Monday, March 4, 2019

Midlife Crisis, fiction by Neva Bryan

The school bus rolled onto a road furred with oil and coal dust. It crawled along the spine of a mineral-stripped mountain before descending into the first of many dark hollows. Leather and lace leaves skittered in its wake, sailing across the hood of Mac McHenry’s car.

Mac gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. He was stuck behind the bus on a narrow road. The vehicle stopped often and started again with an arthritic lag, expelling children amidst blue clouds of exhaust. The kids looked happy.

Bet they wouldn’t smile if they saw the body in the back seat.

Not just a body.

My wife.
He glanced over his shoulder at her. Her red curls sprang out from beneath the quilt that he had thrown over her. Shelby’s wild hair was the first thing he had noticed about her the night they met.

That was a long time ago.

He cursed the bus driver and shifted in his seat. Beads of sweat rolled down his back. He tugged at his shirt, pulling it away from his damp skin.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “It’ll be okay.”

The woman in the seat next to him stared through the windshield. “You’re kind of a hot mess.”

Bette was his girlfriend. She looked her age, twenty. Smooth skin. Shiny brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. Blue eyes that didn’t crinkle at the corners.

She had been his student, a senior in last semester’s abnormal psychology class. He was an adjunct instructor at a small college in Kentucky. Mac was forty-five. In sunnier times he had joked that he was old enough to know better…too horny to care. It didn’t seem so funny now.

Mac could have screamed with joy when the bus turned down a side road. He pushed the accelerator and the car seemed to leap forward. He was glad to leave the school children behind.

Please God. No more delays. An acrid smell rose up from the car as he sped along back roads, ascending hills, descending into valleys. A few houses and trailers clung tenaciously to the steep slopes, most of them dilapidated, deserted, or covered with kudzu.

“We’re almost there.”

“Good.” Bette’s voice was steady, almost languid.

How can she be so calm?

Two hours ago he had called her to meet him, offering no explanation. They had agreed to meet in the parking lot of an abandoned church that was within walking distance of her house.

Bette had strolled across the weed-pocked pavement with her head bent over her smart phone. At his car, she had peered into the backseat window, then asked, “Is she asleep? Sick?” She had leaned close to him and whispered, “Dead?”

Her breath on his ear had made him tremble, as it always did. Not in pleasure this time, but in fear.

Mac trembled now, thinking about it. He turned the car up a deep rutted road. It bounced along the path as it curved through the woods that snaked along a high ridge. It skidded at a spot where a hard rain had washed out the road.

He spun the steering wheel to get back on course. Moments later he pulled onto a soft bed of pine needles and parked beside a ragged house.

Mac pulled his keys from the ignition and turned to look at Bette. Her usually porcelain skin was flushed now. Two bright spots of pink highlighted her cheeks. He realized she was excited by what they were about to do. Excited by what he had done.

He leaned over the seat to pull the quilt away from Shelby’s face. Her skin was pale as buttermilk, her lips blue. He touched her cheek. It was cool. Her hair was still damp from her bathwater.

He had drowned her in the tub.

He withdrew his hand and swiped at his eyes with his knuckles. Bette frowned at him, then climbed from the car. “Let’s get this over with.”

She didn’t wait for him to gather Shelby into his arms. By the time he got his dead wife out of the car, Bette had reached the front porch of the old house. He followed her fast, though his legs felt like the might crumple beneath him.

The front door was partially open, hanging crooked on its hinges, and it wouldn’t move when Bette pushed it. He laid the corpse at their feet, then set his shoulder against the door and shoved it hard. It flew inward. Mac hesitated, waiting for mice to scurry into the dark corners of the room. Sure enough, he heard them skitter across the floor. Once it grew quiet, he walked inside.

Dirty windows filtered the sun so that it cast a dark amber light across the room. A thick layer of dust covered every surface. Pale weeds reached up through cracks in the floor. He jumped when something shifted in the chimney.

“Birds,” Bette muttered. She put her hands on her hips as she surveyed the room. “So where is it? The thingamajig?”

“Cistern.” He swiped at a cobweb, then motioned for her to follow him. “In here.”

They stepped into what was once a kitchen. An old cast iron cook stove hulked at one end of the room, rust flaking its surface. The spot where the sink used to stand was empty but the outline of it on ancient linoleum was visible through the dust. Mac looked around, then pointed to a crude door cut into the wall. “There.”

He tugged at the door, wincing as it scraped the floor. When it opened, cool air wafted over them. The scent of it brought to mind pale fungi and other vegetation that thrived in darkness. He peered into the space but didn’t step through the doorway.

“When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to go down there. Granny was afraid I might fall into the cistern. I snuck down a few times, but she finally caught me and wore me out. Never went down there again.”

“How long has it been since anybody lived here?”

“I’d say thirty years, at least.” He took a deep breath. “We’d better hurry. I don’t want to be up here after dark.”

“You afraid of boogers and haints?” Bette’s voice was teasing …cruel.

“Bears,” he said.

Mac returned to the porch and retrieved Shelby’s body. He carried it to the door of the cistern room, then climbed down a set of nine rickety steps. He could feel them give a bit when he stepped on them.

Bette had set her cell phone on a half-rotten shelf near the door. Apparently she had engaged the flashlight app, for most of the shadows had fled the space. Mac lifted his chin at a thick wooden circle in the center of the room. “That’s the lid. Slide it back.”

Bette grabbed the lid and shoved it to the side. It tilted, but didn’t fall completely away. A large part of the hole was revealed. A current of dank air drifted upward from it.

Mac shoved the corpse into the cistern feet first. He expected it to splash. Instead it thumped, then made a squelching sound as it slid farther down. Bette grabbed her phone and illuminated the hole with it. It revealed a thick black muck. Only the back of Shelby’s head was visible, her bright curls in high contrast to the dark mud.

Mac slid the cover back over the hole and they hurried outside. When they climbed into the car, Bette threw her arms around his neck and kissed him hard. Her tongue seemed like a tiny darting serpent trying to crawl between his lips. He shuddered, resisting the urge to wipe his mouth.

They drove off the ridge as dusk was softening the hard edges of the world.

“Look.” Smiling, she pointed toward the woods. “Lightning bugs!”

He was stunned by the childish delight in her voice.


Mac wrinkled his nose at the scent of grease. Bette had insisted that he take her to a drive-thru restaurant for fast food. She refused to go home.

Reluctantly he had taken her to his house. Now she sat on his couch, dipping her fries in ranch dressing while she watched a rerun of The Vampire Diaries.

The paper fry pouch, soaked with oil, was almost transparent. Mac moved it from the couch to the coffee table and swiped at a greasy spot it had left on the upholstery.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be here,” he said.

She answered him without looking away from the flickering screen. “Why?”

“Tomorrow I’m going to call the police and tell them that Shelby is missing. You know they’ll take a hard look at my activities. The husband is always the first suspect. If anyone sees you going in or out of my house, there better be a damn good reason for it.”

“So tell them I needed to talk to you about an assignment.”

He glanced at his watch. “At ten-thirty at night?” He shook his head. “Besides, you’re not even taking a class right now.”

Bette shrugged as she sucked on a straw stuck in the lid of her Diet Coke. She picked up her phone and swiped the screen, then tossed it onto the couch. Looking up at him, she asked, “Why’d you do it?”

Mac opened his mouth, then closed it. I can’t explain it, he thought.

The act had been spontaneous, a moment of madness. Shelby had called him from the bedroom to hand her a towel. When he entered the room, he had caught a glimpse of her body, her life chronicled by a caesarian scar, stretch marks, sagging breasts. His own body hadn’t aged any better.

Resentment had filled him in that instant, as red and furious as a fast-moving fire. The very sight of her had confirmed the certainty of his own mortality. Without hesitation he had murdered her, the mother of his son. A son now grown and studying abroad halfway around the world.

He walked upstairs and stood in the doorway of the bathroom. The scent of Camay soap was still suspended in the damp air. Shelby never wore perfume, preferring the simple fragrance of the old-fashioned soap on her skin.

Mac moved into the room and perched on the side of the bathtub. The water in which he had drowned his wife of twenty years had grown cold. He let his fingers trail through it, then pulled the lever to drain it. He winced at the slurk sound the dregs made. It was too reminiscent of the sound her body had made when it sank into the cistern muck.

He grabbed a towel and used it to wipe water from the floor at the base of the tub. Shelby had kicked a lot as he held her under the water. He dropped a sopping wet towel into a hamper, thankful it had been a bloodless murder.

When he turned, he found Bette standing in the doorway. She was using both hands to twist the ends of her ponytail.

She used to do it in his class. She would pull her hair to one side so that it draped across her shoulder, then twist it and release it.

Twist and release.



In the classroom he had found it beguiling. Now he realized it was an affectation, a tool she used to draw the male gaze. Suddenly he felt old and stupid.

Bette sauntered over to the bathtub and flipped the lever so that it would hold water. She turned the handle for hot, then for cold, and waited for the tub to fill. After a quick glance around the room, she grabbed a bottle of bubble bath and squirted some into the water.

Mac stared as white, slightly iridescent bubbles multiplied on the water’s surface. When they formed airy mounds, Bette removed her jeans and t-shirt. She didn’t have on panties or a bra. She never wore underwear. That was the first thing he had noticed about her the day they met.

She stepped into the tub and sank slowly into the bubbles, Venus in reverse.

He moved across the room and stood over her. She lay with her eyes closed, her head resting against the porcelain. Her mouth turned up slightly at the corners, as if she found the whole situation slightly amusing.

“How’d you do it?”

Her question startled him.

“Do what?”

“Drown her. How did you actually do it?”

She opened her eyes. Her pupils were enlarged, so much so that her blue eyes looked wholly black. Mac found the sight disturbing.

“Why would you ask me that?”

“I’m curious.”

He held up his hands and made a choking motion. “Held her under the water,” he whispered.

Bette scooped a cloud of bubbles between both her hands and blew on them. They flew through the air and spattered Mac’s pants. The girl giggled.

Bile rose up in his throat. He swallowed hard, then fled the bathroom.

Downstairs he flopped onto the sofa and stared sightlessly at the television screen. He slid his hands flat across the couch cushion. Its rough fabric felt soothing. His fingers touched Bette’s phone.

Mac picked it up and examined its black silicone case. Bette had painted white skulls and red flowers on the back of it. Shaking his head, he turned it over and swiped the screen.

Her Facebook page was filled with selfies in lewd poses and in various states of undress. Most of her friends were male and many of her posts were direct messages to boys and men. The majority of them were crude. Sighing, he swiped out of her feed and peeked at the phone’s search history.

Some of her website visits were typical of what one would expect from a young woman her age: celebrity news, beauty tips, funny memes. However, she seemed to regularly visit darker sites.

These websites featured graphic horror stories, art, and movies. Others were dedicated to true crime. He was shocked to discover that she had posted on discussion boards for torture enthusiasts.

There she had shared her original fiction. The stories appalled him. After reading one in its entirety, he gagged and threw the phone across the room. It landed on the floor, its screen cracked.

Mac wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He gazed at his knees for a long moment, then stood and trudged up the stairs. In the bathroom doorway, he paused to watch Bette soak in the tub. She was paddling her feet in the water, humming a tune unfamiliar to him.

He walked over to her and sat on the edge of the tub. She smiled at Mac and playfully splashed water at him. He chuckled. When he leaned over her, she turned her head to offer him her cheek to kiss.

Instead, he wrapped his fingers around her neck and squeezed it with all his strength. He pushed downward as he did so, so that her face was underwater. You wanted to know, he thought. Here’s how.

She fought her death longer than Shelby did, perhaps because she was younger and stronger, but her attempts were as futile as his wife’s. When he was certain Bette was dead, Mac released her. Her eyes were blue again, wide open, surprised.

Shelby’s death had disturbed him, but he felt oddly satisfied by Bette’s, as if he had done the world a favor.

Mac shook water from his fingertips, then wiped his hands and arms against his pants. Pulling a keyring from his pocket, he thought, I better get that quilt from the back seat of the car.

“I’m going to need it one more time.”


The drive to his grandmother’s house was in total darkness. He didn’t feel the panic that had threatened to overwhelm him earlier in the day. There were few cars on the road. No school buses lumbered along the curves to delay his trip.

Mac pulled his car close to the old house. He had grabbed a flashlight from a kitchen drawer before putting Bette’s body in the car. Now he flicked it on and laid it on top of the girl before pulling her from the back seat. The light bobbed up and down as he walked with the corpse, but it was sufficient to keep him from tripping in the dark.

Inside the house, he could see signs of their previous visit: footprints jumbled in the dust. He staggered across the space and laid Bette’s body on the floor of the kitchen. The flashlight dropped off her corpse and rolled across the room, highlighting cobwebs and bird nests in a whirl of illumination. Something larger than a mouse scuttled in a corner.

Probably a raccoon or a possum.

Mac ached all over, but especially in his arms. The muscles of his forearms burned from the strain of strangulation and heavy lifting. He massaged them while he rested.

When he was done, he retrieved the flashlight, grimacing at the aged grime that now coated its handle. He set it back on Bette’s body, heaved her into his arms, and started down the stairs into the cistern room.

The steps creaked, louder than before. He hurried to the bottom and half-dropped the corpse onto the floor. The flashlight fell again. Light shined on Bette’s face, turning the curves and hollows of it into a grotesque mask. It reminded him of his childhood, when his older brother held a flashlight beneath his chin while he told Mac scary stories.

Shuddering, he grabbed the light and set it on the shelf Bette had used earlier. He slid the cover from the cistern and peered into it. Shelby had disappeared completely into the thick muck.


He lifted Bette by placing his hands in her armpits. They were damp. Grunting, he dragged her to the opening and shoved her into it. The body fell head first and sank as slowly as Shelby’s had. Its descent was accompanied by a disgusting squelching sound, like the slurk that had occurred during the first disposal. After a few minutes, only the pale soles of her feet were visible.

Mac replaced the cover of the cistern, then sat on the bottom step to catch his breath. He hadn’t realized until this moment that his heart was hammering his rib cage hard enough to break bone.

That’s not possible, but it sure feels like it. He massaged his sore arms again. They hurt more than before, the pain radiating upward into his shoulders and down his back.

I should have used that gym membership Shelby bought me last year. Didn’t realize I was so out of shape.

The room began to spin. Mac clutched the stair post, nauseated by his sudden dizziness. He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them again. The spinning had ended.

Using the post as a crutch, he stood. He shuffled to the shelf and reached for his flashlight. When he did, the ache in his shoulders and back became unbearable. Mac cried out and dropped to the floor, where he curled up, his only defense against the pain.

The shadows in the room stretched toward him. He thought the batteries in the flashlight must be dying, but when he lifted his head to look at it, the beam was bright.

The batteries aren’t dying.

I am.

Mac groaned.

If he had been able to, he would have laughed at his own folly.

You can’t forestall death.

The shadows gathered close around him. His vision narrowed to a pinprick.

Fifty of Neva Bryan’s short stories, poems, and essays are published (or soon-to-be published) in literary journals, online magazines, and anthologies, including Shotgun Honey, Weirdbook Magazine, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. She is a contributor to the 2018 Anthology of Appalachian Writers and the anthology We All Live Downstream: Writings about Mountaintop Removal. Neva lives in the mountain coalfields of Virginia with her husband and their two dogs.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Nick Kolakowski's Main Bad Guy, reviewed by Tim Hennessy

Main Bad Guy
Nick Kolakowski
Shotgun Honey Presents
reviewed by Tim Hennessy

Bill and Fiona, the con-man and assassin couple at the wild heart of Nick Kolakowski’s Main Bad Guy (the frantic third book of his Love & Bullets Hookup series) have their backs against the proverbial cliff. If the Rockway Mob they double-crossed doesn’t kill them, all that stands in the way of financial liberation is eluding everyone trying to capture the heroes and their escape fund.

In the first book of the series, A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, Bill puts these events into motion when he runs off with a large sum of the mob’s money, and the Dean, their boss, puts a bounty on his head. The Dean dispatches multiple assassins to track him down, among them, Fiona, jilted by his disappearance and prepared to bring his head back to New York: the box, dry ice, and hacksaw ready. Bill, an expert in manipulating people and computer systems before his involvement with the mob, sticks to mostly small-time insurance scams, info hacks, and a little bookmaking on the side but a chance encounter with an older, suicidal con-man makes him reevaluate his life’s pursuits and act on his one-time fantasy escape plan. What makes him easy for Fiona to locate, other than the tracker placed in his favorite pair of boots, is recalling Bill’s extensive answer to a rhetorical question. She comes to his rescue; then things veer into a finale echoing the Wild Bunch and True Romance complete with a hitman channeling his inner Elvis.

Book two, Slaughterhouse Blues, finds our protagonists licking their wounds south of the border and beginning life in hiding. It doesn’t take long for the Dean to locate them, send two hitmen, and again Bill and Fiona go on the run, this time with one of their betrayers in tow, to help them dig up Nazi gold hidden in an old New York bar. It’s quick fun, that channels The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Installment three, Main Bad Guy, begins with Fiona and Bill en route to the airport, without a moment to catch their breaths, when an unknown attacker blindsides their cab. Kolakowski doesn’t shy away from showing the physical toll life on the lam takes on our heroes.

“Bill’s cheekbones had swollen so much, he feared looking at himself in the mirror. He felt an absurd jealousy for action-movie heroes who could emerge from a pummeling with only a photogenic cut or two on their brow. In real life, skin behaved like ripe fruit when you hit it.”

After tending to their more urgent wounds, Bill and Fiona stumble upon luxury condos in mid-construction and decide to lay low and rest in one of the completed units. This innocuous decision proves fortuitous for the Rockway mob because it turns out they own the building.

The only hitch in the mob’s luck: Fiona and Bill access the penthouse panic room before their mercenary security team can corner them. With nowhere left to run, the Dean and his goons lay siege to their plans of escape, setting the stage for a long-brewing showdown.

Of all the heightened cinematic influences that bleed into Kolakowski’s Love & Bullets trilogy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid regularly come to mind. Desperadoes, fugitives perpetually on the run, and smartasses, Fiona and Bill likewise find themselves surrounded by people who want them dead at every turn while the good life calls to them from a distant land. Fiona and Bill’s relationship is the one element of the book where doubts linger. If love were measured in bruises and blood loss alone, it would be a tale for the ages. Early on it’s hard to see what draws them together. Fiona watches him hustle bar patrons until he tries his smooth charms on her and she offers him a job.

For someone who vouched to mobsters on the behalf of her thief boyfriend, Fiona’s flippant acceptance of Bill's dishonesty, even while predictable, is unclear why they want to go through all these obstacles to get a fresh start together. Maybe, like Fiona’s father Walker, who emerges from tough guy retirement to lend a hand, my skepticism is rooted in my affection for Fiona: she can do better than this doughy sweet talker. It’s difficult to imagine her and Bill in a less externally conflicted life together, without adrenalin and anxiety fueling their every move. At least Butch had a simpatico partner in Sundance, even when pinned down on the narrow face of a cliff with only water below, he was willing to risk the uncertainty of Butch’s escape plan. Even if he couldn’t swim. It’s hard to know if Bill and Fiona are as equipped to deal with the downtime of a straight life. The risks of settling down in a stable relationship together could be what finally kills them.

On the precipice of change, most of us barely notice as we straddle familiarity and the unrealized potential ahead of us. Change is fertile ground for cliché ridden aphorisms. From its opening scene to fiery final confrontation, Main Bad Guy is an inevitable conclusion to a madcap trilogy. As much as Kolakowski owes a debt to his cinematic influences, he crafts a high-action thriller, with a flair for the absurd.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Red Rocks, fiction by Morgan Boyd

I rented a little house in midtown. Instead of a lawn, the yard had those shitty red rocks out front, which suited me just fine because the rental fronted as a meth lab, so I didn’t want the hassle of lawn maintenance. My crew worked nights and early mornings concocting crystal in the rental’s bathroom. Ferral was my chemist. He was a timid man, balding with long strips of thin blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. Donny and Rachael made runs for me at the various drug stores, buying the required common household supplies. Donny was twenty years old, and from Sacramento. His cheeks were covered in freckles and acne. Rachael was twenty-two and from somewhere in Southern California. At a distance she looked pretty, but upon closer inspection, too much makeup failed to conceal red blotches on her face.

I grabbed my car keys for a McDonald’s run. I kept my crew well fed, and not because I was a nice guy. If somebody wasn’t eating, they were getting high, and that was a no-no. As I left the house, I noticed a toppled gray statue of a cherub holding a birdbath in the front yard. I crunched through the red rocks, and helped the angel back to its feet before unlocking the door of my pickup truck.

Everybody wants the American dream. A big house, a fast car, a blonde wife with big tits and a couple future Olympians for kids, and I’m no different only I’m on the fast track to prosperity. What all these hardworking schlubs, toiling nine to five, don’t comprehend is they’ll never climb that mountain. Hard work is the path to debt and nowhere town, enslavement. The only people reaching the promise land are the ones pulling the rug out from under the suckers. And that’s me, yanking like hell.

Upon returning home from McDonald’s, I noticed a commercial van parked in front of the house. Walking through the red rocks with greasy fast food bags, a bad premonition enveloped me. I envisioned half a dozen feds crammed in the back, tapping my phone line.

A beautiful woman stepped down from the stoop of my rental. She looked fortyish with long silky blonde hair. The pale yellow power suit she wore struggled against her vivacious curves. She smiled as we passed, her high heels clacking along the path, her hips swaying to and fro.

“Who was that?” I asked, coming through the door as Ferral and Rachael swarmed the McDonald’s bags.

“Said her name’s Sally. Sells vacuum cleaners,” Donny said, lighting a cigarette. “She’s giving us a free demonstration.”

“With the vacuum?” I asked, looking at the rancid floor.

Soda spills and cigarette ash blackened the mauve colored carpet. Dollar store dishes and plates dominated the sink and kitchen counters. Refuse from supplies littered the bedroom. Streamlining prosperity was by no means cleanly. The only immaculate area in the house was Ferral’s bathroom laboratory.

“She’ll be back in twenty minutes to demonstrate the cleaning power of the … what did she call it?” Donny asked, flicking cigarette ash onto the carpet. “The Hydro-Vac.”

“It’s one of those water jobs,” Rachael said.

“I don’t care if it runs on vaporized plutonium,” I said.

“That would be a serious fire hazard,” Ferral interjected, licking his fingers.

“I don’t give a shit,” I said, smashing an unwrapped Egg McMuffin with my fist. “Why didn’t you follow procedural protocol, and tell her thank you, but we aren’t interested?”

“Procedural protocol? You sound like my old manager at Wal-Mart,” Donny said.

“Donny thought she was cute,” Rachael said between slurps of orange juice.

“Look at this disgusting carpet,” Donny said. “Why not have a beautiful mature woman clean it for us?”

“Because she might not really sell vacuums, dumbass,” I said, stuffing a sausage biscuit into my mouth, and washing the dryness down with carton milk.

“No way,” Donny said, lighting a cigarette. “A babe that smoking. No way she’s a pig.”

“Did you see the van out front?” I asked. “Classic stakeout wagon.”

“You’re paranoid,” Donny said, flicking his cigarette ash on the carpet.

“Eat something,” I said. “Ain't you hungry?”

“Maybe if you hadn’t smashed my dinner,” Donny said unwrapping the flattened Egg McMuffin.

“You better be right about her,” I said.

“Find out in twenty minutes.”

“Getting low on supplies,” Ferral said. “Time for a run.”

“You heard the man,” I said to Donny and Rachael. “Get to work, and be smart about it. Change up the stores you hit. Don’t draw suspicion.”

“What about our meal?” Rachael asked, rubbing her stomach.

“It’ll be waiting for you when you get back,” I said.

“Cold McDonald’s,” Rachael said. “Brutal.”

Donny lingered in the living room while Rachael exited the backdoor, and pedaled away on her bicycle.

“Get going,” I said.

“What about Sally?” Donny asked.

“What about her?”

“I want to see her vacuum the floor.”

“She ain't getting through the front door, Donny,” I said. “I’m sending her ass packing the moment she returns. Now get on your bike, and do your job.”

“But what about the vacuum? I bet it’s heavy, and she’ll have carried it up the porch.”

I lit a cigarette, and stared at the floor. Reluctantly, Donny slung his pack over his shoulder, and slammed the back door. That kid was standing frontline for an ass whooping. One more fuck up like that and he was toast. I’d gone through countless dumb shits in this operation, and Donny was no different. I couldn’t understand why people like him struggled with the simplest of tasks? If he didn’t pull his head out of his rear, I’d kick him to the curb, and find another stooge.

To calm myself, I sat in a cracked and plastic off-white lawn chair, and strummed several songs by The Beatles on my Martin Rosewood Grand while smoking. The guitar was an heirloom handed down from my grandfather. Besides money, it was the only thing I cared about in this world. Twenty minutes passed, and my mind shifted to cashing in my chips. The first thing I’d do is fix my teeth. Chicks dig straight teeth. Thinking about ladies reminded me of the vacuum broad. Maybe she wasn’t a cop. Maybe she was a nymphomaniac. Maybe she went door to door fucking men. Hell, if Donny returned and found me bedding down with the vacuum lady, it’d teach him a lesson far more powerful than any beating.

“Did Sally come back?” Donny asked when he returned from his errand.

“If you ever invite a stranger inside again, or draw attention to us by slamming another door in this house, I will trounce the living piss out of you, and throw your ass to the curb. Got it?”

Donny didn’t like what I was saying, but I wasn’t running a feel-good resort. He stormed into the bedroom, and I returned to the lawn chair, my grandfather’s guitar, and the cigarettes. I was working my way through ‘Black Bird’ when somebody knocked on the front door.

“Who’s that?” Donny asked, reappearing in the living room.

“How the hell should I know?” I said, setting down my guitar, and tucking my gun into my waistband.

I opened the door, expecting a gorgeous blonde, but instead a tall, barrel chested man, wearing boots, blue jeans, a white collared shirt and a cowboy hat, loomed in the doorjamb, holding a massive vacuum. Before I could speak, he stepped passed me into the living room.

“Whooee,” the cowboy said with a whistle. “Damn if this ain’t the dirtiest rug west of the Mississippi. Like its been drowned in motor oil or something. Howdy partner, name’s Carl. I’m sure glad you signed up for our free carpet cleaning demonstration this evening because this floor will test the limits of a vacuum, but I tell you what. When you see the Hydro-Vac’s results, you ain’t gonna be able to refuse my offer, no way, no how. You’ll be so impressed, you’ll buy another one for your mama.”

“We don’t need a demonstration,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t have to use my gun. “Thank you. Be on your way.”

“Hold on there a minute partner,” Carl said, plugging the chord into the wall socket. “You know I’ll do you square. Won’t take but a few minutes, and I’ll have these badlands looking like the pastures of heaven in no time. They say you can’t polish a turd, but boy, I tell you what.”

“Where’s Sally?” Donny asked as Carl turned on the vacuum.

The Hydro-Vac sounded like a Boing 747 coming in for a landing. A torrent of hot air burst forth from an exhaust valve like jet propulsion, knocking Carl’s cowboy hat off the back of his head. His head was bald and lumpy with bright red patches on his scalp like cracks in a dry riverbed.

Ferral and Rachael came into the living room upon hearing the vacuum’s sonic boom. We gathered around the carpet’s perimeter, watching the cowboy work. Sweat dripped from his brow as he wrangled the mechanical beast. I figured he’d only plow a small patch of the toxic waste, but Carl pushed that cleaner up and down the entire width and length of the living room.

We pitched in, moving lawn chairs, so he wouldn’t miss any spots. The vacuum’s first attempt morphed the carpet from tar black to ash gray, but on the second flyby, the floor regained its original mauve luster. The cowboy arched his back, and stepped on the cleaner’s off switch. The growling motor slowed until silent. Carl wiped the sweat from his forehead, and searched for his cowboy hat. Donny handed it to him.

“Thanks boy,” Carl said, unplugging the vacuum. “What do you think? That was some clean job. I didn’t know the carpet was purple before the Hydro-Vac washed out all that crud, did you? Now it sparkles like new, and it’s all thanks to the magic of this incredible marvel of the modern world.”

“Carpet looks nice,” I admitted.

“Glad to hear it,” Carl said, reaching out to shake my hand, and exposing a massive sweat stain under his armpit. “This machine can be yours for eight easy payments of one hundred dollars, and you’ll never have to go back to living atop a tar pit again. Don’t that sound nice? I know you ain't got no vacuum in here. Take a hold of this beast.”

I didn’t want to touch the vacuum, but the slick-talking cowboy thrust the hose into my grip.

“Now you got the eighth wonder of the world in the palm of your hand.”

“I’m not buying this vacuum,” I said, handing him back the nozzle.

“That’s cold mister,” he said, tipping his hat back. “I bust my butt floating your floor, and you do me like that? How you missing out on this spectacular deal? Tell you what. Act now, I’ll knock fifty bucks off the price, and throw in a Hydro-Handheld for free.”

“I’ll pass,” I said. “Now if you’ll be on your way, I’d appreciate it.”

“Well shiit,” Carl said, looking around the room. “You play guitar?”

“A little.”

“Know any country?”

“Hank Williams,” I said.

“That’s my bread and butter.”

I strummed the chords to ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues,’ and Carl yodeled the lyrics.

“You sing in a band?” I asked when the song ended.

“Nah, just karaoke every chance I get,” Carl said. “You sure you wont buy this here vacuum?”

“Positive,” I said.

“Shiit,” Carl said with a sigh. “Just another no good, worthless, cheap ass, son of a bitch.”

“Pardon?” I asked, reaching for my pistol.

Before I drew, a shotgun appeared in my face.

“Fucking move,” Rachael said. “And I’ll blow off your goddamn head.”

“Nice work, baby girl,” Carl said. “Your mama raised you right.”

“This prick’s your dad?” I asked.

“I’m warning you. Don’t move,” she said. “You’re a real piece of shit. And I’d have no problem offing you.”

Carl slugged me in the gut, knocking me to the floor. It felt damp and smelled scented. He disarmed me, and kicked me in the ribs.

“Do exactly what we say. Be a shame to dirty this freshly cleaned carpet,” Carl said. “Not sure how well the Hydro works on brains.”

Rachael made Donny and Ferral stand in the corner with their hands up, facing the wall.

“Don’t kill me,” Donny said. “I don’t want to die.”

“Then cooperation is imperative,” Carl said.

“Yes, sir,” Donny said, peeing his pants.

The front door opened, and the vacuum saleswoman entered with rope.

“Hi mama,” Rachael said, and helped Carl hogtied me like a calf at the rodeo.

“Hi baby girl,” the vacuum saleslady said.

“Parents?” I asked Rachel.

“Yep, and Rachael ain’t my real name, neither,” she said in a southern drawl.

“And you’re not from Southern California.”

“I’m not from California, but I’m from the South.”

“You done good, baby girl,” the vacuum saleslady said. “Mama’s real proud.”

“So’s pa,” Carl said. “Be a sweetheart and gather up the goodies.”

Rachael or whatever her name really was ran into the bedroom, and came back with two large clear Ziploc bags filled with crystal meth.

“Well shiit,” Carl said. “You boys been busy. Now where’s the cash?”

“He knows,” Rachael said, pointing at me.

Carl kicked me in the chest, and smashed me in the face with the butt of my own gun.

“Start talking.”

“Go fuck yourself,” I said, dripping blood onto the carpet.

“What if I kill him?” Carl said putting the gun to the back of Donny’s head.

“Please don’t,” Donny pleaded.

“I don’t give a shit about the kid,” I said. “He’s the one let you in.”

“That’s not entirely true,” Carl said, pointing the gun at Ferral. “Where’s the money, or Dr. Weird gets a hole in his noodle.”

“I can find another chemist,” I said.

“Then what about this here guitar?” Carl asked. “Be a shame to break it on your head.”

“There’s an air vent on the floor in the bedroom. Unscrew the grate, and feel around,” I said, and Rachael disappeared into the bedroom.

Several moments passed, and Rachael returned with several large wads of cash.

“That it?” Carl asked, and kicked me in the ribs again.

“Yeah, now put down my guitar.”

“I said it’d be a shame to break your head with it. I didn’t say I’d put it down. Now don’t take it too personal. You got a hell of a clean carpet out the deal, and that’s something you can be proud of.”

“Come on little bro,” Rachael said, and Donny turned around.

“She’s your sister?” I asked.

“The boy’s good ain’t he,” Carl said.

“Thanks pa,” Donny said, shedding his California accent, and kicking me in the ribs. “Who’s ass whooping who, huh?”

“Least I didn’t piss my pants,” I said when the kicking stopped.

“I didn’t neither,” Donny said. “I used a bottle of water to make it look real.”

“Like I said, the boy’s good.”

“How about you Ferral?” I asked. “You related to these assholes?”

“No, but they got a real laboratory. No more working out the toilet for me.”

“Don’t get any wild hairs, and come looking for us,” Carl said as Donny stretched out a long piece of duct tape.

Sally removed the floor attachment to the vacuum. Rachael thrust the nozzle into my mouth, and Donny taped it to my head. Carl picked up my guitar, and put his cowboy boot on the vacuum’s on switch.

“Damn, this sure is a nice picker,” Carl said. “I power up the Hydro-Vac, and your lungs, stomach, intestines and soul become the property of this here vacuum. Last chance to buy this beaut. Got a hell of a suction.”

“Okay,” I said as best I could with a metal hose jammed into my mouth.

“Well shiit,” Carl said. “Looks to me like we got ourselves another satisfied customer.”

Carl raised his boot to stomp the vacuum’s on switch. I winced at the thought of my organs leaving my body in such a violent manner, but instead Carl stepped back, and strummed my grandfather’s guitar.

“She’s long gone, and I’m lonesome and blue,” he yodeled. “Awful fine picker.”

The cowboy and his family, my guitar, my meth, my money, and my chemist exited the house. Donny slammed the door. For a moment there was silence, but then the grinding sound of boots, walking across red rocks, crushed the skeletal remains of my American dream into an immaculate carpet.

Morgan Boyd used to live in Santa Cruz, California. Now he lives somewhere else with his wife, daughter, cat, and carnivorous plant collection. He has been published online at Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, Near To The Knuckle, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Tough, Pulp Metal Magazine, Spelk and in print at Switchblade Magazine. He also has stories forthcoming at Yellow Mama and Story and Grit.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

News You Can Use

Hi all--

Just a couple quick notes. Issue 2 2018 contributors, we're making final headway on the print version. The learning curve proved to be a bit steep, and there's going to be a slight drop-off in print quality. Issue 1 was slam-bang amazing and I am still learning the ins and outs of Kindle Direct Publishing and the Creative Suite software I used to design the thing. Have patience, please. This will be followed closely by Issue 3, as it turns out, one issue right after the other in an attempt to catch up.

 In other news, I have hired an editorial intern, my son Rider, who I homeschool, and who will make initial screenings of manuscripts and help me prioritize. Rest assured, when I say I'm working with him, we're talking laptops  open at the same time and conversation happening as he learns the ins and outs of Submittable and editorial work in general in preparation for his future. I am still reading and rejecting or accepting every story that comes in. As submissions increase and he gets more experienced, I expect he'll move into more of an associate editor role, during which time I'll probably take on another associate editor with related experience so we have a committee of folks working on reading submissions so that I can concentrate on editing, which is why I do this, after all.

We have stories and reviews scheduled weekly through mid-June, and the story queue is empty except for two stories we just now got, so feel free to send more for us to read. I feel perpetually behind, but that's a healthy development as the journal gets more submissions and more notoriety. We still aim to respond in fewer than 30 days, so feel free to query us if your story has not been read in that time period. It likely got lost somewhere in the shuffle.

Some statistics for you. I estimate we accept about in 1 in 7 stories, so your chances are good with us. We publish a lot of material. We respond personally, maybe 30% of the time. I wish we could do more of that, but sometimes it's not possible and sometimes it feels as if we're pouring salt into the rejection wound, so we err on the side of saying nothing at all.

We are always looking for reviewers and books, so if you have something you want to pitch to me, please do. I'd like to stay small-press-focused, but the fact is there are only so many small presses and many of them seem unwilling to part with mobi copies--our preferred review format--of their newish books so we end up reviewing the people who've appeared in the journal (as we should) and not much else. So hit me up, especially if you have a reconsideration of a genre favorite or genre neglectee deserving of more attention (aren't we all?). And in the meantime, we'll try to stay on top of the indie scene, keep our ear to the ground and bring you more reviews than ever.