Fiction

My First Sale

SEVEN DOLLARS AND FIFTY CENTS WORTH OF PUDDING

SEVEN DOLLARS AND FIFTY CENTS WORTH OF PUDDING

The first short story I ever sold for actual money was Glad and Big, which appeared in Aberrations #34. The sale paid me the princely sum of 1/4 of a penny per word, which worked out to $7.50. That would be nearly twelve dollars in 2016 money, just in case you’re horrified that a writer of my caliber would sell a short story for single-digit monies.

At the time, of course, I was absolutely delighted. I’d had stories appear in zines and other non-paying markets, but this was the first time anyone had actually paid me for one, and naturally I thought of it (and still think of it) as a watershed moment in my career.

I never cashed the check. Part of this was the usual urge to hang onto a momentous thing like my first paycheck for fiction, and yes, part of it was the fact that even in 1995 $7.50 didn’t go far, so it almost wasn’t worth walking to the bank to cash it. Besides, if I’d deposited it, I wouldn’t have it to scan in and post here, now, would I?

Anyways, here’s the story itself. Written more than 20 years ago, I still like it quite a bit.

GLAD AND BIG

Life at Lee’s on second street had a pattern, one I liked well enough. It sucked at my heels with insistent attraction, pulling me back despite the heat and the same old people and the wooden seat worn smooth from years of my weight.

We usually played cards at the small square table in the big bay window, eating Lee’s filling specialties and drinking, smoking cigarettes, and ignoring everyone else. Sometimes I tried to stay away. It never worked. I always needed a drink and the only place to get one was Lee’s and my seat was always open.

That night it was raining and I felt pretty good. The conversation wasn’t too bad and it was warm inside, I was half-tanked all night and I had three packs of cigarettes to get through. Even in a crummy bar and grill like Lee’s, being inside with friends on a rainy night is a special kind of thing. Even being inside with people who drove you crazy like I was was still not bad.

(more…)

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DICK FOR ETERNITY

The Urban Bizarre

The Urban Bizarre

I wrote this story in 1993, and in 2004 it appeared in the anthology The Urban Bizarre, published by Prime Books and edited by Nick Mamatas. It was actually one of two of my stories that appeared in that anthology, which I can only assume meant Nick had space to fill :-).

It’s disorienting to read something you wrote so long ago. Very clearly inspired by some of the awful parties I attended in my college years, it also sports the gross nihilism I pretended to as a younger man.

The title comes from a Too Much Joy song, “What It Is,” which contains the line “Congratulations, James, now you’re a dick for eternity!”

 

I used to know this girl named Brenda, but that was before Rodney killed her, almost completely by accident. A big-boned redhead with horrible pale skin that seemed to break out into sympathetic rashes with alarming regularity, Brenda was a loud, outgoing girl that didn’t let the fact that no one liked her slow her down any. I guess someone liked her. Someone kept inviting her to the parties. Looking back, I suppose it was Rodney, since he’d been sleeping with her.

At the time, though, I didn’t know that. All I knew was that this tall pale girl with bad teeth and the loudest voice in the world kept showing up at the house and chasing everyone away. She talked to all of us with big hugs and excited squeals, as if we were old, old chums reunited by chance, no love lost. We’d squirm in her grasp until she took her eyes off us, and slip away one by one to grouch in private until she was all alone and had to find new victims.

Eventually she’d disappear, but not until drinking enough to awe even Fat Billy, who could sink most mortals, his liver glowing softly.
The night I’m thinking of, however, she didn’t disappear, didn’t leave us to the relative peace and quiet of our little lives, although I did get a few minutes of quiet relief when I thought she had. That night, though, Rodney came hooting down the stairs, tucking his shirt in and grabbing me in tight-sweat desperation.

####

Let me tell you a little about Rodney. He was half Black and half Puerto-Rican and all asshole, one of those sweaty heart-attacks for whom life was a never-ending series of surprises, usually unpleasant. He had a bug-eyed stare that had a remarkable steadiness, it latched onto you and didn’t let go until someone waved something bright at him. I don’t know what he had at the center of his life, what kept him waking up in the morning, I didn’t know him that well and didn’t feel the loss at all. It had something to do with drinking and his dog Percy, though, I knew that because they were the only things he gave a shit about.

He worked as a bartender at a strip joint, which was good money but bad health, because he stumbled home in a horrible mess of intoxication and lust, his little bug eyes nervous, gasping in big gulps of air. he’d rush into the living room and sit on the edge of the couch next to me, his hands clasped between his knees and the stale living-room air squeezing in between his teeth. Sometimes I waited a few minutes for him to speak up, sometimes I couldn’t take it and asked him outright.

“Those girls……” he would say with a dull, hollow haunt in his face.

We would all nod and ignore him, then, having heard it all before. That was Rodney. Rodney didn’t make love, he banged. It was sweaty, uncomfortably desperate act of drool for him. We know this because we lived with him between tissue-thin walls and he had no concept of how much noise he made, screaming, begging, cursing.

He was banging this girl Brenda and God knows why it wasn’t obvious to me. Part of it was the fact that you stop being interested in your room-mate’s sex life pretty fucking quick. And no one could ever hear the girls over Rodney’s hopeless bellows. We all had our own problems, coming up with one-fourth rent every month being chief among them. Rodney just didn’t rank.

####

Just like every night, it seemed, a tape-loop, eternity, that night we’d thrown a party. Rodney’d gotten Brenda up into his room, although no one noticed. Things were sweaty and except for me, who was eagerly driving people away with snarling insults and steely glares, no one was paying anyone else any attention unless sex was involved, somehow. I was standing by the front door, sweating buckets in the heat made worse by hundreds of leech-like people struggling to bore their maws into us. I was demanding that newcomers know names before I let them in, picking fights and talking with this brunette girl who wasn’t drinking. She insulted me back with pretty sobriety. We kept blowing smoke into each other’s faces, and I was falling in love with her.

I felt the sweaty paw on my shoulder and turned to find Rodney at my elbow, half dressed and ugly.

“C’mon upstairs, Lenny. I got something you gotta see.”

I squinted at him suspiciously. Beer did nothing for him, just made him grey and pasty-faced. I tried to put on a friendly ‘not-now’ face. “Fuck off.” I grinned, patting him on the shoulder. It was my job to torture these people. It was why I was here. They thought they were having fun. It was up to me to prove them wrong.

“No, Len,” he hissed, “you gotta.”

I looked back at him, this puffy leech which had inserted itself into me. There was doom about him, the clinging scent of emergency. There was no way he was going to let me get back to wooing the wonderfully abrasive girl before I had a peek into his private life, so I waved him on and followed. I just hoped he wasn’t having a mid-life crisis or something.

Everybody was having a mid-life crisis. Every other night some poor joker was up in his room weeping for his lost youth or something. It spread like a disease, from room to room, identity crisis again and again, grown men trying to find themselves. You could hear the wailing even downstairs sometimes, but this particular night I was lucky, in one small sense. Rodney wasn’t having a midlife crisis, which was good, because I was no good at talking people down from ledges. I got bored too easily. I wasn’t much of a friend, but I was fun at parties so everyone kept me around. I even think they were a little afraid of me, which was why I hated them all, the spineless shits. They probably wanted me to move out, but were too scared, and I hated cowards.

####

Rodney’s room was upstairs buried next to the bathroom, which was safest for all involved. We paused in the doorway, staring at her like she was just an ugly rumor, a joke in bad taste staring blindly up at the ceiling with bland, dusty eyes, one bra strap pushed off her pale shoulder.

I eyed Rodney with a discomfort born of any number of truths but held together by the uneasy realization that I was in a murderer’s midst. Neither of us would say it, but the possibility hung there anyway, the unutterable image in our minds, that Rodney had fucked her to death.

He stood there like a behemoth, unsure what to do with his hands. I turned and shut the door. I leaned against it and put my hands in my pockets, just to show I knew what to do with my hands.

“You crazy Fuck,” I said conversationally, “you’re going to jail.”

That wasn’t what he wanted to hear. His sallow face crumpled up into a gibbering hole of terror, and he started to pace around his room in a sweat, muttering curses under his breath, until finally exploding.

“I can’t do that, Lenny!” he hissed, grabbing my shirt and pulling re close. “You gotta help me!”

I eyed him with hopeless sarcasm. I put an arm around him and led him on a spiral around his room,

“Let me spell out a few quick ones, okay, Rod? You’re going to jail. You’re going to have a new friend named Bubba or Pinky or something who’s going to try to do to you what you just did to Brenda.” I paused to glance reflectively at her. I was enjoying myself.

Rodney quivered there in my arms, ready to just burst into tears. I was terrified that he might start bawling. Completely terrified.

“Now,” I went on, “if someone came up to you and asked you to go to jail too and get fucked to death by some guy named Tiny, you’d tell him to go to hell, wouldn’t you?”

He paused. “Well —”

“Go to hell, Rodney.” I snapped, leaving him alone by the bed.

####

I was fighting my way through the crowd around the bathroom, trying to get away from Rodney’s inevitable pursuit, when I saw Fat Billy fighting his way toward the toilet. Fat Billy was three hundred pounds of heaving, sweating flesh and I’d seen him throw up once and once was all I needed to be very afraid of seeing it again.

I was caught between two hells, and in the end I let Fat Billy go by and so got caught by Rodney, who had a trickle of spittle lolling from the corner of his mouth. From the bathroom, Fat Billy drowned out the crowd, because Fat Billy howled in sheer terror or something whenever he threw up. We couldn’t hear a goddamn thing over the pitiful wailing driving everyone away, so we retreated back into Rodney’s room and shut the door again. I stood defeated before him, a victim of fate.

“All right,” I sighed, “Let’s think.”

Rodney collapsed in relief, and I Just patted him on the head and told him to shut up. In the background Fat Billy screamed so you’d think blood was shooting out of his nose as he knelt on the damp and scabby bathroom floor, and I had no doubt he’d driven everyone else away. I lit a cigarette and ashed on Rodney’s rug, staring at this fat and flaccid body still staring up at the dull ceiling. I was curious as to what had happened, but was afraid Rodney might actually start talking if I asked him about it.

“Well,” I said finally, “we’ve got to get her out of your room.”

This was not so easily done. Fat Billy had cleared the floor, so me and Rodney carried her milky white and soggy to the stairs without a problem. The stairs, however, had recently seen a frightened mob fleeing Fat Billy, and glazed strangers stared back at me with barely concealed apathy and dislike.

“Move aside, you bastards, I live here.” I growled.

No one paid me any attention. I glanced back at Rodney and pulled our luggage upright, her head rolling brokenly against my shoulder.

“Watch out everybody,” I said with an eat-shit grin, “I think she’s gonna puke.”

They studied her, judged relative distance and looked me in the eye to see if I was the sort to stand by and let friends puke on total strangers. After a moment a shallow path was opened grudgingly and we carried her down, only dropping her once.

The sons of bitches were everywhere, so we couldn’t just carry her outside and be seen disposing of a body. I snarled back at Rodney every chance I got, the fucker, pushing him into gibbering despair. We deposited her on the couch and put some distance between us.

I walked around and lied a lot, spinning stories and assuming names. Mostly, these parties were just big suckfests, the guys sucking up to the girls in hopes that, on a good warm night with cold beer and the right vibe, the girls would end up sucking off the guys. It never really happened that way, but that’s the way I described them to people when I wasn’t out to make friends, which I usually wasn’t when my housemates opened up our domicile to every bride-and-tunnel ass who could follow directions from Manhattan.

Brenda became the center of attention, wearing a pair of my sunglasses and sprawled in an open invitation on the couch. Rodney stared at her from the corner of the room as if he wished he’d at least gotten to come before she kicked off, and all the other beer-dicks followed his stare like lemmings eyeing a ledge. She was the focus of unbridled lust, a heady vision of fading perfume and one bra-strap slipped over a pale and paling shoulder.

####

Kent Booker, the skinny little shit, must have seen me carry her in, because he horned in on me to scam on her, pinning me against the wall with one finger and breath that would have been a health hazard if we hadn’t had the windows open. I didn’t see his sister Kelly with him, and figured she’d ditched him to make out with older men, as usual. She was a skinny eighteen-year old with a single monotonous eyebrow, pretty in a high-school way, and Kent spent much of his free time beating up his friends because of her. It was entertaining and okay by me; everyone here was being punished for something.

A few years earlier, Kent had been known as “Pud” Booker, because we’d caught him masturbating one lucky evening and even had negatives to prove it. We’d matured since then, of course, so we didn’t call him “Pud” any more. But we still had the negatives. Neal Tucklin kept them in the little cubbyhole behind his bed’s head-board.

They deeply worried Kent, they hung over him with dangerous weight and kept shadows under his eyes. Whenever he saw one of us he incessantly tried to barter them away in desperate attempts to regain his manhood. We usually jeered him heartlessly, wondering when he’d realize we only kept the photos because they worried him. If he quit worrying about them, we’d get bored and throw them away.

This particular night, however, he didn’t even mention the pics, he put a slimy, conspiratorial arm around my unwilling shoulders and asked me for Brenda’s name. That’s how I knew he really wanted her, with her gummy tongue and dry, bloodless lips. She was a vision of cooling indifference squeezed between various face-sucking couples, lolling elastically with each subtle shift of the cushions.

I sneered at him. “You goddamn bastard.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Sister?”

####

Only relatives were safe. Unescorted women were mauled with a frenzy approaching the animal once they were drunk enough. Escorted women merely narrowed the mauling down to one. But sisters and cousins and aunts walked safe and miserably bored inside little pockets of protection. Only the foolhardy and the brave would attack someone’s sister, which is why your sisters always married the crazy fucks.

I denied the sister rumor, seeing the need to distance myself from the corpse on the couch in the living room. I moved into the Kitchen just ahead of the triumphant return of Fat Billy, amid shouts and cries of relief that the king had survived yet another bout with his liver. The drinking games had quietly degenerated into loosely moderated discussions about life. As if the bastards had ever stumbled far enough out of that very same fucking kitchen to have done any living—living bed to subway to office to subway to bed. I was surrounded by vinyl-skinned corpses who all wanted to fuck my poor dead sister sitting half-naked on the couch in the living room. They kept asking me about the meaning of life and I spat curses back at them, grinning around my beer heartlessly. They loved it. Everyone you met wanted to know what you did, meaning what your job was. We all had the same jobs: show up daily, donate a sizable portion of your breath, skin flakes, eyelashes, hair, and stomach gas to the contained atmosphere of the building, and go home exhausted enough to not cause any trouble. I told them dirty stories made up about that wonderful, acerbic brunette at the front door and basked in the warm glow of male bonding or some such crap.

Rodney sauntered in and crouched in the corner, watching me with his unhealthy pop-eyed adhesive stare. He didn’t laugh. I had all the pricks hooting and Rodney just stared. It was hard to tell if he just didn’t get the jokes or if he just had his mind on other things. I could have flipped a coin. I scowled at him every chance I got, but that didn’t help either.

####

At four thirty in the morning, Stan Manler used to say wisely, good parties are over and great parties were just beginning.
I was the clean-up team, walking through and pitilessly hauling loved ones and invited guests out into the street, the bunch of drunk parasites. Fat Billy was passed out on top of the kitchen table, which normally wouldn’t have stopped me from rolling Fat Billy out the back door into the driveway. Fat Billy was stuck fast to the table, though, glued on board by some magic combination of beer, drool, and cigarette ash. I left him as he alternately snored and whimpered in his sleep, crying out against something.

Stan Manler himself was locked in the basement with Kelly Booker, the crazy bastard. Kent was walking around our backyard screaming to me to let him back in, because he couldn’t find his kid sister. Down in the basement Stan couldn’t hear anything, and he was lucky. I peeled them apart and spent equal time berating her for loose values and pounding him on the back with macho enthusiasm. As we chatted I guided them gently to the door and thrust them rudely out, at the mercy of Kent and all the overprotective brotherly fanaticism he could muster.

I found Rodney in the living room, sitting next to Brenda with a woefully lustful expression on his face, saddened by the loss of such a beautifully compliant girl with such pale and doughy skin. I felt sorry for Rodney, he had so little. Just his dog which none of us had ever seen but which he talked about lovingly whenever the subject was least appropriate, and long sodden nights like this one which had been ruined so early. But we still had a body to get rid of So I didn’t give in to sentiment.

The house settled around us and I knocked glass around as I sat down next to Brenda as well, quietly lighting a cigarette and enjoying a moment of peace that was immediately destroyed by Rodney and his chubby, bleating voice. I stopped feeling sorry for him. My night had been ruined, I wasn’t nearly as drunk as I deserved to be, I’d lost the insulting little brunette into the night forever, and Fat Billy was stuck to my kitchen table. I didn’t feel sorry for anyone. Not even Brenda. They all got what they deserved. Even me.

“What are we gonna do, Len?”

I curled my lip up. “We could eat her. Got any relish?”

He looked ready to agree, so I stood up. “Fuck, Rodney, I’m just gonna call the cops and have a clear conscience.”

He leaped up, pop-eyes bulging. “Len—”

I smiled. “Just kidding.” I said quietly. “Sit down before I kill you.”

He could see it in my eyes, the bloodshot near murder that had occurred. He sat down.

“We’re gonna bury her.” I finally admitted. “Pray your killer has the same mercy on you, asshole.”

####

The next morning I sat on our front porch in mud-caked pants and dirt-stiff hair, squinting into the sun and smoking my last cigarette. Rodney was asleep in his room, in his bed as if no one had or would ever die in it. The world was still and I just let the sun bake the mud on like sin.

“Been groveling?”

I turned and smiled at her, her short brown hair and beautiful “fuck you” grin. She held her shoes in one hand, and stood flat footed on my front porch eyeing me with insulting archness. Something lodged itself in my chest, and I smoked to dislodge it. Just like that, and I was in love.

She sat down next to me and we sat there like an old married couple, watching all the lunatics driving to work. Upstairs Rodney began screaming in his sleep and there was no one next to him to offer any comfort. He just went on and on and on.

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New Philip K. Marks Story @ Black Denim Lit

Black Denim Lit

Black Denim Lit

Hey, kids! The folks over at Black Denim Lit have published my short story, Howling on For More and you can read it right now, for free!

Howling is a Philip K. Marks short story, which means, of course, that it’s creepy and a little weird as my favorite down on his luck investigator with a penchant for the strange, paranormal, and impossible looks into a new case.

Previous published Marks stories can be read, too; Sift, Almost Invisible, Through appeared in the MWA Anthology Crimes by Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris, and A Meek and Thankful Heart appeared in Buzzy Mag in 2013.

More Marks to come!

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The City Without Walls

This is a short story written long ago. Enjoy!

The City Without Walls

We're all gonna die in the end.

We’re all gonna die in the end.

I was curiously reluctant to go up to the three of them after the funeral. With the gray sky behind them and the wind playing with their hair, their ties, her skirt, they looked otherworldly, tall blond gods resplendent in their grief. I’d never known them all that well, in the first place. I didn’t really know anyone at the funeral any more—they were all people I used to know, now. Familiar faces, fatter and grosser than I recalled. Except for the Benderbys. Except for William Benderby, of course, lying dead and much changed in his coffin.

Looking at them made me feel ugly and stupid. Mickey Benderby, youngest, still glowing with athletic charm, blond hair almost white—he was, actually, almost an albino, so pale he might be transparent. But a healthy flush in his face made him boyish, and he dressed in dark clothes to give himself gravitas. He wore his expensive suit as if he’d been born in it, the gold cuff links not looking at all ridiculous on him, his windswept hair not too long, and agreeably messy, as if he’d swung out of bed in Amsterdam, boarded a plane, and arrived just moments before the ceremony, looking pressed.

Carol Benderby, the oldest, slim and blank-faced, stood next to Mick, smoking a cigarette, the wind stealing away the smoke as she exhaled it. She was beautiful, not as pale as Mickey, with a wonderful body and a steady, appraising stare that made men want to please her, to get some reaction from her. She turned to say something to her brother Daniel, and smiled in a low-wattage, smoky way that made her whole face seem to glow with untapped energy. I’d had a crush on Carol when we’d been younger, when I’d known William, but then I think everyone who met carol crushed on her. She was pretty and tiny and rich.

Daniel looked older than Carol, but wasn’t. He had cleaned up for the funeral but it hadn’t helped much; he still looked hungover. He was darker than his siblings, and his beard, though just shaved that morning, had already gathered like scummy storm clouds on his face. His tie was undone. As if by some will of their own his clothing was undoing itself—a button there, a knot here—until eventually he would be slovenly and sour, which was his natural state, so it was perhaps not surprising that he reverted to it instinctively. Still, he had an aura of command about him, the sense of a man used to being obeyed. He was the sort, I remembered, who instilled fear in people who didn’t know him.

Standing all together, the Benderby children—no longer children, but that was how I remembered them, a decade ago back in school—drew every eye, the natural subjects of all thought and conversation. Rich, talented, attractive people, related to each other, all still single and still mysterious. All the Benderbys were like that: Thick as thieves with each other. I remembered accompanying William home one semester break, when we were still enamored with the egalitarian world of college and thought maybe we could be friends, and being struck by how the Benderby family seemed to have endless secrets between each other. Secret ceremonies, passwords, anecdotes—over three days at the huge house in upstate New York, I’d been almost constantly confused. The Benderbys almost spoke in code. If you didn’t know the stories, the inside jokes, you were bewildered.

I never went back. William never invited me again anyway.

(more…)

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Pre-Order “The Pale”

The Pale: An Avery Cates Story

The Pale: An Avery Cates Story

So, here is the third Avery Cates short story in my ongoing writing experiment: The Pale. Out on September 15, it’s available for pre-order over at Amazon and Kobo at the moment, with Google Play to follow. It’ll be available for Nook in September.

I’ve also gone ahead and created a dedicated web page for this new series, as it appears I’m actually going to keep doing this and deliver three novels in short-story slices. Why not? I’m having fun.

In The Pale, we pick up where we left off in The Walled City as Cates is on the road trying to put distance between him and The Angels. He meets an old man with a … peculiar companion, who decides to accompany Cates for security. A decision he regrets as it becomes clear that someone is hunting Avery.

Check it out!

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drying eyes, wasted breath

It had only been fifteen minutes, and Bob hated them all. He knew every detail of the elevator, from the three buttons which refused to light up when you pressed them to the minute design of diamonds on the worn, red and black carpet. He didn’t know the specific people he was trapped with, but he thought he knew their type, and was convinced, based on the slanting looks and curling lips, that they knew his. Jocular in familiarity, contemptuous, he snapped his gum cheerily, to annoy, and shifted his weight from foot to foot.

Softly, in the background, an instrumental Killing Me Softly played over the tinny speakers.

Bob had not been very surprised when the little door marked EMERGENCY had been opened to reveal loose wires where the phone should have been. None of the other people in the elevator evinced any shock either, but whether that was actual cynicism or an urbane facade Bob couldn’t say. They had all looked at each other and shaken heads, clucked tongues, no longer amazed, it was implied, by the incompetence of Other People. He thought it must have been the rarest of coincidences, that the Brain Trust of the World, the four most brilliant people in the universe, happened to all work in his building. One of the Brain Trust was now busily reading People magazine, slouching against the rear wall of the elevator with the bored insubordination of youth, the implication that he would not even attempt to somehow make the situation better, and that the rest of the Brain Trust ought to leave him alone.

The kid annoyed Bob the most. Probably about twenty-one or -two, he had INTERN written all over him, from the wrap around sunglasses he wore (still) even indoors to the loud music leaking out of earphones, to the combination of decent dress pants and shirt with unlaced sneakers and a worn denim jacket. His cool demeanor made Bob decide that if anyone was going to have to climb into the shaft in a heroic search for help, it would be the kid.

They were suspended between the fifteenth and sixteenth floors, the elevator having squealed and sighed and jerked to a halt a few seconds after the doors had shut on floor fifteen. Bob had accepted this turn of events with cheer and aplomb, because he was now about ten feet away from his floor, twenty seconds away from being off the elevator and into the warm current of a Typical Day. Now instead of floating along on the swells of things that happened every day, he was standing in a box with four strangers who were, if nothing else, not quite as tantalizingly close to a Typical Day.

They’ve got to know what happened. They must be working on the problem.”

Bob looked up in surprise, at The Librarian. He didn’t know what the woman actually did with her time, but the sharply angled glasses perched on her nose made him think of a librarian. She wore an affected shawl over her shoulders, too, and stood in the center of the elevator in a stiff-backed posture. She wasn’t looking at anyone, and he figured she was speaking just to comfort yourself. He snapped his gum a little louder and replied to the air

Sure, sure. That phone looks like it was attended to without delay.”

The Librarian looked at him, sniffed, and looked away.

Bob shrugged, chewing his gum. He leaned against the wall of the elevator and stared at the ceiling. He couldn’t even see an escape hatch, a maintenance crawlspace -every movie he’d ever seen that had involved people trapped in an elevator had involved a crawlspace, but he couldn’t see one here. He wondered if there was any way out of the elevator. Or at least one that didn’t involve the elevator splitting open after hitting the basement.

(more…)

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My Rottened Heart and All the Grubs Within

John had for some time tried to be a good man, until the death of Casey Farrow made the burden unmanageable. That night, after the phone had stopped ringing finally, he’d waited for Celia to fall asleep, waited for her breathing to deepen and smooth out, waited for the soft and feminine snore to begin, and slipped out of the bedroom and into the living room. Finding his hidden pack of cigarettes, stale and dusty, he went into the cold kitchen, sat down at the little-used table and smoked in the dark, staring at unfamiliar shapes: the fridge, the microwave, the door to the bathroom.

He thought about Casey Farrow’s wife, Margaret.

Sitting, he looked around the dark kitchen. It had been Celia’s apartment, now theirs. They had decided that Celia’s was larger and in a better neighborhood, that his apartment was cold and cramped. He regretted the decision, he wished for his own private space, someplace where he wouldn’t have to pretend to be normal.

He thought about Celia, the laughing girl he’d met five years ago, and never fallen in love with.

Celia was pretty but unspectacular. She laughed at too many things and took disproportionate joy in simple, everyday things. She was honest and affectionate and practical and willing in bed and hundred other attractive things, but for John there was always one thing she wasn’t, and would never be. She was not Casey’s wife Margaret.

For her part, Celia lay awake and imagined she knew what John was chewing on in the kitchen. The empty half of the bed seemed to glow radioactively next to her, his fading body heat an accusation.

She kicked at the covers. Sat up. Fell back to the mattress. Let out an explosive breath.

Celia had always been a popular girl, but one of those pretty tomboyish girls who garnered more emotional conversations than kisses. She’d made up for it with aggressiveness, making a cheerful habit of dominating conversations and attempting seductions carelessly. She had a reputation in high school, and several boyfriends in college, but John quieted her.

She was two years younger than him, and had known him since high school. In school she’d been able to walk up to any boy and say anything, she was famous for it. But around John, she’d always been tongue-tied. She found it almost impossible to speak two words to him, and so naturally they became friends in college, where she had chosen to attend the same school as he did. They met at a dorm party and he recognized her, which thrilled her, secretly. For some time, then, she settled into her familiar role as John’s faux-sister, providing emotional talks and quiet, non-physical support. It killed her, froze her brittle inside, but she settled for it, and made up for it by dating. Predatorily, she seduced well-meaning men around, men who hardly had time to decide whether they were attracted to her mix of pretty and broad shoulders before they found themselves in bed with her. John’s amused commentaries on her love life merely irritated her, but silently.

For his part, John had met and fallen in love with Margaret, asked her out, been refused, and settled with a companionable flirtation with her. Young, optimistic, and unimpressed with her choice of boyfriend, John had been quietly and self-satisfyingly sure that she would come around. She never did.

On the wedding day, John brought Celia as his date to watch Margaret marry another man. He drank and drank and drank but could not seem to get drunk. He sat with Celia and kept track of Margaret. He danced with Celia and watched Margaret dance. He talked to Celia and heard Margaret’s vows in his head. And after the reception, with a headache, with dust in his mouth, he took Celia to bed and thought of Margaret as he’d never seen her. Imagined her elsewhere, doing similar things.

Celia lay awake and remembered that night. Fully aware, she’d let him and could not bring herself to get out of bed, go to the kitchen, and tell him what a bastard he was.

(more…)

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The Music Makers

We watch him warily, all of us, trying not to look apprehensive. We watch him and Henry. Henry sitting politely, smiling a little. The Doctor was smiling too, but it was the toothy grin of the vulture, and we all vibrate with tension. I glance over at Ubie, and he flashes his bright blue eyes at me for just a second, but for Ubie to show any hint of weakness meant he was tremendously upset. He glances back at me again and shook his head just a little bit, telling me, telling us all to hang back.

Good morning, Mr. Bodkin,” the doctor said cheerily, pulling Henry’s chart off the bed and glancing at it with a fussy expression. “How are we today?”

Henry offers him his brave smile, but his eyes fly around to all of us.

I try to will all of us to stay quiet, for once. I shut my eyes and will it. Then Lil’s voice, high-pitched and tremulous.

You’re okay, Henry. Okay!”

And that was it, everyone starts talking at once. All of us, shouting at Henry. He tries to ignore us for a while, smiling at the doctor, and then he shuts his eyes and cocks his head. I open my eyes in time to see him shiver a little.

Shut up!” he shouts. “Shut up all of you!!!”

(more…)

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Mr. Benders’ New House

This story was originally published in Brutarian Quarterly 48/49.

WE KNEW the old green house on the northeast corner of the intersection as the Gooly House, because in the dim recesses of our young minds we all knew that Mrs. Gooly, whom we had feared and hated, had lived there for some years, keeping our errant tennis balls, frisbees, and gliders, a reign of tyranny over our childhoods. We’d hated Mrs. Gooly, because she insisted we stay outside her low, crumbling stone fence, because she wouldn’t let us reclaim our lost toys, because she snitched to our parents whenever we did anything in her sight, because she smelled slightly of dust at all times. We called her Mrs. Ghouly, not very original, but appropriate enough, and fought the urge to run past her house, forcing ourselves to walk sedately, untroubled by an obvious witch in our midst.

The house was mysterious. Three floors, with wickedly peaked roofs, and a dark, mulchy green. The windows were always shuttered, giving it a blind, moon-faced appearance. The yard surrounded it like a moat, a continuous band of green, overgrown to the extreme with odd plants we didn’t see in any other yard, a narrow path of slate leading from the slumped gate to the front door. The stone fence was only about three feet high, and was of a chalky substance we weren’t sure was really stone. It could be vaulted with one well-timed jump, unless you were Clarence from four doors down who was fat and always split his pants. We were terrified of the Gooly House, and of Mrs. Gooly, and we were shocked, and distrustful, when informed that she had passed away.

For weeks we feared ghosts. The house looked exactly the same; shuttered, moldy, brooding. Mrs. Gooly, being the undead, had no family that anyone knew of, so her spirit was free, we were convinced, to roam the house as she had in life, except, certainly, with new untold powers of evil. We crept past it, an eye out for black magic, and didn’t find out that someone had bought the house until the daring daylight raid we planned, almost a year after Mrs. Gooly’s demise.

A year is a long time in childhood. A whole slate of holidays had come and gone, a whole school year. Mrs. Gooly faded into the past, and if we still moved quicker when passing her looming green house, we didn’t do it consciously anymore. As she faded from fearsome witch to crabby old lady who used to live there, the neighborhood kids began more and more to look longingly towards the uncharted reaches of the Gooly House, where years’ worth of sporting goods lay waiting in the dim recesses of the tall grass, on the slightly slanted roof, in the gutters. Even after a year it took some weeks for us to come up with the combined courage to plan and execute a raid on the Gooly house.

There were five of us in charge. Myself, so pale I was almost invisible, and thin and known as the fastest runner on the block, a boy who fought back challengers every week, defeating kids from whole other neighborhoods in races; there was Rapheal, Rafe, who was my polar opposite: deeply tan, with dark hair and a muscular build, even at that age, that I envied; Marcia, who would, three years later, be my first kiss, but who was then just a freckled, red-haired, skinny girl who sometimes punched us in the shoulders for no reason; Lewis, deceptively nerdy in his thick, taped-up glasses; and Tanya, bossy, always bruised, who stole from us whenever we accidentally let her into our houses. Over grape sodas and Flav-or-Ice, we began by idly discussing how many balls we had lost at the Gooly house, and slowly devised a plan which we figured would net thousands of dollars in rubber and plastic – what we planned to do with all those toys, I couldn’t say. It was just a challenge.

The details of the plan were as follows:

The raid would be conducted during daylight, because even if we were bigger kids than ever, there was no way we were going into the Gooly house in the dark – I would challenge you today to do so, and you’d make some excuse up. We would enter the Gooly house perimeter from Webster Street through the King’s yard – the Kings were tolerant of us using their yard as a shortcut through the neighborhood, and this would allow us to enter the Gooly house perimeter without being observed by any stray parents who might have wandered from the house. Our parents never left the house during the day on a weekend, we knew that, although we couldn’t figure out why. Dads stayed in their easy chairs watching sports, Moms did whatever Moms did, mysterious things we didn’t want any part of. While unlikely that any of them would be seen on the streets, we didn’t want to take chances. Finally, we would start on the roof, beginning with the most dangerous and vulnerable area and working our way downward into the concealing safety of the tall grass, the myserious, lush jungle of the untended yard.

We crashed over the Kings’ fence boldly, trying to impress whatever ghosts there might be with our lack of fear. The house loomed before us as it always had – forbidding, not so much dark as a lack of light in the shape of a house- only closer. The siding was water-damaged, and we discovered to our mild surprise that part of the deep green color of the house was a thriving ivy plant that was consuming it, slowly. I remember we stood there, staring at it, for a few seconds, and then Marcia snorted in derision at men in general and began hoisting her slim frame up the side of the house, which was actually pretty easy; the small shed outside the back door gave easy purchase for the porch window sill, which was a quick lunge away from the porch roof, which was in turn just a few seconds of huffing and puffing from the second story roof, which, we theorized, was the pot of gold. And then, unexpected, an adult voice.

What the hell are you kids doing back here?”

We didn’t know his name then, but Mr. Benders was standing in the dark rectangle of the porch door. He was Our Parents’ Age, which was the only other age we knew aside from Our Age and Younger Than Us. he was balding and paunchy, wearing ridiculously baggy shorts and a bright shirt with a floral pattern. Holding a beer in one hand, he was dirty, with dark smudges on his face.

We froze, stupefied by the one variable we hadn’t considered: someone was actually living in the Gooly House. It stunned us. Who would live here? It was inconceivable!

Marcia slipped and grunted, and Mr. Benders glanced up sharply. “Is someone on the roof, for crying out loud?”

Regaining her feminine grace, Marcia dropped lightly to the ground directly in front of Mr. Benders, and they faced each other through the screen door for a few moments, Benders with beer in hand, Marcia with one hand on a cocked hip, like she owned the place.

Benders looked over her shoulder. “You kids got parents?”

We began making our retreat, mumbling vague apologies and making our way through the messy yard. Mr. Benders watched us go, and then disappeared inside the house. He was the topic of hot conversation for the rest of the day, and we actually pumped our parents for information, slyly, in roundabout ways they wouldn’t be able to decipher. All we learned was that Mr. Benders had nothing to do with Mrs. Gooly, that he had simply bought the house and moved into the neighborhood. Instantly, our feelings for Mr. Benders turned sympathetic, because he obviously didn’t know that the house was haunted. On the phone that evening, Marcia and I solemnly decided that it was too late to save him; Mrs. Gooly would likely murder him in his sleep that very night. This also meant we could return for the lost Super Pinkies shortly.

Summer back then was a real Time, an actual period in our lives. We recalled, dimly, Summers past. We looked forward to, brightly, Summers to come. There was School, and there were Holidays. And there was Summer. Today, of course, things have been diced much finer as we’ve aged: we don’t even have Days any more, we have Hours. Rush Hour. Lunch Hour. Happy Hour. But during the Benders Incident, as we always called it, we still had Summers, endless tracts of fertile time in which to explore, and make up games, eat junk food, and nap.

The day after our bold but failed daylight raid, we all woke up, as usual, watched cartoons, as usual, ate cereal, as usual, and emerged into the hot street to being wasting the day, as usual. There we all stopped, because up the hill, outside the Gooly House, something unexpected had happened at some point. While we’d been sleeping, or eating, or watching, Mr. Benders had begun cleaning out the house, and there was a large collection of stuff out on the sidewalk for the garbage, beckoning us with subtle glints in the sunlight and mysterious shadows.

Rafe and Lewis were standing on the opposite corner, drinking Cokes.

Hey, Ramis,” Rafe said with his light accent, “Can you believe all that crap?”

That guy’s gonna be doing this for weeks, man.” Lewis confirmed.

We crossed the street and arrived at the growing collection of stuff just as Mr. Benders appeared, hauling a lagre black trunk down the front stairs.

We watched him, amazed. The Gooly House’s secrets were being spilled out onto the street. Who knew what kind of arcana Mrs. Gooly had collected in her hundreds of years living there, hunting the children of the neighborhood, poisoning our drinking water, flying through the night on her broom, stealing our prized possessions. Mr. Benders was struggling with the trunk as if it weighed a lot, and Rafe nudged me out of my fantasies.

How much you wanna bet the old bat’s in that trunk?”

A chill ran through me. We watched Mr. Benders huff and puff the trunk down onto the sidewalk, then pause to pull a rag from his back pocket and wipe sweat from his brow. With a slight start, he noticed us.

Great, it’s the goddamn Little Rascals again. Your parents just let you run wild around here?”

Sure,” Rafe said, always an instigator, “why not?”

Mr. Benders shook his head, and bent down to grsp the trunk by its cracked leather handle.

Hey, Mister,” I said, “you mind if we look through all this stuff?”

Mr. Benders paused, breathing hard, bent at the waist. “Knock yourself out, kid. But don’t make a mess. Whoever lived here before left three houses worth of stuff the goddamn Realtor couldn’t be bothered to clean out, and I don’t want to have to clean it up twice, got it?”

I nodded. It would be some time before we realized that Mr. Benders’ favorite word was ‘goddamn’.

We regarded the epic pile of trash professionally, although most of it wasn’t immediately familiar to us. There were boxes, moldy and unlabelled. There were two huge, beaten leather chairs that had backs like wings arching out over you, which we all probably considered sitting in but were too scared – they didn’t look like chairs made for humans, but rather like chairs made for vampires, or demons. While Mr. Benders loudly grunted and panted behind us, struggling with the trunk, we gingerly picked over the junk, looking for anything we could make sense of.

Hey, Mister,” Lewis suddenly said, making us turn, “what’s in the trunk?”

Mr. Benders, standing beside the trunk like a winded Great White Hunter, shrugged. “Who cares? The old bat who lived here kept everything. Wouldn’t be surprised if it was full of goddamned bottlecaps.”

Bottlecaps piqued mild interest, as we played Bottlecaps now and again on chalked boards in the street. While we wouldn’t use that many bottlecaps in our whole lives, there might, we all suspected, be some real humdingers in there, unusual caps that would prove to be the secret ingredient to a championship season.

Can we open it?”

Mr. Benders glanced down at the trunk and toed it with his sneaker. “Kid, if you can get it open, be my guest.”

With that he wiped sweat from his face and walked back into the Gooly House. We waited until the door had shut behind him, swallowing him back into the Gooly universe that was humming inside it like greased, blackened machinary whose use had been forgotten, and then we swarmed over the junk.

We left the trunk for last, for when the girls showed up, because we figured it would be the big discovery of the day and knew we’d be in trouble if we tried to hoard it for ourselves. The pile offered plenty of junk, anyway; aside from old lady clothes and a collection of strange, heavy records that seemed to be made of stone, there were three objects that captured the rest of our day’s attention, and solidified Mrs. Gooly’s legacy as a witch of some sort.

First, there was the Box with the crank. It was black, cracked everywhere like old skin, and had no lid or hinges we could detect. It did, however, have a worn wooden crank that reached out of it like a twisted arm. Lewis cranked it once or twice, and it produced an ominous ticking noise from within -whether this meant it was broken or if this meant it was winding up for something, we didn’t know, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know; the ticking made my back tighten up in anxiety. We shook it, but nothing rattled inside. We turned it over and over in our hands and could see no possible way inside.

Underneath a pile of chemically-smelling dresses – nothing we had ever seen Mrs. Gooly wearing – we found a jewelry box full of photographs. We were at first not interested, expecting just the usual photos – pictures of Mrs. Gooly in happier times, looking much like our own grandmothers in their own stiff, fading pictures. A closer look, however, revealed that the photos were neither of Mrs. Gooly, or very ordinary. They appeared to have all been taken at the same time, in the same place, but we couldn’t be sure – they were all confused, blurred images, with shapes that might have been people, or furniture. In some of the photos there was a perceived violence, a horror of motion that we couldn’t seem to look away from. In others, there didn’t seem to be anything – just blurry shots of an empty room, beaten wood floors, pale plaster walls.

We sat on the curb and went through the photos one at a time, carefully, passing them down the line and staring at them. I felt as if there was something in those photos, a puzzle, and if I had enough time to stare at them, I might piece them together. In one, a man wearing baggy dress pants, a short, thick tie from black and white movies, and a towering pile of curly dark hair seems to float above a group of seated people. Their blurred faces appear to be raised in awe, or panic, arms half raised as well in a desperate attempt to fend something off, or block their sight, or maybe in hysteria.

The girls, fresh from mysterious girl business somewhere, arrived in time for the third discovery: an ominous book written entirely in runes. The dark green leather of the book was cracked but somehow velvety, and gave me goosebumps to touch. The paper bound within was smooth and felt wet to my fingers, as if it were leaving some oily residue behind. We all stood around wiping our hands on our pants and shirts after touching it. The runes were inscrutable, darkly printed, stark against the yellowed white of the paper. Each page was a solid block of symbols, with no paragraphs, punctuation, or illustration. They began neatly on the first page, and ended abruptly on the last unnumbered sheet. The smell of the book was one of neglect and time and something that scratched our throats and made us cough.

The girls were excited by the book. Declaring it a witch’s spellbook, they claimed only girls could handle it and clutched it between them possessively. Honestly, I recall being very glad to let them have it, but Rafe had to make a stand and threatened them with the usual if they kept it for themselves: torment, vandalism, exclusion from the next thousand days of Running Bases and stickball. Tanya and Marcia paid him no mind, and Rafe was forced to admit that he was not going to hit a girl any time soon. The girls cackled over their grimoire and threatened to turn us into rodents if we bothered them.

The rest of the stuff was equally inexplicable, and equally useless to us, but didn’t seem very dark or magical: old clothes, pieces of sagging and empty furniture, boxes and boxes of shoes we didn’t think anyone had ever worn. After a few hours a truck came and three large men who spoke a foreign language began collecting everything. When we claimed our three prizes, they shrugged and muttered and didn’t cause us any trouble.

I spent the night staring at the photos, seeking clues. In one, the one where a group of people seemed to be running for their lives from a sparsely furnished room, and among the people there was a tall, bony woman tht could certainly have been Mrs. Gooly. I dug my plastic microscope from under the bed, dusted it off, and ran the photo beneath it, searchin for clues. Up close the photo was just a grayscale jumble, darks and greys, dots. I did discover, on the edge of the print, what could only be a cat’s tail, puffed and the tail bit of a fleeing animal, one paw still barely visible as it fled.

The next day the five of us gathered across from the Gooly house and discussed our treasures. The girls had not been able to pry any secrets from the spell book, and were seriously considering bring Marcia’s older sister Maryanne into the discovery process, Maryanne being seventeen and well read, an untapped resource of knowledge we had never found a use for.

Rafe had nervously cranked the mysterious box for a full five minutes, listening to its dry clickings, and came out to us on the corner convinced it was merely broken, and not mysterious at all.

Lewis had claimed the trunk, and had enlisted his older brother in dragging it to his house. He had not been able to pick the lock or otherwise break into the trunk, but felt confident that he would be able to, because his brother had learned how to pick the locks on the lockers at his high school

As would become the daily ritual of the summer, Mr. Benders emerged a few minutes later lugging a new load of stuff out onto the street, huffing and puffing. Pausing to catch his breath, he noticed us across the street and shook his head a little.

You kids got no ambition, huh? Watching me clean this house out the best you can do? What happened to vandalism, or juvenile delinquency.”

Rafe sneered at him. “Hey man, we’re watching you have a heart attack – who’s dumb?”

Mr. Benders surprised us by laughing, which turned into a bad coughing fit. Finally, he waved at us dismissively, and continued hauling three overstuffed cardboard boxes out to the curb. We waited until he turned his back on them, and then swarmed over to them. They revealed nothing more than a collection of faded tablecloths, musty and uninteresting. We settled down to wait for more treasures anyway.

Over the next few months, we watched Mr. Benders clear out the Gooly house with growing excitement, seeing mysteries heretofore unsuspected revealed daily, and our collections of oddities grew with each batch. Everything seemed to confirm our suspicions about Mrs. Gooly’s nature: her possesions, once exposed to the harsh summer sun and our sharp inspection, were arcane and obviously heavy with black magic. We found a soft velvety bag filled with smooth, black stones, seized upon as magical stones. We claimed what Lewis identified as a camera, a black box with a lens protruding from one end. We could find no way to load film into it, and Marcia immediately began referring to it as the Soul Camera, a term which made us all shiver with expectation. Who knew what you might do with a Soul Camera once you learned how to use it? There was a long, smooth black rod, inexplicable but vibrating with implied violence. A glass cube. A small jewelry box filled with sand. Gold coins from some distant land none of us had heard of.

Every day Mr. Benders hauled a quantity of stuff from within the Gooly House, and every day we found new, arcane items to add to our collection. But no matter how hard we studied it all, nothing fell into place. The Gooly House made no more sense than it had before. I stared at the photos until my eyes ached, under my blankets with flashlights, but no inspiration came to me. They remained fuzzy, indistinct photos that may have been about amazing happenings, or simply badly photographed. We all fell into private and separate contemplations of the meaning of our treasures, and stopped talking about the Gooly House, and shared none of it.

Finally, the days bled into Fall, and school began firming up into a reality. We were dragged into clothing stores and department stores, we were measured and groomed, largely against our wills. Shoes were purchased. September came and we all began eyeing the calendar with dread, knowing that one Sunday evening we would be shuffled off to bed earlier than we’d become used to, and we’d be woken up earlier than we wished, pushed into good clothes, and pushed out the door with bookbags and bag lunches in hand, stunned, amazed, and regretful of a million things. Another summer gone.

Mr. Benders was finally done cleaning out the Gooly House by this time, and we didn’t see him much that final week as he resumed the normal interior lifestyle of an adult. Our parents hinted that he was gutting the place and having it all redone in a more modern style, which seemed like grown-up parlance for driving out the haunting Spirit of Mrs. Gooly, which we all expected to see rise up from the chimney someday, hovering over the neighborhood angrily for a moment, and then fly off to possess a familiar, like a squirrel or cat. We’d fallen out of the habit of waiting for him outside his house anyway, and had finished the last two weeks of our vacation playing stickball a block away, Rafe bossing everyone but Marcia around. Marcia would just cross her arms and stick out her butt and tell Rafe to soak his head, and he would just give a sly latin smile and shrug, as if it was all a big joke he’d cooked up. I hit a grand slam, and was a minor celeb for a day, something I still remember, since I don’t hit very many grand slams.

The last Saturday of vacation we played basketball in the park, Rafe humiliating me and Lewis with various trick shots and in-your-face stuffs. We took it in stride, used to it. Walking home in sweaty, drooping clothes, Lewis suddenly looked up.

Hey, y’know what? I never did get that goddamn trunk open.”

For a moment we didn’t remember what he was talking about. Then it hit us. The trunk! The Gooly Trunk! All the terrible secrets we’d imagined hidden in that house came flooding back, and I was sure that the key to it all, the last piece of the puzzle that had eluded us, was locked inside that trunk. All we had to do was get it open.

On the way to Lewis’ house, he explained what steps had already been taken, and it became clear that Lewis and his older brother had exhausted subtlety. Picking the locks would not do. Brute force was called for. We located a hammer and chisel in the garage, where Lewis’ mother had banished the musty old trunk, and dragged the trunk to the top of their sloped driveway, a cool late-summer breeeze making us shiver in our sweaty clothes. Rafe took the tools up confidently, in charge, and we all stood around it as he knelt, pushed the chisel into the small gap of the latch, and raised the hammer up for a final blow at Mrs. Gooly.

I’ll never forget what happened. I’ll never forget the five of us, as we were. Lewis, pudgy but thinning with age, sheened with sweat, his eyes bright and wide, expectant. Marcia radiant, skinny, just beginning to hint at curves, her hair up, mouth open nervously, skin pink. Rafe, strong back bunched with muscle, curly hair matted from exertion. And Tanya, on the edge, already fading from our thoughts even when she’d still been there, just out of my peripheral vision. Saying something I never heard as Rafe raised the hammer, because when he brought it down, there was an explosion.

Or so it seemed to me at the time. Certainly, the trunk exploded, splitting open with such force that the lid banged loudly on the pavement. And we all dived instinctively away from a sudden cloud of green, yellow, and tan: hundreds of tennis balls, Spaldings, Super Pinkies, compressed impossibly into a steamer trunk for years, freed with a startling expulsion of suppressed kinetic energy. Rafe was hit in the face by the lid flying upward, and landed hard on his back in the driveway. The rest of us were pummeled for three seconds by hundreds of hard rubber balls, and then found cover as the explosion turned into a steady rain of balls falling back to earth, where they then rolled down the driveway and into the street.

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