PALE LEMON FIRE IN A PARTLY CLOUDY AUTUMN, poem by Dennis Mahagin

Nearly noon, on Thursday
late October, and I see the trees
swaying within a wind that means
only business,
no fragrant breeze
here, no idle
burlesque:
merely rote
screams, blue note egress from boughs
with foresight and worse, they bite back the bark
in street light poses, they feel so much
better, much better come
the dark.
This time of year, this time
of life it breaks
down the anger, ache by ache, cold moan
in the heart attack
eaves, but maybe you know it
by now, too? by God
we must not feel so sorry
for those leaves, in free
fall, going to a place that gets

umber, then full
on, naked in a month: Winter
is the ruddy face of a poet
at sixty…
Or the ticking
of radiators
in my youth, they run on
steam,
sticky sheets left
obliterated in the middle of the poster bed
of those welfare hotels, I’d check in
for kicks only, sucked off
dry by the usual specters, too many raven-haired sins
to enumerate them
now,
down the block, some bloke fires up his chain saw,
and back in my brain, the fat Irish bard
in green felt derby hat: … Let it go, boyo … But oh
to anticipate the wood smoke, arriving soon
in a kind of unison, doubles as an astral
sob; now it’s about half
past noon.

mahagin3Dennis Mahagin is the author of two poetry collections: “Grand Mal” from Rebel Satori Press (https://www.amazon.com/Grand-Mal-Dennis-Mahagin/dp/1608640515) and “Longshot & Ghazal”from Mojave River Press: http://premiumreading.com/content/unbelievable-longshot-ghazal-dennis-mahagin-online-get. Dennis is also the poetry editor for the online magazine, FRiGG. He lives in southwestern Montana.

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Lady Smith, fiction by Jim Wilsky

The third day on the run, they ditched a stolen pickup truck in the sprawling parking lot and then waited outside the doors of Nordstrom’s. Less than an hour later, they were turning out of Springtown Mall in a black Escalade.

He had picked out a well-dressed woman that was alone and it had paid off in spades. Mid-thirties at the most, looked twenty five, and she was from money.

It was a clear blue sky, sunny day but Meredith Browning turned on the windshield wipers when she used her turn signal.

What’re you doin’ woman?” Arlen Watson was holding the gun low, resting it on the console between them. “Easy.”

Sorry…I – I’m scared.” She fumbled with the control. The wipers went faster and the washer fluid misted before she finally got everything stopped.

In the backseat, Georgia was pawing through two shopping bags. “Oh, baby,” she said softly pulling out a scarf.

Arlen looked back at her, caught a look down Georgia’s loose fitting top and then drug his eyes back over to the driver. “There ain’t nothin’ to be scared about ma’am. Just need the car. We get out of town a ways and we’ll drop you off. Do what I tell you and everything’ll be fine.”

Okay. Okay. Don’t hurt me.”

Get over. Left lane, jump onto 20 west.” He looked into the side rear view, then straight ahead. “It’s comin’ up here now, 20 west.”

Please. I’ll do whatever you say, take whatever you want,” Meredith’s voice was shaking as she took the interstate ramp. She started to cry. “Just let me go.”

I will, I swear. Just keep driving.”

Arlen, how far we goin’ before we drop her whiny ass off?” Georgia asked as she pulled out a sweater next and held it up. “Oh my, I do love this color.”

Hush up back there girl” Arlen said while looking at the woman driving. His eyes traveled slow. Up and down, then up again. The sun dress, which was short to begin and had gotten his attention in the parking lot, was riding even higher now. A lot to look at there. Long, tanned legs.

Feeling his stare, Meredith glanced across the console to him. “She’s so young. Whatever has happened, or whatever you two have done, it’s not too late.”

You’re doing like eighty. Take her down a notch.” Arlen’s look was straight ahead now.

Oh, I’m old enough darlin’ and listen up, don’t you go talkin’ about me like I’m not even here.” Georgia’s voice from the back was now close, almost in Meredith’s ear.

Let me help you both. I’ve been in trouble before myself.” Meredith’s eyes in the rear view mirror went cold and blank, but for only a moment.

Trouble?” A wild little giggle came from the rear as Georgia leaned back and shoved her feet into the driver seat. “Really? Like what hon’, staying up past your bedtime? Drank too much beer on prom night?” Another laugh. “You’re just a little princess. Have been all your life.”

Hush girl.”

Don’t you go hushing me again Arlen Watson. Fair warnin’.”

He turned in his seat again and stared at his girlfriend. His jaw muscles were working overtime now. He’d had just about enough of this mouthy little whore.

Georgia went right back at it though, meeting Meredith’s eyes that were now big and soft again, in the mirror. “I bet your daddy had money and then you married into even more. Bet your husband is twenty years older’n you too. Ain’t that right, princess?”

Georgia got no answer, so she began to rifle through the expensive purse lying next to the shopping bags.

Hey now…I just found cash money Arlen. Couple two, three hundred…wait now. Shit, close to four.”

And then, just like somebody threw a switch, the car fell into silence. Like it does sometimes when the mind takes over and the words stop coming. It was like that until for about forty five minutes.

After passing an old Dodge Ram pulling a flatbed full of everything that family owned, Arlen finally broke that silence. He pointed up ahead, “Comin’ up here, about two miles more or so, take exit 18. There’s a closed Denny’s but pull in the lot anyway.”

Meredith did as she was told and started slowing to a stop in front of the deserted restaurant. Across the way, on the eastbound side, there was only a gas station and rest area. Nothing else.

No, no, go on around back.”

Please…don’t.”

It’s gonna be fine ma’am. Pull around back, I just can’t let you out right here. Go on now.”

She circled around the building. Her hand was shaking as she put the car in park. “I have two young daughters.”

Arlen leaned over and pulled the keys out of the ignition. His hand brushed Meredith’s leg and stopped. He rubbed her knee and then slid slowly upward. “It’s gonna be okay.” There was no time and he knew it, but damn.

Instead of giving in to it, he reached in his jacket pocket and pulled out a roll of gray tape. Same tape he’d used on the stolen truck’s owner, but it was all for show this time. “Now, all I’m gonna do is tape you up.” He held the tape up to her as proof. “So, get out real slow and walk to the loading door over there.”

Arlen, let me do her up. Nice and tight.” Georgia’s voice had gone hard and wicked. “Let me cinch that princess up good.”

Hush, dammit. Stay put back there.”

Meredith got out slow, walked to the building and turned. Arlen had already stopped, about ten feet away with the gun raised.

On your knees darlin’.” He motioned at the ground with the barrel.

She melted down, covered her mouth with one hand, the other held out to him.

Please,” She said. “Oh please…don’t.” Her voice was just a whisper now.

Two quick shots cracked. Then a third. First one hit him square in the back and he barked a yell out. The next, hit him in the side as he turned. He staggered a step, his open mouth showing surprise. The gun slipped out of his hand and he went down hard. His body only jerked after the third shot hit him.

I told that son of a bitch not to hush me again. Gave him fair warning.” Georgia said, walking past the body.

Meredith looked at the motionless Arlen and couldn’t believe she was still alive. The shock was short lived though, her eyes that had been big and round with panic, narrowed. A hard look. She didn’t speak.

“‘Sides, he was fixin’ to kill you, not tape you. I ain’t no murderer like him. Least not some dang execution like that.” Georgia looked at the Lady Smith .38 special in her hand. “Lucky for you, I found this pretty little gun in your purse. Didn’t even know they made a girls gun like this. My last name is Smith too. Guess it was just meant to be.”

Behind Georgia, the sky in the west had started to darken up and a low, far off rumble of thunder rolled over them. Not a spit of wind. Calm. She turned and then looked back at Meredith. “I do like a good storm. I like that tense kinda feeling you know. Something badass coming. All that.”

They stared at each other for a moment more and then Georgia Smith put her hands on her hips. She grinned big and said, “Well hell, ain’t you gonna thank me or nothin’?”

Meredith stood up slow, her eyes clicked over to where Arlen was laying in a small but growing pool of dark blood. She still didn’t speak but her mind was working.

Cat got your tongue, sugar? I’ll admit, that was a close call.”

I…thank…” The words just weren’t coming out right and all Meredith could do was shake her head. Her eyes teared up.

All right then, its okay. Let’s go sis, we gotta put some miles in between us and ol’ Arlen here. We’ll head south now instead of west. Hell, maybe even Mexico huh? You and me. We can have us some girl talk as we go, plus I can’t drive without insurance right?” Georgia’s smile looked forced now and her eyes were just a little too bright, too jumpy.

Meredith stared at that young face and saw madness. She grinned weakly and nodded back at the girl.

Georgia motioned to follow and turned. “C’mon now, we’ll be like Tammy and Louise…or whatever the fuck that movie was called.”

Lightning zigzagged in the distance. A breeze picked up out of nowhere with the scent of rain strong. Much cooler air, cold almost, signaled the oncoming storm. Meredith hadn’t felt like this for a long time. Not since Riley Lloyd, not since that moonless night, on a bank of the Big Sandy. It seemed a long, long time ago but it really wasn’t. Not long at all.

As they walked back to the car with Georgia leading the way, Meredith smoothly reached down and swept up Arlen’s gun with a practiced hand. She closed the space between them and two steps from the car she stopped and aimed.

Georgia sensed something then, firming her grip on the Lady Smith. She started to turn but it was far too late. There was only a split second to realize her final and fatal mistake, in a short bitter life that had been full of them.

Meredith Browning was no princess.

 

wilskypicJim Wilsky is a crime fiction writer. He is the co-author of a three book series; Blood on Blood, Queen of Diamonds and Closing the Circle. He’s finishing up a new book that will be coming out soon, as well as searching for a publisher for a collection of his short stories.

His short story work has appeared in some of the most respected online magazines such as: Shotgun Honey, Beat To A Pulp, All Due Respect, Yellow Mama, The Big Adios, A Twist of Noir, Rose & Thorn Journal, Pulp Metal, Thrillers Killers & Chillers, Plots With Guns, Flash Bang Mysteries, A Twist of Noir and others. He has contributed stories in several published anthologies, including All Due Respect, Kwik Krimes and Both Barrels. He resides in Texas, supported and strengthened by a wonderful wife and two beautiful daughters.

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The Property of Bug-Eyed Motherfucker, story by Wynne Hungerford

Apache Springs the crossroads was known as, and for miles around the land was called Apache Springs also. There was a single saloon at the crossroads next to a boarding house with its roof rotted from the nightly urine of prostitutes that climbed up there and pissed beneath the moon. It never rained in Apache Springs. There was never a cloud in the sky. Because of this the prostitutes climbed onto the roof every night. Visitors began to take an interest. English or French people they usually were, spring or summertime cowboys who always stopped at the saloon first to get properly wasted.

Bug-Eyed Motherfucker was one of these Frenchmen. He spent a whole afternoon sipping rye whiskey and when he finally slipped into a good, moist stupor he headed over to the boarding house for some good, moist company. The woman only cost a silver dollar because she had a shriveled leg, but Bug-Eyed Motherfucker didn’t mind. He said, “Bonjour sexy,” and then used her cane, a piece of desert wood, to beat her across the ass. When they had finished and the prostitute was already climbing out of the window and pulling herself onto the roof with strong arms, Bug-Eyed Motherfucker realized that his pistol was gone. It had been a gift from his late mentor. They had been like father and son.

Bug-Eyed Motherfucker ran back to the saloon and swung open the doors.

Someone said, “Look at the bug eyes on that motherfucker.”

Bug-Eyed Motherfucker thought he saw the flash of his pistol’s mother-of-pearl handle at a table in the back of the saloon. He had excellent vision. The fellow sitting at that table was an Englishman. Bug-Eyed Motherfucker swaggered back there and said, “Mon pistolet!”

My good man,” said the Englishman. “I beg to differ.”

Then the Englishman picked up the gun and shot Bug-Eyed Motherfucker through the eye. He fell dead to the floor. “I apologise for the disturbance, everyone,” the Englishman said. “Carry on.”

Meanwhile, the crippled prostitute of Apache Springs stood like a flamingo on the roof of the boarding house. She had been the one to take Bug-Eyed Motherfucker’s pistol, even though he had not suspected her because of the shriveled leg, and now she was pointing the pistol at the moon. She’d heard the other girls call the moon beautiful but, to her, it looked like a pustule that needed to be popped.

hungerfordWynne Hungerford has published work in Epoch, Talking River Review, The Whitefish Review, The South Carolina Review, and The Weekly Rumpus, among other places. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Florida.

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Three-Man-Operation, poem by Mathews Wade

Papaw’s ranch ain’t so much a ranch
but a two man operation with his neighbor
Terry, whose wife is also named Terry,
just two men rubbin pennies, joined
by fences mended with zip-ties, where
strung-out race horse rescues populate
junked-fields & hunting dogs are kept
hungry for the let-out in cages intentionally
hidden behind the barn for fear of PETA or
a stand-in mailman who might be canine
sympathetic, where frog ponds ain’t real
ponds but broken field tiles filled-in
with coffee-colored water as to not be a hazard,
though the two’s perception of what a hazard
is, or isn’t, is one of the many things you’ll
soon learn not to trust, like when Terry
tells you to point your tally-whacker at
that third-wire, you don’t listen & if you do
you won’t again, or if Papaw tells you
to drink the Kool-Aid from his spittoon,
you don’t listen, & if you do you’ll spend
the rest of your life trying to forget the taste
of another man’s stains.

//

Before he hands over the cattle-prod, he zaps it twice to remind
you of the power you’re about to hold, mulberry pie lingers
in his dentures from your annual bloodmouth breakfast, a fun
tradition as you recall—press it to hide, he says, get it to move.

//

After Papaw’s second heart attack, after
Terry took up drinking when female-Terry
left him for a man they both called a word
Meemaw wouldn’t allow spoken inside
the house, you spend your summers
mowing, shoveling, listening to the radio
spill racism & spitty fear, cloppin about
in mid-high muck boots past your knees, proud
of the tractor keys in your pocket, the camel
on the keychain is smoking a cigarette,
but you consider him a friend, looks friendly
enough, you learn a lot in these summers,
the taste of Old Milwaukie, about shanks
& jiggers, why shotgun shells are red,
that drinking cold chicken broth from a thermos
will keep you hydrated while you search
for castellated nuts with a metal-finder, the ranch
becomes a three-man-operation, as they start
to call it, even let you sit on the porch as the two
of them croak at the moon like frogs
in a whiskey-lingo you pretend to understand.

//

You awake to a flashlight in your face, predawn shadows moving,
by this time you know the drill, the pie for breakfast, the zap, zap,
get the beasts to move while they’re still sleepy—wait for the Semi.

//

It’s Labor Day weekend, your last week
on the ranch before starting sixth grade,
you’ve been practicing your locker combination,
the satisfying click-pop like driving
a nail into new-cut wood, Terry wants to ship
the cattle early this year, says he needs the money,
& by this time you’ve made enough mistrust-
mistakes that you’ve started asking questions,
you want to know where the cattle go after
the round-up but Papaw refuses to say, so you ask
Terry, & Terry says to hop in the pick-up
when he goes to get the money, so you ride along,
following the 16-wheeler carrying all forty
of the furry Herefords you’ve named,
you can see their eyes through the perforated
metal, same eyes watched you work all summer,
dumb as inbred retrievers, but always smiling,
& when you arrive, you realize real quick
some things are better left unknown.

//

You’ve seen enough sunrises to know a good one & you pray
that that morning it would be good, but it came blunt as hammer
to skull, just a sneeze of light, not a smear of color—see that boy
leaning against the fence asking for forgiveness? that’s you.

mathewswadeMathews Wade was raised in Hilliard, Ohio, and is currently working towards his MFA at Columbia Univeristy. He is the winner of the Academy of American Poets Bennett Prize, 2016.

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Francis Alexander Finch, poem by Carl Boon

Francis Alexander Finch
tilts his plastic dinner plate
against the hard light
of Hazelton Prison,
reasoning the details
of his rape case and limiting
the movement of a single
black ant. His mother,

JoAnne Daphne Finch,
has exited the grounds
and leans on the hood
of her blue Toyota, smoking
Kent menthols. The distant hills
are disasters for her,
the dusk wrings her thoughts
then spits them out.
What’s the reason for this need?

It’s a given he’ll grow gray
inside the walls, the gray walls
touched here and there
with graffiti. He’ll meander
back to his cell for protocol,
Wheel of Fortune on a tiny screen,
the man in C-212 screaming
obscenely all night.

There are demons,
there are fucking wolves
in the concrete. There are reasons
why Francis Alexander Finch
shouldn’t be here, but he is,
as he separates the corn
and carrots and celery
on his plastic dinner plate.

boonA native Ohioan, Carl Boon lives and works in Izmir, Turkey. His poems appear in dozens of magazines, most recently Two Peach, Jet Fuel Review, Blast Furnace, and Poetry Quarterly.

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Pavement, poem by Heather Sullivan

We walked to the bakery on the corner, you
and I hand in hand. I’d promised you a cookie,

and myself a chance to clear my head from the
workday strife. My longer commute used to

give me time to rage against the dying of the
light long before I walked through the front

door, enough time to morph back into mama,
the woman who draws bats with you and

theorizes when is too late for Play-Doh. Less
a transition time now, I am sooner home to you

and to the encompassing sense that all is right
with the world when your hair falls in front of

your eyes and you spin in front of me on the
sidewalk. We heard noises in the trees and made

up a Halloween song, and I told you not to be
scared of the dark, but to love it the way I used

to before I came to anticipate evil and the way it
tastes in the back of your throat. I want you to

own your freedom for all time, pause the hour
hand and not look back behind you. Leave that

to me for now, let them bite at my heels and nose
my flesh. You run ahead, and spin again for mama.

sullivanHeather A. Sullivan‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chiron Review, Open Letters Monthly, Free State Review, Yellow Chair Review and Ygdrasil. She is an editor at Live Nude Poems and maintains a blog at http://www.ladyjaneadventures.blogspot.com. She lives with her family, including the FCAC Proprietor, in Revere, MA.

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Sorry for the Delay in Your Programming

back-soon-signIn the meantime, please amuse yourselves with this essay by David Wong, from Cracked.com. It reminds me of Jim Goad in his book The Redneck Manifesto, which you should read if you haven’t.

Fried Chicken will resume regular updates on November 1st.

Just think, pretty soon this election will be over and we can think of some other fucking thing.

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Joy Ride, fiction by Nick Kolakowski

 

The year Maxine turned fourteen she found her true calling, at the cost of two lives.

Maxine spent her childhood mornings at the front window of the crumbling farmhouse where she lived with her brother Brad and mother Joan and her mother’s big bastard of a synthetic-heroin monkey, watching for cars on the road. Whenever one passed, she imagined herself behind its wheel, zooming out of her life with glorious speed, and her heart ached with need.

Maxine knew that, without her, life in the house would fall apart. She needed to feed and clean Brad, kill as many cockroaches and rats as possible, keep the phones powered, stop her mother from choking on her own vomit during the bad highs, and throw rocks at the junkies who lurked in the weedy driveway. That was a typical list of tasks before she left for school. Every two weeks or so, her uncle Preacher came down from the hills and, living his nickname to the fullest, spent hours yelling at her mother to clean up her act. Her mother would groan and shake her head and agree to go straight, only to break that promise once he disappeared back into hiding.

Maxine liked to play the No Crying Game, which goes like this: you run into a wall so hard it knocks you backward, leaving your nerves humming like guitar strings and your mouth salty with blood, but you never cry. If you slam yourself hard enough to chip a tooth or bruise your face, and not a single tear rolls down your cheek, you can stop doing it for a week.

On the fifth of every month their benefits came, and Maxine’s mother would pile them into the family’s rattling wreck of a van for the fifteen-minute trip to Red Junction, where the big grocery store gladly accepted EBT. Maxine loved the store’s bright lights, the aisles lined with shiny packaging, the sleekness and color that reminded her of the cars zipping down the road: signs that someone out there cared enough to do a good job, to make something perfect. Maxine chose not to see how some of the shoppers looked at them with horrified pity, as if they were roadkill.

Maxine’s mother always acted happy in the store. She whistled and told knock-knock jokes as she filled their cart with cereal and the cheapest kelp-meat, which Maxine could stretch far if she mixed it with herbs and roots pulled from the small yard behind the house. When she was sober, her mother was very good at calculating everything down to the cent, in order to prevent the embarrassment of having to leave food on the cashier’s conveyor belt. That happened once, and Maxine’s mother had yelled, and someone called security, and it was only because Maxine acted so cute with the manager that they were ever allowed to come back.

Maxine’s father was in prison forever, thanks to a drug deal gone wrong, and all their relatives were dead except for Preacher, who needed to stay in the hills because the police wanted him in a cell or a coffin, preferably the latter.

Maxine hated the police, especially the two who came around to stand in the weedy yard and call her a waste of life, dangling candy bars as they asked where her uncle was hiding, as if she were stupid enough to give up a blood relative for a sugar rush. Maxine would hiss at them and bare her teeth, but knew to go no further. A friend of hers, Monica Miller from down the road, once bit a cop on the ankle during a scuffle and they hit her in the head hard enough to put her in a coma. Sometimes stuff just happens. It’s a mean world.

The cops called her family rednecks and trash and hillbillies. “You gonna be just like your mama,” one of them liked to tell Maxine, “and your kids gonna be just like you. How you feel about that?”

Maxine always stuck out her tongue at that cop, whose name was Dwight, and who rocked a blonde caterpillar of a mustache. Dwight liked to take out his club and run at Maxine as if he intended bash her brains all over the porch, but she knew to hold her ground.

You never getting out of here,” Dwight usually said. “You’re just another waste of breath, you ask me.”

Maxine thought of Dwight as an angry possum in a tent, anxious to bite anything trapped in there with it. But deep in her heart, she feared the cop was right. She had no idea of a life other than this one. On the cracked screen of her cheap-ass phone she watched shows where beautiful people in sleek dresses and suits marched through gleaming spires of steel and glass, scenes from New York City that might as well have taken place on a planet far from this one. Her own eyes had never seen anyone in clothes so shiny, or buildings so magical.

When the cops came by, Maxine imagined Preacher watching them from the black trees along the top of the ridge. When the roof collapsed, or some man in a suit threatened to kick them out of the farmhouse, or mother’s EBT card no longer worked at the store, Maxine sent up a silent cry for Preacher to save them, knowing that he would never appear, not until the danger had passed. So she learned to do everything herself.

Maxine was very good around cops until she turned fourteen, and then everything went to hell.

II.

To celebrate her birthday, Maxine took a little joyride.

She had skipped school that morning, choosing instead to hang out on the porch of The Tony Eight with her best friend, Michelle. The Tony Eight was a hard bar but its owner, Tony the Third, kept a counter by the front door stocked with goodies such as candy and burner phones. He let kids use his porch as a chill-out zone (“Better they stay here than go in the woods. They don’t all come back from the woods,” is how he defended that choice) from eight in the morning until five in the evening, when the number of drunks inside reached critical mass, and he only had two rules: no cursing within his earshot, and none of that boy-band crap on the throwback jukebox he kept in one corner.

That Tuesday, Maxine and Michelle had already spent two hours on the wooden steps, smoking cheap Beijing Blue cigarettes and talking boys, when a red Mustang screeched into the bar’s gravel lot. They both tensed, knowing it was Ricky, a local weed dealer who liked his girls a little too young.

Ricky lurched from the car, creepy smile in place, and paused to check his phone before sauntering toward them. Maxine reached into the left pocket of her jeans jacket, palming the small knife she kept there. Even without looking up, she could feel Ricky’s gaze slithering over her legs, and shuddered. Please God, she thought, just make him go away.

God declined to answer, but someone else did. Ricky made it ten yards across the lot when a big black car slithered into view behind him, its lithium-ion motor silent but its tires squealing on the slick road, its passenger window zipping down to reveal a hand with a pistol—pop, pop, pop—and Ricky collapsed, his purple jumpsuit puffing as the bullets punched through his flesh. The black car zipped past the bar before disappearing around the far curve.

Through the open door behind her, Maxine heard Tony the Third curse. Michelle clutched her knees and rocked back and forth, tears rolling down her cheeks. Maxine felt curiously numb, her breathing nice and regular as she stood and walked over to Ricky just as he managed, with a loud grunt, to roll onto his back, his front stained black from moist gravel and probably a quart of spilled blood.

Maxine pulled out her phone and dialed 911. Those calls were free, which was good, because she was running low on minutes this month and didn’t like the idea of burning a few on a piece of crap like Ricky. As she held the phone to her ear, she knelt and began rifling through the pockets of the jumpsuit, removing a wad of pleasingly retro twenty-dollar bills in a gaudy money-clip (bloody), a key-fob attached to a silver dog’s head (ugly), and a brand-new phone (bonus!) with one of those cool bendable screens.

Some of your dealer friends tracked you down, huh?” she asked Ricky.

Help…” The sides of Ricky’s mouth bubbled with pink froth. “Help…”

Nine-one-one’s on hold,” she said, popping open the money clip and flicking through the stained money. “Like, what else is new, right?”

The sight of Maxine rifling the cash shocked a bit of life back into Ricky. His cold hand gripped her wrist and squeezed, as he rasped: “Don’t… take… bitch…”

She smacked him on the forehead with the money clip. “Hold on, the phone’s ringing.” A moment later, the operator clicked to life, asking about her distress, and Maxine cheerfully told her all the gory details about a drive-by shooting at The Tony Eight. That task complete, she called over her shoulder: “Michelle, go inside. Tony got a med-kit.”

Michelle obeyed without backtalk. She was one of those types: prickly as a porcupine on a mega-dose of Heisenberg Blue most days, but a total lamb in a crisis. Maxine knew that Tony kept a fully loaded med-kit behind the bar, next to the shotgun. While she waited for Michelle to return, she helped herself to Ricky’s car keys.

Ricky hissed: “Don’t… take…”

Look,” she said. “You got shot, but you’re gonna make it.” That was probably a lie, given the amount of blood pumping out Ricky’s holes. “Tony got a good kit. Ambulance be here in a minute. We going through all this trouble for you, means you owe us a favor. So I’m taking a spin in your sweet car over there. Don’t worry, you’ll get it back.”

Ricky tried to spit blood at her and missed.

She slid behind the Mustang’s wheel, unsurprised at Ricky’s choices in tricking out the interior: a blue glow from LEDs beneath the front seats, over-sized speakers that probably cost three times more than the engine, and a steering wheel wrapped in the finest imitation leather. Maxine wrinkled her nose at the near-overpowering stench of cheap cologne and spilled beer as she popped the key-fob into the slot on the dashboard, the gas engine awakening with a roar, the stereo booming vintage rap-rock (classy, Ricky, classy) loud enough to rattle the substandard fillings in her teeth.

Maxine smacked dashboard buttons until the music went quiet, spun the wheel, and gunned the Mustang out of the lot. In the rear-view mirror, she saw the Tony rip Ricky’s jumpsuit open and squirt something from a can into the wounds, but not before giving Maxine a big thumbs-up. What more pseudo-parental approval did she need?

Her first joyride almost went wrong ten seconds in, as she tried to muscle the Mustang’s fat ass into the first sharp turn and almost skidded out, nearly ramming head-on into a truck in the oncoming lane, spinning the wheel to correct and overcompensating, clipping a rusty Stop sign, shrieking in fear and joy as she finally pointed the car’s nose in the right direction and slammed the gas pedal to the floor. The Mustang growled in response and began to eat the miles. It was her first time driving and she was a natural, powering into each curve, feathering the brake at every intersection.

The black car appeared just ahead, and her jubilation curdled into unease. From Preacher she’d learned the first rule of doing crime: you hide after the crime’s been done. So why were they still on the road? She needed to get out of here before they noticed Ricky’s car in their rear view mirror, but they were on a straightaway: no turnoffs, no side-roads.

The black car tapped its brakes. She slowed to keep distance, her dread igniting into outright fear as the car’s front-passenger window buzzed down and the hand with the pistol emerged. She veered the Mustang left just as the gun spat fire, a bullet snapping off her roof.

If she stayed back, the next bullet might smash through the windshield and her forehead. If she stopped, they would turn around and hunt her down. That left her with one choice.

Punching the gas, she rammed her fender into the other car’s trunk, bumping it forward and to the right. The shooter’s head and shoulders appeared above the car roof, silhouetted by the sun, the gun waving as he tried to aim, and she accelerated again until her front tires came parallel with the other car’s rear door and she swung the wheel hard right. With a crunch of metal the other car left the road—a faint scream from the shooter above the boom of two tons of metal rolling into a deep ditch. The wheel slithered hot in Maxine’s hands as she fought for control, finally skewing to a stop in her own lane.

You need to drive away, she thought. Get out of here. No, can’t do that. I need to see if anybody survived. They might come after me.

She eased the Mustang onto the shoulder and climbed out, after wiping her shirttail on the steering wheel and anything else she might have touched. Her hands shook, her knees weak as she tip-toed into the weeds.

The black car had entered the ditch on its side, landing in three feet of oily water. A broken tree-stump jutted through the crumpled steel of the hood. The windshield had cracked but not shattered, and through the webbed glass (Maxine snuck close now, breathing hard, ready for the bullet) she could see the body hunched in the driver’s seat, limp hand on the steering wheel.

She leapt onto the far side of the ditch, and saw the top of the shooter’s head in the water, blonde hair streaming like kelp. No bubbles meant no breathing meant it was safe to come closer, which she did, recognizing the face just beneath the surface:

Her good friend Officer Dwight, his torso pinned beneath the car’s frame.

Maxine’s fear deepened into nausea. She sank to her knees on the wet grass and vomited a neon spray of half-digested junk food.

Get out of here.

Yes, that was the best idea. Wiping her mouth, she stood and walked across the field beyond the ditch, toward the distant band of forest that would give her cover from anyone driving past on the road. Her boots sank into the muck, slowing her progress. Maxine pulled out her phone and made another call.

III.

The inside of the diner was a time capsule, from the fading Trump for President poster on the wall above the old-fashioned cash register, to the deep-fat fryer sizzling away in complete defiance of all state health laws. Behind the register leaned Johnny Oates, whose burning hatred of everything politically correct had led him to create this temple to a fantasy America where everybody enjoyed a God-given right to clogged arteries and blackened lungs.

Maxine entered, checking out the three regulars sitting at the counter, all working doggedly on their eggs and butter-soaked carbohydrates: reddened men, their middle-aged muscles dissolving into fat, their knuckles beaten into scar tissue.

Hunting’s for wimps,” Oates was telling them, engaging in his favorite pastime of goading customers into an argument. “You’re just killing something can’t shoot back. If I’m going to head out into the woods after something, it’s gonna be a human being.”

At the far end of the counter, Oates’ biggest customer at two hundred ninety pounds, the one and only Perry Parks, trembled and purpled and seemed primed to explode in a fury of grease-fried rage. “You got no idea how difficult it is. The skill it takes. Even for deer.”

Why don’t you wire a machine gun to a deer’s horns? I mean, that’s a fair fight. Give it the chance to take a few of you with it,” Oates smacked a few buttons on the register. “Jane, you agree with that?”

The waitress in the far booth, eighteen going on forty, e-cigarette clenched between pillow-puff lips the shade of a ripe plum, lowered her phone and said, in the flattest possible tone: “Whatever.”

Maxine took a seat in the booth furthest away from the action, wondering if Oates and the rest of them could see her sweat. It was an hour after the crash and her hands still shook, so she placed them underneath the table where nobody could see. Oates wandered over, a smile unzipping his face. For all his attempts to sink barbs into his customers’ psychic meat, he was a decent human being. “How’s it going?” he asked her.

Okay,” she said.

I’m sorry, darling, but I gotta ask before you order: you got cash?” Oates dropped his voice a few decibels, even though everybody in the diner could still hear him. As Maxine reached into her pocket and tugged out a few bills from Ricky’s wad, she felt her face flush with familiar shame.

From the way his eyebrows arched, she knew Oates wanted to ask where she’d earned that money, before deciding any answer would only lead to grief on someone’s part. “Okay,” he said. “Good. Sorry about that. What can I get you?”

Coffee,” she said. “Toast is awesome, too.” More than anything else, she wanted to step into a shower and crouch under its hot drool and stare at the drain-cover as if she could somehow shrink and slide down that rabbit-hole into a better life. Barring that, she needed some food in her belly, for the energy to deal with whatever was coming next. After vomiting her stomach into a ditch, all she could handle was something plain.

Oates nodded and headed for the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with coffee. She dumped roughly half the sugar dispenser into the steaming liquid, not caring whether the sweetener was the real deal (unlikely in a place as cheap as this) or one of those synthetics that provided half the taste and all the diabetes and cancer. She drank it boiling-hot, barely noticing how it scorched her tongue, eyes focused on the screen above the counter, where a talk-show host cracked bleak jokes about the latest round of suicide bombings in Seattle.

The food arrived, and Maxine found herself surprisingly hungry. She was chewing the last bit of crust when the bells above the front door tinkled. Preacher walked in like John Wayne in those old movies that Oates loved—only Preacher was more John Wayne than John Wayne, who had been a mirage, a Hollywood actor named Marion Morrison who discovered that, if he held his hips right and aimed a rifle, people would start calling him “sir.” Preacher came through the door looking solid as stone, bringing his own weather with him. Everybody in the place fell silent.

First Preacher flicked the thumb-lock behind him and flipped the old-fashioned sign on the door so it read ‘Closed.’ Next he pulled a plastic bag out of his pocket and walked along the counter and back into the kitchen, collecting phones from everybody. After he tossed the phone bag to Maxine in the booth, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wad of bills and distributed them to all customers and Oates and Jane and the short-order chef.

With those tasks completed, he helped himself to a cup from the ancient coffeemaker behind the register and sat across from Maxine, taking his first sip with a handful of pills from his jacket pocket. His love of medication stemmed from his three years in the military: red painkillers to ease the burning pain in his shoulders, from the shrapnel embedded in the muscle, always followed by two or three blue gelcaps that kept his mind crackling. The Army fed you a steady diet of chemicals that helped you deal with cognitive load, think your way lightning-quick through firefights. The downside came after they discharged you, when you missed that sharpness to your thoughts, even if it came with side effects like sweaty nervousness, paranoia, and the occasional burst of epic flatulence. Preacher kept his prescription filled through a back-channel to the local VA.

Maxine finished chewing, admiring Preacher’s gunslinger gait, smiling at how everybody in the diner resumed their conversations a little too loudly, anxious to show their new guest how they could play it as cool as him.

You making some trouble on your birthday, kiddo?” Preacher asked.

I didn’t start nothing,” she said.

It’s okay. I’m not mad. Just tell me everything.”

So I’m down at The Tony Eight…”

Wait, why weren’t you in school?” His cheeks reddening.

Maxine rolled her eyes. “Thought you said you weren’t mad.”

You need to be in school.”

Maxine sighed. “You know how that place sucks. I learn more reading on my own.”

You’re not thinking like a gangster, darling.” Preacher cooled down, his lips breaking into a slab-toothed grin. “You don’t show up to school, the so-called authorities notice, they start getting up in your business. You go to school—even if you just sit there and read—it gives you leeway to do whatever else you want in your life. Make sense?”

Maxine didn’t like people correcting her. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay.” Preacher leaned forward and gently pinched her chin, knowing how much she hated lectures like this. “So tell me what happened.”

I took a joyride, ran into a couple of cops. They’re dead.”

So my guy said, when you called him. How’d you get his phone number?”

You gave it to me, remember? Told me use it in an emergency. If you actually owned a phone, I would have called you direct.”

Yeah, well, he’s got one of those special phones, it’s harder to trace. I can’t figure out how those work.” In Preacher’s world, nobody carried hardware connected to the Internet, or went online without hiding behind lots of electronic voodoo. “My guy, he said it was Ricky’s Mustang ran those dirty boys off the road?”

Yeah, it was Ricky’s car.”

Preacher looked concerned. “You shoot Ricky?”

No, the cops did that. I was just hanging out. You ask me, he had a deal with them that went bad, or something.”

Who knows? Ricky bled out before they made the hospital.” Preacher washed down another pill with his coffee, his eyes humming electric. “I’m going to clear this up. You don’t need to do anything. Hang tight, don’t say anything to anyone, okay?”

She sighed. “I’m sorry. It’s trouble you don’t need.”

Preacher reached forward, his giant paw settling on her small one. “When I was your age, I got in scrapes like this a lot. It’s part of growing up.”

So this’ll sound kinda psycho.” She smiled a little. “But I liked the driving part.”

See? Silver lining,” he said. “And here’s the other good thing: no more cop to sniff his little pig-snout around your house. Five-oh knows one of their own was crooked, they’ll be glad to see him disappear. In exchange for all this, though, you owe me a favor.”

She nodded. “Name it.”

Finish high school, try to go to college, the whole run. You can read your books there. You keep a low profile, you graduate, and if you still want, you can come work for me. We’ll have some fun together. Deal?”

I go to college, who’ll watch Brad? Or my mom?”

I will.” Preacher held up a hand, anticipating her argument. “I know I haven’t been great about sticking around. But I’ve started paying the right people, and I got some good folks on my side. I’ll be around more, I swear. So, do we have a deal? Low profile?”

Maxine laughed. “Okay,” she said. “You got a deal.”

Preacher departed, after handing the bag of phones to Oates behind the counter. Maxine finished her coffee and left. Nobody ever found the wreckage of the black car, or Dwight and his partner in crime. No cop ever swung by her family’s little house again.

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Faber #2, Graphite

Sometimes husbands take it well. This one cornered Mason at the roadhouse, drove a pencil up his ear canal. Registered disappointment when it hit bone, stopped. Mason dropped like an abbatoir steer, his newest girlfriend shouting, “Murderer!” Quieter husbands drink the lemonade when handed lemons. Historically an abundance of wrecked homes accrue, then Mason moves for safety reasons. Normally in time. Straight men fetishize women’s legs, their behinds, Mason grooves on wedding bands. Forever diamonds—an irresistible challenge. An enraged cuckold penetrates the rogue’s ear drum, sends a deep, direct message. Received. First stop, E.R., then find a moving van.

toddmercerTODD MERCER won the Dyer-Ives Kent County Prize for Poetry in 2016, the National Writers Series Poetry Prize for 2016, and the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts Flash Fiction Award for 2015. His digital chapbook, Life-wish Maintenance,appeared at Right Hand Pointing. Mercer’s recent poetry and fiction appear in: 100 Word Story, Bartleby Snopes, Blast Furnace, Eunoia Review, The Fib Review, The Ekphrastic Review, EXPOUND, Flash Frontier Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Fried Chicken and Coffee, The Lake, The Magnolia Review, Plum Tree Tavern, Postcard Shorts, Softblow Journal, Star 82 Review and Two Cities Review.

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Grandma Gone Out of Breeden West Virginia, poem by Tiff Holland

At home, the chicken coop was more sturdy
than this house where the women gathered
like hens around the grandmother in the box,
my mother’s gram, laid out there in the front room,
surrounded by the flowers that grew in the hills.

I turned eight that day and no one remembered.
They were thinking about death, but I was worried
About the Cuyahoga-sized crick, about squatting
over the hole in the outhouse out back.

There might be snakes like the ones in the service,
relatives I didn’t know swaying like the snakes
they held, while I blinked and blinked, certain
it was a bad dream, waiting for the birthday cake
that had to come, trying to keep my balance
on the rope bridge between the crick’s banks
knowing it was the only way back.

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