Sunday, December 30, 2007

Misty Morning Snow by T.J. McIntyre


The above photo was taken by the editor in February of last year while on vacation near The Great Smoky Mountains National Park with his family.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

You Write It. I Publish It. -- Question #1

Southern Fried Weirdness Online is starting a new interactive feature. Every few months a new question will appear. Please email your responses of under 200 words to rumples@hotmail.com with Question #1 in the subject line. Every submission recieved before February 1st will be posted together as a weekly feature on March 1st.

Here's the question:

In your opinion, what makes the Southeastern United States such an ideal setting for speculative fiction?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Present

By Thomas Head

A light appeared in the backyard.

Nickolas Whaley crumpled his napkin, crumpled the hell out of it.

“What the Hell?” he muttered.

The backyard maples seemed to welcome it down, down past their bows until it came to rest in the clearing where he had been bullshitting his wife about putting up a gazebo. He dropped a spoon laden with gravy.

Mildred was startled by the splash.

“What is it Walt?”

“I ain’t got no clue,” he replied.

He adjusted his glasses. Examination only muddled his thoughts. The object hovered a foot off the grass. Silly as it seemed, it resembled a glowing boob.

“Well whatever it is, you’ll be rubbing them gravy stains outta my linens,” she said.

“There’s a big floating titty in the backyard.”

Mildred flinched before setting a fearsome stare on him. Her eyes became angry slits.

She turned her head, craned her neck to look out the window informed him that there was indeed some kind of big floating titty in the backyard.

Mildred had a bad habit of that sort of thing, not believing a thing that Walt said. Despite her many faults, she made a passable gravy. Their relationship was complex.

Walt thought for a moment the object had disappeared, but in the next instant the noise and the light returned.

“Whoa!” Mildred barked.

“Ouch, hey!” said Walt.

The noise hurt. Light blazed with a retina-burning intensity. Oversized shadows of Walt and Mildred were sent throbbing against the wall.

“What the hell’ve you done Walt?”

“Hush! You think I did that?”

“Aren’t you going to do something!”

He grunted under his breath and blinked repeatedly.

“Uh oh,” she said. “What’re you doing?”

“I’m going outside.”

“Christ’s sake, you stupid fool!”

Walt delivered a glance.

“What are you going to do, idiot, invite it in for biscuits and gravy? Get the gun!”

“Nonsense,” Walt said, to all of it. He had no idea what he was going to do, but grabbing the gun seemed somehow impractical, and inviting it in for his share of the gravy was out of the question.

Briefly, he wondered what Mildred thought of the universe, if she ever imagined stars and planets. He put it out of his mind and buttoned his sweater, stepping out onto the back porch.

The object was still there, dimmer now, less noisy.

Walt grunted. His disapproval grew. He grabbed at trees, where handy, used branches and trunks as overgrown walking sticks as he trekked up a tree-covered slope. He went loudly, as if it were a raccoon in the trashcans.

It was unaffected.

Some vent tubes spun toward him.

Walt paused.

He glanced back to see Mildred observing from the safety of the paned glass windows – no doubt glad they had purchased them last winter.

He stared at the somehow obscene-looking vent holes. A blackness pooled underneath the lighted tit. Walt stepped a bit closer. The pooling void was so profound it seemed to bend the ground into a bowl. It rippled here and there with rivulets of aquamarine, like moonlight on a different planet.

The object itself, it was dark, more ceramic-looking than metallic, and rimmed with vaguely hieroglyphic writing.

“En hmm,” he said flatly. “Ye-ep.”

After plenty of squinting and breathing and some second-guessing about what in the hell he should do about all this, he knocked on what he supposed the hull, careful to avoid the vent holes.

The knock revealed a number of things, principally that the object was sizzling hot.

He was blowing on his scorched paw when a porthole sphinctered open.

Breath-high and just to his left, out popped the head of a remarkable creature.

Walt froze.

A glimmer of a smile crept across his face.

It was a little English fellow.

A gnome?

He was scarcely able believe what he saw. A gnome, yes. It might have come from outer space. But it was, in fact, an almost clich├ęd-looking garden gnome.

Without warning, the creature’s head rocked back before producing a joyous laugh.

Walt jumped, then crouched, pummeling the air with fists and elbows.

The garden gnome regarded the maneuvers. Then several quiet moments passed between them, a silence which married well with Walt’s lack of ideas concerning exactly he should do with this surprise.

Walt breathed, then invited the gnome in for biscuits and gravy.

It nodded at Walt.

And, that settled, they resumed staring at each other. Walt took stock: he had in-laws more freakish.

Wordlessly, he extended his hand for a handshake, but the craft’s warbling erupted into a whine.

Walt spun. “Whoa!” he shouted, arms waving. “Hey! Get back here!”

The craft rose stiffly, up past the trees. It rose higher still, before blinking across the sky. And that was it.

A pale, watery streak stretched into the heavens. The wake faded, falling like the afterglow of a fireworks display.

Gone.

“Son a bitch!” Walt shouted.

The gnome laughed.

“What’s your game, mister?”

The gnome answered with a silence.

This was not going to cut it. “Well your ride’s gone, jackass!”

It nodded at him.

Walt palmed his forehead.

He once again invited it in for biscuits.

*

Mildred was stiff, plastered against the dishwasher. Her eyes were frozen little ponds, and it did not seem to be occurring to her to breathe.

Walt grabbed a plate and fork out of the sink. “Have a seat, then, fella.”

Mildred passed out.

Walt thought about the moments and the unreality of the present reality struck him like a sudden slap and he joined her, unconscious, on the floor.

*

The blurry dining room spun.

The gnome enjoyed a biscuit, plowing it on a fork (improperly) through the gravy before stuffing a mouthful in. His feet dangled from the chair.

Mildred watched the thing. She was playing dead, half-crouched in a sort of predator’s stance.

Still on the floor, folded with nausea and grief, she said, “Walt, you have got to do something to fix this.”

A giggle rose from the gnome. It nodded at him.

Walt smiled as he sat up. He felt hung-over. He looked up at Mildred. He still had no idea how to exit his shock. Too much in denial to do much else, he got up and sat beside the gnome. He showed it the right way to sop up gravy.

“No need for the fork. Save it for the chicken.”

It smiled politely.

It continued using the fork on the biscuit.

“God’s sake,” he whispered. To Mildred he said, “There’s no telling how far this fellow came. Come in here and visit.”

Wearily, she rose and approached.

She came and sat, just before vomiting across the table.

“Are you satisfied now?” Mildred asked.

Sighing, more embarrassed than ever, Walt got up and grabbed the apple print towel they kept draped over oven handle. He wetted it and cleaned up. “You know good and damn well I’m not.”

“I tried to warn you this would happen!”

“Hm!” he told her. Then he turned to the gnome. “So, you in town long?”

*

The hours that followed were the strangest of Walt’s life.

He lay in bed, quite unable to sleep, a gnome asleep on the bare wood kitchen floor. Walt compared his wife to a Japanese suicide bomber in his racing mind. That night, in fact, was stranger than the time during the war when it occurred to him, out of the blue, that here he was a Kentucky boy, floating over nearly a mile of ocean, gunning down men he didn’t know before they could slam their planes into his vessel.

It just came to him all of a sudden, and he could not get over the sheer naked absurdity of that night for a number of weeks.

He found it all so remarkable. It was remarkable that a gnome had come from a space ship. That he had invited it in.

It was somehow even more remarkable that Mildred had fallen asleep. Just a few words: “First thing in the morning, you got to get rid of that thing!”

Crazy.

Walt managed a few zees himself before the sun rose, which it did over a frosty morning. The chimney was ablaze, apparently fed sometime during the night by his visitor – who was markedly absent from the kitchen floor.

Walt panicked. Christ, he thought, that thing could be out anywhere stirring all kinds of stink.

“Milly!” he barked into the bedroom. “Mildred, get up. It’s gone!”

“What’s gone?”

“Our little English buddy.”

“What!”

“He took off. The gnome took off.”

“Sweet meat, Walt! Settle down.”

“What do you mean settle down? I’m calm.”

“Calm? Going on about elves!”

“What! A gnome! Elves are… Oh, whatever. It’s gone.”

“You feeling okay?” she asked holding a clammy palm to his head.

“Mildred, for crying out… Are you telling me you didn’t…”

“Of course I saw it, jackass. But it wasn’t a gnome.”

“Alright, leprechaun. Whatever. It’s gone.”

“Of course it’s gone,” Mildred laughed. “Leprechaun!”

“Okay, smarty. What do you wanna call it? And what do you mean: ‘of course it’s gone?’”

Mildred continued laughing. Walt waited.

“Oh, you poor, sweet man,” she said, and dropped to the floor, clutching her chest.

She never woke.

*

It’s weird, but some things happen and you almost can’t tell the truth about it. So screw it, you don’t. Just keep it to yourself and never let the world know. Besides, once you think you got a grip on something like the truth, it laughs and snakes around. It digs into your haunches with the little teeth of truth.

Especially when the truth is as bizarre as this: Santa Claus came to visit you the night before your wife died, which she up and did on Christmas morning.

Walt breathed, and the world’s silly rampages did not bother him.

In fact he rather enjoyed the gentle absurdity of those moments. He stayed in the present.

Trying to make sense of that present, he wondered if his present had been the present. And if so, was it a sugarplum or a lump of coal?

Thomas Head makes his home these days in Tennessee with his wife Ann and his dog Jock, a Scottish terrier who growls and cusses too much but means very little of it. His fiction appears from time to time in literary and genre publications.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Spreading Holiday Cheer

by Lynn Pinkerton

Most people just send Wal-Mart Christmas cards, but not Dola Fern’s Uncle Ike. Caring enough to send the very best, he took Hallmark greetings to a whole new level. If Uncle Ike and Elsie Jean Ishes had not gotten caught, she probably would never have known what holiday secrets Uncle Ike held close.

It all began to unravel when Dola Fern got a call from the Southern Sunsets Retirement Home over in Gun Barrel City. Somehow Dola Fern had ended up being Uncle Ike’s nearest living relative when his remaining kin died off last year. She was told there was a crisis at the home and she needed to come right over. All they would tell her on the phone was that Uncle Ike had expanded his extra curricular activities beyond playing dominos and watching “Wheel of Fortune.” Way beyond.

Wishing that Uncle Ike belonged to someone else, Dola Fern sat in the stuffy office of Miss Prudehome, the prissy director of Southern Sunsets and wondered if she could fix whatever Uncle Ike had done. Miss Prudehome sat down, folded her hands across her desktop Bible and began to reveal how Uncle Ike was making the most of his golden years.

It seems Uncle Ike had spiced up life at Southern Sunsets by shooting a series of videos called “Geezers Gone Wild” and then peddling them on the Internet. Featuring other bored Southern Sunsets residents who wanted in on the action, his best selling video had a rural theme and was called, “Redneck Geezer Hotties”. The same group often seen eating the early bird special at the local Luby’s Cafeteria now appeared in pastoral scenes sitting on tractors, gathering eggs in off the shoulder overalls and peeping up from behind bales of hay wearing big straw hats…and nothing else. Wicked winks and beguiling smiles helped compensate for sagging imperfections.

The sexy senior star of “Geezers Gone Wild” was Uncle Ike’s main squeeze, Miss Elsie Jean Ishes. Dola Fern had met Miss Elsie several times and had a hard time believing that this powdered and prim grandmother was developing a sizeable following of Viagra enhanced men. So far as Dola Fern knew, Miss Elsie’s only hobby was knitting covers to hide an extra roll of toilet paper.

Hovering somewhere between proper shock and suppressed, side-splitting laughter, Dola Fern wanted more than celluloid verification and asked to speak with Miss Elsie alone. Appropriately shy at first, Miss Elsie quickly warmed to the idea of discussing her amorous high jinks. Taking a cue from her “Geezers Gone Wild” videos, she began to expose tantalizing tidbits about her red-hot romance with Uncle Ike. Fanning herself as the story heated up, she excitedly prattled on and then confidentially leaned forward and offered Dola Fern the golden nugget.

“Do you know about Ike’s special Christmas greeting?”

Thinking maybe Miss Elsie should still be gardening and canning, Dola Fern shook her head and waited.

“Honey, I’m here to tell you that old man has 'Merry Christmas' tattooed right on his hootus.”

Eyes popping in disbelief, Dola Fern wondered if the holiday greeting was tattooed vertically, horizontally or wrapped around and around. Was “Merry Christmas” spelled out or abbreviated “Merry X-mas?” Was the tattoo in black or traditional red and green?

Finding herself a little jealous of Miss Elsie’s scandalous shenanigans, Dola Fern escorted Miss Elsie back to her room and her knitting. Dola Fern had walked on the gray side of the wild life enough for one day and told a disapproving Miss Prudehome that she would return tomorrow to get Uncle Ike back on the path to a virtuous life. She drove home wondering how much money Uncle Ike had saved on Christmas cards.

Lynn Pinkerton announced in the fifth grade that she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. Although she hopes to never be a full-blown grown-up, she does continue to doggedly chase her fifth grade dream of writing. Part of a on-going series, this is Dola Fern’s debut to the public. Although Dola Fern is fiction, long gone Uncle Ike did exist. However, no one can confirm his legendary Christmas tattoo. Lynn (and Dola Fern) live in Houston, Texas.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

How the Old Man Died

By Mary Overton

Long before the Old Man died, his body began to mummify. How horrified El Viejo would have been, had he known, to see the changes in his skin, to see his fine, aristocratic paleness turn the color of mahogany wood. He darkened like something smoked over a slow fire, and the heat from that unseen flame began the drying process.

The heat came from inside the Old Man. In the fullness of life he had glowed with it; he had been brilliant, irresistible, potent, and merciless. According to his daughter, according to the documentation of his American life, he expired at age 103, in the year 1970, but if one interviewed the ghosts of his Guatemalan youth, the dead from the villages of Ch___ and T___, and other places now unnamed because the words for them are lost, one might be told that El Viejo died several times, and that when one counted all his lives, he would be closer to 428, give or take a decade. Of course, how reliable are the confessions of ghosts?

The Old Man had that sort of glamour about him, a prosperous vitality that kept him working into his eighties. His pace could tire the whippersnappers, which is what actually did happen, when he pushed a crew of his loggers past what was wise – the Old Man had been known for many things, but rarely for wisdom – and the accident struck. Two men died. The Old Man was expected to die, but he wasn't ready yet, so he didn't. He wasn't ready for twenty more years, during which time his daughter bathed him and changed his diaper and administered the complicated regimen of medications and talked to him. Talked and talked and talked, not one word of which he ever answered. She forgave him everything but his muteness. She knew he was listening.

The Old Man mummified so slowly that his daughter did not realize what was happening until six years into her caretaking. She had brought him to the cabin to die. It had been his favorite place, amid second growth forest off a logging trail, and six years into her vigil there she was pleased one day to see what she thought was the white mist of his soul rising up from his body. That soul was absolved, having been blessed by the priest when El Viejo first entered a coma. That soul, his daughter firmly believed, prepared to vault directly into the company of saints among whom he had his own personal throne awaiting his arrival.

She opened the iron box and retrieved her rosary. Popi – she was the only person in the world with such an informal name for the Old Man – had given her the crystal beads for her first communion. Now a woman of 26, she sat at the bedside, reciting her prayers, filled with exultant gratitude that at last he was dead or dying, she wasn't sure which. But it became apparent, bead by bead, that the corpse still breathed. The more fervently his daughter repeated Hail Marys and Our Fathers, the more noisily the Old Man's breath whistled through his nostrils.

The white smoke continued to rise. It was not El Viejo's soul. It was exactly what his daughter had seen – a mist evaporating off his body, a coiling trail of moisture grown dense enough to be visible. The man was dehydrating, like fruit preserved on drying racks.

In her frustration, she berated the Old Man for his legendary selfishness, his extravagant pride, his many cruelties, and once started she launched into a catalogue of his crimes. She spent two years reminding him, detailing for him the specifics of his wickedness, and those were the deeds of which she was aware. God and the Devil together would be hard pressed to say how long it might take to list them all. By the exhausted finish of her tirade the Old Man’s daughter could see the changes in him, how bit by bit his flesh diminished, his skin thickened, his bones shrank.

By the end, he was a doll that fit into her arms, a nut-brown, curled infant of a doll made out of impermeable shoe leather. He was naked, because his bodily functions so decelerated that he had not fed or excreted in several months. He was fleshless by then, entirely dried like a gourd. When she moved him, she heard the rattle and shush of desiccated organs, some of them hard seed pods, others disintegrated into dust.

In the end, his heartbeat and respiration slowed to an imperceptible rate. Time lengthened between each pulse. His daughter measured them hourly, then daily, weekly, fortnightly. His daughter waited until the body went a full month, from one new moon to the next, without movement of any kind, before she wrapped him, like a gift, in tissue paper, placed him in the iron box, and buried him three feet deep in forest loam. Even then she could not know for certain that the Old Man was wholly, exclusively, indubitably dead.

Mary Overton's published work includes a book of short stories, The Wine of Astonishment, from La Questa Press, 1997, and short fiction in several anthologies, among them , Grace and Gravity from Paycock Press, 2004. Her stories have appeared in both literary and commercial magazines, including Glimmer Train, Zahir, So to Speak, and Potomac Review. This story first appeared as part of the Invisible Cities wiki-novel experiment.