08/18/13

How Chatham Handles Ghosts

Jimmy Vaun, the terror of the ninth ward, shivered under the cheap wool blankets. Chatham kept heaping them on but it didn’t help. Jimmy’s teeth were still chatting so loudly he thought some of them might break. Jimmy wasn’t the first man Chatham had watched die, but he was certainly trying to be the worst.

“You’ll make ‘em bury me,” Jimmy begged again.

“I promise,” Chatham reassured him. “Money in the sideboard, a real wooden casket just like olden times, and a spot in the church yard.”

“Have to bribe for that, but there should be enough mon-” Jimmy stopped in a fit of coughing. Chatham put his hands around the man’s shoulders, feeling the burning hot skin. The coughing broke something inside Jimmy’s chest, and Chatham watched as he tried to get enough air to form words but couldn’t. Pity nearly overwhelmed him.

“Enough money, I know Jimmy. Don’t worry about it, just rest.”

“Go… Roger… Yourself… Chattie.” Jimmy spit the words out. “Not some… old fool.”

“Yeah, yeah. You know and I know you’re dying. No reason to be an arse about it.”

“Never… thought.”

“No one does. You drank something right? What was it? Where?”

“Not… your place.” Jimmy smiled, then coughed again for a long time. “Outdoors… thirsty… didn’t taste…” Again the coughing took him. “nothing.”

“No one does.” Chatham repeated. Before Jimmy could answer another coughing fit took him, doubling his body, making the bed bounce. Chatham tried to hold him down, to keep the man still. Halfway through the coughing changed to a jerking, a twitching and then Chatham knew the man was dead.

He laid the body back at the bed, and used his finger tips to close the eyes. A trickle of blood came out of Jimmy’s mouth. How many men had he left that way? Bleeding from a busted lip or broken teeth? Jimmy thought the surest way to win a fight was to be the one who started it. Music drifted up from the bar downstairs. Chatham should be there. He knew that. But this, this moment where life ended, it felt like it should be special, like someone would stop for it. No time though, he sighed, said a short prayer under his breath without really knowing he did it, and turned to the sideboard. The purple liquor bottle sack hid under a few good shirts, a velvet vest. Jimmy stole enough to look good and proper. He’d be buried in that one, not the cheap night shirt he wore now. Chatham counted out the coins, nine sterling. Enough to bury him right, maybe another two besides if any little ones showed up asking for it. Chatham shook his head.

“Gonna steal it, Chattie? Bad idea.” The ghost’s warning didn’t come to him fast enough, and though Chatham moved to the side, the transparent fist still rocked his head back.

“Jimmy!” He shouted. The ghost didn’t respond, just kept moving forward, two fists flying. Chatham dodged some of the blows. “Stop!”

The ghost didn’t. They never did.

Chatham felt one strike his nose, the sickening crunch noise came just before the smell of his own blood filled his nostrils. It pushed sense back into his mind, and Chatham grabbed at the knife he always kept inside his waist. It flew into his hand, wanted to do its work.

“Can’t kill me, Chattie, I’m already dead.” Jimmy smiled a grin that half the ghosts in the ward would recognize as the last sight they saw. “And I’m gonna settle some old debts.”

The ghost advanced, moving with the grace of a man used to knife fighting. Chatham watched, feinted left, then right. Just a sudden cold cut slipped into his ribs, the pain of a ghostly weapon, he brought the blade up into the mid-section of the shade. Jimmy’s ribs weren’t there, but the knife punched a hole in the mist as if they were.

“What?”

“I’m sorry, Jimmy, I truly am.” Chatham cut up the center of the soul, splitting it in two. He reached the jaw when Jimmy saw that there was this, not death but whatever it was, and tried to escape. But the knife knew better, once in it stayed in, until it came out of the top of Jimmy’s head. Split in half the ghost stumbled, trying to find a way to right itself. Instead, Chatham cut the head off, turning the smoky form into four pieces. They disappeared almost before his cut ended.

“Sorry again,” Chatham said, but the soul of Jimmy Vaun, corrupt and sinful, had ceased to exist. It would never get to heaven, never go to hell. Outside of the small rented room above the bar, it was as if Jimmy Vaun had never been born at all.


(I’m working hard on a young adult steampunk manuscript and haven’t been writing my usual short stores. Instead of ignoring my blog, I’m posting excerpts. Today, how Chatham, the bar owner and all around tough guy handles ghosts. Read the others: Andra and Chatham meet, how Andra Deals with Ghosts.)

08/11/13

How Andra Deals with Ghosts

The knife buried itself into the lord’s head up to the hilt, and the man screamed with the pain of each thrust.

“Do you see him?”

Andra could only nod. The specter hovered a foot off the ground, its arm stretching down as it pulled the dagger out again, then shoved it in, this time skewering the lord’s ear. He clutched at the pain there, and the ghostly knife slid out from palm and ear drum at once. Andra knew what came next, knew what she had to do. She hated it, but that didn’t matter. The ghost would go on stabbing until the lord fell over dead, then his ghost would find someone new to start stabbing or cutting or perhaps even beating. The cycle had to stop.

She moved forward, and put her hand out, the fingers pressed together, her palm facing the warm brick walls of the great room. Ignoring the lord and his pain, she stepped forward, another foot and it would begin. Her feet hesitated, slippers barely scrapping the floor. A second’s hesitation and then she remembered what she did, how she earned her keep.

The misty form felt hot on her skin, like opening the lid on a pot of boiling soup, but almost immediately the tingling in her flesh began. Pins and needles, she thought, like my hand’s fallen asleep, except that it hadn’t. Instead her magic was doing its job. The ghost looked at her, madness in its eyes. The old lord sinned greatly and with great pleasure. His ghost was much corrupted. She watched as the eyes, the flat black eyes of any ghost, flickered with some hidden knowledge. Their sins, she’d been taught, they reviewed their sins as each one fell away, but no one knew for sure.

The lord, the living one on the floor, stopped screaming to watch. She wondered what he thought of this, imagined it would change him, then knew better. It never changed any of the others, why him? The steamy vapor that was his father became a softer fog, cooler now. The fog thinned, dissipating. Cleansed of his sins his spirit went on to rest.

She was a purity. This was how she lived.


(I’m down the rabbit hole of writing with a young adult steampunk manuscript. While I’m out of the loop I’m posting excerpts instead of my usual short stories. The first: Andra and Chatham meet. Today, how Andra, the one with supernatural powers, purifies ghosts.)

08/4/13

What I’m writing these days

I must apologize, profusely, for ignoring my blog in July. I’m about 45K words into a manuscript I started back in September of 2011. About then the business side of writing took up all my attention for a while. When that was done, the story escaped me. It was less than six thousand words, making me think that (like so many things that start off well) it wasn’t going to go anywhere.  But then…

I finished the mermaid manuscript in the beginning of April.  I took up something else, but it never set me on fire. I found myself reading old manuscripts to see if anything sparked, and this one did.

To make up for my long absence (sorry again) here’s an excerpt from the story. A few things to know about the world: it’s a steampunk setting, influenced by English society in the 1890s. There’s some technology but it’s not available to everyone. Like English society there are class levels. Andra works in a Manor House as a servant. While she has the ability to purify anything, from a ghost to a cup of water, with just the touch of her hand, she’s a servant and fairly low in the social structure. Still, she’s above Chatham, a bar owner from the very rough town the Manor House overlooks. This piece is their first meeting, written two years ago, and the thing that sparked my interest enough to start me writing on it again.

—————-

 

Ginger slid up to the bar with a grin on her face, like a cat that found a mouse to play with. Chatham expected she’d found a willing man for the night.

“Need something?”

Her smiled got half an inch wider. “There’s a girl in back, in a fine purple skirt and a lacey white shirt.”

“And?”

“Shirt only goes to her elbows.” Chatham’s head shot up, the glass he’d been polishing forgotten. “Says she’d like a glass of water, and wants to know if anyone here has work for a Purity.”

Chatham’s hand was already opening the piece of the bar, stepping outside it. Not this, not in his bar. Behind him Ginger laughed but Matthew just shook his head. He found the girl in a back booth, her body pressed up against the wall, her eyes wide. She sat wrong, with one arm pressed into the wood of the booth and the other on the table. Sure, it was safer, but that’s not how people sat in a booth. The wrongness of it stopped him for a moment, but then he noticed her arms. Slim, delicate wrists, soft looking light tan skin going up to the curl of her elbow, his eyes dragged themselves away from that female flesh and back to her face.

“Can I help you?” He demanded. Ginger might let her dress slip from her shoulders, and a few girls wore outgrown dresses that showed an inch or two of wrist, but this woman, her arms were bare from elbow to fingertip. Even a pair of gloves wouldn’t hide all that flesh. It should have been shameful, but Chatham found it tantalizing. It made him mad.

“I… I was… that is, I hoped I could help you,” the girl stammered. He put her at fifteen, maybe sixteen. Though she could be twenty and passing for younger to help with her con.

“As a Purity?”

“Yes, exactly, you see I lately worked for the Manor House but my employment has come to an end. I’m seeking a new a position, but until I find one- I’m given to understand you have rooms to let, with sturdy locks?” She raised her eyebrows. “Safety is my first concern.”

Chatham laughed so hard he grabbed the edge of the table. “If safety is your first concern, why are you in Downriver?”

“That’s none of your business,” she responded curtly. “I’m able to barter my work for the room. A bar like this must go through gallons of water. I’m sure that costs you a pretty penny, no doubt enough to cover my room and board until I make other arrangements.”

He finished laughing and snorted at the thought, no one in Downriver could afford purified water. They all used cleansed water. It tasted like chemicals but no one got sick or died from it.

“So you’re a Purity?”

“Yes, yes I am.” Andra leveled him with a firm gaze. He looked unscrupulous and beaten. She saw bruises rising along his face. This man, this bar, and these people, were all harsher than anything she’d dealt with in her life. She wished for the safety of the Manor House, the strict regiments of rules and order that protected her there. Not that they’d helped tonight, a small shudder ran through her at the memory and she forced herself to consider the present. Get someplace safe to sleep, some food, and then think about your dismal prospects for the future. “I’m happy to prove my abilities to you.”

“That so?” He whistled between his teeth. “Come with me then.”

She took a minute trying to get out of the booth, finally turning so her face was toward him but the rest of her toward the front. It was an awkward way to sit, and she wished she’d felt secure enough to put her back to the bar. She hurried to catch up with the bartender, his red vest a spot of bright color in the bar. The other patrons wore browns, dirty whites, and the occasional blacks, blended together somehow in a uniform color she would call worn-out or washed out. The women even looked that way, their dressed faded to pale yellows, dusty blues, and watery pinks. Andra kept her eyes on the man, his dark brown hair and lanky frame just a head of her until he opened a back door of the bar and disappeared.

Two steps outside she found him again, standing just beside the opened door. The light from the bar fell on a concave gutter. It ran down the alleyway with a rapid current, two feet wide and deep. Litter swirled as it moved past. A dead rat collided with the side of a broken jar then eventually moved farther down, into the darkness.

“It comes from the river, see.” He pointed down the dark alleyway but Andra couldn’t see. She just nodded. “We keep it running but there’s the piss from the street and blood from the butchers.” He jerked his thumb to the two buildings next door. “Of course, the river’s not clean to start with. You ever been outdoors?”

Andra shook her head.

“Sure, you haven’t.” His voice sounded like he didn’t believe her. “We get plenty of false Puritys around here. They know a little slight of hand, think a bit of bleach or a sanitizer packet slipped in where we can’t see it will make us believe them. Some people are gullible. They tend to die real quick though. The ones that make it through the sickness, they swear they won’t get taken in again.”

“I am a Purity,” Andra insisted.

“It’s the sleeves I guess,” the bartender went on as if he hadn’t heard her. “We got all kinds of whores, but they wear respectable dresses, even if they are lifting them in the alley. The sleeves are distracting.”

“You want me to Purify, this?” She pointed to the gutter water and squatted beside it. Closer to it, she saw it wasn’t so deep, maybe two feet, maybe one.

“I want you to stay out my bar.” She heard the hate in his voice before she felt his boot on her back. It wasn’t a kick, just a shove. She lost her balance immediately, and went head deep into the water. She wanted to shout but stopped herself, clamping her mouth shut against the filthy water even as rage boiled up inside her. She heard the door to the bar slam closed as she put one arm in the water and propped herself up. Her hair had gotten the worst of it. Her shirt was wet but thankfully not soaking. Her skirt just splashed, but filthy with grime where it’d hit the street. How dare he! She offered a reasonable business agreement and he treated her like a criminal.

The door behind her opened quietly, and the red haired girl stepped out, a glass in her hand. Andra thought for a second it was a peace offering, but no. The girl tipped the glass out, adding half a pint of beer to the mess of Andra’s hair. Pushed beyond her limits, Andra’s hand shot out and grabbed the girl tightly by the wrist.

“Owe! Let go of me!”

“Gladly.” Her other hand took the pint glass, then she dropped the girl’s hand. She reached and filled it with the toxic mess, catching some of the grit at the bottom.  She pushed the girl aside and stormed back into the bar.

 

Every eye was on her, every conversation stopped, but Andra didn’t stop to notice it. She kept her eyes locked on the target of her hate.

“You!” She slammed the glass of black-colored water down on the bar. He opened his mouth to protest, but she spoke before he got a word out. “Watch!” She put her fingers into the glass and let the purifying begin. The process ended almost as soon as it started. She was used to gallons, not pints, to high cisterns and vats of soup, not one beer glass. Still, a collective gasp went up from the bar as the water swirled around her fingers. She moved them in a circle, creating a current to catch the flakes of chemicals and sediment. In the center of that swirl the sediment looked first dark black, darker than the rest of the water, and then white, as more and more of the foreign matter got trapped the swirl became bright white, and the rest of the water clean.

“I am not a charlatan. You owe me an apology.” She drew herself up as high as her slight frame would allow.

The man behind the bar took a deep breath and looked at the water. “You drink it and I’ll give you one.”

Andra didn’t bother to roll her eyes, she grabbed the glass and put it to her lips, draining it until the last inch. When she saw the white sludge at the bottom coming toward her she dropped it back to the bar. The room exploded in cheers.

“I’m sorry,” the bar man mouthed over the sound.

“I need a room and work to pay for it.” She shouted to make herself heard.

“Done.” He nodded at her then gestured with both hands, bringing down the sounds of the bar. “You all heard her. She’s staying here. She needs work.”

“Like they can afford it.” Ginger’s sarcasm cut through the triumphant atmosphere. Andra felt the mood of the crowd shift.

“I’m…” She stopped, thinking about how the admission would change the way they viewed her. It was a chance she had to take. “I’m outdoors, and I’m not proud. I’ll barter or take whatever I can get for honest work.”

 

06/25/13

Chocolate – A Love Story

courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=465422He missed chocolate the most – the rich velvety smoothness across his tongue, missed the warmth of hot chocolate in the morning sitting by his bed in its chocolate service. In the beginning of his fall from grace, those first painful years without any food and barely any drink, it was easy to avoid his longing. There were so many other things to miss, a good steak or warm bread thick with butter. Later he realized above all else he missed chocolate. Just after the Germans became Huns but before they were Nazis, there came a new torment, chocolate mixed with nuts and raisins. A new taste he could never enjoy. By the end of World War II chocolate taunted him whenever he entered a corner market, from every restaurant menu, and at any hotel.

Chocolate had been rare when he was alive. It was the drink of the rich, more expensive then wine. Today it littered the streets. People tried to give chocolate away for free. On any day he passed 5 or 6 delicious torments, luxuries he could not enjoy. Chocolates on his pillow at night, chocolate mixed with coffee for breakfast. That the offers were so off-handed, so casual, made it all the worse. To love a thing and see it treated as valueless when he could not enjoy it was to be cut in some small way. While he did not bleed, it still hurt. Once, his grief had come through and a street vendor said ‘What, it’s just chocolate?’ He left the man intact, shaking his head thinking ‘he jests at scars that never felt the wound’.

He missed women too. Missed the desire a man could have for a woman and the way it felt to fulfill that most basic human need. He failed to understand the modern need to make sex something vulgar, something so wrong. He had watched pornography race from sensual enjoyment to extremes of degradation. He felt pity for any youth that could not be aroused by the hint of a breast or the curve of a thigh, who found pleasure instead in the most base of acts in domination or the destruction of feigned innocence. He wished he could understand this need for more and more brutal erotica but, he was dead. In the end, the dead never truly understand the living.

He floated, it seemed, between the world he had once inhabited, a bustling city filled with men in suits and women in gloves, and the current world. Sometimes when he walked down a street he could remember so clearly the theater goers in their revelries and the homeless that were the ghosts. He had met others of his kind; ones who had not fared so well, who saw only the ghosts, never the real people. He did not want to join them, yet when he passed the window of a chocolate shop, filled with golden boxes he could never again open and enjoy, he envied them.

He had seen her then, standing in front of that window with its bright lettering spelling out the name of a long dead noble. Would a modern woman know the story behind name of Godiva? Would she care? A warm pool of chocolate sat inside a baptismal font, ripe strawberries fresh from prayers lined up by the side. Opposite them, coolly bathed in the grace of God and chocolate were lined their predecessors. The scene brought him to such rapture he nearly devoured the woman. Watching the reflection of her eyes in the glass, in that last moment before the thing inside him made him more beast then man, he saw himself. Her desire was as deep and as unfulfilled as his own. He felt a single emotion, a sudden clear drop of charity. It rushed through his soul and cleansed him of any need to eat. He turned to her.

“Which would you eat first? The strawberry or the orange?” He left his voice human, tried to be light.

“Both, neither, I don’t know.” Her words came out in a rush while she shook her head. “I can’t afford any of them, and I don’t need the calories anyway. Thank God window shopping is free!” She began to walk away. Salvation slipping through his fingers.

“Wait! I can afford it, but I can’t eat any of it. Let an old man buy you some chocolate.” She hesitated, skittish. He reached out his hand, suddenly sorry he wore gloves. “Please, it would really be my pleasure.” With the last, he let a touch of himself shine through his voice. She smiled and put her hand in his.

“You can’t be that old of a man.” She turned her face up to him, searching for a sign of his age.

“Oh?” His voice held an amused lilt “I think you’d be surprised.” They stepped out of the swirling snow into the bright warmth of the chocolate shop.

Her name was Maggie. She was young, but old in her soul, a tenth of his age merely 28. She had spent too much time doing without, helping someone else. They sat in a corner booth of a slightly battered diner. Between her and the wall where no one could steal them was a heap of golden boxes; too many for such a small woman to carry, not enough to soothe the desires of an old man.

They met week after week as the Christmas decorations lost their newness and the crowds became less kind despite the season. Maggie wore the same shabby coat turned gray from overuse. He bought boxes, gift towers, custom pounds and any other thing her eye rested on. He spoiled her only in this, only in chocolate. He never offered her money or even a meal. He only sat across from her in the diner as she opened the gold foil to slip a piece, furtive and delighted at once.

He learned she lived alone. Her Mother, who had forbidden chocolate in their home, had recently died. She learned he spoke 7 languages, though some not very well. She watched him watch her eat but never asked why he didn’t or why he felt the need to shower her with chocolate. Perhaps he thought she suspected the answer and didn’t want to ruin the chocolate.

Vampires had always been there. He remembered stories of them when he was young. Terrible hideous monsters who could not stand sunlight or the touch of the faithful. He wasn’t that kind. These were more open times, people wanted to meet vampires. People read vampire novels, dressed in vampire clothes, and danced at dark night clubs drinking wine they pretended was blood. He went to the clubs, he tried to understand them, but in the end he was still dead and they were all still living.

People in New York, people all over the world acknowledged that vampires existed. Some of them would say ‘you mean people who think they’re vampires’ and others would say ‘they’ve been here all along’. For the first time in centuries he could tell someone what he was, tell them his real birthday or his whole name and not expect to be branded insane. Like most of the vampires, he didn’t like it. He would have rather lived in the shadows, rather lived a half life filled with lies and loneliness then to be loved but misunderstood. And to be misunderstood so badly! How many times could he hear the same phrases? Listen to the same mindless patter of “I know you think you feel but” or “I know you think you know everything but” as if someone else could crawl inside his mind and see what it really was to be him.

Still, other vampires had made the decision. They had come out, made themselves something more than a horror movie staple, asked for a life when truly they had no right to one. He wondered what they thought to gain. Wondered what the few that had slipped into the spotlight really wanted. Perhaps they were young and hopeful, new to his world. Perhaps they were old and tired of the chase, running out of shadows big enough to hide them.

There were only a handful of them after all. Two or three celebrity vampires, sitting on talk shows debating the correctness of the latest horror novel. He didn’t pay enough attention to the interviews to know if they lied. Did they ever claim to be able to turn into bats? He would like to see one of them try. He would like to see one of them proven completely and horribly wrong. That way he could go back to hiding, seeking out the others like himself for quiet company when the loneliness got to long. Of all the decades in his long un-life, he preferred the ones without public acknowledgment the best.

But Maggie. She might know, she might watch the television and lust after a demon lover. She might dream of a dark prince to save her from life. There was too the chance that she might know and be repulsed. Not find his fine yellow hair or his bright blue eyes enough to bare his cold touch. So for now he left this secret unsaid between them. All they had was chocolate but that was all he needed.

05/12/13

Not Part of The Routine

a man walking on the highway  courtesy of msadrian, stock.xchngHe had a routine. It worked for him. At least, he grinned to himself, it had worked the last seven times. Two women, a pair of senior citizens, and four men – mostly truckers – it had worked for all of them. The pair of senior citizens were only a month ago, a loving older couple. Different from the singletons, he couldn’t take the passenger seat and sink his knife in his victim’s side, taking the wheel as they looked at him, shocked and suddenly dying. He’d had to slice the wife’s throat and the husband jerked the wheel. So much blood, the windshield got coated with it, like it was raining red inside the car.

His worst kill, but his favorite so far. Definitely not routine.

He walked along the side of the highway, his breath starting to come out in white smoky puffs. He’d have to stop for the winter soon. After Christmas it got too cold and there was no more charity left in anyone’s heart, no more softening at the sight of a hitchhiker. This would be the last time he followed the routine this year. The thought left him sad, and excited.

A car slowed, a station wagon, a family car. His breath caught in his throat. Maybe that would be how he could survive the coming winter. Take three now, stock up. A giggle escaped his throat. He’d stock up for winter.

“Going far?” Dad asked.

“As far as you’ll take me. Headed to Denver.”

“Oh that’s far,” Mom agreed. They were forty, maybe a little older. “Squeeze in with Johnny.”

“Little Johnny,” Dad corrected. “I’m big John.”

“Oh neat.” It was a stupid thing to say, but little Johnny worried him. He’d been hoping for a car full of teens. Hoping for a bunch of girls. Now a six year old with chubby cheeks looked up at him. Dad locked the car door almost before it shut. Locked the predator inside, he smiled. The little boy wouldn’t be a problem.

Except, with his fingers on his knife, ready to strike out (always do it before they got up to speed, grabbing the wheel at 45 was a much different thing than having to grab it at 70) little Johnny’s face stopped him.

Perfectly cute, perfectly normal, but waxy. Too still. Little Johnny didn’t look normal.

“You guys waited to have kids, huh?”

“Thought we couldn’t.” Dad nodded. It was a personal question, Dad should’ve been upset or scared. The Predator hadn’t even thanked them for the ride yet.

“So when Johnny came, we knew he was a gift from God below.” Mom smiled as she said it.

“Above,” the Predator corrected, nervously licking his lips.

“Oh no. God Below.”

He turned toward the unnaturally still child, and studied it. Little Johnny did not blink. Sweat popped out on the Predator’s forehead, the hands that gripped the big knife felt clammy. He pulled it out, as Johnny watched, unblinking.

His slid his knife into the child’s side, like going into butter instead of flesh. Didn’t hit anything hard, didn’t see the bright red blood. This was wrong. All wrong.

“We’re lucky you came along. Our little boy needed his dinner,” Dad said. The father’s eyes  never left the road, the Predator’s eyes couldn’t tear themselves from the knife, stuck so far into the boy’s side that he couldn’t get it out, couldn’t go for Mom’s throat or slash at Dad. Couldn’t protect himself.

The boy sprang forward, biting. As the child’s sharp teeth pierced his throat, he could only think that this wasn’t part of the routine.

04/27/13

Night Train

TrainTimmy isn’t a bad boy. This is very clear in his mind. Momma asks him, now you don’t want to be a bad boy do you? And he knows the answer is no. Really he doesn’t though. He wants to be good. But he can’t sleep. It isn’t summer but the sheets keep sticking to his skin. It’s just too hot. He thinks about the brook behind the house, and how much cooler he would be if he went swimming. He starts thinking about it after dark, well after dark, when Momma and Daddy have turned off the radio for the night. By the time they’re quiet all he can think of is the cool water.

So he climbs out of bed, quietly. His plan is complete: a swim, a cooling dip, then back in bed. He has pictured every step with the clarity of any six year old. He will do this and no one will ever know. No one will call him a bad boy.

Outside the world is not hot and Timmy’s plans explode like the poof of his breath in the air. How could the house be so hot and the outside so cold? He doesn’t understand but he hops from one foot to the other, not making sense of it but still headed toward the brook. He has a vague notion of March and that maybe the wood stove made the house too hot. His mind is suddenly fuzzy, the clear plans of a second ago seem distant.

He takes another step toward the brook and then he sees the light. A circle of bright yellow light coming toward him from just over the bank, a train he realizes. It pulls up to the other side of the brook as if there were train tracks there, perfectly silent. His mind springs to life, memorizing rivets and gears, watching the moonlight paint the black engine. Light splashes over passenger cars, people seated in fancy dress and plain clothes, all of them looking forward. Old men, young men, women and babies in another car, looking forward as if the train always ran through his backyard when he’s never seen it here before, but then, he knows in a way that even a six year old must know, that there isn’t another train like this, not anywhere.

The engine comes to a halt with a shrill hiss of steam. He’s never imagined anything so fascinating, anything as magical and scary. A conductor leans out, a man in a fine black suit, formal with a brass watch fob looped over his modest belly.

“Good evening, Timmy. Fancy a ride on the night train?” The man has no accent, no hint of malice in his voice, and though Timmy knows he should be wary, the train beckons to him.

“How long?” His squeaks out the question, sounding small and unsure.

“Well now, some people they ride for a long time, years and years and years. But a young man like yourself, I suspect you’d ride just a little while. Just step into the brook, and I’ll get your hand from this side.” His hand comes out, clean with trimmed finger nails, it’s a trustworthy hand on a trustworthy man, but oddly Timmy doesn’t trust him.

“I’d come back right here? To Momma and Daddy?”

The faces in the windows turn to him, the heads moving in perfect unison, mouths dropping open. Their empty jaws seem too wide and somehow toothless. He’s asked the right question, but somehow they think wrong of him. He can feel the disapproval coming out of their black eyes.

“Hmmm, can’t say I know if you’d come back right here. Maybe near here.”

“And Momma and Daddy?”

“Oh we’d get you a pair. The train’s real good about that.” He chuckles at the end, like he’s just told a joke, but Timmy doesn’t think so. He doesn’t think any of this funny at all. He wants a ride, oh yes, but he doesn’t trust this fancy man and his opened mouth passengers.

“Train’s got to go.” The conductor checks his regulator, a fine watch. Timmy can see the image on the outside, a train over shadowed by an hourglass. “Come on then, step into the brook Timmy and climb aboard. It’s the ride of a life time.”

“No.”

“You sure, son? Might be awhile before we get back to pick you up.”

“No.” Timmy sweats now, his feet still cold on the ground. He wonders if a fever has come over him, he must get back inside to Momma. She’ll know what to do. And yet, the train, the pretty train he so wants to ride. He feels himself take a step to the brook, the frozen grass sharp on his bare feet. The pain brings him back to his senses, and he shakes his head, then turns and runs into the house, tears streaming down his face. He does not look back, does not see the conductor smile in a way that should be kindly, does not see the passengers turn to face forward again. The night train moves on, souls to collect, stops to make.

####

There isn’t much call for steam engine operators in the world, theme parks, national parks, a handful of zoos. He’s lucky to have landed here, in Florida, where the cold doesn’t seep into his old bones the way it did that frosty March morning before he got so sick. The fever dream has never left him, the one where that big black locomotive came out of the darkness and he was so tempted to take a ride.

Only here he is, in Florida, on a night that’s hotter than most of the summer days of his youth, and something woke him. Something he can’t quite place. He slides open the glass door to the patio, letting the humidity roll into the house. Shuts it, thinking of his wife and how uneasily she sleeps these days. The change is on her, and he worries about that. But still, it wasn’t what woke him. Something else, something familiar but not.

Then he hears it again, the low whistle of an engine. All smoke and fire, a full head of steam. He knows the sound at once. Not an engine, but that engine. And there it is, in his backyard, despite the fence, without any tracks. A gleaming black piece of machinery steams to stop just ahead of him, leaving the place where the conductor stands just a few feet away.

“Soul train needs an engineer, Timmy.” The same old man leans out, the same shirt and suit, aged and faded but impossibly not any more aged or faded.

His mouth gapes. He doesn’t know how to respond to this horrific tempting offer.

“You’ve done well for yourself. Don’t you think it’s time you took on a real train?”

The engine purrs at him, like a seductive cat. He wants to run his hands over it but he knows they’ll burn. He’s had enough of those burns to remember the sting, but then how many trains run without tracks, in his backyard, after midnight, in Florida? It’s all impossible so he reaches out to stroke the metal. There is no burn, no pain, heat yes, agony no.

“She likes you.” The conductor grins, a mouth with too many teeth but friendly just the same. “You should feel honored.”

Then all at once he does. He remembers trains upon trains, drawing them with waxy crayons and polishing models. Every train he every drove, pushing the engines to their limits. None of them were ever this good, this enticing, and he’s proud that she likes him. His hand wraps around the metal bar, hangs on for a minute one foot on the yard, one on that first polished step.

For a second he thinks of his wife, the grandchildren. Idly his mind turns to work and the things he meant to do tomorrow. Then his foot reaches off the ground, touching that next step. His pajamas change into engineer’s coveralls, heavy denim without the grease streaks and stains he expects. A pressed shirt, striped in white and light blue, comes over him and around his head a cap presses his hair down. Everything else is forgotten.

“Welcome to the night train.” The conductor smiles.

03/11/13

A Quilter’s Fable

Once upon a time a widow had three daughters. The first two were extravagant but the third was thrifty. While her sisters longed for fine things, the youngest daughter spent her time sewing dress scraps into elaborate quilts with her mother. When the time came for the sisters to be married, the first two daughters choose men who could buy them dresses of velvet and silk. The youngest daughter chose a man who would let her quilt with her mother. When her work was done for the day, the youngest daughter would return home to the sewing room and quilt as her mother sat rocking in a rocking chair. The two older sisters spent their time at parties and dances. They rarely came to visit their poor mother.

One sad day the mother died and the girls gathered for the reading of her will. Each daughter was to receive one quilt, then the house would be sealed for a week. At the end of the week, the daughters could take whatever they wanted from the house. The youngest daughter was pleased to have a simple nine patch quilt that she and her mother had made together, but her two older sisters fumed. They didn’t want blankets made of rags. They threw their quilts down and marched off. The youngest daughter picked up the quilts and went home to cry for her mother.

The older sisters plotted to sneak into the house before the week was up and take any money or jewelry they could find. The two waited until the darkest part of a very dark night to sneak inside. They searched and searched for jewelry and money, finally ending up in the sewing room. When one greedy sister opened their mother’s sewing box, the sewing scissors flew out cutting the girls’ dresses. Snip, snip, snip went the scissors, and down fell squares of velvet and diamonds of silk. Snip, snip, snip, the scissors went again and long strips of snowy white lace fell from their petticoats. The two sisters ran empty handed from the house wearing only rags.

When it came time to claim their inheritance, the older sisters were too scared of the haunted scissors to enter. The youngest daughter couldn’t understand their fears. She went inside and up to the sewing room where she had spent so many hours working happily with her mother. There she found a quilt she had never seen before, it had elaborate wheels of velvet and silk, with borders of soft white lace and though the girl had never seen her mother work on it her mother’s initials were neatly stitched in the corner.

02/18/13

Ghost Cleaner

“The house is kinda of different,” the real estate agent said. She sounded nervous, like maybe I wouldn’t be able to do my job. Renovating this house wouldn’t be easy, she’d told me while she took me through the warren of rooms.”The old man that lived here was forever cementing over parts of the yard.”

“What else?”

“Nothing else. College professor since after WWII, did all the repairs himself, and died at over 100.”

“Long time for a man to live,” I noted, more to myself than to her.

I walked from one white paved section of backyard to another. The only grass on the lot was a skinny strip on each side of an old fashioned swimming pool, but dozens of house plants filled ledges and counter tops.

“It’s weird but I’ll take it.”

 

I verified the house was haunted after the second week. There was a cat I always saw out of the corner of my eye, then a little girl, about three, with long dark hair. There for a second and then gone. The way they do.

The professor who owned the house turned the side yard into an office. I found the sewing machine after I knew about the haunting, neatly stored in an original wooden box. A gift from the 1950s, packaged up with everything but a bow. Strange that I’ve worked with antiques for years and never found this one. Until, just after I realized the house was haunted, it shows up here, like the day was my very own private Christmas.

The detective showed up the next morning.

“Evelyn,” she smiled but didn’t hold out a badge. “With the Pinkerton agency.”

“The professor, the man who lived here, he had a secret, didn’t he?” I didn’t bother to let my surprise show.

“A lot of them probably, but I only need to know one.” She walked through the house like she knew her way, from room to room past all the cheap white walls he’d put in by himself. I was ripping them down one by one, but so far no bodies.  “You’re doing a lot of work on the place.”

“Haven’t found anything though.” Except the sewing machine I’d always tried to find, sitting there like a present. Maybe the house was giving it to me to say thanks for looking or maybe it was a bribe to stop. I hadn’t touched it. I’m the type who insists on looking a gift horse in the mouth.

“Too bad. Maybe when you do, the ghosts in this place can rest.”

“Will you?”

She turned and blinked at me, a vision in her crisp suit seventy years out of date.

“Rest easy with the others I mean.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You’re surprisingly perceptive.”

“Don’t want to be, I just am.”

“How long have you known about me? Long enough that I’ve been making a fool of myself, you and your damn perceptive nature.”

“Don’t want to be, I just am.” But that didn’t satisfy her. I cleaned out ghosts but I didn’t like angry ones. “You look like a college girl, only a little out of date. And there haven’t been Pinkertons in this century.”

“I was a college girl,” she explained. “Then my sister disappeared.”

“’Bout yeah high?” I held my hand up. She nodded, not sure she wanted to talk to me anymore. “Out by the pool.”

We went that way and the pump started to seize, hissing spit and dirty water. “Can you fix it?”

“Don’t think I should.” And I didn’t, because now that I thought about it, pouring concrete over a piece of ground was a good way to hide a grave, maybe a good way to quiet a ghost.

“You do this a lot, don’t you?”

“It’s a living. Find a house, clean it up, break down some walls, new paint. Ghosts drive the price way down, it’s easier to flip it when it’s clean.”

“You don’t mean sanitary.”

I shook my head. “It’s not hard. All you have to do is find out their secret, speak it out loud, and they’re gone. It’s the power of the secret that binds them here, all of them.”

“And the professor? What’s his secret?”  She challenged me with it, like there was no way I could’ve figured that out.  “That he’s a murderer?”

“No, I mean, he is, sure, but it’ll be more than that for him. There’s you, the girl, the cat, not enough bodies for pure murderer.”

“There could be more, you should dig up the yard.”

“I’ll bring in a thumper.” She cocked her head at me confused. “It’s a device that thumps the ground, then sends out an ultra sound wave so you can see where the bones are. But you don’t need the bones only the secret.”

“And you’re going to guess his? Just like that? Like it’s easy?” She was getting angry again.

“It’s never easy. There aren’t a lot of clues left behind but secrets will out.”  The pump started to rattle in her anger, shaking like it was ready to break itself apart. That might not be a bad thing. “Besides there aren’t many secrets worth killing for.”

“Then name me one.”

“Oh that he was black, maybe, passing for white, or a woman, passing for a man. You could do that back then, as long as nobody found out.  Someone always finds out.”

“I did.” Anger washed away by the smugness. “It’s the sewing machine that proves it.”

“A woman passing for a man then?”

Her smile turned sour.

“Don’t be cross, I do this all the time.” The pump exploded with a burst of steam loud enough that, as the only living person in the yard, I jumped. The ground split underneath it, and I saw the edges of a tin box. “This is the big reveal,” I told her, not bothering to look. The paper inside was a little damp and little moldy, a birth certificate.  Huh. “Passing for a white and a man. The sewing machine should’ve tipped me off.”

“That’s how I got it,” she said but when I turned around she was already fading, washed away like dirt from bones. I looked down in the hole, and saw the hands first. The professor had killed her with the evidence she found, and then put the pump over top of her. Not a bad plan, worked for nearly six decades, but things like that don’t hold up against me, I’m a ghost cleaner. Don’t want to be, but I am.

02/5/13

Dancing in the kitchen

 She’s there in old family films, her tan legs kicking just a bit higher and straighter than all the other Aunts in a kick line. They’re laughing but something about her face, about Aunt Lucy’s face, as she dances is transcendent, even during a silly little fake dance, trying not to run into the BBQ grill while kids in swim suits run around them. She doesn’t see the backyard filled with family or smell the smoke. When she dances, Aunt Lucy sees something else, and it makes her smile wider than all the other Aunts.

My father tells stories about her, and dancing is always in them. Walking to dance class in the snow carrying her dance shoes wrapped in newspaper in case they somehow fall into the wet slush. She danced in wet shoes once and ended up with dozens of tiny blisters. Dad broke them for her, with the sadistic glee that only a little brother can have. She went back to class the next day, moleskins on her feet and her shoes half dried.

She danced through school and high school, danced with the boy she loved at prom. There are pictures of him, before he was Uncle Jimmy, with a goofy ruffled shirt under his prom tux. I wonder if she danced the night she left him, danced before she told him it was all over, that she loved dancing more than she loved him. Danced and then left on the train to New York City, with poor Jimmy standing by the platform saying he would wait forever.

He didn’t wait forever.

She ended up near Broadway in a shoebox of an apartment shared with three other girls. Dad saw her there, once, before he shipped out to Vietnam. She was so happy, he said, as if happiness was the saddest thing that could happen. So happy to dance in a little off Broadway show and wait for her big break.

And then that big break happened, that audition that finally went right. She got the part. Giddy with it. Dancing not just on stage but in front of hundreds of people. So happy she sent Dad a telegram and called home to say she’d get everyone tickets to come see her.

Dancing on air on her way to the first rehearsal, where they showed her the door to the dressing room and she saw all those other women, and a few men here and there. Everyone getting naked together. And suddenly, she couldn’t do it. Couldn’t strip down in front of everyone and have some man she didn’t know help her into a costume. She’d grown up in a small town that valued modesty. She just wanted to dance, not be naked in front of all those people.

So she took the train home, and found Jimmy again. Made him Uncle Jimmy, and then made my cousins. She only danced in the backyard kick lines, and sometimes in the kitchen on Saturday nights when we kids were supposed to be asleep. She always looked happy when she danced, but I always wondered if she thought she’d made the right choice. Happy wife and mother, modest to the end, or dancer on the stage, I always questioned if she picked the right one. I asked her once, about dancing, to see if she remembered everything my father did. Her voice was quick and unsentimental, “I went to New York once, but they made you change in a great big room, so that was that.” Then she did the dishes as if they were somehow more important than dancing.

11/13/12

Winning Ticket

I looked down at my body thinking about the things I’d been in life. Drug user. Occasional part time employee. Troubled daughter. Needy sister. High School drop out. Yeah, I’d lived like a loser, and I died like one but I sure as heck was about to spend my afterlife like one. It was finally time to take charge of my life, except that it was my death.  Well, you know.

I’d been shot. People in the movies get shot and they go to the hospital and everything is fine. Not me. I’d been shot in front of my favorite bar, and now a crowd of people were standing around my body. I’d been dead like a minute maybe, minute and a half tops, and one of them was just now calling an ambulance. Losers.

I shook my head at all and tried to walk away, only I couldn’t I sort of floated. Two steps and I got the hang of it. Four steps and I stopped trying to walk and just sort of pushed myself forward. I went really fast. I guess that’s how the dead travel.

I knew where I was going, my ex-boyfriend’s house. We’d been broken up about three minutes longer than I’ve been dead. It went like this: tell him it’s over, tell him why (my good news), and then he drags me out of the bar and shots me. So yeah, Dave’s house was the first step on my post death review.

He was on the couch, beer in one hand, the thing he stole from me in the other.

“Give it to me!” I shouted. He jumped like fifteen feet off the couch.

“Angie? Oh my god Angie?” He looked all around but he didn’t see me. I guess ghosts don’t show up, but somehow he could hear me. I could work with that.

“You give me back what’s mine!” I shouted again. He went whiter than a sheet.

“What the hell? I’m sober. This isn’t happening.” He repeated it like fifty-five times and each time I told him to give it back. Finally he broke. “Okay, okay take it! Just leave me alone!”

He held the slip of paper out and I tried to grab for it. Too bad ghosts can’t move things. My hand just went through.  “Take it to Alice.”

“Alice? What your loser sister? No way. No way. I gotta get outta town.”

“Take it to Alice or I’ll haunt you until the day you die,” I threatened. That did it. He was in his car before another minute passed.

I willed myself back to our house, the place I shared with my parents and my sister. She was still eighteen and perfect. Always was, always would be. Well perfect anyway. Perfect little Alice. I’d hated her a lot in life, but death brought me some wisdom. I was just sad we weren’t ever going to be close, be like the sisters you saw in movies. I got to her bedroom while Dave was still pulling in the driveway. It was a Thursday night, so she was studying. I’d been out partying. Normally I’d have given her hell about it, but being dead, I just gave it a smile. The doorbell rang and we went downstairs together, her walking, me floating.

Dave held out the piece of a paper like a shield. “Here. Take this. It’s Angie’s she wants you to have it.”

“Then why doesn’t she give it to me herself?”

“She can’t okay? Just take it, Alice, don’t give me a hard time.” He held the lottery ticket out to her and my sister didn’t even look at it.

“A hard time? You show up with whatever that is and say she can’t give it to me and I’m not supposed to ask questions. What do you think you’re doing anyway?”

“I’m giving back what I took?”

“What you took? That doesn’t make any sense. What did you take?”

“He took my life.” I whispered it, but they both heard it. Alice looking right through me, right into the corner where I was standing and didn’t see me.

“He killed me.” Dave winced, because now I realized giving Alice what he’d stolen wasn’t enough.

“I want my life back!” I shouted it at him, screamed at him, filled with a rage only the unforgiving dead can feel. I stepped forward, forgetting that I couldn’t touch him and slugged him. I’d hit Dave before, just like he’d hit me. Never in the middle class living room my mom loved, never in front of Alice, but yeah, I’d decked him once or twice. This was a thousand times worse than that. I hit him with everything I had.

He jerked. Just a little. It pissed me off, so I hit him more. “Stop!  I’m sorry, okay Angie? I’m really sorry. I’d take it back if I could. I mean it. I swear I didn’t mean to shoot you I just couldn’t help myself. Come on, Angie, ten million. You’d have shot me over five.”

I didn’t stop hitting him. I went lower, making him double over in pain. I went higher and he put his hands up to block me. The winning lotto ticket slipped to the floor. Now Alice did pick it up.

“You killed her? You killed my sister over this?” Alice screamed at him. My kid sister screamed at him while she cried.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry okay. I’d switch places with her if I could. I would. I swear to God I wish I could switch places with her.” I balled up my fist, ready to hit him again when a jolt of electricity came through my chest. It hurt.

In front of me Dave put his hand to his heart.

I blinked, but the pain in my chest stayed there. It hurt worse than getting shot. Worse than dying. But Dave was the one moaning now. Alice watched him for a second, then kicked him square in the chest, pushing him out the door. I heard my little sister dial 9-1-1 but underneath it I heard someone say clear. I looked at Alice, my winning lotto ticket in her hand, telling an operator to send the cops. Then I looked up and saw the bright lights of an operating room. My chest hurt, everything hurt, I was in a hospital, a bunch of people were working on me, but I was smiling. Smiling because  I had a feeling Dave had traded places with me, and now that I had a second life I sure as hell wasn’t going to be a loser any more.