Monday, October 29, 2007

Mrs. Pomeroy's Garden

by Dev Jarrett

In the golden afternoon sun, while she was fertilizing her garden, she saw him. He was not a neighbor of hers, or she’d know him. He was probably going from the community college to downtown, the quickest way being to cut through the neighborhood. He wouldn’t come back this way after dark. No, that wouldn’t be wise, but it was a safe enough daytime shortcut. A young man, with a bright, distracted smile, dressed nicely, and walking with a certain flowing bounce in his step. Everything about him said that he was going courting, or whatever they called it these days. His grin reflected all his hopes, be they pure or impure. He was happy.

Mrs. Pomeroy bent over in her garden, and whispered to her flowers, “Maybe we can help him get some kisses tonight, if it’s all right with y’all.” Gently bouncing in the warm October breeze, the flowers seemed to confer on the matter, then nod their approval. She giggled conspiratorially a their acquiescence, and stepped forward, toward her front gate. As she did, she took off her manure-coated yellow rubber gloves. It didn’t smell very good, but the fertilizer made all the difference.

It was a short walk, for the yard wasn’t much more than five paces from porch to fence. Mrs. Pomeroy lived in one of a long row of old millhouses whose best days weren’t that good, and those days were long gone. Years ago, before they built the community college, all that land was taken up by a huge textile mill, powered by the river, just beyond. To house their employees, the owners had several tiny streets of tiny houses built, connecting their textile plant with downtown Caledonia. Their employees, housed in the tiny cottages, were often referred to derisively by the rest of the town as “lintheads.” By and large the “lintheads” didn’t take very good care of these houses.

When the new dam went in further upriver, the textile mill cut down production, then cut production again, and finally just had to call it quits. All the grounds of the mill and the housing went up for auction, and a young Sadie Pomeroy, already the widow of a horrible mill accident, was able to buy her house with the savings she’d kept over the years. She’d never leave, she said, since her James was buried so near. The company cemetery was just on the other side of the fence alongside the house, and James was buried within arm’s reach of the fence.

Their one son Robert moved out a few years later, but he came down from Atlanta every few weeks to help her keep up the house, and to take her to dinner. Just two weeks ago he’d come, with a brand new porch swing in the back of his truck. “You work so hard on that garden, Momma. Now you can sit out here in the evenings and enjoy just looking at it. It looks so nice.”

“The fertilizer makes all the difference,” she’d answered dismissively. “I just water them and show them a little attention.” She’d made lemonade, and they’d sat on the swing, he updating her on his job, and she updating him on the neighborhood.

“Young man!” she now called. “Come over here a minute.” She stood under the massive gateway trellis James had built for her so many years ago. The laths were thickly covered with dark green leaves and pale, peach-colored roses. James’s favorite. That very rosebush had been growing for nearly twenty years.

Around her the garden was a pure riot of color. Mrs. Pomeroy had the greenest thumb in the neighborhood, and she loved to work in her garden more than anything. She had a confederate rosebush, a big gardenia bush, zinnias, daffodils, petunias, and snapdragons, mixing beautifully with dahlias, lilies, sporaxis, philodendrons, goblin flowers, and butterfly bushes. In the backyard, she had even more, and her garden was timed so that anytime during the year, something was in bloom. The showpiece, however, was the rose trellis. James had built it, and planted the rosebush, and it flourished. The blossoms, a delicate color found where white, orange, and pink meet, were large and heavy. The young man came to Mrs. Pomeroy, standing just the other side of the gate, his careless smile still shining like the sun.

“I saw you walking down the street, and I thought, ‘Sadie, that there is a young man in love!’” He blushed and grinned even wider; she knew she’d struck the mark. “A young man in love, and going courting. Then I looked again, and I saw what you’re missing.” He looked briefly puzzled, and she could see him mentally inventorying his pockets: wallet, keys, change, breath mints… “You can’t go calling on your girl like that! Wait right here; I won’t be a minute.” He seemed about to speak, but didn’t.

Mrs. Pomeroy plucked her garden shears from her apron pocket, and walked all around the garden, snipping flowers and whispering her thanks to each plant: three shades of carnations, two bleeding hearts, a morning glory, and a big pink Gerber daisy. She added a sprig of Queen Anne’s lace from the back fence to make it look fancy, and wrapped the stems at the bottom with a small creeper of english ivy, then returned to the gate. She presented the young man the bouquet.

“Nothing’ll put a smile on your girl’s face faster than flowers. Never forget that.”

“Oh, thank you, ma’am! Charles will adore these!”

Charles? Oh, dear.

“I’m sorry I misunderstood, young man…” she began.

“No, no, they’re perfect! Just right! He’ll love them! I’m a little nervous, it being our first date. This will do just the trick! Oh, thank you so much!” He turned away, going into town, holding the flowers close to his chest as he strode into town, excitement speeding his steps.

Mrs. Pomeroy watched him with a disbelieving, secret smile, then whispered to herself, shaking her head, “Oh, well. Judge not lest ye be judged.”

As long as she was here at the gate, she might as well check the mail. Bills, bills, bills, and junk, and at the bottom, her Social Security check. Always the same. No love letters for her, not in a long time. She paused, and thought again of her James, gone all these many years. A fine man, a good father, and someone she missed every day. He always did right by her. She sighed heavily.
From the corner of her eye, she saw some of the local hoodlums coming her way, so she went in the gate, shut it, and got to the porch swing just in time to see them sidling up to her fence. The leader of this trio of delinquents stared brazenly at her.

“E’ning, Miz Pomeroy,” he drawled.

“Get on out of here. Ain’t got nothing you want, boy.”

“You got some money,” he said. “I know all about it. It’s the end of the month. How ‘bout givin’ it to me? Trick er treeeeet.” One of the others reached over the fence and yanked on the morning glory vine, scattering torn leaves and petals everywhere.

“You leave my garden alone! Git!”

The third one hit the second one in the shoulder. “Stop, dude! She’s got that dog that tore Earl’s hand off, remember? She’ll sic him on you!”

The second one backed away from the fence, remembering Earl. The leader, though, was unconvinced.

“I don’t know ‘bout all that. I ain’t never seen a dog here. Never heard one, neither. We’ll just come on back by later on tonight, and pick up that check. And if you sic a dog on me, I might just have to plug him!” He lifted his dirty T-shirt and partly exposed a small handgun stuffed into the waistband of his pants. At the sight of it, Mrs. Pomeroy’s blood ran cold. She tried hard to keep her voice from shaking when she spoke.

“I told you to git! Go on home, and see about growin’ a brain between the three of you! Git!”
They backed away, the leader smiling evilly at her. “Okay, Miz Pomeroy. We’ll just see you later.” They turned back down the street, giggling together as they walked. She looked up at the evening sun, and dreaded the coming of night. Something was going to happen again.

After she was sure they were gone, she rushed as quickly as she could to her morning glory, inspecting the damage.

“I’m so sorry, Gloria,” she said to the plant. Tears fell from her eyes and landed in the rich black topsoil as she cut the damaged part off the plant. It would still survive, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. Those boys were just so mean! With any luck, they’d just get drunk early tonight and pass out. Maybe they’d forget all about ol’ Miz Pomeroy.

A tap landed on her shoulder, and again. She turned, and saw that it was the hibiscus she’d planted in spring. A large bloom, red with a bright yellow throat was nodding in the wind, and brushing her shoulder.

“Do you need some attention too, Mr. Hot-Biscuits?” She dried the tears from her eyes, and spoke as if in answer to the plant, “Well, I’ve been better, I guess. And how are you? You’re looking mighty fine.” She petted his thick leaves, and then went back up to the porch. The mail she stuffed into her apron pocket, along with the shears.

It was a warm night. The trick or treaters didn’t need to wear jackets over their costumes, and she was sure that made them happy. She remembered Robert’s disappointment on those Halloweens whose weather dictated an overcoat. The child seemed to think the magic was lost if he had to cover up any part of his costume. Mrs. Pomeroy left the front door open so stray breezes could find their way in through the screen, and she listened to distant laughs and excited choruses of “Trick or treat!” Not as many goblins and ghosts came around looking for treats this year. Sadie knew she’d be snacking on butterscotch buttons for weeks. After an hour or so, the trickle of treaters dried up until next year.

She sat at her small kitchen table eating leftovers from yesterday’s tuna casserole, and trying not to think about those troublemakers from earlier. She washed her dishes, and sat down at the table again, this time dealing out a hand of Solitaire.

She’d lost three times, and was well on her way to losing a fourth, when she heard a gravelly, liquor-sodden voice.

“Oh, Miz Pom-a-royy!”

Stifled cackles drifted into the house from the street outside.

“We’re baaa-aaack!”

She went to the screen door and turned off the lights indoors, so she could see the yard. There they were, staggering around, passing a bottle under the glow of the streetlamp. They whispered together, and snickered.

“Now Miz Pomeroy, I don’t think you got no dog. Earl always was kind of a dipstick; he probably hurt his hand some other way. So I’m coming in.”

“You get out of here before I call the Po-lice!” she cried into the night.
He looked like he was trying to wrestle his pistol from his pants pocket and encouraged his buddies to go ahead. The one that shredded Gloria moved forward, to the gate. He reached inside, to unlatch it, then jerked back with a yell.

His wrist was laid open. Deeply. In the dim glow of the streetlights, the blood was black, and appeared to be running freely.

“You idiot! How the hell did you do that!?”

“Them flowers…” he said, growing a sickly pale and backing to the far side of the street. The hand holding his wounded wrist was washed in blood.

The one who earlier had warned them about the dog backed away, to the other side of the road. His instinct for survival had just cut through the liquor, and he saw that this had the potential to go bad, real quick.

The leader turned on them.

“You two are just a couple of wusses! I’ll do it m’self!”

He walked toward the gate, the pistol held in front of him. He reached over the gate and easily unlatched it. It swung wide, and he turned to sneer at his buddies before facing the house again.

“Here I am, Miz Pomeroy,” he sang drunkenly. “Coming to get youuuu.”

“You git, now! You can’t have my money!”

“Oh, I think I can. Yep, I b’lieve I can.”

He stepped across the threshold of the gate, and got snagged in the rosebush. Each time he disengaged one vine, he found another clinging to him. And another. And another.

“Hey, y’all, help me out here!” he called behind him, but his buddies were nowhere to be seen. He felt a scrape under his chin, and before he could get his hand up to ward it off, a thick vine, heavy with thorns, coiled around his throat, and lifted him off the ground. He tried to yell, but all that came out was a wheeze. The vine pulled him to one side of the deep trellis, and vines on that side reached out, wrapping around his arms, his legs. The pistol dropped from his grip, forgotten. A vine pulled inexorably across his open mouth, making his lips a bloody ruin.

Bleeding from a million tiny holes, and being strangled on this living barbed wire, he struggled. Like a spiderweb fly, struggling did him no good. The rosebush was pulling him tighter and tighter against the trellis, covering him over with vines and thorns. The blood on the leaves and stems of the rosebush immediately disappeared into the flesh of the plant. The hoodlum’s scream was muffled, unheard by all except Mrs. Pomeroy, who just stood in the doorway and watched. She didn’t see much by the light of the streetlamp, but she didn’t need to. She knew what was happening. James was protecting her, just like he always had. Just like he always would.

The vines continued to tighten.

His ribs snapped wetly as he was crushed. The last thing he saw in front of him was a skeletal hand woven into the trellis. Earl’s hand!!! The rosebush’s stalks curled over, around, and eventually, through him, consuming him.

The next day, Mrs. Pomeroy was out in the garden, as usual. Weeding today. Her young neighbor from across the street, June Taylor, came over and remarked on the healthy, robust garden. The rosebush looked extra full.

June cupped a dark red rose bloom in her palm. It was heavy, and truthfully, it didn’t smell very good.

“But yesterday weren’t your roses peach-colored?” she asked.

Without looking up, Mrs. Pomeroy said, “Yep.”

She smiled. “The fertilizer makes all the difference.”

Dev Jarrett is a soldier who has lived pretty much all over. He is currently stationed in Hawaii. He is married, with three hilarious kids, and a Rottweiler that thinks she's a lapdog. When not doing his day job or writing, he is outside. He especially loves to swim, snorkel, hike, run, and fish. His story, "Bottomfeeder" is featured in Southern Fried Weirdness 2007: An Annual Anthology of Southern Speculative Fiction. A stand-alone trade paperback, Family Tradition, is due out in March of 2008 through Sam's Dot Publishing. This particular story was previously published in 2004 through where it was awarded 1st place in the adult division of their annual Halloween story contest.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Discovering Georgia

By Justin Sherman

Curiosity killed a hell of a lot of cats, or so the saying goes. But it was a Greyhound that brought me to Memphis, not curiosity. Don’t get my droll humor? That’s all right. Neither do the guys I meet in JoJo’s Bar on Beale Street every Friday night, but I am starting to reconcile myself to that fact. If my humor isn’t exactly funny, though, why do the guys laugh? Maybe they think that laughing will unlock the “easy” part of my brain – the part where I’ll automatically lie down and throw my legs in the air. That strong false notion only disappears after I walk out the front door alone and never look back.

Am I attractive? I know you didn’t ask, but sooner or later all the Internet guys I meet want to know. On Friday nights I go home with whomever I want, but I am not the prototypical blonde bombshell. I am five-foot-three, twenty-two years old, and fluctuate between one-hundred thirty and one-hundred fifty pounds, depending on whether I am pushing myself through another painful, desperate diet that ultimately lets me down. And for your information, I have no intention of dieting – at least for now. I’m still great in bed, though. Listen to me, will you? I sound like I am trying to hook you into an Internet date.

I’m not, though. Only looking for someone to talk to, not for someone to do me. I savor the potential shock value of this phrase and tap it into the computer. However, I immediately recoil in fear that I have been too offensive for my new friend; Faulkner94 pauses a little too long.

Faulkner94 finally responds after my next trek to the open living room window and back again. The sticky, hot August air seems to suck the life out of me, even at night, and I poke my body out the window in search of relief. My main reason for the trip to the window, though, is to gaze upon the unfinished house across the street. The frame is still up, the roof is still on, and the silver Expedition is still parked out front.

The recently abandoned one with the Texas license plates.

When I return to the terminal, my buddy writes that he is not interested in making it, either. His striking words form on the screen: In fact, right now I would be happy just to find an apartment complex without every crack addict in Memphis.

I am stunned since my chat rooms friends are usually from nowhere near where I actually live, but this guy lives in the city – a mere ten-mile drive. The temptation to tell him this is intense, but I refrain. It is the correct call for now.

The Expedition parked across the street continues to ensnare my thoughts. That older couple, in their early thirties, parked and entered the half-finished house exactly seven hours ago. After growing weary of trying to focus on the conversation with Faulkner94, I politely decline an invitation to carry over in the morning. He asks me what my real name is prior to disconnecting, never guessing that formergeorgian101 contains my actual name.

Who could blame him, anyway? My unimaginative parents could have named me anything else besides Georgia, and I would have been happy. Stardust, maybe, or even Rosechilde. Hell, they had been hippies back in the day, hadn’t they? But no, dear old dad in his ultimate wisdom gave me the same name as one-tenth of the menstruating inhabitants from my small Georgian hometown of Everston. Got to keep with tradition, he’d said. It’s the Southern way.

Anonymity is what I strive for – it’s my way, Southern or not – so a large, four-year college allowed my escape from Everston. Then, I wandered a bit after graduating from Tech, moving throughout the Southeast and now to a suburb of Memphis. Mom tells her friends – the ones in her bridge club, anyway – that I am “discovering myself”. That’s a crock; I know myself well enough to dislike what I see, so I relocate when the noose closes in too tightly. If anything, I would call my nomadic penchant “reinventing myself”. And I do get that chance, too, with each new move. The only downside to this is the obvious: no stable, close relationships. Although my current closest relationship is with Faulkner94, I am happy here because of the job. I can finally use my degree in fine arts, even though the pay only allows me a miniscule, one-bedroom house.

When I signed the mortgage papers, my agent had assured there were no plans to improve the other lots on the street. I had dubbed this my private Nirvana until workers showed up several months ago and began clearing off another lot. Wouldn’t you know that with all the available lots, they began building right across from my house?

A large crew poured the foundation and built the frame. After a few weeks, however, the number of builders had dwindled until only one guy remained. He was in his late twenties, a real Adonis, all tight jeans and rippling muscles. Arriving well before daybreak each day, he would methodically unload his tools from his old Ford pickup and start working. No one ever came with him or even checked on his progress, but he managed to finish covering the roof – tile by tile, in his own deliberate manner – and is presently working on a project within the house.

Staring into the dark recess of what probably will be an attic window for the new house, I suddenly – actually it is something that you’ve been struggling with all night, isn’t it, Georgia? – feel a real compulsion to cross the road through the night’s hot breeze and see for myself what happened to the couple. If I stare intently at the void in the attic, I can almost trick myself into believing that two red, glowing eyes are glaring back, but I know it is only a distant light emanating from a local cell tower.


What is it about a half-built house that compels the curious to investigate, anyway?

An hour before daylight, I awake from a dream-laden sleep to the crunch of tires on gravel and sit bolt upright on the couch. Wiping sweat from my forehead, I realize that I have been having that dream again, the one where powerful arms carry me away. In the dream I am beautiful – a thin, lightly-tanned maiden with curves in all the right places. I am in trouble, though, because the thing carrying me has a hideously deformed face, and I realize that he may not be the Southern Gentleman for which I’ve longed.

As I peek through the blinds and shake off the last vestiges of the dream, my pulse quickens. Adonis has dismounted from his pickup and entered the house. Jingling some metal keys in his hand, he returns to the Expedition, his step cool and mechanical. His poker-face reveals no sign of having discovered a dead couple moments ago. The engine turns immediately, and soon Adonis is out of sight.

As rays of light start their dance over the horizon, I wonder where Adonis is going with the SUV. As soon as this thought germinates, I push it back. I do not really want to know where he has taken any of the vehicles, and I probably never will.

More sweat seeps from my pores, only this time not just from the heat. My heart thumps in my chest, and I urge myself into action now lest I explode.

Thrusting the front door open, I rush across the street and make a final mental note before the human part completely disappears and the beast takes over: instruct Adonis to arrive earlier in the mornings. Although I most relish the taste after the bodies are assuredly cold, Adonis is cutting it too close to daybreak to finish his duties.

Way too close.

Justin Sherman is married to a direct descendant of the family that was haunted by the Bell Witch. Because of this, he has been naturally inclined to cast aside his pharmacist cloak at night and read pretty much any kind of horror or science fiction he can get his hands on. His recent stories are included in the publications: Hadrosaur Tales, Seasons in the Night, Lost in the Dark, Nova SF, Down in the Cellar, Southern Fried Weirdness 2007: An Annual Anthology of Southern Speculative Fiction, and Aphelion.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Make Your Bed Downriver

By Jens Rushing

Louisa Dokes, that's Bill Dokes's little girl, comes on down from Long Branch way, and stands twisting her toes in the sand, blushing and stumbling over her words like she's never seen a grown man naked before. But each pretty pink blush is a fresh flow of blood pumped to her skin. Just like an old hand-crank pump. Put your foot to it, and the water comes in gouts. I can see that pump, her beautiful beating heart opening and closing like a fist, as lively and lovely as an unbeheaded chicken. When I was young, the old folks say – when I was young –

"Mister Sam," she says, "you seen Gabe around?" Gabe's her beau. "He come fishin out here two weeks ago." She's talking nonsense. Her words are like hornets digging out of her throat, and whenever she speaks, a hornet tears loose to wreak ruination on the world. It's a wonder she can't see it. I were her, I'd sew my lips up good and tight.

She says something else – something about the sheriff – but I can't hear her because Sabine's talking. Sabine runs from the first steps of heaven down to the Gulf of Mexico, carrying with it stumps of old oaks, boughs of old pines, car tires, washing machines, diapers, skeleton cows, skeleton boats, bridge trusses, the after-images of bygone steamers, stern and sidewheelers both, cotton in long billows that choke and tickle the throat like armies of ants, and the hells-legion of water moccasins, brown and white, and copperheads, and rattlers in rafts three hundred feet end to end, swarming with ants. Always ants.

Sabine talks with all these voices, all together to make her own rumbling voice, and, for a while, like every time, I pretend I don't hear. But it's no good. Sabine speaks with the wisdom of ants.
Once right before my eyes ants took an old hound dog from skin to bone in under three days. He had little bones.

And that's what sets me apart from the multitude of unregenerates. I see the bones of this world. You can't know the shape of a thing without knowing the bones of it.

But Sabine knows I know. I see her, so she sees me too. And that gives her a right to talk to me. I built my house on the sandy soil beside her, where she chews at the shore and gnaws chunks of mud away and sweeps them on downstream. I hear her all day and all night, always talking, always telling me what to do like I don't have desires of my own. It makes a fellow kind of mad after a while.

Angie. Angie went to Sabine. We were trotlining for cats upriver, canoe resting easy on Sabine's broad back. I don't rightly recall what happened, but next thing Angie was in the water, and I was on the shore, and the current took her away, round the bend to where the shallow sandbar lies just under the water. Some nights it catches the sun and glistens golden. That's where Angie should've washed up, but she never did – she tumbled to sand before she ever made it that far. Sabine's a sight faster than the ants.

And that night Sabine started talking to me. Just like she's talking to me now. I can't make her shut up.

"Hide nor hair, Louisa Dokes," I say. I have to shout, Sabine's so loud. But suddenly Sabine's changed her tune. She's not saying "more" like usual. Now she says "Come."

"Well, maybe," I say. "You wait here one second." And I take off for the Catfish King. I caught him that next day after Sabine took Angie. He weighed a good eight hundred pounds out of the river, and the head's maybe six feet across, with whiskers four more feet on both sides of that. I hung the head on a tree, and called him the Catfish King. A little joke. Some days I'd bow to him, as another joke, maybe say, "How fare ye, my liege?"

Then a nest of hornets took up residence behind his left eyeball, and soon filled the whole carcass end to end. That's when I stopped the jokes. I know an omen when I see one. So it was no surprise when I first heard his voice.

"Sabine expects more from you," he said. "She's very disappointed." Hornets crawled from his dried-up lips and eyes and along his whiskers.

I remembered what the apostles did in the Bible when they saw Jesus in all his glory. I fell flat on my face. "I recognize your homage," he said. "It does you service."

"Glory be," I said."

"Glory be to God and all the miracle of his creation," the Catfish King said. "All the birds of the field, all creatures great and small, bright and beautiful, scaled and slithery, winged and waxy, many-eyed and many-legged, sun-bright and full of goodness and kindness and beauty, the Lord God made them all."

"Amen!" I shouted.

Ever since, I ask the Catfish King for his guidance. A really wise man recognizes the greater wisdom of others.

I ask him what I must do. I don't like his answer. But I can barely hear him, for Sabine shouting in my ear.

"The Lord hates lovers apart," the King says. "Nothing pains him more than a sighing bride, trembling and white and loveless on her nuptial day. Let no fruit wither on the vine. That is an offense greater than all others before him."

I run back. "Louisa Dokes," I say, "I recollect now where Gabe might be."

She sees it coming. She screams something terrible.

Sabine is loveless. I send her a bride. The catfish might have their way with her. I catch just a glimpse of little, little bones before the brown water grinds them to sand. Sand is so fine. It weighs practically nothing, so it has no trouble floating on up to heaven, flowing up that great highway called Sabine, catching every sparkling sunbeam as it goes. Some sand might be called Angie, some Gabe, some Louisa. But all are one before the eyes of our Lord.

And, now, Sabine is quelled, and gives me peace. I can hear the mockingbirds and the whippoorwills singing their songs; I can hear the ants singing theirs. The Catfish King gives me a satisfied nod, the sun sinks behind the dark wall of oaks and pines, and all is sun-bright and peace and goodness again. For a while.

Jens Rushing, one of the 11 authors featured in Southern Fried Weirdness 2007: An Annual Anthology of Southern Speculative Fiction, hails from North Texas. He writes all manner of fiction. He plays the concertina. Visit his webpage at

Monday, October 8, 2007

Beyond the Grave

By Keith Adam Luethke

It was late afternoon when Samantha Jacqueline had reached Oak Run Corner. The sun did not come out that day, and gray storm clouds hung about the sky like so many dark memories never forgotten. But dreary weather to come did not deter Samantha, as she made the daily ritual of visiting her mother’s grave.

She passed a young couple on her way: a handsome man holding the warm hand of a grinning lover, the two seemed utterly content. Samantha clenched her fists, curled her lips into a sneer, and narrowed her blue eyes as the couple causally walked by. But the youths simply ignored the bitter women and went quickly on their way; the boy whispered something soft into the female’s ear, and she gave a little giggle. Samantha’s palms were beginning to sweat, a fire burned in her eyes. She found herself shouting at the happy pair, “don’t you think I want love too? God knows how hard I’ve tried to escape her!” Samantha’s words fell on deaf ears, as the boy and girl vanished down a long, cracked street. She wiped tears from her cheek, and sluggishly went on her way.

The only way into the cemetery was through a rusty, black gate along ivy-covered walls, held in place by four brick pillars. Atop sat two large stone gargoyles to welcome visitors. The two ancient statues had guarded the entrance ever since Samantha could recall. With soulless glass eyes they watched her enter. To strangers, the gargoyle statues were an ominous work of foul art, as the silent pair seemed to move when you turned your back upon them only to take a slightly different position each time you looked back. To Samantha they were brothers, though the two never spoke, they always looked out for her: with those clear, glass eyes. Samantha kindly greeted them, and strolled beneath their towering structures.

Walking along a slanted concrete path, the graveyard came into view. Hundreds of faded tombstones stuck out of the saturated earth like featureless boyfriends she never got to date, their profiles forgotten by time.

Samantha shut her eyes tightly, attempting to block the rush of pain and loneliness which began to gnaw at the center of her wasted youth. Days in suffering isolation taking care of her sickened mother instead of walking side by side the men she had adored. She quickly strolled by the unmarked graves and continued on her way, she dare not to keep mother waiting.

The last hint of yellow light peered through the thick storm clouds, only to shine momentarily then be swallowed up by uncanny darkness. Weeping willows swayed in a gust of icy wind, passing under their low hanging branches and cutting Samantha’s neck. She gave a wary smile knowing how deep their roots grew. In a dream she often had as a child, she waited under the willow trees in the summer’s graceful light, waiting for her prince to rescue her from mother’s tight grasp, but the prince never came, and she would always wake up crying. Lowering her head, Samantha refrained from staring at the rotting willow trees. Their roots penetrated the soil deeply, perhaps to the core of her sadness.

She journeyed beyond sunken graves and overgrown weeds until groups of stone monuments came into view. Ivy vines twisted in intricate woven patterns around each tomb, they were seldom cut down, so wild and uncontrolled the roots grew, attempting to block out the sky. Samantha recalled speaking with the warden about their rapid growth, but the old man had done nothing about it. Forcing the vines to part, Samantha came upon a detailed carving of flowers etched into a Celtic cross, marking her mother’s grave. Dead roses in a broken vase lay on the tomb. She had set them down just the other day. “Hi, mother. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t bring any flowers today.”

Samantha knelt down to pick up the pieces of a fancy shattered vase, when it began to rain. The gray sky opened up like a wound that had never healed, bleeding sorrow and cleansing the world of sins. The rain clung to Samantha’s long, unkept brown hair, trickling down like so many missed opportunities. “Can you forgive your only daughter, mother?”

Nothing stirred in the bowls of the wet earth; the rain fell heavier, until it pounded Samantha with relentless blows. Digging her nails into the soil, she pleaded a hopeless case. “I took care of you, I wasted my life for you, this is how I’m repaid! I have nothing. My friends are married and gone. Men only want to shame me. And I have no children!” Samantha’s voice was overpowered by a sudden rumble of thunder; swallowing her rage she put her hands over her blue eyes. “Why couldn’t you just let me be free?” she muttered through short breaths. A crash of white lighting lit the heavens ablaze with a tremendous force. “Answer me mother. You’ve ruined my life.”

The thunder shook the ground fiercely, never before had Samantha felt such a power, the whole cemetery seemed to move. The horrid stench of rotten corpses drifted on a strong gust of wind, answering the call back to life. The soil before Samantha began to bulge with an intense degree of power; flesh-less, skeletal fingers protruded outward, searching for the surface.

Samantha stumbled back, landing in the mud, her eyes were wide open but she could not fathom what crawled out from beneath the hollow grave. Colorless hands clawed feverishly until a ragged, skinless corpse had surfaced. Samantha held her breath, and tried to scream, but no sounds came from her quivering lips. The being before her gaped its toothless mouth open, as if it was going to speak, but only worms came out. Samantha attempted to get to her feet, “this can’t be happening, this can’t be happening,” she kept repeating in her head and out loud.

The unfamiliar figure was fully emerged; strains of long, brown hair dangled in a mess of tangled dirt and years of entombment, a horrible shamble of human features, the corpse lurched forward.

“Mother...?” Samantha gasped, tangled in long ivy vines that had seemed to reach for her.

The sluggish corpse stopped briefly to ponder the well-known voice; a faint glow of star blue light flickered and died in its hollow sockets. Samantha tore and fought like a cornered animal until the vines let her go. Struggling to her feet, she called to her mother again, but there was only one response. The foul shell of a human being grabbed at her, digging sharp, boney fingers into soft flesh. Samantha cried loudly, as red crimson mixed with rain seeped out of her wounds. Forcing Samantha to the graveyard floor, the shambling terror began to drag her recklessly toward the open tomb. “Mother,’ Samantha shouted, ‘it’s your daughter, Samantha, can’t you hear me?” The corpse ignored the childish cries, and gripped her tighter.

Blood burned like fire in Samantha’s veins; all the lost years of tending her, watching people around her grow old and frail, she had played the fool. Reaching the unearthed tomb, the rotting skeletal remains of her mother came to a halt; placing a firm hold on Samantha’s head, her mother tossed her inside effortlessly. Caked in mud, surrounded by worm-ends and maggots, Samantha was lying in a grave. The figure that loomed over her seemed to smile from decomposing flesh about its mouth, happy to have her dear daughter back once again.

Something strange and fierce snapped in Samantha’s trembling body at that moment. Was she destined to spend her life alone? Caring for her mother through life and death? “No,” she found herself crying at the top of her lungs. “I will not be a slave to you any longer” she screamed.

A twisted white bolt came from the stormy night sky, lighting the deepest crypts ablaze and sending forth a blinding glare. Samantha gathered all her strength, all her fears and resentment she had kept inside for so long, and unleashed it in a merciless wrath of lifelong anguish. Leaping from the corrupted tomb, Samantha tackled the frail shell of her mother in a furious attack. Old bones cracked and splintered under pressure, the loud crunching rose above the rumbling thunder. “I’m not a soulless doll to order around, I’m a person” cried Samantha, her bloody fists pounding into the lifeless corpse, “and . . .I. . . am . . .free.”

The graveyard became silent, the weeping willows stopped their ceaseless swaying, the unmarked tombstones seemed to gather around, and the gargoyles turned their heads to listen. Rising above the scattered remains of her mother’s bones, Samantha couldn’t cry, she simply gathered the broken pieces together and put them back under the soil, where they belonged.

Keith Adam Luethke was born in upstate New York and has a handful of published short stories which include: The Dwellers, The Grave, The Midnight Pack, Shadow Rites, Vampires Among Us, The Corpse Artist, and a novel titled The Wolves of Elkhorn Peak. He has an AS degree in English from Roane State and is currently obtaining a BA at the University of Tennessee.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Last Man

By Matt Mitchell

Dear Adam,

I know I haven’t left you much, and if you’re reading this it means I’ve left you even less, but in my passing there are things you should know; things I never told you, never talked about when I was alive.

Firstly: know that I love you. You could never know how much or how far my love for you will endure, so know it simply; that I love you, and I hope I know that you loved me as well.

Now I will give you the answers you’ve wanted all your life but that I’ve kept from you. Know that I kept them from you because of my own fear and guilt. I hope you’ll understand why I’ve kept these secrets after you’ve read them, and I hope you’ll forgive me for keeping them, and for what I did...

I was four months pregnant with you, and Tom (your father) had taken me to Gulf Shores for a summer vacation. It was May 24, 2004. I remember I was in a hurry to get there and on the way down we were held up at a red light and I said under my breath, “I wish this light would change,” and it did. It changed immediately, so quickly that there was a lot of swerving and horn blowing because there had been no yellow for the other lanes. I thought it odd at the time.

Looking back, of course, I feel it might have been a precursor to what would come.

I can only hope to understand what was to happen in one way--that it was a wish. That somehow I was given a wish or wishes but wasn’t granted knowledge of having been granted them. As if some cosmic genie passed by me and said, “I’ll give her a couple of wishes” as he passed by and then went back into his bottle without ever telling me he’d done so. Damn him if he did, for he did nothing more with those wishes than to curse me and all the rest of humanity for all the brief time we had left in this world. To think I could have wished for a billion dollars, or a small Caribbean island, or world peace! World peace I got, but not in any way I might have ever dreamed possible.

Or maybe wishes float around randomly throughout the universe and when they land on you, whatever you wish for, if you happen to wish for it at the precise moment the energy of the wish lands on you, it comes true. If so, then I must have made wishes on successive occasions, on successive days, and had them both granted. Or maybe the red light changing was simply a coincidence; but the latter was not. It definitely was not coincidence, as you will see. And I have wondered about other possibilities: solar flares, radiation… but none of them fit, for you see, I remained. I alone.

On the second day of our vacation I was lying on the beach sunning along with a million other people, listening to the gulls and the waves, loving the warmth and the moment and longing only for solitude. I could see an airplane flying over the water trailing an advertisement banner. A dozen boats were within eyesight either towing parasailers or fishing or just making noise. Children screamed with delight and fear, teenagers howled with freedom and impetuosity and adults exulted in the liberation from both, simultaneously demanding loudly to be heard, respected and obeyed.

To the left and right of me as far as I could see ran the white sands of the beach pocked with umbrellas and fat, skinny, old, young, ugly and beautiful, beautiful people of every race, creed and culture. There were boogie boarders, wake boarders, and surf boarders; loungers, drifters, alcoholics, zealots, rednecks, connoisseurs, thieves, addicts, scholars, and derelicts. Behind them rose high-rise condominiums that stood like the building blocks of the gods, cubical mountains spitting in the eyes of nature; before them sat the ocean, itself pocked with boats and swimming vacationers once again howling with delight and exultation in the face of nature. Combined, the scene made a grotesque mockery of the balance of the environment: humanity shoved all the ore, minerals and fuels that could be mined from one side of the scale to the other and replaced them with only poisoned air, water and earth.

A school of rays streamed amid the swimmers, who oohed and ahhed fittingly. I could just sense the shadows that lurked beneath the surface of the water, beyond the people, hoping the people would inch just a hair closer to the deeper water. I got the same sensation from my cat, Baggins, at home, where I could swear he would look at me thinking “if I were only six pounds heavier I would eat you where you stand.”

I was jealous that there were other people enjoying my moment in the sun, and I was angered by the pollution and the destruction we’d wrought on the seascape. The pollution that clogged my sinuses and filled my ears and brought tears to my eyes was the same pollution that was killing the entire planet--Adam, there were seven billion people in the world at that moment; and I felt that every single one of them were inside my head and screaming or honking or laughing or something all at once, and it unnerved me just enough for me to utter the words--“I wish everyone on earth would just disappear!”

Do I have to tell you the rest? I suppose I must. When I opened my eyes the plane was plummeting to the sea and all the people were gone. Even your father. I weep now to think of that moment; and that moment has haunted virtually every moment’s sleep I’ve had since, along with a million questions: Where did they go? Are they in purgatory? Did I kill them all? If all the people disappeared, then why was I left alive? Anyway, what followed was a moment of utter calm; as if in all the world there had been rubber bands being wound and wound and wound for hundreds of thousands of years and all of a sudden they all were released and they spun out so rapidly there was no energy left and they simply lay there, inert. There were no more people. The boats were no longer being steered and they made landfall and ran until their engines ran out of fuel and their batteries drained. It was the same with cars; they ran until the fuel ran out. Airplanes, trains, boats and busses all ceased, fell, or crashed because of one simple sentence I’d uttered, and I was the only one left.

Until I had you.

I must have gone insane for a little while there, and I think I might have gone completely over had it not been for you, Adam. You grounded me. My swelling belly reminded me that I had a reason to live, despite my intense desire to end my own life. And yes, I did often entertain the idea of ending it for both of us. What kind of world would be left to you? How could you know what had happened, how things were before? Would it matter to you? ... There were so many questions roaming through my head that before I knew it you were here and it was time to build a home.

Remember that wishes do sometimes come true. I know that was a hard lesson for you to learn, and I regret every blow I gave you that day when you were seven and you wished I was dead. I know you were just a little boy sounding out his frustration, but it scared me so badly when you said that—I just went red. I’m so sorry. Remember: Wish always for good things, but never for bad things. Wishes sometimes do come true. Don’t they? Do they?

I’ve taught you all I could think that you would need to survive in the world as it is now. I admit that I was rather glad you were a boy and that eventually the possibility existed that we might have children ourselves. I’m sorry now to have thought such things. You are not responsible for the world’s demise; that responsibility falls squarely on my shoulders. Your lessons have been as extensive as I dared make them; and more violent than any other civilized person’s has been in this modern age. It had to be so; I hope you understand. I learned quickly to keep weaponry close at hand.

It was amazing to see how quickly the world went back wild. Civilization, it would seem, has always been an illusion after all, for when there were no people to keep alligators out of swimming pools, bears out of pantries, and raccoons out of living rooms that’s exactly where they all went. Within a day there was a pelican building a nest on the porch of the condo your father and I had rented. The power gave out in the first week and I was living off flashlights (and so will you so long as the batteries stay charged!) Oh, the horror of the first time I had to go into a dark house when I knew something was in there but didn’t know what it was! Little feral animals can fight with amazing ferocity when cornered, and the world, it seemed, had gone over to them; it had gone wild. I traveled to our home in Missouri and found Baggins gone—same as every other pet in the world that either died of starvation or escaped their captivity. He was gone and the house had been ransacked by opossums. While I was there I noticed that the air was noticeably cleaner, thinner, purer. I could breathe as I’d never breathed before, and in only two weeks’ time! By the time I’d driven south again there were trees down on the road in some places, grass encroaching over the roadway, buildings seemed already to be given back to the wild so that the entire world itself seemed to be a wild thing already.

The only thing I could think to do was to learn about living without power and make do. I found this house and had you in it. I raised you here. How I cried when you first asked me if I had made all the buildings and houses you saw. Now this house is as close to a fortified compound as I can build. I find it amazing that the wild things in the world came for us as they did. It seems (once again!) that civilization was always the illusion; as soon as the rest of the people disappeared, animals stopped running from me! Little birds paid me no more heed than that pelican that had begun building a nest on my condo’s porch. In fact, that pelican was actually threatening toward me. It wouldn’t be the first time. Lucky for you and I, dogs still seem to side with people, and Lucky was the finest protector I could ever have found for us. Even cougars will get out of the way when we walk by with our big German Sheppard friend. He’s killed more than one attacking animal, and they all attack now, Adam, all animals are enemies. I don’t know how or why they’re like this now, but they want us gone and I don’t know what to do about it. It’s as if they want to punish us for the transgressions of all mankind, for leaving the world in the state it’s in.

Now I will tell you only this--I am sorry. You are the only man left in the world and you will die alone. I would have killed myself if not for having you in my belly but now I am gone and I fear you will have nothing. I would have killed you before me but I lacked the courage. I am sorry. You don’t deserve this fate. All I can suggest is this: Continue the prayers that I’ve been praying since that horrible day. Every day, set aside some time, as often as possible, and wish that all the people hadn’t disappeared, and maybe one day this horror I’ve inflicted on the world will be
reversed. Maybe then my soul will rest. For now it is in purgatory. I love you!

Remember me!


Matt Mitchell is a working writer in Montevallo, Alabama. In addition to being one of the authors featured in the print anthology, Southern Fried Weirdness 2007: An Annual Anthology of Southern Speculative Fiction, he is a father of two boys, a southerner, technophile, naturalist, and part time adventurer.