John Adams – The Sequel’s Sometimes Better Than the Original

The Sequel’s Sometimes Better Than the Original

by John Adams

J.T. and Coleman were in a rut. 

Not individual ruts. Individually, they’d never been better. J.T.’s restaurant was actually turning a profit. And Coleman’s ridiculous hours had paid off with a snazzy office and a promise he’d make partner soon.

But collectively, as a unit, neither of them were excited by their marriage anymore. At least, J.T. wasn’t, so he assumed Coleman wasn’t either—though J.T. hadn’t thought to ask. Given his growing boredom, J.T. could hardly blame himself for sometimes messing around with their neighbor, Jeremy. Or that guy from the record store whose name he kept forgetting. Or Coleman’s brother. 

Sure, J.T. was no better than an unneutered dog when it came to marital fidelity. But a dog had to wag its tail. 

Like so many other things in their relationship, their Friday-night trips to the drive-in were always the same, with Coleman falling asleep while J.T. grouchily made junk-food runs. On one such outing, as J.T. paid for the evening’s haul—popcorn, Skittles, Cherry Coke—the pimply clerk asked, “Do you have our new customer-rewards app?”

“Right.” J.T. fumbled for his iPhone. He scrolled through several screens, landing on an icon of the drive-in’s logo. The words ‘REDEEM UPGRADE?’ flashed. “Whatever,” he mumbled, tapping a ‘YES’ button.

“Upgrade in progress,” a female voice droned from the app.

“That’s annoying,” J.T. said, waving the phone.

The clerk grinned. “You have no idea.” She turned to the next customer in line.

J.T. started to interrupt and ask about his ‘upgrade’ but decided it wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t like he or Coleman were going to die of thirst if their medium Cherry Cokes weren’t supersized. Besides, he could hear the film starting.

The movie was one of the myriad Agent Jackson spy flicks Coleman claimed to love yet still managed to sleep through. To J.T., the entire series was just a bunch of overdone car chases, noisy gunfights, and not-quite-risqué-enough sex scenes. Still, though, Bryson Devereaux, the latest actor to take on the Agent Jackson role, was pretty hot; at least J.T. could enjoy the movie for that.

He was halfway back to Coleman’s CRV when the entire lot was thrown into darkness. Every car-side speaker stopped, and the screen went black. J.T. stumbled, temporarily blinded. “What the hell?” he asked his armload of cholesterol. He braced himself for the customary boos that came whenever movies stopped mid-reel. 

No such noise came.

Just as abruptly, the screen lit up again, showing a ruggedly handsome tech-mogul CEO plot world domination with his slobbering Doberman Pinschers. J.T. scowled at the corny dialogue. How long until they got to a shirtless Agent Jackson scene? 

He found his way back to the CRV. Carefully balancing the food in one hand, he opened the passenger-side door and crouched inside. He shut the door—loudly, since Coleman had probably fallen asleep by now—and turned to his husband. “They didn’t have any—” 

J.T. gasped, almost spilling the Cherry Cokes. Coleman wasn’t asleep beside him. Coleman wasn’t beside him at all. The man beside him looked exactly like Bryson Devereaux—the debonair Agent Jackson himself. 

“I… have the wrong car,” J.T. stuttered, face burning.

The man in the driver’s seat gave what People Magazine once dubbed ‘That Million Dollar Wink.’ “Oh, J.T.,” the man said, in a familiar and incredibly sexy Southern drawl. “Stop kiddin’, sweetie.” The man leaned over, grabbed Coleman’s food… and planted a kiss on J.T.’s shocked lips. “Thanks for gettin’ the grub. You’ve been such a patient hubby lately, what with me workin’ such long hours keepin’ the world safe.”

J.T. slowly turned from this man—his ‘hubby’?—and stared ahead. On the movie screen, a spy was briefed about the handsome villain’s threats to overtake the world’s governments. But the spy wasn’t Agent Jackson. No, Agent Jackson was in Coleman’s beat-up CRV. The spy on the screen was Coleman. A very befuddled-looking Coleman.

J.T’s pocket vibrated. “Another upgrade?” a muffled, female voice asked.

Hell, yes, J.T. was taking another Bryson Devereaux-sized upgrade! He yanked out his phone and slammed his finger on the app.

The drive-in lights flashed again—unnoticed, it seemed, by anyone but J.T. 

When the lights came back, his legs were in a different position. He felt lower to the ground, slightly cramped… but oddly comfortable. J.T. was no car expert, but he was pretty sure the old CRV had just turned into a fresh-off-the-lot Lamborghini Veneno. 

He looked at his husband—Agent freakin’ Jackson!—and saw him laughing at the movie, oblivious to the changes. On-screen, the Doberman Pinschers chased a comically inept Coleman away from the CEO’s high-tech lair. 

“Upgrade again?” the app asked.

J.T. rapidly pressed the phone screen—again and again and again. 

Flash! The concession-stand Cherry Cokes were now gin and tonics in crystal glasses. 

Flash! J.T. wore a sleek Brioni Vanquish suit. 

Flash! Flash! Flash! His shoes… his watch… hell, it even felt like his underwear… improved. 

J.T. stared at his phone. “Final upgrade?” the voice asked.

J.T. grinned. “Why quit when you’re ahead?”

He pressed his thumb down.

Flash.

J.T. was crouched on all fours, surrounded by growling dogs. A smirking Coleman stood before him, arm seductively draped around the handsome CEO. Beyond them, in the drive-in lot, Bryson Devereaux laughed from inside a Lamborghini, sipping a cocktail. Beside Bryson, a Doberman Pinscher wagged its tail. 

The credits rolled.

John Adams (he/him/his) writes about teenage detectives, robo-butlers, and cursed cowboys. His publication history includes Australian Writers’ Centre, Bowery Gothic, Dream of Shadows, Fat Cat Magazine, Intrinsick, Metaphorosis, Paper Butterfly, SERIAL Magazine, The Shortest Story/The Story Engine, and Weird Christmas. Forthcoming publications include Gallery of Curiosities, peculiar, and The Weird and Whatnot. His plays have been produced by Alphabet Soup (Whim Productions) and 6×10 Play Festival (Barn Players) and selected for readings at the William Inge Theater Festival and the Midwest Dramatists Conference. He performs across the U.S. with That’s No Movie, a multi-genre improv team. Web: https://johnamusesnoone.com/. Twitter: @JohnAmusesNoOne.

Larry Hodges – The Pushovers of Galactic Baseball Fame

The Pushovers of Galactic Baseball Fame

By Larry Hodges

Baseball. It’s my life.

Grandparent Two once said that baseball started out in some world with bipeds, where the best players played in front of huge, screaming crowds. Why would anyone want to watch the best players? It’s like rubbing in your face that you’re inferior. I think Grandparent made that up.

Today we’re up against the Sirius Suckers, and it’s my turn at bat. I clutch the bat in four tentacles and take a few practice swings. I’ve trained my whole life for this. Parent One said if you want to be good at something, you must be single-minded about it, so while the other kids were tossing balls around and growing neuron connections, I spent years trying not to move or do anything that might develop tentacle-eye coordination. Our fans love that I have the skill of a blind snapanzee, and I need to stay that way. I get paid for being a klutz. I play center field for the Polaris Pushovers, and once almost caught a ball.

Now I glare at the purple-eyed pitcher, and she glares back. I take a deep breath and stare at the ball balanced on the tee in front of me. It’s bottom of the ninth, two outs, and as usual, nobody’s scored, though we came close in the fourth when the Suckers committed five errors on one play but our guy tripped six times and was out at the plate by half a snoogal, bless his two hearts.

Our fans cheer, not wanting me to do anything skillful that might show them up. I’m good at that, though I tapped a foul in the third. I’m going to put all my weight into my swing, like in the sixth when I accidentally let go of the bat and sent it over the left field fence. Now I’m using an unfamiliar bat, which should help me mess up.

I swing high and whiff and fall flat on my eyequills. The opposing fans scream about my body odor, but not showering is one of my trademarks. Strike one.

I step out of the batter’s box and call a snack time-out, and out comes the trainer. He stuffs a spoonful of live grubbies into my beak. I’ve never fed myself–learning to navigate a spoon means developing coordination, which could translate into baseball and ruin my career. I swallow the grubbies and step back into the batter’s box. The newfound energy should make my swing a bit more wild, since that last swing was actually kinda close.

I stare at the ball, still perched on the tee like a black hole wrapped in skafelly skin that’s determined not to budge, and it’s probably right, but we gotta play the game. I swing even harder. This time I swing too low and smack the tee, and the ball wobbles. Ow!!! That stings. But I’m a pro so I’m used to that. The opposing fans jeer how stupid I am, and I have the IQ tests to prove it. Strike two.

We’re down to our final strike and we’ve done nothing well, thank goodness. Our fans are on their tentacle tips and the opposing fans chitter they want a hitter not an underwear snipper. I stare at the ball and try to smack it, but swing two feet over it. But I stumble, and just before I fall on my skoofal the bat somehow hits the ball. It’s a screaming grounder that’s slowly making its way to the shocked pitcher, who hasn’t touched a ball all season.

I vaguely remember what to do in this situation and pull all twelve tentacles into a tight ball and roll toward first base. The pitcher trips over the ball—she’s a pro. I roll into first, and I’m on to second in a glaringly stupid baserolling mistake—there’s no chance I make it to second on time, and I’ve never made it to second base before. The pitcher, after fumbling the ball three times, finally kicks the ball really hard with a tentacle and the ball’s rolling faster than me and beats me by five snoogals, but the Sirius Sucker at second watches the ball roll between his suckers, and his fans nod and cheer him and the pitcher, knowing they could have made those plays.

I continue to third, slipping only twice, as the three outfielders collided and fall down with concussions, a real problem for us professional athletes. One groggily swats the ball toward home as I round third. Some are booing displeasure at my heroics, but it was an accident, honest, and the play isn’t over. I could still mess up.

The catcher trips over home plate but the ball rolls into his beak and he clomps down on it like he’s hungry, but at least he doesn’t swallow it, since he’s a pro. They got me beat, but I roll on cuz like I said, I’m a pro too. The catcher flings himself down and his head smacks into mine, and somehow he holds onto the ball but loses three incisors. I’m out.

“Safe!” screams the mistaken umpire, who like all umpires can’t see straight. She’s a pro too, can’t blame her mess-up since it’s the first time she ever called a play at the plate. And we win!!!

Our fans race onto the field, flashing red and feeling inferior, and tear off three of my tentacles before I make it to the safety of the clubhouse. It won’t hurt my game. But I’ll be released for sure. My agent is going bonkers—on the one tentacle, I’m a free agent and I’m so bad, I might get big bucks, but on the other, I just made a whole crowd of fans feel bad about themselves, a really rotten and unprofessional thing to do. It’ll knock my market value down. But the talent scouts, they’ve seen me play, and if they can convince ownership that I’m still a klutz, then big money, here I come!!!

Larry Hodges, from Germantown, MD, is an active member of Science Fiction Writers of America with over 110 short story sales and four novels, including “Campaign 2100: Game of Scorpions,” which covers the election for President of Earth in the year 2100, and “When Parallel Lines Meet,” which he co-wrote with Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn. He’s a member of Codexwriters, and a graduate of the Odyssey and the Taos Toolbox Writers Workshops. In the world of non-fiction, he has 17 books and over 2000 published articles in over 170 different publications. He’s also a member of the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame, and claims to be the best table tennis player in Science Fiction Writers of America, and the best science fiction writer in USA Table Tennis! Visit him at larryhodges.com.

John Adams – Butter-drenched Fingers, Clasped Tightly in Prayer

Butter-drenched Fingers, Clasped Tightly in Prayer

By John Adams

Dear God, I am very much sorry about three things.

First, I am very much sorry for not praying recently. That is Petunia’s fault. She sleeps in the next cot and teases me for praying. I am glad you did not put me on Earth to judge others. I would very much judge Petunia.

Second, I am very much sorry about the thing I did that made one person die and another person go to jail and another person say a naughty word meaning “bottom.” That is also Petunia’s fault.

Third, I am very much sorry I stuck my fingers in the butter at Fancy Lunch. That is my fault.

Let me tell you more about the second thing, which is Petunia’s fault.

We had just served Fancy Lunch to Matron Malloy’s lady friends from the Gentlewomen of Johnson County. (They are much friendlier than her grumpy man friends from Kansas City.)

We were in the parlor of our orphanage—Malloy’s Girls Home—in the godly community of Mission, Kansas.

“Bewildered Belinda, the yellow-belly!” Petunia sang. The other girls cackled.

“I am no yellow-belly!” I hollered. “I am brave, like the Christians who enforce Prohibition across our nation. And stop calling me ‘Bewildered Belinda’!”

“I shall call you whatever I please, Bewildered Belinda.” Petunia pushed tiny, hobbled Emma aside and loomed over me. “Now, go wash your hands. They’re still buttery.”

Matron Malloy stepped into the parlor, thwapping her cane against the wooden floor. “Girls! Time for your performance!” We scurried outside. (I went last so I could lick my delicious fingers in private.)

Now, let me tell you about our performance.

Last month, Matron Malloy took us via locomotive into Kansas City to see Daisy Daydream’s Farm—my first-ever moving picture. I laughed when Daisy stomped on the bottom of the rake. The handle shot up and knocked her noggin! (You should see it, God!)

The only part I did not like was whenever Daisy talked, because the screen showed words I could not read. Petunia called them “title cards.” She teased me that Daisy was telling the whole theater what a yellow-belly I am. (Petunia fibs!)

Matron Malloy goes to Kansas City often, but never before with us. This was a special night. When we returned, she announced we were to perform a play based on the very picture show we just watched—for none other than the Gentlewomen of Johnson County! If we delighted them, they would “take us up as their cause,” which Matron Malloy said was a good thing.

We rehearsed our play in the garden every afternoon for weeks. Each day, I cried to Matron Malloy, begging her to let me play Daisy Daydream. She chose Petunia instead and cast me as Pig #2. (That made me cross, which is why I took your name in vain that one day, so I guess that is a fourth thing I apologize for, God.)

The day of the play, the Gentlewomen of Johnson County arrived in sleek motorcars. We served them what Matron Malloy called “Fancy Lunch.” (The butter was very fancy, indeed!) The ladies wore crepe dresses and felt hats—even Matron Malloy brought her nicest cane!

During Fancy Lunch, one of Matron Malloy’s grumpy Kansas City friends visited. I very much did not like him. (Nor would you, God.) He had a crooked nose and crossed arms. Matron Malloy glared at him, the way she once glared when tiny, hobbled Emma slurped applesauce.

After Fancy Lunch, we performed Daisy Daydream’s Farm. It was horrible. The crooked-nose man just scowled, arms crossed. The society ladies called me “piglet.” Worse still, when Petunia stepped on the rake, she dodged! It didn’t knock her noggin—not even a little! (I now agree with other Christians that acting is sinful.)

Afterwards, the Gentlewomen of Johnson County left, cooing of “temperance” and “temperament.”

But that crooked-nose man? He didn’t leave. When Matron Malloy ordered us girls to bed, he stayed.

In the parlor.

With her.

Arms crossed.

I lay in my cot, thinking about that spooky fellow. And about something else, too: Petunia’s teasing. “I’m no yellow-belly, Petunia,” I muttered to myself, throwing off my blanket.

“Belinda?” croaked tiny, hobbled Emma.

“Hush,” I whispered, racing down the hall.

I quietly opened the parlor door, peeking inside. The crooked-nose man clenched Matron Malloy’s bony shoulders. “Boss Pendergast says you’re skimmin’ off his booze money out here in the boonies,” he hissed. “Time for retirement.”

My very frightened throat squeaked.

“Huh?” The crooked-nose man twisted around, releasing Matron Malloy.

She sighed, yanked her cane forward, and thwapped his crooked nose.

14 times.

It only took six.

He lay before her, bleeding. He twitched… sputtered… stopped. Matron Malloy casually shrugged dirt from her nice dress, smiling at me. But not a nice smile. “Good girls stay in bed, Belinda. Naughty girls… get punished.”

She lunged across the parlor. I scampered back, ducking as her bloody cane whooshed by my head. I dashed out the front door, Matron Malloy close behind. Shrieking, I ran across the garden, hopping over set pieces from the afternoon’s performance.

Something wooden thwapped behind me. I was certain it was the cane, sending me to heaven.

But instead of angels… I heard tiny, hobbled Emma’s victory cheer: “Her [naughty word] is clobbered!” (I won’t repeat Emma’s actual word, God, because it is naughty and means “bottom,” but it also means “donkey,” so if you want to pretend she meant “donkey,” I will share that the word was “ass.”)

Thank you, God. Thank you for leaving that rake where Matron Malloy would stomp, knocking her noggin into deep sleep. Thank you for sending us Mrs. Salisbury, our new matron who is not (as the Gentlewomen of Johnson County whisper) “enmeshed in moonshine, murder, and that ghastly Kansas City mafia.” And thank you for finally stopping Petunia from calling me “Bewildered Belinda.” I very much prefer my new name: “Brave Belinda.”

Please forgive my four trespasses. In Jesus’s name, amen.

John Adams (he/him/his) is a writer, improviser, and producer from Kansas City. He primarily writes the genre he’s coined “inclusive absurdist speculative melodrama” – which means “monsters, aliens, and ridiculously huge emotions.” His fiction has been selected for publication by Dream of Shadows, Siren’s Call, 101words.org, and The Drabble and shortlisted in The Molotov Cocktail’s 2019 Flash Monster Contest. His plays have been produced by Alphabet Soup (Whim Productions, 2018, 2020) and the 6×10 Play Festival (The Barn Players, 2016) and selected for readings for the Midwest Dramatists Conference (Midwest Dramatists Center, 2017, 2018, 2019). He performs at comicons and comedy festivals across the United States with That’s No Movie, a multi-genre improv team. Web: http://JohnAmusesNoOne.com. Twitter: @JohnAmusesNoOne.

Paper Butterfly Flash Fiction is now open to submissions! UPDATE: CLOSED

SUBMISSIONS:  OPEN TO SUBMISSIONS BETWEEN OCTOBER 20, 2020 AND NOVEMBER 5, 2020 ~   NOW CLOSED!

YES, PLEASE:

Flash fiction stories only.  Word count: 1,000 or less.

English language only.

Original work only.

Genre: science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, humour, western, mystery, literary…and any variation or combination thereof.  If in doubt, send it along – you never know.

Multiple submissions:  feel free to send as many submissions as you wish to during the reading period.  Please send each submission in separate emails.

Simultaneous submissions: all good. If your story is selected for publication elsewhere, please contact me right away to withdraw it from my consideration.

NO, THANK YOU:

Word count over the limit.

Poetry, non-fiction, essays, children’s stories, anything other than flash fiction.

Erotica, excessive gore, abuse, or ‘isms such as racism, sexism, etc..

Overly saucy language.  I don’t mind swear words, I just would prefer to keep the content on the site closer to the PG side of things.

Reprints.

Stories sent outside of the reading period.

Artwork.

Queries. They’re not necessary.  Send me your work if you think there’s a chance I might like it.  Please don’t ask me about your submission after you’ve sent it. I will get back to you by December 15, 2020.  

FORMATTING:

I’m not picky about fonts or font sizes or margins or paragraph indentations or anything of the sort.  I will format your work to fit the site if it is accepted for publication.  If your story has an experimental form and I accept it, we’ll work together to ensure it is posted properly.

Cover letters are not required.

Your contact information (name, email address) MUST be included somewhere in your submission.

Please watch your spelling and grammar – if your story is littered with errors, I am likely to give it less of a chance.  Don’t worry about American/Canadian/British spelling; I’ll sort it all out.

Submissions may be an attachment (.rtf, .docx., .doc) or pasted into the body of your email – it’s up to you.

If edits are required, I will make them and send you the proof for confirmation before publication on the website.

If your work is accepted, I will ask for a short bio.  This will be an opportunity to add a link to your author’s website or blog.

REMUNERATION:

If your story is accepted for publication, you will be paid $15.00 (Canadian funds).  Please note that if you live in countries outside of Canada, the exchange rate may mean you don’t quite make fifteen bucks from your story.  I’m sorry about that, but if it’s a problem, please don’t send me your work.  Payment will be issued via PayPal.  In order to receive payment, your PayPal email address must be provided to me.

  • If your story is selected for publication during the October/November reading period, payment will be issued on or before January 15, 2021.

PUBLICATION:

Authors retain all rights to their work.

Bear in mind that if your story is posted on Paper Butterfly Flash Fiction (or anywhere else on the Internet, for that matter), you may not be able to submit it to another publisher as it will be considered a “reprint.”

If, for some reason, you wish to withdraw your story from Paper Butterfly Flash Fiction’s website, please send me a message and I’ll remove it as quickly as I can.  Again, it will still count as a “reprint” in the view of a future publisher, even if it has only been posted for a short time.

If your story is accepted, I will let you know when I plan to post it on the website.  It will be posted on the first day of that month. 

OTHER THINGS YOU MIGHT WANT TO KNOW:

I will send you a confirmation of receipt of your story within 72 hours of your submission.

I must apologize, but I cannot offer more than a form rejection letter at this time.

SEND SUBMISSIONS to shrob17(at)hotmail(dot)ca. I will not consider submissions sent outside of the reading period, so double check that it is open before sending me your work.

I’m looking forward to seeing your work!

Sheryl

Cassandra Schoeber – Judgement Peak

Judgement Peak 

By 

Cassandra Schoeber

Through the thick canvas of white cloud, my fingers grip the smooth rocky ledge forming the peak of Mount Harvey. I glance down at Roland, still a dozen feet below me, gasping for air as he hikes up the thirty degree incline.

“Almost there!” I shout, pulling myself up through the dense cloud layer. “I’ll make sure everyone knows who won!”

“Whatever, Mike!” Roland’s voice sounds muted in between his gasps. I chuckle, imagining telling the other guards at North Fraser Pre-Trial how Roland’s spare tire lost him the bet of a hundred bucks.

A stone platform appears above the clouds. A white sea stretches from horizon to horizon. The bright sun shimmers through the blue sky. My bare scalp feels the deep chill carried on the breeze of this Saturday in late September. Snow will soon cover this peak, pausing my hiking until next spring.

The flat shelf spans twenty feet. Someone built a brilliantly balanced inukshuk in the centre, two vertical pylons of blackened grey rock supporting six horizontal slabs and a stone sphere on the top. It resembles a man, welcoming new travelers. Impressive, whoever carried those rocks up the fourteen hundred meter elevation gain. I rest my red hiking pack nearby and sit on the edge, my feet hanging over, hovering just above the clouds.

No one in sight. I sigh and smile.

“How you doing, Roland?” My voice sounds like its sucked into a vacuum. So quiet up here, my pulse claps within like thunder.

Rocks scrape, trickling down and out of hearing zone. But no reply. I lean forward, seeing only clouds. A breeze strikes my head with an icy chill.

“Roland?” I swallow, my chest tightens. “Answer me.”

Twisting, I prepare to descend. I halt. What if he’s right below me, breathing too hard to answer, and then I step down and knock him off?

“Roland. Tell me you’re there.”

Wind gusts upwards, reeking of gasoline. I choke. My eyes water as a memory blazes.

One year ago today. Our transport van overturned. Gas leaking across the road.

My fingers grip the ledge, knuckles white. “Roland! Goddamn it, answer me!”

Rocks cascade down, clinking below me, like metal against metal.

“Shit.” I sprint back and grab my bag, glad my wife nagged me to refill my first aid kit. Roland may have fallen, lying there broken and bleeding.

My gaze catches on a metal circle attached to the Daisy chain at the back of the pack. A pair of blackened handcuffs hang down.

Blistering heat flows through the pack’s straps and floods my hands. I tense, drop the bag.

“Roland.” My teeth clench. “That’s not funny.”

Pain builds in the back of my throat. I yank my jacket zipper down to my chest. Roland probably put the handcuffs there for a good laugh, knowing I still had dreams about the crash.

About the fire. About the man cuffed and locked inside.

It was just an accident, Roland kept saying. But I knew otherwise. We had enough time to open the door. Instead, we stood there. Listening to him scream for help as he burned alive.

The straps now cool, I swing my bag on my back, the handcuffs clinking, and begin my descent. My feet reach beneath the layer of cloud, searching for a foothold.

Nothing but air.

My heart races. My arms weaken as they hold my upper body to the ledge. Feet dangling with only cloud below me, I haul myself back up. Throat thick, I can’t speak. I just sit, legs over the ledge, stunned. The swirling clouds undulate, as if the peak of Mount Harvey is adrift on the open sea.

This can’t be happening.

Another breeze hits like ice water splashing against my face. I gasp for breath, the smell of gasoline laced with burning metal. My eyes water. My neck prickles.

Behind me, there is a flash of heat as if flames have erupted on the rocky peak. I hear crackling, fire ripping through steel.

Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around.

I close my eyes. I’m trained to guard and transport the worst offenders. I’ve stood my ground against men who’ve lost their shit after getting sentenced. But now, my pulse booms in my ears, my heart nearly exploding.

Flashing across my eyelids, I see the green eyes of the dirty con locked in the van. He looks at me through the back window. He blinks just before a raging fire engulfs everything but his screams into flames.

My eyes snap open. The clouds rise up like billowing smoke, enveloping me, surrounding me, until I see nothing but white.

Behind, the heat presses, forcing me closer to the edge.

Clink. Chain sounds scrape against the rock but I refuse to turn around. I shake my head.

This isn’t happening.

Clink. The chains near.

Like puffs of smoke, the clouds surround my face, seeping into my mouth. I inhale the taste of charred ash and iron. My chest tightens sharply, my lungs seize. I gasp for breath. Head heavy, I rock side to side, black spots in my vision. On the back of my neck, a heated breath exhales. Rocks crash behind. Something rolls to the side of my thigh. The stone sphere from atop the inukshuk. It slows, pauses, then tips over the edge.

I turn and gaze into the swirling white clouds. Green eyes stare back.

Backwards, I fall. But a hand grabs my wrist.

“What the hell?” Roland yanks me forward onto the platform. My heart blasts against my ribs, my feet heavy against the stone.

He leans in, brows raised. “You okay, Mike?”

I nod, gulping.

“Good.” He slaps my back and thunders with laughter. “I may have lost a hundred bucks but I’ll still be telling everyone that I had to save your sorry ass.”

I nod again, lick my lips. My skin prickles. All around is white. But from within the clouds, something waits. I feel it. Watching me.

 

 

Cassandra Schoeber is a dark fantasy writer but sometimes weirdness and horror creep into her stories, wreak havoc, and eat innocent bystanders.  

She has published one novella, Ravenous, as well as several short stories, including: “Within This Body of Stone I Scream” (The Arcanist); “Hidden in the Shadow of a God” (Fantasia Divinity Magazine); and “Let It Snow” (Silver Apples Magazine).

 

 

Steve Pease – Dinner Party

Dinner Party

by

Steve Pease

Your surroundings are lavish; marble pillars and balustrades, antique parquet flooring, luxurious velvet drapes that are the crushed blue-black of sin. Crystal that dazzles the eye. A ceiling painted by Michelangelo.

There is too much to take in with just one sweep around the room.

Your host for the night is tall and thin. And, although he is so very, very pale against the midnight of his hair and clothing, yes, he is undoubtedly handsome.

All the women are beautiful and have hourglass figures; as if they’d been sketched by artists from the golden age of pulp-magazines … or by the imaginations of teenage boys on hormone overload.

Generally, you would admit, you are jaded. Life is wealth and position, gained with no merit. And you are always tired, or, maybe, just plain bored. After all, you gave up your three previous partners because they were hugely successful … and hugely monotonous.

But this is different; this promises to be fun.

Early on, you make two mistakes about the evening’s entertainment. Firstly, you discount the female trio, singing in the corner, as paid performers. Then – as men old enough to know better dash good sense against the rocks of their allure – you re-appraise the quality of the dresses they wear, and the jewelry they display. And you conclude that the women are invitees; and that the thrall they cast with their song is not forged for fiscal reward, but for their own empowerment, enjoyment, and desire.

Secondly, you realize that the harlequin you’d assumed to be cabaret is not performing his antics for some master. In fact, he is a house guest. Yes, he cavorts, and he tumbles. Yes, he magics, and pranks, and dances. But, it turns out, it is all for the heart of his Colombina. A heart which he carries everywhere, and which he will proudly show to anyone who asks.

The room, you now establish, is far bigger than it first seemed. Toward the far end, you focus on what you believed was an aquarium, and determine that it is more of a glass-contained ocean. And the fish within it is whiskered. And human-like. And carries a trident. And its malevolent gaze follows you hungrily.

You sense an oasis, and there, alone and undisturbed in the corner, is a bearded old man. He holds an hour glass, his head rests upon the handle of a scythe, and he sleeps. Very much like he has seen all of this – and more – many times before.

Disorientated, you draw your focus back to the dining table.

Timid? A coward? You find it too hard to engage with the seeming burns victim, who is swathed in bandages and sporting sunglasses. So, you just act like you can’t see him.

Initially, you cannot make sense of the seating plan diagonally across from you. One moment you’re exchanging words with an urbane, well-attired gentleman, who is both eloquent and informed about all issues scientific. Then he leaves the room, to be replaced by some rough-looking fellow; brutish and almost incoherent, who does nothing but stare at you with a lascivious look in his eyes. Only after several substitutions, do you realize they’re the same person. And all you can think is, what the hell is he snorting out there?

Earlier, the – admittedly hirsute – gent to your left had engaged you in articulate exchange. He was assured and confident (apart from a seeming aversion to the candlesticks; which he shied away from, as if their metal touch might brand him). He told you he was a student of zoology, and that he had travelled extensively across Europe and North America. Now, as the night has lengthened – if your imagination is not playing tricks – so too have his hair and fingernails. Upon his cravat, he sports spots that you took first for bolognaise. In truth, the source was a Milanese sauce – a temptress to tempt the beast in men, and headstrong enough to walk home alone. For a little way, at least.

You sip another champagne. And it is now (I think it is now, isn’t it?) that you have your gestalt; your lucidity; your Damascene moment. Amidst the madness and monstrosity; the feast of potential; the smorgasbord of saturnalia, sadism, and seduction; you ask yourself – what price ordinariness? And you name yourself near-fool, when you recall how you almost sent a rather impolite RSVP: “Thank you, but I find costume parties boring.”

As the evening draws to a close, your aristocratic host asks you to dance. And, like all the other women here, when you gaze into those eyes, you find it impossible to say nay.

 

 

Steve Pease lives in Northern England, with a long-suffering, but awesome wife, two beautiful Labradors, some graying hair, and a Tanglewood guitar that wishes he could play it better.

He once had a ‘real’ job drafting stuff for British politicians, and argues – rather convincingly – that this was the perfect apprenticeship for crafting fiction. 

Nancy Brewka-Clark – Familiar

Familiar

by

Nancy Brewka-Clark

“Mistress Lorna Fey?” At the crone’s nod, Kate whispered, “I need a hex.”

“Ah. Come in, and take a seat.”

A swirl around her ankles almost tripped Kate up. “What a lovely kitty.”

“He’s a Scottish Fold. Tips of his ears bend right over like a lightning-riven birch. He likes you, don’t you, Greymalkin? Mustn’t let him be overly familiar.”

“Just like Roger Laniger,” Kate sighed.

“Ro-o-o-o-ger,” the cat yowled, quite clearly, and then spat.

“Greymalkin has no use for weasels,” Lorna said. “Nor do I.”

Kate frowned. “But I didn’t say anything about weasels.”

Lorna cackled. “Laniger is the Latin word for weasel. May I ask what yours has done?”

“Ever since he moved into my building he’s been stalking me.” Kate shivered. “Yesterday he told me he slept with my picture beneath his pillow.”

“Weasels make terrible lovers. All slither.” Lorna was scribbling on a yellow legal pad. “Six curses on his head I shall bestow, and put a sterile curse on all that hangs below.” She tore off the sheet and handed it to Kate. “Remember, spells are made of wishes transformed into words. There is no room for error.”

“Thank you, Mistress Fey.” Opening her purse, Kate thrust in the paper. “What do I owe you?”

“Just one little thing,” Lorna said as she ushered Kate to the door. “I suppose you think I took no notice of your dire shock upon seeing the crone I’ve become.”

“You do look a bit different from your ads,” Kate said. “I apologize.”

“All flesh perishes. But, the spirit? Never. My thousand years in this realm is rapidly drawing to an end. I’ll soon be on a distant plane, and you will take my place. ”

Kate stared at her.

“One seeks, the other finds. One gives, the other takes. One must go, the other must stay. Not that it’s a hardship to wield power. Just the opposite.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will.” With a sly grin, Lorna shut the door.

***

Licking his lips, Roger Laniger undid the security chain. “Yo, hot mama, come on in.”

Rapidly Kate spat out each line of the curse until she got to the grand climax. “With currant eyes and pelt as rough as teasel, he’ll run—”

“S-s-s-s-s,” something hissed at her feet.

“—right up my leg! No!”

The weasel scrambled across her right breast to sling itself around her neck. Digging in its claws, it hissed, “Turn me back into a man, you witch, or I’ll bite your ear off.”

“You bite my ear off and I’ll throw you to the dogs.” Kate didn’t actually know any dogs, not savage ones, anyway. The dogs she did know were meek little things on dainty leashes with sparkling collars or bright bandannas. “And I’m not a witch.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” the weasel snarled.

Kate rushed for the staircase with Roger Laniger, now a ferret playing the role of albatross, slung about her neck. Out to the car she dashed, and peeled out of the parking lot to drive off in high gear. And all the while her unwelcome passenger was growling such dire imprecations Kate snapped, “Woof, woof, weasel,” which silenced him for the rest of the ride.

“Lorna?” Kate turned the old brass doorknob. Much to her horror, the purple door swung open onto a realm of cavernous darkness. “Are you in there?”

“About time,” a voice called from the back of the bungalow as a row of candles lit themselves on the mantel. Kate almost wept with relief as Lorna came into the room towing a huge black suitcase. “My plane leaves at eight.” Lorna peered at her. “Brought your own familiar, did you? Greymalkin will have something to say about that.”

“No, no. This is the pest I was telling you about.”

Lorna rubbed her chin, where some white hairs had just sprouted out of a black mole in apparent evidence of her rapidly accelerating decrepitude. “Got careless with the precise words, did you?”

Kate blushed. “I was in the middle of my final curse when he turned into a weasel and scurried up my leg.”

Lorna limped over to scowl at the trembling weasel. “Go home, Roger Laniger, under your own steam. What happened here was all a dream.” She snapped her fingers. “Now flee!”

Lorna and Kate burst into laughter at the sight of Roger, restored to human form, running down the street like a marathoner. When Kate finally turned away from the window, Lorna was cradling a thick volume bound in black leather in her arms.

“Time for a little witchspeak before I vanish into the ether. Verily,” Lorna cackled, “thou shalt never be short of customers. This I swear by the hairs on my chinny-chin-chin.”

“So that’s what they’re doing there,” Kate said.

“To everything there is a purpose,” Lorna wheezed.

“Without you, how will I know what it is?”

“You’ll have plenty of time to read the manual,” Lorna said.

“Verily,” Kate giggled.

And from beneath the sofa, Greymalkin yowled in anticipatory glee.

 

 

A longtime author of flash drama, nonfiction, poetry and fiction, Nancy Brewka-Clark is delighted that “Familiar” is the third story of hers to appear in  Paper Butterfly Flash Fiction. Her debut poetry collection Beautiful Corpus will be published by Kelsay Books in June 2020.

Renee Carter Hall – Penultimate

Penultimate

By

Renee Carter Hall

The room had crashed again. Instead of the rose-patterned wallpaper and the burlap-textured accent wall, the living room glowed fluorescent blue slashed with jagged red lines. She sighed and started the reset, waiting through the parade of logos and offers for upgrades, until the news feed finally came up, tastefully bordered in a gilt frame.

The headlines swept past, each lingering only as long as the room’s interface gauged her level of interest. Updates on the wars, a celebrity’s wedding, the latest public pleas for medical assistance, the new hors d’oeuvre everyone was making, the week’s political scandals ranked in a top-five format. She frowned at one item, and at her concentration it expanded into immersion, trading the walls around her for video and audio.

The last tiger had died, it said, in captivity at one of the western sanctuaries. It was a female, twenty-two years old, named Grace. The video of her caretaker finding the body was both distressing and compelling in its grief, and it played through twice until she closed her eyes. When she opened them, a wave of comments washed by, video and text, crying avatar faces and platitudes, each blending into the next. RIP Grace. Beautiful creature. So sad!!! Then a smattering of cat pictures shared for no apparent reason.

She wondered how many of the people mourning had ever seen a tiger other than in an immersion. The last zoos had become sanctuaries, closed to the public, when she was still a teenager. She had a vague childhood memory of a striped back pressed up against the glass, the tiger asleep on a summer afternoon, mixed in with the scent of popcorn and hot dogs.

The feed moved on, but sluggishly. She still scanned the headlines, but the interface could tell her attention was elsewhere. Finally a soft chime noted that it was her preferred bedtime, so she turned the feed back to the wallpaper and went to bed.

All night, her mind cycled back through photos, videos, a gallery of tigers, an endless parade, as if her own mental feed had gotten stuck on a single subject. Had it known, she wondered, that it was the last? How did anyone know, for certain, that it was the last? Had people so filled in every space, that there was no camouflage left?

She thought of old maps. Here there be dragons, or monsters. Or tigers. That time when there were still gaps big enough to hold entire creatures. That time where a person could not know something and have to live with not knowing it, unable to answer every question in an instant.

She dreamt of forests, of jungles, unmapped spaces where leaf and stone had never felt the sound of a human voice. She followed trails through a dense tangle of lush growth, and when the trail ended, she pulled vines and pushed brush aside with bare hands that ended in curving claws. She dropped to all fours and felt her spine flex. Colour became scent, and sound sharpened.

The next morning, she woke surprised to see her own hands. Her body felt clumsy and foreign. The news feed had long since moved on, and there was nothing else to say about the last tiger. The human community had noted the loss appropriately and grieved it appropriately, but now there was something new that required its due performance of sadness or anger or amusement. To linger too long was to risk being left behind.

She could not think of words to match what she still felt. Something had changed in the shape of the world, but she couldn’t define it, not even to mark it as a loss or a gain. It was something about being the last, though, and something about being alone, of having no one else’s opinions inside your head. It was something about having a pattern all your own, right down to the skin.

She knew, then, that the feed was wrong. If this wild solitude could linger in her, then wildness could always find a place to hide. The last tiger was not lying dead in a security video, caged in pixels of a news feed. It was out there, somewhere in the patches of forest that remained, always at the edges of vision, always a glimpse of pelt, a flash of eye. There would be rumours, but no one would ever find it. It would move through the city streets when everyone was asleep. It would slip through the feed, lurking in the spaces between words. It would live in the eternity between instants, and it would never have a name.

 

Renee Carter Hall’s short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including Strange Horizons, Podcastle, and Daily Science Fiction. She lives in West Virginia with her husband, their cat, and more books than she will ever have time to read, and readers can find her online at www.reneecarterhall.com and on Twitter as @RCarterHall.

Steve Tem – The Family Man

The Family Man

By

Steve Tem

The suspect’s broad, pallid face betrayed no emotion, but the detective noticed a distinct twitch in the left eye. He was a large man, and held himself very still, only his eyes moving, and occasionally his lips, which he alternately stretched and pursed, as if exercising them in preparation for some sort of strenuous oral activity. The detective found this profoundly unsettling to watch. He sensed that this family man, seemingly devoid of emotion, actually possessed emotion in abundance. But it was deeply buried within that pale grave of flesh.

“Where is your family?” the detective asked again.

The suspect looked puzzled. “I already told you. They’re at home. Safe at home. When can I go back there? I’ve never been away from my family this long.”

“I doubt you’ll be going home at all. In fact, I’d bet on it.” The suspect, still calm, stared at him as if he were a curiosity. The detective, painfully uncomfortable with the man’s gaze and troubled by his complete lack of progress, left the station and drove to the suspect’s home. Two vans from forensics were parked out front. Several uniformed officers canvased the neighborhood. A team of investigators wearing white CSI coveralls, blue PVC overshoes, and nitrile gloves were digging up the front lawn. A large number of wooden crates had already been excavated. He let himself inside the house.

The living room was pristine and sparsely furnished. No magazines on the tables, or ash trays or knickknacks. One interior wall was roughly textured, embedded with sea shells, small stones, and other conglomerated materials. It was different, but oddly pleasing, a piece of the outdoors brought inside. The other walls were plaster-pale. The deep-pile carpeting was white and definitely not kid-friendly. The entire house was like that, more like a model home than where a family actually lived. The scene investigator was jotting down notes just inside the kitchen doorway. He looked up. “Hello, Lieutenant. I should get this guy to clean my house. This place is immaculate.”

“What did you find in the crates he buried?”

“Everything I’d expected to find in the house. Kids’ clothing, toys, a woman’s clothing, purse, make-up, personal items. None of it new. Lots of wear and tear, the toys a little on the shabby side. I don’t think they spent much money on the kids.”

“All the crates were full?”

“Most of them stuffed. Except for four larger crates buried in the side yard. Each was empty except for a single item.”

The detective walked around the room, stared at the conglomerate wall. “What were those single items?”

The investigator read from his clipboard. “Three contained a flannel blanket with cartoon characters on them: birds on one, fish on another, and something I couldn’t identify on the third. Looked like a pig, maybe. The fourth crate held a woman’s cotton robe. Pastel green, plain, no frills.”

“Any organic material?”

“I sent them all to the lab. They were pretty filthy. I’m guessing yes, fluids of some kind. No visible blood.”

“I want a catalog of everything you found in every crate. By tomorrow if possible.”

The investigator scratched his head, made a note. “Of course. But about those four big crates. All the others were near-perfect, smooth. But those four had lots of dings and scrapes across the tops and corners. The newer marks are a good match for that shovel he had in the garage. The older ones were made by something else.”

The detective stopped pacing and stared at him. “Older ones?”

“Yeah. Judging by the marks on the wood, and the condition of the soil, I’m pretty sure those four crates were dug up, pried open, and reburied again. Multiple times, over a period of years.”

The investigator returned to the excavation work outside. The detective got down on his knees and examined the carpet. It had been thoroughly combed, and the contents filed in envelopes. There hadn’t been much: a few hairs, foreign fibers, minute slivers of plastic, glass. The suspect was beyond fussy. The detective wondered how much time the large man had actually spent in this living room—it looked more for display than for living. He noticed four deep indentations in the carpet about two feet in front of the conglomerate wall. He brought in one of the kitchen chairs. The legs matched the indentations, but only with the chair facing the wall. He sat down and gazed forward. It was like staring at a cliff, at geographic strata. He imagined himself the suspect, that big pale face pushed forward, expressionless.

He thought about how deep the indentations in the carpet were. He thought of that large man sitting here for hours on end, his weight pushing the chair legs deeper and deeper into the carpet. He thought of the man exercising his mouth. A family man, thinking about his family. The detective had a family of his own, a beautiful wife and three rambunctious boys. Oh, the noise they made. The mess. But he adored those kids, how they jumped on him as soon as he walked through the door, consuming him.

He leaned closer. His breathing grew labored. There by one of the stones, a very small detached fingernail floated in the cement. And the stone itself was so white and smooth, and the way it was dimpled, it might have been bone.

 

Steve Rasnic Tem is a past winner of the Bram Stoker, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards. He’s published over 400 short stories. His most recent collections are The Harvest Child And Other Fantasies (Crossroads) and Everything Is Fine Now (Omnium Gatherum). His last novel Ubo (Solaris, February 2017) is a dark science fictional tale about violence and its origins, featuring such historical viewpoint characters as Jack the Ripper, Stalin, and Heinrich Himmler. Yours To Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing, written with his late wife Melanie, appeared from Apex Books in 2017. Last year Valancourt Books published Figures Unseen, a volume of his Selected Stories. The Mask Shop of Doctor Blaack, a middle grade novel about Halloween, also appeared from Hex Publishers.