Life, The Magazine, and a Job Opportunity – Editor-in-Chief, Kelly Fitzharris Faulk

Hey, guys!

I’m checking in to let you know that today my mother is undergoing extensive back surgery and that I’m going to be sort of in and out as much as I can be.

The themes are still running, I’ll post your pieces as soon as I am able to, but if I’m not back with you right away, it’s because I’m indisposed. I’m hoping to be able to schedule some more work tonight – but if I can’t, I don’t want you to worry. It will happen.

Unrelated side note: I am actively looking for an employee whose sole purpose at SLM will be to establish, create, and accurately procure some sort of running, longstanding site monetization. Monetizing this thing will not only help with staff momentum and motivation, but also eventually get us to a place where we might be able to pay our writers. For the past two years, this has been my passion project – it will continue to be a passion project – I’ll just have more time to devote to it if I’m able to somehow make the money I’ve invested in it back.

Now: I’m accessible and communicate freely with my writers because that’s who I am, first, and because I truly enjoy it. That being said, I dislike being blind copied on a submission that’s going out to about 40 other publications. Now, this isn’t to say that we don’t accept simultaneous submissions, because of course we do. But if you have scoured Duotrope and Poets & Writers and picked us because we seem like an easy place to be published, then we are not for you.

I LIVE for the emails I receive where a writer talks to me person-to-person. My regular contributors / artists / writers all talk to me that way, referencing different editorials I’ve posted, checking in with me, as I check in with them as well – this isn’t some fly by night publication. I’m building SLM in a way that brings back the writer – editor connection, not the other way around. We are NOT every other journal / lit mag / whatever hipster term is popular for this – what Editor Z loves, possibly an attached cover letter (WTF?! Is this a job interview?!), strict margins, strict professionalism in the body of the email, and basically a carbon copy of every other submission that they accept, IS NOT what I expect, nor is it what I want. Would you like to know why? Because that’s not what a true talent for writing is all about. The vast majority of us are NOT type A personalities who organize everything to death and drool over formatting.

If an editor is rejecting work solely based on that criteria, then I’m HAPPY to receive all the great work that they’re missing out on. I don’t know when writing became such a standardized, marginalized game of favorites; and who deemed what type of writing is supposed to be “right” and what’s supposed to be “wrong.” That very line of thinking goes against everything that we writers stand for; because writing is an art. Art doesn’t live within the margins, literally and figuratively.

Our tagline, Bringing the real. Keeping the weird. isn’t what you might think it is. It means that we’re ALL WEIRD. Who is normal? What is normal? (I’ll give you a clue: there is no normal.) I want you to be yourself (hence the real) and I want you to write what you love to write (hence the weird).

I want to (and try to) stress this in as many of my editorial notes as I possibly can, because we have enough site traffic and wonderful pieces of writing and art that a lot of my mission statements (or whatever you want to call it) sort of get lost in the mix.

Nicole summed it up pretty well in the Submissions FAQ when she said: What we’re NOT: Easy Access. That is true, definitely. It’s true because I may see greatness in something that every other editor has passed on; and I can also see through a piece of writing that lacks spirit and passion. And I’ll tell you another thing: after being published here, for some strange, magical reason, suddenly, other editors begin to publish the writers that I feature here.

Editors need to take their jobs a little more seriously – because, like it or not, we are a gateway to exposure; and that sometimes means you’re a writer’s last and/or only hope.

I can’t promise you guys that I’m going to singlehandedly change the entire literary landscape. But I can promise you this: as long as I’m here, I will work as hard as I can to be that change that we writers all need so desperately (while I’m working here at SLM). This doesn’t always mean that I’m going to respond to your submission vomiting sunshine and rainbows. A lot of times, I’ll send you back a page of your work with markups and tell you to get to work. Writing is a process. It’s a lot of trial and error and without personal growth, your writing becomes stagnant.

On “Career Day” at Bluewater Elementary in Niceville Florida, I was in second grade, eight years old, and a regular visitor at the school’s library. As an avid reader and consumer of content, content, content, I knew where I wanted to be in this world.

My entire class had to give their answer to the question of, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” After listening to answers like ballerina, football player, fireman, police officer, actor, model, and many, many others, I was the last to answer.

“Well, Kelly Marie, what is it that you want to do when you grow up?”

I cleared my throat. “I’d like to be a part of the media.”

My teacher chuckled. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I want to be part of the media. I want to write. I want to be a part of it in my own way.”

And, well, here I am.

Keep submitting.

Keep writing.

Be patient with me.

zzzyy

Cheers,

Kelly

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Welcome – by DON TASSONE

Welcome

 

 

The snow whipped at his eyes, nearly blinding him.  Frostbitten and exhausted, he could go no farther.

 

He’d been walking for two days.  That’s when the blizzard hit and he got separated and lost.

 

Now, in the distance, he saw a light.  Summoning all his remaining strength, he headed toward it.

 

The light came from the window of a stone hut.  He trudged to the door and fell against it.  Someone pulled it open.

 

“Heb-bar kaa-su-shu,” said a man in a maroon robe, helping the stranger inside.

 

The stranger did not know Tibetan.  Even so, he understood “Welcome.”

***

dontassone

 Don Tassone’s stories and essays have appeared in a range of literary magazines.  His debut short story collection, Get Back, was published by Golden Antelope Press in March 2017.  His debut novel, Drive, will be published in September 2017.

Mrs. Underwood – by DANIEL C. ROCHE

 

MRS. UNDERWOOD

By

Daniel C. Roche

 

 

 

Mrs. Underwood lifts a cup of coffee toward her lips.  Black.  No cream or sugar allowed.  A woman of her advanced age can no longer afford such luxuries.  Doctors’ orders.  Her frail hands tremble as she blows the steam away from her perspiring lips.  She sips at the hot liquid, and of course, it’s delicious.  Throughout all these years she still worships the taste of coffee, just as she had all those years ago when she first tasted it.  Apparently coffee never grows old.

Too bad she can’t say the same for herself.

Warm sunshine pours in through the windows.  Mrs. Underwood loves the feeling she gets when the soft rays tickle her skin, causing goose-bumps to rise like bubbles in a pot of boiling water.  For this reason she is always up before dawn, waiting for the sun to arrive and welcome her to the new day.

She looks down upon her outfit (a long well-worn nightgown) and sighs.  She takes another sip of coffee and allows her mind to wander.  Her mind wanders back to a time when she actually had a reason to wear lovely dresses once in a while.  Dresses that showed off her long legs.  She recalls how good it felt when a young man would ask her to dance, or when a gentleman would step aside to hold a door open for her. She would turn around to thank him and catch him stealing a glance at her back side as she stepped though the doorway.

Happened every time.

No sense tormenting herself by thinking about those long gone days, but it’s hard not to think about her youth.  Those care-free days when she actually had something to live for.

She puts her coffee down and stares at her feet.  Her slippers are tattered and worn.  Maybe later on in the evening she will gather her knitting kit and make a new pair.  Some comfortable new slippers would be nice.  Just having something to do would be nice.

Her attention is suddenly stolen away from her slippers when she notices two  small figures out in the meadow on the far side of her lawn.  Disgusted at what she sees,        she approaches her window to get a better look.

“Oh for Pete’s sake,” she says.  “Now why on earth do those boys feel they have to meddle with those flowers?”

Through her window, out in the meadow, the two young boys from the house next door busy themselves by plucking away at some of the wildflowers that occupy the landscape.  From where Mrs. Underwood stands, she cannot see any rhyme or reason as to why those boys would feel the need to rid the neighborhood of such lovely flowers.

Dont they have anything better to do?

Maybe after ‘The Price is Right’ she will scurry next door and inform the boys parents of their misdoings.  She makes her way back to her seat, and to no one in particular she says, “Oh what’s the point?”  She tells herself that maybe the boys are already in trouble for something and are trying to make amends by picking some flowers for their mother.

Mrs. Underwood retrieves her coffee mug and takes another sip, but a lump appears in her throat, making it difficult to swallow.  She finds herself sobbing.  Seeing those two boys out there in the meadow reminds her of her own children.

For about a year after her husband passed away, her two sons and daughter would pop in every now and again for a visit.  They always brought the grandchildren with them, which she always appreciated, but after a while the visits grew less frequent, until finally her children stopped visiting completely.  Now-a-days it seems they only call her on her birthday or drop by to give her a card on Christmas.  It’s a hell of a way to treat their mother.  After all, she thinks.  Im the one who brought them into this world.

Thinking of her children always depresses her, and her depression has been so severe lately that she even took the trouble of gathering all of the family pictures in the house and putting them into a shoebox.  That shoebox now collects dust in her bedroom closet.

The lump in her throat increases and she cannot finish her coffee.  She decides to dump it into the kitchen sink.

Bracing herself over the sink, she allows her anguish to consume her.  She has a terrible decision to make – a decision she has been putting it off for a while now, but this sudden outburst draws attention to the severe importance of her situation.  Fresh tears flow freely down her wrinkled cheeks because for many months now she has been formulating a plan.  One last act that will end the misery that has become her life, and last weekend she had put all of the necessary items into place.  All she had to do now was wait until the time felt right.

Staring down into the wash basin, Mrs. Underwood realizes there is no better time than right now.

Gathering up her courage, Mrs. Underwood heaves herself away from the sink and heads towards her bedroom.

In her room, she sits upon her neatly made bed and stares at the closet door.  Tears no longer stand in her eyes, her hands no longer tremble and her sadness is down to a dull aching.  She knows that beyond the closet door the end of all her troubles awaits.  For Mrs. Underwood, her closet door may as well be the gates of heaven.  She takes a deep breath, stands up, and closes her hand around the door handle.  The moment of truth has arrived.

She opens the closet door.

Glorious emptiness fills her mind as her eyes fall upon a small stool.  Four and a half feet above the stool is a noose, the end of which is tied to a rafter in the opening of the ceiling.  It was hell climbing through the small opening into the attic, but now as she gazes upon the fruits of her efforts, she knows her pains were well worth it. Mrs. Underwood stands on the stool, and just as she is putting the noose around her neck, there is a knocking at her front door.

“Who could that be?” she mumbles.  It certainly couldn’t be one of her children.

Of all the times…  “Ah the hell with ‘em.”  She continues with the noose, but then she thinks, what if it is one of the kids?  Is this how I want them to find me?  As she is thinking this, another knocking can be heard from the front door, followed by the impatient ringing of the doorbell.

Mrs. Underwood groans.  “Hold your horses, I’m coming.”

She climbs down from the stool and makes her way down the hall towards the living room.  Once again the doorbell rings.  Feeling no need to rush, she shuffles along.  At her age, she rushes for no one.

Half expecting to be greeted by a salesman of some kind, she opens the door, but instead of being greeted by a seedy salesman, the two young boys from next door stand before her.  Up close, the boys look sweet and innocent.  Mrs. Underwood feels immediate remorse for harboring such negative thoughts about them earlier. Smiling brightly, the boys are wide eyed, proudly holding before them colorful displays of flowers they had picked and arranged all by themselves.

“Good morning Mrs. Underwood,” says Anthony, the older of the two.

Looking anxious the younger boy mimics his brother.  “Yeah.  Good morning Mrs. Underwood.”

Anthony says, “We picked these for you,” and held the flowers out for her.

Quickly, the younger boy does the same.

Mrs. Underwood is stunned and it takes her a moment before she can come up with a response.  “Why thank you, boys.  These are lovely.”

It had been so long since anyone had done something nice for her that she almost forgot to reach out and accept the flowers.  When she finally did, she brought them close and inhaled the deep fragrance.

“This is so very nice of you.”

The younger boy weaves back and forth like a balloon on the edge of bursting.  “Hey Mrs. Underwood,” he says.  “Do you have any candy?”

His older brother elbows him in the ribs.  “Shut up, Danny.”

Mrs. Underwood chuckles.  “Candy?  Well let me see.”  She finds it funny that these children only brought her the flowers in hopes of receiving candy.  Still, no one has given her flowers in years.

The lump in her throat returns.  “Let me go put these in some water and I’ll see if I can find some candy for you nice young men.”

Their little faces light up, and they eagerly wait on the front door step as the old woman rummages around in her kitchen.

Having poured some tap water into a vase, she arranges the flowers and displays them at the center of her kitchen table.  On her way back to the front door she stops in the den.  On the coffee table sits a small bowl filled with an assortment of hard candies.  There’s a bag of Hershey’s Kisses next to it.  She grabs two handfuls of each and returns to the front door.

Eagerly waiting for their prize, the boys smile wide and cup their hands in front of them.

“Here you go,” she says.

The children jump up and down, their eyes never leaving the candy.  “Thank you,”

they scream.  They then run across the yard.

“See you later, Mrs. Underwood,” calls Danny.

The old woman shuts the door and heads back into the kitchen.  Alone with her thoughts she stares out the window.  She looks to the meadow where the boys had gathered the flowers.  A strong yearning erupts in her chest and the lump in her throat swells.

“Oh,” she chokes.  “What is this?”  Her hand rises instinctively to her mouth and the tips of her fingers gently rub her lips.  She can’t remember the last time she smiled.  She didn’t even know she had it in her anymore.  She hurries into the bathroom and stares before the mirror.  Mrs. Underwood can’t believe her eyes.  Within the wrinkles of that drooping face she catches a glimpse of the blushing young woman she once was.  There’s no denying it.  She looks ten years younger.

She leaves the bathroom and re-enters the kitchen.  “Maybe I’ll make another cup of coffee,” she says.  “And I think I’ll take cream and sugar today.”  But before she begins boiling the water she bends over the kitchen table and smells the fresh wildflowers.  “And I think later on I might head out and buy some more candy.”

***

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Several of Daniel’s short stories have appeared in print through Tough Lit Magazine and Idea Gems Magazine.  Over 30 of his other stories, poems, articles and memoirs have been published in several online magazines, Including Ariel Chart (a signatory of Poets and Writers.)  If you like what you’ve read here, please browse his website: danielcraigroche.wordpress.com

PLEASE STAND CLEAR – by Brianna Fenty

PLEASE STAND CLEAR

 

 

I have mastered the art of being alone without succumbing to loneliness.

Anyone on the outside looking in through the tinted train windows might think such a statement a blatant manifestation of a woman deep in denial, drowning beneath roaring waves of solitude. But that simply is not the case.

There’s no one out there anyway.

Mine are the only pair of judgmental eyes left on this ravaged world—at least as far as I can tell.

I came to terms with my isolation long ago. My hatred for the train was a boiling, scalding thing in my youth, driving me to pound the doors, claw the viewports, tear cables from the ceiling panels in frustrated rage. These tantrums did nothing to slow the train. To this day, it speeds blindingly along the route preprogrammed into the ATO panel—sealed behind an impenetrable, bulletproof bulwark of a door—plodding its never-ending loop though sun-blasted plains, jagged mountains, and gloomy marshes. I fought the metal monster from the inside out for a great chunk of my adolescence until at last, one day, the futility of it all stilled my hand.

The passage of time has an uncanny way of softening the perspective, after all.

This train—the Aegis—is a fully automated, sleek beast of a machine, equipped with anything and everything a girl could ever want, need, or wish for. The greenhouse sustains me on a balanced diet of legumes, fruits, and vegetables. The ventilation room keeps the cars warm in the nuclear winters and cool in the apocalyptic summers. The infirmary’s medical automaton scans my body for sickness and injury every Tuesday afternoon, dispensing vitamins to keep me at the pinnacle of physical health. The vast library, fitness center, art studio, and music gallery maintain my sanity, offering a panacea for the boring tedium of years of seclusion.

Most vital of all was the media theater. Full to bursting with all manner of movies, television shows, documentaries, and grainy home-videos, it ensures that I don’t forget that, once upon a time, people existed. That they laughed and cried and loved; that they had passions and hatreds, conversations and arguments; that they chased their ideas and dreams with zeal and studied the mysteries of the world in which they once lived in a ceaseless pursuit of knowledge, of belonging, of purpose. I oftentimes find myself lugging stacks of books into the theater, losing myself simultaneously in artfully spun tales of life between the pages and moving images of humanity playing across the projector screen, unable to decide which medium deserved my attention more.

I became a master multitasker, reveling in the creations of generations long since turned to dust.

But I was never alone. Not truly.

The man who put me on the Aegis when I was thirteen, who plopped me inside this lavish metal leviathan and wiped my memory slate irreversibly clean, left me with a companion. A puppy, of all things. A baby. A tiny, pathetic creature, mewling for its mother, yellow fur barely dried in the aftermath of its birth.

I can still recall my first onboard memory with such clarity that I feel the smooth titanium of the floor beneath my palms as I push myself up, mind reeling. I reach for the puny creature, cuddling it delicately, coaxing my shaking fingers to stillness in the fear that the smallest movement might disturb him.

At the time, I thought it cruel.

To abandon an adolescent on a train promising her survival was one thing. But a puppy, fresh from the womb, denied the nourishment of its mother’s milk and bodily warmth? Alone, afraid, eyes sealed shut, trapped in a cold steel chrysalis with none but a preteen mess of a girl for company?

Cruel.

But as days, weeks, and months of solitude passed, I thanked my lucky stars for the puppy’s presence. I found kinship in its soft, mud-brown eyes and the unconditional love and trust sparkling within them.

I was young and frightened, as well I should’ve been. The train confused me. The devastated world beyond its walls terrified me. Savage expanses of empty, rolling hills flew by in a ceaseless, dizzying blur, day-in and day-out. The amnesia blackening all recollection of life before the Aegis worried me most.

The puppy was a beacon of solace in my otherwise senseless existence. As much as I cherished him, it took days to bestow upon him a proper name.

One midwinter afternoon, as the train plowed through snowdrifts and roared through clouds of blizzarding white, I read a story by William Sydney Porter. It was my sixth day of internment. Muscles limp and throat raw from a week of searching for escape, I’d reluctantly curled into the suede armchair in the library car. In an effort to calm his longing howls, I engulfed the sobbing pup in a plaid quilt I’d found. I cradled the weeping creature in my lap and read to him The Gift of the Magi. My voice trembled pathetically; my barely-pubescent hands shook and struggled to hold the tome of short stories aloft. But as I read, the dog relaxed, and so did I. By the time I uttered the tale’s final words, the pup was peacefully asleep.

I remember setting the book down on the rickety nightstand, its wooden legs trembling softly with the train’s rocking shudder. Studying the dusty book with sleepy eyes, I discovered Porter’s pen name.

  1. Henry.

The puny puppy, nuzzling his moist, black nose contentedly into my thigh, sniffling against the woolen blanket, at last had a worthy name.

The Aegis boasted many amenities. I was eternally thankful for each and every one. But none were so precious to me as Henry the golden retriever.

My name is Eden Marie Sinclair.

The train is my home, and the train provides.

I love my books. I love my garden. I love my dog.

Life is simple. Life is good.

But I can’t help but dwell on the life I might have lived, the family I might have known, the fate I might have fulfilled before the world collapsed.

~~~

The tin can cracks open, releasing a gassy exhale laced with a foul, pungent stench. I wrinkle my nose, grinding the can opener around the edge until the lid pops off and clatters into the farmhouse sink. The meaty sludge, equal parts unidentifiable lumps and greasy broth, grimaces up at me.

Thank God I’m not a dog.

“Henry!” I call. “Dinner!”

I spoon the can’s vile contents into a dish, setting it down on his placemat in the corner of the kitchen car. My own supper sizzles on the electric stove, filling the coach with the far more pleasant aromas of sautéed spinach, onion, and garlic.

“Dinner, Henry. C’mon boy!”

The shouting strains my vocals, forcing a dry cough from my lungs. I rub my chest. Clear my throat. Shake my head.

Dinner is Henry’s favorite word. It never takes him more than six seconds to pounce through the sensor-activated doors; after all, he never strays more than a few feet from my side and when he does, it isn’t usually for very long.

The delay is uncharacteristic.

With a sigh, I spare a fleeting glance to the wilting spinach and lower the heat. As I make my way to the door, another cough seizes me, this one harder, drier, rooting a stinging ache in my sternum. I pound my chest and take a deep breath but it’s constricted, like my esophagus has shrunk, crimping like an accordion. Must be the damn smoke. The range hood over the stovetop is probably glitching again. I roll my eyes at the thought of yet another afternoon tinkering with its messy electronic innards. I’m an artist with a screwdriver, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy playing repairwoman.

The tempered glass door clicks and opens automatically with a mechanical hiss. I step past the vestibule into the humid greenhouse coach. Flourishing peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, and other vegetable plants arrange themselves in tidy irrigated lines; sleeves of harvested garlic and drying herbs dangle from racks running the length of the car; hydroponic pools burst with watermelon, strawberries, blueberries, painting the room with a cacophony of color. Cool mist from the drip systems overhead dampen my face and hair. I walk down the aisle between rows of cucumber and potato, craning my neck to search the shaded corners where Henry, in his old age, sometimes naps in the comfort of the fresh air.

Not here either.

I exit the greenhouse and amble into the library car, a cozy, mahogany-and-plaid laden chamber trading windows for beautifully crowded shelves of books.

“Henry?”

I check the plush bed nestled behind the armchair. Nothing.

I cough.

A wave of dizziness sweeps over me. Crushing into my temples, wobbling my knees. I blink hard. Each time my eyes open my vision blurs and struggles to focus. The next time I call Henry’s name it’s a raspy whisper that burns the walls of my windpipe.

Faintly, from worlds away, I hear Henry’s alarmed bark.

When I hack again into my hand, red coats my palm.

My heart spikes.

My throat constricts.

My eyes tear.

I gasp in desperation for oxygen as my body turns against me, unable to form a clear thought.

What the hell is happening?

Another unsteady step toward the door of the next car is all it takes for my balance to fail. I crash to the ground, cheek mashing against the scratchy maroon carpet. Black patches distort my sight.

Henry!

My mouth opens to yell his name but nothing escapes my lips, chapped and splitting painfully in the absence of breath. I heave thick clots of blood onto the rug, forcing my arms forward. My muscles are weak and my hands are trembling, but I forge on, dragging my traitorous body toward the door.

The closer I get, the louder his bark.

I have to get to him.

He has to be okay.

Please be okay.

My upper body thumps to the ground in exhaustion before the glass door. I shiver. I choke. Fire blazes in my chest, scorching the inner walls of my lungs black. Blood dribbles down my chin. I smack my palm against the door. It thuds uselessly against the glass, leaving behind a ghostly imprint.

The door doesn’t open.

I hit it.

I pummel the glass again and again to no avail. I hammer my fist against it and I scream a silent, agonized scream, staring with bulging eyes at the horrified expression reflected back at me through the locked vestibule door.

AIRBORNE CONTAMINATION DETECTED IN CARS 11, 12, 13, AND 14.

A robotic female monotone blasts over the intercom, made eerie by static and mechanical distortion.

CONTAMINANT UNKNOWN. ASSESSING RISK. STAND BY.

My fading consciousness struggles to process the words. Contamination? What the fuck does that mean?

The blows I strike against the door grow weaker.

ASSESSMENT COMPLETE.

Hands numb.

Arms leaden.

Head a thousand kilos too heavy, throbbing as if my skull is cracking, impaling shards of bone into the fleshy bits of my brain.

PROGNOSIS DEEMED FATAL. SEALING DOORS FOR AUTOMATIC PURGE.

Henry’s panicked bark grows farther and farther away, heard from forty meters beneath a storming sea as my hearing fails.

Past the steel wool clogging my ears, a whooping siren screeches over the intercom, the telltale whoosh of air sucks backwards through vent ducts. The car is bathed in a bloody warning light, turning what was once my coveted literary haven into a nightmarish hellscape of red.

My periphery darkens. My fingers curl. My tongue turns to paper.

FIRE ALERT IN CAR 12: GREENHOUSE. COMMENCING BURNOUT PROCEDURES.

I wheeze and I sputter. Behind me, fire consumes the greenhouse, destroying in one fell sweep my only food source. The heat is oppressive, intensifying as it spreads. It leaps from plant to plant, evaporating water to hissing steam, blackening the skins of fruits and vegetables, crumbling leaves and stems and roots until nothing remains but clouds of soot and piles of ash. The door holds against the onslaught of the flames, wafting deathly smoke over the glass until all I see is hazy grey.

OXYGENATOR FAILURE IN CAR 14: VENTILATION. COMMENCING REROUTE. REPAIR PROSPECTS: UNKNOWN.

Henry’s bark is lost in the howl of the siren. In my mind’s eye I see his aged body wilting, his arthritic legs folding beneath him as the oxygen drains from the cars. I reach up with a final ounce of strength, motivated by the image of my frightened companion dying a slow death, and I yank down the scarlet lever built into the wall panel.

“Manual override,” I choke.

ACCESS DENIED.

“Aegis, manual override! Administrator code 55279EMS!”

ACCESS DENIED.

Helpless moans gurgle from my throat. My tongue lolls from my slackening mouth, eyes twitching, clouding over.

And then I see him.

Henry paws at the door in the next vestibule, tail tucked between his legs, pacing in distress.

He’ll die alone. Alone and afraid. Confused. Lost. Thinking I abandoned him. Thinking I did this to him.

No way in hell.

I swallow down one last gulp of the thinning air and use the lever as an anchor to pull myself up on shaking feet. I collapse against the wall. My fingers have just enough tension left to wrap around the carbide glass breaker. Shielding my face with one arm, I use the other to bash at the door, once, twice, three times, four—

SMASH!

My legs fail. I tumble through the opening into car ten. Spears of glass tear through my clothes, lacerating the skin of my face and hands. The titanium flooring of the bedroom car is far less forgiving than the library’s carpet, sending a shockwave of vertigo rocking through my temples when my head cracks against ground. The oxygen purge isn’t prioritized in the unaffected coaches, but now that the door is broken it won’t take long before the rest of the train is voided of air. I suck down a desperate heave and hold it in my lungs, making each and every molecule count.

I crawl and crawl, Henry’s heart-wrenching cries growing louder as I approach the next door.

“Get back, boy,” I pant. “I’m coming.”

The glass breaker collides with the door, showering down upon us a glittering rain of thick, murderously sharp shards. I ignore the way they slice into my knees and palms and scramble over the lip into the vestibule, hugging Henry to my chest. His silvery whiskers tickle my neck. His high-pitched whine is at once relieved and pained.

“It’s okay. I’m here.”

We need to get to the infirmary.

Just one more door.

One more door between us and salvation and sweet, sweet oxygen.

Henry may be old, but he is in no way light. My air-deprived muscles struggle to haul him over my shoulder—adrenaline does its work, pumping energy into my feeble arms and legs and launching me toward the medical bay.

I anchor my body to the side to protect Henry from the glass as the final door falls to the unyielding force of the carbide.

His eyes are fluttering. His body is limp. His whines soften.

“Hang on, buddy,” I beg. “We’re almost there.”

I lay him on the floor and dash into the med bay. Blood is pouring from my mouth now, mutating my racking coughs into moist, gargling sputters, but I’m too close to give up now.

There they are.

I snatch the oxygen mask from the med cabinet and secure it to my face. The rush of air is curative, a blessedly cooling gush of alpine wind eradicating the inferno roaring deep in my chest. I allow myself a half-second of pause before grabbing the second mask and rushing to Henry.

The train shudders violently around a sharp turn, hurtling through a tunnel.

The infirmary descends into darkness.

The tremor throws me to the ground.

Henry’s name becomes a desperate mantra on my lips, muffled behind the plastic mask. I pat the floor, feeling my way across the car.

“Where are you, buddy?”

My hand at last touches a swath of bristly fur. My heart kick-starts, a mixture of relief and anxiety so potent I can taste it like vinegar on my tongue. I use my fingers as a guide to find his snout and press the mask to his face, pulling taught the straps and cranking the wheel switch to open the airflow.

The Aegis emerges from the tunnel. Sunlight floods the med bay. The blinding rays are merciless against the sterile white of the infirmary.

SYSTEM PURGE COMPLETE.

I blink, eyes adjusting to the brightness.

“We did it, boy. We made it.”

I look down at Henry. Spatters of scarlet stain the inside of his mask.

“Henry?”

His tongue spills from his mouth, covered in pink froth.

“Henry, wake up.”

His eyes are rolled back into his head, his limbs are flaccid, and the familiar rise and fall of his chest is gone.

“Henry, c’mon boy. Wake up.”

The train barrels along the tracks at a sound-shattering speed, but the universe around me grinds slowly to a cold, silent, empty halt. It takes eons for my hands to reach out and caress his head. To lift it into my lap, heavy and lifeless. Dead weight.

“You’re okay,” I whisper.

My eyes roam the length of his body, grown frail with age, golden fur dulled grey by the passage of sixteen long and wonderful years.

“You’re okay.”

I release the straps securing the mask, pulling it away from his face. It falls to the floor.

“You’re okay.”

I gently tug him onto my lap, much like that midwinter afternoon sixteen years ago when I read to him my favorite story, bestowed upon him a name worthy of his jolly grin, invaluable companionship, and unwavering loyalty. The fur of his mane is thick and brittle yet somehow still soft as the day he was born. I nestle my face into the crook of his neck. Tears dampen his hair, staining the dim yellow a dark, mustardy brown.

“You’re okay, buddy.” My sob is quiet behind the barrier of the mask. I ache to take it off, to feel the tender kiss of his fur against my nose. “You’re okay.”

I cradle my best friend, my family, my oldest and only kin, hugging him tight and telling him he’s okay and hoping beyond hope that my love for him will be enough to restart his heart.

But it isn’t.

That’s not how life works.

Death is definite. Mean and final, without prejudice.

Oxygen levels critical, the automaton chimes cheerfully. Five minutes remaining.

I want to scream at that damned, cursed, blasted thing, to smash its screens and sever its wires so I don’t have to listen to its blind robotic optimism. But my body is done. Sapped of all motivation and purpose.

The air in my mask thins.

Three minutes remaining.

An agonized wail breaks free.

I don’t want to die. But I don’t want to live without Henry. I don’t want to be alone. I can’t.

I can’t imagine an existence without my faithful dog at my side, warming at night the foot of my bed, begging for scraps by the table at lunchtime, cocking his head as I read to him tales of mystery and adventure.

But I won’t have to.

I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but the Aegis is perishing—complete and total system failure—and when it dies, I will go with it.

One minute remaining.

Mellow sobs continue their quivering journey through my body, but a blanket of calm descends over me, too, draping across my shoulders a silken shroud of acceptance. I savor my final breaths, smacking my lips. They taste of copper and salt, moistened with blood and the tears that have managed to slip past the mask’s seal.

I close my eyes.

I whisper, “you’re okay.”

I’ll see him again soon. Somewhere bright, somewhere clean and happy, without pain.

And then something happens. Something that has never once occurred in all the time I’ve been trapped on this godforsaken train.

The Aegis slows.

The Aegis stops.

Nausea churns in my gut, spinning my head; my body revolts, unaccustomed to the alien sensation of not moving. My butt tingles in the absence of the ground’s familiar tremble.

Thirty seconds remaining.

The faintest and oddest of sounds brushes my ears. The ghastly drone of opening doors—but not the ones I’m used to hearing.

It’s not the mild hiss of the automatic inner doors.

It’s the rushing exhale of the single pair of outer doors in car one. The one and only exit point on the train.

The intercom crackles. The automated announcement is heavily distorted, warped into a mutated perversion of the human voice.

PLEASE STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS.

I take one last breath of air before the oxygen cuts off.

I stagger to my feet, carefully laying Henry down.

I stare in the direction of car one, pressing my final lungful of air deep into my chest.

For the first time in sixteen years, another passenger has boarded the Aegis.

~~~

The Aegis is moving again by the time my lungs are emptied of oxygen. The last thing I see before I collapse is the sign bolted above the door.

Car One

LOCOMOTIVE CONTROLS

It taunts me: close, but not close enough.

I feel my life, my hope, my one and only chance at freedom slipping through my fingers, an ironic mockery of the breath slipping from my body and damning me to death.

A shadow looms beyond the glass. Bulky and awkward, its silhouette is strange, and not just because my vision is darkening and swirling with dancing pinpricks of light. I’ve seen enough dystopian sci-fi flicks to know the outline of a hazmat suit; to recognize the cumbersome, cylindrical tanks connecting to what could only be a respirator. Hands shielded by thick, rubbery gloves seem to move in slow motion as they punch a code into the panel on the other side of the impenetrable barrier locking me out of the control cab.

The twitching in my limbs evolves into a violent seizure. Sharp spikes impale my ribcage, puncturing my lungs, deflating them like pierced balloons. I swear I can hear the helium whistling away.

I see less and less of the mysterious figure. Dropping beside it some hulking mass of equipment, it kneels, partly vanishing behind the impervious pneumatic seal that has kept those doors irrevocably shut for nearly two decades.

The seal releases its four locks. The steel bars retract from the glass, sheathing into the center console with a droning hiss one by one by one.

The console plunks to the ground.

The divine portal to the Aegis’s heart opens at last, gears squealing from an age of disuse as they part for the very first time.

From between the gates of heaven, a hellish monster emerges.

It steps over the vestibule lip into car two where I lay dying. Heavy durosteel boots clang against the titanium floor. An odd smell, a mixture of dust, iron, and bleach, wafts toward me, assaulting my senses with each languid stride it takes toward me. The crackling of radio static fills the coach. The monster speaks.

“The asset’s alive, but just barely. Beginning securement protocols. Prepping for transport.”

Not a monster, I realize.

A woman. A real, human woman, not some apathetic computerized parrot. An emblem of a stylized phoenix rising from a cracked egg decorates the shoulders of her suit. She kneels in front of me, releasing one of the tanks from her back, fiddling with tubes and cranks.

“Don’t worry, honey,” she says. “You’re safe now.”

Am I?

~~~

I wake slumped against the back of the conductor’s chair, on the floor. The respirator is tight on my face, a big, black cluster of synth-rubber and wires. That sixth-sense instinct—and the way the setting sun casts her shadow across the cab—tells me my savior is seated in the chair, and the constant clicking and clacking tells me she’d fiddling with the control panel, all its flashing buttons and rusty levers.

My skull throbs and my chest is twenty sizes too small for my lungs, but the steady flow of oxygen pumping through the ventilator eases the fog clouding my sensibilities. I think of Henry’s sloppy, pearly-toothed grin, an image from happier times, to keep my hand steady as it digs into my pocket. The note inside is old. Brittle against my fingers. I pull it out and unfold the fragile paper with about as much delicacy as a nuclear physicist arming an atom bomb, careful to be as silent as possible. The sixteen-year-old scrap scrunches in my hands. I reread the jagged scrawl for what feels like—what probably is—the billionth time, and my eyes drift closed at the rush of dread it instills.

“Ah. You’re awake. Excellent.”

The seat behind me creaks and I crumple the note hastily, flicking it to the corner of the room before the woman can see. She comes round to crouch before me. Something clicks. The penlight stings my retinas as she moves it back and forth from eye to eye.

“Pupillary response is good.”

She snaps her fingers in my right ear. My left. I flinch away both times.

“Good. Auditory response normal.”

She grabs one of my hands, examining my nails. I snatch it away. The smile she offers is placating.

“Any headaches, flashing lights? Are you feeling faint at all?”

“Who the fuck are you?” I spit.

The woman doesn’t seem perturbed by my venom. Her professionalism only intensifies my distrust. She rises from her squat and returns to the control array, giving me room to shimmy onto my hands and knees. I press myself up to stand, failing once, twice, three times before I finally stagger onto my lame feet.

“My name is Ahora. You probably don’t remember me. We were close, once.” She yanks back a brown lever. The train’s course shifts slightly, careening into the horizon bathed blindingly orange by the sinking sun. “No need to worry, I’m not here to harm you. I’m sorry it took us so long to find you, Eden.”

“Who’s us?

“Fertilitas Medical Technologies. We’ve been scouring the globe for you for quite some time, dear.” I take a measured step back, praying my ailing body doesn’t fail me, that my joints hold and muscles work. “I understand you must be disoriented after such a long period of isolation, Eden, but I assure you, all your questions will be answered in due—”

“What exactly is it you’re here to do?”

Her sigh is almost imperceptible, secreted under her breath.

“To break you out of this prison, of course.” She makes it sound matter-of-fact, but I’m not deaf to the undertone of exasperation hiding beneath her voice. “Why else? The bastard that trapped you here was a deranged madman.”

Another step back.

“We’re taking you home, Eden.”

Another.

“And where exactly would home be, Ahora?”

She turns around, spreading her arms out to lean against the control panel. I freeze my creeping retreat, close enough to the open doors that my boot heel brushes against the heavy pneumatic console lying broken on the floor. Ahora’s green eyes sparkle with a cunning glint that betrays her supposed good intentions. Blond waves of hair plaster to her sweaty forehead behind the suit visor. The resemblance between us is uncanny.

My guts churn.

“Did you do this to the Aegis?” I ask. “The poison, the fire, the vent malfunction? That was you?”

Her smile is sad, complete with a patronizing cock of the head.

“Again, I apologize, but hacking the Aegis’s primary operating systems was the only way to stop its course. As you can probably imagine, it’s no easy task to board a mag-lev running at 300 miles an hour.”

“And pushing me to the brink of death was your solution?” I lower my voice. “Don’t you think that’s a little risky, considering I’m the precious cargo they sent you here to snatch?”

Her eyes harden.

My hand drifts down to my lower abdomen, touching the skin just above my pelvis. My fingers brush the flesh over my uterus, my ovaries.

The last set of working female reproductive organs on a planet sterilized by nuclear and global biochemical warfare.

Fertilitatis would stop at nothing to cut them out of my body, the precious cargo, as my father had warned me when he left me on the Aegis.

My eyes flick to the note crushed in the corner of the cab. I’ve memorized the words by heart, having read it, over and over, every evening of my life.

A father can only protect his daughter in so many ways in this cruel new world. One day I pray you’ll forgive me. But the one thing matters now, my dearest Eden, is your safety.

Be brave. Be smart. And beware the phoenix and the egg.

“Honestly, I might’ve considered going with you. Sacrifice myself for the greater good, and all that.” All pretense of compassion on Ahora’s face is gone, replaced by an ugly, angry sneer. “But that was before you killed my dog.”

Ahora lunges at me over the chair but the space between us is too wide for her to close in time before I heft the pneumatic console from the floor. Every muscle in my arms, my wrists, my hands scream beneath the weight, but my raging anger galvanizes me enough to slam the hunk of metal down on Ahora’s skull. A spray of red splatters the inside of her visor. The sickening crack of bone snaps the silence in half. Her body crashes to the ground. I drop the bloodied console.

My hands do not shake.

My heart does not pound.

Exhausted, crippling apathy consumes any shred of remorse I should have felt after ending my mother’s life.

After murdering humanity’s last hope for a future.

~~~

I slump in the conductor’s seat, holding Henry’s listless body in my lap, wrapped in his wooly plaid blanket. I stroke the tender spot in the crook of his floppy left ear, the one that always made his leg bounce in pleasure. The sunset bleeds warm reds, purples, and oranges into the clouds. We’ve got the best seat in the house. The wrap-around windows of car one offer a sweeping panoramic view of the kaleidoscopic day’s end sky, in all its radiant glory. It’s enough to ignore the bludgeoned body lying dead on the ground behind us; the blinking light on the respirator tank indicating the very little oxygen left inside.

“You’re okay,” I sigh. “We’re okay.”

The Aegis’s familiar rumble rocks me to sleep.

It’s the best sleep I’ve ever had.

***

Author Photo

Brianna Fenty is a state maritime academy alumna hailing from New York’s wonderfully weird Long Island area. After spending a few months learning highland voodoo from Scotland’s resident fairies (AKA taking a gap year), she now keeps busy at home begrudgingly searching for a day job, writing strange stories, and forcing her very moody cat to read them. Brianna has been previously published in Aphotic Realm Magazine and Paragraph Planet, and specializes in writing bizarre speculative fiction, including horror, sci-fi, and dark fantasy.

Sand – by STEVE CARR

SAND

by

Steve Carr

 

A storm is coming.

Like a gray veil being lowered in front of the horizon, the dark clouds and falling rain have spread across the ocean and are moving toward shore. Flashes of lightning intermittently make the sky above the storm glow a brilliant white. The water has turned from turquoise to steel gray and waves with white caps batter the shoreline. The hiding of the sun has turned late afternoon to twilight.

I dig deep into the beige sand and grasp handfuls that I hold, palms up, and let the wind blow it away. The surface of the dunes around me are shifting. The air is thick with the smell of salt water.

#

On the deck on the side of  my bungalow I shake the sand from my shorts, and brush it from my feet and onto the mat in front of the door. Stepping inside, there is a noticeable silence. I have painted the walls in every room the same shade of deep gray with white trim. In the living room the tables and mantle place are covered with marble statues of Greek and Roman gods. Mars. Mercury. Apollo. Artemis. Bacchus. The resounding claps of thunder from the advancing storm causes the statue gods to tremble. At the large plate glass window I watch the rain begin to fall on the beach.

#

In the darkness of my bedroom I lie on the bed and listen to the rain battering the roof and pelting the windows. Flashes of lightning fill the room with white light. The blades of the fan above my bed whirl about slowly stirring the warm, moist air. Even after showering, I find grains of sand lodged in my ears and fingernails. The digital clock on the stand next to my bed seems to change time at a tortuously slow pace. In my wakefulness the events of my life play out in my mind like a poorly edited movie. Being alone I have no one to tell about being raised on a farm in Iowa, joining a seminary right out of high school, leaving the seminary a year into it, my parents’ suicide pact, me inheriting this bungalow.

Wind rattles the windows.

#

Morning sunlight casts pastel yellow and pink across the dunes and beach. The bright green ocean is calm and gentle waves lap at the shore. Clusters of white sea foam are blown across the beach by a gentle, warm breeze.  Walking onto the dune, I step through the thin crust of sand created by the rain, into the soft sand underneath.  Seagulls dance in the baby blue sky. Tufts of cottony clouds move slowly across the skyscape. On the beach, near the water, there’s a body of a man. He’s wearing a shirt, pants and socks, but no shoes. From the dune I can also see that he has fiery red hair. I scan the ocean in search of some sailing vessel and see nothing.

#

Kneeling at the man’s side, I bend over and place my ear against his chest. His heart isn’t beating.  I place my cheek against his lips and feel no breath. There is no pulse in his wrist. In death he has retained his beauty. His skin is like porcelain, without defect or blemish of any kind. His jawline is square and strong, there is a cleft in his chin. I gently raise one of his eyelids and stare into the deep ocean-like green of his lifeless eye. The light blue muscle shirt he’s wearing has a long vertical rip over his left well defined pectoral muscle. A small, dark nipple is exposed. His arms bulge with muscles. There is a tattoo of an angel with his wings spread on his left bicep. A rip along the inseam of his white linen pants extends from his knee to his large testicles. He’s wearing no underwear. A small cross on the end of a gold chain hangs around his neck. I lie down next to him and put my arm across his hard chest and whisper in his ear, “It’s okay if you don’t feel like talking.”

#

I awake abruptly at the dead man’s side. The sun has dried his hair and I run my fingers through the thick curls.

“You have beautiful hair,” I tell him.

The front of his shirt and pants have also dried, but his white socks are still wet. I remove them and lay them in the sand to dry. His feet are long and slender and his toenails perfectly pedicured. Like the rest of his body his feet are pale white, as if he had never spent time in the sun. The tide is beginning to near us. I roll him onto his side and am surprised to see in a back pocket in his pants the outline of a wallet that I take out. The wallet is brown leather and inside there are two credit cards, four one-hundred dollar bills, and his driver’s license. His name is Barry Rose and he’s from Seattle. I put his wallet back.

“What would you like me to do about you?” I say to him.

#

Reaching under his arms, I lift him up enough to drag him toward the dunes and away from the tides.  In the dry sand I sit down next to him. He looks so peaceful.

Placing my hand on his cross, I say, “I fell in love while I was in the seminary. It didn’t work out.”

A sand crab shovels itself out of the sand, then quickly retreats back into it. The noon sun cooks the beach. I remove my t-shirt and place it over Barry’s face.

“I don’t want that gorgeous skin of yours to get sunburned,” I tell him.

Looking out at the ocean I try to imagine how Barry came to be washed up on the beach. Surely someone who looks like him has someone who would miss him.

I rub his tattoo. “Did you believe in angels, Barry?” I say. “Sometimes I think there’s an angel looking over me, but then I can’t imagine why the angel allows me to be alone.”

With my fingers I push his hair back from his forehead. “Being alone all the time is similar to death, Barry. ”

*

I return from the bungalow and stand over Barry, my body casting a shadow on his. After opening the rainbow colored beach umbrella I place it so that his body is shaded from the intense rays of the afternoon sun. Sitting in the sand next to him I remove my t-shirt from his face and brush a little sand from his hair. I take the photo of my parents from my back pocket. “These are my parents,” I say, holding the picture in front of his closed eyes. “I didn’t even know they were unhappy until I came home and found them in the car with the motor running in the exhaust filled garage. They had left a note on the dining room table where I usually sat, as if it was some kind of meal. The note said they loved me but that they found life intolerable and wanted to die together.”

A mosquito lands on Barry’s silky smooth upper lip and I brush it away. “I sold the house and moved out here to the bungalow.”

*

This time I return from the bungalow with a blanket and a paper bag that contains a sliced chicken sandwich, a bag of potato chips and two bottles of water. I sit in the sand, my back resting against Barry’s side. While eating I watch the gleaming white sails of a small yacht flutter as it crosses the emerald green water in the distance. If they see me or the umbrella they show no signs of it. They sail southward and out of sight. Three seagulls have alighted in the sand a couple of yards from me, and they stare at me almost expectantly as the chips crunch between my teeth.

“You’re wild birds,”  I say to them. “I don’t feed wild things.”

They remain until I have finished eating and put the empty chip bag in the paper bag and half bury it in the sand. They fly off just as I open one of the bottles of water and take a long drink. I open Barry’s mouth and pour a little water into it. His teeth are the color of polished pearls.

“Whatever you need, I can give you,” I say to him.

*

There are bright red and deep purple streaks across the twilight sky. The tide has come in and is within yards of us. The wind has increased and scatters the top layer of sand on the dunes and shakes the umbrella.  I remember that I left Barry’s socks where they would have been washed away by now.

“I have socks you can have,” I tell him.

I take his hand in mine and grasp it tightly, feeling the rigor in the joints in his fingers and the coldness of his skin.

“In the seminary, I fell in love with a seminarian named Luke. I was only nineteen and had never been in love before. Like you, he was physically beautiful. At night I would sneak from my room and go to his and crawl into his bed with him. We would lie there together for a while, just listening to each other breath, then I would return to my room,” I say.

I put my hand on Barry’s still chest. “Breathing isn’t overrated.”

Placing Barry’s hand against my cheek, I say, “After the night I was caught returning from Luke’s room I was told to leave the seminary if I couldn’t disavow my love for Luke, which I couldn’t do. I then traveled around Europe by myself for a year.  I can’t recall the name of even one person I met during that time.”

#

Sparkling pinpoints of white starlight fill the night sky. With the blanket on us and an arm and leg draped across Barry’s body, and with my lips to his ear, I say, “Ours wouldn’t be a conventional marriage by any measure.”

A steady cool breeze blows in from the ocean as the tide quietly ebbs and flows. I look at my watch and see it is shortly past midnight. In the pale moonlight cast by a crescent moon his skin has a bluish tint. His body is stiff. I rub my bare feet on his icy feet.

“You’re so cold, my darling,” I say.

I sit up and tuck the blanket around his body, kiss him gently on the forehead, then stand. “I’m going to go get you some socks,” I say.

The sand on the dune is cool and slippery as I climb it. At the top I look down at Barry and feel an undefinable heaviness in my chest. There is such a placid expression on his face that I simultaneously envy, fear and am thrilled by it.

#

Morning sunlight streams through the living room window. I awake on the sofa with a pair of heavy wool socks in my hand. I recall sitting down, but have no recollection of falling asleep. Barry’s name screams in my head. I jump up and run out of the bungalow and across the warm sand to the dune. The tide has receded and sand crabs scurry across the beach. I look down and see the umbrella and blanket, but Barry is gone.

-END-

Steve Carr photo

Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over eighty short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies including The Gathering Storm Magazine, Rhetoric Askew anthology, Fictive Dream, Zimbell House After Effects anthology and Visitant Literary Journal.  He is a regular contributor to SickLit Mag. His plays have been produced in several American states. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He lives in Richmond, Virginia and writes full time. He is on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012966314127 and Twitter @carrsteven960