Review copies are out in the wild and I hope the reviews are soon to follow! I can’t wait for you to meet these characters and follow their journey through a chaotic, heartbreaking landscape. This is my first novella, and although I could have grown this universe, followed the characters past the final scene (which I am quite proud of), I think it’s a satisfying experience in its current form. I don’t have my website set up for purchasing yet, and the book won’t be available on the Cemetery Gates Media site until July. However, I do have signed author copies available $15 shipped. Email me at LesPHernandez@gmail.com if interested. Thanks to V. Castro and Gabino Iglesias for their blurbs. It’s still shocking to know these authors I admire so much have read my writing…and had wonderful things to say about it.
Lots of good news this year, so I wanted to share a bit about each of the upcoming releases.
May 3 – Picnic in the Graveyard (Cemetery Gates Media) – an anthology of cemetery-themed horror stories featuring my story “Cemetery Joe.”
June 6 – If I Die Before I Wake : Tales of Savagery and Slaughter (Sinister Smile Press) – an anthology of brutal horror featuring my story “Family Annihilator.”
June 6 – Dreadful: Tales of the Dead and Dying (re-release with Velox Books) My first collection edited and featuring a new story “Seconds.”
June (Night Worms box) – Stargazers (Cemetery Gates Media/My Dark Library) – a novella published as part of Sadie Hartmann’s “My Dark Library” initiative. Full release in July!
September 5 – Institutionalized (Sinister Smile Press) – an anthology of the deranged featuring my story “Hesitation Cuts.” A few big names in this one, including Richard Chizmar and Ronald Kelly.
October (TBD) – Dark Matter Magazine’s Human Monsters issue (Dark Matter Ink) – an anthology of human monsters featuring my story “The Bystander.” Lots of big names in this one and will also be included in the October Night Worms box!
Each of these releases is a thrill in its own way. The publishers are wonderful and the writers alongside me are top notch. I am surprised but delighted to be in their company.
I don’t know if I’ve “made it” as a writer, however you define that term. Though I have made strides getting accepted into anthologies in the past 1-2 years, and I want to share what I learned in the hopes it might be helpful.
I have been considered a good writer since I was young, around eleven years old or so. This was mostly due to an above average vocabulary and a sprinkling of imagination. I held onto this idea of good writing through my youth and early adulthood. Good writing meant I had a thesaurus in my lap, channeling Henry Miller into increasingly obscure stream of consciousness diatribes, the more syllables the better, as if my overall goal was to alienate the reader. The story was a platform to advertise my intelligence…and that is why I did not sell a story until my mid-thirties.
I had some success with The NoSleep Podcast and a few homegrown anthologies, using feedback to hone my craft, and reading reading reading. This is what changed for me, and this is what I hope to share with you. Voice matters so much more than I knew. I landed a story with Sinister Smile Press last year titled “From the Red Dirt.” It was an atypical zombie story told through the eyes of a young man during the Great Depression. I leaned into his imagined experience. A thirteen-year-old, uneducated boy in rural Texas would not have a thesaurus handy while describing the way his recently resurrected dead grandfather smelled, how the flies went into his nose dry and came out wet. Of the positive reviews I have read for this story, the voice is often highlighted.
My third story with Sinister Smile, titled “Hesitation Cuts,” is told through the eyes of an elderly man in mental decline. I wanted the story to feel uncomfortably claustrophobic, the reader trapped in the head space of a person unaware of their imperfect perception of the world. I repeated certain ideas, never letting the reader stray from this worldview. Whether people love it or hate it, they won’t forget it.
I landed two dream submissions this year, and in both stories I really just went for it. No more thesaurus. No second-guessing. I let my humor shine in both, something I have been reluctant to do in most horror stories I have written. I conjured awful people and let them run wild on the page. I was so positive I went too far with my Cemetery Gates submission I wrote another story for them because I really, really, really wanted to land that call. To my surprise and delight, they loved my awful character.
To me, it is the difference between Heath Ledger’s Joker and Jared Leto’s Joker. They’re both home run swings, but one landed while the other was either a foul ball or a long single depending on your perspective. You won’t know home run or foul until you swing. Heath felt like the Joker. Jared felt like an actor attempting to convince the audience Heath Ledger’s Joker never existed.
Voice is why I fell in love with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. It’s not just character dialogue, it’s how they move through the space the author creates, what she chooses to show us and how. In “Hesitation Cuts” I liken my elderly couple’s physical encounters to “enemy ships without munitions.” I forget the full metaphor, but I was likely inspired by Flynn’s description of her married couple sliding past each other like fish in the tight spaces of their home.
Your voice will not resonate with everyone. There are negative reviews of Ray Bradbury’s (Ray Bradbury!) Something Wicked…lamenting his prose. (Blasphemy!) It will resonate, though. The closer your writing voice is to your actual voice the more authentic the work will be. When you’re writing, periodically ask yourself if you are Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday or whoever played Doc Holliday in the Kevin Costner version.
As for me, well, I’m your huckleberry.
2022 kicked off with a plethora of intriguing submission calls. I would get to work on a story and, within a day or two, another submission call would slap me in the face. I submitted a story to Cemetery Gates Media’s Picnic in the Graveyard anthology project earlier this month. A few writer friends shared their success in landing stories relatively soon after it was announced. Days passed after my submission and I began to question if my story was too…unrestrained. The title alone was an eyebrow-raiser. Another story idea descended from the ether, a more traditional cemetery tale, and I wrote that one in a couple of sittings. Within hours, I think, of emailing Cemetery Gates the second story and halfway apologizing for the first I received an acceptance email of that eyebrow-raiser of a story. Cemetery Joe, its reformed title, will be included in Picnic in the Graveyard among a growing list of outstanding authors. Publishing details to come, but this is my first story to pay professional rates!!
The second story, Under no Circumstances, will find a home eventually. I am equally proud of both, but I think those who know me for emotionally-tinged horror will be in for a surprise with Cemetery Joe.
Dark Matter Magazine also has a call out for Human Monsters. This call is headed by the lovely ladies at Night Worms and will be featured in a Night Worms subscription box later this year. I have a story titled The Bystander, which has some of the roughest material I’ve ever written, ready to submit when the call opens on 15 Feb. I have been a Night Worms fan for many months, and I loved the Dark Matter Magazine from the October (I think) box. Cemetery Gates have also partnered with Sadie from Night Worms for a novella call. I am chipping away at a novella titled Stargazers for this one, which will likely shape up to be an emotionally draining horror odyssey quite a bit different from Cemetery Joe and The Bystander.
Still to come this year, more NoSleep, Institutionalized from Sinister Smile Press, and I am sure much more.
Finally, I’ve pre-ordered two books this month, Spontaneous Human Combustion by Richard Thomas, and the anthology A Woman Built by Man featuring a couple writer friends. I will have to make time to write as I want to dig into both of these as soon as they arrive.
It has been about 2.5 – 3 years in the making, and finally The Rat King is free of my Macbook. He was last spotted at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and one haunted Borders which exists trapped between the reality of our world, where Borders no longer exists, and an alternate world, where Borders has become more powerful than the American government. The collection features four stories adapted by The NoSleep Podcast, three of which were on the pay side and might be new to many people. Also included is the story “Daddy Longlegs” which was awarded second place in the 2019 Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition for genre fiction.
A couple of years ago I reached out to an artist I found on Twitter asking if he was open for commissions. At the time I was mostly thinking about a cover image for the book, and I admit it was a strange and wonderful experience seeing art inspired by my writing. So, in addition to the cover I commissioned him (thank you Brett!) to create illustrations for each of the fourteen stories. I am obviously biased, but I love each of them. His images for “In the Valley of the Headless Men” and “A Sundown Town” are two standouts for me.
As I was finalizing The Rat King I began edits on my first collection, Dreadful: Tales of the Dead and Dying in preparation for a re-release from Velox Books. It’s amazing to me how far my writing has come in the last three or four years. I don’t know how to articulate that feeling without coming off as boastful. There were both positive and negative reviews for Dreadful, as can be expected. But as I worked to refine the collection I understood where those negative reviews came from. Ideas that didn’t quite make the leap from mind to pen, wording that was overly complicated because I thought good writing meant more syllables. Maybe in five years I will look back at The Rat King and think the same. I hope I do.
You can order a paperback, available through most book retailers (I recommend simply because the artwork deserves to be held) or ebook here.
I do not know how long this will be, so apologies in advance if it is overly long. This is just a little insight into my writing the finale of The NoSleep Podcast Season 16.
2021 has been a whirlwind for me and my family. I believe it was January when Jessica McEvoy presented an intriguing challenge – to write an epistolary story. Approaching a story from a different perspective was inspirational for me. I churned out a couple that ended up being accepted for Season 16, The Hole in the Great Grass Sea and Knocking After Midnight. Right about that time I received an acceptance from Sinister Smile Press for their anthology If I Die Before I Wake vol 5. 2021 was off to a roaring start.
When I am not writing stories my day job is as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the United States Air Force. As you can imagine, this occupation can demand a lot of my time and attention. I learned in the Air Force opportunities are typically a blessing. Not always, but usually. I returned from a deployment to Brooklyn in support of the vaccine rollout, a gratifying but tiring time in my life and the second substantial time away from my family in eighteen months.
I came back and slipped into moving mode. I had an assignment to Texas just a couple of months away, a house to sell and a house to buy. Suffice it to say, writing took a backseat.
I never stop writing. If I am not writing I am thinking of what I am going to write next. I go to sleep thinking of stories and write throughout the day. But, nothing was coming. In the brief downtime I did have I could not think of anything.
I have not been asked where my ideas come from, but this is something asked of more renowned authors so I suppose I can offer my thoughts. The origin can be anything from a song to a podcast to a real life experience. Sometimes it comes from the ether, or comes from somewhere so deep in my past I don’t even recognize it. A Sundown Town, for example, is a mixture of the family I was raised in and the place I eventually lived.
But, I was in a rut. The stories weren’t coming. I tried to think of a story and it didn’t come. Writer’s block. It’s happened before, but this time it kept going. One week. Two weeks. Nothing. There were calls for stories in various anthologies. I could not think of a story, not even the nugget of a story. I remember Googling something like horror story prompts. Still nothing.
There is a progressive metal band called Persefone and I fell in love with their album Aathma while I was deployed to Kuwait in 2019 and 2020. It’s a concept album, and one that spoke to my beliefs about life and the Universe. It basically describes the journey of understanding the dynamics of life and death and the soul. Here is an example of the lyrics:
My soul is not contained within the limits of my body
Instead, my body is contained within the limits of my soul
I’m not this body
Nor this realm of senses
I am not this face
These eyes, these hands
I’m a living wave, calmed
Around May of this year a story started to form around the lyrics. The story, at that time, was titled The Call of the Void, and it was a much different story than They Have Suffered. I did not consider it a story I might eventually submit for consideration as a NoSleep Podcast Season Finale. But, the story came, almost fully formed. I had the journey in mind but not the characters, not the specific scenes. That story was about a person who recognizes their experience in reality is false, forced. After much trying, she connects with another who accepts her perspective. Something, the guardians of the tapestry of the Universe, was attempting to keep them apart. These would be the basis for the gray men in Suffered. Thinking about it, I saw the potential for a season finale. I thought of The Whistlers and Whitefall. What made them classics? It wasn’t sustained horror. It was characters. It was the journey.
I had not written it. I kept turning the idea over in my mind. Imagine a rock tumbler. That was my brain over the summer. The original ideas rubbed against the new ideas, refining, smoothing. And I did sit down to write. They Have Suffered was a placeholder title, one I assigned to a different short story I have had in my mind for a couple of years now. Early in the writing I found a perfect place for the term. Eventually, I recognized how it applied to both the main characters and the people in the background. Honestly, I just kind of loved the title and it fit.
As I mentioned, the Air Force taught me to seize opportunities when they present. They Have Suffered was coming along, but there were other markets asking for stories, my new job, and my family. We lost a dog this summer, our third in a couple of years. The kids were back in school after a COVID-inspired vacation. I was taking my time with it. I knew I wanted the story to end in Marfa, and I planned a trip there possibly next year. And then the opportunity came. Jessica recounted this part on the NSP Book Club page so I feel comfortable relaying it here. She asked if I had an 18-20K word story ready to go. I did not. I had an 18-20K word story partially written. I had the characters in place, the ending solidified in my mind, and about 12K words still to write.
Of course I said yes. My mother came on a planned visit and my wife suggested we go to Marfa together. That was a special trip both for how it contributed to the story and because it was the first trip my mother and I had taken together in maybe twenty years. Marfa is wonderfully weird. The telephone booth I describe in the story plays Taylor Swift on a loop when you pick the phone up. It’s just this strange corner of Texas that feels out of place. It was the perfect place to end the story.
What does They Have Suffered mean to me? A lot of my soul is laid bare in that story, from a father who wasn’t there to thoughts about the Universe. It’s answering, in story form, the questions I have asked myself throughout my life. What if there was a reason your father left, something noble he just couldn’t share? What happens when you die? What exists beyond this realm of senses?
It isn’t perfect. No story is. If I had a year to write it I would still find flaws in the final product. But, my goal isn’t perfection. It is to write from my soul stories that make people think, make them wonder. I don’t answer every question the story presents. I might one day, but for now it is up to the listener.
I am grateful for this opportunity, for the trust Jessica, David, and Olivia had in me. Whatever is to come in my writing career, this is a highlight. Thank you for reading.
“I think he’s dead,” Macilo said, his words blurred by moonberry wine.
The elf pressed the toe of his boot to the goblin’s ribs.
“Kicking him won’t help,” Mastano, his brother, observed.
The elves sighed and surveyed the room. The lute player strummed in the corner, each note off-key in a particular way that rattled and offended the teeth more than the ears. For a moment, the elf brothers were not concerned with the possibly dead goblin prince on the tavern floor. For a moment they were not concerned with the dozen or so goblins draped over tables, slaver like spider silk dangling from their jowls, the hundreds more camped outside.
Macilo narrowed his eyes at the lute player, plucked an arrow from his quiver, then patted his forest green robes.
“You traded your bow for a sack of magic dust three hours ago,” Mastano said.
“Cursed moonberry wine. That was father’s bow.”
Mastano nodded, “If it helps, brother, the gnome said it was his father’s magic dust.”
“We need to get Prince Lugdeth out of here. If a dead goblin prince is discovered in our humble roadside tavern it could reignite the Goblin Wars.”
“Why did he host his stag party here?” Mastano whined.
“Well, brother, my Goblin-tongue is a bit rusty, but I believe they sought to escape the many spies of his soon-to-be-betrothed, Princess Spittle.”
“Is that her real name?” Mastano said, lip curled into a sneer.
“It means something different in Goblin. Anyway, this tavern, by my estimation, is the furthest drinking establishment from goblin lands. No spies unless they are within the party.”
The room reeked of smoke and vomit, the latter sweetly tinged from the overly sugared moonberry wine for which the region, and the tavern were famous.
“How do you suppose he died, anyway?” Mastano asked, nudging the body again.
“Well, they drank everything.”
“So? Goblins can hold their wine.”
“Everything…” Macilo nodded to the top shelf behind the bar, now bare.
“Oh, right, the poisoned wine. We really need a better system for that. I almost drank it myself last week. So what do we do with him?”
Mastano twirled his silver hair as he thought.
“A decent one? A three day ride from here, in the Forgotten Forest.”
“Do you know the way?”
“No, I forgot. I think that’s the point. It’s never where you expect it to be. Nawelo is about twenty miles from here. We could make it to him before sunrise,” Macilo said as he began to search the dead goblin’s pockets.
“Wasn’t he cast out of the Wizard’s Guild for unethical practices?” Mastano asked.
“No, he was cast out of the Guild of Wizards. Totally different entities. He is a terrible wizard, but he’s cheap and close,” Macilo transferred the goblin’s pocket change to a pouch on his hip.
“We can’t very well leave him, can we?” Mastano asked.
“Wouldn’t be a good look. Two missing elves and a dead goblin prince in their tavern. We can sneak him out the back and take him with us. Leave a note about looking for wenches or something.”
“There are no elf wenches.”
“And goblins can’t read. But, they are excellent at pretending. Let’s go.”
The elf brothers propped Prince Lugdeth up with sticks and rope and sat him astride the only horse in the stable who did not mind being ridden by a goblin. It was mostly the smell and the goblin’s habit of relieving itself without dismounting. That horse had lost its sense of smell and found the occasional torrents of warmth invigorating.
One of the two moons was full and tomato red, the other butter yellow and a thin sickle much further away. They guided the horses to a healthy trot, finding a pace that did not cause Prince Lugdeth to topple onto the ground, and used a back road that circumvented the goblin camp.
“Ugh, that camp was five miles ago and I can still smell it,” Macilo said, waving his gloved hand in front of his arrow of a nose.
“Get used to it, brother, that smell lingers long after the goblin has departed. We might need to burn the grass where they slept.”
The intermittent forest gave way to meadows of golden wheat tinted orange in the light of the moon. The stalks shifted in the breeze, and as the dry, brittle heads rubbed together it sounded like the rattles of a thousand serpents. Mastano, the younger of the elves, cleared his throat and sat taller in his saddle. His keen eyes scrutinized the fields, the occasional trees, branches naked in preparation for the long winter to come.
“Brother, do you know who else prefers to travel back roads such as this?” he said, steam issuing from his mouth.
Before Macilo could answer, they both saw the silhouettes of rock trolls, each about the size of a young elephant, lumbering in their direction.
“Curses. Trolls in front of us. Goblins behind. You have no bow and I traded mine for a gryphon,” Mastano whispered.
“No. You traded your bow for a picture of a gryphon,” Macilo hissed in reply.
“That wasn’t clear when we made the deal! And, it’s a nice picture, anyway.”
“Quiet, you’ll alert the…never mind. They see us,” Macilo said.
“You have to speak for us, Macilo. I cannot understand trolls and it always becomes a thing.”
Macilo huffed, “Nor can I, Mastano. Their speech sounds like a dragon choking on hobbits.”
The earth trembled as the rock trolls neared. Elves are swifter and smarter than rock trolls, a fact no rock troll would deny. Many rock troll met its end with an elfish arrow between its eyes. Both parties had cause to be wary of the other. The leader of the rock trolls halted his companions and stepped forward, knuckles carving small rivulets in the dirt path.
“What business do two elves and a goblin have on this road?” the rock troll uttered.
The elves exchanged a glance. Neither understood the mushy words, but they did not want to risk offending him by requesting he repeat the statement.
Mastano cleared his throat, “We are well, friend rock troll, and how are you and yours?”
The rock troll looked to his companions, “We are good, elf. Now, what business do two elves and a goblin have on this road?”
“I think he said the same thing again,” Macilo whispered.
“I know he said the same thing again!” Mastano snapped.
“What do we do?”
“What if we both pretend to load our arrows. They probably cannot see we do not have bows,” Mastano said, then quickly added, “Hey, trolls keep their word, right?”
“We know they are idiots. But, they keep their word, right?”
“As far as I know,” Macilo said.
“Hey troll, I have a deal for you. I will trade safe passage for a gryphon!”
The lead troll smiled.
They reached Nawelo’s hovel an hour before dawn, when the eastern sky was tinged with purple and only the brightest stars remained. It appeared to be a collection of bricks held together by luck rather than a proper home.
Macilo rapped across the door in a specific pattern to indicate he was both a friend and an elf. The sign on the door, which read Nawelo, Founder and President of the Guild of Wizards, canted to the side. There was a commotion from within of pots falling followed by curses in three languages. The door opened, fell off its hinges, then magically repaired itself. The wizard, nocturnal eyes blinking behind handcrafted spectacles, peered into the darkness.
“Ho, Nawelo, we are Macilo and Mastano, elf brothers of the-…”
“Yes, I know who you are! We had drinks together not two weeks ago. You tried to trade me a picture of a gryphon for my staff. What is it you need at his early hour?”
The elf stepped aside and gestured toward the goblin prince, who had slipped along the horse’s side over the course of the journey, and was then jutting from its ribs like a lumpy, green pustule.
“I’ll trade you a mule for the dead goblin,” Nawelo said, stroking his beard, which was as white as the snow-capped mountains behind him.
“We aren’t here to trade him. We need him alive again or we’ll have the whole goblin army in our land. He’s a prince. The heir to the goblin king’s throne.”
Nawelo, smoothed his robes and retreated within the hovel.
“I am afraid this is beyond my skill, elf friends.”
Macilo cast wary glances to the left and right before whispering, “To get to our lands, the goblins will first past through yours.”
The wizard nodded and waved the brothers inside, adding, “Bring the goblin.”
Prince Lugdeth was dumped onto the work bench, his once loose limbs then taught.
“It smells worse than the goblin camp, Nawelo. What poison are you brewing?” Mastano said, plugging his nose.
“Hm? Oh, no, that’s just me. Sorry, I’ll light a candle. Now, I maintain it is beyond my skill to resurrect this goblin. To conquer mortality is a talent attained by very few of my ilk.”
Macilo pressed his fingers to his lips to suppress the urge to vomit. There were nausea-inducing sights at every turn, animal parts and pots of reeking ichor. Most disturbingly, there was a jar labeled Not Elf Ears!!, which Nawelo quickly stowed in a cupboard.
“If it is not possible to conquer it outright, perhaps it can be subdued temporarily? Redirected perhaps?” Mastano offered.
“What do you mean?” the wizard said, looking over the rim of his glasses.
“We do not require him to be alive. We just need him to not be dead for a little while. A day or two.”
The wizard nodded, seeming to understand.
“It is a good thought. However, that particular spell would require at least half a sack of gnome dust.”
“I cannot believe the Forgotten Forest is just beyond the borders of our land,” Mastano said.
“What do you mean, brother?” Macilo asked.
“The Forgotten Forest. We just passed through it not ten minutes ago. Remember, the talking trees? They made fun of your nose? You threatened to come back this afternoon with an axe?”
Macilo shook his head, wiping a tear from his cheek, “I am quite certain that never happened. Ah, here is the goblin camp. Let us send our recently, and temporarily, revived prince on his way.”
Macilo slapped the horse, its saddle wet with vomit and worse, on its rump. It reared, nearly throwing its rider, and galloped into the horde.
A still very confused Prince Lugdeth was greeted with cheers.
“That takes care of that. The wizard was more than fair. The remainder of the magic dust and our solemn oaths that he can harvest our ears upon our deaths in exchange for the spell,” Macilo said.
“Fair, but foolish. Does he not know an elf may live for thousands of years as long as he is not slain in battle?”
“Or poisoned!” Macilo laughed.
“Or poisoned, exactly. Let us toast our good fortune with a bit of moonberry wine. How thoughtful of Nawelo to provide us with his own special brew.”
“Yes, and we will have to borrow his labeling system to avoid a situation like this in the future.”
They passed the bottle labeled Moonberry Wine “Not Poison” between them.
The most important thing in Arthur Jenkins’ car was the picture of his wife taped to the dashboard. Its edges were rounded, little white capillaries sprouting in the corners. She posed on the hood of 1968 Chevelle, which they bought used in 1973. It was their first major purchase as a couple, followed by a series of homes they promptly outgrew as children and grandchildren took over their lives and living space. The other picture of her, the final picture, he kept in his wallet. But he didn’t look at it often.
The second most important thing in Arthur’s car was his glasses, which he removed while driving but required for reading. He punched the dome light on despite it being full daylight, certain he was parked at the right house but unable to verify because he could not make sense of his own handwriting. He searched the pockets of his jacket, prodded the insulated pizza bag, and returned to his pockets once again. Finally, he scratched a small island of liver-spotted skin on his head and nudged the wire frames with his knuckle.
“Arthur, you fool,” he whispered, then lowered the glasses onto his face.
The address was correct.
It was a quaint, pastel yellow home not too far from his own neighborhood. The Ford Taurus in the driveway was a technological relic, but looked well-maintained, its pixilated paint job appearing almost intentional. There were faded bumper stickers for national parks and the vanity license plate was a riddle Arthur could not make out as he walked up the driveway. Blooming flowers lined the walkway with ceramic gnomes peeking around the petals. There was also a wooden sign that read The Witch is In!, which gave Arthur a chuckle, though he did not understand it.
He rang the doorbell and the house erupted with the sound of screeching birds. The animals were gently admonished as the occupant hummed her way to the door. Arthur passed the bag from one hand to the other, and opened the Velcro to access the pizza within. It was his third week on the job and this was one part he failed to master, the exchange of pizza for money. He was never sure of the proper order, and always certain he flubbed the transaction when it was done. On Arthur’s second day he took the cash from a young man’s hand with his teeth, not knowing how else to receive the money.
The door opened and the scent of jasmine rushed forth. Arthur closed his eyes and fought the urge to sneeze. When he opened his eyes his jaw went slack. An apple-sized knot formed in his stomach. He immediately dismissed her as an apparition, closed his eyes tighter and opened them again. She wore a confused look that mirrored his own.
“Arthur?” she said.
Her hair fell in gentle purple ringlets around her face, which was both achingly familiar and utterly foreign, like returning to a hometown not visited in decades.
“Reesie?” Arthur replied.
It was her honey-brown eyes, now floating in a nest of wrinkles but otherwise untouched by time.
“Arthur, what are you…” she trailed off, smiling and taking in his tan slacks and red and blue polo shirt. At least he hadn’t worn the hat.
Arthur’s cheeks burned.
“It’s uh-, it’s a part-time job. Something to keep me sane. I-I don’t need the money. I have a retirement,” he blurted.
Perhaps it was a trick of the sunlight, but for a moment the decades peeled away and Arthur was left staring at the face of his first crush, a quirky girl who nearly caused a civil war in school for daring to wear pants. An opinion piece in the school newspaper prophesied a series of increasingly outrageous feminine behaviors if the wearing of pants was permitted, almost all of which did come to pass.
He tucked the pizza bag under his arm and simply stared with that teenaged, diffident smile. Reesie wore not pants but a silk kimono with dizzying colors, like the tropical birds in the cages over her shoulder. Dreamcatchers dangled from her earlobes, each a different color.
“Yes, Reesie?” he sighed.
She nodded at the pizza bag, which was vertical and pressed against his body, melted cheese leaking through the seam and pooling onto Arthur’s right orthopedic shoe.
He righted the pizza bag, mozzarella dangling like pearly seaweed.
Smiling again, Arthur said, “Reesie, I haven’t seen you since reunion. Must have been thirty years ago!”
“Has it been that long? I remember your Doris wasn’t too fond of me that night.”
Arthur rubbed the back of his neck, “Never was. Not after she found my old yearbook.”
He avoided her gaze and wondered if his cheeks were as red as they felt.
The flutter in his chest intensified.
“Oh, nothing. Just a little thing I wrote by your picture. I think Doris might have helped it find its way to the trash. Haven’t seen it in years.”
She smiled and squeezed his forearm, “It’s okay, Arthur. How is she, by the way?”
Arthur looked at the oily splatter of cheese on his shoe and sniffed.
“She, uh, she didn’t make it. Cancer, just like her mother. It’s been about six months now. The kids thought I was getting too surly at home by myself. I rather enjoy the job, gets me out of the house and meeting folks.”
She lifted his chin and met his gaze, “Arthur, I am so sorry. Truly I am.”
He nodded and for a few moments they just stood in the doorway, birds cawing and screeching in the background. The memories of their high school days were like a shuffling rolodex in his mind. The vibrant memories, the ones that really stuck, featured the woman now standing two feet in front of him.
“What brought you back, Reesie?”
She inspected her glossy, aquamarine toenails.
“Mom. My sisters and I took turns staying with her. Wasn’t really fair, though, as I never settled down and had a family. So, I moved in. She passed last October. I think about moving, but I might be too old for another adventure.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“This was her house. Those were her birds, too. Awful, noisy things. I know I had a reputation in school as a loony, but I’m not the kind of person who would keep birds,” she said, sniffing in disgust.
Arthur nodded and smiled and thought he could spend the rest of the day in Reesie’s doorway. Then he remembered the picture taped to the dashboard.
“I should…” he said, looking over his shoulder.
“Of course,” Reesie said.
“We should catch up,” he said, his smile hopeful.
“I would love to.”
Arthur pivoted, suddenly hyperaware of his gait, his attire, and anything else she might notice.
She attached the term of endearment to his name in high school. It was practically his surname in her presence. It had the same electrifying effect on his limbs then as it had fifty years before.
The name was a slight variation of her given name, Reese.
“The pizza, dear?”
His smile twitched.
“Arthur, you fool,” he whispered.
They exchanged numbers and Arthur scuttled back to the car having been summoned by a sarcastic text message from his seventeen year old boss.
“Don’t you judge me, Doris,” Arthur told the picture taped to the dashboard.
Were her brows furrowed in the picture? Was she upset?
Of course not.
Still, he glanced at the black and white softness of her face as he drove, certain she was evaluating the flush of his cheeks, the sheen of sweat above his eyebrows.
“We’re just friends is all. Not even friends, really. I haven’t spoken to Reesie- I haven’t spoken to Reese in years.”
Had he thought about her?
Sometimes when he saw a purple flower bobbing its flagrant petals amid a sea of yellow flowers he thought of her. When he saw a woman reading a book with a confusing title he thought of her. At night, on his side of the bed, he thought about Doris and how silent the room was without the beeping machines that gave her a few extra years of life. Sometimes those thoughts drifted through their years and decades together, and settled on Reesie and the particular way her ponytail swayed, like a frenzied pendulum. She walked with purpose. Though he forgot much of high school, he still recalled the cadence of her footfalls.
Arthur would smack the side of his head as if he could dislodge the rebellious wandering of his thoughts. He had been happy with Doris, truly, until the end. When Reesie called a little after seven PM he was sitting on Doris’ side of the bed looking at the pillow where she rested her head. Arthur ignored the phone call and hugged the pillow, which still smelled faintly of Doris’ lavender shampoo. She called again the following morning and twice in the afternoon.
Arthur wrote a script and then edited it, using a thesaurus to add syllables to his simple words. But, he did not recite it to Reesie. He did not answer the phone. Instead, he pulled the picture of Doris out of his wallet and felt the weight of her absence as a cold, heavy stone in his chest.
On Monday of the following week Arthur reported for his lunchtime shift and learned he was requested, specifically, for a delivery. Bread sticks and a side salad with a Dr. Pepper thrown in to nudge the order over the $10 minimum for deliveries. He swallowed hard when he saw the address.
Doris eyed him the entire drive back to the quaint house with the peeping lawn gnomes. Arthur avoided speaking to her, opting to hum in an attempt to mask his anxiety. The hum quivered in his throat, never settling on a note.
In high school Reesie’s directness was both alluring and terrifying. Arthur was dazzled by the confidence in her voice, the sprawling nature of her thoughts. Time, it seemed only stiffened her resolve even as it took its toll in other ways.
“You’re avoiding me, Arthur,” she said.
Arthur opened and closed his mouth like a fish that suddenly found itself on land.
“I called. I even sent a text and that was a pain to figure out. Why does it keep putting words in that I didn’t write?”
Arthur shook his head and slowly lifted the breadsticks.
“Oh, I didn’t really want those, Arthur. I wanted to ask why you aren’t answering my calls? Did I do something wrong?”
Arthur met her gaze and held it for a moment.
She nodded, slowly.
“I understand,” she said, then held one finger up.
She disappeared into a cacophony of bird noises. The door swung open again and Reesie held out a book.
“Keep it for a while, Arthur, dear. For old time’s sake.”
She smiled, but there was sadness in her eyes, and she closed the door.
Arthur swirled his scotch as he opened the first page of the yearbook. That was what people did in movies, and so Arthur had always done it. He followed the paths carved by many feet, seldom straying, seldom pausing to look to either side. There were other paths he could have taken, unproven paths with uncertain destinations. Paths that wore pants, for example.
Reesie’s yearbook was filled with the looping script of her female classmates, a half-page from her English teacher, who urged her to continue writing. Arthur found himself in several pictures, typically not in the forefront but off to the side a bit. They were together in one, he and Reesie at a pep rally. Arthur noticed several of the young women in the bleachers were wearing pants. Most students faced the camera, but not Arthur. He was smiling at Reesie’s hand on his knee.
She was such a free spirit, a silver dime in a bagful of pennies. Why had she ever made time for him?
He relived football games and dances, the scotch warm in his belly, likely a result of his expert swirling.
Arthur skimmed over the entries at the back of the book, feeling like a bit of a voyeur. He found his own compact paragraph, grimacing at the use of the words swell gal.
“Arthur, you fool,” he whispered, slurring the words just a bit.
He recognized Reesie’s handwriting on the final page. It filled all of the white space. Arthur sucked in a breath and held it.
Dozens, possibly one hundred times, she had written the name Reese Jenkins. In Arthur’s yearbook, which was not in a landfill but in a box labeled books in the attic, the same name was written under her picture in Arthur’s handwriting.
Arthur placed both pictures of Doris inside of her favorite book, and returned it to the bookshelf. He traced his fingers along the spine, which was rough and broken. She read the book every year during her birthday month. Early in the marriage it annoyed him. He did not understand how she could find enjoyment in the words she knew by heart.
“I enjoy them because I know them by heart,” she said.
Doris was his book. His beginning, middle, and end. It was not perfect, but no book is.
He held the phone in his hands, his fingers hovering over the call button.
On her last day, during her final lucid moment, Doris made Arthur promise many things. He agreed to her demands only half-listening to the words, only wanting her to continue talking.
“Arthur, you have to keep living. You have to,” she said.
He nodded, eyes stinging with tears.
Arthur downed the last of the scotch and said, “Okay, Doris.”
He pressed the button and it connected almost at once, his ear filling with bird noises.
“Hello Arthur, dear.”
It happens all the time, though is rarely ever witnessed. One celestial body crashes into another, millions of years of momentum altered in an instant. In a Universe where distance is measured in time, it must happen every second, every fragment of every second, tiny asteroids ricocheting off of larger asteroids, satellites in an epoch-long gravitational dance finally seek to occupy the same plot of space-time, and destroy themselves in the process.
His celestial body was a ship orbiting a gas giant. When the asteroid collided with the ship it severed his tether to it, but he was left unharmed. The recoil propelled him backwards, away from the gas giant, away from the debris of the ship, soundlessly expanding in one million directions. The asteroid continued on its journey out of the solar system, its trajectory determined by a collision of celestial bodies light years away, at a time when the ancestors of Man walked on four legs.
The astronaut triggered his thrusters to steady himself. He radioed in, but there was not even static in response. He watched those tiny white fragments, little pieces of lint on black felt, and began to understand his plight. Within the spray of metal and plastic were bits and pieces of the crew. It was gone. All of it. A decade of planning, billions of dollars, his dreams…
The thrusters could not overtake his momentum. He sailed away from the planet and the pieces of lint that looked like fireworks frozen in time. He could not sense the motion, but every few minutes he found the gas giant occupied less of his field of vision.
He triggered the thrusters to turn toward the sun. From that distance it was perhaps only several times brighter than Sirius. Yet its light still obscured the object he sought.
In the minutes he searched for it he sailed thousands of miles away from the wreckage, from the gas giant and its dozens of moons. Each breath he took brought him closer to his eventual fate. And then he saw it, a blur of blue and its gray companion, no larger than a mote of dust.
How much time passed? Thirty minutes?
When would the ship’s final transmission reach the blue blur?
There would be panic. There would be pain. In time, there would be healing.
In that moment he only thought of the pain in one heart. He wanted to tell the boy not that he loved him, but that this was inevitable, and he should not allow his heart to break over the inevitable. The asteroid, in its long existence, raced across the black emptiness of space, away from the warmth of any sun, without thought or malice. It could have occupied an infinite number of places at infinite points in time.
It had to occupy that place, his place, at that time.
His breaths were like sand trickling from one side of an hourglass to the other.
The sky opened up, a still, black sea with one million points of light. It was all he ever wanted, to be among the stars. But not at that moment.
He closed his eyes and drifted weightlessly. The sand drained in the background of his memories as he recalled the small bundle in its light blue swaddle. The face would resemble his in the coming years, but then it was just a few creases and a little bump for a nose. A still, small thing, a part of him now existing outside of his body.
From thousands of grains of sand there were then only hundreds. He took shorter breaths to preserve the oxygen. This was inevitable, the man knew. As the Universe wrapped its arms around him he felt no fear, but he did not know what, if anything, of him would remain when all of the stars went out. He waved at the blue blur and transmitted one final time. There were so many things he wanted to say, so many truths to speak to the expanse. None captured the heaviness in his heart, and so he breathed the words he’d said every day for twelve years.
I love you.
The boy hovered over the eyepiece. It was just a smudge of various colors, mostly shades of brown, crystalline blue at the poles, but it was still beautiful. His father was out there.
He was still, one gloved hand raised and frozen in place. Away from the planet he drifted.
Every moment of his life, every untied shoelace, every triumph and tragedy, was a tiny course correction.
This was inevitable.
The visor was cracked just so. Twin rivulets sparkled on his cheeks. Away he drifted, eyes wide and sightless. Though the heart no longer functioned, it was full.
To be among the stars.
Near Camden, Alabama 1948
“I’ll give you five minutes,” the deputy warden said, toothpick bobbing with the movement of his lips.
“Sir?” Bill said, wiping the sweat from his brow with the striped sleeve of his shirt.
It was late afternoon in August, and everything shriveled beneath the Alabama sun. The deputy warden had separated the three men from the rest of the chain gang and walked them down the road half a mile or so.
“Don’t you mean suh?” he spat.
Bill squinted toward the sound of an engine rumbling to life. The remaining inmates were being loaded onto the bus headed back to jail. He was chain-bound to two others, a big, simple man the inmates called Bobby, though no one knew his real name, and the old man with eyes like spoiled milk.
“What’s goin’ on, sir?”
“What’s goin’ on is, that woman you raped was the daughter of a close friend, my best friend to be specific. Now, the law says you get to have a trial, but I’m the law on this particular stretch of road. I say you get five minutes befo’ I set the hounds loose,” the deputy warden said.
He looked at his watch and corrected, “Four minutes.”
Two trucks passed the bus and Bill saw the unmistakable silhouettes of hound dog heads catching the wind, ears like limp airplane wings.
“Never raped anyone,” Bill said.
“Not what she said. No suh.”
He checked his watch again, “Three-and-a-half.”
Bill inched away and the others followed suit. He was being set up. He knew he was being set up. He would be better off standing right there on that dusty road than running. That was the excuse they needed, but in the moment, it didn’t feel like a choice.
The deputy warden turned to wave at the approaching trucks. His bulk tested the integrity of every seam and button of his shirt. Bill bet hehadn’t been in the war. Probably had a “heart condition” or something.
“C’mon,” he said to the others.
The blind man did not speak but grasped the well-formed shoulders of the man in the middle. Bill scanned ahead as he walked, chewing for just a moment on the possibility that any one of the three men might have had a slave grandfather who picked cotton in the very field they were entering. Now, he was a free man in chains. Beyond the endless, cloudlike tufts was a line of trees. Probably half a mile as the crow flies, but their path to it would not be straight.
Behind, a new car joined the trucks idling on the road. A man got out waving his arms. He pointed in the direction he’d come and Bill heard three words that gave him a momentary reprieve from the toxic ball of panic growing in his belly.
Bus turned over
The deputy warden stomped on his hat. His thin, blonde hair looked like a bad batch of cotton, something you might use to stuff a scarecrow with. He watched Bill and the others scurry toward the trees.
“Coupl’a yours are injured, too, Don,” the man in the overalls said.
The rapist would have to wait. Might make the chase more interesting, actually. With a whistle and a wave of his hand he rallied the men. Hopefully, it was nothing serious. Hopefully, he’d put the hounds to good use soon. If not, well, Alabama would finish the job for him.
They stumbled and fell, their cheap shoes sliding over the loose soil. By the fifth time Bill dusted himself off and reverted back to his training.
“Okay, now, I’m gonna say left and I want each of you to step with your left foot. When I say right you step with your right. We get the hang of it I’ll pick up the pace a bit,” he said.
Bobby grunted and the blind man nodded once.
Bill watched the road. None of the vehicles had yet returned and the trees loomed just ahead.
“Left on three. 1-2-3-left!”
There was a bit of a delay. The blind man stepped on Bobby’s heel. But it wasn’t bad. Bill had a time of it himself in basic training.
Within a minute, they no longer stepped on each other’s ankles. Bill had them nearly jogging by the time they reached the woods. The air was still thick as river mud, but a few degrees cooler, at least.
Bill had grown up in these woods, but at that moment he was back in Europe, running for his life again. As in Europe, he was unarmed. Medics weren’t allowed to carry weapons, but a lot of stuff that wasn’t allowed to happen did over there. They dodged exposed roots and glistening spiderwebs, the trees crowding closer and closer together.
“Got to get to water. Got to lose the scent,” Bill huffed.
Bobby grunted and the old man might have offered a yup in response.
Running for his life again. When he’d come back he marched in a parade down Main Street in Camden, right alongside the white men. Deputy Don was probably in the crowd that day, clapping louder than anyone else. He knew the woman who said he’d raped her. He knew she’d never been raped. But, she had fallen in love with a black man and fell pregnant with his baby. Couldn’t say it was him. They had a plan to run away together. But, a baby was gonna come out of her with curly hair and umber eyes, and there had to be a reason for it.
Ten minutes in and the pace staggered as if their legs were slowly turning to sand. The underbrush pulled at their striped pants, hooked around their ankle chains. The light leaking through the canopy was the color of honey. Dusk approached.
“We gotta get these chains off,” Bill said, stopping to look at the men.
The old man turned his head and held up one finger.
“Trucks comin’ back,” he said, voice thin as gauze.
“How’s that?” Bill said.
He nodded his head to the west.
“Trucks. Dogs’ll be comin’ right behind.”
“You can hear that?” Bill said, fascination supplanting fear.
The old man nodded.
“Then we gotta get outta these chains now.”
He looked to Bobby. The man met his gaze and held it as he lifted his swollen arms. In one violent motion he threw his arms behind, breaking free of the chains that bound his hands.
“Don’t do no good to bust out when they got a gun at yo back,” he said.
The blind man smiled as if he’d seen everything.
“Git me a big rock,” Bobby said.
Bobby liberated both men from the chains, but they all still wore the heavy bracelets around their wrists and ankles.
“Dogs is loose. S’pose they’s one more thing to tell ‘fore we start,” the blind man said.
He pulled a pant leg up and tugged his sock down. The skin around is ankle was mottled black and purple, darker than an eggplant left to whither on the vine.
“They did it last night. Make today more difficult fo’ you, I reckon. Done my best, but can’t run on it.”
“Jesus,” Bill said.
He instinctively reached for the bag of Army-issued medical supplies, but felt only his hip. Given time he could fashion a stretcher, but time was the one thing they did not have.
“They got the scent, boy!” one of the men from the trucks said.
The hounds tore through the cotton field and paused at the forest’s edge.
“Yup, shame he made a run fo’ it. Heard he was on his way to bein’ a lawyer. Took a blind boy and a dummy with ‘im. Such a shame,” Deputy Don said with a wink.
“Now, start veerin’ to the right some,” the blind man said.
Bobby barely noticed the extra weight on his back. Bill sacrificed the top half of his jumpsuit to the cause, crafting a crude sling to keep the old man off his feet. Clouds blotted out the setting sun and they smelled of rain. The forest went gray, the leaves and trunks of trees the same color. Rocks and roots seemed to jump out of the ground, and Bill was one sprained ankle away from being dog meat.
“Touch to the left.”
Bill adjusted course.
“Nope, don’t put yo arms out. Keep ‘em tucked nice and tight by yo side.”
They agreed their only chance to survive the night was the river. The old man, Jasper, Bill learned, took the role of navigator. He cocked his head to the side, one ear listening to what was behind and the other to what was ahead. Bobby absentmindedly began to hum and received a crisp smack on the back of his head for the effort.
“Okay, gettin’ close. Take five steps then I need you to crawl under those plants. Brush off some o’dat cotton when you do,” Jasper said.
Bill could barely make out the plants, but he did as he was told.
“You, big man, walk right around. Go up that ridge if you need. River’s not far now,” Jasper said, ripping free another piece of his jumpsuit and tossing it in a briar patch.
The dogs were mostly quiet. It was the men behind that wouldn’t shut up. To Jasper, he might as well have been right among them. He could not make out the words, just the shapes of the words, but the laughter was like gunshots to his sensitive ears.
Night arrived in concert with the storm. The men, many built similar to Deputy Don, struggled to stay upright. The laughter became curses as the dogs followed the scent trails, the odor slowly soaking into the black Alabama soil.
Jasper gave orders from his perch on Bobby’s back, directing the big man to take a different path from Bill’s. By the time they reached the river even Bill could hear the dogs.
“They’re close!” Bill whispered.
“Yes’m. They is. They about to have a time of it, too,” Jasper chuckled.
“What you mean?” Bill asked.
“Just step on into that water and keep your ears open,” Jasper said.
“Gators in there,” Bill said.
The wind from the storm whipped the river into frenzy.
“Shouldn’t be in no mood to hunt in this weather. Anyway, I can see ‘em just fine,” Jasper said.
His white teeth glowed like moonlight in the dark.
Bill entered the water, Bobby just behind. They swam against the current, guessing the men in pursuit would expect the opposite.
“Bit left. There’s a gator on yo right but he’s sleeping.”
Jasper navigated in water as well as he had on land.
The texture of the hound dog calls changed. It was frantic, tinged with pain.
“What’s that?” Bill asked.
“That was the briars. They’ll feel the poison oak on they noses in a while. Got sumac waitin’ for ‘em at the water’s edge. Men are in the thick of it right now, chasin’ ghosts. Rain’ll spread it everywhere. Ain’t no one gonna be laughin’ back there no more,” Jasper said.
They rode the waves in silence only interrupted by Jasper’s directives.
At dawn the three men stood on riverbank, soaked to the bone with rain and river water. Jasper leaned against Bobby, foot hovering above the soil. Downstream, the dogs scattered, noses reporting conflicting information. Deputy Don sat on a log, soaked in poison with his skin just beginning to tingle. When the screaming began he would be the loudest among them.
Bill did not know what the day held for him, or the week or month. He only knew he survived the night and that the shafts of sunlight piercing the canopy kissed the face of a free man.
Bill kneeled before Jasper.
“Come on, old man, let’s see about that ankle.”