Flash fiction, short stories, poetry …
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Ma James

T

his night is calm and black. Thorned shadows loop through the silhouette of railings; birds cry in the first touch of dawn; and Ma James hobbles along, head tilted, trying to see where the tarmac ends and the grassy verge begins.

Right now, she’s just some other shapeless, old blackbird wandering the hedgerows.

These are her yellow fingers.

She rummages about in a pendulous handbag – one of those big, black, Italian jobs, that hangs like a stallion’s scrotum on huge, looping handles – and pulls out a crumpled cigarette pack.

Moments later, she’s lighting another crooked cigarette.

With its broken, old body, that coffin nail is taking a little while to fire up – Jus’ like the rest of us – but she soon drops the skull-emblazoned zippo back in ‘The Swamp’.

The bag’s fastener snaps once more, like bolt-cutters on the gates of Hell.

Smoke curls.

Ah, yes, satisfaction –

For what, three, whole seconds, maybe?

There is a small, dismal pop: a snail shell imploding – the sensation somewhere between grit and gristle – under her heel. She grimaces, and sighs, and carries on.

An honest-to-God hit-and-run.

Swerve outta the way next time. 

A little grey ash drifts onto her eyelash. She gestures it away with the back of her cigarette-dangling hand.

But keeps lumbering on.

Cool air washes her face. Hellish tobacco – filter free – mixes up the herbal smell of damp dew soaking the long grasses; a long, cool, warming sensation, all at the same time: Gramma’s Old-country Menthol, as she likes to consider it.

It’s not long before her wooden shoes clatter onto concrete steps, past a cherry-red bin overflowing with tied-off carriers of dog shit – brown mounds looming inside their bags of many nations – and then she can just about make out the looping whorls of graffiti on the bridge foundations, demarking clan territory, calling out love: THE ZOPH MAN CLAYMES THES STARES – BE-ATCHES!

Tough, she huffs. Besides, who owns a bridge?

For a moment, the zip from her coat trails along the metal spars of the hand rail, with a clear metallic ‘tang’, ‘tang’, ‘tang’ until she folds the material in with a press of a gnarled hand; too startling at this – the God-awful morning – time-of-day.

Mood broken.

And now she’s looming on the overpass.  This is a metal bridge over an electrified chasm of concrete. Ruled lines lead up into the sky. She clanks along, squinting at the watery sodium lights on the motorway below, into the halo of electric light that bathes the block-like buildings beyond, into the faint lights of early-morning people in their concrete picture frames, and there – nature’s own dream – the diffuse light of the moon, like smooth paper beneath the watery shadows.

Then comes a smell of rotten lilies, sickly and fermented.

She pauses and tut-tuts.

Amassed grief has grown up here like ivy on kitchen ties. Attached to the bridge-railings are bunches of flowers, gnarled and collapsing, dark-brown and dead. Within a bouquet, something glistens like wet liquorice: a slug slipping through an enfolded world, the transparent plastic sagging, green with algae – a rose outwith the roses. Cards are pulped black marker, running with Indian ink. And amongst the rotting menagerie, a teddybear, size of a fist, blue and bloated, its woollen ears warped.

Ma considers the pink heart on the bear’s stomach. Wonders why a boy’d want a girl’s toy. Somethin a girl’d give a girl.

And this was a boy, by all accounts.

As she continues over the narrow span, she hears the occasional strip-strip-strip of a car racing by beneath the balustrade. A tour bus hollers under. She gives a little shiver, eyes alert; unsure as to chill of the morning and chill of the ‘other’.

And now she twists up the handles of her bag, bringing it close and tight to her fist.

Not fear.

Weapon.

A kid – late teens, probably – stands at the crest of the bridge, hooded top up, hands in pouched pockets, arms tucked in.

Kid’s looking away at the traffic tearing past.

Seems intent – wistful, maybe – so much so, doesn’t turn.

She clatters closer, wondering when –

Kid turns.

There’s a moment… a moment where the black hole in that hood regards her like a manhole into Hell, the body tense as picture wire. Then –

Oh Gawd. The little shit!

Kid is running for her – feet ringing metal through the thin crust of tarmac – and yet, strangely, he seems to flicker in and out of solidity in the striped bridge shadows; one step flowing into another, winding up faster and faster. His half-picked chicken carcass darts and lunges. The overall effect is a freaky Harryhausen stop-motion – a scheme-raised skeleton sprung from a suicidal dragon tooth.

Ma appraises him, eyes narrowed. He’s halved the distance between them, and the broken angles of his hands are holding knives. Rust spatters the blades like black frost. No way to avoid him now. Flickering metal is welded into a raging scream. The cigarette in her mouth flares bright orange in the foul wind that howls ahead of him.

Ma steps into the centre of the bridgeway.

The patch-work boy has both knives raised, seeking slices of flesh. Ash and sparks whirl, Ma spits out the cigarette and abruptly grunts, “Hold it.”

One gnarled hand up, knuckles arthritic… but it still says stop your ass right there!

The teen terror is motionless three inches away, no discernable braking or slowing down. Just is. Arms out to the sides, like a child holding skipping ropes, knives poised.

Nose to hood.

Kid looks down, slow and gnarly, shoulders hunched. Now she can see right up the throat of that hood: black and stained; encrusted.

Face falling off in strips. Eyes burn white, teeth hang snagged. The faint traces of a teen moustache on a lip curled back. Kid reeks of cheap aftershave and foul rot.

Ma finds her eyes watering, coughs at the stench, but she’s always, always, polite.

“Get the fuck-out-o-it,” snarls this shambolic job-lot of a kid. That top jaw smiling. “Shoo. Scatt, man. Fuck off.”

“That you Finlay? Your momma teach you talk like that?”

“What?” Kid peers forward. “That you, uh… Missa James? That you?”

A hand, gleaming white, knuckles up into the hood. There’s a slippery sucking sound. “This eye ain’t working so well.” Shakes his head. “Not well at all. Man, sorry, no offence, man.”

“S’okay, Finlay. No offence.”

“Jus wait a minute, I’ll put on my happy face.”

More slurping sounds, fingers wet. Whatever that face is, it can’t help but smile…

Ma’s lips compress. No point whacking about the bone yard. ‘Sides, kid owes me a cigarette…   

“Finlay, son, I got a wee bone to pick with you, in…ah, manner of speaking, that is.” Wind sags and bows in that hooded top, and the shape of it is all wrong.

“You has?”

“Yup.”

“Ah.”

Ma lets him jig around a little. Then she says, “Kicking and screaming at the people on the estate – it’s not right, Finlay. You’ve got to give it a rest.”

Finlay breathes out, heavy – even kicks the railing with a blood-stained Nike.

“I’d like to Ma, I’d like to. It’s just, well, I guess you’re the first person to come speak to me proper. The rest of ‘em, well, they just start screamin’ and I can’t help myself.” There’s that friendly smile all fixed and everything. “They’re all assholes.”

The aspirated ‘ho’ in ‘assholes’ exhales as putrid rot. Ma blinks.

“You just take a bit of getting used to, is all.”

“I guess that’s the truth of it.” A slippery chuckle bubbles up between them.

Ma considers the dark shadow within the hood that hints at exposed bone, and thin, paper flesh. Finlay waits like a skeleton bird, hands in pocket, arms wings. He even experimentally bounces a couple of times on his trainers, bone and sinew squeaking.

After a bit, Ma says, “There’s always something, ain’t that true, Finlay?”

“As what keeps us?”

“You know it.”

“I knows it.” He creaks into thoughtful. “I guess most on-accounts are clear. I got stuff to serve, stuff to suffer, stuff to feel good about, too, I guess. Places to go. Hell, maybe. But…” his hood twitches. “I… took summit.”

“What?”

“… Car.”

“Uh, hu.”

“Fuss sake. Don’ look like that Ma. I ain’t proud of it, at least not now. Car’s gotta go back. Figure that’s the whole failure for takeoff. No the pissin’ about, no the…” – he mimed a hand snaking a jump over the high railing, accompanied by a merry little whistle – “but, s’ cold iron. Steel, whatever. Sweet wheels, plenty of fibre trim, yellow as a milkshake, but… but, cold iron… where it counts.”

“Thought as much.”

“Always was clever, Ma.”

Was clever, be back n’ ma bed…  

She looks him right in the… shredded cornea. “Them’s the rules. Live or die.”

“Maybe. Maybe.” Finlay nodded thoughtfully. Turning, he pointed towards the black tower blocks, all the world a gnarled scarecrow in a tracksuit, with tyre-prints that splash the black, gun-metal material. “Leave it outside Moto’s – I mean Liam Chang’s – up the back of the estate. Know the block? Bannockburn, I think. Anyway, I did… I did wrong and it needs sorted.”

Ma nodded. “I will.”

“You’ll look pretty sweet ‘ahind that wheel, ma.”

More wet laughter.

There is a rattle of keys, for a moment echoey and distant, and a change in the wind that smells of all the dead everywhere. Icy metal is tossed into her hand, with an abrupt, teeth catching clink.

The car keys are bathed in a slippery corpse-sweat.

Finlay nods. “That done, I guess I have two other things.”

“You do?”

“One, tell Matty that he ain’t gonna get far takin’ the piss with what he’s doin, right now. He’s goin’ the long way down, you know what I’m sayin’? And I knows as much as anyone, have’n… well, thrown ma junk offa bridge.”

Ma made a face, but nodded. “Okay, I’ll tell him, though ain’t sure he’ll believe who from.”

“Sure, you’ll find a way.”

A few words in the right quarter, perhaps: Mathew’s mama, some black bun, and a cup of really sweet tea.  

“And the other thing?”

“Well, that’s for you,” and, touching her shoulder, he whispers frigid words through sticky, phlegm-encrusted bone.

Then the cold lets go.

Ma is pretty shook up, but stoic, standing there in the rising, golden light that stains the world all orange. When she looks back at him – caught between ire and thankfulness – he ain’t there anymore.

 

***

 

So here’s the thing, Ma got that car returned. She didn’t get behind the wheel of no drag car, and she didn’t go get it out of that old lockup on Beech St., but she got it sorted and back, just the same: some kids good with locks; Panda an’ her girl-racers doin’ the driving.

An’ then she got right down to livin’ up to the day Findlay said she aught’a die.

‘Course, he said it was no doubt at all, but Ma being Ma thought of it more as a general ‘guideline’ than a ‘must-have-happen’, but took plenty enjoyment out of knowing the exact time and place. If she was ever formidable before, she was even worse knowing what everyone else was only dreading: that she weren’t about to let go any time soon.

Findlay, well, once that cold iron he stole was parked back outside the tall tower at Bannockburn Court – still half wrecked after his police chase across the fields – he never did come back. Some folks still avoid the bridge, though – even jump the barrier on the motorway and get chased by the cops.

Matty, thankfully, he got hisself a job and did straighten out a few kinks – guess he kinda knew things might take a sinister turn – though Liam didn’t live too long past getting his wheels back.

Them’s the breaks, I guess.

August 4, 2011   11 Comments

Nothing but a Cold Digger

T

ammy saw a ghost last night. That’s what Martha says; saw him drifting right through the porch-siding like he was Elvis on a skateboard.

Tammy threw a fit, and threw her nice, new pitcher right through a window. That’s how scared she was. All she got left behind was an explosion of botanical glass and a five-dollar bunch of chrysanthemums, scattered all over, like ten dead, red men.

When I go see her, she’s still sobbing over the corner of a handkerchief.

All the rest of the Golden Acres women want to have it out with Tammy, grab her by the pink lapels, and shake some sense into that haze of permed hysteria, but I don’t. I just want to sit her down and feed her brownies – big, soft, brick-brownies – like I’m posting them into a letterbox.

You see, I think I’ve seen that ghost too, and more to it, I’ve got a notion he’s cheating on me. That you’re cheating on me. But I’ve got to hear it from her; from those chocolate-crumbed lips that are ‘umming’, and ‘awing’ over the old recipe Gramma’ Kennedy taught me, right down to the walnuts and the golden molasses, sticky as sin.

I can be patient, and, sure enough, she’s had a shock.

As I once did.

That’ll change, though. Sure, it’s all fresh and easy right now (she’s a spring-chicken sceptic at seventy-five, a hundredth of your age, if she’s a day). But you know what, something will go out of it. I don’t know what or where or when, but the spark will just leave – that little frisson of terror I thought would never go; that punch to the heart with every creak about the house, or a burst of static on the old B&W set with its Y and O of an aerial, or a flash and flicker of a light bulb, like something is squeezing along the wire – it’ll just… just slowly drift away.

I sleep well, these days – alone, but well – and maybe I don’t see anything quite as I should.

Now, ‘psychic’ or ‘sensitive’, or whatever you want to call it, are pretty big words. Not so long ago, I was just an honest soul who hadn’t seen so much; who only knew what I could see in front of me. I liked to bake of a Sunday, or clip roses on the front stoop – cupping their lip-kissing petals in the sunshine – or sip on a lemon soda, watching the bubbles fizz up out of the glass with the sound of a miniature steak cooking where the ice ought to be. And that’s the kind of person Tammy is, when she’s not scared half out of her wits, and throwing things through windows like she’s got an electric current shorting out her wiring.

And when Tammy pats at the corner of her lips – now with that handkerchief, mixing tears with chocolate – I wonder if those lips have kissed the frigid air my lips once kissed; perhaps howling wide in terror. Or she got electrified in a cold spot, tingling like teenage indiscretion; or clutched at a heart she thought might break ‘for the love of God’, stammering for whatever it was to go. Waiting for it to go. And it not leaving; deliciously intensely, horrifyingly, pulling out that moment like a gut string, tightening and tightening until…

It’s gone.

But only for a while.

Stubborn. Cold. A presence she feels in the house like a pit in a plum – dig it out with her fingers, right under the flesh – until one day, down the line, when she gets complacent, you won’t come any more.

Sure I got a home. But now it’s just a stack of firewood with a screen door and a porch, and a fridge that runs like a street car, and a few sticks of furniture, in a place that ain’t got no heart.

The horror didn’t get too much. It didn’t stop. It just grew convenient and familiar. We settled down you and I.

For a while, I did the dutiful thing: sat pulling the stuffing out of a goose-down pillow most nights, dull and unmoving, heart bursting, watching mama’s old tooth-glass move with jerky scrapes across the table and up over the plaster, only to drop like a crystal meteorite, while the energies got me twisted up to puking.

But it turned out, that my body and mind, and maybe my soul, couldn’t stay terrified indefinitely; that the promise of what could be manifest, never materialised; that I couldn’t stay hanging on forever, waiting on whatever that dark, toothed shadow in the cupboard had in store for me.

You had eternity; I had the last flutter of a graveyard moth.

So, guilty as I am now, sitting here on Tammy’s couch, Tupperware in hand, I’m trying to tell you – whoever you are – that I’m sorry. That I’d make you brownies, too, if you had the bones to eat them. But that’s just what I’m talking about: goddamn brownies when I should be shrieking and cowering.

Like Tammy.

Look at all that flooded mascara.

I know the times you’re going to have together. She’ll find life will never be so bright and precious than when she’s with you, floating by like a knife in the darkness.

I never felt so alive.

God damn. The Tupperware lid pops.

Then I’m standing up too quickly and telling Tammy that I’ve got to go.

I’m so sorry. So sorry, darling, but I can’t understand how this terror-stricken dolly-bird will ever make you happy.

 

April 16, 2011   9 Comments

The Old Jensen Place

T

he Old Jensen’s Place is the most reliable haunting in the Southern Central United States. It gets over fifty thousand visitors a year and this is how your tour is likely to go, if you’re lucky enough – and brave enough – to go get that ticket.

3:00am, and they come collect you in the tour bus. Kids will be climbing on everyone, and a bunch of folks will be complaining there’s nowhere open to get a stiff drink. Not to worry, they’ve got a visitor’s centre right out front.

Inside, there’s a café-bar and restaurant; soft play for the kids; while next door, a state-of-the art audio-visual tour takes you through the history of the Jensen’s – the petty rivalries, the affairs, the cyclical nature of the farming business – until one day, Ned Jensen, father of three, went berserk and burned the whole god-damn farm to the ground; the wife, kids and animals all packed inside. He may have shot a couple of them with an old bird gun – to get things warmed up – but that’s pure speculation on behalf of the on-site para-archaeologists.

Video displays run off some pop-psychology and the scientifically accepted explanation for ghosts, while big round boards show pictures of all the Jensen family, the sprawling family tree, and the probable line of psychosis (Great Uncle Albert Jensen was in the Bixby Asylum for the Criminally Maladjusted).

Torch in hand, a suitably downbeat tour guide for the ‘Jensen Experience’ will turn up and rip the stub off your ticket. “Welcome to the farm. If your group would like to follow me, I’ll give you the safety announcement.”

You stop in a large ante-room, where up ahead, an old farm door draws nervous looks. It’s set a foot and a half up in the yellow concrete wall, though there’s wheelchair access to the side. Black and yellow hazard stripes act as a door surround.

The spiel goes like this: “No touching the exhibit – this house has been left exactly the way it was when Ned Jensen did the deed. We get thousands of visitors every year, so if everybody touched the gore in there, that old blood would just give up the ghost. Literally.

“No photography. You want a picture, it’s in the gift shop next to the Café on the way out.

“No ghosting. That’s when you put your hand – or any other part of your anatomy – through an apparition. You may experience sudden drops in temperature, thrown objects, physical manifestations that some of you may find disturbing, but you aren’t allowed to touch or otherwise contact the undead exhibits here.

“You want to go pee, or a real fire breaks out, you can use a fire exit. In the event of fire, look out for a green sign like that one up there and we’ll all line up in the coach-park at the fire point marked ‘A’ for Albert. In the event of needing to go pee, there’s no need for us all to come line up with you.”

There’s a faint chuckle. Same joke, every hour.

“Finally, stick to the roped off areas and listen to what your tour guide has to say – that’d be me, Jilly. Any questions?”

That’s your cue to look at everyone else with a nervous grimace and a look of ‘What the hell am I in for?’ and ‘Why did I sign that release?’

But there’s no backing out now.

“No questions? No? Great. Okay, everybody synchronise watches to the digital clock on the wall. We hit 4:15 and things get real spooky round here. Not got a watch? I got packs on me. Jensen themed, just nine dollars ninety-five.

“Set? Great.

“Then follow me – if you will – into that terrible night that Ned Nathaniel Jensen killed his entire family in cold blood and burned his own farm to the ground.”

In the ante-room they switch out the lights on you. It’s a cheap trick, but it usually results in at least one scream. From then on, the tour guide uses his or her torch to point out the interesting stuff.

In through the front door. This is a bust-up old place – webs hanging on everything; dust is ingrained into every surface, so it all looks grey. On the floor a modern metal walkway, one inch off the ground, takes you through the hall, into the parlour. The guide lets you know about some of the events leading up to ‘that night’: the rows, the accusations; shines a torch on the stack of unpaid invoices on the old-country writing desk.

“Yes folks, Ned Nathaniel had debts. Farming back then wasn’t doing so well, when all those Okie farms turned to dust –”

“What time is it?” Someone will whisper.

“Five minutes to go.”

Of course, what they don’t tell you is that they lie about the time. That synchronisation clock is three minutes slow. The guide is telling you about farming practices at the turn of the century, and suddenly this lanky old Oakie pops into existence, shouting, ‘You whore of Babylon!’ Just like that, trailing blue fire that dribbles off him like smoke. If the guide has set it up right, the ghost’s facing the entire group, less than a foot away, and everybody screams right back at him.

“That’s right everybody, Jensen’s here. If you look behind you, there’s his wife…”

His wife’s on the other side of the walkway. “What do you want, Ned? Why are you doing this? Why?”

“You bitch,” he shouts.

“Sorry about the swearing folks.”

“We ain’t ever getting’ outta this. We ain’t ever.” And then he kicks over something. Buckets, barrels. Opalescent fluid floods under the walkway and then he flicks open a lighter. His face picks up a back-light of illumination and he says, real quiet, “Let’s take us to hell.” And whoomf! He throws in the lighter.

More screams. Spectral fire, cold as ice. “Keep steady folks,” says the guide. And it all burns out. Whoom! The room’s dark again. “That’s it folks. That’s it. Follow me. Hey kid, that bit’s out of bounds. Pick up that litter!”

They say it’s enough to put you off smoking for life.

Out through the back way they got another café, a small shopping arcade, and plenty of hokey gifts to buy: a Nasty Ned doll that shouts ‘Whore of Babylon!’ at a pull of a string, sponge-dart firing shotguns for the kids, holographic cards where if you waggle them back and forwards you can see Ned or his wife manifest and then whoosh up in flames. And how about some Silly Putty ectoplasm?

‘Course, kids always got questions; smart, too, some of them.

“But, Pops, I thought the farm musta burned down, already.”

“It’s recreated all historic, of course. Them ghosts used to float right out in a field. They built a new place for ‘em. Says so in the guide. Ten bucks, worth every penny.”

“Why they go at it every hour like that?”

“Jeffrey, read the book, son. Says, they have no idea, but it’s the best god-damn thing to happen to paranormal tourism in fifty years.”

 

March 23, 2011   9 Comments