This article was originally published in March 2008 in the WD web archives.
You slide behind the steering wheel, slip your key into the ignition and…nothing happens. You twist it back and forth, pound the dashboard a few times and utter words that would make a nightclub comedian blush.
But still, nothing happens. The battery is dead. And you’re not going anywhere until you get a jump start.
We all know what it takes to jump-start a car, but what do you do when you slide behind the computer, slip your fingers onto the keyboard and…nothing happens? You sweat and squirm, pound your desk and curse at the cursor, but it doesn’t do any good. Your story is stalled out. Your writing isn’t going anywhere.
Most of us know what it feels like to be uncreative — our ideas are stale and dry, our writing is boring and predictable. We long to come up with ideas and stories that are fresh, original, inventive and spontaneous.
But how do you jump-start your brain?
Explore your L.I.F.E.
When you don’t know where else to turn, explore L.I.F.E., an acronym for Literature, Imagination, Folklore and Experience. L.I.F.E. is a limitless well of ideas waiting to be tapped.
Coax new stories from classic plots by setting them in a different time and place; examine your imagination for themes that pique your interest; search through the timeless motifs of myth, fairy tale and folklore; scour the expanses of your own experience to spark new ideas. Let your memories come alive!
Some memories inspire us, others haunt us. Some memories cling to things we own, others hover around places we’ve been. Start with what you have, then nurture that fragment of memory: your teacher’s face, the smell of your grandmother’s cookies, the charming way your father used to whistle, the chill in your soul as you rushed to the hospital, the taste of salt spray that summer at the ocean, how it felt to hold your daughter’s hand for the first time. Turn those memories over in your mind, flesh them out, allow them to breathe.
Every vivid memory is a garden of ripe ideas waiting to be harvested.
Recently, while visiting a hotel in Denver, I noticed EXIT signs not only above the exit doors, but also at their base. “How odd!” I thought. “Only someone crawling on the floor would need a sign down there!”
Whoever put those signs there had looked through the eyes of someone crawling for safety during a fire.
Creativity isn’t seeing what no one else sees; it’s seeing what anyone else would see — if only they were looking. New ideas are born when we view life from a fresh perspective or peer at the world through another set of eyes.
So, look at your story from another person’s perspective. Step into the shoes of your main character and write a journal entry, a complaint letter or a love note. Switch your point of view. Write a few paragraphs in first or third person. Think of how you would respond if you were in the story. Walk through the action, stand on your desk, crawl on the floor. And keep your eyes open for the doors no one else has noticed.
Let serendipity happen
In Horace Walpole’s 18th century Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, the heroes discover new things again and again while looking for something else. From this we get the word serendipity, which Walpole defined as “the facility of making happy chance discoveries.”
If you’re stuck and drained of ideas, you might be trying too hard. You can’t make happy chance discoveries until you step away and stop worrying. Relax. Worrying about problems is like looking at bacteria through a microscope — it doesn’t help ’em go away, it only makes ’em look bigger. The longer you stare, the more imposing they appear.
So work smarter, not harder. Break your routine. Go to a movie. Have a cup of coffee. Abstain from octopus. Try writing in a different place or at a different time. Lift weights. Get up in the middle of the night. Place yourself in situations where you’re not at ease — risking and responding to new challenges forces you to think creatively and opens the door for serendipity. Do something completely different and let parts of your brain you’re not even aware of chew on the problem.
Photographers focus on a single event and snap the picture, freezing that moment forever. Each photo reveals only a sliver of reality, yet that carefully framed sliver contains a world of meaning. A great photographer knows just what to leave out.
Writers don’t have a viewfinder. The lens we look through is as large as our imagination. And when we can’t think of what to write next, we often try generating more ideas when we really need to set more limits. Skilled photographers carefully frame their shots just right. Skilled writers carefully fence in their ideas.
Nothing stalls writing more effectively than lack of focus. Freedom to write anything usually ends up as an excuse for not writing anything. As William Zinsser notes in On Writing Well, “Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write it.”
What’s your story really about? What’s the theme? The deadline? The word count? If you weren’t assigned any boundaries, set them yourself.
Look for connections
Creativity occurs at the intersection of ideas, when two thoughts that seem to have nothing in common collide and form something new. Don’t feel pressured to always come up with ideas from scratch. Instead, look for ways of combining two or more familiar things into something novel and unique.
Do this by forcing yourself to make connections. Randomly choose any two objects in your home, combine them and form something new: “carpet” + “lights” might become “carpight” — a soft, cushiony, glowing floor covering that turns on when you step on it.
See? Think metaphorically. For example: An idea is like a flame — it curls and leaps and has a mind of its own. It’s unpredictable and uncontrollable. And it’ll eventually burn out unless you feed it fresh materials. Only then can it grow and spread and light new fires. Without attention, it’ll slowly smolder and die. So when you discover a new idea, be careful! Feed it gently, don’t smother it. Give your ideas space and every once in a while, blow on them to keep the embers glowing and the flames sprouting up.
Look for parallels or connections between things that seem to have nothing in common. Let unexpected connections spark your writing.
Ask stupid questions
Don’t be afraid to ask obvious, even stupid, questions. It may help you restate the problem in a way that reveals the solution you’ve been looking for.
Describe the finished story to someone. What has to happen before you get there? What does the reader need to know by the end? You may have left out a key thought, clue or concept. Ask, “What’s missing from my story? What have I left out? What would naturally come next?”
Use “What if?” questions to jar you toward a unique solution. “What if I started over from scratch? What if time wasn’t a factor? Is time a factor? What if I made this a screenplay instead of a novel?”
No question is too stupid when it comes to framing and improving your story. Just be brave enough to accept and embrace the answers!
Question your direction
A Jewish folktale tells of a man searching for paradise. Every night he points his shoes toward his goal and goes to bed. Every morning he steps into his shoes and continues his journey. But one night, a mischievous imp turns the shoes around. The next day the man thinks he’s headed for paradise, but he’s really walking back home. Pretty soon, he ends up back where he started from.
His problem had nothing to do with lack of effort or motivation. He even had a wonderful destination. He just never noticed he was walking in the wrong direction.
That same imp visits writers. He sneaks into our stories and points the plot in the wrong direction. And we keep plugging away, writing page after page of a story that’s headed nowhere.
Sometimes we write ourselves into a corner. We try harder and harder to scale the walls we’ve erected without ever wondering, “Does this story even need that corner?”
Question where you’re going. Don’t assume that you must be going in the right direction just because you’re picking up from where you left off yesterday. Ask yourself, “Is this really the right direction for this story? If not, where did I make the wrong turn?”
Stay on track. Every day when you start writing, make sure the shoes are pointing in the right direction.
In the nearly 100 years that Writer’s Digest has been shepherding writers through their careers, the magazine has published countless tips on the craft of writing. Some timeless tips are great advice for writers to follow no matter the year. Others don’t age as well, shedding light on how readers’ tastes and publishing trends have evolved over the last century.
In WD Contributing Editor Don Vaughan’s recent article for the Writer’s Digest May/June 2019 issue, he gives an overview of the various types of magazines published during the 20th century and the lessons fiction and nonfiction writers alike can learn from the styles of storytelling these magazines pioneered.
Vaughan’s exploration of the men’s adventure magazines popular in the 1940s-1960s unearthed a classic writing tip from Fiction House, Inc. Managing Editor Jack Byrne. In “The Way to the Fiction House Market,” an article he penned for the August 1929 issue of Writer’s Digest, Byrne gave this advice for writers looking to break into any of the 11 men’s adventure magazines published by the now-defunct Fiction House:
“We must have a good, fast opening. Smack us within the first paragraph. Get our interest aroused. Don’t tell us about the general geographic situation or the atmospheric conditions. Don’t describe the hero’s physique or the kind of pants he wears. Start something!”
This quote from Byrne is often cited in many anthologies and studies of men’s adventure magazines. While they can no longer be found on newsstands (unless you’re shopping in an antique mall), Byrne’s advice still holds up for any type of fiction today. An intense opening hooks readers and increases the changes that they’ll remain hooked, wanting to find out how your story unfolds from there.
Yet, some of the tips from Byrne’s article don’t hold up as well as the above for various reasons. After unearthing the full 1929 article, WD editors have selected their favorite vintage writing tips from the piece—the good, the bad and the just plain silly.
“Build your plots so that action can be continuous. Picture your story as a succession of action scenes that will unfold a situation and solve it in the climax. It may help you if you think of your plot as a movie director would visualize it if he were making a six-reeler. Ask yourself what scene he would use as an opening to get immediate attention and interest—what continuity would he follow—from what angle would he shoot various scenes to get his best effects?”
While Byrne’s assumption that all movie directors are male doesn’t hold up (sorry, Greta Gerwig), action writing is still a good quality to strive for in your writing. Readers expect to be dropped into the middle of the action at the beginning of a story. Don’t bog them down with the details that led up to that point. If you’re stuck wondering where the action of a scene is, it couldn’t hurt to try looking at it as if you were a director (who can be any gender) filming a movie.
“Study our magazines. It is the one surest way to familiarize yourself with the special formula of each of our publications. And we mean study! Don’t just read the stories—dissect them, find the qualities in them that made us buy them!”
For fiction and nonfiction writers, this remains true of any magazine or literary journal you’d like to submit your work to. Most writers will probably read (or skim) a few pieces from publications before submitting their own writing to the editors. However, you greatly increase your chances of getting published by figuring out what makes pieces from the publication unique and adapting your work to better nail the style and tone that publication seeks.
“Avoid unnecessary profanity. Avoid use of the name God in a profane or semi-profane or even in a facetious manner. Drinking scenes should be cut down to the minimum. Especially is it necessary to avoid having the hero of a story indulge in much drinking. He need not be a teetotaler, of course, but don’t dwell on his drinking abilities!”
Opinions about swearing, using the name God in vain and drinking have certainly evolved since 1929. Byrne wrote this article during the Prohibition, after all, and I can think of plenty of novels from this era that ignore this advice (ahem, The Sun Also Rises). In fact, a character that swears too much can add some grit to their dialogue. While dwelling on too much of anything can certainly bog down a manuscript, it isn’t necessary to eliminate any of these three vices in a story.
“Whenever it is necessary to the plot of your story to kill a character, avoid gory description of the episode. Killings should be handled chiefly as a means of removing a character from the action of the story so that the plot can develop accordingly. They should be along the lines of the bloodless knockout of the prize ring.”
While society’s general aversion to goriness has changed since 1929, this tip is either a winner or a loser depending on the type of writing you are doing. For example, even those who haven’t read The Hunger Games probably know that the saddest scene is when Rue dies. Suzanne Collins handles Rue’s death as a sentimental end to her friendship with Katniss and a turning point for her to up her game to fight against the Capitol. It is unlikely that this scene would be remembered for the same reasons and have had the same effect on readers if Rue had died in a more gruesome way that was vividly described piece by piece.
However, the rules of goriness are different in genres such as horror. Use your best discretion when deciding on how much gore to write into a scene, keeping in mind the tone you would like your work to have.
“Woman interest is permissible but it must not overshadow the ‘action-adventure’ elements.”
Byrne was speaking of how to write for mens’ adventure magazines here. But 90 years later, we’ve come a long way in terms of what is perceived as “women’s interest,” so much that this tip is laughable.
“A requirement common to all our magazines is that the heroes of the stories be Americans. In stories laid in a Canadian or an Alaskan locale, the hero may be a Canadian or French-Canadian; in a Mexican locale, the hero may be a Mexican or Spanish-Mexican type.”
While it is never a good idea to lean toward appropriation in a story, it isn’t a requirement that your protagonist be of North American origin and remain in their country of birth.
“Sympathetic character delineation is a requisite in all Action Stories yarns. We want the lovable, swash-buckling hombre, the two-fisted type of adventurer, who is the genuine Action Stories hero.”
Publishers no longer expect your protagonist to be a “swash-buckling hombre,” but they at the very least expect them to be someone that readers can relate to. Is the reader given enough detail about the main characters so that they can understand their motivations and desires? If not, it’s time to get back to revising your manuscript.
“Getting what we call air-feel into a story is indicative of the fact that the author is well-acquainted with the field in which he is writing. To get this with any degree of success, the author should reproduce, wherever possible, the vernacular of the air pilots in his dialogue. Then, too, the whenever outlining technicalities, the writer should strive to eliminate that stiffness about them which is present whenever the author is not well-versed in the air field.”
While Byrne’s advice is referring to air travel and air warfare specifically, it’s always a good idea to do some research about the setting or subjects of your story so that they have a deeper sense of detail and authenticity. Travel to the place your story is set. Study the intricacies of the dance the characters obsess over. As always, never bog readers down with too much detail. They want to feel as if they are immersed in the world of your story, after all. If one pilot spends two pages telling their co-pilot how to land the plane or something else you’d hope they knew before taking off, it interrupts the flow of your story.
“Our heroes should be young—only occasionally do we use the old prospector type.”
The above advice might be true when writing for children and teens, but in adult literature, an unexpected protagonist is always welcome.
“Keep the characters lively and human—put them in a big, glamorous outdoor setting—and let them move at a fast clip through a series of high adventures.”
George Orwell’s Animal Farm proves that stories told from the point of view of animals can be interesting. Most adult fiction has human protagonists, so an animal protagonist in your story might set your manuscript apart from the rest of the slush pile. However, when going an experimental route it is always important to ensure that this experimentation is done well. Keep the action fast-paced, like Byrne advised. Readers don’t want to get stuck in long, drawn-out prose about a cow chewing on grass all day.
“Let the plot unroll rapidly, maintaining tension and speed with adequate characterization, right up to the finale. Here, swing your story to its highest pitch in a swirl of convincing, gripping action that will hold the reader to the last word.”
This tip has no doubt stood the test of time. Byrne emphasized quick plotting so much because the type of fiction he was looking to publish required it. Yet, the essentials for any good story are good characterization and believable, interesting action from the first to last page.
“Avoid the roughneck types of hanger-on—the kind of fellows who use ‘desedem and dose’ style of language. Tell the story in straightforward English, neither too highbrow nor too lowbrow.”
I have no idea what “desedem and dose” language is, but I can guess that it isn’t the best style to write a story in. It’s always best to write in language that sounds believable and natural—don’t abuse the thesaurus.
“Manuscripts should be cleanly typed on standard-sized paper. Don’t send us first-draft copy, with interlineations, crossed-out words and other aggravations. Soiled pages divert the attention of the reader from what you are saying—something you cannot well afford.”
Well, duh. In the era of the typewriter and mailed manuscripts, I’d venture to say most would be turned off by soiled pages. Now in the era of the computer and the ability to digitally edit before sending your work out into the world, there’s no excuse for sloppy writing.
Follow these vintage writing tips worth trying, and your stories will stand the test of time.
David Burns, a trial attorney from New Jersey who squeezes writing into whatever free time he can muster, won the Writer’s Digest 14th Annual Popular Fiction Awards with his short story “Night Surf.” (Read it here.) In the fantasy story, an old man returns to the beach his seven-year-old daughter disappeared at decades ago in order to search for answers to the tragedy. Despite his loss, the man clings to the hope that there is some chance of redemption.
“Night Surf” was chosen as the grand prize winner out of over 1,200 other entries. Burns’s prizes include $2,500 and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City.
View a complete list of the 14th Annual Popular Fiction Awards winners.
Where did the idea for “Night Surf” come from?
It’s a story that’s been bouncing around in my head for about eight years. I wrote the very beginning many years ago. I had a very strong image of this man on this desolate boardwalk at night keeping a vigil on the ocean. I knew he was tied to the place for some reason, but I wasn’t sure why. I had sensed that he had either come there to find a way to live or to die.
The more I mulled it over, the more I realized it somehow had to do with his daughter. So then the story sort of came and developed from that. I got the point where his visitor arrives, and then I hit a block because I wasn’t sure how to get to the finish. I knew how I wanted it to end, but not how to get there. I picked at it from time to time while writing other things until I finally decided to put myself on a deadline and make it happen. One I committed to that, I finished the second half of the story in about a week.
What are some places that you look for writing ideas?
I get ideas from the strangest places. Once I was sitting in the doctor’s office. It’s a crowded room and I’m looking at the magazine rack. There’s a magazine with an entirely black cover and very thin letters on it in gray, and I think it says “The Last Village.” In the half hour to hour that I’m waiting for the doctor, I’m mulling over what this article could be about. By the time I go in to see the doctor, I’ve got an entire story about what the last village might mean—in my mind, it was an apocalyptic story about a fortress holding its own against a plague.
On my way out, I got a chance to look at the magazine cover and it said “The East Village.” So I had completely gotten the title wrong, but it gave me a really good story idea, which I then wrote. I also get a lot of ideas listening to music, particularly movie soundtracks trying to imagine what scene might go with them.
What advice do you have for writers to get the right pacing in their short stories?
It really is a process of trial and error. Over the years, I think pacing has become one of my writing strengths. I get a lot of good feedback from my circle of readers, and lots of times it has to do with pacing. Over time, I’ve become very attuned to that. In a short story, the pacing is crucial and what frustrates a lot of people when they read a story is that they feel like there was a conclusion that wasn’t earned. You see it a lot in TV, movies and stories where it looks like a person is going to make one decision and then they make a different decision and there’s no real explanation why there was that pivot. The pacing is best learned first by getting a lot of constructive criticism and being open to that. You’ve got to take that seriously.
I’ve also learned over time to be very self-critical as well, where I will read a story after I’ve left it alone for a while. It’s only when you give yourself a little distance from the act of creating it that you can objectively read it for the purpose of asking Is the pacing too fast? Is the pacing too slow? You’ve got to be your own first critic, where you look at your work as if it was written by someone else and ask Did that satisfy me?
Do you write anything else?
There’s always got to be some fantastical element to give me the initial inspiration. I dance around the fantasy and science fiction genres loosely. I’ve written a novel about a modern-day gorgon in Chicago working as a contract killer. I need a story to have something that takes it out of the realm of the possible to get the initial desire to write it and have the core idea that works as the anchor for the story.
Can you tell me more about your novel?
I shopped it around briefly, then got too busy with other things. The novel is called Heart of Stone.
Are you planning on shopping your novel around more to get it published?
Absolutely. I’ve learned that you really have to put most things on a deadline, otherwise life always pushes your plans to the side. During the next few months I’ll be hunting for an agent to take it on.
How long have you been writing?
That one’s easy, because my mother never used to tire of telling that I wrote a story when I was six—complete with pictures—called “The Foolish Frog.” I’ve been writing pretty steadily since then, always something but a lot of it not marketable or publishable. Over time, I evolved, working up from short stories to novels. I even wrote a trilogy that I’ll have to shop around at some point.
I love the act of writing. I write for myself first. I write what I want to see on the bookshelves, in a magazine. If I don’t see it there, that motivates me to put pen to paper or pen to keyboard myself.
Can you tell me more about your day job?
I’m a trial attorney. I’ve been doing that for decades now. It’s a pretty demanding occupation in terms of always preparing for your next court appearance and representing clients. Because trial work frequently puts you in front of juries to provide an account of your client’s story to them, there’s a strong storytelling aspect to it. That’s the aspect of the trial that I enjoy the most, is having the opportunity to tell what I hope is a true story to a jury and then letting them weigh in on what they think of it.
What authors have inspired you?
When I was very young, I was an avid comic book collector. I was lucky enough to be reading comic books at the time there were some really, really good writers of those stories. Chris Claremont, who wrote for Marvel, had some very deep, introspective characters that still resonate to this day with me. Alan More wrote fantastic stories for DC. Those were very inspiring to me, and they sort of touched on having a very visual imagination, which I count on with my stories.
I’m probably indebted eternally to J.R.R. Tolkien, because Lord of the Rings gave me my understanding of epic fantasy. When I was a little older Steven R. Donaldson, who wrote The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series, showed me how to take a Tolkien-esque world and take it into a modern sensibility. Plus, his use of language is just gorgeous. I must have gone through long phase where my style of writing copied his so closely that people that people who read [my writing] said that I was going through his trash bin. It took a while to separate myself from that.
In terms of mood and atmosphere, I was inspired by a lot of Steven King stories. He wrote such great characters, and I remember reading an interview that Steven King gave many years ago where he said his grandfather once told him that a good ghost story is connected to real life at 100 different points. That always stuck with me—that you really have to make your characters react believably even when they’re in unbelievable circumstances. The believably of the characters in the story absolutely strengthens the chances that the reader will read on to the end.
What are the challenges as well as your favorite parts of writing fantasy? How do you overcome these challenges?
The challenge is probably one in the same with the benefit of writing fantasy. There are no limits to where you can go. That’s great, but it’s also very daunting. I find the world-building aspect of fantasy and science fiction to be very challenging. In any story, you want your characters to be believable, but in fantasy you also have to build a world that is believable and has to function according to some internal logic.
To have that happen, you have to do one of two things. You either have to sit down with charts and outlines and do a lot of pre-planning, or you have to be very willing to re-write your work as the world that you’re creating organically changes and develops over time as you’re writing it.
You can do that sometimes without a lot of exposition. I was thinking while my kids and I were watching the first Harry Potter movie that Hogwarts as the characters are first seeing it looks exactly like I expected it look from the book. I looked back at the book, and Rowling’s description of the scenes is very minimal, but it was enough to trigger in the reader a whole set of associated images.
World-building can be a matter of many, many intricate details, or it can be a matter of just placing the right archetype language in at the right moment in the story and letting the reader do the rest.
How do you balance your writing process with your work as an attorney?
Balance is something that we’re all still seeking in our lives, no matter what you do for a living. There’s a surprising amount of downtime that randomly occurs in a trial lawyer’s daily routine. You could be sitting and waiting for a judge to call your case or your jury to come back with a verdict. There’s nothing more for you to do at that point except wait around. A laptop or an iPad at hand gives me a chance to catch up on writing then.
I steal time whenever I can—If I get up before it’s time to get the kids on the bus, I can write for half an hour. The nature of my work and family life demand change day to day. The only way to keep that ball in the air consistently is to give myself some deadlines to force [writing] to be a priority. If it’s something that you’re passionate about, you’ll find the time to do it.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
A writing professor gave me the best advice I’ve ever received, even though when he gave it to me, I was unwilling to listen to it. He said writing 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration. I thought everything could be done on the basis of passion and inspiration. You need that to be the fuel that ignites the story, but you really do have to be willing to do the long, solitary process of writing and then the painful process of re-writing before it’s really something that you can be proud of.
Congratulations to the winners of the 14th Annual Writers Digest Popular Fiction Awards! Out of more than 1,200 entries, the Writers Digest team chose a grand prize winner as well as a first place winner and honorable mentions in each category: science fiction/fantasy, thriller/suspense, horror, young adult, romance and mystery/crime.
To read the best in genre fiction, follow the links provided to read the grand prize entry and first place winner in each category. For complete coverage of the competition, check out out the May/June 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here for an extended interview with the grand prize winner.
Announcing “Night Surf” By David Burns, the grand prize winning entry of the 14th Annual Writers Digest Popular Fiction Awards. This short story was chosen among 1,200 other entries to the competition. Read an extended interview with the winner here. For a complete list of winners and their short stories, click here.
Night Surf by David Burns
The night surf crashed into the pier, sending gusts of spray into the chilly air. Mist drifted over the empty amusement rides, casting ghost-shimmers as it passed under the bare sodium lamps along the boardwalk.
The old man sat on one of the benches that rode the warped wood, the only figure in sight. Head bowed, he did not glance to his left or right but kept a stolid vigil by the dark, writhing ocean. In his hands, he held a small plastic bag, turning it over and over with the unconscious rhythm of long habit.
The old man’s sun-weathered features were clenched as he watched the waves claw at the beach, falling back in froth and defeat only to hurl themselves forward again and again. Once upon a time, he had imagined the noise of the sea to be soothing. Now it sounded only like the relentless pounding of some alien, implacable heart.
A light appeared to his left. The old man half-started, clutching at the rusted circle of metal that hung from a chain around his neck, but the light was coming up the steps from the street. The man sighed and settled back in his seat. False alarm.
As it approached, the light resolved into the beam of a flashlight.
“Evening,” said a voice.
“Good evening, officer,” said the old man.
“Boards are closed,” said the officer. He sounded young. “Season ended last weekend.”
“That’s all right,” said the old man, willing himself to pa-tience. “I’m just here for the air.”
“That so?” The officer stepped into the pool of light cast by the overhead lamp. He was young, probably just a junior lieu-tenant. Maybe Hempfel was on vacation. Or retired. He’d be old enough to retire by now. “Got some I.D. on you, sir?”
“Of course, officer.” The man fished in the breast pocket of his jacket and produced his driver’s license.
“Says here you’re from Warminster, Pennsylvania,” announced the officer. “What are you doing sitting on a bench in the mid-dle of the night in Seaside Heights, Mister, uh, Parker?”
A long pause followed. “Hold it. You’re … him, aren’t you? That Parker?”
“Guess I am,” said the man. “Your sergeant tell you about me?”
“Sure,” said the officer. “Everyone knows the old story about the guy who lost –” He stopped with a frown. Shifting his stance, the officer looked out toward the ocean.
“So … today’s the, uh, anniversary I guess, huh?”
“Yes.” The old man felt suddenly weary of conversation. “It was.”
“Mm hm,” said the officer. He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Well, maybe it’s, uh, time you were heading home, sir. Seaside Heights isn’t the best place to be out after dark.”
No, thought the old man. Not for a long time.
“Thank you, officer,” he said aloud, taking back his li-cense. “I won’t stay much longer.”
“Okay, then.” The officer hesitated a moment longer, then tilted his cap slightly.
The old man dredged up a wan smile. “Good night.”
The officer cast a troubled glance at the bag in the old man’s hands, then withdrew. After a few minutes, his flashlight was a faint gleam in the darkness down the boards. Then it was gone altogether.
The night closed in again, concentrating the chill around the old man. He shivered, drawing his collar against his throat. The old man checked his watch and sighed: dawn was not far off now. He’d come for nothing. Again. For a moment, the swell of despair made him want to weep. Then he clamped his resolve over the familiar pain. Maybe … maybe next year. If only he could risk sitting closer to the water …
He had just started to put the bag away when he heard a noise, at once both soft and startling. Just outside his circle of light, the nearby boards had creaked with a stealthy footfall.
The old man froze, his heart suddenly racing. There had been no hint of anyone’s approach. Without raising his head, he scanned the gloom. No one. No shadow broke the distant line of ghostly foam where the breakers thrashed in ancient fury; nothing moved against the twinkling lights of the far-off shorefront hotels.
But he had been told not to trust his eyes. Carefully, the man rested the bag on one knee and began to open it. Then he held himself still and waited, wishing he could quiet the throb-bing of his pulse in his ears. A minute passed, became two. The old man cursed the shifting breeze, which blew his stray white locks against his eyes and whipped away any possible scent from his bag. He wanted to sneeze, cough, and clear his throat. But he did nothing, holding on to the slender, taut thread of his hope.
A foot appeared within the circle of light. It was bare and dirty and small: the foot of a child. Its toes flexed against the board like a sprinter’s, ready to spring into instant action. Now the old man didn’t dare to look up. He focused on willing his hand to stop trembling as it held the bag.
Another foot entered the circle, carrying his visitor for-ward with the light step of a dancer. Abruptly the cloying salt smell of the ocean became oppressive, the air clotted with the reek of brine. The figure edged slowly closer and the old man, sensing the tension in every step, suddenly found a place of calm open up within himself.
So … she was afraid too.
He exhaled a ragged breath and the other froze, its lower limbs quivering. Bidding fear be damned, the old man slowly lifted the bag.
“I have jelly beans,” he murmured into the wind. “You’re welcome to some. The pink ones were always your favorite, I think.”
His visitor said nothing, but the old man did not look up. Caution held him. Wait until it eats of your offering, the woman had told him. Do not meet its eyes till then; else you are lost.
As though he could be more lost than he already was.
A quick movement, bird-like, and the other stole within an arm’s length. Fingers darted forward, down, and a handful of jelly beans vanished without transition. The figure retreated to the edge of the circle, almost out of sight.
Patience, the old man thought. Patience.
After he had not moved for another minute, the figure came closer, this time with a bolder step, almost a swagger. As it reached forward, the old man suddenly moved, snatching at the iron ring he wore around his neck. With a jerk, he snapped the thin chain and cast the ring at the ground.
Even taken by surprise, his visitor reacted with the speed of a striking snake, bounding backwards in the time it took for the ring to clatter against the boards. But as its spring carried it to the edge of the circle of light cast by the streetlamp, the figure seemed to strike an invisible barrier. It fell to the ground in a jumble of limbs.
“Circle without, circle within,” chanted the old man, breathing heavily. “Let no creature wander between the two with-out my leave, while my will holds.”
Steeling himself, he looked up. His visitor lay on the boards, panting hugely, face hidden from view by a thick mane of hair that could have been golden or green from the way it caught the light. She appeared to be a child, no more than eight years old. The man felt his chest tighten again, in terror or excitement. But then the child raised its head, and he saw her eyes for the first time.
They were green, but lit from within as though by ghostly lanterns. The old man sensed a cold, alien intelligence behind those eyes, separated from his own by a gulf so great that he knew at once that he could not have touched upon a mind more foreign if he had suddenly come upon a being from another world.
But even the terror brought on by this intuition was subsumed un-der the crashing wave of a greater emotion: a knife-like stab of disappointment, so penetrating that his sight dimmed and he nearly doubled over. He didn’t even notice as the girl cocked her head, then drew her limbs against her body like some giant praying mantis, and sprang up. With silent fury, she threw herself at the air, only to fall back again as she reached the perimeter of light. Each time she fell, she rose up again and renewed her assault.
“You’re wasting your time,” said the old man, when he observed this. “You can’t break the enchantment. That ring’s from the temple at Sounion, sacred to Poseidon. You know what that means.”
The child became still, except for the heaving of its chest. Its pale limbs were bare and it was dressed in what looked like a clotted mass of seaweed and rags. Its lambent eyes turned toward him, sharp as shark’s teeth. When it spoke, the voice was a deep, guttural sound, unmade for a child’s throat: “Pick up the ring.”
The old man shook his head. “No.”
The child crooked her fingers into claws. He had no doubt she could gut him like a fish with one swipe of them. Her dainty teeth gleamed like razors in her mouth. “Mortal man,” she growled, “Release me or I will have your throat out.”
The old man wagged the bag slightly. “You’ve shared food with me,” he pointed out. “You’re bound to do me no harm.” If the gypsy had lied about that, he’d know it soon enough.
The child stamped its bare foot on the boards. The gesture would have made the old man smile, if he had dared.
“Human! Pick up the ring! Release me!”
The child that was not a child cocked its head so that the billowing mass of hair hid one of its eyes. “I grant no boon to mortals.”
“I don’t want a boon. I just want you to listen to a story. Will you listen?”
The delicate, sand-caked toes flexed with agitation, its pale flesh shimmering like iridescent fish scales. Then a shudder went through the child, and it grew still.
The old man did not hesitate. He had practiced these words so many times, they came to him without thought.
“Once upon a time,” he said, beginning as the gypsy had instructed, “there was a little girl who loved the ocean. She loved it so much, she would cry whenever her parents took her away from it. She played in the tide pools when she was an infant, and rode the waves laughing as she grew bigger and stronger. She had blue eyes and golden hair like sunlight, and she was the joy of her mother and father. Her name –” his voice shook for only a moment, “– was Cassie.
“For seven summers, her parents brought her back to the ocean, to swim and laugh and play in the water. Her mother used to joke that she would grow up to be either a lifeguard or a fish. Then, during that last summer, Cassie started talking about hearing voices when she was out on her board, voices under the water. She thought they were calling to her. She started filling her bedroom walls with drawings of singing mermaids and beautiful cities under the ocean.
“Her parents dismissed it as fancy, of course. How — how could they have known how far she’d take it? But one afternoon, her board came back with the tide, and Cassie wasn’t on it.”
The old man cleared his throat. Even now, the grief was a raw thing, twisting, cutting at his flesh.
“They searched for her, of course. Everyone did. The Coast Guard, all the local boats. It was a national news story. For a few days at least. But they never found her. And then the story changed, and the people decided that it was the fault of her parents for losing her. They hounded the parents, until there was no place the mother could go that she didn’t perceive an accusing glance, a face set in judgment of her failure. Finally the mother couldn’t live with her pain any more. The father found her one afternoon in the tub, an empty bottle of antidepressants by her side. She was lying peacefully there, under the water. It was the first time the father had seen her smile in years.
“The father went a little mad, perhaps. He… spent some time in a place where they send you when you need to rest. So he missed the stories for the first few years after they started. It wasn’t until he got out that he heard about the ghost.”
The child wrinkled its nose as though in distaste or derision, but did not move.
He had her attention. They of the faerie cannot resist the lure of stories, the gypsy’s voice echoed in his head. But now he was coming to the crux of it, and his heart hammered in his chest.
“It was just a local story, at first. Without the internet, the father might never have heard of it. But when he started digging, he learned the story had been going on ever since Cassie di– disappeared.” He took a deep breath. “It seemed that every year, on the anniversary of her disappearance, someone saw a lit-tle girl on the edge of the surf, on the same beach where Cassie had loved to play. She only came at night, and if she was approached, the girl would vanish. Some witnesses said she just seemed to melt back into the waves.
“But those who got a longer look at her said she seemed to be searching for something, sometimes wandering over the dunes, or even coming up onto the boards, though never beyond. A few said they could hear a sound coming from her, like keening. One witness said it was the saddest sound she’d ever heard, like a hole in the world given a voice. But the girl was always gone in a flash, before anyone could reach her.
“The father didn’t understand how this could be, but he did-n’t doubt. He knew the little girl was his Cassie. But when he searched, he could find no trace of her. And no one wanted to be reminded of the sad tale of the little girl lost at sea. The po-lice… no one would help him.
“Until he met the gypsy woman. She told him it was no ghost that haunted the strand but a changeling, for his daughter had been taken in by the song of the Nereides, forgotten creatures that still lingered beneath the waves of the sea. Bound to the place of her ‘birth,’ the little girl was doomed to return there, for all eternity.”
The child stirred. “I am not doomed! I roam the waves where I please, and none may stay my passage.”
“Yet here you are,” said the man mildly. “Again.”
The child’s eyes blazed and she bared her needle-sharp teeth. “End your tale.”
“That’s it,” sighed the man. He felt inexpressibly weary. “Except for my question. The question I want you to answer for me.”
“Beware, old man,” the child growled, “I have told you I grant no boons.”
“This isn’t for me.”
“For the shade of your wife then?” sneered the child, the cold light bright in its eyes.
“I will answer then: I am not your daughter, mortal. Your daughter is dead.”
The words cut like knives, left him gasping. He’d heard them so many times before, from the kindly sergeants, the pastors, the doctors—from all the compassionate and well-meaning people who were oblivious to the bottomless well of his pain. But to hear them now, spoken with such casual disdain from this otherworldly creature’s lips! Almost he let his concentration slip. But he sensed as much as saw the child flexing for a spring. It will try to wound you, the gypsy had warned him. To weaken your will. Do not let it deceive you. He winced but held to his purpose.
“That’s not my question,” he said after a minute.
The child’s limbs quivered with violence. She shook her iridescent mane in suppressed rage. “What then?”
“Are you happy?”
The child froze.
The breeze had died down. The only sound was the distant pounding of the surf. Above the lamps along the boardwalk, a faint purple radiance had leached into the blackness, outlining the passing clouds.
“Cassie dreamed of palaces of light below the waves,” he said into the silence. “Of beautiful creatures that would wel-come her and love her the way she yearned to be loved. She so wanted to be one of them. I just want to know if my daughter’s wish came true. If she’s happy now.”
The child did not speak for a long time. Then she cocked her head.
“The night is almost done,” she said in a muffled tone. “I cannot abide the first light. Release me.”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
She stamped her foot again, this thing that was so much like his Cassie. “Man, I am of the Nereid! We do not answer to the whims of mortals!”
“You come back,” the man said, sensing this was his last chance. “Year after year. Why? What — what are you searching for? Is there some part of you that remembers?”
Already the bellies of the lowering clouds were being suffused with a soft pink light. The child’s toes scraped across the wood at her feet, leaving ragged marks. Her voice thrummed with tension. “I will be destroyed.”
“What does that matter to me? You’ve already said you’re not my daughter.”
The first blush of gold touched the clouds. The child’s chest heaved and she threw herself against the invisible barrier, clawing madly at the air.
“Mortal!” she howled. Then, throwing her head back, she wailed in sudden agony or despair: “DADDEEE–!!”
He couldn’t help it. For a split second, he was not the broken and hollowed out thing the decades had made him, only the father of a little girl in pain. He reached out —
And the spell slipped from his grasp. Faster than his eye could follow, the child vanished. Without translation, he was alone.
More alone than he had been in all the years since his mad hope had first been born. The realization of failure felt like a mortal blow, driving his head between his knees. He hunched under the awful weight of it, barely conscious of the bag he was crushing in his hand as it spilled jelly beans at his feet.
Fool, he panted silently as the night surf roared its awful, alien laughter. Stupid, old fool…
Tears he had thought himself no longer capable of worked their way down his cheeks. He let them fall, wishing he could follow them into oblivion, into the final abyss of his heart.
The boards nearby creaked. At the same time, a shadow fell over him. The man blinked and raised his head.
A slim figure was silhouetted against the paling heavens. Long fingers reached forward for his throat. Despite the sudden braying of his heart, the man did not try to defend himself.
One finger grazed his cheek, drawing away his tear.
“Do not weep for the Nereid,” the child said softly. Then she bent quickly and scooped the jelly beans off the ground, shoveling them into her mouth. Turning, she moved toward the stairs that led to the ocean, but then cocked her head back over her shoulder.
“Human,” she said in a warning tone.
The man cleared his throat, caught between loss and triumph. “Yes?”
Was there the faintest smile on that beautiful, inhuman face before she vanished? The man was unable to be sure. But her words lingered in the predawn air, quivering in the space between them like a promise:
For today’s prompt, write a spring poem. Believe it or not, today is the first day of spring (and my little brother’s birthday!). So write about birds and bees. Or break lines over the lack of spring-like attributes in your neck of the woods. Maybe you still have snow, a lack of flowers, and/or the birds have not yet returned. Or take poetic license and write a poem about springy hair, mechanical springs, or natural springs. Spring to it!
Poem Your Days Away!
Online poetry prompts are great! But where can you get your poem fix when you unplug? The answer is the forthcoming Smash Poetry Journal, by Robert Lee Brewer.
This book collects 125 poetry prompts from the Poetic Asides blog, gives poets plenty of room to write poems, and a lot of other great poetic information. Perfectly sized to carry in a backpack or purse, you can jot down ideas for poems as you’re waiting in line for a morning coffee or take it to the park for a breezy afternoon writing session (or on a bus, at a laundromat, or about anywhere else you can imagine–except under water, unless you’re in a submarine or a giant breathable plastic bubble).
Anyway, it’s great for prompting poems, and you should order a copy today. (Maybe order an extra one as a gift for a friend.)
Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). His favorite season is autumn, but spring is pretty cool too. Follow him on Twitter @RobertLeeBrewer.
Introducing “The Schulyer Diamonds” by Ben Fine, the first place winner in the Crime category of the 14th Annual Writers Digest Popular Fiction Awards. See a complete list of the competition winners and read the first place entry in each category here. For an extended interview with the grand prize winner, visit this page. Read the grand prize winning short story here.
The Schulyer Diamonds by Ben Fine
It’s 10 a.m. and I’m already sitting in my office, bare as it is, sipping scotch and looking at the clock. My secretary Shirley is out in the front room playing games on her phone and I’m waiting for an appointment at 11. Not much to do but sit and wait, I’ve already read the paper and looked at my email. Another client is a good thing; have to maintain my inflated lifestyle. Looking at my surroundings sometimes, I think my life should have been lived in a ’40s film noir set in some dark gray Midwestern city. But here I am in New York City, 1653 West 53rd Street and it’s the 21st century.
I’m a lawyer, or at least I went to law school. Struggled through and then busted my ass to pass the bar. I wanted criminal law, thought it would be exciting but all the big firms passed me by. I worked two years in the PDs, that’s public defender’s office, then got riffed in a budget crunch. I landed a job at Cumming and Haverford doing mostly investigative stuff. When I found out how much the investigators made, I got myself a private investigator’s license and hung out a shingle for myself both as a lawyer and a PI. Found an office in Brooklyn. People call me by my middle name, Pete, so I put two names on the door—Peter Devlin, Private Investigator and Daniel Devlin, Attorney at Law. Most of my living comes from investigations for law firms.
I was struggling by until I ran into a guy I knew in Law school, Paul Demell. He was the biggest slacker in our class; cheated his way through classes, somehow passed the bar. He spoke Spanish and became an immigration lawyer. He was as crooked as they come, buying and selling green cards. After we talked, he hooked me up with some of his clients, wetbacks in trouble, and I began handling small-time lowlifes. At this level, word of mouth travels quickly and pretty soon I had a flourishing clientele of scumbags and small-time crooks who paid. This and the investigative work played off each other and in time I was earning a good living and moved to this office in Manhattan and into a nice apartment in Bayside.
My wife Melanie though was long gone. She was gorgeous but not too bright. I met her at a dance club during law school and she thought I was going to make a mint as a lawyer. When I graduated and she realized I wasn’t going to make any big money she flaked off quickly. She’s married to an accountant now and lives in Great Neck.
At 11 sharp Shirley buzzed me. “Pete your client’s here.” It’s not usual for my clients to be this punctual but I had her send him in. He was tall and thin with pale pasty skin and wispy brown hair but dressed better than I could ever imagine. His suit must have been a several thousand dollar piece, his nails were done, and he had a silk tie with a diamond stick pin; perhaps out of style but at his apparent pay grade he could dress the way he wanted. He was holding a large manila envelope.
“Are you Mr. Devlin?” he asked.
“Which one do you want?” I answered. He seemed amused by that and said, “I need both but I know you’re one person.” I was curious. “I’m Devlin” and I stood up. He held out his hand. “I’m John Lapointe.” Something about him looked familiar but it took a moment or so to place him. John Lapointe: big in social circles, old money, the LaPointe foundation, I had seen him in the society pages
“What do you need” I asked him.
“First I need you on retainer” he answered, “so I can speak freely. People who recommended you said you were an understanding guy.”
I couldn’t imagine who in his circles could recommend me but I said okay.
“Is a thousand enough to retain you.”
“Sure,” I told him, and he placed 10 crisp, brand new $100 bills on my desk. “Now tell me what you want?”
He took out of the Manila envelope two glossy pictures that appeared identical. A face and shoulder shot of a beautiful woman wearing a gaudy diamond necklace.
He pointed at the picture and told me. “That’s Mira Schuyler, wife of Thornton Schuyler.” I recognized her also from the society pages. “See that necklace; it’s worth 1.5 million.” “Lot of big-ass diamonds,” was all I could answer.
“See any difference in the pictures?” he asked. I told him no, it seemed to me that they were copies of the same print.
“There is” he went on. “The necklace is different.”
I was curious but impatient. “So get to it, what do you need from me?”
He took out of his pocket the same necklace as in the pictures and placed it on my desk. As I looked down on it, it was a magnificent piece of jewelry and I could understand the million-plus price tag.
“See Thornton Schuyler loves Mira,” he started, “and loves to give her all she wants. That’s just one of the baubles he’s gifted her. Mira, however, likes hard cash more than glitter. I have a jeweler friend who can make identical copies so that only a good jeweler with a good glass can tell the difference. Mira lends me her necklace and I return it or one that’s identical to it together with a big wad of cash. Mira’s happy, Thornton has no idea and I’m happy. It’s a win- win.”
“What do you need me for?” I asked him.
“I was told that you could find a suitable person to handle the transactions. You will do all the dealings.”
I knew who he wanted. My biggest client Harry Sienna was a jewel thief who dealt with a big-time jewelry fence Nathan Ferlisi.
“What’s my fee?” I asked him
“I thought 25,000 would be fair,” he answered.
“25G for 1.5 million seems kind of paltry. I’d say 10 percent. That’s 150,000.”
He shook his head and said “That’s kind of steep.”
In the past, I had walked the thin line between honesty and crime but never before had I actually crossed the line. Here I was treading on thin ice and putting myself at big risk. Greed overcame me; it was too big to pass up. “You could always find someone else,” I told him.
Lapointe reluctantly agreed. He pointed at the necklace on my desk “That’s the real one.” I almost jumped back, he treated it so cavalierly. “”Take care of everything and then I’ll take care of you. I was told that you are a man who can be trusted to not try to help himself. Call me when it’s done.” He placed a card on my desk with his phone number.
“I hope that it can be done in less than week” he said.
“I’ll try my best.” I told him. “A suitable buyer has to be located and it might not be easy.”
As he got up to leave, I asked him “What are you doing this for? You’re a rich man. I know who you are, Lapointe foundation and all.”
He shook his head. “That’s my family yes, but I’ve had some reversals and getting extra money is always pleasurable.” With that he shook my hand and left.
I looked at the necklace and carefully placed it in my office safe. I didn’t feel secure having it with me and I wanted this done also as quickly as possible.
I called Ferlisi and arranged to meet him at Le Chenoir on 81st and 1st. He liked to eat and sip wine and although it was crowded at Le Chenoir, no one listened to your conversations.
Over wine and a nice Filet Mignon I explained the whole setup to Ferlisi and showed him the photo of Mira Schuyler, who he recognized immediately. Ferlisi had tons of contacts for good stolen jewelry but even he was taken aback at the cost of the piece.
“Might be somewhat hard to unload at that price” he told me. “It’s a well-known piece and whoever buys it will have to alter it a bit. Give me a few days.”
Ferlisis was very good at what he did and within a week he had set something up. I brought him the necklace and he took it from there. Two days later I picked up a satchel in Ferlisi’s jewelry store in Garden City with 1.3 million in cash. Nathan had taken a $200,000 fee.
I had never seen so much cash in one place and like the necklace itself I was nervous holding it. I have a carry permit but I only rarely pack. However with the satchel I holstered up and put in my 357 Magnum. It made me feel somewhat secure. I called Lapointe and he told me to come to his foundation office on 51st and Park.
I met him there, handed him the satchel and he spent a good 10 minutes counting it. He then handed me a smaller satchel with 150,000 in cash. The entire deal had gone smooth as silk. “I’m very happy with this Mr. Devlin” he told me. “We’ll have some more pieces to deal shortly. It has been a pleasure doing business with you.” He shook my hand and I left.
It was two weeks later when I read the news in the Post. John Lapointe of the Lapointe foundation was killed by two would-be carjackers at a gas station off of the Long Island Expressway. He was in his Porsche driving supposedly to his house in the Hamptons when two carjackers forced him off the road. Lapointe apparently struggled and he was shot and killed. The killers, driving a late model dark blue Toyota fled without the Porsche.
It seemed fishy to me, Lapointe getting killed so soon after doing the necklace deal and I was suspicious; especially by the fact that the Porsche wasn’t taken. The next day my suspicions were verified.
At 10 in the morning I walked into my office and Shirley casually told me “There’s a babe waiting for you; a real looker.”
Mira Schuyler was sitting by my desk. She was a stunner. Usually these very wealthy women are too thin for me—bony looking almost, but not Mira. She had curves in all the right places to go with honey blonde hair and an enticing look. She smiled at me and introduced herself and there was a twinkle in her eyes that melted me. I could see why Thornton Schuyler was hooked.
“I’m frightened Mr. Devlin,” she started, “John was murdered and I think Thornton set it up.” It was clear she knew all about my involvement. “He must have found out. He has a very bad temper and he knows about me.”
“Why would he kill Lapointe? He has insurance on the necklace; a slap on your wrists maybe.”
She shook her head “He’s a vindictive man and I found out that he’s been talking to someone named Nicholas Green who has a very bad reputation.”
“Oh, shit” I said to myself. The killing did look like Green’s work and if he was involved, it was scary.
Nick Green was a smooth professional assassin. Seventy years ago he would have been in Murder Incorporated but now he was an independent. The old style Mafia bosses, with the FBI breathing down their necks, didn’t like to use their own killers and Green had become the go-to guy for them. He had been a gang leader and big drug dealer in Harlem. He mad a ton of cash as he moved up the criminal ladder. Now he contracted out to gang bangers that he knew and used to work with to do the actual killing. He was smooth and efficient and the professional mob loved him. The police knew about him but he hadn’t slipped up and seemed untouchable.
“Talk to this Mr, Green please. I can’t talk to Thornton.” Mira pleaded “I’m really frightened.”
There was nothing really I could do for her, but I told her I’d try and she left. She was something else and I wanted to help her. She was the first woman that made my heart pump in quite a while. First, though, I wanted to warn Ferlisi. I called him but it was too late. I reached his bereaved widow, who told me that two thieves had killed him in a robbery at his jewelry store. The assailants had been seen—two young black men driving a dark late model Toyota. They had grabbed a bunch of stuff but hadn’t stolen a great deal. “There was no reason to kill Nathan” his wife sobbed. “He would have handed over everything.”
I was curious as to why Schuyler would have Ferlisi killed. Nathan wasn’t part of the theft and killing him was too vindictive even for a vindictive man. Then it hit me. Forging the jewelry was Schuyler’s plan, not Lapointe’s. Run it through Lapointe, his wife was happy and he collected the cash from insurance. Something must have gone wrong and now Schuyler was cleaning all up the loose ends. Unfortunately if I was correct, I was another loose end.
I looked up all I could on Schuyler on the internet, after all, investigations were my business, and there were many rumors about an out-of-control lifestyle and losing a fortune up his nose. The jewelry deal looked like easy cash for him. After a while, I was certain that I was correct and I was in trouble. I was happy to have the Magnum next to me.
That afternoon, I pulled into my building’s parking garage and spotted the dark blue Toyota just sitting there. I had to decide quickly, so I pulled out the 357. As I got out of my car one of two gang banger’s wearing hip-hop clothes holding a pistol started coming towards me, the other stood off to the side. “Hey Mister” the first yelled and I fired and shot before he could say more.
I aimed, as they taught us, at the biggest part of his body and I must have hit something. He let out a painful yell like a wounded dog and ran back to the car. The other followed. At that distance a magnum’s bullet would rip a hole the size of a half dollar in his body, but he must have lived. They sped out of the garage. I walked over and there was a puddle of blood but no one else came down. I couldn’t report it to the police without revealing my involvement so I went upstairs and packed some stuff. I called Shirley and asked if I could stay with her for a few days. She had a good sized apartment in Flatbush. She was a good friend and told me sure and didn’t ask why.
I was now a bit trapped. I knew Green was gunning for me but the police were not an option. Schuyler wasn’t an option either. I had a wild idea that perhaps Green could be reasoned with. I had heard that he liked to drink at Ben and Jack’s on 48th Street, so I went there and parked illegally outside. He was standing at the bar and I recognized him, also from society pictures. He liked living in rich circles despite his profession. I walked over. He was black tall, well dressed in an expensive suit, with slicked down short hair and a no nonsense expression.
“I’m Pete Devlin,” I told him
“So?” he answered, not even flinching at my name. “I believe that you’re looking for me.”
“I don’t think so.” He answered; still no sign of recognition.
I decided to come clean with him right up front. “Listen Mr. Green. Please tell Schuyler than I’m a man of silence and not a problem to him. When I do something I never talk about it. Please do that for me. Mrs. Schuyler is a silent woman also.”
“Listen Devlin, if I knew what you were talking about I might say something. As it is, I don’t, so leave me alone.” He turned back to his drink.
After I left him, I had no idea what he would do but I got my answer very quickly. I was heading down the FDR to get to Brooklyn and by chance I spotted the same Toyota in my rear view mirror. How they picked me up so quickly I don’t know but I put my handgun on the seat next to me. One of the would-be killers I had shot, but Green probably had several on his payroll. These were gang bangers, so I figured this to be a drive by. I let the Toyota get alongside me and I saw a shotgun out of their window. I fired first directly at the shooter. He was startled and there was a shotgun blast into the air. I might have hit the driver because the car swerved and slammed into the side wall. I floored my car and left.
Perhaps my only option was to bite the bullet and go to the cops. Jail time was better than getting killed by Green’s men. I still had two ideas up my sleeve. Seidenberg ate breakfast each morning at Ralph’s Diner on Coney Island Avenue, so I slept a few hours at Shirley’s and went over to Ralph’s.
Sure enough, Seidenberg was sitting in a booth with a big plate of eggs and bacon. He was the NYPD chief of detectives; a hefty man with unruly hair scarfing down his breakfast. Seidenberg was a well-known person in the city who had successfully moved up the ranks of the NYPD as a Jew in an Irish power structure. He had closed several big cases and was the model for Jake Grunbaum in the Grunbaum crime series movies. I played in a card game with him and several other lawyers and newsmen but he never liked me because of the lowlife clientele that I represented.
“What do you want Devlin?” he asked me gruffly as I sat down in his booth.”
“I think I can help you if you give me some advice. I know who killed Lapointe.” “Tell me and I might give you advice.”
I told him I thought it was Nick Green and I laid out the whole story talking about a “client” of mine. “I think Ferlisi out in Garden City was killed by Green also.” I was pretty certain that Seidenberg had figured out that I was the client.
Seidenberg continued to work on his breakfast and shrugged. He then told me. “We’re pretty certain that it’s Green but you have helped me with the why. Tell your client he’s going to have to come in and talk to us if he wants help. Make certain he knows that he’s not getting an easy pass—stealing jewelry is a big crime. Still, time in the can is better than a coffin.”
I thanked him and left. I knew though that if I went to the police I was looking at serious jail time. I definitely didn’t want that; through my clients I knew how bad the joint was.
I had one more option and for that, I had to call in an old favor. Sal Camorota was a capo in Brooklyn’s Lucchese family. He was an old fashioned Mafiosi and a thug—tied to all the rules, customs and history of La Cosa Nostra. However, his son Gary Camorota was gay and was arrested performing a lewd act in a public restroom. To the old-fashioned wise guys, being gay is both a bad thing and embarrassing. To Sal, it hurt his standing in the family and somehow it came to me to squelch the whole episode, make it disappear. I called in a favor due me by one of the DAs and the whole occurrence was dropped. Sal Camorta called me personally to thank me and told me “You did me a solid Devlin. If you ever need a favor don’t’ hesitate to call.” The world of these traditional thugs revolved around such favors. After helping with Gary, Camorota’s family threw some small time cases in my direction; nothing big but some extra cash is always a good thing. Now I was the one who needed the favor. I called one of Sal’s lieutenants, Frank Ferrara and told him I needed to speak to Camorota. Ferrara knew me and called me back quickly. He told me to meet Camorota at a small Italian restaurant, Robbiano’s, in Sheepshead Bay.
It was just a trattoria and I parked on the street in front. There was a big black Cadillac double parked on the main avenue. I assumed it was Sal’s as one of his men stood by it. When I entered Robbiano’s, Ferrara greeted me and then patted me down. He took my Magnum and he seemed surprised that I had heat. “It’s strange, to see a lawyer packing a Magnum. I’ll give it back when you leave,” he told me. He then led me over to Camorota’s table where Sal was sitting with another lieutenant, Ronnie Russo, over glasses of wine and plates of pasta. Sal motioned me to sit down.
“Nice to see you Devlin” Sal said to me “You must be calling in your favor.” I nodded and then feeling I had no reason to lie to him, laid out all that had happened. He shook his head “Not much I can do Devlin. Green is one tough, slick black son of a bitch. He’s an independent and I can’t take him out. Too many people like him. Best I can do is talk to him.”
“That’s all I can ask for and that would be great,” I answered “but also talk to Schuyler. Tell him, if you would, that I’m a friend of yours and I’ll keep silent. My guess is he won’t want to tangle with you and he’ll call Green off, especially if you also talk to Green and also tell him that I’m your friend.”
“I guess I can do that,” Sal told me. “Devlin, my advice from here on in is; stay in your own element. You’re a lawyer not a gangster. I’ll let you know what happens.” He then motioned for Ferrara to show me out.
My answer came in less than two days. Ferrara called on my cell and told me to come again to Robbiano’s. I went through the same procedure and sat down with Camorota. “Devlin, I think you’re okay. I had people speak to both Green and Schuyler and we made it understood that you were a friend of ours. Green understands that this means leave you alone and I’m pretty certain he’ll relay this to Schuyler. Schuyler is coked up, he’s bought a ton of powder from some friends of ours, and he was pretty shaken when we spoke to him. Again take my advice and stick to being a lawyer— crime is only for true criminals.” He smiled as he told me this. I thanked him and left relieved that I was probably off the hook. Now all I had to worry about was whether the police got up to handling my involvement in the jewel deal. For the time being, my life was safe so I’ll deal with that when and if it comes up.
Introducing “Some Pig” by Thomas D. Gutierrez, the first place winner in the Thriller/Suspense category of the 14th Annual Writers Digest Popular Fiction Awards. See a complete list of the competition winners and read the first place entry in each category here. For an extended interview with the grand prize winner, visit this page. Read the grand prize winning short story here.
Some Pig by Thomas D. Gutierrez
I slipped the powder from the baggie into his beer. It turned a bit milky, but he wouldn’t notice in the low light. He was already buzzed. In 15 minutes he would be out and in four hours, he’d wish he was dead.
A few minutes earlier I had arrived alone, near midnight, at the Sigma Upsilon Xi Halloween party. I made my way up the porch of the giant old Victorian frat house, through the crowded living room, and into the backyard with the beer kegs and coolers. The music blared from both inside and out, combining thumping rap beats and twitchy dubstep in unpleasant ways. The place was packed. Guys were doing shots of something wicked smelling. Others were doing beer bongs off the garage roof.
The backyard smelled like urine and stale beer. Partiers were in the shadows, hooking up, flirting, sexting. Drunk Delta blah blah blah girls danced with each other, trying to be sexy; they were all dressed in variations of the stupid Halloween slutty-fill-in-the-blank getup. The frat guys were mostly dressed in togas and other improvised non-costumes.
I was dressed as a spider. Or was trying. Probably looked more like a bug. A freshman bug in a skin-tight black outfit. Cute. Sort of. Just like two years ago, the mask over my eyes and the coy painted features hid the details of my face. The sparkly, bouncy bug antennae and my little white gloves were so cliche.
My purse was too big for a party like this, if anyone bothered to notice. It looked like an overnight bag and was full of all sorts of surprises. Surprises for the man who raped me. I stopped and reached inside my bag and placed a few vodka bottles in a cooler in the yard. As I put the bottles in, my hands were shaking. I was scared to confront him. Scared of what I was going to do to him. I wasn’t bringing drinks to be social. I was undercover and it was a weak effort to justify my giant purse. I also brought my own personal drink: water in a Zima bottle. Zima was clear and was the kind of light, wine cooler drink a shy freshman girl like my former self might try in order to fit in. But there were no clear drinks in the cooler, until the vodka I just put there. No other clear drinks at all.
I scanned around the yard, but didn’t see him. He better be here. There was no way he wasn’t. Then I saw him as the crowd parted a bit. He stood in the middle of the group dressed as a cowboy, just like last time. Hat. Vest. Chaps. How creative. Other guys were looking at me, but I caught his eye, then quickly averted my gaze. All according to plan.
Apparently this was flirting, but for him this was affirmative consent. I walked near a sofa in a shadowed part of the the back porch and sipped my drink, being a wallflower. He made some hand signal to one of his douchey bros above the heads of the crowd, telling them he’d found a mark. I’m sure they thought their system was so very clever.
I met him at this same Halloween party two years ago. Cute older guy. I was a freshman and he was a sophomore. We flirted. Time of my life. Fall quarter, part of the fabric of my first college experiences. Then he slipped me a roofie in a beer I was drinking. I passed out. Woke up in his room on the floor, half naked, bleeding. Raped. I remembered nothing after that beer, but I knew what happened. I hid the experience for a while. I withdrew. After a while, I needed to speak out, but it was too late.
The police were judgmental. Why did you wait so long? Drunk kids getting it on, the girl regrets it later—classic, they said. “He said, she said,” they said. My dorm mates, every one of them, pushed me away or ignored me, hoping I’d shut up. They didn’t get it. They weren’t really my friends. I’d just met them a couple weeks before. Some said I was being a prude, overreacting.
Title IX required the university have a conversation with him, but he denied everything. After that, they didn’t do anything and didn’t seem motivated to: they were concerned about their star baseball player. They were worried about the bad press. Then someone told his teammates about me and my conversations with the university. Anonymity breached. That’s when the relentless bullying started. Then pornographic pictures of me started to appear online and in emails. Alone, naked, defiled. No evidence pointing to him. To everyone, the police, the university, I was a wanton, drunken slut. I left school.
I stood on the back porch with my Zima. He walked up to me, stood too close, leaning in a bit. He was tall. His face was rugged, with half-shaved stubble and that same sly, disarming smile. He put his arm against the wall above my head.
“Hey little bug bug,” he said, keeping cool, alcohol on his breath. “What’s your name?”
“Charlotte,” I said, trying to be demure. It wasn’t my name. I swayed a bit to the music, acting a little buzzed. He didn’t recognize me. Didn’t remember me. I knew he wouldn’t.
The bass dropped and then the beat kicked up. It was loud. “Where are your friends, Charlotte?”
“I’m not sure. They must have left early.”
My friends weren’t here. They didn’t know I was here. “Hey, I can be a friend too. Let’s hang.”
I smiled, then took a quick glance at his crotch, making sure he noticed my gaze. I sat down on the sofa. He sat down next to me on my left and set his red Solo cup full of keg beer on the ground next to his right foot. I set my drink down on a small table to my right and spilled a little, my hands shaking. I fumbled in my purse for a moment, pretending to look for something. I had written a note to myself: “Don’t back down. Don’t be afraid. Jiu-jitsu his ass if things go south.” A reminder that I’d prepared for this for two years; I could take care of myself. I breathed again. In my bag, I wrapped my right fist around a small baggie and palmed it. He snuggled up to me and started playing with my hair a bit. Rubbing my knee. I shivered. I wanted to throw up. A flood of triggered memories blasted into my mind. That party two years ago. Same guy. Waking up bloody and violated. So much anxiety. So much fear and hate. The bullying. The pictures. Leaving school.
I suddenly felt someone brush past me on my right side and I snapped back into focus. I glanced at my clear drink and it was taking on a blue hue. That was risky of them. They didn’t expect me to notice in this light, but I knew what I was looking for. A roofie, a date-rape drug. No taste or smell, but blue. That’s what happens in clear liquid. That’s why there were no clear drinks in the cooler. I wish I’d known that the first time.
All on schedule.
I pushed back away from him a bit, still acting a little buzzed, and grabbed for my drink. As I brought it to my lips, I pretended to take a big swig then, oh no. Dropped the bottle.
I leaned down low to pick it up and placed my left hand on his left knee. A misdirection. His beer was on the ground next to me. That’s when I slipped him my special cocktail from the baggie I had palmed from my purse: a homemade nightmare of G and viagra. G was another date-rape drug. Very potent and easy to make in a home lab. Could lead to brain damage, but I wasn’t particularly concerned. The dose I gave him would drop him like a rock for hours, but the viagra would keep him hard. It was a weird mix, not a popular one, but it would serve my purpose.
Still leaning down, I rolled my bottle under the porch. Didn’t want it to get in the wrong hands. I sat back up. He came onto me again and I pressed him back a bit, told him I was going to get another drink. “Drink up, cowboy.” He grabbed his beer, stood up, and took a big, long chug, finishing the brew. There was a flickering expression on his face, ever so faint, that indicated something didn’t seem right. Something funny in the beer, perhaps? The G was invisible, but would make it taste a little salty. The viagra probably tasted like crushed aspirin. Conspicuous, yes. But bros are bros— never a beer wasted. Save face. Down the hatch, even with a bitter aftertaste. He threw the empty cup to the ground and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
The clock would start in about 15 minutes, so I had to move fast. I walked into the house and staggered a little, just to put on a show for him. To bait him. He followed me in.
“I think I need to sit down,” I said, slurring my words. “I’m starting to feel a little funny. Too much wine cooler for this itsy bitsy spider.”
He smiled and put his arm around my waist. Then I started to go all wobbly and he shepherded me upstairs.
He opened the door into a darkened room, turned on a light, and put me face down on the bed. Locked the door. I let my bag slip from my fingers. It made an awkward thump, but he didn’t notice. The music and murmurs of the party were surprisingly loud even with the door closed. Convenient. I just went along with his game and acted loopy, waiting for the drugs to kick in.
Being alone with him in the room again, after two years, made me nauseous. I was in a cold sweat. I felt sick, acidic puke creep up my throat. I spit into the sheets. I felt an dizzying anxiety, but I knew his turn was coming soon. Hold it together. Starting from my hair, he ran his hand down along the length of my body. It took everything in my being to stop from screaming in terror. I spit up again. But I had to play doped for just a few more minutes. I needed to carry out my plan. Jiu-jitsu his ass if things went south.
He tried to undress me, but the costume was proving difficult for him. He grabbed some scissors from a drawer and started to cut my clothes off starting at my ankles. I could see him getting aroused. He didn’t seem to be slowing down. When was that fucking G going to kick in? With a slice in the black cloth on my right foot, he threw the scissors aside and just started ripping. I rolled off the bed as if by accident, hoping to slow him, but one leg of my costume tore from the hip down. He kept coming. He grabbed my bare leg and pulled me swiftly back on the bed and put me face down like a rag doll.
He started tearing again at my clothes while pulling down his pants under his chaps. He was on top of me trying to get in. I was about to scream. Really scream. I needed to get out from under him fast. Things were going south.
Then my training kicked in. With a sharp upward jab of my calf muscle, I kicked my foot quickly behind me and hit him square into his exposed testicles with the heal of my shoe. He stopped with a shocked wince. In one fast move, I wrapped my legs around the inside of his and locked them apart. I grabbed his neck from behind with my left arm and swiftly pushed off with my right, flipping him hard off the bed onto his back. My bottom crushed into his diaphragm as I fell on top of him and he made a wheezed gasp.
Now I could feel him slow down, the G was kicking in. I rolled off him. He was stunned by the jab and the fall knocked the wind out of him. His breathing slowed. He started babbling something, a bit of spit flopping around his mouth. His pants were still down, tangled with the chaps, and he was hard, despite both the shot to the testes and the sedative. The extra viagra was doing its job.
I stood up and took in the scene. This guy was a fucking monster. He deserved every bit of what I was about to do to him. The life he knew was about to come to an end. He was barely conscious, a line of drool dripped from his open mouth, down his cheek, to the floor. I glanced around. The room was a mess and full of frat boy crap. The shades were drawn. Dirty clothes were spread across the floor. A confederate flag was draped across the overhead light. An impressive set of baseball trophies were on a shelf near the window. They seemed to be the only thing put in a proper place and away from the childish chaos of the room.
I walked over to a dresser and saw his wallet and some keys next to his phone. I lifted an old sock, and saw the camera. I knew it would be there. That’s where it was last time. That’s the location where all the pictures were coming from online.
All those girls. How he was using them. Revenge porn. Posting pictures of them on his site, mocking them. Most didn’t even know they were there. Those that did were too ashamed. He blackmailed some of them. He threatened to send the pictures to one girl’s parents unless she sent him $1,000. Another was a woman, mid-20s. He threatened to send the pictures to her boyfriend and the preschool where she worked. Dozens more like this. For some, the pictures were originally just sexy fun. A little experimentation with a hot college man. Then he exploited them when he tired of them.
But for some of the girls, it was rape masked as porn. No blackmail. Just bragging. Bullying. Ruined lives.
I had to remind myself: this wasn’t just for me. He was a monster.
I looked in the mirror and my bug makeup was smeared, the lower half of my face streaked with dull grey lines over my white skin. I took off my mask and bug ears. I was careful to keep my gloves on so I wouldn’t leave any prints. My eyes were sharp, but my face looked tired. The lower half of my costume was in tatters, my naked body was mostly exposed below the waist on the right side.
I set my bag down and started laying out the tools I would need for the evening. I figured I had a good hour and a half to work with.
A few boxes of saran wrap.
An electric razor and a hot wax kit. An apple.
A roll of heavy duty fishing line.
They were all in one neat line on the floor.
Then there was a sharp pounding on the door. Bam. Bam. Muffled, “Dude! When the fuck are you going to be done with that piece of ass?” They tried the locked door. “My ladies are here. You’re driving. Let’s fucking get out of here!” He was slurring his words. I heard a couple drunk girls with him, making some kind of laughing sound, although it was hard to tell with the raging party.
Bam. Bam. I could hear him trying to jimmy the lock. Bam. Bam.
I quickly pushed my things under the bed, then sat on top of cowboy, wrapped my legs around the inside of his, lay down on top of him then flipped him on top of me. A big dollop of drool spattered on me. He was out. I started moving my legs like he was humping me. I felt nauseous. I spit up again, held it in my mouth. Then the door popped open and a guy stumbled into the room. He was wearing an improvised toga and a backwards baseball hat with a stiff bill. Lots of tattoos. He had a bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand. The girls stood in the door and were wearing little black dresses and devil horns. Each had a plastic Solo cup full of beer.
“Fuck, dude. Fine. Take your goddamn time.” I just kept moving, my eyes now closed. One of the girls giggled.
“Ok, don’t say anything, you pussy. If you’re going to be like that,” he said.
I heard him stagger over to the dresser, rummage around, and grab something. I heard him pick up the car keys.
“Last chance, dude. I’m taking your car. We’re going.”
I just kept the movement going, eyes still closed, the bile in my mouth.
He pushed his way out of the room, leaving the door open.
I opened my eyes and violently pushed the sack-of-shit off of me. I got on my knees and vomited, grabbed an old t-shirt from the floor and wiped my face. I slowly made my way to the door and peaked out. The party was raging and the music was painfully loud. I shut the door gently, then pulled my stuff out from under the bed. I took a few feet of saran wrap and fishing line, went back to the door, and improvised a pretty solid lock. So I thought.
I walked back over to the mirror, wiped off my face again, and put on my next costume from the bag: a woman wearing jeans, t-shirt, and jacket. Me. In this room, at least, it felt like another costume. Charlotte was more real to me here. I kept the little white gloves on and put the latex ones over them.
I stripped him down completely naked. I shaved his head, then the rest of his body. I waxed him down bald. Everywhere. The job was a bit patchy, but I wasn’t really going for aesthetic. The shave and wax took way longer than I expected. Time was up. I was exhausted and it was nearly two in the morning. I could still hear the din of the party going on. The surreal thump of EDM pulsed through the house.
To finish the job, I needed to get him onto the bed. I wasn’t strong enough. I pushed and heaved and shoved, but he was just too heavy. He babbled something and vomited on the floor. He stirred some more, but wasn’t lucid. He wouldn’t remember any of this. He wasn’t feeling anything. I’m sure he never did anyway.
I tried to lift him up again when another guy suddenly barged in, effortlessly breaking my lock. He was completely shit-faced, eyes half closed, bottle of vodka in hand. The jig was up. I jumped up on the bed. I slipped behind it ready to run. But he walked right past me, taking no notice. He looked around, confused, then walked over to the closet, stepping right over the shaved, naked man lying in his own on vomit on the floor. The guy in the closet unzipped his pants and urinated into a boot. He shook, zipped, then walked right out again without a pause. I ran over and closed the door, then pushed a chair under the doorknob.
Cowboy grunted and stirred a bit. “Come on, let’s go,” I hissed. “Yes, that’s right. Climb up.” He was slow, very slow, but he complied. I pushed him into the bed on his back. He looked hideous, shaved and raw. I took the saran wrap and tied him down: over, under, over, under the bed. Next box. Over, under, over, under. Next box. Over, under, over. Except for his bald head and his right thumb, he was completely caught in my web. Poisoned. I took the scissors he had thrown down and made a spot for his hard penis to poke out. Then, with a good shove, I stuffed the apple in his mouth. I turned his head so he wouldn’t drown in his own vomit. He needed him to live with what happened tonight.
I tore off long strips of sarin wrap and laid them out on the ground. I twisted them around into tubes. Pressing them hard against the wall behind the bed, I wrote in big, scrawled four-foot block letters, “SOME PIG.”
I took his phone and pressed his thumb against it to unlock it. I snapped some pictures of him, then set it up to automatically post to all his social media in three hours, “I like to drug and rape girls at frat parties!” It would email the pictures to the university, police, and the local paper at dawn: “local university baseball star, serial rapist, revenge porn peddler, maimed at Sigma Upsilon Xi halloween party.”
I went to the window and opened the shade. It was dark and no one was on this side of the house. The window was next to a tree on a narrow street with no streetlight. I unlocked it and pushed it open. Looked down. About 20 feet. I’d have no problem getting out. I tied my bag to the end of a tight braid of saran wrap that was left over from the bed, then lowered my bag out the window to the ground. The saran wrap now made a sturdy, taut rope.
I walked across the room and tied the loose end of the fishing line around the doorknob. I reeled it to the bed and wrapped it a few times around his hard penis, up and down, tight against the skin. I unwound the spool to the window then added another 15 feet of slack. I secured the end around one of his giant, heavy baseball trophies. I went back to the window and, without looking back, threw the heavy trophy out. It came to a sudden halt about two-thirds the way down. It swayed chaotically for a beat, then dropped to the ground. I heard an awful sound of rending, popping flesh behind me. He’d bleed, but I bled too.
I took off the latex gloves and lowered myself down the saran wrap rope leading to my bag. It was tough stuff and easily held my weight. I detached my bag and picked it up. My hands weren’t shaking anymore. With the loud grooves of the Sigma Upsilon Xi Halloween party blaring behind me into the night, I strode down the darkened side street feeling terrific. Radiant. Fearless.
Introducing “Eighteen” by Sandi Ward, the first place winner of the Young Adult category of the 14th Annual Writers Digest Popular Fiction Awards. See a complete list of the competition winners and read the first place entry in each category here. For an extended interview with the grand prize winner, visit this page. Read the grand prize winning short story here.
Eighteen by Sandi Ward
I look down at the sticky mud on my hands. My palms sting red hot from the impact of my fall.
“Thanks a lot,” I call over my shoulder at Adonna, our newest dragon. “You don’t know your own strength.”
I was an idiot for coming out here to the stable with only Gabby, the youngest of my squires, to help me. At present moment, I’m wearing armor that a stable boy spent an hour polishing this morning. Yet now I’m on my knees, in an inch of mud. The stench of it invades my nose and I try not to sneeze.
Gabby hasn’t made a move to help me. Instead, she’s trying desperately not to laugh.
The nearby river is freezing cold. I don’t want to rinse my hands in the icy water because it will be painful. I don’t dare wipe my hands on my armor because that would just make a bigger mess. Out of options, I end up walking to a patch of lawn and run my hands over the ground repeatedly. It only smudges the dirt around. The scent of the grass is sharp and sweet as my palms turn gritty and grey.
Gabby finally laughs out loud, a sharp sound in the fresh mountain air. She’s a new squire, only twelve years old, quick and agile with a blade or ax. She clasps a forearm over her mouth, but it’s too late.
“I heard that.”
“At least it’s only mud,” she offers. “You could’ve landed in a pile of dragon sh—”
“Yes, yes,” I cut her off. “You’re right about that.”
I feel the trembling of the ground under me before I hear the gallop of my mother advancing toward us. Her dragon Kaiyan is red, unpredictable and mean from years of my mother’s abuse. I get up and linger by the gate to the paddock, feeling a weight in my chest because I know what’s coming.
When she reaches me, Mother pulls her dragon up short. Kaiyan stomps his feet and exhales black smoke; his breath is sweet like a wood fire and throws off heat that warms my face. Mother runs Kaiyan very hard, all the time. She has no patience for animals, not the way I have. I make a mental note to give Kaiyan an apple after Mother has gone back to the castle.
“Grant,” she snaps, “Come help your mother.”
I jump forward, and assist her in dismounting. Gabby grabs Kaiyan’s reigns and leads him towards the paddock. After opening the gate, I take the dragon from her to pull him inside. Once we’re in the paddock, his buckle is easily undone, and the heavy saddle slides off into my arms while Gabby takes the bridle.
Adonna comes over and nudges Kaiyan in the flank. I clip his wings together so he can’t fly away. I hate to do it, but he is not very attached to my mother, and likely to fly off when we’re not looking.
Mother stands, frowning, until I return. Her dress is red, like her dragon. But she adds a gold scarf around her neck so that everyone will identify her as the Duchess, even from a distance. She looks at me with a sharply raised eyebrow. “What are you doing down here, looking miserable, and wearing all of your armor?”
I open my mouth, then close it. First off, Mother hates it when I come down to ride the dragons. Second, I’ve been trying to distract myself from the upcoming marriage she and Father have arranged for me. But she doesn’t want to hear my protests.
Although freedom to love who you want is one of the core principles of our people, I am the least free person in our duchy. I must marry who my parents choose for me.
I rejected the first match they made for me, last year. That was considered a very good match. But I had no interest.
I’m only seventeen, I argued. You told me I could wait until I was eighteen. I made such a nuisance of myself, fighting with them every night, that they finally contacted the other family and broke it off. It was embarrassing for them. I know that.
Now that I’m turning eighteen, they’ve made a second match. I can’t very well get out of this one.
“Mother…” I take a deep breath. “I came down to work with Adonna. She was limping yesterday and I wanted to check on her.”
I exchange a quick look with my squire Gabby, because this is a lie. Gabby presses her mouth down into a hard line and nods at my mother.
I’m pathetic. I can tell by the glint in her eye my mother doesn’t believe me. I wouldn’t believe me either. I can hear how desperate I sound.
“Adonna looks perfectly fine to me. And why are your hands and knees such a mess?”
“It wasn’t my Lord’s fault,” Gabby offers, “It was that fat blue dragon, the new one. He was just trying to get at the—”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Mother cuts in icily. She waves Gabby away. “You’re dismissed. I need to talk to my son. Make sure the dragons have enough water.”
Gabby grinds her teeth, and holds her ground. “All due respect, I don’t take orders from you, ma’am.” She turns to me. “What does your Grace need me to do?” “Go ahead,” I say to her. “I’ll bring my armor up to the castle later and show you how to put it away properly.”
Gabby gives me a nod and walks off, head held high.
Once Gabby has disappeared into the barn, Mother steps forward and grabs my wrist. Her hand is bony and firm, and her voice softens. “Grant. Listen. This is ridiculous, coming down here in your armor. You don’t have time for this. Focus on your duties and forget about dragons.”
I grip the helmet in my hands tightly, feeling like I could crush it in my hands. I don’t want to list my objections to the marriage again, or explain to her for the tenth time that I have no intention of giving up dragon-riding, so I force myself to stop talking. I feel my nose twitch with annoyance.
Mother’s mouth sets into a tight line, and her eyes dilate with anger. “You’re as stubborn as your older brother. We’ll talk later.” She heads back up the hill toward the castle.
My older brother George insisted on fighting with our army when we had a skirmish with the duchy to the south. He’s now buried in the garden, six feet down in the cold dirt, with worms feasting on his decomposing flesh.
I take in a deep breath. Sometimes I think Mother is worried about me. Other times, I believe she hates me for living while George died in battle.
I wander in the other direction, toward our field of wildflowers. Ever since I was little, I’ve made daisy chains when I need to think.
At first, the chains were haphazard and loose, falling apart constantly. But now I am able to weave and braid the stems quite well so that each flower is tightly set against the next. I often wear my daisy chain on my head, like a crown. When I was a boy and did this, the maids at the castle would laugh and smile and pinch my cheek.
Now, they do not laugh. All of the servants know I will be the Duke soon, and they don’t make fun of my flowers. I am respected not only due to my royal birthright, but also because I am skilled on my dragon. I am better than George ever was. I have trained since I was seven years old, against Mother’s wishes.
Despite my age and training, I still feel young and unsettled. Which is why I so strongly do not want to get married right now.
I choose perfect white daisies with all of their petals. I feel calmer selecting the right flowers, weaving and working the chain together while the warm sun heats up the armor on my back. My palms start to sweat and I can feel a drip run down my chest. I’ve got to get this uniform off. But I’m completely distracted.
Rumor is that Prince John’s father is going to give me a gold dragon as a wedding gift. I wonder if it is true.
I have no idea how much time goes by. I am just sliding the daisy chain onto my head when I hear movement behind me.
“Sir,” someone says as I turn around. “Grant of Greenbriar?”
A young man stands there. He is in uniform, brown leather to match the dark curls of his hair. He’s clearly not a local farmer. I would guess he is about my age, and handsome, maybe a year or two older. He’s a lot dirtier than I am, and looks like he hasn’t bathed in a few days, even though I still have dried mud on my hands and knees. I glance back to see what kind of dragon he’s been riding. A magnificent green dragon chews grass in the field, and I marvel that he flew so silently that I did not hear his landing. This soldier must be a skilled dragon-rider.
I feel a warm churning in my stomach when I realize he is still waiting for me to answer the question.
“Yes. I’m Grant. Can I help you?”
He stares at me, his mouth slightly open. Then, folding his arms, I watch as he closes his mouth and tries to fight a smile that he can’t quite hide. I frown when he doesn’t speak. People usually answer me right away.
“What—what in the blazes is on your head?” he finally spits out.
I actually have to reach my hand up to my head to figure out what he’s talking about. That’s how unglued I am. I’ve been so caught up in my problems that I can’t remember what I was doing moments ago. “It’s nothing.”
“It looks like daisies.”
“You’re wearing daisies on your head.”
“Yes, I am.” Now I’m getting annoyed. “I am the Duke’s son,” I tell him. “How can I help you?”
He clears his throat. “My name is Paul. I’m the dragon trainer for Prince John the Sixth. He sent me to see about your facilities here for dragons.”
“Oh.” My heart drops in my chest. “Has it been decided then? Are John and I going to live here after we’re married?” I can hear it in my voice: the stress. The worry.
“Pardon my Lord, but I was only sent to take a look at your stable. I don’t know all of the details of your marriage arrangements. But I do think that’s the idea, yes.”
I can feel how hard Paul is staring at me now. Scrutinizing me. But I am not intimidated. Surely he is gathering information for the Prince and I need to make a solid impression. With a deep breath, I relax and stand up taller. Taking a step towards him, I gesture toward the barn. “We have room for ten dragons and only house six. How many would John bring with him?”
“Three. One for him. One for me. And one for you, as a gift from his father.”
I squint when the sun lands in my eyes as I turn. “One for you? You would come too?”
“Yes. I would be your stable hand and trainer, as a gift from John’s father, his Excellency King John the Fifth. I’ve been a dragon trainer for the royal family for four years.”
“I see.” I tap my hand against my leg.
I don’t want to marry Prince John the Sixth. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.
When my parents asked me if I wanted to marry a man or a woman, I had to think long and hard about it. I wasn’t sure I had a preference one way or the other.
In the end I decided on a man. I don’t think my parents were surprised by my choice, as they had a list of options ready.
My parents may think I don’t know much about John, but I do. I’ve seen him compete at the annual jousting match in the South every year, and I’m sure he’s seen me in the archery competition. He is nothing special. He is okay with a sword and rides his dragon adequately, but he has no finesse and is clumsy at times. John does not look like he has any joy in his heart. Every time I see him, he looks worried, and he barely speaks to the other riders.
My parents think this is the best match. John’s father’s castle is on the sea; they do an impressive trade business. And he is, after all, a prince.
Paul the dragon trainer is still waiting for me to respond, a smudge of dirt right across his cheek. He is full on smiling at me now, and I don’t know why.
What were we talking about?
“Is it true the King is gifting me a gold dragon?”
Paul’s smile fades. “Yes. But for the record, it’s a very bad idea. This dragon he’s acquired for you is highly unsafe, as I believe all gold dragons are. You could get yourself killed. I don’t know what the King is thinking. Apparently he believes you have the potential to be a great dragon rider. But for God’s sake, your older brother is already in the ground. I’m sure it would kill your mother if anything happened to you.”
I feel my heart squeeze with the mention of George, lying cold in his grave. I hate thinking about my dead brother. It is like a heavy wet blanket on my heart. And Paul is right about one thing: it adds to the pressure on me to now that he’s gone. Mother expects too much.
I feel dizzy, and the sun is too hot. I have been lonely since George died, and I don’t expect things to change after I’m married.
Paul frowns, perhaps realizing he’s said the wrong thing. “Are you okay?” he asks, taking a step forward and putting a hand on my arm.
“Yes,” I say. “Thank you. It’s just that—you’re right. We’ve all been adrift since George was killed. It hasn’t been easy.”
Paul’s eyes slowly move to meet mine, and I feel something shift inside my heart. His eyebrows knit together and when he moves his head, his curls quiver. I notice that.
I have heard of love at first sight. I’m suddenly afraid I have been struck with it.
It is a frightening feeling, unfamiliar and painful. I wish to be rid of it.
I clear my throat. I need to change the subject. “Has John the Sixth said anything about me?”
Paul hesitates. “Such as…?”
“Anything at all. I’m just wondering why his father would send such a generous gift.”
Paul digs the toe of his boot into the earth. “Well. I suppose he knows you broke off your first engagement, and he wants to make sure you keep this one.”
Adonna watches us and stomps her feet. She can’t wait for us to come over.
“That’s an interesting theory, but it’s not what I asked. Has John said anything about me?”
“I don’t know…I guess he has. Just what you’d expect.” Paul starts walking toward the gate to the paddock, but I don’t move.
“I don’t know what I’d expect,” I say, loud and slow. I want an answer. “So what has he said, exactly?”
Paul slows to a halt. He tips his head and stares out at the barn, not at me.
“He said…He said you move very well on a dragon. That you were the best dragon-rider he’d ever seen. He said you are strong and fast and skilled with a sword, and he once saw you shoot a bird from very long range with a bow and arrow. He said you would be a prize as a husband. He said many other complimentary things. I can’t possibly remember them all.”
It sounds like John saw me in competition, the way I saw him. Perhaps he even liked me, and I did not know it. He never spoke to me.
It almost sounds like John is very taken with me. In love, maybe? But I still don’t know what love is. Not exactly.
I never gave John the Sixth the time of day, or said two words to him, because he isn’t clever or charming or funny or anything special. Maybe he’s been upset about it.
My heart squeezes in my chest. I feel terrible.
I see I was too quick to judge John the Sixth, and I’ve made an awful mistake. My stomach hurts. I don’t know what I want anymore.
Paul walks into the paddock, and he talks to all of the dragons, stroking their long noses, speaking softly into each dragon ear. I lag behind, leaning on the gate, feeling the heaviness of my armor. I will be sore later. My head is pounding, and the back of my neck is coated in sweat.
“Your dragons are beautiful.” He smiles at me. “We should go for a ride. I want to try this red one.”
“Paul,” I say. “That’s not a good idea.”
He turns, surprised. “Why do you say that? We’ll be training together soon. You don’t want to go? I’ll tell you more about the gold dragon. Even though I still think she’s dangerous.”
“I do want to go,” I explain slowly, “But I don’t think I should.” “Why not?”
How can I make him understand? Here’s the truth: I know Paul will be very good at dragon riding. I know he will be better than John. And I know I will fall in love with Paul without a second thought. It would be stupid to try and explain that to him.
“I’m very busy. I have to get back to the castle.”
I watch Paul’s chest rise and fall as he takes in a very deep breath, then exhales. He walks over to me, at the gate. He glances quickly up at the castle. He stands very close, as if someone might hear, but there is no one around but the dragons. “John knows we will be training together. We wouldn’t be doing anything wrong. I don’t know what you’re worried about.”
He searches my face, and I have to look away for a moment. I am going to have to say something harsh to get him to leave.
I should be direct and curt, like Mother. I should just say: I will soon be a Duke, married to a Prince, and you are a dragon trainer. I don’t know how much plainer I can make it. You and I will never be friends.
This sort of casual cruelty is sometimes part of being an effective ruler, and I’ve had my mother’s example to follow for many years. I suppose I will have to learn to be ruthless sometime. But I’m not hardened enough yet to say this.
At the same time, I’m not dumb. I know the sacrifices I have to make. I never asked for this life, but it’s the one I’m stuck with.
I see Paul start to chew on his lip, and I suddenly realize he is insulted. My fingers twitch and, out of instinct, my hand naturally moves toward the knife on my belt. But Paul grabs my hand, and I see—no, he is not insulted, he sees this as a challenge.
“Let’s go,” he tries one more time. “Come on, Grant. We can just fly to the edge of the mountains and back.”
His hand is warm where it grabs mine. I want to give up, to give in. I can feel the blood rushing to my face, to my chest, to the hand that he holds. I truly want to go. But I stand my ground.
I have the sudden urge to shove him, to strike him, to force him away from me. He was clearly sent here by the Gods to torment me. I am learning new things all the time about life and the ways in which it can make a man suffer.
“I have duties to attend to. Please. Let me go.” I am getting impatient. I want this conversation to be over.
Paul sees that I mean it, and lets go of my hand. “Fine. Suit yourself.” He snorts. “You know that I’ll return soon. With John the Sixth. I must. It has all been arranged. Didn’t you hear what I said? I’m a gift from John’s father.”
“I know that. It will be fine.” I’m tired and I can hear the stress creeping back into my voice. “Now, go. You’ve seen the barn. Return to John with your report. I have things to do.”
I watch disappointment darken Paul’s face as I stay calm and look away toward Adonna, as if I don’t care, as if I can’t wait for him to ride away. I’ve worn a mask of indifference for so long with my parents that it’s not hard to put it on for Paul. He swallows and then backs off a few steps.
“You’re arrogant, you know that? You’re too good to ride with me, then? You don’t deserve John.”
I face him. All of the anger that’s been bubbling up inside of me pours out, as I feel myself start to roar. “Why do you want to go riding with me, then? If you’re loyal to John—AND BY GOD YOU’D BETTER BE—then you should go.”
As I glare at him, he opens his mouth. Then shuts it.
“Of course, my Lord,” he finally says, “My apologies for the misunderstanding.” He whistles, and his dragon lifts his head and ambles over. Paul looks back at me with dark eyes and perfect posture and I watch him carefully, making sure my face doesn’t give anything away.
Everything about this arranged marriage, this new phase of my life, is going to be difficult, and for the first time I realize how much. My heart hurts. I will have to be very careful.
Paul leads his dragon in a walk to the edge of the field before taking flight. I watch him fly away, feeling empty inside.
I turn back to the field of wildflowers. I select more daisies and start to make a new crown. Choose, braid and weave, tighten. My whole being shivers with unhappiness, but the motion of my hands calms me.
Finally I am done. I hold the daisy chain my hands. The river shimmers in the heat, but I know the water is ice cold. I picture myself walking right into that river and letting the armor weigh me down. I imagine the bottom of the river is dark and quiet and refreshing. I could be like George—he in the ground, I in the water—surrounded by the earth, anchored in its’ embrace. For a moment, I consider it. It sounds peaceful. It sounds like a relief.
But it would be a dishonorable death. I owe myself more than that.
I slide the breastplate of my armor off. I am slick with sweat from the heat and the illness of uncertainty. I lie down in the sun, right in the middle of the field. I open the neck of my shirt to feel the burn on my skin.
Becoming a man and a Duke will be hard, but maybe I can live through it if I am cautious and make the right choices. There must be something good in this life for me.
I know what I am. But I know not yet what I may be.
Introducing “The Unexpected Guest” by Connie White, the first place winner of the Horror category of the 14th Annual Writers Digest Popular Fiction Awards. See a complete list of the competition winners and read the first place entry in each category here. For an extended interview with the grand prize winner, visit this page. Read the grand prize winning short story here.
The Unexpected Guest by Connie White
The room was cool but clean, heavy Victorian curtains pulled open to reveal a clear view through a large plate glass window. She sat in an overstuffed brocade chair with Queen Anne legs, beside her a lamp and an ornate cup and saucer full of her favorite tea. In front of her a small coffee table with a covered glass dish of wrapped hard candies.
Virginia Merriweather was waiting for the neighborhood to come alive. She loved to watch the children play outside her window at the park across the street. She was concerned the neighbors might keep them in due to a recent spate of deaths within a couple of blocks. Though the police had ruled most of the deaths accidental and one a suicide, Virginia thought the parents might take additional precautions for their children’s safety but she noticed nothing new. The children were still allowed to come and go at will. Virginia was glad that nothing had changed because she loved to watch the children.
Virginia glanced at the clock to remind herself of the time. She knew that soon families would be finishing their breakfast and then the activity would begin. There was a calm air about her this morning, she moved slowly forward in her chair and reached out a weathered hand to take a hard candy. Her head was slow to drop as she unwrapped it. Small sounds encompassed the large Victorian sitting room, the slow tick tick of the Grandfather clock was so pronounced at times that she had considered taking it down. She didn’t need any reminders of time passing. She felt every minute of her eighty-five years. Her skin once fat and peachy was now thin and colorless and wrinkled, her mouth once full and plump was now only defined by the outline of pink lipstick feathered on all sides, her hair once long, black and shiny was now grey and pinned in a tight bun, her eyes once clear and intense were now dull behind her thick wire-rimmed glasses. She looked every bit the old spinster down to her calico dress and brown sensible shoes. The grandfather clock began to chime ten and she noticed people moving out from their homes. Like ants, she thought. As the clock finished it’s chimes, there was a knock at her back door. She couldn’t imagine who it could be as no one but her sister had ever knocked on the back door. Now that her sister had passed, it was strange to hear a knock.
She was slow to answer, using her cane to cross the smooth mahogany floors and then over the linoleum and into the kitchen. She unlocked the door and pulled it open. The neighbor child stood just outside the door. He was no older than ten she imagined.
“Hullo,” he said. No smile graced his face as he said it. “Hello dear,” she replied. She smiled a small smile.
“May I come in?” He answered himself by skipping past her through the kitchen and into the sitting room.
“Why didn’t you come to the front door, dear?” she asked. She closed the door and locked it.
“Because, I felt like coming to the back door,” he said. He now stood in the middle of the sitting room. He scanned the huge room and the sweeping staircase. “Your house is big,” he said. “Too large for just one person.” He looked at the candy dish on the table and then watched her intently as she moved to her chair with her cane.
“You’re right,” Virginia sat. “My sister used to live with me.” “She died,” he said plainly.
“Yes, she did,” she said. “I miss her terribly.”
“How did you sister die?” he asked.
“She fell, dear.” She took a slow sip of her tea. “And when people our age fall, it can be very dangerous.”
“You’re very slow today when you walk,” he observed.
“I suppose I am, dear,” she said with a small laugh. “These bones of mine are old and unforgiving.” Comments like these usually elicited a laugh or at least a smile. Not so with this child. She thought him odd. Virginia reached the chair and sat. “What is your name again?” she asked in her sweetest voice.
“My name is George, but you already knew that,” he said. “You know all the names of all the children. Your name is Virginia.” he said. “Virginia Merriweather.”
“Yes, that’s right, dear,” she smiled and stirred her tea. She pulled the china cup to her lips and took a tiny sip. “You may call me Miss Merriweather.” George continued looking through the room. It was as if he were studying it. “Did your mother send you, dear?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “She said I shouldn’t bother you.”
“Oh, you’re not bothering me at all,” she said. “I like to have visitors. It gets lonely here all by myself.” Virginia smiled at the boy but his face remained unchanged.
“You know, everyone around here thinks you’re just a nice old lady Virginia, but I don’t,” he said bluntly. He looked at the candy dish again.
“Would you care for a candy, dear?” she asked. She didn’t know what to make of the boy and his rude responses.
“I don’t like that kind of candy,” he said skipping to the window. He looked at the children playing, blocking her view. “You’re not nice at all, Virginia. I know you’re not because you’re just like me.” He turned all the way around to look at her as he said it. His look grew into a stare. She stared back and examined him. He appeared normal and to the unstudied eye he would pass without concern. But Virginia knew different. She could see what he was.
“How about a special candy, Georgie?” Virginia asked. She pulled a clear candy out of a paper bag stuffed into her knitting basket on the floor. It was unwrapped and an amber color. “Isn’t it pretty?” she turned it in the light. She held out her hand and to her surprise he quickly walked over and took it, closing his hand around it tight.
“Don’t call me Georgie,” he said. He frowned as he glared at her “I don’t like it.”
“You know,” she said. “It reminds me of a rhyme that we used to say in school.” Her voice was more controlled now, smoother, coarser and lower almost like a growl. In a loud shrill sing-song voice she mocked him “Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie!”
“Don’t call me that!” he said stomping his foot.
“Kissed the girls and made them cry!” she clapped her hands along with the rhyme, ending the last word with an hysterical laugh.
“I told you to stop it!” George’s face contorted with rage. She continued with her laughter but then ended it abruptly, sitting up straight. She put one hand on her chest in mock surprise. “What’s wrong, Georgie? Don’t you like my joke?” He glared at her standing stone still, one of his fists balled up at his side. Then after a bit he relaxed, stood up straight and smoothed out his shirt with his hands.
“You know, I wasn’t sure about you, Virginia. Though I had my suspicions the moment we met” he said. “It was the strange way you stared at me, as if you were assessing me, measuring me. I wondered if you and I might be somehow similar. So I decided that I would spy on you whenever the opportunity arose.” George turned and moved back to the window. “You gave me the perfect opportunity last night.” He put his hands behind his back and waited.
Virginia, who had grabbed her cup of tea to take a sip, placed it back down quickly. “Did I?” It was more a statement than a question.
“I watched you for almost two hours through the open window in the kitchen. Do you remember what you did last night? It was really pretty interesting, Virginia.” George ran his open hand across the curtain fabric without touching it and turned back around. He grinned for the first time.
Virginia said nothing but her eyes held his.
“I hadn’t intended to spy on you, honestly I hadn’t. I was over on the side of the house having a pretty good time poking a frog with a long stick when I heard music coming through the open window in your kitchen. It was dark and I knew my parents wouldn’t miss me so I came over and peeked in. You were a real mess, Virginia. You had this old white nightgown on” George giggled “and you were drinking out of a big brown bottle. You had about five or six drinks out of it in about five minutes. Kind of like a drunk on the street drink might do. I wasn’t expecting that from you Virginia. I really wasn’t. You were a real sight to behold, Virginia! A real sight!” George laughed again. Virginia didn’t move.
George continued with enthusiasm. “The you started, Virginia!” George began to giggle and emulate Virginia’s drunken movements. His voice was loud and abrasive. “Dancing, dancing, dancing, Virginia, dancing around in a circle like a witch! Barefoot, and in that ugly nightgown!” George danced for a bit not saying anything. Then, he stopped. “I was disgusted by it, I really was but you see I just couldn’t stop watching!” Virginia shifted her weight to the front of the chair and sat up straight. George began to giggle again, “Oh and then the singing. That was really great, la la la … you sang. La la laaaaa …” George trailed off with his impression spinning around. “It was all just so crazy, I couldn’t stop!” George leaned back with a huge laugh. He grabbed his belly and kicked out a foot with glee.
Virginia glowered at George. Her hands gripped the arm chairs and her jaw was clenched tight.
“Then, you were really out of breath from all the dancing so you leaned against the counter and drank from the bottle again. Some of it went down your chin and onto your nightgown but you didn’t care, you just wiped your face with your dirty old sleeve. Then you turned the music down and this is really the best part Virginia, you started talking to yourself. You talked to yourself for at least an hour. At first you were standing there talking about your hate for the neighborhood and the neighbors but then after a while you kind of slid down the kitchen cabinets and sat on the floor with the bottle.”
“Do you remember what you did next, Virginia?” George paused for a bit.
Virginia said nothing.
“You began planning how some of the neighbors might die, Virginia. Out loud and with great detail you planned their deaths. You said how Sonya Pierce might be killed by her stupid husband Joe’s hunting rifle. You talked about how old Rueben Jennings could have his brakes cut. You talked about how Gertrude Steinblatt might be killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. I guess you really must hate her because that set you to laughing so hard that I thought for a moment you might wet yourself.”
George turned to see if there was any measurable reaction from Virginia. There wasn’t so he continued.
“Then you talked about someone named Alberta. You talked about how you got rid of her. How you kicked her cane out from underneath her and pushed her down the stairs. How you couldn’t believe she was dead but then you were happy about it. You talked to her as if she were right in front of you.” George clasped his hands dramatically under his chin and in his best old woman’s drunken voice said “Oh, Albie. Why did you make me do it, Albie?” Why did mother have to put you in charge? I told you not to try and sell the house but you didn’t listen Albie. You didn’t listen.” George laughed at his own impression as Virginia relaxed and sat back in her chair. “Then you took another drink from the bottle and lay down on the floor. You kind of rolled around with the bottle in your hand and said” George imitated drunk Virginia again “you deserved it, Albie. They all deserved it. All of ‘em. Every goddam one of ‘em. All of ‘em. All of ‘em.” George went back to his regular voice. “You were muttering down there for quite a while but I couldn’t make out what you were saying. Then you just stopped moving and went to sleep right there on the kitchen floor with all of the lights on. I waited for a couple minutes but you didn’t move so I went home and went to bed. What a show it was, Virginia! What a show!” George took a long deep breath after his dramatic reenactment and recounting of Virginia’s night. “I had a great night wondering what I should do next. I thought maybe I’ll tell the other kids or maybe I’ll tell my mom. She’s a real gossip, you know. Or even better, my dad, he’s a cop. Or maybe I’ll just bring the whole neighborhood over to see it for themselves!” George clapped his hands for emphasis and doubled over with laughter.
Virginia waited until George finished laughing. She looked at him and this time no smile was at her lips. “Georgie boy, did you ever eat the candy I gave ya?” she asked. “I put it in my pocket,” he said brightly.
“Well, I tell ya’ what. Since you didn’t eat the special candy I gave you, I’m going to get you a nice slice of pie. Do you like pie? Mrs. Shultz across the street made it. It’s blueberry, do you like blueberry?”
George was giddy now, knowing how uncomfortable he had made her and he was now in a good mood. “I do like pie,” he said. The only pie I like is blueberry pie.”
“Well, it’s your lucky day then. Let me get you a slice.” Virginia rose from the chair with ease and walked quickly to the kitchen, no need for the pretension of the cane. She pulled the pie from the counter and removed the foil that covered it. She took out a knife and sliced into the juicy pie.
Virginia placed the pie onto the plate and carefully removed the top crust. She continued to talk, “You know Georgie, I’m so glad we could be friends. It’s been so long since I’ve had a friend.” She reached up into the cupboard and pulled out a vial from behind some boxes, undid the top and sprinkled some powder onto the pie. She mixed it in with a fork and replaced the crust. “I haven’t had a real friend since my sister passed. She wiped her hands on a dishtowel on the counter and threw it into the sink. She brought the pie to George and placed it on the coffee table with a napkin and the fork.
“Don’t you want me to eat it in the kitchen?” he asked. “What if I make a mess?” “We needn’t stand on ceremony, Georgie boy. After all, we’re friends, remember?
Besides, I removed the rugs long ago. Too hard to keep clean.” George took the fork and cut into his pie. Virginia grabbed a flask out of her knitting basket and poured an amber colored liquid into her tea. The cup nearly overflowed. Virginia drank it down quick.
George held the fork for a bit with the large bite of pie balanced at its end. The juicy blueberries dripped onto the plate below. “It sure looks good!” he said. “Eat up, Georgie boy,” she said with enthusiasm.
George smirked. He lifted the pie to his mouth, then staring at Virginia dropped it back down on the plate, fork and all. It made a loud clanking sound and the berries splattered out onto the table.
“I told you I might make a mess,” he said.
“It’s fine …” she said. Virginia began to cough. “Just eat your … pie.” Virginia coughed some more.
“What’s wrong, Virginia?” asked George. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back and walked to her chair.
She gasped for air coughing. She tried to grab onto him but he danced away backwards like a prize fighter so she couldn’t touch him. In fact, he had been careful to touch nothing in the house except for the fork. He hadn’t even touched the door knob.
He stared at her again, this time up close. Her eyes pleaded with him to help her but George walked away.
He grabbed the fork full of pie off the plate. Virginia’s head was all the way back in the chair now face up toward the ceiling, and her mouth gaped open as she desperately tried to breathe. He placed a big bite of pie in her mouth being careful not to touch her and pushed it into the back of her throat. She tried to talk but it was no use. He leaned down and whispered into her ear. “The special candy you gave me … I put it in your tea.” George watched as Virginia’s eyes grew wide with horror.
George walked to window and looked at the children playing outside. “In a couple of days I suppose someone will notice that you haven’t closed your big drapes or that you haven’t picked up your mail and then they’ll notice you here. After they figure out how you died, they might guess that you poisoned yourself out of sheer loneliness. George began to zoom happily through the room with his arms out as if he were an airplane. “Zoom zoom zoooooooom!” Then, George stopped zooming and turned to watch.
Virginia clutched the chair, her coughs grew louder and longer until they were faint whispery gasps. There was no other sound but the tick-tick of the grandfather clock. Right before her final breath, George whispered in Virginia’s ear, this time repeating the rhyme:
Pudding and Pie
Kissed the girls
And made them cry
George pulled away and stared at Virginia’s lifeless face. “I told you not to call me that but you didn’t listen Virginia. We could have been friends. Good friends.” He wiped down the handle of the fork with a paper napkin he had stored in his pocket and let himself out the back door cleaning the door knob on each side as he left. Georgie boy skipped all the way back home.