Literary as hell.

Author: The Furious Gazelle Editors (Page 2 of 55)

Poems by Diane Webster

BATHROOM SPACES

He props the bathroom door open

maybe to allow odious odors

freedom to assault more noses than his,

maybe a latent move for voyeurism

as he stands in a stall hidden

only by waffled plastic

knowing it’s him by his shoes,

maybe afraid of closed-in spaces,

dreaming of peeing in snow

or a desert highway where

evaporation is almost quicker than he,

maybe the wind banged open

the outhouse door when he visited

grandpa, and he stained his best shoes

in a startled turn around move

exposed for a moment,

exposed for longer as he scuffed dirt

onto a wet shoe on long path back.

 

GOING

As a child, I got up from the couch

and said, “I have to go to the lavatory,”

until my aunt said, “You don’t have

to announce it.  Just go.”

 

What a concept?  That I could get up,

walk down the hall and go

without letting anyone know

where I was going.

 

How brave I became in going,

but everyone knew,

and it made me feel

like going even more.

Will You Love Me If I Give You a Dollar? By Leigh Katharine Camp

When I was in the fourth grade, I decided I was in love with Cory Schneider.* He was a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy in my class, skinny with a smattering of freckles on his nose. 

And because it was circa 1998 and what I’d learned from 90s sitcom televisions about love up to that point was that you sent secret admirer letters to those you crushed on, I did just that.

I wrote three in total — with each one I became more daring than the last. And, let me tell you, that was the most thrilling two-week period of my entire life up until that moment.

I remember writing the first one. It was short, sweet, to the point. Said something like, “Dear Cory, I think you’re cute. Love, Your Secret Admirer.” 

Then I snuck down to my mom’s room, pulled out a bottle of Chanel No. 5 — her signature scent, which I had to use in a pinch, having not yet acquired a signature scent of my own — and sprayed probably $5 worth of perfume on that piece of paper. I sprayed until the ink blurred a little, but it was still legible.

Then I put it into an envelope, and not having any lipstick to seal it with a kiss, as one must, and not being brave enough to steal any of that from my mother, I grabbed a magic marker, applied what was probably toxic dye to my lips, and then gave the seal a good ol’ SMACK. 

I walked a few blocks down the street to Josh Haydell’s house. He was a friend of Cory’s, so I dropped the letter in the mailbox for him to deliver on my behalf. I think the envelope just said, “To Cory Schneider ” and I assumed Josh would know what to do with it. 

I’d known where Cory lived, too, and could have walked to deliver it to his mailbox, but that seemed risky. Also, he lived a lot farther away, and I guess there were limits to the lengths I was willing to go to for my love. 

That next morning, I didn’t have to wait long. Because it was the 90s and children were still familiar with how standard letter delivery worked, Josh had indeed known exactly what to do with his missive. 

Upon entering my classroom, the room was already abuzz with what had happened: Someone had sent Cory — squeee! — a secret admirer letter.

Giving it to Josh turned out to be an even better plan than I’d originally thought, because it meant that Cory couldn’t pretend to never have gotten it. The deed was immediately very public. 

And the news rippled like wildfire. I even heard teachers talking about it. “What’s all this about a letter,” one teacher asked my teacher. “Oh, just some girl crushing on Cory,” the other one said. 

That was ME! I was some girl!

I waited a few days. The buzz died down. So, obviously, I had to send a second letter. 

I executed and delivered this message in much the same way: wrote it, perfumed it, SMACKED it shut with magic-marker lips, and dropped it safely off at Cory’s for delivery. 

But this backfired on me in the worst way.  

My faithful, unwitting delivery man, Josh Gilstrap, started getting bullied pretty quickly the next day as a result. 

The guys were saying it was weird that he kept getting these letters — was HE the secret admirer?

In the 90s, being gay wasn’t something you talked about freely. It was a shittier time. I felt terrible the other boys were teasing Josh, and knew I had to fix this.

So I did the only thing I could think of: I wrote ANOTHER letter.

In this one, I explained that Josh was most DEFINITELY not the secret admirer, that it was someone else, and that someone really liked Cory. I also put a dollar bill in the envelope this time, because what says love if not cold, hard cash?

Then I mustered up all the courage my little fourth-grade heart could manifest, and I dropped the letter into his backpack when he wasn’t looking so Josh wouldn’t be held culpable for my actions any longer.

That plan may have actually worked, too. And I could have maybe gone on the rest of the year dropping anonymous notes to this poor kid, embarrassing him to no end in my own need to feel important as the new kid at the school after moving to Shreveport, Louisiana, from Austin, Texas, in the wake of my parents’ divorce. 

It was still fresh, the divorce — and I was desperate to ignore the hurt of it, I suppose. So I wrote these silly letters. But if I didn’t want to have to look at it too closely in the midst of this little mess I was busy making, dear reader, then neither should you. So let’s move on.

Where were we? Oh, yeah. I would have gotten away with it, too — except … this last time I sent the letter, I made a devastating boo-boo.

I’d met a new friend at school that week. Nicole Hernandez. She was funny and outgoing and smart and I wanted us to be besties. I wanted it so badly, I was going to will it into being. 

Earlier that week, in an effort toward this goal, I’d asked for her phone number. She’d given it to me on a slip of paper which I then put into my pocket.

As part of my letter production, I always wrote my letter upstairs, put the note into my pocket, brought it downstairs, doused it in perfume, then brought it back upstairs, put the contents of my pocket in the envelope, and SMACKED the envelope shut with pursed magic marker lips.

Efficient? No. But hey, I was eleven. 

This time, though, my methods totally failed me in the worst way imaginable, because … NICOLE HERNANDEZ’s NUMBER ENDED UP IN THAT DAMN ENVELOPE.

And, also, because Nicole — who was, of course, going to be my best friend — was the only person at school who knew I was the identity of the secret admirer! SQUEEE, indeed!

I’d told her in a moment of weakness. And I had probably also hoped the secret would act as collateral in establishing the foundation of a true friendship I desperately craved.

Things happened very quickly after that.

In homeroom, everyone was saying that Nicole liked Cory. How embarrassing.

Then, in the hallway, Nicole cornered me and told me either I could come clean myself and we could be friends, or she’d do it for me and would never speak to me again. 

I explained that it was an accident! And begged her not to make me tell Cory that I was the one who liked him and not her.

She held her ground. (As she damn well should have.) And so it was decided that I would tell Cory in our next class together, art class.

Nicole was in that class, too, so she made sure I did it, practically shoving me over to Cory’s table where he was working on something. I interrupted his concentration to mumble quickly, “I wrote the notes.” He didn’t hear me. “What?”

I took a breath and said more clearly, “It was me. I’m the secret admirer. I wrote the notes.”

Nicole was standing next to me triumphantly. I wanted to die. I wasn’t mad at her, but my God, did she have to smirk like that? This was, after all, the worst moment of my life! I didn’t know what would happen.

Corey simply asked, “Why?”

And this was the moment in the movies where I would have told him it was because I loved him more than anything else in the world and could we please ride off into the sunset together. And then we would. But I was eleven, so I just said, “I don’t know.” And walked away. And left it at that.

Cory was a kind boy and never mentioned it again. Which, honestly, is even more than kind if you think about the politics of the fifth grade. He could have crucified me. He just let it drop.

We remained friends throughout middle and high school, up until we were old enough to laugh about it, I thought. 

But when I brought it up in a moment hoping to clear the air, and just cackle about it together, my timing must have been too soon. Instead of the healthy belly laugh I was yearning for, he just gave me this sweet smile and said, “Yeah, Leigh. That was weird,” and then moved on, resuming our “let’s never talk about this,” contract before I’d gotten whatever satisfaction I’d wanted out of that interaction.

Nice guy. But not enough passion in him for me.

I wonder what he did with that dollar. 

*Names changed to protect the innocent … and the guilty. 

 

__________________

Leigh Katharine Camp is a writer based in Austin, Texas. She’s spent a lifetime learning that you can’t buy love — especially if you only have a dollar. With the high rate of inflation these days, forget about it. You at least need, like, $10. Leigh’s writing has appeared in The Hairpin and elsewhere. Read more of her work on her website, TrySomethingScary.com.

Boat in a Bottle by Courtney LeBlanc

Who was the first to decide to capture 

a boat in a bottle, to build and string 

together a mast, the sails, to keep 

the bow from breaking against the glass? 

Who tried to contain an ocean in a jar 

that once housed beer or mead or wine? 

Once, I collected sea glass, filled a bowl 

with the muted green and white and blue, 

searched for the coveted red pieces. 

Once, I lived on an island and gave 

a man my salt water heart. He tangled 

his hands in my seaweed hair, pressed 

his ocean mouth against mine. I crashed 

into his shores again and again, beat 

myself blue against his rocks. When 

I left, he smashed the bottle, set 

the small boat adrift. On the deck 

of the ship, a sliver of red, the glass 

of my heart, set to sea.

 

_______________

Courtney LeBlanc is the author of the full-length collections Exquisite Bloody, Beating Heart (Riot in Your Throat) and Beautiful & Full of Monsters (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press). She is a winner of the Jack McCarthy book prize and her next collection of poetry will be published by Write Bloody in spring 2023. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Riot in Your Throat, an independent poetry press. She loves nail polish, tattoos, and a soy latte each morning. Read her publications on her blog: www.wordperv.com. Follow her on Twitter: @wordperv, and IG: @wordperv79.

Flat White by Gavin Turner

Mike watched the electronic boards flicker round to the inevitable delayed notifications. Not only was he now going to miss the first hour of the conference, but he also knew he would be forced to hang around in a ridiculous coffee shop for an hour whilst the rail network corrected itself and provided the transport he had paid for. There was a collective sag of shoulders on the platform. Mike sauntered out of the station amongst the other dejected commuters in search of the nearest place to get a drink.

Standing alone, tight up against the embankment wall of the train station, he spotted a glinting metal building, with a dark cobalt roof. Through the long glass window he saw what appeared to be a stainless steel counter. Just outside, a black sandwich board wobbled slightly in the morning breeze. In simplistic writing the word ‘Coffee’ had been emblazoned in blue chalk. This was enough to entice him in.

The Peoples ‘ethically sourced coffee’ he read in monochrome arch above the doorway. He saw most of the commuters wandering away in other directions, which suited him just fine. Why would he want to spend the next hour awkwardly exchanging glances with people who believed they had a common late commuter cause or worse still, tried to engage him in pointless, mind-numbing conversation.

‘Peoples coffee’ was remarkably quiet for an early morning. In fact, there appeared to be only one other customer. As the door closed with a click, the noise seemed to prompt the bearded chap at one of the tables to spring into action. It turned out the presumed customer was actually the staff, even better.

‘Morning’ the bearded chap chirped, and welcome to Peoples coffee. What can I get for you? he said moving round to the other side of the counter. The newly identified barista looked to be a hipster type, with a smart black and silver apron. He had a sallow complexion and piercing eyes. His sad clothes on the other hand looked like they may well have been rescued from a skip.

Mike reviewed the chalkboard behind the barista. It was difficult to focus on. The writing seemed too small to read and was jumping around all over the place. He knew at some point soon he was going to have to give in to age and get glasses, vanity would push him to hold off for now though. Forcing his hand he knew he would just have to ask for something and hope it was on the menu. Surely coffee was coffee though? Giving customers every possible combination or version of the same drink always seemed a bit pompous and unnecessary. You make a coffee, maybe you put in too much milk, that’s a latte. On the way back to the cupboard you spill some cocoa on top, now it’s a cappuccino. These so-called coffee experts needed to get over themselves.

‘Would you like some assistance choosing your drink Sir’ said the barista. I can offer several excellent recommendations.

‘Just something simple will be fine’ Mike mumbled. He was already flustered by the thought of the myriad of questions about to come his way. He glanced around the café. There were several chairs and tables, none of which seemed to match. This was in stark contrast to the gleaming metal counters and floors. Must be a new hipster style thing, still odd though.

‘Of course, Sir, we have some amazing choices today that I can grind for you fresh. May I recommend the Tongan, smoky and sweet? Or perhaps our Javan lava blend, it’s infused through the volcanic rocks and topped with a bitter chocolate note. Very satisfying’ he grinned. The baristas teeth looked sharp and grey; the incisors, in particular appeared almost triangular.

‘Does it taste like coffee? Mike offered sarcastically. If it tastes like coffee, I will just have that. I don’t really care.

The barista looked confused and a little hurt. ‘They are all different sir, coffee, in the right hands is like a good wine or whisky, they all have different notes depending on the blend, a different feel on the tongue’

‘The first one will be fine’ Mike sighed. This guy was going to end up wearing this coffee if he carried on.

‘Sure, no problem. The barista turned and selected a mason jar of beans from a range behind him. He popped open the lid with long delicate fingers and swirled the jar round in front of him, inhaling deeply from the rattling contents as if reviewing a good merlot. His chest audibly crackled slightly as he breathed out. Probably the unethically sourced rollups Mike thought.

The barista smiled again at Mike. ‘I just love this one though, so smoky, leathery, salty’. He closed his eyes for a second.

Mike just stared at him. He found this approach was best in dealing with people when the words that were forming in his brain were so unpleasant.

‘And what about the milk sir?’

Here we go again.

Continue reading

Poetry by John Grey

YOU LEAVE IN WINTER

Those are your footprints
leading from my stoop
to the front gate.

The snow’s compacted,
preserved them,
even as it buries the path,
the garden.

Your departure
is trapped, slowed to a stillness.

Come spring,
the flowers will bloom.
Your leaving will thaw.

 

___

 

CHARACTER INSTRUCTIONS

Far from any highway,
or town for that matter,
follow the trail through thick woods,
narrow and sunless
but aided by occasional tree markings,
that leads to a cave,
a labyrinth really,
with tunnels branching off
in many directions,
but the one you want
drops down to the shore
of an underground river,
that you must wade across
to reach a passageway on the other side
where you should begin to see
strange markings on the walls,
silken threads dangling from the ceiling
that give the impression
of broken spider wings,
bones scattered here and there
on the muddy floor
and you’ll hear strange noises,
like a gorilla in great pain
though it’s coming from no great ape,
and much scurrying about,
lots of moving shapes,
shadows darting back and forth
across your flashlight ray,
before you finally enter this large chamber,
lit by glittering jewels,
with an altar on one end
and what appears to be a dark-robed man
conducting some kind of service
for twenty or so similarly-cloaked acolytes,
who bow their heads, hum softly,
with an occasional break
for an impassioned, “Yes master”,
before their leader suddenly
notices your presence, and all heads turn,
gleaming red eyes stare threateningly at you,
and then you’ll know you have arrived –
I can’t say whether you’ll live or die,
but you’re in chapter ten of my new novel.

_______________

John Grey is an Australian poet, and US resident, recently published in Sheepshead Review, Stand, Poetry Salzburg Review, and Hollins Critic. His latest books, “Leaves On Pages” “Memory Outside The Head” and “Guest Of Myself” are available through Amazon.

Poetry by Holly Day

Nowhere ‘Til April 

In my desk is a picture  of a jungle from somewhere

warm and green that a friend once sent me, said I could go there

live in his family’s abandoned farm any time I’d like

there’s no plumbing or electricity there and sometimes snakes

make getting to the front door difficult, but here is a picture

and I  can stay there. 

 

I can feel the edges of the green photograph in my pocket

when I walk the dog in the winter, when I wait for her to take a crap

hovering in apparent agony over the ankle-deep snow. I can go there

any time I’d like, and there would be snakes but it would be warm.

 

The Thing That Blocks the Sun

How huge the world must seem to a tiny bug. How huge my hands must seem

When they reach down to cover the tiny bug, blot out the sun entirely

Wrench it from the pavement and lift it to the sky. 

 

Or perhaps the size difference is so great that it doesn’t even register

As something happening, much as the way I can’t feel the world turning beneath my feet

Or hurtling through space, or the heaving of coastal plates as they slowly crash

Against one another. Perhaps this little insect doesn’t notice me at all

 

Thinks that every time I cover it with my palms, it’s just the sun setting out of place

Some cosmic aberration beyond its control

Not worth worrying about. 

 

________________

Holly Day’s poetry has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Grain, and Harvard Review. Her poetry collections include Where We Went Wrong (Clare Songbirds Publishing), Into the Cracks (Golden Antelope Press), Cross Referencing a Book of Summer (Silver Bow Publishing), and The Tooth is the Largest Organ in the Human Body (Anaphora Literary Press).

Flash Fiction by Sandra Florence

“Tang and Atomic Fireballs”

Once we had Tang and although I never liked it, my brother and I drank it because we were told it was made for astronauts and other flyers. I remember that my family went to Vandenburg Air Force base to visit my mother’s friend Francis and her husband Major Fick. The Ficks were air force people who had travelled all over the world and seemed so exotic to me. I thought of Vandenburg AFB in a hazy blue light, of a dreaming place for rocket scientists, engineers, and astronauts.  The Ficks lived in family housing at Cape Hart. The housing was all very modest, long winding streets of small, low to the ground houses.  Houses almost like ours with its flat roof and slump block walls. I thought their home would be much grander because my father was not a Major in the air force, and we hadn’t travelled anywhere except to Nevada and over to the coast at Pismo beach. I thought of the geniuses who worked on the 86,000 acres at the base and the labs, and manufacturing hangers, where impossible to understand formulas, and fantastic-looking equipment was stored and hung, where brain-power kept the booster rockets burning, and where strange perfumes seeped into the skies, sulfuric and foul. When the day was over I imagined how the doors to hangars were shut tight and wives put on pearl earrings for their Majors, Colonels, and Generals and went to the building for cocktails and dancing.  The cocktails were named things like the Payload, Coffin Launcher, and Polar Orbit. Major Fick and my father went somewhere that night, but our mothers stayed at the house visiting in the kitchen over coffee and tea. Francis was a tea drinker. The Ficks had four children, two boys and two girls. We stayed in the bedrooms and had contests to see who could suck on their atomic fireball the longest before the heat of it became too much and one of us spit it out onto the rug. The rooms of the house were dark, and everything was a mess, clothes everywhere, toys scattered, dishes not done, beds not made. I knew what my mother was probably thinking about her best friend’s housekeeping. I knew I would hear about it on the way home. And yet, at the same time, their home was full of what was once called oriental art, beautiful hand carved sculpture of historical figures, small jade lions, woven bamboo, dragon tapestries, and paintings from their life in Taiwan.

“The Bird–Shaped Cloud”

 A bird shaped cloud drifts by with a cherub inside. Drafts of grey heat lift the tiny angel into the rafters where its wings become trapped inside and there is no getting down. The bird shaped cloud drifts through my window and a tiny bit of rain pours onto the floor where my space crawler and sky patrol flying saucers sit abandoned in the late spring light. My pajamas have space men on them and track moon dust all over the room, at night. I sleep but not without fear, not without tender tears and rowdy voices from next door, where these kids are hopping up and down on their beds. I see them through my window in the fading light; I hear their laughter and when one gets a little too rough and the other cries out and the mother runs up and yells, what’s going on? When she leaves, they pretend sleep and continue with their roughhousing but quietly in the moonlight. Occasionally my space men get distracted and turn their cameras on the window next door and it throws everything into white shadows, playing against the walls; the kids stop what they are doing and stare caught in the screen; they seem captured, afraid to move, their hollow eyes stare back as the space men move toward them on a current of air between our houses, our windows. They peer into the boys’ room. I can hear whimpering and realize one boy is crying. The older boy puts his arm around the smaller boy. After a long while their camera light begins to fade and once it does, the boys fall back onto their beds. I can no longer see them and the space men return to my room silently through the open window and they too begin to drift. They seem fatigued by this encounter. The space men beckon the cherub to hurry as they gather their instruments. The cherub is anxious, begins fluttering its wings, bustling like a tiny bird, its wings stuck in the soft cotton of the cloud. At one point the cherub flutters so hard to free itself of the cloud and falls on my bed where an invisible star burns. I am becoming warm from the heat of the invisible star, from the fluttering of cherub wings, and then suddenly, it lifts off, darts toward the growing light. One of the space men grabs the fleeing angel and hides it in his shadow. It’s too late to sleep, the firelight is upon everything and the bird-shaped cloud breaks apart. I can hear the kids next door yelling and laughing as they run down the stairs for breakfast.

______________

Sandra Florence has been writing and teaching in Tucson, Arizona for the last forty years. She taught at the University of Arizona, at Pima Community College, and in community education settings working with refugees, the homeless, adolescent parents, women in recovery, and juveniles at risk. She is the recipient of two NEH grants, The National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity, and the second in 2015 entitled Border Culture in the Classroom and in the Public Square. She has published scholarly articles on writing and healing and writing as a tool for public dialogue. She published a book of poems, entitled, The Radiant City, in 2015. In 2021, Midway Journal nominated Sandra for the Pushcart Prize for her short story “Café Metropole”.

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.

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