls felt like they were climbing up into my lower intestine.  It was embarrassing.  Still, I had to admit I’d rather spend tomorrow in meetings than jail.  “Fine,” I told him.

“Fine?” he said.

“Yeah, fine.  I’ll go.”

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.  Have to cover up my jewels, slide into the Jordans, find my keys, and I’ll be right there.”

“Thanks,” I said, sighing as if I just learned I didn’t have cancer.

A robotic voice came over the phone line.  “You have one minute remaining,” it said.

“Looks like our time’s up,” Ceff said, “but Luther, I want you to think about something until I get there.”

“What’s that?”

“If this trip to jail keeps you sober, I’m grateful for jail, too.  So, you want to prove there’s something I’m not grateful for, you’ll have to keep drinking yourself into the ground.”

“That’s not fair,” I groaned.

“But it’s the truth.  My friend, I want you to stay sober, but if you do, you lose.  You’ll have to admit you were wrong.  Not right away, but event….”

The phone cut off.  Our time was up.

I replaced the receiver and leaned my head on top of it.  “No,” I moaned.  “It doesn’t work that way, you old fart.”  I waited as if he were there beside me, ready to give advice.  I felt like a spider had crawled across my cheek, leaving me full of shivers and panic.  “You’d still be grateful it wasn’t you.  You’d find a reason.  You always find a reason.  You silly son of a bitch.”

 

boggessAce Boggess is the author of two books of poetry: The Prisoners (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2014) and The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled (Highwire Press, 2003). He is an ex-con, ex-husband, ex-reporter, and completely exhausted by all the things he isn’t anymore. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Mid-American Review, RATTLE, River Styx, North Dakota Quarterly and many other journals. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.

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The Flaming White Trash Stunt Spectacular, fiction by Seth Cherniak

 

Junior sat on the wobbly metal steps of the baby roller coaster. In his left hand was a swiftly melting, toxic looking blue snow cone which had stained his dirty t-shirt, mouth, teeth and tongue. In his right hand he clutched a sticky pink swirl of cotton candy perched on a flimsy, white paper tube smudged with gray, carnival dirt fingerprints. His daddy had given him ten dollars to ride rides at the Pecan Festival but Junior was spending it on food. It lasted longer than a ride on a creaky Scrambler.

His daddy really didn’t care how he spent the ten dollars. It kept Junior occupied while he walked around with Shanna and her kids. Junior’s daddy worked with Shanna at Lumber Supply. She had gotten rid of her husband or he had gone to jail or something. Junior’s mom had gone away for a while. He really wasn’t sure where she was. He didn’t like to think about it too much. But he and his daddy did okay. It was just the two of them. Daddy could cook and Junior knew how to make cereal and frozen pizza. His grandmother, his daddy’s mamma, looked after them some and Junior would stay with her when Shanna was coming over to visit his daddy.

“Hey Mrs. Kopecki!” Junior shouted between bites of snow cone and cotton candy. A pretty lady with dark hair walked over. Mrs. Kopecki had been his first grade teacher. The Pecan Festival carnival was in the field behind the school. She had two boys with her that were a little older than Junior. He could tell they didn’t go to his school. “Well hey, Junior” she said. “How’re you?”

“Good” Junior replied.

“How’s second grade?”

“Good.”

“You have Mrs. Chip this year?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“She told me you’re doing great. Keep it up and come see me okay?”

“Yes ma’am.” She leaned in and patted Junior’s back like he remembered his mamma doing when she had been around. He liked Mrs. Kopecki and did pretty good in her class. Never got on red and was hardly ever on yellow.

DeeBo Scott fiddled on his dirt bike with a socket wrench. It was almost show time.

He was the mechanic for all of the rides that the traveled with the carnival. He could fix anything. He could also ride the shit out of a motorcycle. He learned how to jump shortly after he learned how to ride at the age of fourteen.

So, on the last night the carnival was in a town, DeeBo would jump two flaming junk cars. Southern Attractions, the carnival company, paid him an extra hundred and twenty five dollars a weekend and gave him his own camper. Most of the travelling crew had to double and triple up.

The stunt always drew a bigger crowd than regular nights.  Bossman would call the nearest junkyard wherever they were and spend two or three hundred bucks on a couple of wrecks. When it was time, Ray, the guy that helped DeeBo, would light a few strategically located wads of Vaseline soaked toilet paper. DeeBo would rev the motor, pop a wheelie and jump the “flaming death”.

DeeBo hocked up a loogie, spit it on the ground, and adjusted his crotch, noticeably packed into his dirty blue jeans. Straddling the dirt bike, he put on his helmet, jumped and cranked the motor and revved it making the high pitched, “ rrrunn negga negga” of a beat up Japanese dirt bike.

Through the low, rattling murmur of the carnival, Junior could hear the metallic whine of the dirt bike. He periscoped his neck and looked around.  He had heard about the stuntman at school and his daddy had mentioned it specifically. That’s why they decided to go on that particular night.

Most people came to see DeeBo jump the “flaming” cars with the secret (or not so much) hope that he would fail. A couple of times he screwed up the landing. Came in at the wrong angle where the bike lost its footing and slid out from under him on the ramp. He got a little banged up but nothing serious.

Usually there wasn’t an ambulance on hand. DeeBo was pretty good at what he did and as far as Bossman was concerned, ambulances cost money. But on this night, there was an ambulance on hand. The day the Pecan Festival opened, an Elvis impersonator who was performing passed out on stage. Whether it was a stroke, heat exhaustion, or just that he was too drunk to properly pay homage to the King had yet to be determined. However, after the incident and 911 had been called, Mrs. Bossman, she had traveled with Bossman since five years ago, whispered in Bossman’s ear that it might be a good idea if the ambulance stuck around through the weekend. You know, liability and all. Bossman grudgingly obliged.

DeeBo took off from the tractor trailer he had turned into a travelling motorcycle garage and tore assed to the edge of the carnival. Through the crowd he could see that Ray had put the ramps in place (pulled them with a four wheeler) and was now lighting the “fire” in the wrecks with a long, bar-b-q lighter shaped like an AK-47 assault rifle. DeeBo could see the almost invisible heat waves rising with just a little flame at their base. He gunned the motor and peeled around the edge of the crowd to the clearing made for his take off zone. He stopped, the front wheel of his bike perfectly aimed at the middle of the ramp.

From seemingly nowhere, a tinny voice tried it’s best to boom over a crackly, carnival loudspeaker. “Ladies and gentleman! It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for!” On cue the crowd cheered and backed up a safe distance from the jump area marked by four orange traffic cones. Bossman knew he should have ropes. But like ambulances, ropes cost money.

It was also DeeBo’s cue to get ready. He revved the motor and balanced the bike. He looked to his left and saw Amber, the scrawny blonde who ran the “Throw the Dart-Pop a Balloon” booth. He caught her eye and gave her a jaunty salute before flipping down the visor of his motorcycle helmet. Amber made a face like someone was holding a handful of dogshit beneath her nose. She instantly shot him the bird with emphasis on the cocked, bony fingers on either side of the actual “bird”.

The other night, she and DeeBo got high on her break and rode the small, wobbly Ferris wheel. The cars were enclosed, cage like, so DeeBo talked her into it, the weed helped, by promising he wouldn’t finish in her mouth which he did any way. That probably had something to do with her shooting him the bird, DeeBo thought.

To his right, Chassity, the girl who helped Kelly, the guy that ran the airbrushed t-shirt trailer, waved at him enthusiastically. She was a young brunette with big boobs stuffed into an airbrushed t-shirt that said “Pootie”.  She rolled with Kelly but typically, he would start drinking a few hours before the show closed each night and the combination of the Busch Light twelve pack and the paint fumes ensured he that he would pass out cold by ten o’clock. More often than not, Chassity would sneak over to DeeBo’s trailer to party and sneak back home before sunrise.

Kelly, when lucid, could be a hothead. There was a story about him beating the shit out of someone at a hunting camp in McIntosh because the guy joked that the buck Kelly had killed and was cleaning had funny looking balls. DeeBo wasn’t too worried though. Kelly had a pretty bad limp and was rarely sober.

Junior heard the loose growl of the motorcycle and stood up on the steps, craning his neck to get a better look. He thought he could smell the fire from the burning, wrecked cars and wished he could get closer. But his daddy told him to stay right there during the jump and he’d be right over afterwards.

The loudspeaker voice continued, “Let’s make some noise for Lower Alabama’s very own…” the voice got louder, distorted  “NNNNNNNDAREDEVIL!!!MMMMDEEBOW!!!  SCOOOOOOTT!!!” The crowd roared as DeeBo let go of the brake and accelerated around the flaming, jump area. He popped a couple wheelies as he sped past the crowd, pumping his fist in the air and revving the motor.

After a couple of orbits he stopped at his exact starting point, his wheel perfectly centered on the center of the take off ramp. The dirt bike murmured with an occasional pop or skip due to a dirty carburetor and years of high revving use. Junior stood on his tiptoes nervously rubbing his sticky, blue stained fingers together.

DeeBo balanced the bike with one boot on the ground and one foot on the bike. He gripped the brake tightly and turned the throttle hard, getting the RPM’s up to where he could get the speed he would need. Runnnnnnnn negga negga….runnnnnnn negga. The bike was almost screaming now as a thin fog of blue smoke came from the exhaust.

Junior tightened his body and held his breath as DeeBo took off, the yellow dirt bike hollering towards the ramp, up and over, landing back tire first then front with a thud on the opposite ramp. The crowd roared again as the distorted tinny loudspeaker voice tried to cut through. “MMMMMMMMMDeeBowwwwwwwwwww SCOOOOOOOTTT!!!!”  DeeBo circled the ramps and cars again waving to the crowd and popping wheelies as Ray appeared out of the crowd with a fire extinguisher. The red metal, nozzeled tube whooshed putting out the flaming death.

The whistling and cheering died down as secret disappointment set in that no one was injured. As the crowd started to fade, DeeBo wheeled the dirt bike towards the airbrush trailer. Junior exhaled and relaxed his body. He felt dizzy. His ears buzzed and his vision blurred. It wasn’t a bad feeling and he sort of liked it.

His daddy appeared out of the now almost non-existent crowd. He and Shanna had their arms around each other’s waist, the wrapping hand inserted in the back pocket of the other’s blue jeans. With them walked a stubby, heavyish girl with a high forehead who looked to be about Junior’s age. He recognized her. Her name was Kayla and she had been in his class last year. She was weird and not very smart and Junior remembered her telling a story about the time her dad killed, cooked and ate her dog. Junior didn’t believe it but it made her even weirder.

“Hey Junior!! That was BADASS, wasn’t it?” his daddy said. “Yes, sir.” Junior replied.

“Hey, this is Kayla. Miss Shanna says y’all know each other from school?”

“Yeah.”, Junior said flatly. Shanna shoved Kayla’s shoulder pushing her towards Junior. “Great! We’re all gonna hang around for a little bit. Maybe go get somethin’ to eat afterwards?” His daddy said. “Kay,” Junior said.

“You got any ride tickets?” Kayla asked. “I used all mine.”  Junior shook his head. “Sorry,” he said.  “Where’s your brother?” Junior asked. Kayla had an older brother named Aidrian. He spent more time in the Principal’s office than the class room. Kayla shrugged. “I dunno. I think he gone to his friend’s house.” It was just as well that Aidrian wasn’t there, Junior thought.

Shanna and Junior’s daddy walked ahead of the kids. His Daddy turned around and looked at Junior. “It’s kinda like a double date, ain’t it?” his daddy said with a wink. Junior didn’t say anything. Inside he felt like you did if you accidentally chewed on a piece of tinfoil.

He looked over toward the airbrush trailer and saw DeeBo balancing the motorcycle with both feet on the ground as he talked to Chassity. Kelly had already disappeared. As they walked toward the parking lot, Junior’s daddy and Shanna mentioned something about going to Sonic. Kayla squealed and said something about how much she loved the tater tots. Junior really didn’t hear what she said. He was too busy watching Mrs. Kopecki and her boys from a distance. A man who was probably her husband was with them. He could tell that he was her boys’ father just by the way they acted together. They were at the balloon dart throw booth and they all laughed together as they threw the darts and tried to pop the balloons.

Looking at his daddy and Shanna with their hands in each other’s back pockets, he thought that he could care less about Sonic. He wasn’t hungry. Especially now. He wondered what they were laughing about and wished he was over there with them instead of the people he was walking with. Like DeeBo, jumping over the flaming wreck and making a perfect landing.

 

cherniakA native and lifetime resident of Mobile, Alabama (unless you count the four years he was held prisoner of war at Auburn University), Seth Cherniak’s long descent into writing was enabled by his sixth-grade English teacher and his mom’s mustard-yellow, Smith Corona typewriter. As a financial advisor/portfolio manager by day, Seth has published regularly over the last decade to a national readership on financial websites. This is his first foray into fiction in quite a while.

Seth’s never considered living anywhere else. In his final wishes, he has instructed his two sons to scatter half of his ashes across the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. His wife can do whatever she wants with the other half, as she is not in support of his being fed to the alligators.

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Kentucky Sonnet, poem by Chris Prewitt

Down past the moonlit bell tower
Down past the road that ends at a mountain

I come to know my body
prepared to lose everything

Father if I wore your blue suit to your funeral
I don’t remember

I met strange women with dark hair
sucking the roots of a sugar maple

I had strange ideas and nude irises
drowning in the milk of a star that I nudged

my mouth dark with dirt
my small ruby

held in the heart of a hornet’s nest
am I someone you’d choose to know?

ÿÿ

Christopher Prewitt’s a writer from southeastern Kentucky. His writing has been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology and the Pushcart Prize, and has appeared in Four Way Review, theNewerYork, Ghost Ocean Magazine, Vinyl, The Iowa Review, and Rattle, among others.

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Not Quite Glengarry, poem by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

At 8am, my friend dropped me off in front
of a nondescript yellowish strip-mall building
at the crumbled edge of Little Rock; the parking

lot mostly empty. People with personable voices
needed. No experience necessary. Apply today.
I was trying to go straight, attempting to abandon

an assortment of marginally legal employments.
Hoping to land a job with only a high school
degree, two weeks after a miscarriage, one week

after my boyfriend wrecked my car, hocked all
my furniture, spent the rent money, and ran off
with his ex-wife. I believed I could change

my life by changing jobs. Mr. My Blake,
just back from THE most motivational seminar EVER,
lurched around the room like a speed freak

in a baby blue leisure suit that went out
of style eight years before in 1975. We
would SELL LIKE SAMSON (whoever

the hell that was. Perhaps My Blake thought
he was the guy who invented Samsonite).
The Outbound Telemarketing Specialist

who had been there longest, My Williamson,
handed us our scripts. Hello, my name is Machine
Levine and I’m calling you today because you are

the lucky winner of a set of steak knives. You don’t
remember entering a drawing? You didn’t—
we’ve chosen you from a long list of deserving

men and women who rarely catch a break
much less win a prize. You only have to pay
for . . .I made it half a day before an old lady

answered with a voice that sounded just like
my granny’s and I couldn’t bear the shame of lying
to her, of asking her to send only $49.95 in shipping

and handling charges for a set of plastic-handled
steak knives with flimsy aluminum blades, despite
knowing that, according to My Blake who flashed

a sample like a switchblade, they came encased
in a red velvet bag with faux silk drawstrings. I
apologized for disturbing Mrs. Somebody’s Granny,

grabbed my coat and walked out. And kept walking
a mile to the nearest bus stop where I waited an hour
for the next bus. Three transfers and two hours after

embarking, I was back where I was staying with a friend
from AA. A new job had not changed my life, but it had
changed my mind about the value of employment

at all costs. The next week, I hitchhiked home
to Tulsa, couch-surfed, read Marx for the first time,
called myself proletarian, and never looked back.

calhounmishJeanetta Calhoun Mish is a poet, writer and literary scholar; Mish’s most recent book is Oklahomeland, a collection of essays published by Lamar University Press. What I Learned at the War, a poetry collection, is forthcoming in 2016 from West End Press. Her 2009 poetry collection, Work Is Love Made Visible (West End Press) won an Oklahoma Book Award, a Wrangler Award, and the WILLA Award from Women Writing the West.

Mish has published poetry in This Land, Naugatuck River Review, Concho River Review, LABOR: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas, San Pedro River Review, Blast Furnace, and ProtestPoems.org, among others. Essays and short fiction have appeared recently in Sugar Mule, Crosstimbers, Red Dirt Chronicles, and Cybersoleil. Anthology publications include poems in Returning the Gift and The Colour of Resistance as well as the introductory essay for Ain’t Nobody That Can Sing Like Me: New Oklahoma Writing.

Mish serves as contributing editor for Oklahoma Today and for Sugar Mule: A Literary Journal. She is also editor of Mongrel Empire Press which was recognized as 2012 Publisher of the Year by the Woodcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Dr. Mish is the Director of The Red Earth Creative Writing MFA program at Oklahoma City University where she also serves as a faculty mentor in writing pedagogy and the craft of poetry.

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