Monthly Archives: August 2016

A Quiet Man

Mike Shaw spent the morning on his front porch watching traffic. He had cultivated a snowball bush so that it hid him from any prying eyes on the street. There was already a camera installed over the front door and on every corner of the house, but he preferred to watch personally.

Three people driving down the residential street came too close to his sidewalk for comfort. He jotted license plates down for future reference.

One car stopped as the passenger door opened. A man leaned out and poured the remains of a Big Gulp into the gutter in front of Mike’s house. His business done, the man closed the door and the car drove off.

Mike didn’t bother writing the plate down. He put on his holster and got in his truck.

Mike collected injustices like other people collect stamps or bottle caps. On quiet evenings he would mull over them, the action gave him a grim sort of satisfaction.

Mike found the car again, a two-door grey sedan. He began tailgating them and laying on his horn. The car changed lanes. He changed with them. The car began brake-checking him. Mike tapped their bumper a few times, to let them know he was serious.

Through the tinted back window, he spotted the telltale glow of a smartphone. The passenger was looking up into the rearview mirror, trying to read his plates backwards. The truck still bore the logo of the construction company that had forced him to retire on either side.

Mike suddenly swerved into a turn, letting them have a parting shot of the horn as he peeled away. Let that be a lesson unto them.

Back home, he cataloged all the infringements his neighbors committed throughout the morning. The neighbor girl walked her pomeranian down his side of the street, even though he had left several anonymous notes hinting that the dog needed to stay in its own yard or risk harm. He watched her ponytail bounce as she stopped to visit with the old woman across the street. Despite his repeated advisory to plant hedges so he didn’t have to see the front of her house, the old woman rebelliously grew roses that did little to hide her eyesore of a cottage. She’d planted the roses after the geraniums she used to grow all died suddenly and mysteriously.

The girl with the dog chatted, elbow leaned on the old woman’s white wire fence. How cosy they were. He knew they were talking about him, just covering up with a sunny disposition.

The guy from two houses down started his Harley and let it idle for a minute. Every person on the street had their own little part in the symphony of annoying Mike.

He decided to deprive them of their fun and go out for a while.

He went to the hardware store to get some small screws. He had stuck a few in some marshmallows and tossed them over the dog girl’s fence, but nothing had come of it. Maybe these ones he could plant on her daily walk route, surprise the little shit.

He parked a little close to the line. He meant to correct it, but he saw a woman dragging one of the lumber carts to her car. A little boy was perched across the bars, clearly enjoying the ride. Mike fiddled with his hair and got out.

The woman was already picking up the boy to put him in the back seat.

“Careful, now. A lot of accidents happen that way,” Mike said, grinning as he stood just behind her.

The woman jumped. She hadn’t seen him walk up. Now she turned with a nervous look on her face. She began collecting the potted plants off the cart and putting them on the floor of the backseat, never taking her eyes from him.

“I bet you’d like some help with that, huh?” Mike leaned his elbow against her car.

“No—no thank you,” the woman stammered. She tossed the last begonia inside, snapping off a branch. This carelessness made Mike frown.

“There’s such a thing as having too much pride, you know.”

She didn’t answer. She got in the car without putting the cart back, locking the doors before she even started the engine. Mike stood behind the car so she couldn’t back out, just glaring at the rearview mirror. He took the cart and shoved it up to the storefront. She peeled out of the parking lot so quickly her tires smoked.

Mike was only there to stock up on essentials. He needed two-by-fours so he could hammer nails into them and scatter them around the hinterlands of his property. Bailing wire to string at neck-height on the paths around his house. A few small, sharp screws.

There were three registers open by the time he finished. One had no line at all. Of course, as he was pushing his cart down the aisle, a man and woman swooped in with their cart and stole his spot.

Mike could feel the resentment build hot on the back of his neck as they took things out to scan slowly, oh so slowly. Three potted plants. Some tomato stakes. A shovel. An aerating fork.

The cashier frowned and flicked a box repeatedly over the red laser of the checkout counter. “Sorry, the peat moss doesn’t appear to be scanning.”

Mike growled, just loud enough for them to hear. The woman of the couple glanced around, looking for a dog. The man pointed out another bar code on the side of the package, which scanned. The cashier smiled. Mike seethed.

Of course they paid cash. Mike wondered why they didn’t just pay in pennies, go the whole hog. Then of course the cashier had to count out change, struggling with coins in the damp heat of the day.

The couple finally finished and wheeled their cart out the door. Mike rolled up.

“Finally!” he said, “don’t you just hate people like that?”

The cashier’s blank, neutral expression gave him no satisfaction.

There were a handful of people by his back bumper when he emerged from the store. Mike tensed, ready for conflict.

The old man who looked up and pointed at Mike had glasses thick as a slice of bread. “I think that’s him.”

The security officer with him was Sikh, with a sapphire turban that clashed with his olive uniform. “Is this your car, sir?”

Mike was careful to sound neutral. “Yes. I have my license and everything.”

The guard gestured to the passenger seat of the car parked next to him. An old woman, far too ancient to be the man’s wife, sat like a sad dream.

“You’ve parked too close. This man’s wife cannot exit.”

“Well then, why don’t they park over there?” Mike gestured to the next spot down.

“No can do, chief.” The old man gestured to the handicap placard on his rearview mirror.

Mike could feel the back of his neck heat up.

“Maybe if you had parked straight…” he began, but the guard was shaking his head.

“Sir, I’m afraid you must leave.”

“I wasn’t over the line!”

The guard put his hand on his radio, gazing implacably at Mike. The old man’s expression remained neutral, just like the cashier, just like the people in his neighborhood.

Mike nodded fiercely at the old man. “I get it. You can’t swing a punch, so you use this—” he thumbed at the placard, “—to bully people.”

“Son, I ain’t—”

Mike shoved his cart at the carousel, not bothering to unload. So what if he’d already paid? He went in the passenger’s side door and threw the truck into reverse. The guard just barely pulled the old man out of the way before Mike roared out of the parking lot.

What was in Mike had been simmering for weeks. Months. Years, even. There was nothing special about the parking lot incident besides its timing.

But oh, what timing.

Mike drove erratically, cutting people off, using the bulk of his car to intimidate other drivers. On what he thought was a whim, he decided to visit the barn on his property. But it wasn’t a whim. It was the culmination of much unconscious planning.

Mike’s property extended quite a ways behind his house. He enjoyed the thought of boundless wilderness and so had resisted his neighbor’s construction of a fence. The fence went up, well behind the property line as a sort of appeasement. In response Mike had built the barn, really a glorified storage shed, directly over the property line.

The barn really only held one thing, but it was the one thing that had taken most of his attention in the past weeks. Every time he felt small and insignificant, he would undo the three padlocks that held the door shut and look upon his treasure and dream of the day he would use it.

Well, today had turned out to be that day.

He breathed in the metal smell that came wafting out of the barn when he opened the door. It was a beautiful smell, a clean smell.

The thing in the barn had once been an armored van. Under Mike’s care, it had become more armored. It had gained gun turrets, and been retrofitted for tank tread. He had sealed the doors with cement and installed a special hatch on the top. Once he entered, it could not be opened from the outside. He intended it to prevent his capture, but unconsciously he always knew it would be a one-way trip.

Mike slid down into the seat, turning the key and choking the engine to life. He laughed as he sealed the hatch behind him, seating himself on boxes of ammunition. He had gutted the inside of the van to make room for his modifications.

Mike shifted into drive. He would not back out of the barn. He would not back up ever again.

The barn wall held against the push of the van. Mike pressed down the gas, sweat already beading down his neck. There was a creak and a tearing sound, and suddenly the whole building came unmoored. Mike laughed as the van labored under the weight of the barn, imagining the sight from outside.

The van sputtered.

Mike’s laughter stopped.

He jerked knobs and levers, beating frantically at the hatch.

 

Six months later, they found him. The neighbor had never seen the barn due to the thick, tangled undergrowth of the property. It took hours to crack the shell, and when they did, they found Mike’s decomposing body.

“Helluva thing,” Mike’s neighbor opined from atop his Harley as he watched them wheel the gurney to the curb, “he was so quiet. Kept to himself. What was going through his head?”

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The Stone Ship

Little is known definitively about the stone ship.

The wreckage lies under 345 feet of water in the Black Sea. The anoxic waters of the sea preserve any organic material from the ravages of bacteria, so the ship and its cargo show remarkable lack of degradation. Despite its nickname, the ship may never have been seaworthy. It measures 80 cubits in length and 50 in width. The ship is constructed in the style of ancient Greek triremes, fully rigged to sail and bearing banks of oars, yet the hull is constructed of a stone material.

The ship was found during a sonar scan of the sea bed, for it lies beyond the limits of casual divers. Initially estimated to have an age from AD5-7, the ship was presumed to be the wreckage of a mercantile vessel due to its cargo.

In 1979, a diving expedition manned by a mixed crew of Turkish and Greek divers set out to explore the wreck. It was this expedition that discovered the nature of the ship, and brought up cargo for examination. What was presumed to be market goods turned out to be offerings to an unknown god. The divers lowered the estimated age from AD to BCE 5 or earlier upon examination of the ship’s odd construction. The offerings equally puzzled the crew.

The ship was laden with fat-necked amphora, stained a vivid maroon not present in any extant samples of Roman or Greek pottery. The urns were mostly intact and still sealed, one diver claimed they could still hear liquid inside. The divers also retrieved a sack of what was found to be birdseed laden with iron pellets.

The diving crew made plans to return to the site later. However, when it came time to weigh anchor, one of their number was missing. Basri Ataman had been diving with a partner, yet had failed to surface with the crew. His partner could give no explanation for the oversight.

The rescue crew found Ataman sitting cross-legged among the amphorae on the ship. He had wedged his feet in such a way that he would not rise, even after death. His eyes had turned red from subconjunctival hemorrhage.

A crew of three were able to unstick his body from the wreck, one used his oxygen inhaler to inflate Ataman’s suit to send him quickly to the surface.

At this point, the divers had no further interest in the site. One, however, found something next to the broken amphora Ataman had been sitting on. He brought the object to the surface with them for further study. In the dying light of the day, the crew examined the small statuette.

The ‘little goddess’ (as they dubbed her) was pure gold with lapis and garnet inlaid in the form of a skirt and blouse. Her hair was in the familiar style of Greek frescoes, colored with pine pitch. Where her eyes should have been, however, were two curling projections not unlike ram’s horns.

The divers had interred Ataman’s body in the hold and had plans to return to the wreck after depositing it on shore. They never got a chance.

A gas leak originating from the cargo hold ignited at approximately three in the morning. Most of the crew were killed. The captain and one diver, Phillip Markos, escaped with third degree burns. The captain managed to pilot the crippled ship to shore before expiring from his wounds. Markos was transported to a hospital in time to receive lifesaving skin grafts over three-fourths of his body. He lived two more years before a hotel maid found him dead in the bath. He had a purple scarf tied tightly around his neck, and his eyes bore subconjunctival hemorrhage. Though the coroner found the scarf had not been tight enough to cause asphyxiation, his death was ruled a suicide.

Of the statue, only Markos’s word and a single kodachrome photo remained. Markos denied knowledge of the statue’s whereabouts, only that he was awoken several times before the disaster by a peculiar droning noise originating from the cargo hull.

The amphorae were transferred to the Antalya Museum and sealed against further study. They and the photograph of the statue are now presumed lost during Turkey’s coup d’etat of 1980.

Later expeditions to the stone ship have been unsuccessful. Divers tell of a murkiness that surrounds the site, one that handheld lights cannot hope to alleviate.

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A Delicate Matter

“Watch th’ rail, okay? Nearly took his arm off that time.”

“I’m watchin’ it as much as I kin, I don’t see how—”

Naylor rapped on the doorframe. “Gentlemen? How we doing?”

Agee and Tucker drew apart. The cadaver on the table was rolled onto his side, displaying the s-curve of the spine. Agee touched up a few strands that had fallen from his shiny pate.

“It’s the damndest thing, Mr. Naylor. We were all set to tap him, but…”

Naylor looked past their plump shoulders to the cadaver. It showed no signs of liver mortis, at least the visible portions didn’t. How odd.

“Mr. Abraham,” Naylor said, “his widow is in right now. Did you want me to tell her you haven’t yet started preservation procedure on her husband?”

Tucker looked off to the side. He was always the quieter of the two.

Agee ground his toe into the floor. “It’s just…me’n Al here, we left him by the window awhile. Damndest thing.”

“So you think cooking Mr. Abraham is proper procedure?”

Tucker shook his head. “No, sir. It’s…well, you better come look.”

They heaved the body onto its back. Abraham was grizzled and grey. His frame was stretched and thin so that his tendons stood out, even in the state of death. His skin was the translucent white of ivory soap.

Tucker brought his right wrist up for inspection. The hand, from fingertips to elbow, was striped red. Sunlight streamed in through the slats of the blinds, leaving matching stripes on the concrete floor.

Naylor clicked his teeth together. “How long did you leave him there?”

“No more’n a minute, Mr. Naylor.”

Naylor frowned down at the body.

 

Jessica Abraham was waiting in the showroom. Save for the sparse strands of white in her blonde hair, she looked young enough to be Abraham’s daughter. Her black mourning dress, though of a modest neckline, was tight.

Naylor had to restrain himself from smoothing back his hair. “My apologies. An administrative matter.”

“Not at all.” Her voice had the hollow tone he heard all too often. “Are you a family establishment?”

Naylor cleared his throat. “No, though I like to think of my technicians as family.”

Jessica wasn’t listening. She was pacing down the line of wooden boxes, seeing but not seeing.

“I don’t have much family,” she said, “Hank was my world. A lot of people think, with me so young and him so old, that it was about money.”

Naylor tactfully looked elsewhere.

“You don’t have to worry, if that’s the case. I brought my own money into the marriage. I’m going to give my husband the best send-off I possibly can.”

Naylor saw his opening and rushed to fill it. “We strive to work with every client to give them the best possible experience, no matter their budget.”

He tactfully guided her past the bargain models towards what the receptionist dubbed “the hall of eternity.” Mahogany and brass gleamed. Satin and velvet glowed.

“This model is guaranteed for fifty years after burial. Floods, insects, even seismic tremors.”

Jessica looked down at the box, the red comma of her mouth curling into a frown. Naylor intercepted her with his most sincere look.

“It is the finest wood we have,” he said, “rainforest teak. So strong that some emperors had their royal tombs carved from the wood.”

He was particularly proud of that last touch. The young widow bent over the box. Her blonde eyelashes made her eyes look misty.

Naylor, glancing discreetly up at the clock, caught sight of Tucker standing in the doorway. At an angle that she couldn’t see, Naylor frowned at the funerary tech.

Tucker thumbed behind himself. His face was subtly terrified. Naylor looked from him to the widow, and back again. He sighed inaudibly.

“I’m very sorry,” he said, “I’m afraid I must excuse myself again.”

Jessica looked up. Her pencil-thin eyebrows arched. “Not a problem with my husband, I hope?”

“Most certainly not,” he hastily lied. “We’ve had problems, with…a buyer. A simple paperwork matter. Shouldn’t be more than three minutes.”

She did not look entirely satisfied, but nodded him on his way.

 

“What did you DO?” Naylor gaped at the scene.

“Well, me’n Al got to talkin’, see, and we thought the daylight thing kinda funny. And you know, when we went to tap him, the old boy was complet’ly dry. So Al, he says maybe we should wheel him to that big ol’ chapel cross and, well…”

Abraham’s body now had a violet cruciform discoloration down the face and neck.

Naylor got to his knees, moaning. “You know I was just showing her the Emperor, don’t you? Goddamn, clients like her don’t just drop in every day in this hick town!”

“Sorry, boss.” Tucker at least had the good graces to look ashamed.

“Yeah, sorry.”

Naylor covered his face with a hand and waved it away. “We can fix the face. But there’re deeper matters in play here, now.”

“What matters, boss?”

Naylor lowered his hand. Tucker shuffled his feet and looked down again.

“You want I should get the priest?”

“Just like that? Would you just snag anyone to perform a wedding ceremony, Al? No.” Naylor straightened up. “You’ve got to have tact. I can still fix this.”

 

Jessica was looking out the stained glass window with a slightly puzzled look on her face. The scene he’d chosen was non-denominational. In a town so small he couldn’t afford to alienate any creed.

“Mrs. Abraham,” he said in his most cultured, soothing voice. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long.”

Jessica shrugged. Grief struck in all sorts of ways. Some fell wailing before the oncoming tide, some weathered it like shoal.

Some, Naylor reflected, ran back up to their beachfront mansion.

“Well, I’m sure you’ve had enough of the hall for now,” he said, tactfully steering her towards a little-used door, “I have something else to show you.”

Jessica let herself be led.

“Many people do not like to think of the minutiae of a funeral,” Naylor continued as he guided her through the door. “There are many aspects of a funeral that go largely unremarked. We pride ourselves on thinking of such, so that others do not have to. So, when the time comes, you can make the most informed decision you can.”

Jessica frowned slightly at the boxes lining the wall. Some were plain wood, some stone, some cut glass. The biggest would only have held a cat at most.

“I don’t understand.”

Naylor took off his glasses and rubbed an eye with his fingertip. “Sometimes there are… additional preparations to make. We handle it discreetly as possible, but we cannot make decisions for the client.”

He fetched a wooden box from the wall. It was carven with a hunting scene. Dogs with long tongues ran baying before a man with a flintlock.

Naylor bore it over to the widow reverently. He set it on the viewing table and opened it. Jessica gave a little gasp.

“It is the finest wood we have,” Naylor said, stroking the stake with the fingertips of his right hand.

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Tattoo Sam

He called himself Sam, “like Uncle Sam.” No one knew what his real name was. He claimed he was the tattooed man for a circus, wandered far and long without a shirt to show his bare, white torso. He’d flex the fat under his flesh and call for us to touch the pictures that weren’t there.

This was long before milk carton pictures and PSAs, so the little our parents could do was warn against approaching him. Like that worked. He approached us. He’d walk up and make muscles, tell us the same thing every time. He was a tattooed man at the Scarborough Traveling Circus for twenty-odd years before they paid him to leave. He had a way of looking at you, straight on, no blinking. He didn’t move his eyes. If you were beside him, he’d turn his whole head to look.

When we’d back away, he’d jiggle his chest at you and shout: “whatsamatta? Ain’t I tattooed enough for you?”

My dad tried time and again to find out where he lived. To find some kind of higher authority to make him stop. Tattoo Sam answered to no higher authority than himself. He’d hijack  any conversation and wax poetic about his body. We started running when we saw him coming.

The split-level at the end of the block had been empty since Mr. Perretti had gone and had a heart attack. Then one day we saw a family drive up with their boxes and their furniture and their daughter in a long white sundress. We knew what trouble looked like, and it was that shy smile on her face. The family hadn’t moved in but one day before Sam scented her.

I bet her folks taught her to be kind. To laugh and smile because people were generally good at heart. Her folks had never met Sam. We watched him scent her like a hound after a rabbit. He sat sweating in the sun, a great ice-milk of a man, with one hand on her shoulder pinning her in place. We didn’t need to hear him to know what he was saying. It was the same thing he’d said all along.

This girl didn’t have the skills we did, she smiled and sweated and waited for the end.

Sam said she could go just as soon as she touched his tattoo.

We know she must’ve asked, what tattoo? We could see her pink lips move in the sunlight. She let him guide her hand. She let out the most blood-curdling shriek any of us had ever heard.

In all the time he’d haunted our home, none of us cared to get too close to Tattoo Sam. This girl was right up against him and she set off running in the other direction. None of us ever saw her again.

He pointed his flat eyes at us and laughed. That laughter haunted us the rest of our days, spilling out of his painted-on mouth and oozing down the cream-white ink that dotted his body. He laughed right up the block, the tattooed man of the Scarborough Traveling Circus, and never came back. You see, Sam wasn’t tattooed. Sam was the tattoo.

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