The Furious Gazelle

Literary as hell.

Month: January 2015

Mindless Idiots by Sean Silleck

MINDLESS IDIOTS

By Sean Silleck

 

 

When the zombies first showed up, our building’s fire safety director told us to shelter in place. Then he told us to go to staircase A, where we must’ve waited half an hour. Then he told us to proceed to elevator bank F, so we did, a few of us glancing at our watches. That was the last time we heard from the fire safety director.

For almost an hour we waited in front of elevator bank F, and then Chuck, one of our associate creative directors, couldn’t take it anymore. There was a client call at noon, and he had to be on it. If the latest round of client changes didn’t arrive by this afternoon, we’d never be able to revise our pieces in time for next Friday’s launch date. We were already going to have to work really late as it was—even without the delay caused by the zombies.

In groups of twos and threes we started to drift back into the agency. We still had power and running water, so the zombie invasion couldn’t have been that bad. The kitchenette was well stocked. We had enough food and coffee to last a couple weeks, so there was no reason we couldn’t get back to work—as long as the client changes came in on time.

A few of us gathered at the window in reception to see what was happening outside. It was very quiet along the avenue, just a lot of paper swirling and twisting in the wind, half a dozen cars with their windows smashed in, and occasionally a couple zombies staggering along, searching for human flesh.

“They look so lost,” said Mindy, our account lead. “I almost feel bad for them.”

“I wonder if deep down they’re really just sad,” Brian, the junior copywriter, said. “You know, being undead and all.”

“It’s like they know something in their lives is missing, but they don’t know what it is,” commented Becky, an art director. “That’s why they’re so sad.”

“And they’re trying to fill the emptiness by eating human flesh,” added Regina, our new proofreader. “I do the same thing with Chips Ahoy.”

“Don’t waste your pity on a bunch of mindless idiots,” cut in Chuck, with a frown. “We have work to do, people—or have you all forgotten we’re launching next Friday?”

He was right—there was so much to do. First, we had to barricade all the exits in case the zombies got into the building and up to our floor. Then we had to route the new logo, which the client had approved last week with one major change.

The client, a large west coast–based juice company, wanted the mauve slash at the bottom of the logo made darker, so it more closely resembled the color of acai juice. They felt that mauve was closer to the color of pomegranate juice, which was not one of their products. Of course nothing could have been further from the truth. Everyone knows that pomegranate juice is a deep red, not even remotely mauve, but the client was firm—the logo had to change.

Which totally sucked, because it was on every piece we were creating.

No one in the agency had been in a good mood, even before the zombies showed up.

At exactly noon we all shuffled into the main conference room for the client call. After the usual banalities, Joe, the client’s director of marketing, said:

“So, are you guys all okay? We’ve heard about the zombies. It’s all over CNN.”

“Thanks so much for your concern,” replied Mindy, leaning close to the speakerphone. “We’re fine here. No worries. We’re still really excited about next Friday’s launch.”

“Oh, that’s such a relief,” Joe said. “We were really worried. It’s just … if we have to delay the launch, we’re going to be in really big trouble. Tropicana is putting out two new products next month, and if our campaign isn’t out in the world by then, it’s going to be real tough catching up.”

“Oh, no worries,” Mindy repeated, smiling really wide, even though the feed was audio only. “We’ve got your back, Joe. And, by the way, the new logo looks amazing. The dark mauve was absolutely the right call. We’ll send you a new PSD by end of day.”

“Great, perfect. Thanks, guys,” Joe said. “Anyway, we know you’ve got a ton of work, so we’ll keep this short. We just have one more comment, and we’re hoping it’s not too late to work it into the single-page ad.”

A tense silence descended over the conference room. This was the moment in a client call that everyone dreaded, the moment a client decided they wanted to do something not in the original scope of work. Something that meant another all-nighter for us.

“If you’ve got any ideas, we’d love to hear them,” Chuck said, and then shook his head, mouthing the words, “what the fuck?”

“Well, we’re thinking—you know how in the ad, there’s the girl in the park, and the sun is shining behind her while she drinks our juice? Well, we’d love to get a dog in there. Cheryl, who’s here with me, was looking at some numbers earlier, and she saw a clear response spike in ads that have dogs in them. People really relate to them, you know? Cheryl, do you want to speak to those numbers?”

“Hi, guys, Cheryl here,” Cheryl announced cheerfully. Cheryl was the client’s chief marketing strategist. “Just want to say that we think the team over there is doing a fantastic job. We love the campaign so far, we really love it.”

“Oh, that’s so nice to hear,” Mindy said. “Thank you, Cheryl.”

“You bet. So, yeah, I was going over some numbers this morning, and it just hit me, so clearly, this spike in response rates to ads that have a dog in them. Just, like, wow. You know? Everyone loves dogs. Of course, we know it’s too late now, but down the road, maybe in Q3, we’d love to do some kind of viral video with dogs playing with each other, and just, you know, jumping around and doing really silly things. That could be a lot of fun.”

“Great idea,” Mindy said, wincing. “We’ll absolutely put a brief together. But let’s get back to the single-page ad for just a moment. What kind of dog were you thinking about?”

“Well, I ran some additional numbers,” Cheryl said. “Of course retrievers are off the charts, but since we’re more of a niche juice, and have a very loyal customer base that our research shows has a very independent streak, we think something like a Boston terrier would be the perfect thing.”

“A Boston terrier?” Mindy said.

“Is that doable?” Joe asked.

“Well, you know we’ve already done the photo shoot,” Chuck said, grinding his teeth. “And with the zombie situation, we’re probably not going to be able to set up another one in time to make next Friday’s launch date.”

“Oh, we don’t want another photo shoot—the budget’s getting a little thin at this point,” Joe replied, with a laugh. “No, we’re just wondering if it’s possible to do the dog digitally, you know, add another layer to the PSD file—something along those lines.”

Becky, the art director, looked like she was going to be sick. “I can see if I can dig up some stock images,” she said, weakly. “I could probably have a few choices to send over by end of day.”

“That would be fantastic,” Joe said. “Becky? Is that Becky who was speaking?”

“Yup, it’s Becky,” Becky said.

“Thanks, Becky, we really appreciate it.” Joe cleared his throat. “So that’s all we’ve got for now. We’ll hang around long enough today to look at the next set of revisions, and then get any comments back down to you by this evening. How does that sound?”

“That sounds like a plan, Joe,” Mindy said. “Thanks so much.”

“You bet,” Joe said. “And be careful, guys. Let us know if the zombie situation gets worse. We’d hate for anything terrible to happen to you.”

“We really appreciate the concern,” Mindy said. “But we’re fine. We’re a hundred and ten percent committed to hitting next Friday’s launch date.”

As soon as the clients had ended the call, Chuck threw up his hands. He was incredibly angry. He looked like he was ready to join the zombies and start eating human flesh.

“Mindless fucking idiots,” he seethed. “Add a fucking dog! What a load of horseshit.”

“It’s going to be really hard to put a dog in the ad,” complained Becky, her fingers working nervously through a clump of her bright red hair. “We’ll have to put the art back into retouching. It’s going to take days to get it back.”

“Let’s keep what we’ve got, and just try to mock up a basic dog option,” Mindy said, in her soothing account person’s voice. “Just a new PSD for now. We won’t worry about retouching until after we send it to the client.”

This helped calm Becky, at least for the moment.

Back at our desks—all of us with two or three jobs in our queue—it was really hard to concentrate with the moaning of the zombies outside. It was a creepy sound, both menacing and forlorn. A lot of us had already been having concentration problems, ever since we’d moved into the new office with its open-floor seating plan. The concept was supposed to foster creative thinking and team unity, but all it really did was shred people’s nerves. The distractions were constant. Someone’s phone would start ringing while they were away from their desk. Or someone would be playing music from the 80s loud enough for you to know it was the Go-Gos but not which song. Or someone would actually have a conference call and speak in a horrible whisper.

With the moaning of the zombies on top of everything else, we were really struggling to get our work done.

Sometime around dinnertime, just as we were signing off on the last piece to incorporate the new logo, Chuck called us all into the conference room and laid a printout of the new logo on the table in front of us. We all waited nervously for him to say whatever it was he was going to say.

“It’s no good,” he said, finally, chewing on his lower lip. “It looks like shit. The dark mauve is ridiculous.”

He was right. The lighter mauve had worked really well with the other colors in the logo, but this darker tone somehow unbalanced the whole thing. The anxiety around the conference table was palpable.

“It’s what the client requested,” Mindy pointed out, her eyebrows arched. “I don’t think it’s that bad, Chuck. I think we can leave it.”

“Mindy, it’s a piece of shit.” Chuck put his hands on his hips and shot her a challenging look. “We took six months building the first logo. We put it through market research. It went through like eight client reviews. You change one color, and the whole thing goes down the shitter.”

“Then we should have expressed our concerns earlier.” Mindy spoke softly but firmly. She couldn’t have weighed more than 105 pounds but she was tougher than anyone in the agency. She ran a marathon every weekend, usually the kind where you had to swim through muddy culverts and crawl over barbed wire. To her, the zombies were probably just a minor irritant. “It’s too late to revisit this now,” she said, looking hard at Chuck.

“I did express my concerns. But no one listened, as per usual.” Chuck threw up his hands. He looked really pale and unhealthy, probably from working such crazy hours. He glowered at Mindy with bloodshot eyes. “But I’m only the ACD, so what does my opinion matter around here?”

And then he stormed out of the room, grumbling to himself.

“You don’t have to bite my head off,” Mindy called after him, angrily.

“He’s right,” Becky said in a small voice, after we’d all listened to Chuck rage down the hall and loudly slam his office door. “It doesn’t look good.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Mindy said, in a harsh voice. “It’s too late. Someone should’ve spoken up rounds ago. I don’t have a problem with this logo. It’s exactly what the client asked for.”

That was the end of the discussion. None of the rest of us had any desire to go toe to toe with Mindy. It was only the art people who cared about the logo, truth be told. The copywriters, account execs, proofreaders and project managers didn’t have any thoughts about anything other than how to survive this launch. We were all at our wit’s end. If the tension in the agency got any worse, someone really was going to get bitten.

And then we found out that the zombies had gotten into the building.

A little after eleven, Brian, the junior copywriter, stood up from his desk, a weird expression on his face. “Did you guys hear that?” he said. “What the fuck was that?”

We all gathered around his desk and listened. For a moment there was only silence. Then we heard it. A scraping noise, coming from the floor below us. It was accompanied by a banging and a grinding. Then we heard the moaning, and we knew.

“Shit, they’re in the office downstairs,” Regina, the proofreader, said. “That means they’re probably in the stairwell.”

We all rushed over to stairwell A. Sure enough, we could hear shuffling, lethargic footsteps on the concrete steps on the other side of the fire door. Accompanied, as usual, by the despondent moans of the walking dead.

“They’re going to get in,” Regina cried, backing away from the door, one hand to her mouth. “We can’t keep them out.”

“The door is really well sealed,” Brian said, checking the bike chain we’d fastened between the door handle and a thick water pipe next to it. “No one’s getting in this way. We’re fine.”

“They won’t go away.” Regina’s eyes had taken on the classic thousand-yard stare. Her mouth was as round as a donut hole. “Their desire is insatiable. And we’re the object of that desire.”

Brian shook his head. It was hard to tell whom he was more annoyed with, Regina or the zombies. “It’s a fucking Kryptonite lock. Schwarzenegger couldn’t get through that door.”

It did look pretty solid. We all took turns giving it a shake, and then exchanged encouraging nods.

It was a charade, of course. As we shuffled back to our desks, staring wide-eyed at nothing, we all felt incredibly self-conscious, knowing that an inch and a half of steel was all that separated us from a horde of flesh-eating zombies. It was going to be a really long night.

We worked as long as we could, and then took turns going into the small conference room, which we’d turned into a nap room. We’d already used it once as a nap room the first time we worked overnight, three or four weeks ago, finalizing the launch pieces ahead of the first client review. We just had to put the cots back together again and lay out clean blankets. Half of us slept (or tried to sleep), while the other half stayed awake to watch for zombies and field any client calls that came in. None of us got a good night’s sleep. When the light of dawn finally showed through the main window, we were all half dead.

After breakfast, there was more bad news. Becky couldn’t find a Boston terrier in any of the stock photo databases. All she could come up with were a pug, a French bulldog, a miniature boxer and a black and white Chihuahua.

“Wait, that’s not a Boston terrier?” asked Mindy, standing to one side of Becky’s iMac and pointing at the image of the French bulldog.

“No, it’s not.” Becky shook her head, sadly. “I double checked the database. It’s a French bulldog, for sure. Not a Boston terrier.”

“Okay, because it looks exactly like a Boston terrier.” Mindy nibbled distractedly on her thumb as she spoke.

“Boston terriers have a longer nose,” Brian offered. “And their ears aren’t as wide. My aunt had a Boston terrier once. They’re great dogs.”

“Can you call her?” Mindy spun around toward Brian. “Can she email us a picture of it?”

“She died years ago—my aunt, I mean.” Brian shrugged, and then frowned. “Hey, you don’t think she’s a zombie now, do you? That would be really fucked up.”

Mindy rolled her eyes and turned back to Becky’s computer. “Fuck it,” she said. “Let’s go with the French bulldog. The client will never know the difference.”

“Are you sure?” Becky asked, in a nervous voice. “What if they do notice? I don’t think we should lie to the client.”

“I don’t care. Just do it.” Mindy tore a long hangnail off her thumb and then spit it across the room. “I don’t give a shit anymore.” She stalked back to her desk.

While Becky worked on getting the French bulldog into an alternate version of the single-page ad, some of us gathered by the window to check on the situation outside.

Someone had noticed that one zombie never left the block, but instead wandered from one corner to the next and then back again, as if he were pacing. He was an older guy, judging by the white hair and the curve of his spine, and he was dressed in a pinstripe suit that had lost one sleeve and one pant leg. Even though he was undead, he still had a kind of dignity in the way he shuffled up and down the street—you could easily imagine him walking with a cane. We called him Winston.

“I wonder where he used to work,” Regina said. “Looks like a lawyer.”

“I used to see him getting a sandwich in the corner deli,” said Rasheed, our senior website developer. “Like, every day almost. The same sandwich, ham and provolone on rye. He was like clockwork.”

“Yeah, probably a financial guy,” commented Brian, leaning his elbows on the sill. “Those guys love a good routine.”

“Maybe that’s why he looks so unsure of himself,” added Kendra, one of the administrative assistants. “Deep down he doesn’t know what to do, because his routine is gone. That’s why he can’t leave the block. He thinks he needs to order his sandwich.”

“I don’t think he was in finance,” commented Angelo, a freelance production guy. “I’m pretty sure he was in advertising. I think I remember him from when I worked at McCann. He was one of the senior partners.”

We all agreed that, whoever he was, Winston was probably very sad, and we all felt kind of sorry for him, at least until Chuck came lumbering down the hall, grumbling and grunting, and sent us all scurrying back to our desks.

The work was endless, or so it seemed, and at this point, completely brainless. The new logo had been placed in every job, so now we were just checking to make sure nothing had fallen off in the process. It was just proofreading now, checking for bad line breaks and shifted art elements. The content of the pieces was all set. We figured one more round, and then we’d have a group sign-off and basically be done. We’d hit next Friday’s launch date with no problem.

Over the next 24 hours, the mood of the agency improved dramatically. Becky was able to create a pretty good alternate version of the single-page ad—the dog really looked like it was trotting happily along next to the lady drinking juice in the park. Anyone who didn’t know would’ve thought the dog had been there all along. And we hated to admit it, but the client was right. We all felt better seeing the dog in the picture. It made the whole ad warmer and fuzzier.

When Mindy hit the send button on her email, we couldn’t help applauding.

It was then, for the first time, that we could start thinking about the end of the launch—about getting our old lives back. The zombies didn’t even bother us so much. Listening to the creepy shuffling and moaning sounds coming from stairwell B—in addition to stairwell A now—we weren’t as freaked out as we’d been before. We could deal with it, knowing we didn’t have to stagger back to our desks and bury ourselves in half a dozen jobs. And we were no longer so worried about running into Chuck in the hallways and getting chewed out for not working hard enough. The work was done.

We all assumed the next client call would be a breeze, just a final approval of all the core launch pieces, but we could tell immediately by Joe’s tone that something wasn’t right. He spoke in a dull, lifeless monotone.

“Hey, guys,” he said, glumly. “Oh, boy. You all are going to kill us.”

Everyone in the room exchanged at least one glance. We all had that bloated feeling in our guts that accompanies the realization of imminent doom.

“What’s on your mind, Joe?” Mindy asked, clutching herself around the middle as she leaned in toward the speakerphone. “I’m sure it’s not that bad.”

“I’m afraid it is, Mindy,” Joe said. “Turns out you guys had it right the first time. Looking at the latest revisions you sent over yesterday, it just hit us all at once … well … the logo just doesn’t work anymore. The mauve is too dark. And, you know what? That’s totally on us. We don’t blame you guys at all. Absolutely one hundred percent our doing.”

No one on our side said a word. We were too shocked. A couple of us wore weird smiles, little rictuses of death, as Joe’s words slowly ate their way through our brains.

On the far side of the conference table, Chuck leaned all the way back in his chair and stared open-mouthed at the ceiling. He looked like someone had just killed him.

“Ah, so, we were just wondering,” Cheryl cut in. “Did you guys archive the last round? Would it be that hard to just go back to those versions? Like, use Time Machine or something? Is that doable?”

Mindy was the first of us to speak. She looked like she’d been infected with some sort of wasting disease. Her eyes were wide and unfocused. The color had drained out of her cheeks. Her shoulders were unevenly slumped. “It’s just, we’ve been through several rounds since we swapped out logos,” she said, tonelessly, into the speakerphone. “So, actually, we’d have to create a whole new round, and then load in the old logo, and then review each job carefully to make sure nothing fell off or that any of the current logos were missed—so we’re looking at a fair amount of work here. At least if we’re still thinking about next Friday’s launch date.”

“We’ll absolutely pay for the overtime,” Joe said. “A hundred and ten percent.”

“Oh, God, yes,” agreed Cheryl, in a slightly hysterical voice. “Whatever support we can give you. We’ll be here till at least six o’clock tonight, so don’t hesitate to run some ideas past us—any best practices you guys have that might help us all work smarter, not harder. We’re all ears.”

“Thanks, Cheryl. That’s very kind of you.” Mindy grimaced as she composed her next words. “We’ll do whatever we have to do to hit that launch date—no worries there. It’s just, you know, any more changes, especially global changes, and we’re not going to be able to make that guarantee. You know?”

“We hear you, loud and clear,” Cheryl said. “This logo thing is totally our fault. And we really appreciate you guys taking the time to make the fix. Thank you so much. We won’t have any more changes, we promise. Let’s just get this done, and hit that launch date next Friday. What do you say?”

“Yup, sounds great,” Mindy intoned.

“We just have one more question,” Joe said, after an awkward moment of silence. “We got the alt version of the single-page ad—thanks very much. The dog looks great, but we just wanted to confirm, are you guys sure that’s a Boston terrier? We think it might be a French bulldog.”

Mindy looked like someone was chewing on her leg. She bit her lip so hard a small trickle of blood ran down over her chin. She wiped it away with the back of her hand and took a deep, wheezy breath.

On the other side of the room, Becky got up without a word and tottered out of the room, one hand held out in front of her, as if she’d lost part of her vision. We all watched her go, our mouths slung open, but none of us spoke. What was there to say? We weren’t going to make the launch date next Friday—not if we had to update the logo again. We all knew it, but of course we weren’t going to say it to the client. We couldn’t. So we all just looked at each other, swaying from side to side, our arms dangling, our brains numb.

Then we heard someone coming down the hall, a slow but steady pace, one foot dragging behind the other, and we all turned at the same moment toward the open conference room door.

Somehow, even before he appeared in the doorway, we all knew it was Winston.

 

 

 

Sean Silleck has worked in advertising for over a decade, and so far has not had to resort to eating human flesh. He has been previously published in the Brooklyn Rail, Short Story Library and Pantheon Magazine, and is currently working on a novel about the first advertising agency on Mars.

Poetry by Lucas Campbell

Qi

 

Lavender silk rains from above,

but there’s no longer a God to worship.

 

Instead we decide to worship the sky.

Sifting through purple waves, we find stars waiting.

 

I think they are patient mothers.

You think they are lanterns lighting our way.

 

We both agree that we can hear them

mourning. They are only meant to be felt

like dry ice filled with dying matter.

The separation between stars above

 

and ground below is little more than wind.

The sky sends a phoenix and a dragon

for us to behold. The emptiness swallows both

and spits out a new color that is sharp

at the edges, but burning at the center.

 

Shifting under our feet, the world

molts and we accept it. Cracked dirt gives way

to rising lakes. We try to name creation,

but only your tongue moves.

I am silent.

 

 

 

A Sage of Dreams

-to Li Bai

 

 

I love wine more than myself.

A red river like blood runs

through me as it ran through

you. When my mind fills

with the metal of war, I can empty it

 

into a cup. I don’t much care

for sitting with flowers and trees

on nights like this, but there’s comfort

in the moon. The moon’s light

embraces the dark and creates

 

a shadow. I turn towards it and imagine

that you’ve come to drink. I raise my glass

to you, and we make a toast to the moon.

There is no singing or dancing, though.

Spring has vanished and taken you

 

and your joy. I’m too drunk to care

that you’ve left me. The soft grass invites

my eyes to close, but I try to look through

blurred vision to find your River of Stars

floating in a sea of pearls. Instead, I see

 

the moon and her light flood the sky

and merge with the night water below.

Now I understand why you grasped

for the moon with your arms.

In her light there is an endless sleep.

 

 

Massacre

 

 

Can you tell me God’s name? I think I’ve forgotten it in the grass. Monsters take out their knives to carve out shrieking chests. I dream that each blade mourns for Sơn Mỹ.

 

“I’m alive,” says the child.

 

All of her ancestors were on the wrong end of a gun. She looks into my face, but I don’t demand anything. I’m tired of everyone preaching about freedom. It’d be better to go look at the headstones of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and some 500 villagers.

 

“Who are you?” she asks me.

 

My mouth won’t answer sweetly; instead I talk with my eyes. I try to say I am from a place of trees, passion, and fire. I think those are related somehow, but I can’t put it together. The sunlight in her eyes fades. My words can’t seem to stop the clouds from coming.

 

“You’ll be fine,” I say.

 

I look for some salvation, but there is no one left to ask. I turn to America, to God, to the masses. They all turn away from me, so I turn to the jungle instead. The trees offer me the compassion of fruit, but leave none for the girl. All that’s left is heat beating down on my shoulders and mud sticking to my boots.

 

 

The Tet Offensive

 

 

The vase went missing

years ago, during the hunting

season. My uncle swore it was lost

in the Gulf of Tonkin.

I think he lost it in Saigon,

but I let his unrelenting waves

beat against my side.

His furniture fled

from the mermaids

as they rode in on green tides

and into our beige walls, leaving

a taste of ash in my mouth.

The family portraits waited

patiently to be taken

by these thieves. Instead,

the paint peeled into sirens

and waited for something new

to happen; maybe like the extinction

of the dinosaur.

I’ve been thinking,

they should have bought

better life insurance before the war.

 

 

Supernova

 

 

When the solar flares woke up,

they stuffed our lungs full of soot

and exiles. Our skin sizzled,

 

or maybe that was just the streets

trying to stop roses from blossoming.

Now those streets stretch on

 

and on and on. Everyone calls it space.

I don’t know if it’s empty enough

for that kind of name.

 

I’m pretty blue,

but I hear that’s the color of heaven.

 

I try to fit my words into infinity,

but I hear that science killed god.

 

I’m not sure what that means,

but I think I’m going to fly out to Mars

where no one gets lost in all-consuming blazes.

 

Everyone calls it the End

of Days, but I don’t know

any myths that end like this.

 

Instead I’ll trust my eyes, filling up

with crimson dust and an old sky

twisted into a slightly new frame.

 

 

 

Lucas Campbell is a poet whose greatest goal is to become a professional vagabond. He currently lives in Ohio, but will always have California on his mind. While he writes about a variety of topics, he has a special place in his heart for madness, wine, and myth.

Sparrows and Mourning Doves by Caitlin Raleigh

Sparrows and Mourning Doves

 

It took Blackbird a moment to recognize the dead man in the marshes.

 

She had to crouch in the mud just beside him to peer at his downturned face, the eyes and mouth open. She would have known it right away had it not looked so bloated and white, like the bubbles in the lake foam just before they popped. The man’s name was Emery Hunt, a friend of her father’s from before they moved out of the city. He had a long face and small eyes with little wrinkles around them. “Kindness wrinkles,” as she’d thought of them. Kindness wrinkles were different from age wrinkles; Emery Hunt was not very old. Yet there were no lines in his waxy skin now, nor much else that matched her memory of his living self.

 

From behind her, the boy’s voice. “Do you think he fell from somewhere?”

 

Still examining, Blackbird made no move to look at him. The back of Emery Hunt’s head was smudged with red-brown, like rust from the chains of an old buoy.

 

“Or did…someone kill him?” The boy was never silent for long. Often in the evenings he rode his bike past her house near Maplewood, calling for her to explore with him, chattering all the while. Blackbird knew his age (nine—five years her junior) but not his name, and after several months it seemed far too late to ask. Sometimes she made up names for him, but in her head he was always “the boy.”

 

At last she stood. The reeds and lapping water tickled her bare feet; she’d taken off her shoes to enter the marsh. For a long moment she’d hesitated on the shore, but in the end felt she had to see the man’s face. Besides, the boy had been frightened and watching. “You shouldn’t have come to me first, you know,” she said quietly. “You should have had your parents call the police.”

 

The boy frowned. With his light eyes and thick, dark eyebrows, it had a comical effect. “I thought you’d want to see.” His eyes darted to the body and back again, as if he thought it would move if he looked away for too long.

 

To him, Blackbird knew, the discovery of a body was a morbid adventure. It was a sign of flattery that he’d thought to show her first. It wasn’t uncommon to see roadkill in the area—raccoons or possums, even a stray cat once or twice—and the boy always told her when he spotted a victim. He would lead her to the site, pedaling far more rapidly than she, and approach the carcass with solemn fascination. She’d watch as he studied it, circling until he thought he knew how the animal had been hit, sometimes even prodding it with a stick. But a human body was different. She was certain there had been no prodding of Emery Hunt. And if there had been, she wouldn’t want to know.

 

She started toward the road, her feet squishing in the muddy grass. “We should go back.”

 

“Who do you think he is?” The boy caught up to her, taking wide and sloppy steps. “Can the police find out who killed him? It couldn’t have been someone from here. Could it?”

 

He’d splashed water all over her legs. “Watch where you’re stepping,” she said. “Do you want the murderer to hear you, Little Elephant?”

 

It was mean, but she couldn’t help herself. The boy frowned again, still distracted by his questions. “How long do you think he’s been there? Maybe—maybe we should stay and look for clues.”

 

“I’ll race you to my house.” And she hopped on her bike before he could refuse, nudging the kickstand back with her heel.

 

The sun sank low over the marsh as she pedaled away, the boy on her heels, orange light washing over the dead man’s body for a moment before edging toward the shore.

******

Her father’s car was in the driveway when she returned. She waved to the boy and went inside, closing the screen door gently behind her.

 

Her father was sitting at the kitchen table with his crossword. “There you are, little bird. Were you on a walk?”

 

She went straight to the fridge. “Yeah, just a short one.” She took out the Styrofoam container, opened it to take out the sandwich and fries inside, and then stuck them in the microwave. “How’s the restaurant?”

 

He shrugged. “The usual business. Listen, when you’re done eating I was thinking we could go out in the boat. Take some binoculars, maybe see if we can spot the heron.” They often saw a heron at the edge of the pier, or skimming the water’s surface with its long body as it flew. A lone and regal bird, it always seemed to be the only one in the world, so that was how they talked about it.

 

“Okay.”

 

After a minute she sat down and began to eat. At first her father went back to his crossword, jiggling the pencil absently between his fingers, then writing a word. He glanced up. “You’re quiet. The food terrible or something?”

 

She smiled, shook her head. “No. It’s good. I’m just hungry.”

 

Maybe she should tell him now, before the police did. Maybe that would be better. Orange light streamed through the window, making her father’s wiry brown hair glow from behind. Blackbird remembered the dark stain on the back of Emery Hunt’s head, and kept silent.

 

Surely it would shock her father to hear of it. He did not need the news of another death, especially that of a friend; he had already lost Blackbird’s mother five years before. She had gone into the doctor’s office for an appointment, and had come out with cancer. Blackbird remembered the hospital room, its white bed with a hundred medical tools attached; and her mother, always a pale person, now so thin and white she looked like an egret or a swan, sitting up with delicate grace as they entered the room. Blackbird’s father had even gotten loans from friends to pay for her treatment. Before, the three of them often went to zoos and museums to see the animals, and to the bird sanctuary where they would picnic and bird watch for hours. One day Blackbird’s mother couldn’t go to those places anymore, and then she couldn’t go anywhere at all, and then she was gone. Afterward Blackbird and her father had moved to their current home in Twin Lakes, which had been handed down to them years before, after his family decided to move away to Michigan. It was only meant to be a summer home, but her father had worked on the insulation and eventually saved enough for a new furnace, so it was perfectly cozy in winter too.

 

It was far from winter now, with sunlight still reaching through the window at dinnertime, and the thick hum of cicadas in the trees, and a lone cricket chirping somewhere below the windowsill.

 

Blackbird ate her sandwich and fries. Her eyes wandered through the doorway to the living room. The black bookshelf, a crinkled and stained copy of Birds of the Midwest facing outward. The other books were always aligned by two bronze gargoyles, but now several books fell forward, a cascade of tiny steps.

 

“Where are the bookends?” she asked with her mouth full, pointing.

 

“Mm?” Her father leaned over to see. “Oh, I dropped one of them. Shattered in more places than you’d believe. I figured the other one’d be lonely by itself.” He flashed her a smile. “Besides, we can use the shelf space. There’s that book fair next week in town, and I could use something besides these puzzles to stare at.”

 

Her father was not a clumsy person. She wondered if afterward he had thrown them into the garbage, or maybe into the lake. She found herself wishing she could see them again.

 

“I’m finished,” she said, standing to put the rest in the fridge. He always brought her big sandwiches with too many fries so that she could have leftovers. “Are you ready?”

 

He stood, with a quiet salute. “Yes, ma’am. You get the binoculars and I’ll meet you outside.”

 

She moved, images of diving kingfishers and sparrows already floating through her mind. Smooth and graceful, they tossed their fish-prey up in the air, crunching down with sudden force. It was funny, watching their dinnertime dance, how easily she could forget about the tiny murders they were committing.

******

It was two days later, biking up Shores Lane, that she passed the cop car in the boy’s driveway.

 

The boy spotted her and waved. His parents stood behind him, talking to a policewoman with short red hair that Blackbird recognized from in town. Blackbird waved back, wishing she were not pumping uphill, because it gave the policewoman plenty of time to call after her. “Excuse me, young lady?”

 

She had to wheel back around to enter the boy’s driveway. Before she could speak the woman continued, “This young man says you’re a friend of his. That true?”

 

Blackbird hoped ‘this young man’ hadn’t said much else. “You could say that.”

 

“And do you know anything about the body he found in the marsh?”

 

She had told the boy not to tell anyone that he had shown her the body first. So he had listened. That meant word couldn’t get back to her father. She would have given the boy an appreciative look, but that would hardly make her seem innocent. “He told me about it. But I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”

 

She was always polite, if not expressive. The policewoman looked puzzled, and Blackbird wondered what the woman would have done if she’d said, There were crickets and thunder the night Emery Hunt visited, and I don’t know where the gargoyle bookends went. “What’s your name?” the woman asked, with an uncertain smile. “And where exactly do you live, if you don’t mind my asking?”

 

“She’s Blackbird,” said the boy, as if the policewoman were a little slow. “It’s her real name, even if it is strange. She lives at the bottom of our hill.”

 

Your hill?” Blackbird favored him with a tiny smile. He had called her name strange a million times, and she didn’t mind—it was a strange name, and not the first she’d heard of it. But it was the name her mother had given her. When she was younger her parents had often played the Beatles song of the same name. They would take each other’s hands on either side of her, forming a Blackbird sandwich, and sway back and forth to the music. Her mother had once told her it had been their wedding song.

 

“So…Blackbird,” the woman said, as if the name tasted funny on her tongue. “Where were you at around two a.m. on Wednesday morning?”

 

Blackbird shrugged. “I’m never up past midnight, ma’am. Is that when it happened?”

 

“Thereabouts.” The woman was writing in her little brown notebook. “We think, since he was found in the lake after all, it’s possible he fell off the side of a boat. Hit his head.” She looked up. “Something hit his head, anyway. We’ll know more soon. Can I speak to someone else in your household?”

 

“There isn’t anyone else home right now. My father’s at work.”

 

“Well, here.” The policewoman pulled a card out of her pocket, handed it to Blackbird. “When your father gets home, have him give me a call. We’ll be by soon, just to ask some routine questions. Nothing to be afraid of.”

 

Blackbird nodded. “Is that all, ma’am?”

 

“That’s it for now. Go on, enjoy your bike ride.”

 

“Wait,” the boy called after her, and made a beeline for his bike. “Are you going to ride down Mount Doom?”

 

Mount Doom was what her family had dubbed the steep hill that led into town. When Blackbird was younger she had often coasted down it, her father on his bike behind her. One day she’d hit a stray pebble while going too fast. The horrible lurch of flying, and then she’d skidded several feet on her stomach, so that bits of gravel embedded themselves into her skin. Back home her mother had wiped the blood that went from her knees to her socks, picked out the gravel and bandaged her. That was before, when Twin Lakes was only a summer home, and there was no cancer. Now Blackbird rode her brakes down the hill, and avoided the gravel.

 

“Maybe,” she said. “Does that mean you want to come?” It wasn’t really a question.

 

The boy pedaled just behind her. “How come you didn’t want that police lady to know I showed you the…the dead man?”

 

She often worried he would clip her back wheel. “Why don’t you ride ahead of me, Roadrunner?”

 

He obliged. “Well?”

 

A kind breeze blew her long dark hair off her forehead as she pedaled upward. “I don’t need to cause any extra trouble for my father,” she said, looking straight ahead.

 

“What kind of trouble? You didn’t do anything wrong.”

 

“But I saw it.” They reached the top of the hill, turned their bikes to enter the development. “Parents worry about their children worrying. Seeing too much, and things like that.”

 

They rode side by side now. The boy looked thoughtful. “My parents get mad if I just come home after sunset. Even if it’s still really light out. When I showed them the body they weren’t mad anymore, but after they called the police they got mad all over again. They told me that’s why I can’t go riding around by myself when it’s getting dark out. But they didn’t know what happened to that man, so how could they know it was dark out when he died?”

 

“Just an assumption. They don’t want you to get hurt.” It was funny, how adults were as convinced as children that terrors came with the darkness. Let the dark keep its secrets, little Blackbird, her mother used to tell her, when she woke from nightmares that made her afraid of her room’s black corners. They won’t hurt you.

 

“I won’t get hurt.” The boy grinned at her suddenly, taking his eyes off the empty road. “I can ride fast and brake fast. No one can catch me or throw me off.”

 

Blackbird saw the grin falter a little. “You’re the best bike rider there ever was,” she agreed, and it grew once more.

 

“Want to race to Mount Doom?” The boy straightened in his seat, fear forgotten.

 

She was not much in the mood for racing. “Okay. You get a head start since your legs are short.”

 

“Nuh-uh.” He frowned his comical frown. “I’m the best bike rider there ever was, so I can beat you anyway.”

 

“Suit yourself,” she said, and waited for him to count off gleefully before pushing down on the pedal. The wind picked up with her speed, as if sweeping her away from something—forever—even if she couldn’t quite place what that something was.

******

Evening in the boat, and the cloud-mottled sunset made a liquid portrait out of the water. Her father let her hold the binoculars as the heron flew overhead, soundless.

 

“I saw a strange bird today,” said Blackbird. “It was blue, but not flat blue like a blue jay. More of a…shiny blue. The way seashells glint in the sun.”

 

“Like a metallic blue?” Her father leaned forward a little, a smile beginning to brighten his face.

 

“That’s the word I wanted.”

 

“Sounds like an indigo bunting. I haven’t seen one here in a few seasons. Where did you see it?”

 

“By the edge of the dead end road inside the development. But then that boy went too close on his bike and scared it away. Oh, and we saw a mourning dove, too.” Mourning doves weren’t rare, but Blackbird loved them anyway. They had been one of her mother’s favorite birds. Blackbird had once thought their name was spelled like ‘morning,’ which didn’t make much sense, since weren’t most birds awake in the morning? Now the real name seemed appropriate, and not just because of the low and melodic coo they made.

 

“Well.” He looked out on the water. “Isn’t this a good bird day.”

 

They sat in silence for awhile, until the sun was only a cap on the heads of the trees. Normally Blackbird liked the silences fine, but as the minutes passed her father grew tense. He would squeeze his knee with one hand, relax, then squeeze again, watching the lake all the while. At last he said, “Blackbird. I assume you’ve seen the cops around, haven’t you?”

 

She nodded.

 

“They came into the restaurant today, just for a few minutes. They—they’ve identified the body of that man. It’s Emery Hunt.”

 

He glanced up at her. Folded his hands, squeezed them together too. She only waited.

 

“Well,” he said. “Remember I told you he left before you woke up that morning? After he’d spent the night?”

 

She remembered.

 

“Well, I’m afraid he and I had a bit of a fight.” Squeeze, squeeze.

 

Please don’t say it, Blackbird thought. I’ll do anything if you would just not say it.

 

“He…wasn’t too keen to be around me, so he decided to catch a late train back to the city. I should have driven him, but I didn’t. He was going to walk into town and hitch a ride to the station the old-fashioned way, I suspect.” His hands were trembling now, even when he squeezed. “I thought he had made it to the train station. I don’t know what happened to him—we’d been drinking a bit, you know, so maybe he fell and hit his head somehow.” He looked up at her, his face contorted, his body slouched. “I’m telling you this, Blackbird, even though I didn’t tell it to the cops. I lied, Blackbird. You understand why, don’t you? How suspicious it all sounds?” He laughed shakily. “You were asleep, and there’s no one else to verify that it’s the truth. So they would suspect me, and maybe even arrest me, and then they would take you somewhere else.”

 

He leaned forward in the boat, taking her small hands in his shaking ones. “You know I would never let anyone take you away from me, little bird. You know that, don’t you?”

 

Let the dark keep its secrets, little Blackbird. “I know, Papa.”

 

“You understand, my girl?” He was still looking at her pleadingly. “You believe me?”

 

It was the hardest thing she had ever done, looking back at him. Harder than seeing Emery Hunt’s bloated face and blood-crusted head, and talking to the policewoman, even harder than two a.m. Wednesday when she’d woken up thirsty.

 

Think of birds, simple pretty birds. Kingfishers and mourning doves and great swans, and the heron, the regal lonely heron. Think of happy sparrows, twittering inside the evergreens.

 

“I understand, Papa.” And she did.

 

“There’s my girl.” For a moment he looked like he wanted to hug her. Instead he brought her hands to his mouth and kissed them, then sat back against the rim of the boat. Several moments passed, but when he spoke again his hands weren’t shaking anymore. “Well now, looks like the sun’s gone down. Shall we head in?”

******

By midnight the thunder had rolled in with the clouds. Blackbird lay awake and listened.

 

Wake thirsty. Kitchen. Two voices, rising. On the floor, shadows tearing. A thud. Then another. Silence. One voice. One voice, gasping, shuddering. Dry mouth. Bedroom window. A paddle on water. Crickets and thunder. Waiting. A boat returning.

 

Wake thirsty. Kitchen. Two voices, rising…

 

She rose from the dream that was not a dream.

 

She thought of the nightmares she’d had when she was little, how she would wake crying out in the darkness. Her mother or father would come to check on her, to smooth her sweaty hair and tell her to go back to sleep. Sometimes she would wake simply frightened, not enough to cry out, but enough to slip into her parents’ room. Even after her mother died, she would draw comfort from sneaking in to see her father, just for a minute, just to hear him say, It’s all right, little bird. Nothing bad will happen to you. It’s all right, Blackbird, go back to sleep. In the morning all will be right again.

Caitlin Raleigh is a crazy redhead who loves all things related to cats, the Beatles, and Christmas. (It’s fitting that her first widely circulated publication contains ‘furious’ in its name.) Her work has also been published in DePaul’s literary magazine, for which she has more recently been the fiction editor. She is currently a graduate student in DePaul’s Writing and Publishing program, and when she isn’t writing her many stories, she’s thinking about them. She lives and breathes equally Chicago, Illinois, and Twin Lakes, Wisconsin.

Blog: caitlinraleigh.wordpress.com

Trip by Carmel L. Morse

Trip

Carmel L. Morse

 

Lark, my artist friend,

my compatriot,

wakes me every Sunday morning,

 

I’m crashing, dear God,
please talk to me.
The flowers are vicious.
Eyes crawl from foreheads
and dark cloaks in corners
are dancing to smother me.
I am dying. Help me.

 

I spend an hour

on the phone

calming her.

 

Imagine a single rose,
swimming in a crystal vase –
petals open in slow motion
like in a movie
and it smells like June,
your birth month.

 

Find a mirror,
look deeply
your green eyes shimmer
like a proud cat
and there are only two,
a pair.
That is all you require.
Pretend that your eyes
are face cards,
two-eyed jacks
In a royal flush..
You can hold them
in your hands.
They are not exchangeable.

 

Walk to your closet,
remove your black cape
with the paisley embroidery,
put it on.
The swirls in the design
create a maze
that takes you on a journey
but the paths always
circle back to you.

 

You are the center
of your universe
that nothing can steal.

 

Your breathing has slowed.
There. There.
You have returned.

 

And Lark promises

she will never again

touch mescaline. Never.

 

But next Sunday

the phone will ring.

 

 

Carmel L. Morse has been writing creatively since she was in her teens. She received a PhD from the University of Nebraska and wrote a creative dissertation of her poetry. She has previously been published in The Connecticut Review, Darkling, Pudding Magazine, and The Great American Poetry Show, among others. She is currently an assistant professor in general studies at the University of Northwestern Ohio in Lima, Ohio.

Ruby Went Riding by Jonathan Joy

Rudy Went Riding was originally written as one of seven monologues in a play titled The Prayer List. That play was originally performed at the Jeslyn Performing Arts Center in Huntington, West Virginia in June 2007 and subsequently at the Clay Center in Charleston, WV as a part of Festiv-ALL Charleston. Travis McElroy played the title role. Since then, it has been performed at theatres in New York City and Asheville, North Carolina. It is also on a waiting list for possible translation and production with the Cluj Theatre in Romania.

 

Ruby Went Riding

Every day, on my break, at 12:15 on the dot I go riding. I hit the downtown streets straddling my turquoise Kazuma Cheetah motorbike. I ride up the fifth street hill and onto the interstate. There I can really let loose. I know I got the kind of hog that motorcycle enthusiasts laugh at. But here, on that stretch of winding highway road between fifth street and the west end of town, maxed out at forty-seven miles per hour, with the wind slicing sharply at my body, I feel right at home. Riding in the slow lane for nine and a half miles with the cool smell of an oncoming rain in my nose and Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory playing on the radio in my mind, I feel alive.

My lunchtime rendezvous with the open road has become a welcome routine. Daily, I pass up the opportunity for a vending machine snack and mindless conversation with my fellow worker bees. Instead, I strap on this helmet, don these sunglasses, tuck my tie snuggly into this bland button up shirt and I bolt for that bike. For thirty-three minutes, my life is my own. For thirty-three minutes, I can escape from that soul sucking office and the endless castigations of a boss half my age with twice my income. It is the best thirty-three minutes of my day, every day. I go out in the wind and the rain, in the snow and the sun. I ride and ride and ride. And it feels good.

In the evening, after work, I go home. It’s only a five minute trip and I wouldn’t dare to be late. At five past five o’clock, I return to a small house in the east end of the city and park my bike safely in the garage. I open the door and enter the house and I return to a wife that barely speaks to me since that drunken Christmas party affair last year. I say hello to two loving children who are both so well-mannered and studious and beautiful that they often make me feel bad about myself. At times, I can’t help but think that they aren’t my children at all. I sit down to a nice dinner prepared by my lovely wife and the entire meal is eaten through an uncomfortable silence that has taken the family years to cultivate to perfection. After dinner, I retire to the living room sofa, which now doubles as my bed, and eventually I fall asleep while watching soft core porn.

 

In the morning, my wife wakes me with a nudge. Not a word, a nudge. I shower and read the paper and eat my Toaster Strudels. I watch my children happily leave for school. Then I leave for work. And the cycle repeats. Work, ride, work, home, dinner, TV, sleep.

Everyday has progressed this way for a long, long time. Until now. My wife told me she was leaving me. She said she was taking the kids and that they would be living with her father in Cumberland for a while. She said it was my fault and that she hated me. She said a lot of things. Her mind is made up. And so is mine. I decided to make some changes. I decided to start living again.

It started at work where I quit my job in a hellacious way. I stormed into my boss’s office and told him that I slept his wife and that his coffee had piss in it and that he could go straight to hell. Security escorted me outside where I hopped on my bike and ripped my shirt off and rode all around town. And every time somebody stared at me or snickered just a little bit in my general direction I would stop and scream at the top of my lungs, “What are you looking at? Do you want to die today?” I got my ass kicked three times. And it felt good. It felt good to feel something again.

 

I rode that bike out of town. I didn’t know where I was going. I just rode for hours. I stopped at a gas station for fuel and corn dogs. I decided to take up smoking. I chugged a Colt 45 at 2:30 in the afternoon and then I hit the road again. I rode until I couldn’t ride anymore. I spent the night in Aberdeen with a hooker named Marcel. I did forty push ups. I took a shower. I fell asleep.

The next day I bought a gun at Wal-Mart and had a grand slam breakfast at Denny’s. Extra bacon. I robbed a bank and I shot a guy just because I felt like it. I took in a matinee and I ate the super large popcorn with extra, extra butter. I cried at the end of the movie. I went to a biker bar where I hustled some guys at pool and drank until tequila was coming out of my ears. Benjamin Franklin was playing the bongo drums in a corner while six penguins were dancing the electric slide. I drank some more and then I passed out in the bathroom in a pool of my own vomit.

The next thing I knew I was steering my chopper down the streets of L.A. when a damsel in distress stopped me for help. It was Halle Berry. Her car had broken down. I gave her a ride home and she was real appreciative and asked if I wanted to go out later and party with her and Marylyn Manson and the Energizer Bunny. I said sure. That’d be cool. But only if zombie Elvis can come too.

Then I woke up. At home. On my couch. It was all a dream. And my wife was there. And Halle Berry wasn’t. And I was okay with that. My kids were eating breakfast. I took a shower. I ate my Toaster Strudels. Before I left for work, I kissed my wife on the cheek and told her that I was sorry. She smiled a little. A good sign. I jumped on my bike and rode to work. For a moment, I thought about riding right past the office and out onto the open road. I thought about telling my boss off. I thought about it. I did. I thought about going home and making some grand romantic gesture to win back my wife’s trust. Instead, I went to work, clocked in and started another day. Three more hours until my break. I can’t wait.

 

Jonathan Joy is the author of 25 plays, including “The Princess of Rome, Ohio”, “American Standard”, the “Bitsy and Boots” series, and over a dozen one acts that are regularly produced. His work has been staged in 12 US states, from countless productions in his home state of West Virginia to Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway stages in New York City, and overseas in France and Dubai. Publications and features include the New York Times, Smith and Krauss, Brooklyn Publishers, Southern Theatre magazine, Insight for Playwrights, the One Act Play Depot in Canada, and more. He has won several regional writing awards and is the only two time winner (2005 & 2008) of the national “Write like Mamet” award sponsored by the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. His books have topped the Amazon charts in Theatre, Drama, Political Humor, and Christian Literature categories. Mr. Joy is an English/Writing Professor at Ashland Community and Technical College in Ashland, Kentucky, where he enjoys his dream job and has been nominated for Teaching Excellence Awards five straight years. He is the son of James Edward Joy, a Biology professor once described by a colleague as, “…the conscience of Marshall University for forty years…” and Susan Karnes Joy, a retiree of the Corps of Engineers and the kind of woman that would gladly take her son out of school early to see “Return of the Jedi” on its opening day in 1983. He is married to his best friend, Rissie, who is a successful Scentsy Director (rissiejoy.scentsy.us) and is father to an enthusiastic, playful four year old son, Levi.

Q&A with author Rori Shay

Rori Shay, author of the Elected series, has a new short story in the upcoming anthology Athena’s Daughter’s 2, an all-female sci-fi and fantasy anthology from Silence in the Library Publishing. Athena’s Daughter’s 2 is now available for pre-order.

We talked to Rori Shay about her writing process, her influences, and her upcoming work.

 

Q: Could you tell us a bit about your upcoming story “The Pendant” in Athena’s Daughter’s 2?

A: Sure!  It’s a prequel to the ELECTED trilogy.  It’s about a mom who’s asked to give up her most valuable possession to aid in her son’s quest.  The thing is, she doesn’t agree with what her son’s about to do, and his quest leaves the country without a leader.  It’s a story about duty versus desire and a mother’s love.
Q: Your short story “The Pendant” is based on a longer work of yours, “ELECTED.” How do you approach a short story differently than a novel?

A: It is a totally different process.  For the longer novels, of which there are three in the Elected Series, I wrote a detailed outline for each one.  For the short story I just had an idea of what would happen and got right into writing.

 

Q: Do you have any advice for authors who are struggling to write their first novel?

My advice for first time authors is to create an outline.  It doesn’t have to be much, just the bare bones of the story.  Then keep adding to it, and make breaks for chapters after anything major happens.

 

Q: Do you remember the first piece of sci-fi you ever wrote? What was it about and when did you write it?

A: Yep, it was ELECTED.  Before that book, I’d only ever written children’s picture books and a women’s fiction novel.  I got really into the dystopian books for YA and decided to create my own in which I delved into the science.  I got tired of reading about dystopias where you had to guess how the earth was ruined.  I wanted to tell readers exactly how it happened and weave in climate change as an important topic.

 

Q: What are some of the books that you read growing up? How do you think they influenced your later writing, if they did?

A: Roald Dahl.  I’ve read almost everything he’s written, and his style and creativity definitely influenced my writing.

 

Q: What do you suggest we do to increase representation of women in sci-fi and fantasy?

A: Read them!  Support them!  Let them know that men aren’t the only techy sciencey people who can write sci-fi and fantasy!  Women can write it too!  Girl Power!

 

Rori Shay is a strategic management consultant living in the Seattle area with her family, black lab, and cat.  In the writing world, Rori is primarily know for her science fiction trilogy,The Elected Series.  She enjoys running, reading, snow-shoeing, pumpkin-picking, and right now…writing the third ELECTED novel!  Rori is also a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

You can follow Rori on Twitter at @RoriShayWrites or email her directly at rorishay(@)gmail (dot)com.

“PLEASE DO!” by Alan Swyer

Alan Swyer
“PLEASE DO!”

Please don’t, over time, had come to assume multiple meanings in the lives of the Harrises. First and foremost was the original: a pleading or urging from Rebecca that Kenny not explode, as he did often, though never at her. Then there was a softer version: as in No more tickling, or Maybe it’s not a good idea to buy that cheesecake, or I don’t really need that birthday present we can’t afford. Finally, on those rare occasions when the two of them were on the verge of a argument, a spat, or some kind of squabble, it became their safe phrase, whose invocation or utterance was enough to turn a potential dispute into a moment of shared laughter.
In the eyes of their friends, the Harrises were not simply an unlikely couple. They were almost separate species. Rebecca was calm, soft-spoken, and understanding, albeit with a kind of patrician New England remove that some mistook for aloofness. Kenny, in contrast, was loud, gregarious, and upbeat, yet capable of the kind of volatility that quickly revealed his blue collar New Jersey roots.
When confronted by a wrong or an injustice – something as insignificant as a driver cutting him off, or a jerk ignoring the wait-your-turn code at their favorite LA burger joint; or worse, something as heinous as racial prejudice or bullying – Kenny turned into a man possessed. With words or with fists, he became fearless, relentless, indomitable.
Kenny’s outbursts were a frequent sore point early in his relationship with Rebecca – one that failed to diminish as days turned to months, then months to years. Though she appreciated his willingness to fight for his rights, or theirs, plus his readiness to stick up for an underdog, Rebecca, was, and probably always would remain, uncomfortable with controversy or confrontation. More importantly, in a world where far too many hotheads were armed, she felt there was valid reason to fear for Kenny’s life.
As different as they were in background and temperament, Rebecca and Kenny shared a surprising number of loves and interests. Food, from haute cuisine to pastrami, and from pizza to treats from Burma, Ethiopia, and far-off provinces of China, provided a never-ending source of adventure and joy. As did films, whether by Godard, Bertolucci, Sergio Leone, Sam Fuller, or some new auteur from North Africa or Finland. Add to that their affection for offbeat novels and travel, plus music ranging from John Lee Hooker to Thelonious Monk to the Chambers Brothers, Southside Johnny, Sharon Jones & the DapKings, and even obscure hip-hop, and there was a common ground that was everchanging and seemingly inexhaustible.
With each of them hailing from 3,000 miles away, the two spent considerable time exploring their new environment simply as friends, with Kenny, all the while, enjoying flings not merely with locals, but also with old flames who passed through Southern California.
Inevitably, though, what started as platonic became less so. Then, what was still noncommittal evolved into something deeper and more meaningful, with the two of them ultimately searching for an apartment to share.
The notion of marriage, however, remained not just unspoken, but seemingly farfetched, until a day when Kenny, about to light up a Montecristo cigar smuggled out of Cuba by a friend, playfully tried to place the band on Rebecca’s ring finger.
“Don’t do it unless you mean it,” she said softly.
“What makes you think I don’t?”
“Am I sensing something?”
“Such as?”
“The C word,” she replied.
“You mean crazy?”
“No.”
“Cuckoo?”
“Try again –”
“You don’t possibly mean commitment –”
“Says who?”
Kenny gazed deeply into Rebecca’s eyes. “Well, I’m game if you are,” he then said, surprising not just her, but himself as well.
If either of them had been a believer in omens, the events leading up to their wedding might have made the future seem far too unlikely. Scheduled to take place in a bucolic spot overlooking Rebecca’s cherished coast of Maine, the first sign of trouble came with the arrival of the Matron of Honor, who showed up inconsolable, her husband having dumped her for a Swedish exchange student. Carla’s rage seemed tame, however, once war broke out between two other key figures: Rebecca’s mother and Kenny’s.
Determined to remain above the fray, the bride and groom took to enumerating what they playfully termed their blessings. “At least there’s no hail storm,” Rebecca said at one point. “At least there are no locusts”, Kenny stated at another. Then came, “At least W won’t be President.” And, “At least the Russians haven’t invaded.”
All that, however, was before the area was struck by a hurricane whose devastation caused the governor to declare a state of emergency.
Yet despite the number of invitees who found themselves turned away by highway patrolmen, plus the fact that a grandparent on each side was inadvertently left at a nearby motel, and above all the increased hostility between the two sets of parents, who progressed from exchanging epithets to cold-shouldering each other, the wedding proceeded without setting off nuclear warfare. As did a brief honeymoon in Montreal.
Laden with presents, many of which had little relevance to their lifestyle, the newlyweds then set off on a cross-country drive with the hope of a fresh start.
That lasted until somewhere in Wyoming, when their aged Volvo’s water pump suddenly burst.
Undaunted, they had the car towed into Laramie. There, thanks to Rebecca’s whispered pleas of Please don’t, slights and looks that might otherwise have resulted in explosions passed without serious incident. Thus what might have seemed like three days of interminable waiting instead became a second honeymoon, complete with a rodeo, country music, and loads of chicken-fried steaks.

 

Reaffirmation that their luck might be changing for the better came shortly after the newlyweds finally returned to Los Angeles. Having dreamed aloud about relocating to a nicer part of town, Rebecca and Kenny unloaded their presents, grabbed some much appreciated Thai food, then drove up to the Hollywood Hills. Certain that its rustic feel and scenic views were perfect for them, they were scouring the area in search of rentals when they came upon a guy putting up a For Rent sign.
Within minutes, the newlyweds found themselves paying first and last month’s rent on a small but cozy house that seemed perfect for them.

 

Kenny’s dealings as an up-and-coming producer in the music business, a world infinitely more volatile than Rebecca’s realm of children’s books, provided a measure of satisfaction, as well as a non-stop source of agitation. That, not surprisingly, upped his level of combustibility to the point where Please don’ts came with ever-increasing frequency during their first awkward but never dull year of married life.
Yet despite the constant tension, it was Kenny who remained a much-needed source of positive energy when attempts to have a baby turned their bedroom into a science lab. He was the one who buoyed Rebecca’s spirits each time the arrival of her period risked becoming a cataclysmic setback. And who refused to accept as definitive the ominous
reports given to them by fertility specialists. And, most significantly, who engendered Please don’ts from his wife whenever someone dared broach the subject of settling for adoption.
“Conventional wisdom,” Kenny stated after a session with a particularly vexing physician, “is nothing more than accepted ignorance.”
“Which means?” Rebecca asked.
“Fuck him!”
Not only would the two of them neither give up nor give in, Kenny insisted not once, not twice, but so enough that it became a mantra – they would ultimately, without any question or doubt, prevail.
When, at last, Rebecca became pregnant, Kenny did not pop the cork from a bottle of Dom Perignon, nor did he gloat. “Now comes the real work,” he announced. So began a program in which he squeezed fresh grapefruit juice daily once it was found to bethe only valid antidote to Rebecca’s morning sickness. And smoked a turkey breast each week to guarantee a tasty and ever-ready source of protein. And, once it was time, made their weekly Natural Childbirth class a highlight, rather than a chore, by discovering a
tasty and affordable Persian restaurant on their way.

 

In keeping with their due diligence, with only six weeks left before the expected day of delivery, Rebecca and Kenny, having conferred with both their Ob/Gyn and their pediatrician, took a tour of the hospital where the birth would presumably take place.
What they found pleased them immensely. Aside from being friendly, uncrowded, and wonderfully calm, the maternity ward had a blissful spirit of cooperation. Rebecca, they were assured, would be able to keep the baby with her at all times. Plus, Kenny would be completely welcome to remain with mom and child twenty-four hours a day.
Despite the uncertainty ahead, the parents-to-be were beyond comforted. Rebecca and Kenny, in fact, were aglow.

 

The remaining time leading up to the expected delivery date was charted and planned in greater detail, as Kenny often joked, than the invasion of Normandy. Nothing, no matter how large or small, went ignored or unscheduled – from the acquisition of a crib, to the food that would be on hand, to the commencement of a diaper service, since, for both ecological reasons and comfort, their newborn would only be touched by cotton. Everything imaginable would be taken care of, acquired, or attended to, in due time. Or
so they thought.

 

It was while headed to a business dinner that Kenny first got a hint that their carefully orchestrated plans might find a way to go awry. Seeing Rebecca’s number come up on his cell phone, he answered quickly thanks to Bluetooth. “How’s my favorite mom-to-be?”
“I t-think I had a contraction,” Rebecca announced nervously.
“But we’re close to four weeks away.”
“I know, but –”
“Want me to come home?”
“Just be on stand-by,” Rebecca said.
“You need me, I’m yours.”
“Meanwhile, I’ll call Dr. Roth.”

 

Having checked in a couple of times during the course of the evening, Kenny phoned again once seated behind the wheel of his car. Reassured that there was no need to break land and sea speed records, he arrived home in time to find Rebecca filling a cupboard with what looked like a year’s supply of recently purchased rolls of paper towels.
“Somebody nesting?” Kenny asked.
“Don’t be silly.”
“So what did Roth say?”
“He didn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s out of town.”
“Jesus!”
“But I spoke to the doctor filling in, and he said it was probably just the baby moving.”
“Really?”
“Or that it might have been a twitch.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“In any event, I feel fine. Get you something?”
“A good night’s sleep after all the yak-yak over dinner.”
“Plus maybe a little too much wine?”
“Me?” Kenny asked guiltily before yanking off his clothes and tumbling tipsily into bed.

 

Despite barely being able to touch the rim, Kenny was dreaming that he was dunking one-handed over Kobe Bryant when suddenly he was awakened by a hand rubbing his head.
“I think my water broke,” Rebecca said sheepishly as Kenny sat up.
“H-how can you tell?” he mumbled.
“The bathroom’s a swamp.”

 

With Kenny having done his best to fight off drowsiness by running water over his head, he and Rebecca burst forth moments later from their hillside lair to head toward the hospital.
“Everything’ll be fine,” Kenny said as he navigated his way through streets that were blissfully free of traffic after midnight. “Everything’ll be just fine.”
“You trying to convince me, or yourself?” Rebecca couldn’t help asking.
“Both.”
In contrast to the serenity during their exploratory visit, what they found at the hospital’s maternity ward was bedlam.
“What’s going on?” asked Kenny once they made their way through the crowd at Admissions.
“Happens every year at this time,” replied the harried staffer.
“How come?”
“It’s September 26th.”
“So?”
“Nine months and a day after Christmas. So where do things stand?”
“My water broke,” explained Rebecca.
“Your doctor in the know?”
“I wish,” Kenny interjected none too happily.
“He’s out of town,” Rebecca added. “But the fill-in’s on his way,” Rebecca stated. “And so’s the pediatrician.”
“Hopefully things’ll go easily,” said the staffer despite the chaos around her.

 

Any hope for easily disappeared once the substitute obstetrician, a rumpled but affable guy who introduced himself as Dr. Kornblau, arrived.
“I guess you know we’re talking about footling breech,” he said upon examining Rebecca.
“We know nothing of the sort,” Rebecca mumbled.
“But what’s that mean?” demanded Kenny.
“That the baby’s trying to come out one foot first,” replied Kornblau.
“I know that,” Kenny protested. “I mean for natural childbirth.”
“Well, we can try to turn him.”
“Him?” asked Rebecca.”
“You didn’t have amnio?” queried Kornblau.
“Only to check for birth defects,” Kenny explained. “We want to be surprised.”
“Then him or her,” Kornblau responded.
“And if turning doesn’t do –” Rebecca said haltingly.
“What we hope it’ll do?” said Kornblau, finishing her sentence. “If it seems there’s insufficient dilation –”
“Then?” asked Kenny.
“We’re looking at a C-section,” stated Kornblau without joy.
Once it became clear that despite their hopes and dreams, plus weeks of Persian food followed by natural childbirth classes, their baby would have to enter the world surgically, Rebecca was crestfallen.
“I’m sorry, too,” Kenny whispered as they prepared her for the operation. “But what matters most –”
“Is a healthy baby,” Rebecca affirmed, squeezing her husband’s hand. “But I can still keep it with me, can’t I?”
Kenny turned to the nurse who was doing the prep.
“No problem with that, is there?”
“Not that I know of,” the nurse replied.

 

Shell-shocked from watching Rebecca’s belly sliced open, Kenny was nonetheless thrilled when into the world, peeing in every possible direction, came the newest member of his family.
“Guess it’s the boys’ list of names,” he said to Rebecca, all the while girding himself to cut the umbilical chord.
A nurse carefully cleaned the baby, then handed him to Rebecca to nurse.
Watching with a pride the likes of which he’d never before experienced, Kenny studied his wife, who looked radiant.
But the mood was shattered abruptly when into the room came an officious hospital employee determined to assert her authority.
“Time for the baby to go to the nursery,” the blustery woman announced.
“Beg your pardon?” replied Kenny.
“Off to the nursery,” she chirped.
“We were told the baby could stay with us,” Kenny said forcefully.
“And it could if we had enough rooms. But guess what. We don’t.”
“That’s not acceptable,” Kenny declared.
“Acceptable or not, that’s the way it is.”
“Kenny?” said Rebecca firmly, while making no move to relinquish the baby.
“Yes, sweetie?”
“Know how I’m always saying Please don’t?”
“Yeah?”
“Well, Please do.”
Kenny smiled at words he never thought he’d hear from Rebecca, then turned all business as he again faced the bossy woman.
“Time for you and me to step out into the hall,” Kenny said forcefully.
“We were promised the baby could stay with us,” Kenny stated in no uncertain terms once he and the woman were face-to-face in the hall.
“And he could if we had a room in the maternity ward.”
“Then find us a room elsewhere.”
“I’m afraid that’s against the rules.”
“Want to show me where that’s written?”
“Sir, it’s against hospital policy.”
“But it’s within hospital policy to make a promise, then break it?”
“Sir, you’re being difficult.”
“Actually, I’m only warming up. Who do I have to talk to in order to make this
right?”
“My supervisor.”
“Whose name is?”
“Sheila Sullivan.”
“Please call her.”
“At 3 A.M.? I’m sure she’s fast asleep.”
“Then give me her number so that I can call.”
“Sir, I don’t think you understand!”
“No, you’re the one who doesn’t understand. You’ve got five minutes to make this
right.”
“Or?”
“Jail break.”
“Y-you can’t d-do that,” stammered the woman.”Wanna bet? Five minutes, then mom, baby, and I are out of here.”
“B-but if anything h-happens –”
“My lawyers will hold you, your absentee supervisor Miss Sullivan, and the whole
damn hospital responsible.”

 

Rebecca beamed as she, her new baby, and Kenny were taken to a bright, cheerful new room where they were suddenly allowed to stay together.
Aware that much remained to be done – they still owned no crib, no baby blankets, no baby undershirts, and had no diapers – they found comfort in that what they did have was each other.
The days ahead, like those that preceded them, would certainly not be easy. But the life that awaited, despite the bumps that they would clearly encounter, would be of their choosing. In other words, as often as was humanly possible, it would be in keeping with their own personal Please do’s and Please don’ts.

Bathroom Brazenness by Miranda Roehler

It is an unwritten, but obvious rule of dorm life that people do not converse in the bathroom. The only exception is if you know the person well enough you don’t care if they look at your face at 3:00, 5:00, or 8:00 A.M. Or noon.

For example, it was perfectly acceptable for me to chat with my friend about our history project while we brushed our teeth. But it was not alright for the girl who always says “hey” to everyone to say “hey” to me as I walked out of the bathroom stall.

Of course the most obvious tidbit of dorm etiquette is that at no time do you ever, ever talk to someone in the shower room. Once you cross the threshold into the land of showerdom, you don’t even so much as glimpse at the showers if someone else is using them. You stare at the ground, march forward, and mind your business.

The only time it is appropriate to talk to someone in the shower room is if you are related to them. This is why I didn’t consider it offensive when my younger sister stayed the night and screamed from the shower beside me that she needed my shampoo.

I was not, am not, and never intend to be related to the girl who lives in 117. Like the “hey” girl, only more bizarre, 117 will either completely ignore you or call you some pet name before trapping you in a pointless conversation.

She had been ignoring me on one particular day in October, which I was grateful for. After a long day I was looking forward to a hot shower and the few minutes of relaxation it would provide.

As I entered the shower room I observed that someone was in the third shower. I followed proper protocol and kept my head down as I scurried to my destination. Home free, I loaded my supplies onto the all-too-tiny shower shelves, stepped inside, and almost had my robe untied.

Then it happened.

Someone said something.

To the best of my knowledge, there were only two people in the room…and I was 99.99% positive I hadn’t said anything.

I maintained silence, figuring it must have been my imagination. No one would dare talk to someone else in the shower room! I must have stayed up too late the night before.

Just as I had myself convinced I would go to bed earlier that night, the third shower door swung open, revealing the smiling, sudsy face of 117.

“Well hi there sweetie!” she said, as she enthusiastically cocked her head to the side.

“Hi!” I said, sounding both overly chipper and tremendously frightened.

She laughed and shook her head. “These showers are terrible for having conversations!”

Then as quickly as she appeared, 117 vanished back into the confines of her shower world.

She’s ignored me ever since.

 

Miranda Roehler is a senior Creative Writing and History major at The University of Findlay in Findlay, Ohio, where she serves as the prose editor for The University of Findlay’s international literary journal Slippery Elm. Her writing has appeared in The University of Findlay’s campus-wide literary magazine From the Writer’s Kitchen and the online literary magazine Insert Lit Mag Here. In addition to her passion for writing, Miranda loves all things Kennedy, Disney, and Pembroke Welsh Corgi.

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