“A Frightening Metaphysical Puzzle” was first published in Illumen (Vol. X, No. 1, Autumn 2013).
When confronted by the stranger
demanding answers or else
a fate worse than death
is it better to be philosophical or practical
honest or deceptive?
The stranger, I should add,
is unearthly and sinister
with a gunlike apparatus
you don’t recognize
but assume is as functional
as any worldly weapon.
The questions, of course,
strain your intellectual grasp
and lifetime of this-planet experience,
questions that even astute theologians
and proficient game-show contestants
would have difficulty with.
Trembling, you answer question
after question, adrenaline somehow
conjuring up knowledge and wisdom
stumble on the tenth one
a frightening metaphysical puzzle
and pray that the gunlike apparatus
Canadian writer J. J. Steinfeld lives on Prince Edward Island, where he is patiently waiting for Godot’s arrival and a phone call from Kafka. While waiting, he has published seventeen books, including Disturbing Identities (Stories, Ekstasis Editions), Should the Word Hell Be Capitalized? (Stories, Gaspereau Press), Would You Hide Me? (Stories, Gaspereau Press), Misshapenness (Poetry, Ekstasis Editions), Identity Dreams and Memory Sounds (Poetry, Ekstasis Editions), Madhouses in Heaven, Castles in Hell (Stories, Ekstasis Editions), and An Unauthorized Biography of Being (110 Short Fictions Hovering Between the Absurd and the Existential, Ekstasis Editions).
Yes, I know. It’s been awhile. Life has thrown me a series of knuckleballs that body (and brain) slammed me. My last semester of university was a nightmare, but I got through… and have a nice expensive piece of paper to show for it. Then, between being fatigued all the time and shopping for a grad school, I kept shoving this magazine (which is honestly the joy of my life) further and further back on the back burner. So, it’s time. I’m feeling a bit better after changing my diet, getting more exercise and losing some weight. I’m still not one hundred percent, but I’m better than I was, so it is time to get the Traveler off hiatus and get cracking with publishing weird stories again. The Traveler has been on my mind during the past year. I’d like to do so much more with it. I’d like a new website for it, or at least a new banner and layout for this one.
As for starting this magazine again, I have made some small changes, some will be noted in the Submissions page. Most notably, starting from this point and going forward, I will select some original pieces each issue and mark them as Editor’s Choice. I am trying to get more into the habit of finding out when awards are issued, and nominating some stories/poetry. The Editor’s Choice asterisks will make it easier to find my favorites. Now, I just need to find more awards and keep track of when they accept nominations. Thank the gods for Google Calendar!
On that note, The Traveler has gotten some attention elsewhere, despite being offline for a year. In the last published issue, Issue 17: Drabble Stories, contributor Karen Bovenmyer and her drabble “What Dolls Eat” were recognized and nominated for a Dwarf Stars Award by the Science Fiction Poetry Association. That’s pretty big, for her especially, but also for this little rag.
A big shout out to Gwendolyn Kiste, who helped me read stories for this issue. And to all of the contributors who waited for over a year, thank you for your patience.
So, without further ado, I give you “Mark My Words.”
Issue #18: MARK MY WORDS: PROPHESY, SIGNS & PORTENTS
All images used are from Pixabay.
Through the fog of Bell Canyon, up the twisting forest roads, the smugglers’ oxen pulled their wagons. They came with barrels of powder under barrels of fish; pikes stacked in lumber; swords wrapped in cloth. Tools of killing hidden within the tools of living.
Every Sunday the peasants of Bell Canyon were awoken by the ringing of silver bells gifted to a string of village churches in the canyon by the benevolent Lord Carro. On Sunday morning, they echoed up the canyon to his loving ears. When the people heard the bells, they trod into church in holey shoes to be told of the dignity of poverty.
“The Lord rewards the honest, the pious, and the hardworking” says the fat priest. The Lord lives above them, in a castle, full of luxury and free from want or fear.
“Do the bells sound different to you?” asks Lord Carro of his valet. “Not as clear of a ring as there used to be.”
“Probably just the weather” says the valet. “The fog muffles the sound.”
On Sunday the peasants go to church and on Monday the wagons come. They come with barrels of powder under barrels of fish; pikes stacked in lumber; swords wrapped in cloth. They come with church bells made of tin and leave with silver by the pound.
Colin Rowe has been published by Cracked.com, The Eunoia Review, The Boston Literary Magazine, Pure Slush, Beyond Imagination Literary Magazine, and The Santa Fe Literary Review. He lives in the desert with a talking cat and tweets under the handle @lowericon.
This story was previously published in Siren’s Call in 2013
Sheila put down the cards and looked out the window. She’d done three readings already and all predicted sadness, regret, terror and the world ending in a flash of brilliant light.
She shuffled the cards again wondering how and when the world would end. She wasn’t ready to die, her children definitely weren’t ready and the human race would never be ready. Why … why … why … echoed through her head and she struggled to understand what she had seen through the tarot cards. It wasn’t that the cards actually told her things, she never learned how to read them. Rather the cards gave her images to decipher and she was rarely wrong when she interpreted them.
A shiver ran down her back, like the dead walking on your grave her mother, another woman in her family plagued with being psychic, was fond of saying.
Sheila rubbed her eyes, wishing her mother were alive. But the burden had been too great for her mom, the gift of second sight viewed as a curse. Sheila shuddered again as she remembered the day her cards told her that life was about to change forever and that she would suffer a hole where once there had been love. When the police came by that day and told her about the accident, Sheila knew that it hadn’t been an accident at all. Poor Mom couldn’t live with the knowledge of things to come.
She wiped at new tears as she remembered Randi stopping by for coffee and a reading just an hour earlier. Randi, her best friend, stopped by every morning for caffeine, gossip and her horrorscope, as she liked to call it, and every day Sheila read the cards and told her what to expect. But the vision that had burned into Sheila’s head this morning was cataclysmic. Nothing specific, just a bombardment of anger, grief and horror. She had shut her eyes but that didn’t stop the onslaught. When it finally subsided, she said, “Be careful today and oh yeah, be sure to avoid the midnight beach killer.
Randi smiled and shrugged, “Not possible, I’m never up past eleven-thirty, he hasn’t killed anyone in over a year and anyway he likes ‘em in their teens. Your powers are slipping.”
Sheila smiled back, forcing her lips into an upturned curve.
After Randi went home, Sheila called her sister, Brenda. She dealt the cards as they talked. Again she read sadness, regret and unbelievable fear.
“Sheila,” Brenda blubbered as soon as she picked up the phone. “I’m scared. Something terrible is going to happen, I can feel it. Can you? I don’t want to die! I don’t want anyone in my world to die!”
“Shhhh,” Sheila soothed. “Maybe it’s not what we think at all.” She wished they didn’t live five states apart, that they still shared a room. “Tell you what, let’s both go out and do twenty things totally fun and totally out of character. Then we’ll touch base tonight and laugh about it.”
Half an hour later, she read her own cards again and her fate was sealed; mankind’s fate was sealed. Visions of darkness and pain, such unbearable pain, and primal fear that felt like it was turning her stomach inside out. Staring out the window at the cloudless blue sky, she listened to the birds chirping in the trees outside her kitchen and thought, so little time, should I take the kids out of school, make Rob come home so we can make love?
She emptied the coffee pot into a cup, no need to worry about too much caffeine now and drank the bitter, hot liquid as she tried to gather her thoughts. Taking the kids out of their classes would only upset them, no they were better off not knowing, and so was Rob. She wondered how many others knew what was coming besides Brenda and herself.
She picked up the phone and dialed.
“Hi Honey, when you come home from work tonight don’t forget to get gas in my car and oh yeah, you know I love you right? Fine, now tell me you love me too. It doesn’t matter why, just humor me.”
She dumped the dregs of the coffee into the sink, started to wash the cup and began laughing. No, she wasn’t planning to waste her last hours on routine housework. Instead, she grabbed a beach chair and walked the twelve blocks to the beach. Trudging up the ramp and crossing the wide boardwalk she walked down the stairs onto the beach. She glanced back at the darkness behind her and shuddered. Funny, she thought, I loved playing under the boardwalk when I was a kid, but then she remembered how her mother had lectured her long and hard about the dangers of dark, scary places and things little girls should never do.
Now she lectured her own children the same way.
Plopping her chair at the water’s edge, Sheila sat and watched the ocean, listening to the sounds that had always been a comfort. She loved the waves crashing, the gulls crying to one another. She reached into the pocket in back of her chair and pulled out a tattered book. She opened it to the bookmarked page about halfway though then decided it just didn’t matter. She pushed the pages forward and read the last chapter.
Finished, she wondered what to do next. She ran into the ocean feeling more alive than she ever had as the cold water made every nerve sing. When she couldn’t bear the chilled surf anymore, she went back to her things and reached for the sunscreen. The sun was shining so brightly but she realized she probably wouldn’t need the protection anymore. After a short time on the warm beach, she walked up to the boardwalk and watched the roller coaster. “Why not?” she muttered and because the pier was just opening, got a front seat. The chains clanked and with each chink of the cars being pulled to the apex her stomach tightened. She gripped the bar in front of her like her life depended on it and then the torturous climb ended. Like the best sex, like the moment she saw her children for the very first time, like the very highlight of her existence, the car hovered momentarily at the peak and then plummeted down turning her world upside down, causing vertigo and euphoria. She laughed breathing in the joy of death defying speed and then it was over.
“Well, if it’s all going to end today, at least I’m on number three already. That leaves only 17 things to do before the end of the world.”
Sheila wandered the boardwalk eating pizza and ice cream and fudge and even bought a pound of salt water taffy. Holding the box, she ate all the chocolate and lemon pieces and threw the rest away.
Finally, she felt exhausted and returned to her chair on the now crowded beach. Crying again, tears on her cheeks and the sun in her eyes, she began to mourn. She’d had her denial, but the truth was sinking in, the world was going to end in a flash of light. She squinted through her tears and looked directly at the sun. Had it already happened and we don’t know it yet, she wondered, or will it just explode and that would be that instantaneously. Wiping her eyes, she looked down at the book she’d been reading before and thought, there are three more books in the series.
Sheila got up again, trotted to the bookstore two blocks away and bought all three at full price and a bit more. It didn’t matter. Returning to her chair, she saw the sun directly overhead and decided that if the world didn’t end by 2:00, she’d go home to make the kids their favorite treats, then take them back to the boardwalk for the rest of their lives. Maybe she’d even call Rob and ask him to meet her. The cards hadn’t given her a timeframe and being psychic wasn’t an exact science.
Grimacing, she thought bitterly about the irony of it all, how she’d waited for her last day to finally starting enjoying life again. “I swear that if for some reason the cards are wrong, I swear that I will live like this every day.”
And Please, she added praying silently, please let the cards be wrong, let my family live.
She turned to each book and read the last 30 pages. The story was never meant to end, it was an ongoing cash cow for the publisher and the author, but it was coming to an end anyway. She really was reading the last chapter.
Finally putting the reading down, she looked at the endless waves and the glistening white sand and thought how she’d always figured that the world would go on long after the human race had finished ruining the environment. All the beauty would be lost forever, all the other living beings, the animals, the plants would be gone and all she could do about it was live until it ended.
Sighing, she decided she needed to get home right away. She got up and left the beach taking the shortcut under the boardwalk. She frowned at the dark that smelled of stale urine and hurried to get through to the other side.
Funny, neither the dark, the smells, nor the windblown trash had bothered her when she snuck under the boards at dusk to make-out with her boyfriend, fifteen years ago. But now she looked around with discomfort when she saw movement to the side. Rats! she thought just before the pain ripped through her head.
Waking, awash in nausea, she realized she was still under the boardwalk, beneath the pier. The sunlight, glittering like painful lasers on each side of the darkness, created small stripes of luminescence shining down between the slats above. The slivers of light danced to the rhythm of footfalls as people walked overhead.
She screamed but the rides overhead made it impossible to hear her own voice.
What was going on, she thought with panic, then the man came into view. She struggled to rise, tried to push herself off the cold, clammy sand, but a fist seemed to come out of nowhere and slammed her back in a shower of star-filled agony. Terror filled her, pain enveloped her. Sheila sobbed as a tiny portion of her brain was dumping random thoughts faster than she could recognize them:
I want to go home!
The killer is back!
Doesn’t he know the world is going to end?
Why is he doing this?
She couldn’t see his face; only his form against the distant wash of golden light at the sides of the pier.
Agony. He never spoke a word as he hit her again and again, each blow stealing her strength. Explode, damn it, she prayed, make this agony end. Someone, something help me!
She desperately tried to command her body to move, her muscles to respond. She had to get to her knees and crawl to the light. She had to get away and spend the final moments with her family. Let Rob and the kids fill up all the rest of her 20 things to do list with her.
Nothing happened, her body was paralyzed by the pain and the terror. She wept, the tears running from the corners of her eyes and soaking softly into the sand.
Laughter, throaty, sinister laughter and then he grabbed her by the hair. Surprised that she could react all, she gasped in pain. Oh Mom, if you saw this happening why didn’t you warn me?
He snapped her head back, raised his arm and Sheila saw the blade flash brilliantly in a slit of golden light from above. “Oh my God!” she croaked as she realized in that last fraction of a second that the cards had been right, but she had been wrong. It really was the end of the world, but only her world.
Dina Leacock writing under the name Diane Arrelle has sold more than 200 short stories and two books including Just A Drop In The Cup, a collection of short-short stories. She recently retired from being director of a municipal senior citizen center and resides with her husband, her younger son and her cat on the edge of the Pine Barrens (home of the Jersey Devil).
At the edge of the feral continent, she finds a door. It is bare as a stagecraft prop, just frame and painted planks in coastal wind.
Here, then: what she plunged and journeyed for.
In the other world, her body lies underwater, cooled and still. Machines alone whir her consciousness along.
Whenever the prophet speaks her future, she can choose to accept it or to flee. She does not flee. She did that once, and never will again.
On the other side of the door, she hears a pounding. One hand on the knob, she lets her caught breaths go.
Rachel Ingraham is pretty new to this fiction game. Her poetry has appeared previously in Cicada, Wicked Alice, and The Fifth Street Review.
This story was previously published in Weird Year Magazine in July, 2010.
When my wife left town to visit her sick mother, I hired a sitter and went to see a priest.
“What can I do for you?” asked Father Mahoney.
“Well, first off, I’m an atheist. So’s my wife. She’d go bonkers if she knew I was here. The thing is, something’s happened that boggles my mind. Something right out of the Twilight Zone. Since I consider all religions to be nothing more than Twilight Zone fantasies, I figure you might have some answers.”
“So what exactly is boggling your mind?”
“Remember last month when two planes collided in midair just outside of town?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. I was called to the crash site to give last rites. It was a terrible sight.”
“Do you remember the head-on car crash on the road to the mall that wiped out two families?”
“Yes. They were my parishioners.”
“Do you also remember when an ambulance lost control on Summit Road and flew over the cliff?”
“I remember all these things,” said Mahoney. “So what about them?”
“I think my six-year old son had something to do with all three accidents.”
“Oh? How could a six-year old possibly be involved?”
“Well, my wife and I were in the kitchen when Jimmy came in with two toy airplanes. One in each hand. He made airplane motor noises, making believe the planes were flying. Suddenly, he slammed them into each other, and let them fall to the floor. The very next day, the midair collision happened when two planes crashed outside of town.”
“Are you implying a cause and effect between what your son did with toy planes and what happened with two real planes?”
“It’s the only conclusion I can come to after all the other things that happened. For example, two days later, Jimmy held a red toy car in one hand, and a blue one in the other. He made motor sounds, and rolled them along the floor. He talked about them crashing into each other. He imitated all the sounds of screeching tires, and people yelling, and slammed the cars into each other. The next day, two cars had a head-on on the way to the mall.”
“Hmm. Were the cars in the accident red and blue?”
“Yes,” I said. “I checked with the newspaper. They put me in touch with the reporter who covered the story. He verified their colors.”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me your son was playing with a toy ambulance the day before a real one flew over the cliff.”
“Unfortunately, yes. He was running a toy ambulance along the arm of the sofa, when he called out, ‘Look, Dad, the ambulance is out of control. It’s going over the cliff.’ He let it fall to the floor. It landed upside down. The next day, the same thing happened to County Hospital’s ambulance. The picture in the paper showed that it landed upside down.”
“It does sound quite strange,” said Mahoney. “But the world’s full of coincidences. However, our fantasies can sometimes get out of control. Perhaps you should discuss this with a psychiatrist. As to your son, I wouldn’t be overly concerned. Sounds like he’s normal, imaginative, and is just displaying normal, boyhood aggression. My brother was like that. He was always crashing toys together, not to mention dozens of kids he shot with his cap gun. He grew up to become the CEO of Amalgamated Airlines.”
Checking his watch, the priest added, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have an appointment in five minutes with our Choir Master. Do come again any time you wish to talk.”
“I don’t mean to press the point, but is there anything you could do?” I asked.
“Sure. If I suspected something evil afoot, I could do a minor exorcism by blessing your house, your son, and even his toys with holy water. We never know what malignant forces can sometimes attach themselves to inanimate objects and create mischief. But you’re an atheist, so I doubt you and your wife would tolerate my presence and my performing religious rituals in your home.”
“You’re right about that. I don’t want my son exposed to anything religious. But it’s kind of you to offer.
Thanks for your time. Would you accept a donation?”
“Thanks, but that’s not necessary. If you wish, you can put the money in the poor box inside the church vestibule. We’ll use it to feed the hungry.”
I shook his hand and left. As much as I dreaded going into a church, I went into the vestibule where I found the poor box.
That afternoon Jimmy was playing with his Tonka truck that had a crane in back.
“What are you doing?” I asked, when I saw that he’d put rubber bands around a wooden block, had run the crane’s hook under the rubber bands, and was turning a crank to raise the block.
“This block’s a giant piano. Somebody up high in that big building downtown wants to have it brought in through a window.”
When he elevated the block a foot off the floor, the rubber bands broke. The block fell onto a little plastic toy soldier.
“Looks like your soldier was in the wrong place at the wrong time, I said. A piano just fell on his head.”
“It’s not a soldier,” Jimmy said. “I’m making believe it’s a priest.”
“Why a priest?”
“I don’t know.”
Next day, a weird accident was reported on TV. A piano that was being delivered through an outside window at the downtown high rise apartments, suddenly broke loose. It fell six stories and crushed a priest named Myles Mahoney. He was about to enter the building to give communion to a shut in.
My hands shook, as I dialed the number of the Bishop’s office to plead for an exorcist.
Michael A. Kechula’s flash, micro-fiction, and short stories have appeared in 157 magazines and 56 anthologies in 8 countries. He’s won 20 writing contests: 1st prize in 12 and 2nd prize in 8 others. Five collections of his stories have been published as eBooks and Paperbacks. In addition, he’s written 2 self-study books that teach how to write flash and micro-fiction drabbles. Both are available as eBooks and paperbacks. To read a free story or chapter in any of the above books, go to the publisher’s site at: www.BooksForABuck.com Obtain eBook version from the same publisher. Obtain paperback versions from www.Amazon.com
the future will bring
changed continents and ranges
oh, what a good time
the planets align
during the end of the world
sign of the future
for many years a servant
old life is distant
research shows big bang
still moves unlike boomerang
dark gravity rang
Denny E. Marshall has had art, poetry and fiction published, some recently. See more at www.dennymarshall.com
Before me lays the spread. My traitorous blood quickens and sweat betrays my dread. How do I give this reading? For she’s in danger still. The man who sought to silence her is not among the dead. Her ancestors beg me warn her. He comes and he comes fast. His anger stoked. His rage increased. If she doesn’t listen. Tomorrow, she’ll too be dead. He knows her every movement. He knows where her head lays. Please! They shout from within the void. Stop her from going home! He’s there. He’s there. They shout and scream. The cards, they never lie.
Kally Jo Surbeck is a multi-award-winning best-selling author of several genres. She has over thirteen books, including participation in several anthologies. A few of her accomplishments are Colorado Author of The Year, the EPPIE (Excellence in electronic publishing) Action category. She is also the winner of the Daphne duMaurier in thriller/suspense. Her poetry was her first writing sale. Her works are in several different anthologies, commemorative additions, and one is even in the Holocaust Museum. https://www.facebook.com/Kally.Surbeck.Owren
Doctor Malcom, a man whose professional experience in his field exceeded forty years, slowly put his pencil down, rubbed his temple with an arthritic finger, and tried his hardest to keep from rolling his eyes. It had been a while since he’d had a patient that irritated him so thoroughly. Five years, he guessed. Yes, five years. It had been that stubby little man in the pompous hat who had claimed to be Napoleon. After three sessions, Malcom had seriously considered rolling his eyes. Luckily, there was a breakthrough in the fourth session- the man had been channeling the spirit of Jon Heder while the actor slept- and so the temptation Malcom felt to roll his eyes took care of itself. This man, though…
Malcom took a deep breath and stared at the man lying on his couch. The flannel shirt draped over Ian Jericho like a wisp-thin napkin caught on a patch of melting ice cream. Its pale blue looked positively vibrant against his skin. Malcom knew the type. They swore they would get more sun if they weren’t so busy. Busy. These people were as busy as they wanted to be. Writers! It would take a fool not to see that they spent their days in front of the television. Why didn’t they get real jobs?
Jericho was looking at Doctor Malcom expectantly, left hand picking absently at the sofa. Malcom cleared his throat, took another deep breath.
“And how long now, exactly, have your characters been… interfering with your stories?”
The four heroes crept cautiously around the corner and tiptoed down the dark stone hall of the castle, swords drawn. Jack pulled ahead and signaled a halt before a large oak door. Putting his finger to his lips, he paused and bent down to listen at the keyhole. Voices. There appeared to be tortured screaming. Jack drew back and kicked at the door with all his might. The door flew open to reveal…
A bathroom. Lying in the bathtub under mounds of bubbles was one of the wizened old maids who lived in the castle.
“You could have just knocked,” she said with no small amount of annoyance in her voice. “Now I’ll have to replace those hinges…”
Jack glanced momentarily at the abused door, then bowed. “My lady, I crave your pardon. Mine companions and I had heard a most dreadful wailing- fit to wake the dead, forsooth- from behind this door. By my troth, methought it was the fairest Princess Amylia in distress, perchance being radished by a terrifying monster…” He trailed off as he caught the look on the old crone’s face.
She eyed Jack coldly. “My singing is not that bad.”
Jack’s composure slipped. “Of course not, m’lady. Clearly, thou aren’t being radished…
Jericho stared balefully at the wall.
“I mean…” Malcom cleared his throat. “Don’t you mean ‘ravaged?’”
Jericho sighed. “Do you think I haven’t tried telling him that?”
“Him… the character?”
Doctor Malcom stared blankly at his patient. With some effort, he shifted in his seat and nodded as if it all made perfect sense. “Go on.”
“Where was I? Ah, here…”
“Of course not, m’lady. Clearly, thou aren’t being radished either.” Methinks… erm, that thine voice ist like bluebells upon the…”
“Get over yourself.”
“Scram before I call security.”
Jack shut the door. “Methinks the lady doth protest like… wait, no… how does it go? Like… too something… hmmm. Well, I’ll think about it, but I was sure I was about to say something damn clever.” He looked down and groaned. “Bill! C’mon, man, do I have to take your bottle again? You’ll be useless against Lord Dark Death Dude if you keep that up.”
Bill Drinkswiller ignored him and kept chugging from the Chateau du Mont Everiste Chablis bottle just like was swilling moonshine. It was as if his life goal was to get a BAC of 100 proof. Of course, the dwarf could still be induced to fight like mad, but that was because he was a dwarf. Dwarves fight like mad. Bill put his own spin on the trait by fighting cross-eyed and twelve sheets to the wind whenever he had the chance.
“Drinkin’ me rum and scratchin’ me bum,” he sang hoarsely. A wet belch followed. The spittle dripped into his beard. “Beatin’ me head to earn me bread, ha ha hau huh huuurrk… ptoo.”
Leafy Twigbottom turned to Jack, eyes wide. “Oh… my… gosh! They have broken, like, so many environmental codes in this place. I just saw some manufactured, non-organic soap in that bathroom. The Grand And Almighty Forest Protection Council Of Pointy-Eared Elders is going to be so ticked off.” The elf strode ahead. “It’s almost like they went out of their way to be irresponsible. I mean, how stupid can you get? I can’t imagine what kind of animal cruelty violations there must be here. I’ll bet you they let the dogs go outside… and that they put collars on them!”
Bill muttered something about “damn hippies,” then passed out cold on the floor.
Jack sighed. It had been less than a week since their last intervention with their friend and his drinking problem. They had long since given up on getting him to AA meetings. He’d gone to one, then stopped by the local tavern on his way back “to wash the taste outta me mouth,” as he put it.
Jericho fidgeted. “Well… last weekend, I… I was at my desk as usual, see. I’d just got to this part where I was introducing- well, giving a bit of backstory- for this character. He’s… well, he’s this dwarf, see, and he drinks a lot…”
Malcom stifled a groan. If Jericho’s writing continued to be as bad as his speaking, his characters were probably as multifaceted and lively as wheat crackers. “Bill the dwarf?”
“Yes… was going to give him a limp, but hey, he’s already drunk, huh, so why bother, right?” Jericho laughed the laugh of a man who found stamp collections engrossing. Malcom seized the moment to divert the writer’s attention back to the question at hand.
“So, you had Bill in this story of yours, this…”
“”The Ultimate Quest of Epic Epicness.’ It’s a, well, a parody of sorts. Y’know, the sort of thing that pokes fun at something you really enjoy, but it has all these holes, see? You know, it’s always better to have someone who loves something parody it because, well, they know it, don’t they. It’s like putting St. Elmo in charge of…”
Malcom realized he was getting nowhere. “When did your characters start… messing… with your story? Please?”
Bill had come from a proud line of dwarves. His father’s father was Edmund Drinkswiller, who was still known throughout the lands as the subject of the folk tale ‘The Full Keg and the Halfwit.’ Edmund’s mother was the famed Daryl Drinkswiller-Drinkswiller (Dwarves aren’t imaginative enough to come up with “girly” names; they figure, if they can’t tell the difference, then why give the rest of the world a hint? Dwarves are also stubborn, contrary, and slightly inbred.) was known as the daughter of the great Melvin Drinkswiller, who, family legend held, could swallow an oaken barrel whole and digest the wood to get at the ale. Melvin’s great-grandfather’s mother’s cousin’s aunt’s husband Bertram Drinkswiller had once…
Jack cleared his throat. “We get it. Dwarves drink a lot. Now can we please get on with the story?”
Well, excuse me. I just thought it was important to provide some backstory. How are readers supposed to feel an emotional connection to the characters if we don’t know where they came from?
Oh, and I suppose you want a ridiculous fight scene in the middle of everything? Just to please the audience?
Jack shrugged. “This isn’t exactly shaping up to be Helm’s Deep, if you catch my drift. The final scene from ‘Dragonheart,’ perhaps…”
So you want a random fight scene?
“Some action wouldn’t hurt.”
“I didn’t quite follow that. You talked back to your character?
“And he just demanded a fight scene?”
A hesitant nod. “Yeah.”
“And…” Malcom scratched his ear, breathed slowly. A pause. “Did you… give him one?”
A monster appeared suddenly before Jack. It roared, revealing foaming spit, stained teeth, and purple gums. On its right claw, it wore a giant foam finger; the words “Go Lord Dark Death Dude” were written on the finger in bright neon marker.
“Look out!” Jack cried. “It’s a rabid fan!”
He pulled out his sword, the legendary Thumbpricker, and held aloft his 20-sided die. With a yell, he charged.
The fan held up its ghastly arms. “Whoa, man, easy, easy. Do you even know what level I am? I’m a level four rabid fan!” The horrid beast puffed out its bare, slimy chest, where three large ‘D’s had been tattooed. “Although I’ve always thought of myself as number one, if you know what I mean.”
Jack stared at the foul fan triumphantly. “Level eight swordslinger, fiend!”
The fan held up its claw. “Ah, but I have a radius three fear aura! It affects all swordslingers up to level 10!”
“Oh yeah? Well, I have the boots of Un-Fear. And ,” he said, turning Thumbpricker in a lazy circle, “a plus-eight legendary sword.”
The fan looked momentarily impressed, then slightly crestfallen. “Oh, well that’s good, I guess.” It sniffed. “Well, I suppose we can start. Do you want to start?”
“I did. You have a first strike ability, remember? You get the first move.”
“Oh, right. So I roll for area of effect first…”
“Well, yes. I told him we needed to save some budget for the final part of the story.”
“Oh, yeah. You need to conserve resources. You never know when you’ll, like, run out of something in a story. Um, like in this one story, I wanted a horde of goblins to pour over a wall and swarm the heroes as they made their escape. But, you know, got to that point and, well, I was out of walls that goblins could pour over. I’d used them all in chapter eight. I had to have them run across the drawbridge instead.”
Malcom closed his eyes for a moment and prayed silently that the rest of today’s patients would be run-of-the-mill, garden variety psychopaths. This kind of session was almost too absurd for words. The kind of session that might drive him crazy. He thought of Scrooge’s retirement plans and grew a momentary smirk- I’ll retire to Bedlam.
Well, yes. You want some budget left over for the epic final fight, right? I don’t want to waste every special effect in some random fight scene.
“I guess, but… oh, all right. Whatever.” He turned grudgingly to his orc companion. “Gruk, pick Bill up. We needs must want him later.”
The orc lifted the fallen hero as if he were a sack of overripe turnips.
“Or perhaps radishes,” said Jack. “Yes, radishes.”
Shut up. For the last time, it’s ravage. How can you not get that right?
“Onward!” Jack cried. “Though one of us has fallen, we shall fight on until we have defeated Lord Dark Death Dude! If we must fight to our dying breath! Or come back as ghosts! Or zombies! We will fight! Unless we need to get some more supplies! Or if Lord Dark Death Dude is really awesomely dangerous!”
A halfling wandered through the background, but no one paid him any attention.
Malcom felt a small headache coming on. This Jericho fellow had the writing talent of a monkey at a typewriter. Drinking bourbon.
Malcom realized he could use a bourbon.
He wrote on his clipboard: “Mommy issues?”
Lord Dark Death Dude appeared before them in red fire and black smoke and black fire and red smoke and cigarette smoke and sulfur and brimstone and burrito farts. A high, evil cackle came forth from the smoke, but immediately turned into a coughing fit.
Jack stepped forward and pointed accusingly into the choking haze. “I hath cometh to liberate thine princess from thy radishings! Face me, Lord Dark Death Dude!”
“That’s Lord 3D to you.” 3D strode menacingly from the cloud. He was swathed in a deep green robe, a tall pointy hat, and a shirt that appeared to be…
Jack laughed. “Plaid?”
Lord 3D shifted uncomfortably. “I have a budget too, you know.”
“Dude, you should at least get a belt. Suspenders look pretty ridiculous.”
Lord 3D quickly recovered from this stinging attack and went on the offensive. With loud, dramatic music playing from the loudspeakers in the background, he rose up and bellowed, “How can you hope to defeat me? I have the power of earth magic, wind magic, fire magic, propane magic, mind control…” and here he had another coughing fit. Jack, always someone to fight by the rules, politely waited for 3D to continue. “Body control, snake control, spider control, gerbil control, magic-controlling magic, and magic-controlling magic magic. What can you do against me?”
“We will cut you to pieces with our swords!” Jack cried.
Jack looked around and had a minor panic attack, the kind one might have after realizing one hadn’t brushed one’s teeth that morning. “Dang, I knew we forgot something. No matter! I guess we’ll have to defeat you with the power of the FINE FOUR!”
Lord Dark Death Dude lit up a cigarette and took a long drag on it. “I count you, a dwarf in a coma, and an orc. Where is your fourth? Don’t tell me that you forgot him, too.”
Leafy had left the group to go far into the dungeons. He had found a room where wild animals were being kept against their wills and subsequently had chained himself to their cages.
“Animals are friends! They never, like, did anything to deserve jail time! This is animal slavery!”
The rather irritated old lady from earlier in this story stood watching him in the doorway. She had come downstairs after her interrupted bath to take a nap. This pointy-eared fruit loop in her room was trying her patience with trespassing miscreants. She liked to think herself a reasonable woman. She had spent years quietly serving Lord Dark Death Dude, changing his bed sheets and listening approvingly to his evil plottings and mutterings. This, however, was pushing her too far.
“Don’t experiment on animals! They, like, have souls too! They belong in the wild!”
The old lady rolled her eyes, walked up to Leafy and said, “They’re… pet… gerbils. Now then, kindly use your key to unlock those ridiculous handcuffs, and get out before I call security.”
Leafy blinked. “Dang, I knew I’d forgotten something.” And the absurdity of his situation finally came clear to him.
At this point, the halfling wandered back in with a witty one-liner, but no one remembered exactly what it was.
Malcom felt like he could do with two or maybe three bourbons now.
“We will defeat you with the power of the TERRIFIC THREE!” said Jack.
“The dwarf’s asleep.”
“C’mon, man, you’re leaving me with just the orc. He can’t even talk, man, he’s lame.”
Gruk leaned forward. “I actually do talk. I’m just soft-spoken. And a pacifist.”
“See? I can’t even have a dynamic duo.”
Lord 3D grinned. Crushing the protagonist’s world was always his favorite part. “Princess Amylia betrayed you. Give up now and I might let you live. Come join the side of the dark! Cliché evil sentence! Mwahahahahuh haaaaacch cough cough…”
Jack’s face fell. He dropped to his knees and began to wail and gnash his teeth. “NOOOOOOO! Amylia! How could she? I thought she loved me!”
Lord 3D coughed again. “Man, I need to give up this smoking thing.”
Jack was sobbing, but through the tears he realized something: “Hey, wait a second. I’ve only known Amylia for a day and a half. What am I so worked up about?” He straightened up, pulled the Ring of Ultimate Deep-Frying from the Categorizing Hat and zapped Lord 3D as he tried to wail “NOOOOOOO!!!” between coughing fits. The Lord of Darkness and Deathness and Dudeness had become Grand Duke of Deadness.
Malcom felt his eyelid twitch. He wondered if crazy was contagious, or perhaps stupidity.
Gruk came up to Jack. “Well, that was incredibly easy.”
“Yeah, it was. Hey, you!”
“Yeah, you! Is that it? I mean, the explosion was pretty decent there, but…”
Seriously? I saved up a lot of the budget for that scene, and now you’re disappointed?
“Well, yeah. I guess I just didn’t get the character buildup I would have really needed in order to hate Lord 3D. I mean, he seemed like a nice guy.”
Are you kidding me? He turned Amylia against you.
Jack shrugged. “Well, I do have a girl back home…”
What? Well, why didn’t you tell me? I could have skipped so much of the romantic nonsense! I could have removed all of chapter three! The gratuitous sex scene!
Jack fidgeted. “Yeah, I was meaning to tell you. That’s going to be kind of awkward to explain…”
Ugh. You know what? So much of this story has been messed up already, what with the budget and wardrobe issues and all… I could just cut a lot of the first three acts. That would save you some of the embarrassment, at least. Then I could reuse some assets for this final scene.
Jack nodded, thinking hard. “I hate to think that I wasted my time, but… yeah, go ahead. Alright with you, Gruk?”
Gruk nodded. Bill belched in his sleep.
Okay, hmm. Let’s see what would add to the ending…
It was at this point that Doctor Malcom realized that a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster might hit the spot right about now.
He wrote on his clipboard: “Repressed hardship?”
The castle shook violently behind them. “Quick, good orc!” Jack yelled, not questioning for one second why they were outside of the castle, “The castle is falling right at us because that’s always what happens when you defeat the bad guy!”
Jack took a 20-sided die from the pouch on his belt. “If I roll a one or higher, a dragon will save us!” he yelled. He threw the die: it was a 16. A second before the wall would have crushed them, a dragon swooped down and picked him, Gruk, and Bill up into the air, and off into the sunset it flew. Dice ex machina.
Gruk looked at Jack. “I don’t know if I should ask, but why didn’t you do that sooner?”
“Summon the dragon? To, oh, I don’t know, kill the bad guy?”
Jack glared at him. “Don’t spoil it by thinking so hard.”
Silence. Then, “And our swords. Didn’t we have them earlier on in the story?”
Jack silenced Gruk with a look.
They all lived happily ever after. No one cares what happened to the halfling.
I’m retiring, thought Doctor Malcom.
“Mr. Jericho, I’m afraid I can’t do much with what you’ve shown me. Everything you’ve told me so far points to Jack and his situation as being products of your… creative mind.”
Jericho sat up. “I beg your pardon?”
Malcom spread his hands. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing about this that says your experience is abnormal. I’ve had a few writers have come to me saying they can’t control the direction of their stories. This doesn’t sound all that strange. You’re normal, Jericho.”
The pale man stared at his psychologist like he was itching to call for a duel. Instead of whipping out a derringer and demanding they walk ten paces, Jericho handed Malcom his stapled and marked-up story. “You’ll believe it when you read the words for yourself. It was like… like a wall came down, and the characters were free to talk to me, with me.”
Doctor Malcom sat back and glanced through the story. It was just the story, nothing more. Bad writing, a nonexistent plot… just like Jericho had read. Suddenly, he was gripped by an irresistible pull. He stood up and went to his window, eyes fixed on the pages before him. He looked out at the green grass, the overcast sky clearing as the sun burned through the clouds, bringing down that barrier. A single beam of light landed on Jericho’s story, illuminating the line: “She liked to think herself a reasonable woman.” A single tear hit the page. Doctor Malcom closed his eyes, slowly opened them. He knew what was coming.
“And the, the thing is,” Jericho kept saying, “if they’re real, and they’re talking back… well…” He fidgeted. “What if we’re just characters in some story, huh? What about that?”
Malcom took a deep breath, turned to face Jericho…
…and rolled his eyes.
Hey, everyone! My name is Earl Stoll. I’ve always enjoyed trying my hand at the fantasy genre, but I’ve done other fiction as well. I’ve been published three times in Gustavus Adolphus College’s literary collection, the Firethorne, as well as being the winner of the top fiction writing prize on campus in 2014. Mostly, I write for the fun of it. Then again, don’t we all?
“Hey, Sue, look what I got at the flea market for a dollar,” Harry said, putting a black metal box with a rusted padlock on the kitchen table.
“How exciting!” Sue said. “I can’t wait to see what’s inside!”
Harry slammed the padlock with a hammer. After a few whacks, the lock fell off.
Opening the lid, Sue screamed when she saw a woman’s head.
“Take it easy,” Harry said. “It ain’t real. Looks like it’s made from wood.”
“What an ugly-looking hag. What’s that button for on her forehead?”
“I don’t know.”
When Sue pressed the button, the head’s eyes popped open. An old woman’s voice cackled and said, “Put a penny in my mouth—if you dare—and I’ll tell your future.”
“How neat.” Sue reached for her change purse.
“Don’t do it!” Harry said. “This thing gives me the creeps. It might be haunted. Look! It just smirked at me!”
Ignoring him, Sue inserted a penny into a slot between the hag’s lips. Mechanical whirring sounds filled the room. The thing’s eyes rolled backward until only the whites showed.
“You will die in five minutes,” said a weird voice.
“I told you it’s haunted!” said Harry. “Did you hear what it just said?”
“Yeah. It’s the best thing I ever heard. Yeee-haw! I’m gonna win the lottery tonight.”
“That’s NOT what it said.”
“I gotta run to the store right now to buy a ticket. The lottery’s’s up to twenty million. I can’t believe it. I’m gonna be rich. Wa-hooo!”
Grabbing the box, Harry said, “I’m gonna burn this damn thing.”
“No you’re not,” Sue screamed. “You might screw up my future. If you ruin this for me, I swear I’ll cut your heart out!”
“Listen to me,” he said. “I’m telling you it didn’t say you’re gonna win anything. It said you’re gonna DIE in a few minutes.”
“You’re nuts. You’re just jealous that I’m gonna win twenty million and you’re not. What are you afraid of, Harry? That I’ll collect the money and run off?”
“No. I’m afraid for your life.”
“Stop acting so damn jerky,” she said, heading for the door.
Harry quickly shoved a penny into the thing’s mouth.
“You will be hanged for murder,” said the voice.
“Hear that?” Harry said. “Can’t you see what’s happening?”
“All it said was you’re a jerk. And if I stay with you, you’re gonna wreck my future.”
“You evil fiend!” Harry pounded the wooden face with his hammer.
When Sue tried to stop him, he shoved her aside.
“Look what you did! You killed it. You rotten bastard. You ruined my future!” Grabbing a frying pan, she slammed Harry’s head until he collapsed.
She tried frantically to insert a coin between the hag’s smashed lips, but it wouldn’t go into the slot. She tried to pry the lips open with a screwdriver. “Please take my penny. Please tell me you’re not mad that he smashed your face, and that I’m still gonna win the lottery.”
Suddenly, she screamed. Blood spurted from her hand. “Why did you bite my fingers off?” she shrieked.
* * *
Harry described the spooky head in the metal box to detectives and how it must have maimed and murdered his wife while he was unconscious. They thought he was nuts. Especially when they searched his apartment and couldn’t find any trace of a metal box with a wooden head inside.
The jury thought the evidence against Harry was overwhelming. They agreed with the prosecutor who insisted that Harry had cut off the fingers from his wife’s hand, then decapitated her during a violent argument.
Two psychiatrists affirmed Harry’s sanity. Everyone was convinced it was a case of premeditated murder.
Before sentencing Harry to death by hanging, the judged asked if he had anything to say.
“Yes, Your Honor. I want everyone here to listen very closely. It’s a matter of life or death. If you ever go to a flea market and find a black metal box with a wooden head inside—don’t buy it. But if you decide to ignore my advice and buy it—don’t smash its face with a hammer… no matter what it says to you.”
Michael A. Kechula’s flash, micro-fiction, and short stories have appeared in 157 magazines and 56 anthologies in 8 countries. He’s won 20 writing contests: 1st prize in 12 and 2nd prize in 8 others. Five collections of his stories have been published as eBooks and Paperbacks. In addition, he’s written 2 self-study books that teach how to write flash and micro-fiction drabbles. Both are available as eBooks and paperbacks. To read a free story or chapter in any of the above books, go to the publisher’s site at: http://www.BooksForABuck.com Obtain eBook version from the same publisher. Obtain paperback versions from http://www.Amazon.com