Now that we are finally moving along the driver seems as unhappy as we were when the journey was young.Continue reading →
Now that we are finally moving along the driver seems as unhappy as we were when the journey was young.Continue reading →
Sheila did not look like a hired killer. Not that Paul really knew what a hired killer looked like. His old hired killer, “Mr. Smith,” had been totally anonymous, so Paul had never even met Mr. Smith.
Sheila looks more like a suburban mother than anything, Paul thought. She was short. She was a bit pudgy, as if she’d eaten too many cookies she’d baked for the family cookie jar. She wore a faded sweatshirt and jeans. Outside, he could see her SUV, which would look at home in the school parking lot on open house night.
Looks aside, she was worth a try. Particularly since Mr. Smith had rather inconveniently decided now was the time to retire. Roger, Paul’s cousin, used Sheila and thought highly of her. “She delivers excellent value for my assassination dollar,” he’d said.
“I know. And I don’t have the money to hire someone like you full-time.” Although it would be handy—it seemed he’d been contracting a lot of killings the last year.
“Very good. We understand each other. Now, can you give me the information about the person who is causing problems?”
“Yes.” Paul got up and walked over to his safe. “As you requested, I have prepared a box that contains full instructions and payment.”
Paul opened the safe and pulled out a box. He placed it on a nearby table and shut the safe door. Suddenly, something caught the corner of his eye. He turned to face Sheila. She was now standing and holding a gun pointed at him.
“Ah…what are you doing with that gun?”
“I already told you: I’m an independent professional. You hired me to do a job. I’ll do it. But first, I’m doing another job I was hired for.”
She pulled the trigger.
“Thank you. Well, if you will excuse me, I’ve got another job to do. It’s a busy week.”
They got up and headed to the door.
A thought hit Roger: Paul was thinking of hiring Sheila a few days ago. From what he said, he had a huge problem. Whoever was causing him that problem might cause me problems now.
*Nick Stokes has worked as a high school physics teacher, a wilderness ranger, an apple picker, a trail crew leader, a stable hand, a corn detassler, a tribology researcher and is still a mule packer. For more information on his fictions, plays and prose visit nickstokes.net. His novel, Affair, first serialized by The Seattle Star, is available at Amazon, The Nearsighted Narwhal and King’s Books in Tacoma and elsewhere.
It wasn’t like the soft snow Jasper’s dad would take him to in the mountains. Within five minutes of making slush balls, his gloves—meant for cold, not snow—were soaked through and the ninety-six percent humidity combined with the thirty-six degree ambient temperature proved a frigid mixture. Jasper didn’t let on to the others of his shivering and how he would rather be at home in front of the heater reading a book, but he did remove his wet gloves and thrust his hands into his pockets.
They sloshed along the pavement as the rain fell. A newspaper, still dry in its pink plastic bag, nested in a clump of grass with a headline that read Hostage Journalist Killed in Syria Three Months Ago. Jasper kicked it.
The three turned a corner onto a short street with a few houses to one side decorated for Christmas in gaudy fashion; one with what appeared to be a deflated Mickey in a Santa hat lying prostrate on the lawn, another with lights not reaching across the entire roofline, and the last one featured a gyrating animatronic Frosty the Snowman that had seen better days. Jasper wished for his old house, done in old-fashioned big bulbs—his father wrapped each window, doorframe, and the pitch of the roof with precision until it looked like something out of a gingerbread fairytale.
On the opposite side of the street stood a single house—set on a hill and surrounded by ancient firs on both sides. Most houses in the city didn’t have so much yard, or forest in this case. The house itself, what Jasper could see from the street, seemed as old as any of the other houses around there—mid-century and white. The firs were much older, swaying high above, thick with old branches that threatened to crack and crash under the slightest breeze. “Who lives there?” Jasper asked.
“Weirdos.” Alan scooped more slush into a ball.
Jasper laughed. “Would have to be. Like who?”
Cassie laughed, “You never heard of the town witch before?”
“He just moved here, remember?” Alan threw the slush ball at Cassie and it exploded against the back of her head.
“I just wanna look.” Jasper climbed the hill. A peek over the fence might collect him some respect points. From the looks of the unkempt state of the shrubs and trees and ivy-smothered hill, he figured the person who lived there must be old and unable to do much. At the top of the driveway he found a stone stairway covered in overgrown ivy. He picked his way up the hill toward the fence perched at the top. The ivy that covered the fence was thick, but he pulled it aside and found a tiny knot where a hole worn through and kneeled, wet hands in wet ground to see beyond.Continue reading →
This year, Santa’s operation entered the 21st century. Shortly after Thanksgiving, a server room went online at the North Pole to analyze data that used to take an army of elves a year to complete. Sophisticated algorithms crawled the web, taking into account thousands of behavioral factors. Code scoured social media for keywords, while software did the dirty work of sorting naughty from nice. A team of hackers worked to piggyback signals on telecommunications satellites to intercept texts and tweets as they flew around the world. Millions of emails were obtained through a Russian intermediary. Security camera footage was spliced together with GPS locators and all of it was neatly compiled to build a comprehensive file on every last human being on Earth. Finally, the computer assigned a final judgment to each one and spat out a color-coded, three-page report on crisp, white cardstock.
The elves passed the pages around, then checked them twice, and they smiled to each other. A few exchanged high fives. Everything they had been saying for years was confirmed. Even better — it was scientifically proven with evidence. In neat letters on the final line of the final page, the computer issued its recommendation: 10% Nice/90% Naughty.
There was some disagreement over who would present the findings to Santa. A few got into a shouting match. They all wanted to be there to see the look on his face when he finally saw what they had always seen. Still others were frantically emailing the mines to ramp up production. They were going to need record amounts of coal.Continue reading →
A few months ago, I turned thirty-seven. My eight-year-old son, Landon, drew me a picture of he and I playing baseball in the backyard. I received a few cards from my dentist and the members of my cribbage club. Alison, my wife, who is three years older than I am, and who is never to be outdone, gifted me what she called “Old Man Sam’s Pre-AARP Kit.” The kit consisted of Just for Men hair color, a single dose of Viagra, and a bag of Werther’s Originals.
There are a lot of guys who care about their age. I guess, sometimes, you can put me in that category. It’s less the number of years and more about ability. I’m not able to run like I used to. I grunt when I have to tie my shoes. Yeah, I grew a little thick in the middle, but that’s natural, right? I know, you’re saying “Sam, thirty-seven is not that old.” You’re right, it’s not that old. Look at Mel Brooks or Jimmy Carter, they’re both ninety. At the same time, I don’t come from a line of people who tend to make if far past middle age. My dad died from a heart attack at fifty-seven. He worked as a longshoreman. His dad, my grandfather, died from an aneurysm at fifty-one while driving his tractor. So I guess, my dad stole a few extra years than he expected. My mom, who served as a nurse in the Navy before she got married, contracted pneumonia the winter after dad died and never recovered. She was fifty-six. It sounds like I’m worried about death, and I am. I probably got more time on me still. But, I’m the last in my line. I’m the oldest of my family. The next to go.
We’re a Christmas family. Each year we put up a giant tree done up with hundreds of ornaments, snowflake decals on the windows, and hundreds of strings of exterior lights. I married into the whole decoration thing. Alison’s family celebrated the holiday like the Griswolds in that National Lampoon movie. They even won awards from the City of Tacoma for exterior decoration. One year Alison’s dad built Santa’s village with little houses, lights and moving elves on train tracks. It made the paper. Her parents died just after we got married. Car accident. Her parents were both in their late forties.
Since Alison was an only child, we became wards of all her family’s memories. Twenty-two Rubber Made tubs filled my attic with deeply sentimental, pass-on-to-the-next-generation Venetian blown-glass balls and hand carved effigies of Santa. I took up the tasks previously executed by Alison’s father: lugging the Christmas decoration down from the attic, placing the tree, and all exterior decorations.
I relocated each tub down to the living room one-by-one. Landon helped as much has his little arms could. Then Alison said, “Don’t forget the horse, Sam. It’s not Christmas without the horse.” Landon jumped around hyper as soon as Alison mentioned it.Continue reading →
When we buried Jellyroll in the grass lawn across from our tiny home—the Baptist church’s lawn—the tears did flow. The sadness was so deep only gasps could be heard between us, neither me nor Lil-e could talk. We placed a stone over his body —a nice stone I had found which Lil-e put an epitaph on. A few days later Lil-e left for a trip, to get away, to get her mind off of why Jellyroll had so slowly succumbed—dying a slow, insipid death.
I stayed in town because of my job at the paper mill. One evening, while I was chasing cheap whisky with Pabst Blue Ribbon, there came a knock upon my door. I went and opened it. “Ah shit,” I thought. It was the cranky old groundskeeper from the Baptist church. I thought he was going to give me the “what for,” because we’d dug up his nice lawn over there and plunked Jellyroll in it —set that stone on top of him. Jellyroll’s marker.
But no. It wasn’t like that at all. He said, “I seen you burying that cat. I seen the tears. I seen all that sorrow.” He paused then, finally he said, “You want a cat? I got a dinky one out there on my farm. It’s the runt of the litter. It ain’t gonna make it if nobody takes it.”
I knew Lil-e would kill me for taking a cat right away, after the Jellyroll struggle, but she was far away—not coming back for 3 months, and fuck her! This was going to be my cat! “Sure I’ll take it!” I nearly shouted. “Good,” the old boy said. “I’ll bring it over in a few days.”
When the groundskeeper came back carrying a cat carrier, I was ready to receive a sickly little runt, feeble and scared, mewing cowardly mews, gasping for little breaths of air.
But uh huh! No! What came out of that cat carrier was the tiniest kitten I’d ever seen. He was a spit-fire! Zing! Out he flew. Ran straight up the curtains to the top rod! Paboop! Down he came! Three fast swirling spins around the living room! Floop-wing-zing! Over the cigarette burned, spotted couch—flung-wung swew! Over the chair by the table with the horsehead lamp and into the giant closet. Things were flying out! Like he was digging to the bottom of the world. I looked at the old caretaker, he looked at me, we went to peak in the closet—zing! Out flew the kitten. Flying like a rocket ship to mars! Bat-a-bafloo! Up he went. The curtains again. “Wow!” I said. Maybe I’m being a bit sexist here, I never even considered it being a girl kitten. That much rambunctious energy is the stuff of boys! I named him Pip, mostly after Ahab’s cabin boy (my favorite character in Moby Dick), and slightly after Charles Dickens’ lad. Though the name is more an homage to Dickens than his protagonist, because Pip could be a real doodle-dip—certainly not Dickens’ best character.Continue reading →
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was a singularity that spoke amid darkness, “Let there be light,” and from this singularity came all things: white dwarf stars and sea lions and ricotta cheese and all things were entropy as Space/Time raced inexorably away from itself. As it raced onward, the Word that was a singularity that spoke amid darkness folded itself up into an infinitesimal idea, collapsing ever inward until it fell like a star into the belly of a woman that lived by the Pacific. Inside her belly grew a boy, and although she did not know it yet, his hands would be small and his heart would look like entropy, which is to say, all things.
The Cartesian coordinates (0,0,0,0) of the four-dimensional life of the boy with small hands and a heart that looked like entropy are a chair at a desk by a window in a bedroom. They are the earliest memory of the boy, although there are rumors that he existed before this. They are the sight of the pink dawn, and the scent of chocolate soy milk, and the sound of Jim Dale reading the audiobook of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, saying “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
Beginnings and endings are relative. As you read this, the universe itself is expanding, sending each celestial body farther away from one another in eternal redshift. Space/Time itself is growing.
When the boy with small hands and a heart that looked like entropy learned this, he was sitting in a desk in a school made of bricks by the Puget Sound. He looked out the classroom window, past other brick buildings, out to the heavens beyond.
He considered the stars he could not see, racing inexorably away from him through space. He considered his own life, racing inexorably away from him through time.Continue reading →
But there’s always a song.
“Send me all your vampires” (I Want You, Third Eye Blind) (September 1999, Puyallup)
The day after I graduated from Powell County High School in 1999, I got in my Dodge Neon, merged on to I-90 West, and left my unhappy adolescence in my rearview mirror. I thought that my depression would stay in Montana with everything else I was leaving behind.
In September, the opportunity to see Third Eye Blind came along, and I jumped on it like a fumbled football. My concert companion went to find cover when the rain made an appearance, but I didn’t move. I was mesmerized by Third Eye Blind’s performance, and everything around me faded in to the background. In my mind, the timing of the steady drizzle became an element to the song. At the end, the band walked off stage. The front man returned alone and repeated the song’s last line for a couple of minutes and was accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, a spotlight, and the Pacific Northwest rain.
In that moment, I was free. Any monsters under my bed in Montana were nonexistent.
I really was alone.
I’d been looking forward to the opportunity to see Staind, a band whose music was often played in my car. I sat wearing my souvenir Staind t-shirt in those red cushioned chairs at the Paramount Theater and made forced small talk with my friend as I waited for the band to come out. He was good company, but making the trip to Seattle that night took a lot of effort on my part. Continue reading →
“Feminism causes women to abandon their husbands, commit crimes and perversions, and become lesbians.” —Reverend Logan Churlick, 2015
Summer settled with a vengeance on the dusty little town of Rathcreek, a dry August heat eastern Washington was known for, the kind that wrung sweat and energy from everything living. By nine o’clock in the morning, the clapboards of the Crownhart home were seared in dust.
Janey Crownhart Powers stood at the kitchen sink peeling potatoes. A shaft of sunlight bore down on her from the skylight, and the long chestnut hair shone in a neon halo of copper highlights. Her open face wore mischief like a jaunty hat cocked as if nothing would ever knock it off. The nose, too long and narrow, gave her a knowing look, like a fox. But the look was redeemed by compassionate, almost ethereal eyes.
Janey rinsed off the potato, took aim and lobbed it into a large pot. She glanced at her sister, Louise, who was chopping onions and wiping her eyes on her sleeve. Except for the musical jingling of the potato peeler and steady beat of the knife striking the cutting board, it was quiet, the practical quiet that accompanies working women when the conversation lulls.
Dragging the peeler across a potato, Janey broke into a mournful, throaty song. “Sum-mer ti-i-i-i-me — and the peelin’ is easy—”
Hardly skipping a beat, Louise belted out, “Potatoes flyin’, cotton soaked with sweat—”
“Eyes are cryin’ ’cause the onion is slaughtered — ”
Louise sang lustily, “You ain’t seen nuthin’ like Weezie’s ’tato salad yet! Oooh-wee! God, I’ve missed you, Janey. Why’d you have to marry that asshole? Oughta leave him, and come back here to have breakfast with us every morning.”
A smile touched the corners of Janey’s mouth. She whispered, “Louise, he’ll hear you.”Continue reading →