Malia A. Perez is a poet and novelist. She is working on a second collection of poetry titled, If Tombstones Could Talk, and a fictional memoir, I Married A Mexican. She is a poet historian capturing poetry events through the lens since the early 2000s. She is the Co-Editor and Co-Founder of The House of the Fighting Chupacabras Press. She holds a Doctorate degree in Educational and Teacher Leadership (2013) and has taught for more than 20 years in public education wearing many hats. She has been a featured reader at Del Mar College and enjoys reading, writing, photography, and spending time with her family.
Her nails are like those
of a new-aged vampire
Stiletto-shaped, cotton-candy colored
Steep heels to match
Looking like she would
Eagerly lick the dagger
After the kill
She is on the prowl
Covered in dark lace
After anyone’s kind
She wants to stake
Her claim to whomever
Will have her
She will take your family
She will take your life
And not look back.
Mandy Ashcraft is a science fiction writer and a clinical psychologist. More about Mandy at the end of this section
Charlie Mathis took satisfied sips of his morning coffee as he looked out over his cabbages, seeing cabbages and only cabbages which is ideal when you’re a cabbage farmer. His gaze stopped on a strange arrangement of concentric circles burned into his field; the kind you’d see in a tabloid story about UFOs. There was surely a less tabloid-worthy explanation for the symbols left in his field, his personal comfort zone insisted as he scrambled to connect a few logical dots. “Those damn teenagers!” he shouted, not referencing any particular ones as there were none living within 20 miles of his Texas property; just damn teenagers in general. Charlie was in his late thirties but his isolated cabbage-soup-rich lifestyle left him one creaky porch rocking chair short of being a crotchety old man. He didn’t like to be bothered, by anyone or anything.
The optic nerve spasmed in his left eye as it landed on something else. Movement. But it wasn’t teenagers. A small humanoid figure was casually shoving one of the cabbages into a --spacecraft. Why couldn’t it just be teenagers?
“Who are you? I’ll sic my dogs on you! Or shoot you!” he called as he grabbed his shotgun and ran towards it, stopping suddenly when the figure turned to face him. Rather than run, it dropped to its knees and began tugging at another cabbage in the dirt, which in its small hands was comparable to a large watermelon in the hands of a man. It seemed to disregard the farmer, not in a menacing way, more of a “kindly leave me to my task of stealing your crops” sort of way. Another leafy ball was lugged to the craft; shoved into it like the carry-on bag of the last passenger to board a regional plane. The creature wasn’t in a hurry. Charlie would’ve sicked his dogs on it if he had any dogs; the threat alone was usually sufficient, but it appeared that this time he would need actual dogs. He made a mental note to adopt a few beagles, or whatever breed would best respond to “get ‘em boys!” In the meantime, he would have to “get ‘em” himself. He couldn’t risk anyone finding out about such a bizarre encounter; media ridicule could add red ink to his struggling finances. If profits were any lower than they already were, he might have just climbed into that spacecraft and buckled up.
“I’ll shoot you!” he repeated, to no response. Not that he figured an otherworldly being would have taken English as a Second Language; Charlie wasn’t a brilliant man but he wasn’t exceedingly dense either. He just figured the large shotgun would pole vault over the language barrier. The figure stared at him, at the gun, and slid its slender arm into the ship to retrieve something. Charlie reacted quickly to the possibility that it was groping for a weapon, some kind of laser or anything that could send his house up in flames, and pulled his trigger. A nearby cabbage exploded. He shot a second time successfully, or unsuccessfully from the point of view of the one inhaling buckshot. It didn’t scream, or try to escape. It didn’t wield a weapon of its own after all. It didn’t pop or fizz or explode. Another alien didn’t erupt from its chest cavity. There were no lasers involved. It merely sighed, and rapidly withered to the ground, with nothing but a small notecard in its hand. A 4x6 white index card. Charlie pocketed it as he rolled the craft into his barn, and masked it with an available out-of-sight-out-of-mind shield from reality that could also be identified as a tractor cover. It wasn’t as if he could recycle it. He looked at the card, covered in symbols, one of them the exact symbol that had been burned into his field a year prior. He wondered if it might be a list of directions, and if it was, his seemed to be the last stop before it reached its destination. As he dug a shallow grave for the extraterrestrial sack of Earth bullets, he wondered if he might have eventually been able to communicate with it, or if he’d have been the one being buried if he’d ventured to try. It was too late to find out; at least he was on the winning side of the dirt. Padding back to the house, he decided that what had just happened had never actually happened at all. Maybe it was a dream? The coffee grounds expired six months ago, this could be a bad reaction. Or is there such thing as a hallucinogenic cabbage fungus? He attempted to overwrite his memory of it with the words “it never happened” on a loop. He would adopt some dogs, though, in case it ever happened a second time.
He nearly heaved his expired liquid breakfast onto the index card as he scanned the front page of the newspaper. “Crop Circle Leaves Local Corn Farmer A-Maize-d” was the headline his local paper had decided on, where he just knew they’d genuinely delighted in the idea that their maize joke was also corny, and an acquaintance of his smiled in black and white. In the photo he pointed toward a charred field. An overhead view showed a peculiar symbol Charlie recognized; it was also on the index card. He felt panicked, sweaty, like he’d eaten too many jalapeños after drinking too much caffeine and his organs weren’t sure what to make of the combination without resulting in something biologically volcanic. Charlie walked to the barn and pulled the tractor cover from the small craft. He pressed the door and it opened outward.
“Maybe there’s something else in here, something to explain what’s happening,” he said aloud. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if he found an answer; business aside, going public about alien contact would mean every cashier and waitress and damn teenager in Texas would ask him if he was probed for the rest of his life and it would probably even be whispered at his funeral. Here lies Charlie, who might have been probed by aliens. I wasn’t probed, I was robbed, he thought to himself. The metallic spacecraft was the size of an industrial washing machine, and could accommodate the small humanoid being and about 5 of his largest, most profitable cabbages comfortably. Of those there were two, and also what appeared to be several bunches of carrots. Regular earth carrots. There wasn’t a single useful piece of evidence in the craft; no maps, light sabers, or anything to probe anyone with. Unless the carrots…? No, he decided, that’s not what the carrots were for. It was odd. Cabbage, carrots, and now corn? Were they studying human sources of food? His nerve endings sipped a paranoid cocktail of images depicting humans in a zoo, being fed harvested plants from their native planet, zoologists working had to recreate the human diet to toss at abductees for entertainment. He’d buried one of them, whatever they were, but the newest crop circle meant it had friends. Or at least co-workers. For the first time in a long time, he felt afraid.
“Gary,” he said into his cellphone; Gary was the smiling face who was, that very morning, a-maize-d. “Gary this is Charlie. Can you talk privately? It’s urgent.”
There was a small bar a few miles up the road that also sold terrible burgers. They agreed to meet for drinks and possibly a terrible burger, depending on how many drinks it took for that to sound like a wise decision, gastrointestinally speaking. That day it took both men exactly two beers before taking their wise decision with extra cheese.
“Charlie, why are we drinking at 10:30 in the morning?” Gary asked, pulling at something in his burger patty that looked to Charlie like a band aid. “Are you upset about that article in the paper? It’s not going to affect local business—”
“Gary, I had the same thing happen in my cabbage field. It was a different symbol, but I—” he took a swig of beer to loosen gristly meat bits wedged between his teeth, “—I saw the creature that made it. I shot it. And I took this card from it.” He unfolded the index card from his front pocket. Gary reacted all too calmly to the card and the shooting, even for their level of mid-morning intoxication. “Gary, what else do you know?”
It wasn’t a band aid, fortunately, in the meat patty. It was just a piece of plastic wrapping likely peeled from a cheese slice. Not exactly palatable, but certainly more hygienic, and Charlie called that a win. The old corn farmer plucked it from his burger and continued eating. “This has been happening to all of us ‘round here,” he said. “The Jeffreys grow those big fat radishes; their fields were covered in triangles a while back.” He looked at the index card. “These actually, fourth one down.” He pointed. “And those big round circles at the bottom were way out west of town in some tomatoes I think.”
“So this is…a list?”
“Seems to be.”
“Each crop circle or symbol was left with a different type of crop. So they were going down this list and taking some of each thing. Why?”
“Hell if I know,” said Gary. “I only let the paper know so I could get that girl JoAnn’s attention. You seen her around lately? Last I saw she was selling some kind of candles—”
“Don’t you care?” Charlie was not a patient man.
“‘Course I care, JoAnn got a boob job.”
Gary was a dead end. But he’d figured out one thing from their conversation; the creatures burning symbols in their fields were following a list, marking the items they needed, and then simply hauling them off later. He flashed back on his earlier idea of human exhibits. If they were taking things they needed to sustain human life elsewhere, the next logical action would be to take the humans themselves. Or had they begun that already? Come to think of it he hadn’t seen the town’s only attractive female JoAnn in a while; she was worthy of being beamed up for display purposes. This human comes with enhanced features!
Parting ways with Gary and his regrettable plate of crumbs, Charlie headed out to the Jeffreys’ property. The ones with the triangles and big fat radishes. They lived at the edge of town and everyone knew their name. A massive wrought iron gate with JEFFREY welded into it and solar-powered accent lighting ensured you weren’t accidentally unaware of them being the fanciest growers of radishes in all the land. It was unlike anything else in their humble hometown, and the locals had taken to pretentious whispering about their alleged pretentiousness. Turns out, the flavor of irony is masked well by beer. Charlie pulled up to the gate and found it open, so he continued up the dirt road that ended at the house that root vegetables built.
A middle-aged man in shorts and a bathrobe sat on the front step reading their local paper. Gary’s smiling face looked up at Charlie in black and white from the front page as he approached the man, presumably Mr. Jeffrey. He didn’t look especially fancy. Maybe his robe was cashmere? Charlie wasn’t sure he knew what cashmere would look like.
“Can you believe all that? About the crop circles?” Charlie asked. The man looked up at him. “Name’s Charlie Mathis, I live across town. I don’t mean to bother you.”
“Sure I can believe it. I had crop circles. Actually I had crop triangles,” he sighed. “Is that a thing? Crop triangles?”
“I suppose they could be any shape. The things making them left this card, and these symbols on it.” He extended the index card. “It seems to be a list. I came to see if you had any more information.”
Looking at the card, Mr. Jeffrey bit his lower lip, perplexed. “I wonder if they got all of these things yet, if it’s a list like you say? Maybe they’re not done?”
“You mean maybe they have other things to get on this list? Maybe some of the symbols mean— I dunno, weapons? Cows? People?”
“Could mean anything. Maybe weapons, cows, and people.” Mr. Jeffrey laughed. “Or maybe the last symbol means ‘you can only destroy the human race after you eat your vegetables’.”
“Doesn’t this worry you?” It was beginning to seem like the meeting with Gary all over again; a cholesterol-free version.
“Oh sure it terrifies me. But I’m not about to go to war with them, whatever they are. Let them have the crops. They grow back.” There are always options when faced with unusual circumstances, and Jeffery seemed to have taken the “horse blinders” approach to facing this one. Don’t look at them, don’t look into it, and water your big fat radishes; ostentatious gates don’t pay for themselves.
After about fifteen minutes of small-talk about radishes and cabbages and the weather, and also a brief mention of JoAnn 2.0, Charlie convinced Mr. Jeffrey—whose first name was Jeff which was unfortunate but easy to remember—to assist him with one thing. He asked that he simply help him make a list of what symbols locals had already quietly mentioned and strategically downplayed or, in one instance, had photographed for the front page of the local paper. They spent the afternoon calling around and drawing symbols based on verbal descriptions. The too-early beer and too-terrible burger Charlie had consumed that morning made his brain feel like it was marinating in lukewarm drippings from the meat patty.
“It looks like everything on this card matches up with something grown around here, except one. Four circles in a row. No one has seen that one, at least no one in this area that anyone’s talked to.”
“So there you go,” said Jeff, “the symbol that means blow up the cows or whatever you said earlier.” He smiled.
“You won’t be laughing if it means blow up the cows.”
“So long as it doesn’t mean blow up the radishes. Come on Charlie, what are you trying to do here? Stir things up? Leave it alone, maybe they’ll go away.”
“I want to know what’s happening in this town. They seem to have targeted us for a reason. What if we could warn people?” His previous concerns of negative press and/or having to watch his CPA keep the subtract button warm on her calculator had been dropped the moment he’d realized he wasn’t alone in his experience. The town in which he was born, and the one he hoped to die in but not too soon, could be under attack. It was hard to tell; what he did know was that their properties were in something’s scope. There was even a handwritten list. So what was their next move?
Jeff Jeffrey tied his potentially-cashmere bathrobe around himself as he walked quietly to the kitchen. Charlie could hear him slide a wooden drawer open. He returned with a long rectangle box labelled Aluminum Foil.
“Here’s your hat,” he said. He tossed it down in front of his visitor. “At least that’s what the rest of the country will say. You gotta let it go. We can’t be known for stuff like this.”
“They could be dangerous! And they know how to find us!”
The man in the bathrobe sat down. He sighed, heavily. With his right hand he picked at a label on a jar of pickled radishes. It took him several minutes to respond, in an uncomfortable silence for Charlie who was also desperately wading through a hangover.
“Do you really think we need to warn people?” he asked, finally.
“I think we do. So that maybe we can find out what it all means before it’s too late.”
“Warn people about what?” said a female voice as it entered the room, carried by a woman who promptly booted JoAnn off of her pedestal in Charlie’s mind. Mrs. Jeffrey sat down next to her husband at the table. “I’m Mila, by the way.”
“We were talking about the triangles. Charlie here has had some crop circles himself. He thinks it’s a list of things they’re taking. He thinks they might take people next.”
Mila looked ravishingly alarmed. Beautifully terrified. Exquisitely fearful. Charlie decided he shouldn’t think of her that way. She was Mrs. Jeffrey and should be merely alarmed, terrified, and fearful. “We’re going to be abducted!?”
“No. We’re just taking precautions. Letting people know it could happen, so they’re not caught off-guard,” Charlie tried to soothe her with something equally frightening but re-worded. Like putting a big orange safety cone in front of a toxic spill.
It didn’t take 24 hours to ignite their quaint farm town with worry. Worry of alien invasions. Worry of abductions. Worry of probing. People never forget to mention probes in regards to anything coming from anywhere that isn’t Earth, where a vast universe of possibilities seems to be whittled away to human colorectal exams. The local paper accepted Charlie’s compiled information and evidence in the same quiet and understated way that a famished lion accepts a zebra. Not only had their a-maize-d farmer had this experience, much of their town had similar ones. Their town was the target of something, or someone, from another planet. Fear was rolled neatly and bound with rubber bands, tossed at the front doors of the unsuspecting locals. The zebra was picked clean.
It had been a week since the breaking news and Charlie sat with Jeff Jeffrey at the same bar he’d first met with Gary, once again eating a terrible burger. Jeff didn’t have one, because he was pretentious. Or maybe because they were terrible. On an old television set, a local woman revealed to a journalist that her carrots had been dug up about eight days prior, with four circles burned into her land, and thus the last mysterious symbol on the card was identified.
“Mila wants to move,” Jeff said. “Doesn’t want to sit around and wait for them to come.”
“That’s a little extreme, I think.”
“Extreme?” Jeff looked at him. “We just told the entire town to be afraid for their lives. And now it’s ‘extreme’ if they’re afraid for their lives?”
“We don’t even know if they’re coming back. We just told people to watch for them.”
“Yeah, but you tell people to watch their backs and they panic,” said Jeff as he watched Charlie mop his wet plate with the last piece of hamburger bun. “We weren’t even sure we were in danger at all.”
“Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?” Charlie felt a pang of guilt, scrambling for the comfort of a classic phrase generally held in high regard. Was it not always better to be safe than sorry?
“But what if we’re safe and sorry?”
Two thousand light-years away, a small humanoid creature shuffled through a box of index cards, pulling a few out and glancing over them, and every time replacing them in the box.
He sighed, annoyed. He rifled through cards again.
“I guess 86 the imported cabbage salad,” he said to his sous-chef in their native language, who took a dry-erase marker to a white board in their kitchen to notify the waitstaff that it would be unavailable. “We never received the cabbage of Earth.”
He pulled another index card from the recipe box.
She was on her way to the funeral of a family friend who had passed away peacefully in his sleep. He was 117. She drove the speed limit, as she always did. Everyone always did; it was considerate.
Her dress was long, form-fitting, and black, as if she were wearing her own shadow in hand-sewn lace. She smiled to herself. The funeral was not to be a somber event; he had lived a long life, free of complaints, free of regrets. She figured his body was merely exhausted from 117 years of laughter and champagne toasts.
In fact, in Marcy’s town, people rarely had a complaint about anything at all. She thought about her own life as she drove. Her workplace was a convenient distance from home, and her job pleasant. Her boss was kind, and she worked hours that tipped the work-life balance in perpetual favor of the latter. Her parents loved her, and each other, and the highlights of her childhood were often revisited in a glittering snow globe of memories. She had borne a healthy baby boy and girl to the man of her dreams, and prided herself in this decidedly balanced family structure. It warmed her to see her friends, co-workers, and acquaintances do the same. Residents of her town held the same political stance, same religious views, and the same socioeconomic status. They had no debates; there was nothing to debate. They had no fights; there was nothing to fight about. Everyone was respected and respectful. It was what they’d always fought for, in the old days, long before she’d been born. She had only heard rumors about the way it used to be, but the past seemed to be this haunting entity in the room you were forbidden to acknowledge. It had piqued her curiosity, and yet she’d never dared ask questions. The entity whispered softly only to those who cared to wonder, and so few ever did. The past was meant to be shameful.
What she had gathered was this: The people had felt tension between opposing views, a strain between widely varied lifestyles, and a reason to debate when jagged-edged political or religious views were coarsely mixed. It was in the past that they’d ever felt a reason to threaten or feel threatened, and had then agreed that any threat at all was inherently evil. They, as a society, went to war against such evil. There should be no winners, nor losers, they’d said. Control all variables and you eliminate any tension, they’d said. There should be no grades in school, there should be no scores in sports; these numbers were emotionally crippling. Fair meant fair, and they banded together to achieve it. And they had! It was utopia, they’d said. Finally, it was what they’d fought for. There was never a reason to feel anything but happy, joyful, grateful. That’s what they always said.
It had been decades since someone had committed a crime; there never seemed a reason to commit one. The prison had been turned into an art gallery, one Marcy often visited. She’d always been drawn to it, even as a child. It had been decades since someone had the desire to create anything new, because art is a manifestation of deep emotion, and often some degree of discontent. The paintings there were quite old and some were in need of restoration, but the gallery itself was pristine. It was nearly impossible to tell that it had ever been a prison, although she wasn’t at all sure what a prison would have looked like. The concept of incarceration in its entirety was a hushed subject of the old days; another relic buried by an idyllic victory.
The locals enjoyed a sip of wine on an occasional stroll through the displays, where vintage canvas pieces from the pre-utopian days were neatly arranged, and they always politely commented on the lovely color schemes. They were remarkable to look at, full of emotions the people there had never had a reason to feel, and so their brush-stroke language was foreign. It didn’t translate. The pieces hung on the walls, screaming a history that no one could understand. Something in Marcy could hear them, though; distinctly, in an otherwise deafened room. She’d discovered this at a young age. She returned to the gallery often, without explanation, to quietly share in a sensation otherwise confined to its own timeline. This way of living was better, they’d said, because everything is perfect when nothing is ever unbalanced. When nothing is ever wrong. When no one is ever cruel. There was no paint color that quite resonated with the innocence of having felt nothing. Virgin brains were carried by the people of Marcy’s town, with untouched neurological receptors. They knew how to love, they experienced passion, in the same way a greeting card expresses such things. Flat. Superficial.
Well-intended, of course, but lacking a beating heart. The paintings on the walls sobbed alone.
What was sadness, in Marcy’s town, anyways? It was utopia. They were not immortal; death stalks even the happiest man in the world, but in that town, no one’s obituary was ever embellished. A creative literary sanding and refinishing of a person’s life story was no longer required, because polish is wasted on what is already flawless.
Marcy arrived at her destination. The local cemetery plots were manicured daily, and the markers equal size and shape. The afternoon service began on time. Death was a greeting card just as life had been, and as Marcy stepped into the building to attend the funeral, she became acutely aware of the watered-down emotions of those around her. It seemed strange; full of people and yet somehow vacant. Sterile. She noticed there was nothing on the walls, with eggshell paint offering a lukewarm embrace of the casket. She stepped into another room of empty walls. Another. She paced slowly throughout the home, which smelled unwaveringly like vanilla and not a single wooden board creaked on the floor. She heard the silence, the cleansed sound of utopia. She’d been there before but this time she stared at the emptiness; this time it felt different. The walls were bare in the last building your body would ever belong to, and its tragic symbolism stung her eyes. Sadness crept into her as if it was provided intravenously. It overwhelmed her. It was the smashing of protective ice to reveal an entire ocean below, full of consciousness in its entirety. She had been conditioned to dance lightly on that ice, for her own protection. Utopia was fragile; you could never question it or it would cease to exist.
Marcy sped away from the funeral home above the speed limit. Her adrenal glands injected pure energy into her veins. The lace on her black dress tore as she pushed her way past a family into the current art gallery, former prison. Broken strings hung from the dress, exposing raw, delicate skin. She ran through the hallways. She ran until she found it, her favorite painting in the entire collection. It was not a portrait of anything in particular, but contained several colors, light and dark. Some of the strokes were violent, and others appeared sensually applied. It was the artist’s soul dried onto an old piece of canvas; it was an amalgamation of whatever they felt when they painted it and whatever you felt when you looked at it. She pulled it from the wall, and damaged lace clung to it as she carried it away from the gallery. There was no guard; there had never been a reason for one.
She returned to the funeral home and carried the painting down the center aisle in the middle of the funeral service. Faces turned, and eyes carefully followed her. She moved forward, the dress ripping at her side. The attendees were a silent cloud of dark fabrics. The speaker at the podium seemed unsure whether to continue. Marcy dragged an antique walnut table to the wall behind the casket, and hoisted the large painting onto it. It loomed above the body. It represented the totality of life, because it was itself a piece of human existence that could never die. Marcy lowered herself to the floor and said nothing. The strained fabric of her dress tickled and tugged at her skin, but she didn’t adjust it.
The guests appeared uncomfortable and confused. They stared at the vibrant window into eternity that she had provided that 117 year old soul from his box in the last room he'd ever enter.
Marcy stood. “Life is bittersweet, a flavor we’ve not tasted before,” she proclaimed. “We’ve been cocooned from the truth. The fight, the debate, the tension throw sparks at the dry leaves of evolution. Paint stirred with tears, with blood, with intoxicants meant to drown out the world if even for a moment, with anything that ever captured undiluted awareness of what it is to be human; that is a medium that preserves what matters.”
The stolen painting stared down at people who had never clung to another human being, not once, for the sense of safety and relief it provides.
“It is the claws of despair that rip depth into what it means to truly love. It is the corrosive way that grief carves itself into the human psyche that defines it, reshapes it, strengthens its bonds with the things around it. If you are numb to the negative, you are also numb to the positive.”
The people stared at her. And then, for the first time, they reacted as individuals. Some laughed, others cried. Some reached out and hugged the person next to them. Some ran to the casket, others to the painting. Some came up to Marcy. Others were angry. They stormed from the service. Marcy felt they’d not even realized the shallowness of their pool until given a glimpse into the ocean. She felt she hadn’t just shown them how, she’d shown them why.
Mandy Ashcraft reads from "Striptease Podcast" from Corpus Christi Writers 2020.
Wendy had conducted her podcast out of the mop closet of a West Texas truck stop for ten months. She was not from Earth, and her name wasn’t really Wendy, but she did work in a mop closet. She slept there, as well. Most of what she knew about human life she’d learned from conversations that floated through rows of salted nuts and beef jerky. She’d picked up pieces of current events, repetitive chitchat about the weather, and details of the love-hate relationship between intestines and jalapeños. All things considered, she enjoyed her time there. The hotdogs that had been on the rollers were free so long as they’d been there for 12 hours, and the manager allowed her to do anything she wanted in the closet so long as she used the mops on the floors once a day. It was a fair trade, considering she was going to destroy their planet anyways.
The world leaders knew about the fate of Earth. They were all avid listeners of Wendy’s invitation-only subscription-based podcast, STRIPTEASE, which trickled vital information into their brains like a hemorrhage that bleeds in 60-minute intervals. The show was sexual in nature, vulgar, and always fantastically titillating. They knew she wasn’t human; STRIPTEASE was a show about her learning the wide-world-of-sex their beloved Earth had to offer. Her episodes were downloaded almost instantly. They were hooked.
She peppered it with details of the world’s impending demise between graphic anecdotes; a whispered secret from a voluptuous extraterrestrial desperate to learn the Kama Sutra— as she explained—“while there was still time.” What she wanted to determine was which humans were worth saving. The planet itself was not worth saving, but it seemed wasteful not to save a few of its assets. She had slipped details of her X-rated broadcast into the private inboxes of the political elite, and they took the bait; she did this partly for convenience, somewhat for entertainment, and a little bit because West Texas was hot and she’d rather stay inside and not have to contact them in person.
STRIPTEASE brought them like flies to the mysterious puddle of liquid in aisle three. After 96 episodes, her listener rate was at an all-time high, because the listeners themselves were at a frantic personal all-time low having knowledge of the end of the world and no way of publicly explaining how they’d learned of it.
She recorded episode #97 on a Tuesday. The fact that it was Tuesday was arbitrary, really, but it felt like the right time. With her microphone propped on a mop head, she leaned into it and in her most seductive voice, offered them salvation. She dangled her words in front of their auditory canals. She tried to make her breasts sound bigger when she said it. She wasn’t sure if that was a thing, but if it was a thing, she wanted to make sure she did it. There was a large ship, she told them, one single large and shiny ship, that could preserve only humanity’s best and brightest. They had 20 days to narrow it down, and to meet at the ship. Ending the show with a lengthy description of her first time with a pizza delivery guy and arguably too much detail involving garlic butter, Wendy cut the recording off.
The elite listeners decided immediately who humanity’s best and brightest were: themselves.
There wasn’t going to be any drawing of Nobel Laureates’ names out of a hat. They would wave goodbye to the actual best, the actual brightest, and to those with whom they were having an affair. They would board the rescue ship to New Earth, a lavishly terraformed planet of hope. Population: the original Earth’s best and brightest. Before the episode was over, they’d already fallen in love with the possibilities; this new world, not muddied by the kinds of people who didn’t know what hollandaise was and the people who couldn’t afford open-heart surgery from eating too much of it. They deserved this chance at survival, to sow humanity’s most powerful genetics into the Milky Way. They packed and counted the days quietly, brunching heavily, then lunching heavily, and then drinks-turned-into-dinnering heavily. There was something about leaving everyone else to their demise without warning that brought up a queasy sense of guilt. Beef Wellington absorbs guilt really well, probably because of the duxelles and maybe the pastry, so it was ultimately a non-issue. Life on original Earth continued as status quo. Wendy mopped the truck stop a handful of times, ate wrinkly tubes of meat from the rollers, and watched a woman give birth in the chip aisle (more mopping), but never once clicked the ON button of her microphone.
When the time came, Wendy left the mops and ventured out into the soft splashes of sun-lit bottle caps, candy wrappers, and condoms decorating the parking lot. The sticky sea glass of truck stops. The ship was where she said it would be, a mile up the road from where she stood. They were already there, her entire listener base, the leaders of the world. Everyone with an “I got an official email” in their grab bag of explanations, high atop a pedestal of squeaky-clean morality, should anyone ask. No one asked. New Earth awaited them; it deserved them, and they deserved it. Daylight slid its promiscuous fingers across the curves of the ship’s metal exterior. It was almost impossibly shiny, sweating bullets of liquid silver into the open air. Wendy had in her hands a pamphlet she had printed in the mop closet. It contained details of their new world for the passengers to peruse. Strapped into their seats, they ruffled the pages excitedly, nervously. The duxelles-to-pastry ratio must’ve been sufficiently absorbent, because no one seemed to ruffle pages with remorse. Wendy watched from the ground as her ship was auto-piloted from the rocky pathway on which it stood ever since she’d arrived in it herself. She blinked and it was gone.
“The best and brightest,” she said to herself and a small cactus. It was warm, and the breeze was far superior to the fan in the closet. She looked down at the New Earth information, fresh black ink smearing beneath her thumb. These passengers weren’t wrong per se; New Earth would have been a great place for them to coordinate diamonds with DNA, if it existed. It was alarming how little it took to convince them it did. Wendy had given them a photo of Earth from the vantage point of their one moon, just having rotated Australia. She erased Bermuda altogether since it seemed to be in an odd location to begin with. She typed “New Earth” at the bottom of the page, and there it was. They were going to be so disappointed when the ship drifted away indefinitely, irreversibly; a horrifying strangulation fueled by greed would reduce the ship to a frigid catacomb, albeit shiny. Very shiny.
The best and brightest would never step forward as such, but those standing in the way of them would. Wendy knew that. She also knew that sex was a powerful force throughout the universe, and Earth was no exception to the rule. She fed them information by way of that mop closet production carefully, and in a context that had their brains drunk on a cocktail of hormones and fear; it was like being spooned a nice winter squash bisque through a glory hole. It was satisfying and dangerous and had their inflated egos clenched in a barbed fist. Wendy went back to the truck stop and grabbed a 13th-hour hotdog off of the rollers, with a wink from the owner signifying that if she was brave enough to eat it, then by all means. The true best and brightest were the rest of the people, the ones that had been abandoned by leaders who couldn’t recognize their own world map if Australia was facing the wrong way. Wendy had decided that she wouldn’t detonate anything, around the same time she decided she wasn’t getting on that ship either. The button itself was drowned in electric purple Fabuloso, deactivated and lavender-scented. It was a Tuesday, and she remembered so because it really didn’t matter what day it was.
from Chapter 44:
A humming sound came from outside of the Department of the Afterlife, and continued to get louder; if you were to dissect the swarming sound, you’d find hundreds of individual Aleyan voices asking questions in various arrangements of “What’s really going on with the afterlife?” and “We demand answers!” and “Inkle owes us an explanation!” and a few “What is Cheerwine?”
It hadn’t taken long for the leaked document to ooze further into plain view, given that it was sent to both friends and rivals of Inkle, Inc. and threatened the souls of even those that might have stepped up in his defense. Those very allies had not thought to question the legitimacy of Inkle, Inc.’s bold proclamation, they’d simply witnessed it being proclaimed in all of it’s glory, and linked arms with it’s powerful figureheads. They were a paper chain of distinguished members of society, and when one caught fire, they either severed themselves or they all went up in smoke. Everyone wanted answers from a man who was suddenly very glad he was deceased.
Inkle’s fax machine coughed and wheezed as it worked harder than it ever had in it’s mechanical life, while his prestigious office in the afterlife was suddenly hit with an influx of question marks. Angry question marks. Bold, italicized, underlined sentences. Lots of capital letters. Even more question marks after that. Someone even appeared to have spit on theirs before faxing. Inkle stared at the pile, racking his vocabulary for a nice soothing, appeasing arrangement of words that might buffer himself from scrutiny. Once he settled them back into a lucrative state of compliance, he’d take care of the source, which he’d narrowed down to be either Suzan or Gilbert. He would sweep this mess under the rug, and he’d bury them with it. He wasn’t about to lose everything he’d worked for.
Janie entered his office looking concerned, and wasn’t unbuttoning her blouse which was further indication that something was awry. The fastened buttons seemed almost threatening; things were at risk of change. Inkle didn’t like change. He also didn’t like fastened blouses.
“Mister Inkle,” she said. “God’s secretary just called. He wants to speak to you in person.”
“Uh—tell him I’m in a meeting.”
“The gods are all-knowing, Mister Inkle. No disrespect, sir, but I think all-knowing means all-knowing of whether or not you’re actually in a meeting.”
He dismissed her and her rigid buttons.
Every term served by an Aleyan-elected god was, of course, out of the largest most godly of office suites in the afterlife. As it should be. However, it was an unwritten rule that you were never to visit that office. You weren’t really even supposed to look directly at it, only accidentally or in passing, out of respect. That part wasn’t unwritten; it was etched into marble in front of it. Presumably you were allowed to look at those rules and nothing around them. It took careful effort to comply.
Inkle approached the secretary’s desk outside of the office, none of which he was supposed to be looking directly at so he figured he’d just blink excessively and hope it balanced out at only 50% disrespectful.
From Chapter 21:
At the entrance of the Botanical Gardens, Gilbert smoothed his rented jacket and watched a steady flow of eco-conscious society elites pour through the event doors that swallowed them like glittery pills. Soft music leaked through to the passersby, and warm lights were woven through the gardens. It was undoubtedly a prestigious event, and he felt even more foolish for asking that beautiful girl if his denim-plus-corduroy ensemble was within dress code. He also began to feel foolish for considering that he might just walk on in, without a ticket or anyone to consider him their +1. His graphic design career, while currently on sabbatical, had afforded him many champagne-popping event invites, sometimes ironically having designed the invite himself before receiving it in the mail. If that experience had taught him anything, it’s that he probably wasn’t going to waltz in with his red pen, condom, mint, or any sort of MacGyver-ed combination of the three. He’d polished up his image for nothing.
“Ah! I see you’re a guest of the Department of the Afterlife,” said a much older man, as Gilbert’s badge caught his eye. He wore a tailor’s masterpiece of hand-sewn obsidian fabric so expensive that it would’ve been personally offended to have been referred to as a “black suit”. It was a reallynice black suit.
“Yes, sir. From Earth.”
The man’s eyes seemed to brighten to the point of near-luminescence.
“Earth! I’m a big fan.”
“Really?” Gilbert was genuinely surprised. “I’m just visiting for a few more hours. I was curious about this event; I think someone I know might be attending. Do you purchase tickets at the door?” He inquired with the confidence of anyone trying free samples at a grocery store and putting on an Oscar-worthy performance of a person that was going to come back and buy it all later.
“Nonsense, come in with me, I’ll get you a drink. Tell me about life on Earth.”
There were 25 hours left on his wrist watch, and it ticked away cufflink-adjacent as Gilbert was led into the most exquisitely beautiful event he’d ever seen. Elegant wooden furniture boasted native plant life and flowers that Earth knew to bloom only in science fiction. If James Cameron decided to host a black tie event that combined his vision of “Avatar” with “Titanic”, but with more string lights, he would’ve hired the same event stylist.
The two men approached a bar that held an array of liquor bottles and fresh fruits and garnishes. A bartender picked a small orange fruit out of a bowl, shaved a piece of it’s peel into a glass, and muddled it. He squeezed the fruit into the glass and added a splash of something bubbly. Pouring something darker over the concoction, he handed it to another party-goer.
“I’ll have that,” Gilbert said, as the small orange fruits, whatever they were, reminded him of clementines and his house on Clementine that no one seemed to be able to remember the name of.
The bartender peeled, muddled, squeezed, and splashed once more.
“Dawn, Dusk, or Dark?” he asked.
Gilbert had been asked many questions at many bars but that wasn’t one he was familiar with. “I’m sorry?”
The bartender looked at his badge, his get-out-of-condescension-free pass for the day, and explained to the planet’s unfamiliar visitor.
“This drink is an Elixandria. It’s named after our sun, that’s why it’s this nice orange color. The brown liquid on top is dark rum, and we pour it over to represent a setting sun. Little bit of rum? Dawn. Little more rum? Dusk. You looking to get drunk? Dark.” The bartender grinned. “It’s our official drink on Aleya. We voted on it.”
Mandy is a science fiction writer and author of Small Orange Fruit, available on Amazon. She lives in Corpus Christi with her husband Dustin. She is a Doctor of Psychology student with a focus on Clinical Psychology, and recently started a non-profit called The WATCHDOG Project to help raise awareness for PTSD.
Learn more at MandyAshcraft.com
Manuel Ruiz is a life-long Texan with a passion for reading, video games and music. He works in IT, plays in an 80's band, and owns way too many toys. He writes teen and adult fiction, usually with a supernatural twist, and loves to keep his readers on their toes. His novel The Sugar Skull is about 17-year-old Ricky Luna, who wants nothing more than to finish school, win the hand of his best girl, and get away from his troubling home life. Then there is a midnight visit from a strange young girl
What is it, Grandma Bea?"
"I went to see a few friends from the neighborhood. I covered almost ten houses across three different streets over seven blocks. Three different people saw or talked to that little girl last night. And those were just the ones that wanted to admit it."
"They saw her, too?"
"Yes, some did. Mrs. Blackmon down the street said that she also heard the little girl chasing after her cat, but it was Janie that had the best information."
"The nosy one that's always asking about Mom?"
"Yes, that one. Well, her nosiness helped for once. She asked the little girl where she lived like I did, but after she pointed and told her, Janie kept pressing her. She asked her where exactly. She told her on Creek Street on the corner."
READ MORE IN CORPUS CHRISTI WRITERS 2022
Mariah Michelle Hinojosa graduated with a Bachelors degree in Communication from Texas A&M University Corpus Christi and lived in the small town of Taft for most of her life. Currently, she lives in the Austin area with her husband, Nathan, and daughter, Aurora. Mariah loves to write and has written many pieces since she was a small child. She also enjoys reading, spending time with her family and learning about the world. Her dream is to be a published writer and a Communication Director for a non-profit organization.
Isn’t it funny
Is just words
In a way
That makes us feel
Like the words
Transcend the emotion
And pierce us
In a way
The same words
Isn’t it funny
Read more like this in Corpus Christi Writers 2019
Mariah Massengill is a coastal bend native, having spent most of her life in Aransas Pass. After a year exploring the big city life in Sydney, Australia, Mariah came back to the bend to continue her education, having most recently completed her Bachelor of Arts in theatre from TAMUCC in 2020. Currently, Mariah is a creative writing graduate student at the University of Houston-Victoria. She uses her love for prose and poetry in her field of theatre, where she enjoys writing, translating, and adapting plays.
Porous, shiny skin
glides smooth over his palm
Pert fitted peel
yields with the giant’s pressure
Perfumed citrus fruit
splits bare before hungry eyes
Perky segmented flesh
judged by a wagging tongue
Not sweet enough.
READ MORE BY MARIAH IN CORPUS CHRISTI WRITERS 2022
Matthew Rosas was born in Corpus Christi, TX. He is the author of The Legend of
Mariquita and Other Short Stories, and of the recently released novella, Praying not to
Fall. More about Matthew at the end of this section.
In the 8th Century, Arabs invaded Spain, beginning a rapid conquest. Christians in the North remained strong, and for centuries, fought to reclaim territory. The Reconquista battles were fierce, culminating in 1492. An elite group of warriors were rumored to have been part of the Christian Royal Knights and a vital means to their ultimate victory. The men, although short in stature, fought ferociously. Their speed and strength on the battlefield were held to be beyond that of mere humans. The origin of this group is unknown. Some have claimed these soldiers were part of a clandestine experiment on humans involving the fusion of blood from the Gray Wolf and Lataste’s Viper. Whispers linger that this bloodline evolved and spread across continents.
Chupacabra sightings have exploded since the early 1990s. The United States, ranging from Brownsville to Maine, has tripled in its amount of reported sightings. The creature, described by some as a wild dog and by others as lizard-like, is blamed for the deaths of small farm animals, particularly young goats. The Chupacabra is notorious for leaving its victim completely drained of blood. Animals resembling the creature’s description have been found dead, but scientists have been quick to label them as diseased coyotes. A live Chupacabra has never been caught nor seen in daylight.
Corpus Christi, TX—present
My eyes burst open. The phone is ringing. I look at the clock. 4:48 am. I answer and step into the living room. A co-worker, who opens the shop at 6, says he can’t make it in. As he explains his excuse, I stare, sleepily, into the backyard. A slight haze covers the grass. A creature trots from the left side across the yard. Not a dog, nor a cat. It seems hairless, has bulging eyes and a long snout. The end of its nose appears to curl up, almost horn-like. Sharp teeth jut out from its mouth. It moves with grace and effortlessly bounds over my 7-foot fence. I tell the co-worker that I’ll make it in to cover for him, hang up the phone, and step into the shower.
When I get home after 4 pm, I go into the backyard to rake some leaves. Near a tree, I find a decapitated squirrel. There is no sign of blood. I grab a shovel, drop it into a garbage bag, and take it to the front yard to drop in the trash can. I see my neighbor, Mr. Guzman, shirtless in his yard. Despite looking near 100 years old, his still-ripped chest muscles flex as he effortlessly carries a huge bag of leaves in each hand. He tosses them near the street. He scratches his grayed, stubbly chin, then looks upward and squints his eyes, which seem oddly elliptical. I wave. He smiles back. His thin lips remain in a grin as I walk away.
For now over 700 years, I’ve roamed a distance spanning nearly the entire planet. From my home province of Burgos, then to Portugal, Morocco, Porto Alegre, Cholula, and now, Corpus Christi. We’ve had to spread out to avoid notice, limit fear. I sometimes miss my homeland. The Cathedral, castles, mountains. I once commanded an Army in Córdoba. Now, I command a lonely household and the multitude of rodents and vermin in my territory. Ruling over only the unseen at night and drinking til dry to limit the bloody messes that would haunt my timid neighbors. I see one now. He caught a flashing glimpse this morning. For some of us, the elite warriors of centuries ago, transformation was a must to win. To strike terror into the enemy’s eyes. Speed, power, teeth that can crush bones. At present, there is little need for this power, though. Unless, there is another Reconquista. The pack patiently awaits.
On Saturday mornings, my brother and I would wake up early, before cartoons, while there was still static on TV. We’d sprint straight to our parent’s room, jump on their bed, bounce up and down, and yell out “Dad is it time yet?” His first answer was always a barely audible, “Five more minutes hijos. Just five more minutes.” We’d leave. The same scene would repeat four or five more times until he finally would say, “OK, go brush your teeth and get the rods ready.”
I hated getting the fishing rods. It was dark and sticky outside. Worse than that were the millions of roaches, June bugs, and moths flying around the spotlight just above the garage door. Even if I managed to avoid being hit by one, my big brother would catch a bug, put it down my shirt, and watch me scream for mercy. I hated roaches the most. Too bad they loved Corpus, and our garage. Once we got all the rods out, we’d tie the sinkers and hooks to them. Then, we’d grab the tackle box, net, and some mesh lawn chairs, and toss it all in the back of our cigarette-butt-colored station wagon. Dad would come out about then. His eyes still seemed shut. Once in the wagon, he would open the glove box, grab his black brush, and comb down the hair sticking up on the back of his head.
On the way to the fish pass, Dad would stop at Shipley and get half a dozen glazed doughnuts. They were still hot and mushy. It was always the same. Saturday breakfast was Shipley. Sunday was barbacoa tacos on corn tortilla. My mom put ketchup on hers. She’s from Falfurrias.
Our 30-minute drive seemed like hours. I would stare outside the window and let the rising sun heat up my face. As I watched the telephone poles pass, the song “Baker Street” would usually come on. Dad would whistle along with the sax. My brother would doze off with his mouth open.
The fish pass was a stretch of water between the Bay and the Gulf. Once there and parked, my brother and I would unpack the rods, gear, and chairs. My chair was the smallest. My Dad would check our rods to make sure the lines were tied right. We would search the ground for a dead fish or some bait that someone else left behind or dropped. My Dad would cut up what we found and bait our first hooks. We’d sit and wait for a nibble. The air would start to warm up and smell like salted sewer. Normally, we were lucky and caught a few. Mostly Croaker or Perch. Perch were good for cut bait too. Every now and then we’d get really lucky and catch a Redfish. They fought the hardest and tasted the best. If our lines got tangled, our Dad fixed them. If we caught a catfish, our Dad would take it off. Their fins had needles on them that could poison you to death, but he wasn’t scared.
After a couple of hours, it was time to go. My Dad and my brother would clean the fish we’d caught. I’d load the station wagon back up. The drive back seemed even longer. It was sizzling in the station wagon and damp sand would be stuck all over me. My fingers smelled like rotten fish.
Once at home, my mother would come outside to greet us and see what we caught. My brother and I would rinse the fishing rods with the water hose, and then put them back in the garage. There were no roaches in the afternoon, but there were plenty of cicadas. I hated cicadas cause they’re so loud and don’t seem to know how to fly. Usually, I’d get one of those down my shirt too. Why couldn’t they be quicker, like dragonflies?
After we all showered, my mother would make us bologna sandwiches served with chips, pickles, and strawberry soda. Dad would get bottled RC. Once done with lunch, the men would head to my parent’s bedroom. Dad would switch on the window air conditioner to freezing level. My brother and I would lie down on a giant orange pillow in the middle of the floor. Dad would change the TV dial to Spanish Wrestling, lie with us, and instantly start snoring. I’d stretch my bare feet, plant them on the cool wall and doze off, blanketed by pure happiness only a six-year-old can feel.
Matthew Rosas was born in Corpus Christi, TX. He is the author of The Legend of
Mariquita and Other Short Stories, and of the recently released novella, Praying not to
Fall. Matthew’s short fiction story, “The Angel” was featured in The Bilingual
Review of Arizona State University. He studied Short Fiction and Flash Fiction
with Inprint Inc. in Houston, TX. Currently, Matthew lives in Houston and serves
in education at Chavez High School.
Michael Quintana is a practicing writer who holds an MFA in Fiction and Screenwriting from San Jose State University. He currently works with writers and entrepreneurs through his company Script Journey for manuscript, speech, website, and brand and marketing development. To learn more about Script Journey, visit www.scriptjourney.com. Michael’s debut book of poetry The Silence Holds Us Together will be released in the Fall of 2023.
Years from now
I want you to tell me
how I got that scar,
and how it felt to be so close to infinity.
The first time we went to Palm Springs,
just so you can show me Warhols
in the desert.
Weekend getaways, poolside,
times when I wondered
if this weekend would be the weekend
you’d crack us open like Goliath’s skull
proving Didion right:
the center will not hold
and life does change in the ordinary instant.
Michelle Cobb Blair is a volunteer at PAWS Animal Rescue and a real estate broker in Michigan
It's kinda weird that
our favorite place changes every
time we come here.
The wind blows a little stronger
from the west,
the storm moves in
and the river shifts.
Again and again.
Over and over.
The first time we saw
a big change, it
Our precious " Sanctuary " had disappeared.
Then, it came back.
Just like that one day.
All of that fretting
and we realized that these changes were
We now find it
exciting to discover how
Platte river point
is going to surprise
us on our next visit.
Changes are beautiful, painful, scary
Our ability to embrace
builds the quality of life that we live.
Not saying that I got it all down yet but I sure am enjoying the ride.
Michelle Eccellente Stevenson is a mom, wife, abstract artist, writer, TEDx Speaker, and Founder of Cultivate Caring. The bulk of Michelle’s career was spent in the training and development sector, working for major corporations as an educator. She now spends her time trying to make sense of the world through art and writing. Color and mood define her visual art pieces and themes of humanity bind Michelle’s literary works. She invites you to join her on social media @CultivateCaring and @MESStudioArt.
There is no winner when we
Don't listen to each other
Hearing only our voice
Too distant a target
A single blowing leaf
Hurled into the sky
A whirlwind of leaves
Whipped into a
Frenzied tornado of
Noise and chaos
The cacophony of noise coming from the back office printer was a mechanical beast, spitting out, collating, and stapling pages. It cut into the orderly hush of the library. She came here for the exquisite, sanctuary-like silence. Snatching up her weighty bag, she stormed towards the stairwell. Damnit, I thought the library would be quiet. What are they making copies for anyway? Isn’t everything digital now!?!?
Mona Schroeder is a writer and former librarian who lives in Corpus Christi, Texas. This excerpt is from a novel called Random Acts about Cecilia Kendall, a woman struggling to put her life back together after a great loss. Determined never to be hurt again, her solution is to shut out the world until a chance encounter forces her to reconsider her choices and to wonder if one random act might begin to be healed by another.
Cecilia Kendall watched the mid-morning El Paso sun slip through the closed blinds in her breakfast room. It was determined, always trying to sneak in where it wasn’t wanted. She poured herself another cup of coffee—black. She took it that way now – strong, black Colombian coffee, unpolluted by milk or cream or sugar or by international cream substitutes that were supposed to spice up one’s life by drinking them.
She sat at the table and thumbed through the mail without interest. Richard had brought it in for her one last time before packing his bags and leaving. She supposed she would have to retrieve it from the mailbox herself from now on which would mean changing out of her bathrobe, something she was reluctant to do. She wondered if she could persuade the mailman to shove it through a slot in the door if she had one put in. Or would she have to put in a whole new door?
Cecilia made a mental note and resolved to check into it later. Groceries, too. She could have them delivered – not that she needed many. Coffee and some frozen dinners perhaps. There was a certain morose appeal to the thought of her self-imposed solitary confinement – at the idea of mail being silently thrust through the door, of hermetically sealed frozen dinners forced through the mail slot one at a time. The coffee might present a problem, but that could be worked out, she was sure. Maybe Juan Valdez could schlep it over on that donkey of his.
Schlep. Where had that word come from, she wondered? She wasn’t Jewish, wasn’t anything really. She hadn’t been to church in years. “Schlep,” she repeated aloud, rolling it off her tongue slowly. It was not a word she would normally use, but today was not a normal day, not the morning after her husband of seventeen years had left her.
Yet the knowledge that Richard would not be coming home to her today or perhaps ever again did not move her, not in the way she would have thought a year ago. A year ago everything in her life had changed with one single act. Another drive-by shooting. Only this time the victim hadn’t been a stranger who died. This time a gun had claimed the life of someone she loved, her fifteen-year-old son Josh.
It should be a law of the universe that no parents be forced to survive their children, Cecilia thought. Without Josh, she felt as if a part of her were missing – the best part. What was she now? She wasn’t a mother, no longer a wife either. She had quit her job, her friends, and her husband had quit her. She had no close living relatives. She wasn’t someone’s daughter or sister or aunt or niece. What did that make her? She was 37 years old and had no label, an unsettling thought.
Cecilia reflected on all the ways she had tried to fill the hole that Josh’s absence had left in her life. Alcohol. Xanax. Valium. Even, unbelievably for her, an affair. Although “affair” was a rather grandiose term for the experience. Would 30 minutes in a cheap motel count as an affair? Nothing had transpired that night worth a scarlet letter. She’d had more interest in the brightly wrapped condoms the man had produced – and certainly more contact. Latex lust in the 21st century. Safe sex. Was sex ever really safe? Was any contact with another human being completely safe?
She hadn’t thought of the affair as an act of betrayal or even of revenge, more as an unsatisfactory attempt to hold the memories and the awful emptiness at bay for a few moments. An act of survival. The knowledge that Richard had been having an affair for some time had not failed to penetrate her otherwise dulled consciousness, but it hadn’t been a motivating factor for her. Cecilia couldn’t blame Richard, not really. Their own love-making had become almost nonexistent in the past year, and so when she had detected all the signs of an unfaithful husband – traces of lipstick, a hint of unfamiliar perfume on his shirts, his socks worn inside out as if hastily put back on – she hadn’t been shocked. Disappointed maybe, in a philosophical way. But was it disappointment in Richard or the fact that he didn’t bother to hide his indiscretions any better than he had? She could accept infidelity but not carelessness?
After Richard left, Cecilia hadn’t cried or asked “Why me?” She knew that long before he left her, she had left him. She hadn’t made it a physical separation, but it had been there nonetheless. As the door closed behind Richard, she had felt sadness, tinged with a certain relief. She felt free, but from what she wasn’t exactly sure – free from obligations perhaps, from unspoken demands, free from the guilt she felt every time she looked at him, wishing that she could love him again but knowing that she couldn’t.
Richard would probably ask her for a divorce soon. One thing generally followed another like that, like a child’s game of dominoes careening wildly across the floor. Impossible to stop once started. Cecilia wasn’t afraid of divorce, but she didn’t like the sound of it, the finality of it. The “ever after” without the “lived happily” part in front. Now it was simply “lived.”
Looking down, Cecilia realized that she had sorted the mail by habit – bills in one pile, personal letters or cards in another, and junk mail set aside for recycling. She shuffled through the bill pile again – gas, electric, two phone bills. Two? She examined them more closely. One was hers, but the other was to a Meryl Stephenson at 224 Flynn, instead of 244. The mailman had made a mistake. Wondering if there were more, she thumbed through the mail again. Sure enough, more envelopes addressed to Ms. Meryl Stephenson or Charles Stephenson, same address – a card, an application for a credit card, and an envelope from a doctor’s office. She wondered how long she had been getting this Meryl person’s mail. Should she return it? Would Meryl or Charles be worried, waiting for their phone bill, wondering what could have happened to it?
Cecilia sighed. She supposed she would have to return it. It would mean changing from her bathrobe into street clothes, putting on shoes, running a comb through her hair, but she would have to do it. All that trouble because of a simple mistake. A nagging sense of decorum forbade her from taking the mail down the street in her bathrobe and slippers. It would give new meaning to the word “schlep.”
copyright Mona Schroeder
Read more great fiction like this in Corpus Christi Writers 2018
Nausher is a poet and photographer. See his Facebook profile or visit him at nashnausher.net or nausher.net.
Nausher Nash Banaji
I am a Photographer of Skin + Stone, I am a Poet of Black + White.
I am a disciple of the Renaissance in the church of Beauty.
The human body in its finest, or in its weakest, state is magnificent and enduring. The nudes of Greek and Renaissance artists were intended not as depictions of beautiful bodies but of beautiful souls. They connoted heroism, integrity, and virtue. As for me, I feel most liberated creatively when I am able to capture the emotions that reside in a human form. Nothing conveys the expressions of the human heart like the body.
I photograph the beauty of skin and I photograph the beauty of stone.
there is a waft of Chanel in the air
the room is bare and you aren’t there
I see a flash of fabric, a shimmer of skin
i feel the burn somewhere within
I hold the doors to the night ajar
I feel the cold of the northern star
I bottle the memory of your scent inside
To remind me what’s true, what’s lies
In the end it is all just a speck in my eye
I just want to take a moment to say goodbye
I know I made a mistake coming here again
I remind myself of what, where and when
In a dream and a prophecy, barely a trace of that place in me
I look in the mirror and all I see, the ebb and flow of memory – NausherNash
Don’t kid yourself, darling, we’ve seen you before
you come up every generation to ‘reset’ and ‘restore’
you were the baying mob as Joan of Arc burned
you chanted death as Pontus Pilate turned
you rejoiced as the semites were taken away
you did nothing when Lincoln and Martin were slayed
you watched as Gandhi was shot to the ground
what did you do when Rabin was downed
don’t kid yourself, darling, we know who you are
nobody cares to read your memoir
my plane is boarding and I hear the engines roar
I’m feeling my heart soaring like before
hearing the bells outside my cell
feeling the freedom they foretell
goodbye darlings, it’s been nice
to each their own paradise
go someplace else and beat your drum
just because I’m beautiful doesn’t mean I’m dumb
the decay of the heart and the heartbreak of decay
what do we pray for, to whom do we pray
did a glance in the mirror take our breath away
for those we forgot and those we forgave
the ebb of tides, the wrath of waves
until we find beauty we will always be slaves -
Nick Martinez is a native of San Antonio, Texas, where he attended UTSA and obtained a Bachelor’s of Art in English. During high school and his time at UTSA, Martinez discovered a love for writing and academics. His love of academics brought along his desire to obtain a Master’s of Arts in English, which he obtained from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi in December 2015. Outside of writing, Martinez teaches high school English at the sophomore and senior level. Martinez currently resides in George West with his wife and two cats.
“What were those things?” Sarah asked, her voice shaking with the fear. She placed her hands onto the man’s shoulders and squeezed, wanting to make sure he was still there. Blood dripped down her long blonde hair and onto her torn white shirt, but she didn’t notice.
“I’m not sure,” Raven answered, trying to keep his voice from quivering. He had to be strong for Sarah, no matter what. Blood streamed from a wound on his left knee, creeping its way down his leg and into his sock and shoe, creating a squishing sound that mingled in with the sound of the sewage that ran past them. The wound was deep but he kept walking; his pride and adrenalin dampening the immense pain that pulsated throughout his leg. He placed his left hand upon hers, his thumb caressing the back of her hand painting it with their intermingled blood. He held his revolver in his right hand, thankful that he always carried his keepsake with him.
“Just promise me that you won’t leave me alone,” Sarah whispered as she placed her forehead upon his back. Neither he nor she noticed that her blood was dripping onto his blue shirt, which she had bought him for their anniversary.
“I won’t leave you.”
“I’m so tired.”
“We can’t stop,” he said, squeezing her hand as they made their way around a corner. Cold air rushed past them as they entered the new corridor. He had no idea where they were going; all he knew was that they had to get out of there. He took a deep breath, much to the agony of his ribcage. He felt his sides with the back of his right hand and counted—three cracked and broken ribs on each side. “We’ve got to keep moving.”
She moaned, holding a hand to her head. She remembered a face—a horrid face, the flesh peeling off of the muscle, which was detaching off of the bone itself. The very thought of it sent a wave of fear through her soul, causing her to move closer into Raven’s back. The shivers racked her body as the fear filled her. “Please, baby? Please? I can’t go any further.”
He slowed to a stop. “Okay, but only for a few minutes.” He turned to face her. His soft green eyes scanned her, searching for any wounds. She sighed in relief and slowly collapsed to her knees, her sky-blue eyes falling shut. He quickly knelt besides her, despite the stench and agony of his wounded knee. He wrapped his arms around her and held her close. “You can’t fall asleep, baby, not right now.”
“But why not? It’s so comfy here.”
Raven smirked, knowing she would never be caught calling a sewer comfortable. Then he sighed and looked around. He remembered hearing the alarms and the screams, and the terror that the creatures brought.
They were eating dinner at a downtown Italian restaurant, Sarah’s favorite. It was their anniversary. He remembered hearing the sirens and wondering why the air raid alarm was going off when there hadn’t been a raid—for his whole life. The other patrons talked louder as panic started to spread, yet he was slow to respond to the danger. The only thing on his mind at that moment was Sarah, the one person that he truly loved and would do anything for. The screams of people outside broke them from their perfect night out. Women and men screamed at the top of their lungs. He ran to a window. A massacre was happening in the streets. The dead had been brought back to life and they were hungry. Their flesh was rotted and the muscle was peeling apart from the bone. He watched as a man tried to save his wife by spreading his arms out in front of her and yelling at the approaching dead. A zombie ripped one of the man’s arms out of the socket and beat him with it. The others attacked with a barbaric strategy: go straight for the kill, don’t let the target get away. They tore the flesh clean off of the muscles of their victims as they bit down upon their necks. They went for the quick kill in most cases, ripping out the jugular and having a quick meal instead of toying with their victims. One of them saw Raven and screeched, signaling the others that there were more to feast upon.
Raven ran back to the table and pulled Sarah into a tight embrace, tears cascading from his eyes. Three of the dead rushed through the door in a blitz, nearly tearing the door off of its hinges. The patrons of the restaurant screamed in pure terror.
The dead went straight on to the attack. They slashed through the staff members torsos and bit at their throats, spraying the ground and tables with fresh blood. Some of the waiters tried to fend them off with their trays, which only angered them. They dug their nails into the waiters’ wrists and pulled them in close before they bit down on their necks and twisted, tearing the entire muscle open and exposing their gullets. Blood showered over them. Anyone that was left alive dared not to make a sound. Raven held Sarah close, her body shaking in terror. The sound of a roaring engine passed overhead, catching the attention of the patrons and the dead. The dead screeched at the sound as if they wanted an explanation for the noise. Bright flashes filled the restaurant accompanied by loud explosions that ripped through the air, sending chunks of metal, brick, and wood flying and penetrating into the dead and the living.
The planes were dropping bombs to stop the onslaught. The military knew that many victims would die as well as they zombies, but the generals had decided there was no other option.
The blasts sent concrete and body parts flying through the air. A block of cement slammed into Sarah’s forehead, slashing across her brow and coating the ground with her blood. The ground crumbled and opened into a large hole in the street which stretched outwards to engulf the ground beneath the restaurant. Tables and chairs plunged into the darkness while the dead screeched and tried to grip onto anything to hold their ground, yet nothing they grabbed was stable enough to hold their weight, their screeches following into the abyss as they fell into its depths.
Raven and Sarah held onto each other as they too descended into the depths of the hole, not knowing where it led to or what dangers they would face within it.
“Sarah, we’ve got to keep moving,” he whispered as he shook her. She merely nodded and cuddled closer to him. He sighed and picked her up as he got to his feet, his muscles and bones tensing up after having rested for more than a minute. He knew she shouldn’t be sleeping, but he had no other option. He positioned her onto his back, his left arm resting beneath her to hold her steady.
He slowly moved down the tunnel, the extra weight upon his back causing his pace to slow even more than before. The stench of the sewage grew stronger with each passing moment. He felt that they were close to the end of the tunnels and the landfill on the edge of town due to the increase of the stench. The sound of dripping water on concrete echoed throughout the passageways as he turned a corner. A smile spread across his lips as he saw a light at the end of the tunnel. He maneuvered Sarah into a better position upon his back as he walked towards the light. “We’re almost there, baby.”
He whistled as he shuffled down the tunnel, dragging his left foot behind him for his knee had completely given out on him. He wanted to rest but he knew he had to keep moving. He whistled a melody as he shuffled along, a melody he had thought of a month after they had been together. He had never been musically inclined, yet he had whistled it for her while they lay in the grass after a picnic, and she instantly fell in love with it. She would whistle it to herself in times of complete silence, smiling and blushing to the knowledge that they always had each other to rely on. His heart swelled with joy at the thought of her. He whistled louder as he became lost in thoughts and memories of holding each other and enjoying the warm summer days.
A loud screech ripped through the tunnels and broke him from his thoughts. His eyes widened. He held his right arm out and tried to hold the revolver steady, yet his body was shaking in terror. At the other end of the tunnel one of the dead was looking right at him. It screeched against and rushed toward him in an animalistic shuffle. Raven smirked and chuckled, his pounding heart steadying as he aimed at its head, glad that it was only one. Another wave of screeches flooded the tunnels and bounced off of the walls, echoing into a chorus of chaos. Chills ran down his spine. “You’ve got to be kidding me…” he whispered as his eyes widened, his heart rapidly beating as terror filled his soul. The dead poured out of the passages further down the tunnel, their crazed eyes showing their hunger.
He wanted to run, to run and never look back, yet he was too scared to move. Tears fell as he faced the coming onslaught. He sank to his knees and looked to the ceiling. “I’m sorry Sarah. I’m so sorry.”
Tears dripped onto the stone cold ground. His index finger pressed down upon the trigger, firing round after round at the dead. Blood and chunks of muscle flew off of the bodies with each impact, yet it wasn’t enough to slow them. The dead pounced upon them and attacked, ripping at their jugulars and flesh. Raven screamed as his eyes were plucked from his skull; his throat punctured and torn to shreds, just as his chest was slashed by the hungriest of the lot. He tried to scream and struggle away, yet the multiple hands upon him kept him still and penetrated his skin under his diaphragm.
An animalist dying growl tore through his lungs and up to his Gods as his life drained from him. Then he felt nothing more.
The dead pulled at his bones and the sound of his sternum being broken in half filled the corridor. The claws punctured his stomach and heart. They pulled his arms and legs loose, and pulled out his intestines. His blood pooled around his body and mingled with the crimson liquid that dripped from Sarah’s equally broken body.
One of his hands fell from his wrist as two of the dead chewed on his arm. It fell palm-down onto one of Sarah’s severed hands.