Ah, you made it! So glad you could stop by. Now, where was I … oh, right. Short stories. Hmm … now where did I put those … ah, there we are. Right. These are for you.
In the Sunlight is one of my earlier stories. It has a lot to do with friends and very little to do with friendship. But, then, isn’t this often true? Of course, sometimes … sometimes it can go farther than others. This one was picked up by Drunk Monkeys, a literary magazine that has some outstanding works hidden within its pages. I hope you enjoy.
The Tales of Calek: A Rune Scribe’s Past was picked up by Bewildering Stories, another very worthy magazine which I managed to sneak myself into. It’s the story of an aging Rune Scribe and a dangerous stranger from a distant land who are thrown together by fate and forced to face an evil unlike anything either of them has seen before.
The Lies of Autumn was published in The Best New Writing of 2013, a print anthology. It was also a finalist for the Eric Hoffer award. It is the story of a man trying to come to grips with a past that haunts him in a present that offers little solace. It is copied below.
The Lies of Autumn
Jeremy sighed, rubbing a hand through the coarse, unshaven hair on his face. A soft autumn wind rustled the leaves and sent the dew-laden grass to dancing, making it look like nothing so much as a sea of diamonds glittering in the sunlight. The temperature was mild and the woods around him were alive with furry animals scurrying under the tree tops, finishing their preparations for winter. It was a picturesque day, like one of those Monet paintings his mother had kept in the house when he was a kid. He hated it.
It wasn’t that his wife had left him in the fall—Hell, he couldn’t blame her. It wasn’t because he’d gone to the war in the fall either. He reached down and grabbed a beer from the case, easing back in the rocking chair and staring with narrowed eyes at the trees surrounding his home, resplendent in their golds and oranges and reds. No, he didn’t hate the day because of some sort of superstitious dread. He hated it because of the lie it told.
It was a day that said everything was alright, that there wasn’t a thing wrong with the world or with him. They were both lies. He popped open the beer and let the top fall to the wooden deck where it finally rolled to a stop next to several others that littered the space around him. He hated the Fall because it got people to thinking that dying was beautiful. There ain’t a damn thing beautiful about it, he thought to himself. He took a long pull off the beer and closed his eyes.
The memories were still there, waiting. The blood, the screams, the stink. They were always there. No one had ever told him how much dead men stunk. It wasn’t just their rotting flesh—though that was a part of it—it was also the fact that a dying man rarely managed to hold his bladder or his bowels. He’d read a poem somewhere that said war was noble. He smiled, but there was no humor in it. Sweat and shit. Screams and blood. And flies. God, the flies. That’s what war was. There’s not anything noble about dying—ask the dead , they’ll tell ya. He took another swig of the beer.
He remembered how the gun had felt in his hands, alive with its own cold hatred, shouting death at men he didn’t know in a place he couldn’t remember the name of. He remembered the way they fell in heaps, the machine gun’s song reaping a brutal harvest, and all of them men he wouldn’t know if he passed them in the street. Somehow that was the worst of it. Jeremy wasn’t sure about a lot of things, but he knew you ought to have to know a man before you killed ‘em.
He took another pull of the beer, felt the bubbles at the bottom glide down his throat. They said that the bubbles held the most alcohol. He always drank the bubbles. It wasn’t that the beer made the memories go away—they never went away–but sometimes, if he was lucky, it pushed them back just a little, made them a little less real. Sometimes, it made the blood a little less red, the screams a little quieter. It wasn’t much. It wasn’t enough, truth to tell, but it was all he had.
He tossed the empty bottle on the deck by the others and reached for another, but his hand came up empty. “Damn,” he growled. The memories were there now, loud and obscene, but he thought that this time a few more could push ‘em back. It meant a trip to the small town a few miles up the road, a trip he didn’t want to make. It meant stares and whispers, murmurs and not-looks that were somehow worse than the stares themselves. He made the trip to town rarely. He knew they thought him crazy. Hell, maybe he was, but he still didn’t like the stares. It made him want to shout sometimes, to tell them, “What do you know? Have you seen what I’ve seen? Well, have you? Have you?”
He sighed, arching his back until it popped. He went in and grabbed his keys off the beat up table in his living room, and hopped in his truck. It was an old Ford, one his father had given him years ago, when he’d first come back. He had to turn the key three times, pumping the gas, until the engine finally turned over.
He rode along the bumpy gravel road, scowling as he drew closer to town. Kids played in their yards, men mowed the grass, women hung up the laundry and all of them watched the old truck pass slowly down the street. He kept his eyes forward, on the road. There was nothing else to be done.
His first thought was to go to the general store (the only one in town) and get a case of beer, but he decided against it. He would sit down at the diner and have a beer. He didn’t want to do it, so he would. He pulled up at Jim’s Diner and turned the ignition off. The place was named Jim’s, but the fact was Jim had been dead since before Jeremy was born. Frank, his overweight grandson, ran it now. Jeremy got out of the truck and walked into the diner. A bell jingled merrily as the door closed behind him.
The diner was nothing special, a small, homely place with white Formica counters and table tops, red benches, and black and white tiled floors. He walked up to the counter, ignoring the people seated in the booths, ignoring the gazes that bored into his back. Frank stood, watching him, a sickly smile on his face. His white, grease-stained t-shirt was tucked in and his gut sagged over his khaki pants obscenely. The man’s jowls quivered nervously and Jeremy felt himself growing angry. It wasn’t like he was a damned monster. Well, maybe I am, he thought, but they don’t know that. They don’t know.
“Howdy, Frank,” he said.
Frank nodded, his chins jiggling, and wiped his apron across his sweaty forehead. “H-hi, Jeremy. How are you?”
Jeremy shrugged. “I might ask you the same thing. It’s seventy five degrees outside and you’re sweating like I’m the food inspector.”
Frank’s head bobbed up and down, revealing a bald spot in the middle of his thatch of light brown hair. “I think maybe … maybe I must be coming down with something.”
Jeremy scowled, studying the man. Something wasn’t right. He’d seen sick people—plenty of them—and Frank didn’t look sick. He’d also seen scared people, scared so shitless that they shook with it, so scared that you could smell the musk of it. Frank didn’t look sick; he looked terrified.
“How about a beer?” Jeremy asked, fighting the urge to turn and look at the other customers in the diner.
Jeremy shrugged. “Surprise me.”
“Sure, sure thing, Jeremy. You got it.” The big man stammered before turning and waddling over to a cooler behind the counter.
As he did, Jeremy turned and put his back against the counter, looking at the customers in the booths. They were all watching him with fake, wooden smiles on their faces that reminded him of the puppet shows he’d seen at the county fair as a kid. “Howdy,” he said to the room at large. Somewhere, in one of the booths, he thought he could hear a child’s quiet whimpers, but other than that there was only silence.
He’d lived in the town since he was a child, had grown up with a lot of these people; he’d even liked a few of them. “What’ya say, Bob?” He asked to a man only a few booths down. He’d grown up with him, they’d went hunting and fishing together on his daddy’s farm when they were children.
“Hi, Jeremy,” the tall, skinny man said, licking his lips. It was a habit of Bob’s—had been since Jeremy had known him. Fact was, Bob always licked his lips when he was nervous, and although Jeremy knew he was the talk of all the townsfolk—the crazy hermit that lived in the woods—he liked to think that Bob, at least, knew him better than that. But if he wasn’t making Bob nervous, what was?
Glancing around the diner again, Jeremy saw a young man he didn’t recognize reclined in a booth with his arm draped possessively over Betty Cornerfeld. Strange. He didn’t keep up with town gossip, but he was sure that he’d heard she was engaged to Ryan, the stock boy over at the general store. Sure enough, an engagement ring was on her finger. He studied the man who sat with her more closely. The man’s easy smile was the only genuine one in the room. He wore a leather jacket and his black hair hung over his eyes, lank and messy.
“Here’s your beer,” Frank said, and Jeremy turned back to the counter. Something was wrong. He’d had the feeling before, and he’d been taught—the hard way—to trust it. “Preciate that, Frank,” he said, reaching for the beer. He never took his gaze off of the pudgy, beady eyes in the diner owner’s face. He saw them track something behind him, saw them widen slightly. If he hadn’t have been waiting for it, he never would have heard the movement behind him. The man was quiet, no doubt about that, better than he’d given him credit for.
He changed his grip on the beer, grabbing it by the neck, and spinning to the side. A loud crack shattered the silence. It was a sound he knew well; it was the sound of someone shooting at him. People screamed, but he didn’t register it. He was focused on one thing and one thing only, speed. He whipped the beer bottle around until it smashed into the man’s face, shattering the thick bottle and his jaw at the same time. The man screamed, dropping the gun and groping at his ruined face with both hands. Shards of glass were stabbed through his bloody cheeks and jaw. Jeremy kicked at the side of the man’s knee and a loud pop split the air that was only a little quieter than the shot had been. The man’s legs buckled and he fell to the ground in a writhing, screaming heap.
Jeremy bent and picked up the pistol. It felt familiar and not unpleasant in his hand. The diner was so filled with screaming men and women that he didn’t hear the first shot. A metal napkin container exploded less than a foot away from him on the counter. He turned to the source of it and saw a man with long, nappy brown hair walking toward him, his face twisted in a hateful scowl. He was muttering words that Jeremy couldn’t hear, and he pulled the trigger again. The second shot was so close that he could feel the wind off of it. In such confined quarters, Jeremy knew he should be dead. Even if the man was the worst shot in the world, he still would have a hard time missing. But Jeremy also knew that it was one thing to shoot at deer or rabbits; it was a whole different thing to shoot at a living, breathing person.
The man never got a third try. Jeremy jerked the gun up and the pistol barked twice. Both shots took the man in the chest. The would-be murderer was flung back by the force of them. He was dead before he hit the ground. Jeremy jerked his head around to see that the man on the floor was reaching for a bulge under the cuff of his pants. Oh no you don’t, buddy, he thought, and then he pulled the trigger again, taking the man in the gut. The man let out a piercing, wretched wail and clawed at his stomach with hands bent into talons, his maimed face temporarily forgotten. Blood pumped out onto his fingers, surprisingly red in the glow of the fluorescent lights.
Jeremy jerked his head around the diner. “Are there anymore?” They all watched him with shocked, wide eyes, but no one answered. “Are there anymore, damnit?”
“No.” Frank’s blubbery whimper came from somewhere behind the counter.
Jeremy nodded and tucked the gun in the back of his jeans. He balled his hands into fists in an effort to keep them from shaking. “Ya’ll can come out now,” he said, surprised at the empty sound of his voice. “It’s safe.” As if his words were a cue, several of the customers jerked themselves out of their seats and sprinted for the door. Some of those remaining puked in the floor, others cried, and still others watched him with frightened stares, as if he was a madman who would turn on them next. None of them thanked him. He felt empty, drained. A headache was working its way to the front of his head and his breath was coming in ragged gasps. He turned back to the counter. “How about that beer, Frank?”
The fat man stared at the wounded man on the floor whose screams had deteriorated to desperate, heaving grunts. “What about him?”
Jeremy took a deep breath and shrugged. “After you get my beer, I’d call the cops.” He glanced at the dying man, at the crimson hands clutching desperately, futilely at the gaping wound. “I’m pretty sure he’ll keep.”
Outside the diner, leaves of burnt orange and crisp yellow rustled across the street, pushed along in a gentle breeze. “You’re safe now,” he said to the diner at large. Frank returned with his beer and he took a long pull. “It will be alright now.” He nodded to himself and took another drink as, outside the glass doors of Jim’s, the autumn day wore on, telling its beautiful lies.