Monthly Archives: April 2015

Forgotten Silver

Prospector traveling by mule

Franklin, CA is not unlike many such towns that appeared in the time of the Silverado mining boom. Its curbstone was a moderate one: worth perhaps $360,000 in total. Nonetheless, the town at peak population numbered at 50,000 or above. At a point when the curbstone had been tapped nearly dry, the town kept afloat by the prospecting of “blind leads,” the most notable event in town history occurred.

Wladyslaw Krusinski,a German of polish extraction, had been undertaking a survey of the local terrain for two weeks. As it was customary for miners to miss their projected date by several days, alarm was not raised until Krusinski’s burro, Good Fortune, arrived in town without him. The trappings on its back were askew and improperly fastened. It was noted that the saddle rode upside-down as if it had been mounted in a hurry.

Krusinski arrived in town three days later.

Written records are unclear at this point. Though much detail was embroidered into the account of Krusinski’s mule, the man’s overall state of physical, mental, even spiritual wellbeing went unremarked. The only comment on his status was the ambiguous remark that he had “caught some bad shade,” which could indicate anything from sunstroke to tuberculosis. Records indicate that he was given food and water at the town’s jail-cum-hospital and then, for all intents and purposes, forgotten.

A day later the town’s sole remaining newspaper, the Franklin Mint, ran a story about the “lost miner hoax,” expressing grudging admiration for the prankster who had gone so far as to implant records of Krusinski’s mining history in the town ledger. It pointed out the impossibility of Krusinski’s being put up in the jail as the town had never been large enough to require one. If all else failed, the editorial quipped, one could simply remember that there had never been a man by that description in town or else someone would remember meeting him.

The next day the paper ran a retraction, apologizing for a grave miscalculation. It had been running reports of independent mining companies numbering in the twenties, when the real estimate was under ten.

The next issue expressed puzzlement at recently discovered mockups of past issues, as the paper was no older than a day. It ran an introductory story, entitled “camp life,” extolling the virtues of the recently-founded camp. It listed the assets as: one chapel, one alehouse, and five independent mining companies. It also apologized for publishing a “patently false” staff list, as the real staff took up but a third of the printed roster.

This is the last issue of the Mint. These collected papers were wrapped around a silver ingot, stuffed in the saddlebag of a riderless mule. The mule also carried provisions that would support a single man for several days. The mule bore bit and bridle as if whoever packed it had every intention of journeying, but no rider was extant.

Franklin was assumed abandoned in the traditional fashion, no exploratory party was ever mounted. Later visitors(in 1906 and again in 1963) found the town untouched, with personal effects laid out as if set down in the middle of use. Unprocessed silver lay in slag heaps at the mill, the printing press with a story half laid out. Plans to designate the town as a tourism destination fell through due to lack of interest.

Local amateur historians claim the area the town inhabited was named “ghost silver” in the tongue of the Weekeaw tribe. There is no record of any such tribe ever existing.

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Creature Comforts

You know, it’s the little things that mean the most. Someone looking up when you come in. Mints on the pillows. If you sweat the small stuff, people will be less inclined to worry about the big stuff.

It’s hard, living in a seasonal town. Or a tourist trap. It’s like living in a place where the well runs dry for half the year. You have to learn to plan ahead, to plan for other people as well as yourself.

Heard a story once about a town somewhere in Europe that got visited by this big bird every once in a while. Every time the bird roosted in the mountains above, the town would be flooded with food and wealth falling from the bird’s feathers. The townspeople thought they got smart one year and cut off the bird’s wings, so it couldn’t fly away. They didn’t get that the journey the bird made was what put all the crap into its feathers. So the bird died and the people died and it’s kinda sad.

People are suspicious when things are too new. So it pays to pre-scuff some things. People want to sit in a rocking chair that squeaks. They want sheets that look like they’ve been slept in, and they want a room to smell like people, not cleaner. Free tip: if you stuff a small sachet of pipe tobacco in the drape runners, they’ll get a little hit of grandfatherly odor whenever they look at the view.

Smell is important. Smell is the sense with the strongest link to memory. You have to play it both ways. You have to appeal to their memories, and you have to make new ones. They don’t want to step out the sliding glass door and get hit by a wave of garbage smell. So you arrange the landscape a little. You make sure the first thing they see is the view, not the quikstop. You air out the linens even though they haven’t been actual linen since 1957. Even if it isn’t exactly a Kodak moment, you have to make the experience a pleasant one.

Word of advice: people remember. They go “oh, that little place?” and they smile or frown. That action is the difference between life and death. They won’t come back to a place that annoys them. Or falls short. And they talk. They talk to their friends planning outings and they talk to business associates aching to make the jump. The tides of travelers will ebb and flow, with the seasons and with the mood. You can feel a good summer coming around the bend, smell the goodwill on the air. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.

…mostly.

Sometimes towns go under, and it’s no one’s fault. The economy takes a downturn, everyone’s eating TV dinners all the sudden. Little guys treading water find their lips at the surface, people who maybe-sorta-could-be fine can’t weather the change. The American landscape is dotted with them, little could-be’s, tryhard skeletons of commerce. The quaint little village is now a quaint little ruin, quaint little ghosts just waiting for a thrown match. You can make sacrifices, but no amount of scrimping will make money appear.

But can you change it?

No. you change the sheets and you oil the hinges and you light joss sticks against the coming economic storm. You can no more change the winds of finance than roll the sun thirty degrees south.

But you can’t seem desperate.

They will smell it on you as you guide them to their rooms. A hand lingering too long on a shoulder blade. To many solicitations after their health. The restaurants around here can’t all be good, can they?

No. They can never know how desperate you are to stay in business. They can never know how every little jibe pricks at you like a knife. The sun too hot. The water too cold. The towels are too crisp because they were air-dried, even though last summer everyone told you they wanted to smell the lake on their towels. Are you to roll the sun out of the sky?

The one comfort is that, for all their complaints, they settle in to the room at once. They only want to be made comfortable. Succor them, and they will follow you anywhere.

Oh sure, they might call it odd that there aren’t many people out and about this time of year, but perhaps they started out too early. They don’t know what true financial hardship looks like, the poor innocent babes that they are.

Their regular cabin isn’t available, and their consolations jab you like dentist drills in the head. It’s fine, fine. Just…they come to you because you are never full, because that room is always open. The rooms are functionally identical, but you must humor them and nod like a duck decoy bobbing on a pond.

Of course, nothing can be completely up to snuff after that.

The TV doesn’t pick up many channels anymore, and the ones it does are strange. Nothing is like it used to be.

The husband roots for gratuities, and bemoans the lack of soap and tiny shampoos. There is no mini-liqueur to soften the blow either. All you can do is promise, as they tear the carefully-made room apart, promise that next time, next time will be better.

They notice the dinge of the sheets, the crack in the porcelain(and was that a spider?) so distracted by their dismay they don’t try and open the curtains. And, as you close the door with a hush, that the knob is only on one side. They are uneasy, like pigs on a killing floor, but not alarmed. They were put at ease on the way over, and did not think it odd that you had one more cabin than last year. Or that the number plate was bare and scratched over.

No, they totter about on voluptuous ankles, unpacking tennis gear and fishing lures and stashing underwear in drawers that smell like something beneath a porch.

You cannot help these people have a good vacation. If it was in your power, you would leave everyone so blissfully overloaded with memories they might never leave. But some things just aren’t in your power.

You walk faster. There must be something you have to get at the main building. Towels, maybe. Yes, your job is never done. You must be flexible, must adapt to every situation.

A scream. You start running.

Towels, yes. Or soap. Or a phone—not for the police, dear god, no. maybe to a travel agent, to ask when Mr.&Mrs So-and-so are due, they’re usually here by now. You have to be solicitous in the hospitality industry. Perhaps they parked by the cabin(what cabin?) and their car will not be there in the morning. Perhaps they got turned around, perhaps they went somewhere else in spite of all you have sweated and bled for them. These things happen more and more these days.

To keep this livelihood, you do all that’s humanly possible. And maybe some things that aren’t, should it come to that. Because you are in the hospitality business, and you would do anything, anything to stay in business.

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Stephanie: or, a treatise on the morality of seat-sharing on public transit

I sat in the back. That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? Common courtesy. The front of a bus is for all the folks who can’t climb the toecruncher steps to the back, old folks whose asses can’t stand the unpadded plastic buckets of the seats. I climbed to the back and then I sat with my bag in the seat beside me.

Right after McClellan, I got that feeling. You know, when someone standing nearby is looking very intently at you. Me, I don’t react. If you can’t be bothered to grab my attention overtly, you don’t get it.

Through the reflection in the back of my sunglasses, I could see there was a girl standing beside my seat. She was holding one of the bars and had her backpack down by her feet. Her face scrunched under the weight of her irritation, I could even see she was a little red. The next time the bus stopped, she accidentally-on-purpose let her free hand swing forward and hit me.

I do my best not to react in these situations. Years of public transit had dampened my enthusiasm for interacting with complete strangers. I brushed off my shoulder and pretended to read my paper.

The girl yelled a loud “a-hem!”

I looked up, plucking out an earbud. “Can I help you?”

“I wanna sit here.” Not can I sit here, not is anyone sitting here, I wanna sit here.

I looked across the aisle. “There’s an empty seat right over there.”

She was red in the face, and her eyes were narrowed into little gleaming slits.

“You gotta let me sit here,” she said, “it’s rude.”

“Ah,” I said, “so.”

Neither of us made a move.

“Why can’t I sit here?”

“Because I don’t want you to,” I said plainly. She thumped the plastic seat with her foot.

“It’s a free county!”

“What does that even mean?” I asked, “listen, there’s a free seat right there. Just go sit somewhere else.”

“Why?”

“Why not?”

“Why don’t you wanna sit next to me?”

“You’re giving me a couple of reasons as we speak,” I said.

“You don’t have any good reasons.”

“Not wanting to is enough,” I said, “I just don’t want to share a seat this morning, is that so hard to understand?”

But she was nodding angrily, making the stray frizzles of orange hair bounce up and down on her forehead.

“I knew it,” she proclaimed, “I’m not good enough to sit next to you.”

I looked at her, palms spread open. “You lost me.”

“You’re just like those assholes on the school bus,” she hissed, “you don’t wanna sit next to me because I’m too fat, or smelly, or I’m not popular.”

“You don’t think you’re projecting, just a touch?”

“It’s common decency to share a seat!” she sounded near tears.

“And? It’s not like you need this seat,” I said, “it could be any seat. In fact, it could be that very seat I’m pointing to right now.”

She stomped away, leaving her bag. I was afraid she was going to start something with the driver, but she stomped right back.

“You’re being weird.”

I’m being weird?”

“Why don’t you just share the seat? I’d leave you alone if you share the seat.”

“I don’t negotiate with terrorists,” I said, and furled my newspaper. She hit it down with her palm.

“Don’t ignore me,” she practically screeched, “I’m a human being!”

“And I’m not?”

“I see you.” She was fuming now. “I’ve seen you on this route before. You share with people all the time, what’s different about me?”

“Besides this?” I indicated her with my palm. She narrowed her eyes even more, whites disappearing in bulges of skin.

“I knew it,” she hissed, “you are ignoring me just because it’s me. You’re just like those assholes at my school.”

“Hey,” I said, “I’m not like them. I am part of a completely different set of assholes.”

“You’re just like the guy who used to push my backpack off the seat. Every time. And all my pencils would spill out and my water bottle would uncap and get everything wet.” She seemed genuinely near tears. “Or the girl who would put her legs up on the seat. No matter when I got on, it was only those two choices, and I always rode with that asshole. No matter how I begged her, she wouldn’t put her legs down.”

“Sorry,” I said, “but this isn’t high school and you can sit somewhere else.”

She made fists. “Give me a good reason why.”

“Stephanie,” I said. Her face fell.

“What?”

“Stephanie,” I insisted, “the café I go to every morning always has one barista working the till, one working the machine. I always get Stephanie. Stephanie won’t take no for an answer, and she never gives me what I really want.” I pointed. “You’re Stephanie. You’re that bitch who gives me 2% instead of soy in my latte.”

She stammered, “So?”

“I’m lactose-intolerant, asshole.”

She said, “Sorry,” and then shut up.

I said, “Yeah, well,” and ducked my head behind my paper.

After a moment, she said, “That’s pretty bad. I know food allergies can be pretty heinous.”

“It’s not an allergy,” I said, “but thanks. It’s just an extra discomfort. I’ll live.”

She was twiddling the straps of her backpack, which was now hiked over one shoulder. “I have a cousin who’s gluten-intolerant. He says sometimes even the gluten-free stuff gives him trouble.”

“Sucks,” says I, “it’s always rough in the beginning. We didn’t always have soy milk. My mom would crush up calcium pills in my orange juice.”

Her nose wrinkled. “Ugh.”

“And even now, it’s kind of exorbitant. I mean, you can always make your own, but I don’t see why I should have to every time I want a drink.” I folded the paper. “Listen, it’s not a big deal. If you want to sit—”

“Actually,” she said sheepishly, “this is my stop.”

“Oh,” I said. “Never mind then.”

She nodded. Her cheeks had faded to pink, her eyes kept flickering to the floor. I pulled the cord for her and the driver obediently pulled up beside a bank of apartment blocks.

She rocked back and forth a little, looking at her shoes. Finally, she grabbed the next bar, brachiating to the back door.

“Well–bye,” she said.

“So long, Stephanie,” I called.

The doors shut after her. No one else had gotten off at the stop. I watched her as long as I could, until the back of the bus cut me off. The city bus has no rear windows. I think this is why.

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Twit Publishing Presents: Tales of Unseen Terror and Slumbering Horrors!

Twit Publishing Presents: Tales of Unseen Terror and Slumbering Horrors!.

For my fellow USians who are into horror fiction, Twit publishing has an anthology a-brewin’!

Submission guidelines and crucial dates at the link

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The Resemblance Room

Newcomb took the cage elevator down. The trip lasted almost five minutes. Through the walls, he could hear moaning and entertainment of a more provincial kind. Newcomb had long since learned to tune them out; his mind was on the evening ahead, his hands shaking with anticipation.

He presented his green foil card to a slot that appeared in the door. It shut and then a moment later gears ground into life, opening the door. Newcomb never saw another human being here.

The next door was at the end of the hall. It wasn’t armored or forboding like the door that guarded the hall, it was a plain, worn front door that you might find on an old house. The paint was artisticallly chipped in places. The knob was plastic molded into a crysal shape. Opening the door brough a waft of lime blossoms and damp earth. Newcomb waited for him on the bed.

Hello Newcomb,” he said, a hint of a smile on his lips.

Hello Newcomb,” said the other, likewise.

 

Kroft tilted the gilt box this way and that, squinting through a jeweler’s lens. The man wielded his tools as if they made any difference. Newcomb knew for a fact that the only way to tell a real box apart from a fake would be to tap it, listen to the resonance. Newcomb knew because it was his job.

Kroft opened his large nostrils even wider, scenting the inside of the box. Newcomb had used albumin size beneath the gold leaf. The box had the exact same weight as the original it imitated. A more experience man would have been able to tell by the heft. But Kroft was already dragging his thumbnail, attempting to score the leaf. When it did not, he smiled.

“I couldn’t believe,” he said, “the genuine article at this price.”

“The best at the price you wanted,” Newcomb stated, looking at his craftwork. Brent should have been the one here, selling the box, but he was still under discipline for fumbling the last buyoff. And the last. And the last.

Kroft left the shop with a thickly wrapped packet under one arm. He would guard it like a man with a very precious burden indeed, and if it were stolen on the way home, the loss would bear the same weight.

 

The other Newcomb had the honey-fuzz beginning of a mustache on his upper lip. Newcomb put a hand to his face, and then laughed. The other Newcomb smiled. The two men mirrored each other’s steps as they approached and embraced each other.

Newcomb pulled away.

“I want to kill them,” he said, “kill them all.”

The other Newcomb nodded eagerly. “We should.”

“Holt.”

“No vision,” the other Newcomb hissed.

“Brent.”

“Useless.”

“Felicia.”

The other Newcomb was silent.

“She hates us,” he said at length.

Newcomb sat on the bed. “Unappreciative.”

“She hates us both.”

“Greedy.”

“She hates you, and therefore she hates me by proxy.”

“Loveless.”

“Such hate in one person.”The other Newcomb paused. “When will you kill her?”

Newcomb swallowed.

“It’s not that easy,” he said.

The other Newcomb took a seat next to him, and swung into a cross-legged stance.

“You talk about it every time you come here,” he said reasonably, “if you want something so badly, you should implement it.”

“Not that easy,” Newcomb said, “And I would be caught. There would be precisely one suspect in such a murder, and we’re both looking at him.”

The other Newcomb was eager. “So get a new Felicia. From here.”

But Newcomb shook his head. “It would be different.”

“I don’t see how.” the other Newcomb’s tone was flat. “I don’t see how it would be any different.”

 

You’re not a forger,” Holt said again. “You’re an artist. You’re giving the people what they want, and the price they can afford.”

Newcomb could see his reflection in the black marble top of Holt’s desk. Or maybe it was slate.

Then why can’t you give me a raise,” he asked patiently.

Holt lit a cigar. Newcomb tried not to cringe at the smell, Holt was watching him closely.

You know I’d love to—”

We’ve had this conversation too many times,” Newcomb said.

Holt nodded. “Good. So you know how it’s going to end.”

He stood and indicated the door. Newcomb remained seated.

What if I go somewhere else?” he asked. “What if I take another job? I’m skilled.”

Holt laughed amiably.

You know how I know you’re not a forger?”

Newcomb nodded.

They don’t.”

 

Newcomb hung up his jacket. Garlic steam assaulted his nose. He wrinkled it, but tried to smile.

“Pork today?” He kissed away his smile in his wife’s hair.

Felicia was chopping onion. She had already chopped heaps and heaps of onion and cilantro. The smell drove him away from the kitchen, away from her.

“Poreef,” she said out the side of her mouth.

Newcomb’s smile went stony.

“But I gave you extra money,” he said carefully. “I gave you extra money and I asked yo—”

“Well, it wasn’t enough,” Felicia said acidly. “Maybe you should ask Holt for more. Then you can eat pork all you want.”

Newcomb stood in the doorway and watched her slam pot lids. She chopped mounds of aromatics to cover the taste of the imitation meat.

“What did you spend the money on?” he asked.

Felicia didn’t answer.

“What happened to the rest of the money?”

Felicia parted a squash with one knife stroke.

Newcomb dropped his briefcase behind the couch. He had a new necklace, silver leaf laid over wood. He laid this one next to the gold-coated copper and paste gems already populating her jewelry box.

 

The other Newcomb wouldn’t let it go.

“Let me do it,” he pleaded. He touched Newcomb’s face beseechingly. “Let me out. I can do it. I want to do it. You want to do it.”

Newcomb shucked the other’s hands from his shoulders. “I’m leaving. Please step away from the door.”

“She’ll start asking,” the other Newcomb said in a desperate whisper. “She’ll start wondering where you’re putting the rest of your money. You’ve been working overtime every night of the week.”

Newcomb put his hand on the other’s arms. “Let me out,” he said gently, “drop it. it’s nonsense.”

The other Newcomb stabbed a finger at his heart.

“You don’t believe I’m real,” he said accusingly, “really real.”

Newcomb looked at his own blue eyes, his own frown lines and wrinkles and blemishes and every flaw in him, faithfully made up to the closest decimal.

“Goodbye, Newcomb,” he said.

 

Felicia was humming. the kitchen smelled like cinnamon and cloves.

“Hello!” she called before he could say anything.

“Well, we’re in a good mood.” He chuckled, and then caught himself. “Sorry.”

“No, you’re right. I am in a good mood.” She accepted his peck on the cheek. “Make some real money today?”

“Yeah, I…” he stopped, hands on the rim of the sink.

Felicia dumped carrots into a stew that had no onions. “Holt finally see reason?”

Newcomb held his hands out. “Wait,” he said, “wait.”

He approached his wife, hands out. He laid them on her spine, her cheek, the dimpled curve of her rear. He smelled just below her right ear. He kissed each cheek in turn. Finally, he gathered her to himself.

Newcomb’s arms went limp. He pulled away from her.

Felicia was angry.

“What?”

Newcomb shook his head. “No. no.”

Felicia had her knife up. She hadn been using the big carving knife. The cavity where it always sat when not in use gaped at him.

“What is it,” she snapped, “well? There isn’t any difference. Don’t pretend. Don’t pretend you can tell the difference!”

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