Jane Hitchcock twitched the feather duster over the shelf of old books, stirring up years of dust that had settled upon their frayed tops. Wonder why they’re hidden away in here where no one can see them, she thought. A treasure they are, so old. And worth a lot of money, I’ll bet.
Her nose tickled. She sneezed, the sound as loud as a thunderclap inside the small closet. The flailing duster snagged one of the books, knocking it to the floor where it lay open, its fragile insides exposed. Jane bent over—no easy task for her two-hundred-pound-plus frame—and reached for the book. But then she noticed something. Strange. The lines upon the yellowed pages squiggled, wiggled, jiggled.
What in the world…
With a pained grunt, she dropped to her arthritic knees. She pushed back wisps of graying brown hair that had escaped its tight bun and peered at the dancing letters. Something was there, on the page beneath the words. She leaned forward for a closer look. Her belly shoved upward against her ribs, demanding room for itself, almost cutting off her supply of air and causing her to breathe in fast little pants. “What…is…that?” Her chubby fingers splayed over the brittle paper.
And she was falling. Arms waving, hands clawing futilely for something to hold on to, Jane Hitchcock pitched headfirst into a sepia-ink nothingness. She tumbled head over heels, a muffled scream spiraling out behind her. The long skirt of her full, flowery dress puffed out and wrapped about her shoulders and head. Cold caressed her dimpled thighs. Her scream turned into a wail of panic. I can’t see! Expecting any second to feel her body slam onto the bottom of whatever she’d fallen into and splat red like an overripe tomato, she tore at the twisted cloth, I must see! She yanked the dress tail, heard the growl of its rip, and didn’t care, and jerked it away from her face. And she was still falling. Sepia brown all around, sepia brown above, and below…
“So, you want to go back to the beach this fall,” Michael said, his eyes on the bright brochures spread across the breakfast table between him and Elise. “Did you even give any thought to the mountains?”
“Well, a little,” Elise answered, her hands clenching into fists in her lap. “But you know what the cold does to my arthritis, and I thought…”
Michael’s icy, blue eyes lifted, bored into hers. “You thought what?”
Now it was Elise’s eyes that dropped. “I thought you’d want…er…me to be…” She swallowed the growing lump in her throat. “Comfortable. And I can’t…” Tears filmed her eyes. “I can’t be when all my joints ache.”
Michael stood, swept the brochures and his half-full cup of black coffee from the table. “You know what’s wrong with you, Elise?” he asked, a sneer twisting his lips. “All you think about is yourself.” He stalked to the door leading into the garage, yanked it open, and said over his shoulder, “Take an aspirin, you’ll be fine.”
When Elise heard the garage door closing, she rose unsteadily to her feet. “I can’t go on like this,” she muttered under her breath. “I just can’t.”
Pixie slunk into the kitchen, her grizzled head hanging low. Whining, the old spaniel looked up at Elise.
“I just can’t,” she repeated to the dog.
Elise squatted and began picking up the cup shards, her hands now steady and her fear gone. “I guess I’ll just have to kill the son-of-a bitch.”
The branch runs close to the old house I grew up in. It is still there, though the house is long gone, torn down and replaced when I was around twelve or thirteen, with one having indoor plumbing. Yes, it still meanders along the base of the hill where the now old, but newer house still sits, and children are yet making memories along its twisty-twiney path, some of them my great-grand nieces and nephews, and cousins, both removed, second, thirds, and what-nots. It played a central role in my childhood, provided many hours of entertainment back in the dinosaur days of no internet, no cellphones, just a rotary phone whose line was shared between eight households.
When heavy rains came, the branch jumped its banks, sometimes spreading over the nearby fields my daddy had cleared for the cows to graze. It flooded the place where our road crossed it to the main road—both dirt—and we couldn’t get to the other side, sometimes for days. That could fit into both the Bad and Ugly, and Good. Much depended on which side of the branch you were on when it flooded, and whether you were a child or adult.
We lived near the road crossing, but there were two other families, plus my grandparents on my Daddy’s side, who lived farther down our side road. No one could get to town, no one could get to jobs, but us kids didn’t mind that the school bus couldn’t cross the branch to pick us up. And if one happened to be on the other side and it flooded, you couldn’t get home until it went down. Once, when I was in junior high, that happened to me. I remember Mama being on the other side of the branch when the bus pulled up. She yelled at me to go to my sister’s house, and Lord, did she have to scream loud for me to hear her over the water’s roar. Luckily, my recently married sister and her husband lived maybe half a mile (I’m not good judging distances, so it might have been more or less.) back along the school bus route, so the driver dropped me off there. I stayed at least one night, possibly two. The Good was I got to stay with my sister; the Bad and Ugly, I still had to go to school. Thank you, Sister, for providing clean clothes.
The worst of the Bad and Ugly happened when I was to be the second-grade princess in the school’s spring pageant. My cousin loaned me a formal dress, for I was to sit on stage with the other royalty—a sixth-grade boy and girl who were king and queen, and the princesses and princes, one boy and one girl, each chosen from grades one through five. I don’t remember who my prince was, but I do remember the joy in my shy, little heart at being picked as a princess. My sister, who was in fifth grade, was slated to sing with a group in the pageant. You ought to have seen how beautiful she looked in her bright yellow dress. Well, it rained the day of the pageant, which was being held at night, and all of us kids made it home from school okay, but between then and time to leave, the branch rose higher and higher until it was impossible to cross without risking life and limb. I was so disappointed, and most likely muttered a few choice curses under my breath, probably learned from my older brother, who was also Good and Bad, but not Ugly.
I forgave the branch. Like most people and things, it had its own path to follow, and its unique share of ups and downs.
The Good provided by the branch more than made up for its Bads and Uglies. My siblings, cousins—who lived just upstream—and I were in it in the spring as soon as the water warmed enough that our bare feet could comfortably wade in it. Carrying a big tin can, we searched for crawdads that often hid beneath flat rocks. Snakes sometimes hid there too. There was an art to crawdad hunting: Stand to the back of the rock you were going to raise, slowly lift it on the side farthest from you, and take a peek. Most always, a crawdad skulked there, pinchers raised in warning, but on occasion, a snake would be coiled beneath. Then it was drop the rock and run. The crawdads we caught and collected in the can containing a little water were set free after we were finished, unless a relative or neighbor had requested some to be used as fish bait. It was strictly a catch and release program, though I do recall that at least once we cooked their tails over a fire at the bluff. But the wondrous bluff is a story into itself, so I won’t go into it at this time. I don’t recall how the crawdad tails tasted—maybe like chicken?
My brother, sister, and I set out minnow jars in a deeper puddle in the branch that was fed by an underground spring. We constructed them similar to the picture above, except we used half-gallon Mason jars and screen wire for the funnel instead of a soda bottle. What we did with the captured minnows, I don’t recall, but I’ll never forget the time we hauled our jars from the water, and squiggly snakes filled the insides of the jars, and like the minnows, couldn’t escape. One of us returned to the house, fetched Mama, and she came to the rescue, breaking the jars and killing the snakes with a garden hoe.
A few times we seined the branch and caught snakes then too. I don’t know what we had set out to catch; we probably didn’t even know ourselves. It was just something fun to do that included the outdoors and water.
When the branch’s waters warmed even more, along around late May or early June, we took baths in it. We had no indoor plumbing so bathing involved heating water to a boil on the wood cook stove, pouring it and cold into a long, metal washtub, and us kids taking a bath, youngest girl to oldest, then my brother. Using the branch for this purpose was a heck of a lot easier; we grabbed a towel, wash cloth, and a bar of Ivory soap (my sister says because it floats), and waded in. I only recall us girls doing it. Either my brother stayed dirty or bathed at a different time.
When summertime’s heat and lack of rain dried up the branch, we had to result to more drastic measures on our forays to catch crawdads. They burrowed down into the mud, leaving a little hole to mark the spot. We dug a few out of their shelters, but I don’t recall often doing that. It was really more trouble than it was worth. The ones that suffered this fate at our small hands probably died. Kids can be so thoughtless and cruel.
I have a fond memory of my aunt, mother of the cousins who lived upstream, showing us how to make mud gingerbread men. At their place, the branch ran behind the house and had big slabs of flat rocks on the bank. There, we mixed dirt and water, and shaped our mud men and women. My aunt plucked the flower heads from nearby wild butter weeds, whose blooms look like black-eyed susans, but have a yellow center instead of brown, and used them to make eyes, buttons, and such for our mud people.
When fall set in, the water gradually became too cold to play in, so there was a lull in our preoccupation with it. But when winter snapped its teeth upon the water, turning it to ice, we were at it again. Wearing only our regular shoes, brother, sister, and I skated on it. We were smart enough to stay off ponds, but the branch was fair game because even if the ice gave way, at worst we would be drenched in the cold water to about our knees—maybe thighs if it were me, the smallest.
That branch, along with the woods and bluff, was our entertainment. We made our own fun, having no need of structured play time and play dates. I think we were what is now referred to as “free-range” children, no helicopter parenting for us.
Often, I think about my childhood, about the branch and how adventurous it was to explore. Seeing snakes in it, falling in it and getting hurt as well as wet, and even the leach that latched onto my leg that Mama scraped off with a knife failed to dampen its allure. After all, what kid doesn’t love playing in a branch—especially when it’s a Good branch?
“What do you think about this one?” the face tech asked Skyler and Hudson. “The skin tone is a perfect match, cafe au lait…mmm…and that adorable smile…” The tech echoed the smile gracing the small mask’s face—though his with teeth, of course. “Sets the dear little one off on the right path.”
“I don’t know…” Skyler fingered a green-tipped, black cork-screw curl, turned her dark eyes to her husband. “What do you think? Is it too girly?”
“Well, she is a girl, Sweetums,” Hudson answered. “And well…uh…” He felt the heat of an unbecoming blush—thankfully hidden beneath his pale mask—at the unintended faux pas. “Well…uh…for now, that is.”
Skyler’s perfect lips strained slightly downward as her eyes turned back to the tech. “Can you whip up something a bit more gender-neutral? We wouldn’t want the mask to influence how they might develop.”
It took several days, but little Domino became accustomed to their face and stopped fussing when Skyler smoothed it back on after removing it to clean the bare skin beneath. Skyler hated the daily ordeal, revolted by the imperfections on her infant child’s face…slight, yes, but still ugly. More and more she had turned the task over to Hudson, who seemed unaffected by the baby’s unmasked face. She was so ready for Domino to be able to do the daily cleaning for themself, but the child was only seven months old, so that was a couple of years away. Why, Skyler could barely stand to see her own under-face, let alone anyone else’s. Continue reading “Faces R Us”→
When we left the city, there had been seventy-three of us. Now we were nineteen.
And the armadogs were closing in.
The armadogs were silent stalkers. They didn’t howl or bark like their biological counterparts, and unless they were close, you couldn’t hear them. Their big, spongy footpads absorbed sound on both grass and dirt. They communicated with each other and their controllers via Service-Web, and humans had never had access to Service-Web. Why would we need or want to know all the mundane details that kept our workers working?
Darcy fell into step beside me. “Jimmy says they’re less than four hundred meters behind,” she said. “We need to find a place we can defend, Shelia.”
I glanced at her face, a pale smudge in the grey, early-morning light. The bandage around her head was seeping blood again. But no time now to stop and change it.
“How much firepower do we have left?” I asked, not breaking the fast trot we had been moving at most of the night.
“Two flame pistols still have a charge. And one scrambler, but it’s low. A few grenades. We have tons of bullets, but well, you know…”
Yes, I knew. Bullets rarely stopped an armadog. “Be on the lookout for a place to take cover. And tell Jimmy to let me know when they’re within two hundred meters.” Then we would have to make a stand regardless. Continue reading “Flying”→
Martin took the squirming bundle from Mrs. Kenny and balanced it on top of the others in his wagon. It was a good thing that this was the last house on his route since his wagon was full, overfull in fact. He would have to go easy to keep from losing any of his cargo.
“Thank you, dear,” the old woman said, ruffling his hair. “I have something else for you…hold on.” She hobbled back inside, emerging moments later holding out two cookies. “They’re chocolate chip, except there’re no chips. I ran out, and well, you know…”
Yes, Martin knew—when the town’s supply of something ran out, if they couldn’t make or grow it, there’d be no more. “I’m sure they’re fine, ma’am.”
“Take one home to your little brother,” she said.
“I will, ma’am. And thank you.” He slipped the cookies into his shirt pocket. “I’d best be getting on, not long till dark.”
When I stepped into the house after returning the handsaw, a bolt of pain stabbed my lower belly. I crammed the hurt into that dark, crowded place deep inside that Mama couldn’t see, and tended to Sissy. I stripped the smelly clothes from her body, washed her as best I could, then pulled her favorite pink nightgown over her head, all the while talking slowly and softly. I knew she heard me. She stood when I told her to, held up her hands when I said so, but not one word passed her white lips.
Meanwhile, Mama fed thin slats of wood into the cookstove until the thing danced with heat. Sweat ran down her face and soaked the white collar of her dress, turning it pink.
“Put your sister to bed,” she said over her shoulder. “Then come get yourself cleaned up.”
I led Sissy into the little room off the kitchen, and tucked her into the bed we shared. “I’ll be back soon.” No answer from my sister. She rolled over and faced the wall, and I knew if I had looked, her eyes would still be open. “Everything’s gonna be all right. You’re just having a bad dream, and when you wake up in the morning, you won’t even remember it. Just a dream, that’s all.”
“What’s going on here?” Mama said, running her hand over Sissy’s fat belly.
Sissy shrugged her shoulders. “I et too much, I reckon.”
“Don’t sass me, gal.” The back of Mama’s hand cracked across my sister’s face. The blow had a lot of power behind it, knocked Sissy on her butt.
“I’m sorry, Mama.” Sissy cupped her red cheek. “I won’t do it no more.” There hadn’t been any sass in Sissy’s words, but she knew better than to go against Mama. I did too. Since Daddy’d died, Mama had gotten mean and hateful.
“Now I’m gonna ask you one more time—who did this to you?”
Tears trickled down Sissy’s cheeks. She trembled. “I…I don’t know wh…what you mean.”
Mama planted her fists on her ample hips. She looked down at Sissy and shook her head. “Are you that ignorant…you really don’t know?”
Sissy said nothing, just sat on the floor with her head bent, wisps of corn-silk hair sticking to her wet face.
“Get up,” Mama ordered.
Sissy bolted to her feet, a mess of scared-shakes and sniffles.
I woke in the dark to squeals and yells and thumps and bangs. From somewhere inside the house, Daddy rattled off a string of cuss words, then hollered: “Get the shotgun, Lizzy, something’s got in with the hogs!”
The awfulest commotion was going on outside. It sounded like every pig on the place was pitching a holy fit.
“What is it, Clara?” Sissy asked.
“I don’t know…” I turned back the covers.
She grabbed my arm. “Where’re you going?”
“To see what all the racket’s about.”
Sissy’s fingers dug deeper. “What if it’s the boogeyman?”
I pulled my arm away. “There ain’t no such thing, and you know it.”
My feet hit the floor, and I made a beeline for the slash of light knifing in underneath the closed door, Sissy’s night-breath a hot prickle on the back of my neck. My fingers curled around the doorknob, twisted and pushed.
Light blazed from the 100-watt bulb dangling on the end of the thick, black wire snaking down from the kitchen ceiling, briefly catching Mama and Daddy as they rushed out the back door. I chased after them, Sissy on my heels.
The lantern held high in one hand, the tail of her nightgown in the other, Mama ran neck and neck with Daddy across the back yard and through the gate.
Dewey appeared inside the bouncing circle of light. Mama let out a startled “Oh!” and Daddy a “Jesus Christ!” and we all skidded to a stop.
“Don’t you be going down there, Mr. Primrose,” Dewey said, his eyes all big and wild looking. His oily brown hair stuck out this way and that. Only one gallous of his overalls was fastened; the other flopped down over his scrawny belly. “It’s dangerous. There’s demons loose tonight.” Continue reading “Pearls Before Swine”→
John Parker stepped into his pants, glanced back at the woman sleeping in the bed he had just vacated. And the guilt hit him. Why did he do it? Why did he have to nail some bimbo he’d just met when he had a beautiful, willing wife at home?
He never failed to question his actions after the fact. But never before. When he met a pretty young thing, every thought in his head was crowded out by the one imperative: get her in the sack. And since he fit all the prerequisites—tall, dark, handsome, successful—most A-list women had tucked away in their minds when eyeing a potential hookup, he seldom struck out. It was just so damn easy.
He left three hundred bucks, cab fare plus a little something extra, on the bedside table, and after looking around to see if he’d left anything behind, slipped quietly out the door. He hated goodbyes, some more than others. That’s how he’d ended up married to Liv: he couldn’t tell her goodbye.
Night had slipped over the city while he and Tanya…Tonya, something like that, had played beneath the covers. Liv would be home by now. But he always had the old standby of working late; it had never failed him. She knew his job sometimes required long or odd hours. And she loved him, trusted him.
He felt the guilt niggling at the edge of his thoughts again, pushed it away. After all, he didn’t love those other women, it was nothing, just sex. In his heart, he was true to Liv.
She was waiting when he got home, a smile on her face and his favorite, a dry martini, in her hand. She took his briefcase and jacket. “Working late?” At his eye roll and nod, her red lips curved into a luscious pout. “Poor baby.”
His appreciative eyes followed her as she glided down the entryway. Tendrils of her thick, black hair had escaped its artfully arranged messy bun, brushing the tanned shoulders visible through the diaphanous, white dressing gown that did little to hide her long, lithe, perfect body.
She placed his jacket and briefcase on the small table near the bottom of the staircase, turned, and beckoned with a crooked finger. John recognized that look, the saucy smile, and knew what she wanted. The question was, was he up to the task? But as he strolled toward her, then stepped into her arms, that worry was put to rest.
He nuzzled her neck, breathed in the exotic, musky scent that was all Liv. Slowly, deliberately, he eased aside the white fabric, kissed the small, red birthmark at the base of her throat. “I’ll take a quick shower…” His hand covered a breast. “…then we can get down to business.”
Her hands moved over his back. One glided up, tangled in his hair, turned his head. Lips brushing his ear, she said, “There’s no need for a shower, love.” She nibbled the lobe. “Just like the others, I’ll still smell her stink after you wash.”
He started, pulled back. “Wh…what?” How could she have known? No, no, she couldn’t have known. No way. He was too careful. He relaxed, grinned. “You’re such a tease.”
She looked up at him, eyes heavy with desire. “Am I now?” She leaned into him, kissed his jawline.
John closed his eyes, his sigh turning into a moan when he felt her teeth rake his skin. Then she bit down. Hard. “Ouch!” He jerked away, his hand going to the side of his neck and coming back smeared with blood. “What the hell?” He took in her flushed face, glittering eyes, and blood-smeared mouth, and at that moment, he wanted her more than he ever had before. “Wanna play rough, do you?” He grabbed her arm, yanked her hard against him. “I can handle that.”
Using a fistful of her hair, he yanked back her head, ground his lips against hers. Her arms circled him, clawed at his back. Through a fog of lust, John idly thought how exceptionally strong her arms were, and how rough they felt, and how they reached everywhere—his head, shoulders, lower back, butt cheeks, thighs…calves. Calves? Calves!
He pushed weakly against her, swayed, and would have fallen if she hadn’t been holding onto him. He tried to back away, but his legs refused to cooperate. Nothing on his body wanted to work. Except for his vision. And when he saw his wife, horror rose inside him, squeezing what little breath he had left from his lungs. If he had been able, he would have screamed. And screamed and screamed.
Liv wasn’t Liv anymore. Two additional sets of bristly arms sprouted from her sides and hips that had bloated obscenely. Eight blue eyes instead of two stared back at him. Her face had rounded, her nose had disappeared, and her mouth was much smaller. Which was why he couldn’t understand how it could open so wide…so wide it easily snapped over his head.
He could no longer see as Liv pulled his headless corpse up the stairs and down the hall to their bedroom. He felt nothing as she opened the closet and flung him onto her web. He knew nothing as she injected digestive juices into his cooling body, and her babies eagerly swarmed over the collapsing husk that had once been John Parker.
Liv knew he had been a terrible husband. But to his credit, he was a tasty meal.