The Furious Gazelle

Literary as hell.

Halloween Contest Finalist: Adventures in Babysitting By P.M. Raymond

October 25

A fiery red Pinto Roundabout maneuvers into the driveway across the street. The gleam from its rail bumper refracts the sunlight like the North Star. You watch this new arrival and mentally compare it to Sebastian Stewart’s invitation to show you his penis behind the Prentiss High basketball bleachers. Intriguing? Sure. But in the end, nothing to see here. 

As the car comes to a stop, the hatchback window reveals the silhouette of a full dome of hair haloing the driver’s seat headrest. A shadow of movement flits from the passenger side.  

Peeking through a sliver in the curtains, you observe a slender woman slink out of the driver’s seat. Her ebony frame is swathed in a paisley halter dress, her thick, jet-black hair styled with voluminous curls that only pink cushiony rollers could create. 

The passenger door swings open with flare and a little girl barrels out. Her hair is parted into two afro puffs, a staple of most little girls in this neighborhood. The patches on her bell bottoms are placed strategically to cover the telltale signs of roughhousing.  

This tiny but mighty storm in a teacup runs across the unkempt lawn, zigzagging under the late afternoon sun, then stops on a dime. Your grasp on the curtains tightens, your eyes squint in disbelief. Is that cheeky little kid staring at you? Her body squarely faces in your direction, eyes lock. She raises her right index finger towards you with a slow, come closer, wag. You swish the fabric panels shut. 

Your mother calls you to dinner and mentions that Mrs. Brownstone and her daughter Lyla just moved in across the street. She states you should go over and inquire about babysitting before that Carla Rayford down the street beats you to it. You’re intrigued by the pint-sized finger pointer, so you promise to stop by tomorrow.

October 26

You approach the Brownstone house. You better secure this babysitting gig, or your mother will trip a fit and you’ll never be able to get that new Jackson 5 album with your current piggybank savings. 

Lyla is jumping rope. The soft thump of her patent leather shoes as they hit the cement driveway is like a metronome. You say hello and introduce yourself. Her charcoal eyes grab you, (thump, THUMP), mesmerize you. Without warning, on such a clear breezy day, a sour tang bubbles from your stomach and fills the back of your throat. You didn’t feel nauseous until this very moment. “Is your mother home,” you squeak out. 

Lyla declares Penny is inside. 

You aren’t sure which is more disconcerting. The fading sensation you were on the cusp of vomiting or a child using their mother’s first name.

Lyla’s lanky legs bip and bop as she lingers on you. Her shadow elongates and you find it strange that Lyla’s jump rope handles cast a shadow that morphs her little hands into claws. You shake your head as the door opens and turn to greet Mrs. Brownstone.

Lyla scrapes past as you complete your due diligence on the babysitting front. Mrs. Brownstone desperately needs after-school care, and she was not at all impressed with the Rayford girl’s attitude. You negotiate $3 an hour. Just as you are counting your babysitting chickens before they hatch, you hear the commotion of movement in the background. With one hand, Lyla is moving a kitchen chair and with the other you see furry feet and a plump midsection dangling under the other arm. A greyish brown bunny squirms as she sets it down on the floor. Oh, great. Pets. 

As you turn to leave, Mrs. Brownstone stops you and asks you if you are free to take Lyla trick or treating later that week (“I know a pretty girl like you has all sorts of trouble to get up to, but it would be a big help”). You wonder if Sebastian will be out trolling with his skateboarder friends that night. Maybe you’ll run into him, the bleachers weren’t so bad, and Lyla would be a good cover story, so you say yes. 

As you turn to leave, you hear Mrs. Brownstone gasp. Lyla stands in the hallway, a mint green Tupperware bowl cradled by her small hands. Whatever is in the bowl sloshes around in a dark ruby liquid. As Lyla moves closer, a stench percolates to the front porch. You reel from the odor, a mix of spoiled chicken and cough syrup, burying your face in the armpit of your tie dye tee shirt. Mild cramps jumble in your stomach. Not this again.

Mrs. Brownstone shrugs her shoulders in embarrassment, the universal gesture of kids get up to the darndest things, then sternly rebukes her daughter (“Lyla Dorothea! Put that back in the kitchen!”). She apologizes for the outburst and offers you an extra $2 an hour for Halloween. You say absolutely. Embarrassment can be lucrative and who were you to turn it down.  

Lost in thoughts of money, money, mon-nay, you cross the peculiar neighbors’ lawn which has browned quite a bit since yesterday. As you step off the curb, you hear the squeal before you see the thick smoke from burning rubber. Mr. Cochrane’s wood paneled station wagon rocks to a standstill, his cursing continuing after the car stops. You nearly walk straight into his front bumper and an early grave. 

“You better take care of yourself so you can take care of me,” Lyla murmurs seemingly in your ear.

You heave in a gush of air, the shock widening your eyes. You whip around to see the little girl skip across the parched grass to Mrs. Brownstone, erect like a centurion at the front door. 

October 27

You try not to judge. What do you know about kids. Teenager or not, you’re still too young to cast aspersions but you sense Mrs. Brownstone must have her hands full, especially with a strange child, like Lyla. 

In fact, on your first day of childminding, Lyla begs you to watch a magic trick she’d been working on for years. Years? Hmm. Her soft cool hands take yours. In her cotton candy pink bedroom filled with porcelain dolls that sport an eternal scream in their eyes, she murmurs indistinct syllables and vowels, a secret language presumably shared by first graders and their clans. Lyla demands you close your eyes as she tugs your hand forward.

A sudden rush of wind swirls and encompasses your palm, prickling your skin. No other part of your body is subjected to the tactile gust. “What are you doing?” Your eyelids flutter but remain clamped shut like a superglued blindfold. Panic explodes in every nerve, nourishing your body with spiraling alarm.   

Your eyes finally open just as a saucer-sized black portal sucks Lyla’s Madame Alexander Little Red Riding Hood doll straight into it then closes like a shutter of an old camera. Your panic goes next level.  

“You’re stronger than I thought,” Lyla says with a satisfied yet blank stare. 

You run from the house but as you cross the weedy, tangling lawn, and reach the street, (no Mr. Cochrane in sight) your pace slows to a strut. By the time you walk through your front door, the afterbirth of recent events is expunged, and you can’t quite remember what it is you are supposed to forget. 

October 28

You’re afraid of Lyla but you’re not sure why.

You can feel her psychic thumbprints milling around in the card catalog of your brain – curating, rearranging, erasing – while you push her tiny rump higher and higher on the swings in the backyard. 

The two afternoons you’ve spent guarding (that’s what it is, right?) six-year-old Lyla, she confirmed her age using finger arithmetic, has bundled your nerves like a nightmare origami. 

An idea flashes through your head (Hang yourself before it’s too late) as you see the rabbit near the fence. Lyla jumps from the swing, arms waving in a wild and choppy motion. If her shoulders unhinge from her body, you will call it a day without one glimmer of shock because this is starting to seem normal (no it’s not). 

Lyla abruptly stops and stares at you, eyes vacant to the core but dancing around the edges. Her face is placid, except for the slight crescent smile.

The look dares you to comment. But what can you say? Lyla just made that rabbit disappear into a warping hole. Then she made it reappear but now the feet are where the ears should be, and the ears are coming out of its mouth like tonsils (OH MY GODDD!). The atrocity screeches with an otherworldly fervor. You join in. 

October 29

Your mother won’t entertain any “crazy talk” about that sweet, little girl. Her fear washes over you. She knows more than she’s telling you. 

You reflect on what love means and when love means absolutely nothing. Somehow you know love won’t be enough to save your mother not when Lyla needs you unincumbered and beholden only to her. Lyla housed that in your head yesterday. That and the blurred image of your mother (Mama!!!) in that dark portal. 

This is okay with you. The knowing part. Can’t stop a Lyla train that’s already left the station. It gives you time for extra hugs, a few I’m sorry’s that make your mother question your non-moody disposition (“Are you okay?”). Lyla terrifies you so much, but you know, somehow, that even though Lyla is going to banish your mother to that grim place, she has grace somewhere inside her because you will barely remember her or recollect what happens to her when she’s gone.

Love isn’t enough to save Mrs. Brownstone, not that Lyla ever really liked or loved the woman. Lyla’s mother isn’t her real mother but more like a caretaker. And things are not working out to Lyla’s satisfaction so… In today’s very special episode of “Svengoolie – Lyla’s edition” the little tike combusts her substitute mother in a horrific blaze in the barrel can in the backyard. Even made her climb right into the can and douse herself good and plenty with the gasoline.  

Lyla disappears the charred wriggling mass to the same plane your hand must have dipped in that first day you sat with her, the place where the rabbit most definitely went, the place where your mother will eventually…

For some reason, no one else in the neighborhood notices the piercing cries, the vines becoming one with the Brownstone house, and the utter darkness and despair starting to coat this street. You suspect Lyla has been working her magic from the day her patten leather shoes touched the ground. 

October 30

You consider killing Lyla while you both cross over Prentiss Avenue, a nice shove in front of the midtown express, but you’re not sure she can be killed. You try to veil this thought from Lyla but wonder if it matters. She’s probably wise to every machination you have. 

Your memory is not Mr. Cleaned as diligently as it had been days before. But why? Why would Lyla allow the breadcrumbs of terror to linger swimming around in your head? Lyla is planning something. But what? 

October 31

Choices. Such a funny word. It implies that you have agency in this world. Lyla’s world. You stand at the curb, your thoughts mired in the quicksand of what’s to come and wait for Lyla (and death and destruction) to appear at the front door. When it swings open, you see Mrs. Brownstone standing there, cloaked in woolen darkness. You could have sworn she had gone somewhere (burn, baby, burn). The inkiness shimmers in the background. 

Mrs. Brownstone, or whoever she was before Lyla crossed her path, stares at you, a hole where her right eye should be, her left eye milky and seeping. She gives you a faint sneer and tells you not to let Lyla eat any candy along the way (“Those fun-size packages of nougat will need a safety check, young lady!”). You think this is absurd since nothing can hurt a monster. (“Have her home by 9 pm, would ya?”) The interloper, Mrs. Brownstone, whom you realize you will never see again, practically shoves Lyla across the threshold and recedes into the darkness.

So, you head out amongst the ghouls and goblins, real and imagined, resigning yourself to walk hand in hand with Lyla and a jack-o-lantern bucket into the valley of darkness.

You don’t know what the neighbors see (yes, you do). They back away from you and Lyla. You see the O shape form, first in their wide eyes, then in their shrieks (What’s the matter? Isn’t it wonderful in hell?).

You catch a glimpse of Sebastian. His limp penis flopping where his ear should be. You did run into him after all!

When you see the shadow (Lyla, beautiful, Lyla) gliding down Prentiss Avenue, taking and inflicting, you want to dance with it, twirl with it, and cry with it because…

You are the new caretaker.

END

_______________

P.M. Raymond is a project consultant living in North Carolina with 27 cookbooks and an imaginary dog named Walter. As a native of New Orleans, mystical undertones are the roux in her crime and horror writing. Her main writing goal is to bring Black characters to life that preserve their humanity and dignity. Most days you can find P.M. enjoying a café au lait and indulging in the short story mastery of Shirley Jackson, M.R. James, and Joe Hill, the mesmerizing storytelling of Tananarive Due, and the manga mastery of Junji Ito. Her work has appeared in Dark Fire Fiction, Pyre MagazineKings River Life Magazine, and Flash Fiction Magazine. She also appears in Rock, Roll, and Ruin: A Triangle Sisters in Crime Anthology from Down & Out Books. Find her nightmares and noirs on pmraymond.com and follow her on Twitter.

Halloween contest finalist: “The Man with the Hat” by Matthue Roth

As soon as Edie’s Uncle Sly came to visit, she wanted to kick him right back out. It was how he entered the house like he owned it, left his oversized tweed suitcase sitting directly in front of the stairs. He wore a jacket beneath his jacket—tweed, but not matching—and a tie and dark sunglasses and a collared shirt like the men at the bank. She watched his skinny form swimming in the collared shirt and thought of her father’s muscles ballooning out of his Sunday tee. Clearly, this invader was the loser.

“You must be Edie,” he said, sizing her up. “Tell my sister I’ve arrived.”

Most decrepit of all was his hat. That lopsided tweedy thing that only appeared distinguished in his mind. To its original owner, maybe, long before Edie’s uncle acquired it in whatever way he did (found it on the street? took it from the coatrack of a moldy office lobby?).

She turned to go but didn’t say anything. She thought he should at least thank her for allowing him inside.

The mother, having heard the commotion, was already on her way out.

“Edie, look! It’s your uncle Sylvester. Sly, let me take your coat.” She came behind him and helped him slip it off. “Honestly, Edie. It’s like you’ve never entertained a guest before.”

Over Uncle Sly’s shoulder, so he couldn’t see, the mother sent Edie a malicious glare. As he slid out of his sport coat, his back to her mother, Uncle Sly sent her a smile that was even more malicious.

Edie thought of turtles yanking their heads inside shells to avoid other creatures. Then she thought of snakes hiding in holes to catch their prey.

Uncle Sly looked like he could be either one. He was lanky, but his nose was sharp, his eyes lurking beneath his hat, waiting to attack.

A clatter from the stairs surprised them all. Chip, her brother; a twin, but smaller—she the stallion; he the runt—liked to clatter down the stairs, to pitch himself down till he’s caught by God in the arms of gravity. Usually you could hear his feet crash into the floor. Usually there was not Uncle Sly’s suitcase to break his fall.

It pitched forward like a vandalized gravestone. Chip’s arms billowed in a drowning flail. Uncle Sly hurled himself across the room, arms stretched long and skinnier than Edie had thought humanly possible. They caught the suitcase. It wavered and wobbled, but did not fall.

“H-hi, Uncle Sly,” Chip gasped.

“You be careful,” said Uncle Sly. He pointed at the boy. His face was pink. “You watch out.”

His eyes never left Edie.

“You must be famished,” said Edie’s mother. “Come, let me fix you something.”

 

Uncle Sly was Edie’s mother’s brother. She didn’t know much about her mother’s family, only that there wasn’t a lot of it. The first time he visited, Edie was too young to remember many of the details. The next time, Edie only remembered trying not to see, or be seen by, him.

Uncle Sly didn’t take off his hat during lunch or dinner. Both meals he was seated next to Edie. His skinny tie seemed to span all the width of his body. He barely chewed. He ate and ate, shoveled food inside him, stopping only to demand to be passed more.

At least at dinner there was Edie’s father.

Again, the demands. Again, the shoveling of food. The long skinny arms that stretched clear across the table. He turned to Edie with fresh orders: Lemons. Tuna. Cold rice. Chili sauce. A steak.

“Hey there, Slyster,” the father said, reaching around his shoulders with one arm and making a stop sign with the other hand. “Go easy on the hunting. We don’t got the budget for this, and you don’t got the room for it.”

Uncle Sly’s head rotated toward the father, and his gaze was steel.

For a moment, the father looked confused. Then he looked angry. Then scared. His hand stayed around Uncle Sly’s shoulder, and his muscles throbbed.

Uncle Sly’s eyes never left the father.

“Don’t talk to me like that. And don’t touch me,” he said crossly. “Edie, I would like some cocktail onions.”

He reached back and wrapped his fingers around the father’s wrist, just where a bracelet would be. He pried the father’s arm off and away from him. He held it in the air, away from him and away from Edie’s father, a trophy, an independent thing. The father’s face twisted in pain. Uncle Sly gave a grotesque, toothy smile. Edie hurried to the kitchen and at once spied the jar of yellowy brine, tiny white spheres bobbing inside like eyeballs.

At the table, her father was rubbing his wrist feverishly. Uncle Sly reached for the jar and ran his tongue along his teeth. “Cocktail onions,” he whispered reverently. Her brother Chip, who loved those onions, watched for Uncle Sly to finish so he could claim the jar. Edie knew it was useless. She could feel it from Uncle Sly. He wouldn’t be finished with the jar until it was finished.

Edie’s mother cleared the first volley of plates. “Edie,” said her mother. “Edie,” said Uncle Sly in the exact same tone. “Aren’t you going to help?”

Edie looked at her mother, who was balancing an empty serving tray and did not notice. Edie started to collect the plates. Uncle Sly, having popped the last onion in his mouth, tilted the jar to his lips and drank deep.

 

Edie’s mother worked tirelessly. Edie had never considered it before. Her father worked at the power plant; her mother worked at home. There were rooms to clean, meals to cook, the baby. It was like a job, only you never got paid.

Edie had never seriously considered the future. Maybe she would get married, if she found the right boy and the circumstances were right, maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she would find a job, maybe she wouldn’t. And Chip, too, though it was hard to imagine, with his too-formal and unmatching clothes and his bumbling way, would maybe one day meet a girl he liked. Uncle Sly had no wife, from the little her mother said of him. She never really spoke of him when he wasn’t here, except to say he was coming. She never spoke of him when he was here, except to say, “We must be respectful and treat Uncle Sly exactly as he asks. Besides us, he has no one to career for him, and it’s our duty to make him feel accepted.”

It was unclear to Edie exactly why Uncle Sly was visiting. It wasn’t for their benefit. In the mornings he left early, announcing he would be gone all day. “I’ll need lunch,” he said, pricking a brown bag off the kitchen counter—Chip’s—and slipping on his jacket and sunglasses. He had come down the stairs wearing his hat.

“Hey!” Edie said. “You can’t take that!”

Uncle Sly came close. He bent down to look at her as though his body were folding in half, hinged at the hips, until his face was level with hers and the brim of his hat almost touched her forehead and she could see two of herself in his glasses. Both of her were tinted like oil rainbows.

“I think your mother needs some help upstairs,” he said.

And he left.

“Edie!” cried her mother.

She really did need help. It was laundry day, and the Laundromat was closing early. They stripped the beds and collected clothes. She came back down to find Chip had already left for school, and if she didn’t just then, she’d be more than regular late and in the realm of actual trouble.

But when she got to school, sneaking in through the delivery garage to avoid the advisory-first period rift, she found Chip hiding there, eating an unheated breakfast sandwich, sucking fatty bits off his fingers.

“It’s Uncle Sly,” he complained. “I can’t get anything to eat at home. He takes it all.”

“At least you don’t have to prepare it for him,” she grumbled. “He’s, like, grooming me to be a Happy Housewife.”

But after school, when she mentioned as much to her mother, all she received was a scoff. “It’s time you started taking care of your family. Not to mention yourself,” she said, facedown, scrubbing at a particularly violent stain in the shower. “I won’t be here to do it forever, you know.”

Normally, Edie would have let this sit. She was used to peering in the door of her mother’s sadness, then quickly passing by.

Today, however, something ignited within her.

“Why not?” she said. “It’s exactly what you do for Uncle Sly.”

Her mother cast down the cloth—it was one of Edie’s father’s old t-shirts—and wrung her hands together.

“One day you’ll understand what it means to have a brother,” she said. “We are all of us born into the darkness alone. It’s a godsend when anyone takes your hand walking through that darkness, no matter what’s on the end of it.”

 

Over the next days, Uncle Sly filled the house with a dark presence that never seemed to depart, even when he did.

Most of the day he was out, although where exactly he went he would never say. Edie asked her mother and she said it was for work. Then Edie asked what work he did, and she said she didn’t know.

One thing Edie did know: since he came, it was a full-time job taking care of Uncle Sly. His food, his laundry, washing out the smell that pervaded whenever he entered a room, straightening all the out-of-place things he pointed out with the critical eye of a real-estate agent, or a home ec teacher, or a police detective. His constant demands on Edie’s mother, and Edie’s mother’s constant demands on Edie. On Wednesday Edie’s mother looked up from the breakfast dishes and said, “I don’t think you can go to school today.”

“I can’t?” The news should be joyous, but her mother’s tone of voice summoned worry.

“There’s so much to do here,” she sighed. “I need your help.”

“Mom,” said Edie.

“It’s just for today,” she said, as though it were an apology.

Chip watched from the doorway to the living room, perched at the last stairs. He watched the kitchen like a wolf in spring. But Edie’s eyes warned him, and instead of going in he left quickly for school.

 

Edie hadn’t gone to school in days. She wore the same clothes that she had almost since he’d come, since she now feared adding to the pile of her tasks. The house was to be kept clean—it was clean, each linen tucked in place and the stacks of dishes meticulously reassembled—but every time somebody breathed, her unclear father, one of the men, she raced to correct it. And poor Chip. He was the reason the kitchen was clean, scavenging from crusts and crumbs to form some semblance of a meal, too small and too slow, the last to any plate served. Why did their mother not notice, or, having noticed, help him? Edie was reduced to a cog, one small wheel in the machine. She was unable to reverse it or stop it or do much anything except keep on turning. The house had never been so immaculate, but she was a mess. When her best friend Toby had tried to come over after school one day, Edie had refused to come to the door. It was as much resistance as she could muster, refusing to acknowledge the truth of her new status.

The house rose and fell on Uncle Sly’s mood. He came home furious and the mother rushed to listen and assist, waving to Edie to set dinner on the stove. He came home tired and satisfied, or tired and proud, and they hastened to reward him. Edie’s father avoided him as one does a neighborhood dog who may be rabid or just hungry. The father had given up asking when Uncle Sly’s visit would end. The food vanished as quickly as it was replenished. And yet Uncle Sly only grew thinner, swimming in the button-down shirts Edie starched, like a kid dressing up as a Halloween ghost.

 

One night the tranquility shattered. It was dinnertime, they had made a stew—Edie’s idea, that way no one could take anyone else’s portion—and Uncle Sly, instead of passing, cradled the bowl in one arm and lifted the ladle to his lips and began to slurp. “Sly,” came the mother, lifting herself from her seat, “here, let me serve you some,” and Chip staring at the dribble off the spoon’s edge back into the bowl knowing he would never taste a drop of it, and Edie leapt up, ready to grab the bowl herself, to wrench it straight from those skinny skeleton hands.

Edie had misjudged the distance, however, and the mother had just transferred the bowl from Uncle Sly’s hands to her own. Her mother, surprised, released the stew at once, and instead of wrapping her hands around the bowl, Edie found herself losing her grasp as it flew across the kitchen table, upturned and tumblesauced, depositing the entirety of its contents in a neat volcanolike pile on the linoleum floor.

She couldn’t remember what was said or who said it, only Uncle Sly taking offense, leaping up from his place at the table, aiming one quivering skeletal finger at her. “You ruined my dinner,” he snapped at Edie, although she was pretty sure it was mostly her mother’s fault. “I didn’t even get to taste it.”

He stopped only to snatch a new plastic bag of carrots from Chip, who had just extracted them from the fridge, so close to claiming it. The force of the grab threw Chip to the ground. Uncle Sly shoved one in his mouth, snapped it in half, and stormed to his room.

Edie’s body shook like it was trying to contain an earthquake. In front of the fridge, Chip began to cry.

“What should I do, Edie?” the mother said. “We only want the best for him. He only wants the best.”

“Mom,” said Edie. “You need to say something.”

“But what can I say?”

Edie was silent, and she knew her mother would not.

The house fell silent, too. Night settled, the father came home, the mother wordlessly greeted him. Everyone went off to their evening rituals. The parents went to bed at once, sad and shrunken. She heard their light go off, heard the death of silence from their bedroom. Edie would have wrestled with her homework, but she hadn’t been to school in so long she couldn’t remember what she was studying. Only the heavy labored breathing from the upstairs room told her that Uncle Sly was still there, still ruling over them with the threat of his being awake.

She stood outside his door for a while, gripped by the strength of his presence. Her mother walked by, armed with a square stack of laundry in each arm. She saw Edie and bit her lip. She shook her head.

Edie shook her head back. The mother passed on.

Chip walked mindlessly past her to the bathroom. She heard the flush, the faucet, the shuffle off.

“Don’t forget to brush your teeth,” she called without thinking.

“What for?” he said.

She was alone in the hall. She lay a hand on his door. It felt like he did, sticky and warm. With her other hand, she twisted the knob and slid it open.

She took a step inside and retched. The air was like inhaling bugs. Thick and smelling of waste. A trash can gone too long without rinsing, a meal of meat and soggy eggs left out on a hot day. Just being here was wrong. Just this room was wrong, whatever he’d done to it.

Still the rhythmic inhale of his mouth and chest. The darkness ate up her movements. he slept in complete black. She reached out in front of her and could see nothing. When her foot left the ground, there was a resistance of something sticky, as if the floor was trying to hold her there.

She took one step, then another. She sensed the location of the bed rather than seeing or touching it. Maybe from cleaning the room so often, she had memorized it. But no. She knew everything in this place, she could feel the existence of the bed, the desk. The spot where he’d left his oversized floppy alligator shoes. The chair in the middle of the floor with the stack of free books he’d picked off the sidewalk, their pages brittle and stained.

The bed. Where he slept, loud and still. His body lay atop the covers, flat, face up, eyes closed, mouth open. He snored like thunder. He snored like an animal snarl. his puff of lips sucked the whole room in, its rancid air, its stuffiness and stickiness. Then he released it in a defeated sigh.

He was still wearing his hat.

Once perhaps it was a mark of status, when Uncle Sly was just starting out in whatever business he did, back when his future was promising and undefined, a future of business and trips and hotel rooms, not to his hometown, not to his sister.

Is this how I’ll be?

She loved Chip. her love for him went deeper than her life. She wished better things for him, when he graduated this school and this town, when his genius could finally stop hiding and shine. She was devoted to him, in a way she knew would never leave her as long as she lived.

She reached down. In a moment she had grabbed Uncle Sly’s hat. Just quick, no thought. She was so mad that she crushed its dome in her fingers.

It squashed easily, no resistance from his head. It was like it wasn’t even under there.

His chest rose and fell. His heavy gasping breathing continued.

Careful, now, she reached down again. Her eyes had warmed to the dark. She could see Uncle Sly’s head, now a circular cut-out, stopping where his head had started. It was like a hole. Still quiet, she reached in.

What her hands touched was wet and murky. Not solid, not slime. Fingers came together around a circular stump that she recognized as one of the carrots from dinner, the stump at the top—barely intact, half digested. She shuddered and cast it to the floor.

He gave a cry.

She reached in again. Her fist closed around more stuff. Pasta, mashed potatoes, hunks of meat. She grabbed as much as her hands could hold and, handful after handful, she tossed it to the floor.

She touched no brain, no bones, no muscles or organs. Or maybe she did, but they felt like nothing, just more of the junk that was inside him. One fist and then another, she pulled it out—some of it stringy, some clumpy, some almost solid, though they popped when she squeezed too hard, some almost melted, all of it wet.

He gurgled, throat dry or maybe full. He was awake. His hand clawed at her wrist, trying to make her stop.

“Whaaargh…”

His fingers clenched, they tried to tighten, but crumpled when they touched her. They slipped away like an empty plastic bag.

By the time she was done, the floor was thick with goo. The carpet oozed every step she took. She turned on the bedside lamp. Not a lot of light, but enough to see.

He was nothing now. His body was as rumpled as his clothes. She knew she’d have to clean it up. For this, though, she didn’t mind.

She considered going to bed early—tomorrow she’d wake up, make herself and Chip an extra big breakfast before heading off to school, and of course she’d need extra time at the mirror. But she didn’t need sleep. It felt like she’d been sleeping for weeks.

She stole downstairs, snuck the family phone into a closet, and called Toby. Toby had her own phone; Edie could call her at any time, day or night. She had so much to catch up on. She could talk and talk. She could talk forever.

 


Matthue Roth wrote the novel Rules of My Best Friend’s Body, the picture book My First Kafka, and a very short song for John Legend. He lives in Brooklyn with his four daughters, and keeps a secret diary at matthue.com.

Poetry by Abigail Dembo

It

I saw it on my way to work and it looked like a number. It was thin. It had smooth skin. It had a sharp nose and chin. It was a one or a zero. Static. It came in the mist. It left rings on the table and a black and white photograph. It sang, “So long Marianne, it’s time we began . . .” and cried to the seagulls, glowing like amber. It smelled like magnolia. It was some masquerade, but it opened its mouth and a voice embossed in silver rose out, “Do you want to go dancing? Or do you want to come home?”

 

Self-Portrait as Venus with Adonis in San Francisco

Into musty hotels

up back alley fire

escapes through windows.

The Emperor. The Lyric. 

A single bulb hanging. To be with him,

 

I am drawn 

down by his habits

in plumes of gray doves. 

Fixing the puddles of gutters 

I see I am thinned.

 

“No, I am waiting for someone,”

for hours, like a dog, 

down the street from the hustlers’ bar

with whistles

and slow-rolling cars

 

for him. A vision of fatality

leaking like a cracked 

cell-phone screen.

A man being led 

down a dark alleyway

 

returning, needful, 

black tar in hand.

The fumes 

of vinegar, the concrete, 

the syringe–

 

“No, you go first. You need to get off.” 

Oh, and so what? I say,

I am pained, lover, but I give it to you. 

Confederate, I would not 

have you be other.

 

Let’s get away. Let’s sleep 

near Mission Dolores 

tonight. Gold foil cherubs 

sit still

their form ending in curls.

 

Nothing has those classical adornments, no

muses anymore. 

 

______________

Abigail Dembo lives in Berkeley, California, and is currently a poetry editor for Southland Alibi. Her poetry has appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet, Ursa Minor, SlipStream Magazine, and other places.

“Word Slice” by Tamara Adelman

Letters are the details of words. They are the smallest unit that cannot be broken down further, but when combined together, make something larger than themselves. Bricks put together in just the right way make a building. Numbers work together to help us figure out important stuff, like how much of what ingredients makes a cake, or how many bananas can I buy with my dollar. Letters are like that to words. Letters build words and words build sentences and sentences express meaning. Life would be hard without words.
When you are able to say or write a word, you should thank the alphabet.

Some letters are curvy like S, and some have tails like Q and Z in cursive. M’s tend to know a lot because they have double mountaintops from which to see.

O’s generally round things out. Some are rotund, like D.

You can make a letter prettier if you have good handwriting.

* * *

Each letter has its own personality.

Z can tickle your tongue and tries to fit in with his buddies, the other letters, because by himself he is always sleeping: zzzzzz. But even then he’s not alone; he’s with his family.

* * *
Letters make different sounds, depending on how they are feeling. Sometimes they are loud and sometimes they are quiet.

C can be soft, like in “celebrate,” and hard, like in “candy.”

S’s are everywhere, always trying to fit in by keeping quiet.

Some letters get along better than others. Q is usually with U, like in “quick” and “quiet.”

I and C have an alliance: I before E except after C.

When a letter repeats itself in a word, it is really trying to tell you something: shhhh! You really ought to listen.

A’s are often self-starters, since they are the firstborn of the alphabet.

I is often successful alone as a capital, and we all know anything with a capital is important. Like you. You are your own I.

Think about states: they each have a capital, and they are very big and important.

* * *
The way the letters look can tell you something too. Small letters like j and i are seven-year-old basketball players, who want to be tall one day, always practicing their jump shots and hitting above where they stand. Their dots leave a fingerprint.

You can swing in the bottom of a y, j, or g.

Small e can look like a snail sideways.

Small r is like a hook: it has a flexible neck. R has peeked around the corner.

U’s and V’s: you could fall into. W’s are upside-down M’s.

* * *
In reading and writing, the page is the larger landscape. Words are the landmarks: the individual plants, the trees. Letters are the bees. They work hard to produce something larger than themselves, and when bunches of letters get together they form a colony, which is also known as a book.

__________________

Tamara Adelman is a former massage therapist, ironman triathlete, and now writer and golfer living in Rancho Mirage, CA, the playground of Presidents and the Adelmans. She have a certificate in Creative Nonfiction from UCLA.

Poems by Zebulon Huset

Transmogrifying Honey Battered

Muddily the morning crept.

Though rain often causes fowl lungs 

to top off with droplets, drowning so many 

of the raised-head dummies—

Chucky the chicken, rooster to some,

cocked his head, juked or jived

at a too-inopportune time

and startled a sting from the resting 

transmogrifying bee.

 

This was how Janet skipped 

into the scene upon waking:

the broken syringe, dangling

microscopic bits of bee belly-flesh, 

plugging the swell of purple—the sundered 

venom sac pulsing in toxins like an IV—

which caused Chucky’s clunky heart

too much issue with tissue constriction.

 

Janet wept for her perished pet,

mourned the morning, played 

devastated Dr. Frankenstein with two 9-volts

through lunchtime. Her cries even survived

as eggs and flour and honey and paprika

were whisked together for a batter

that could staunch any tears.

That would stop her tears.

 

No crying at dinner, Janet. Enough already.

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Poetry by David M. Harris

Rep. William J. Pascrell

 

Dear Mr. Pascrell:

 

Before you were the Honorable (D, NJ),

back when you taught history and psychology

at Paramus High, you were one of the foundrymen 

who melted down our formless minds and gave them

rough shape. Detail and polish were up to us.

You told a story, about leaving for the prom,

your father said, “Be careful.” Eventually,

I think, I got the point. Did any of us

understand? Later I decided we were not

meant to understand, not then, but to

ponder and find our own meanings. 

It was a rare peek into the personal.

one that other teachers never granted us.

And what was a social studies teacher doing

as one of the advisors to the high school

literary magazine? Something else to mull.

 

Changing the world, one student at a time,

must have seemed too slow. We needed

a good example, so you made yourself one.

But how different, really, is governing

from running a classroom? So much 

patient explanation, filing down rough edges

for the easier acceptance of complex machineries,

so much talking to people who won’t listen.

And the greatest failure is surrendering the effort.

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Book Review: How to Catch a Mole by Marc Hamer

Review by E. Kirshe 

At the risk of sounding cliche, How to Catch a Mole is a quiet gem of a book. The slim illustrated novel is perfect for anyone who loves nature or is seeking an almost meditative reading experience. 

Though it at times reminded me of other nature works, it very much stood on its own. Part memoir, poetry collection, and nature diary, the amalgamation makes it unlike other books in the genre. 

Hamer weaves together his personal history with his thoughts on his current profession: mole catching. No, this is not a how-to book. Rather, Hamer delves into his everyday observations about working in tune with and being one with nature. Mole catching, according to Hamer, requires one to be a bit wild. Moles may not be big game but he is a hunter and needs to know how their world works.  

Mole reads as very honest. Hamer’s quiet and stark observations about ordinary life and nature are beautifully communicated. Even when Hamer is making profound statements about how he views his role on the planet, it feels like reading a diary. Like he’s writing his thoughts for himself instead of cleaning them up for an audience. 

There are times when I felt there was a bit too much romanticism in his work. His profession is mole extermination, after all. This also comes up when he looks back on his time being homeless. He’ll talk about freedom and the running theme of living life in nature. But anytime I started to feel this, he’ll turn on a hefty dose of reality to balance it out. 

“Even lying under a pier once, starving and feeling that I was dying, I felt sad, but I also reasoned that it was perfectly acceptable to feel sad in that situation…I have in my time deliberately tried to die, but I am still here…I began allowing life to happen.”

Mole manages to toe the line between extremely poetic and pointedly matter-of-fact. His poetry regards the everyday turns of the earth, life, death, and the way a certain slant of light makes him feel. His observations on the habits and lives of moles, as well as other creatures, switch between affinity and scientific study. 

He knows their mating and eating habits in detail. He knows the tunnel systems of a mole because he needs to know how to find them. But then he’ll turn around and describe their lives as deeply entwined with his own. 

This contemplative book is, as the subtitle says, wisdom from a life lived in nature. It’s a lovely account of the life one man managed to build along with his deep understanding of the natural world. At the end of the day, Hamer will make you think about the interconnectedness of every living thing on this planet- in the most intimate and clarifying way. 

 

 How To Catch A Mole was published in 2019 by Greystone Books

Have you ever found a hidden treasure in a bookstore, a book published a while ago that you’ve never heard of, that you wished could receive more attention? Us, too. That’s why we started doing Throwback Reviews. Do you have a book published at least three years ago that you would like to see a current review for? Then send us an email with the subject: throwback book review request. 

The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

“Across The Street,” a short story by Katharine Grubb

I watched the house from the time the sour old owners, the ones with the massive credit card debt, had moved out. For a couple of weeks, through the dappled shadows of the maple tree growing between the sidewalk and the street, I monitored the side-stair colonial as realtors and their client toured it, wondering if the inspector caught the foundation trouble in that one corner. 

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“A Mind Like a Steel Trap” By E.O. Connors

A few days ago, I scrubbed the sink clean and lifted the steel trap out. As I knocked the trap against the trash bin to dislodge the sopping wet food particles that had collected there, it occurred to me that I made an egregious error in judgment in August of 1995.

I’m quick like that sometimes.

It was three weeks after our wedding. My husband, Tim, was mercilessly scrubbing the kitchen sink of our new apartment. It was clear he was angry about something. He didn’t do anything vigorously. Except, perhaps, drink Diet Coke and program his computer. Anything that might cause him to break a sweat was anathema. Cleaning the kitchen fell into that category. 

It wasn’t laziness, exactly. He was generally tidy, avoiding the making of a mess so as not to have to clean one. But he was also raised by a lovely June Cleaver type. She kept house and said things like, “Oh, Timmy, leave those dishes for the women,” when, one year, he rinsed some mashed potatoes off his Thanksgiving plate and tried to put it in the dishwasher. 

Tim and I had already had the very first domestic squabble of our marriage that same sink-scrubbing morning. Standing in the galley kitchen in the light of the refrigerator, I plucked the orange juice carton from the door to accompany his breakfast cereal. Overnight, it would surely have settled. I didn’t want him to drink juice from the top that was too thin, nor from the bottom that was too thick. Only Goldilocks orange juice for my husband. 

So I shook it. Hard. Up and down for a solid five seconds to mix it perfectly. 

Tim’s face pinched with anger. “What did you do that for?” 

“What?”

“You just ruined it.” I looked at the carton trying to figure out what he meant. He let out a huff of disgust. “Now it’s all full of pulp and the junk that settled to the bottom. Why would you do that?” He said it with the same bewilderment and grief as though I had hit the gas pedal to commit vehicular rodent homicide on an innocent squirrel in the road.

So just before lunch when I saw him come dangerously close to breaking a sweat at the kitchen sink, I wondered, Now what?

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