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Road Games and Other Weird Tales short story collection
horror and science fiction anthology
Excerpts from short stories
All rights reserved. Copyrighted material. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual person, living or dead, business establishments, event, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Brian Parks didn’t believe in the famous monsters of Hollywood any more than he believed in the tooth fairy or the sandman. Yet here he was, kneeling over a corpse with two small puncture wounds in the jugular vein and a stake driven through the dead man's heart. It made him wonder if the person they'd seen running away from the location was man or monster. Holly-weird just got weirder. He leaned in for a closer look.
Suddenly, a hand gripped his shoulder and tightly clamped down. Brian gasped, spun around, and found himself staring up into Sharon's blue eyes. “Don’t do that.”
"Sorry." His new partner was breathing hard from the chase. "He got away." She bent over and placed her hands on her knees while she caught her breath.
The old-fashioned lamp, secured with a couple of ten-penny nails above the Rossini's Butcher Shop sign, suddenly dimmed. They both looked up at the swarm of bugs circling the light's chipped, green-enamel hood. A spider was eagerly attaching silky strands of web from the S-shaped mounting bar in anticipation of netting a huge catch for the night. Brian hated arachnids, the things gave him the heebie jeebies.
He grappled for the flashlight hanging from his belt, but before he could unclip it, the light perked back up and sent the shadows scurrying underneath the Dumpsters overflowing with garbage and back into the corners. He swatted a bug on his cheek that had escaped the lure of the light and smeared the blood across his face. He looked back up over his shoulder at her. He pointed at the corpse. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
"Unfortunately, yes. But not this combination."
"What the hell do you mean?"
She kneeled down next to him and her long, black hair spilled over her shoulders, framing her classic Cajun good looks. “The punctures look like the bite of a vampire, but I’ve never heard of a vampire driving a stake through the heart of its victim. That’s something that a vampire hunter would do. Damn it. I thought I'd gotten away from the monsters when I left New Orleans.”
"You can't be serious."
"I'm dead serious." She peered down at the victim. "There was nothing in today's briefing about cases like this."
"There hasn't been anything like this to report since I started on the force three months ago."
"Well, this is either an eerie coincidence or the nightmare is just beginning."
"I don't know what your game is, but I'm not going to fall for some spooky ghost story B.S. like some grade-schooler. So, just keep your fright night mumbo-jumbo to yourself."
"Well, I lived that fright night mumbo-jumbo, so believe me; I want to be wrong about it."
"Then on that, we can agree. You're wrong."
“So, what's your theory?” she asked.
“I don’t know." He shrugged. "I only believe in what I can taste, see, hear, and smell. The rest is smoke, and we both know what happens when you try to grab a handful of smoke.” He dug through the victim’s hip pocket, pulled out a wallet, and opened it to the driver's license. "George Stiles." He rummaged through the rest of the pockets. He held up a matchbook. “Here's an interesting artifact; Penelope's Place. It’s that new strip joint on the other side of town.”
Sharon took it from his hand and opened it. “It has Kandie, with a K, and a phone number written in it.” She handed the matchbook back to him and watched as he stuffed it into his pocket. "We need to call Chief Jaquette and get a team out here.”
“He's going to be pissed.” He shook his head. "Let's get out of here and let the next patrol find him."
“No way, Parks, you should have thought about that before you cruised us around town looking for trouble. Now you've got me in the middle of it.”
"Hey, we could make up some story that explains why we're here."
She rolled her eyes. “Sure, we’ll just tell him that we discovered the body on our way to get coffee. I'm sure he'll buy that excuse."
“Well, before we get Jaquette involved, can we at least pay Penelope’s a visit and see if anybody knows who Kandie is? Maybe she can give us some history on this guy; see if he was there at the club tonight and got into it with someone, or maybe give us some other kind of lead.” He stood up.
“You can't play by your own rules and just leave the body here.”
“Well, while we’re standing here jaw-jacking that maniac’s getting away.”
She looked him in the eyes. “Look, Parks, I know you’re gung-ho to build a reputation and get into homicide, but—”
“How do you know about that?”
"Guys sling more gossip around than any woman ever could, especially guys in our line of work."
Brian stared hard at her. “Well, that's none of their, or your, business. I just know, sometimes you’ve got to push the edge of the envelope to get what you want.”
“Maybe, but I’ve had enough experience in this business to know that insubordination won’t just cost you a promotion, it could cost you your job, and get you blackballed everywhere else. I want no part of it."
He felt himself under fire and wanted to defend himself, but he couldn't argue with her logic. “Okay, I'll go call Jaquette.”
She swatted a mosquito off the back of her neck. “I’m coming with you.”
They got back into the cruiser and he made the call. "You do realize the Chief's arrival is going to come with thunder and lightning bolts?"
"Yep, we're in deep shit." Sharon grabbed the Styrofoam cup from the dash and took a sip of lukewarm coffee. “What did I do to get stuck with a renegade cop my first shift? What did you do before joining the police force, anyway?”
“Night security at Food Land."
The Killing Kind
Gazes locked—riveted, powerless
We're the only two in the world.
Time stops—captivated, helpless
Lost—we dive in
And spiral out of control.
A kaleidoscope of comedies and tragedies.
The finale—last curtain, the strings
And more than a little broken.
Ragged heaps—we pick up, move on
And forever string-less.
Standing in front of the bathroom mirror in the Twilight Lounge, Gracie Phelps checked her makeup and made sure it was still camouflaging the fine telltale wrinkles on her face that were beginning to show her age. She turned her head slightly and studied her pointy features in the artificial glow coming from the overhead Fluorescents. The last decade had eroded her youth and left her marginal looks less desirable to younger men. There had been a few recently, but they had not been around for long. The older male crowd at the Twilight still found her looks youthful and desirable. She shifted the spaghetti straps of her little black dress back into place, used her fingers to position her blond hair strategically around her green eyes; gave her reflection a practiced smile, and figured her looks would do for the night.
Voices, jumbled with a golden oldie playing on the jukebox, floated on a thick cloud of secondhand smoke. She put herself on parade by taking the long route through the barroom to see which regular she would offer the first smile of the evening. She sat down at her table in the center of the room, and her eyes came to rest on the newcomer sitting alone in the corner.
The diminished light could not hide his classic good looks. His long, dark hair flowed down over his shoulders in wavy cords. His athletic build filled out his jeans and white-cotton shirt in a way that could make a woman drool. She thought he looked like he could have stepped off the cover of one of the Harlequin Romance novels she occasionally threw in among the suspense thrillers she usually read.
He must have sensed her staring because he suddenly looked up and locked eyes with her.
She felt a rush of embarrassment burning her cheeks. She was normally shrewd at observing the room without appearing to be scoping the men out. Before she could look away, he offered her a smile that highlighted the dimples on both his cheeks.
She took in a deep breath and said to herself, play it cool, Gracie. Give the line a little slack. She returned a faint smile and pretended to be coy. She turned her head and took a sip from the drink that was now watered down by melting ice. I know how to play the game.
A rusty pickup roared into the parking lot, skidded to a stop, and stirred a cloud of loose dust that swirled away on the morning breeze.
Millie stared out through the glass. She slowly reached up and gently touched the welt beneath her eye.
Corky witnessed her action. "Don't worry, you're safe in here."
The glass door rattled and opened. Toby Barnes's tall, thin frame looked like it had been swallowed by an extra large T-shirt and pair of baggy jeans; his waistband drooped off a pair of once-white boxer shorts. He rubbed at the spackles of hair on his chin. "What are ya'll looking at?"
Corky replied, "What do you want?"
Toby waded through the gauntlet of eyes casting silent judgment. He left a faint smell of beer and stale cigarette smoke hanging in the in his wake. "I'm here to have some coffee and to see my girl."
Millie looked down at the floor.
Toby sat down at the bar, pulled a cigarette from behind his ear, and stuck it in between his lips. He spun around on the stool and smirked. "Any of you gentlemen have a light?"
Corky fished out a book of matches from the pocket of his jeans and tossed them.
Toby snatched them out of the air and turned them over. He looked up at Corky with a wide, deviant grin. "The Fox's Den, huh?" He winked, plucked a match out of the book, and struck it. He lit his cigarette, blew out a puff of smoke, and then shook the fire off the stick. He thumped it at the NO SMOKING sign posted on the door. He held the book of matches up.
Corky said, "You keep 'em."
Toby tucked them in the pocket of his jeans and looked around the room. "What the hell's wrong with you old limp wieners? You look like you all seen a spook or somethin'." He looked over at Millie. "Now, how 'bout that coffee, baby?"
Merle sat down and tossed his hat on the table. "Why don't you just get your coffee to go?"
Toby thumped an ash to the floor. "Last time I looked, this was a public place. I think I'll stay awhile." He spun back around on his stool and faced the bar.
Corky reached out and tugged on Millie's wrist. "You don't have to serve him."
She gently pulled free. "It's okay." Millie squeezed through the narrow aisle and slipped behind the bar. She reached down, produced a white cup, and set it on the counter. She began to pour.
Toby laid his smoke down on the edge of the bar and waited until she finished pouring. He grabbed the top part of her arm. "Hey, babe, got a little cash on you?"
She shook her head. "I don't get paid until Friday." She tried to pull free of his grip.
He gritted his teeth and clamped down harder on her arm. "I need some money. I know you get tips. These old farts in here seem to like you." He squeezed even harder. "Now, hand it over, you fat sow."
She turned her body and pulled free from his grip that left red imprints of his fingers on the soft flesh of her arm. Millie reached down into the pocket of her white apron and dredged up a handful of bills. She plopped them down on the counter. "That's all I have."
He picked up the cash and slowly counted it out. He smiled, grabbed his smoke, and deposited it back in his mouth. "I'll see you later." He spun around and stood up to walk away. He met looks of disapproval and stopped. "What? You think your little high school homecoming queen here is a little angel?"
The looks persisted.
"I got news for you; I could tell you a thing or two about Little Miss Innocent here."
Corky said, "Just take the money and get out of here, Toby."
He took the cigarette from his mouth and thumped it down on the floor. "Alright, I'll let you old folks get back to your swappin' stories or whatever the hell it is you do here." He spun around and shoved the door open and left.
A moment later, the truck door slammed and the engine cranked. Toby left black marks on the street as the rear tires gnawed at the pavement.
Corky and Ben sat back down in their seats.
Merle grabbed his cap from the table and pulled it over his thinning gray hair. "Well, I'm going to forget about what happened here this morning and get back to the fields." He stood up. "And I suggest that you all drop this nonsense and do the same." He turned to leave.
The radio that had been playing non-stop Golden Oldies suddenly popped and static drowned out the song.
Millie turned around and twisted the knob in search of another station. Her effort produced more static. "I'll turn it off," she said.
Wait." Merle pulled his cap off his head.
"What is it?" Corky asked.
Everyone in the restaurant grew silent and turned an ear toward the radio.
After a moment, Jason asked, "What are we listening for?"
Merle slowly sat back down. "Don't you hear it?"
Jason shook his head.
"Voices," Merle said. "And they ain't human." He motioned to the radio with his hand. "Millie, turn it up, would you?"
She gave it a sharp twist and static filled the room. It carried in the far background a faint voice that sounded like someone speaking in an unknown tongue through the spinning blades of a fan.
Fran perked up over her bowl of oatmeal. "I hear it. There's more than one voice." She made an adjustment on her hearing aid. "They sound like they're talking back and forth to each other."
Corky leaned toward her. "What are they sayin'?"
She tweaked the dial and her hearing aid squawked from the feedback. She flinched and turned it down. Then she shook her head. "Don't know. I never heard that language before. It doesn't sound like anything from this planet."
Ben jumped up from his seat. "Hold on, people." He pointed to the radio. "It's static, nothin' more. Your minds are playin' tricks on you."
A loud omnipresent hum filled the air and the lights in the restaurant dimmed. Within seconds, the humming stopped and the lights grew bright again. The radio popped and a song rattled the speakers.
"Oh my God!" Corky sank in his seat.
"What's wrong with you, idjit?" Ben asked.
Corky nervously held up his hand and crooked his finger at the radio. "That song. Don't you get it?"
Everyone turned their heads to the radio and listened to Neil Diamond belting out one of his signature songs.
Corky let his hand fall limply into his lap and his complexion went ash. "It's code."
All eyes turned back to Corky.
Murdoch plucked the glass eye from its socket and rubbed it across the sleeve of his tweed jacket. He closely examined the artificial eyeball for lint before popping it back into his head. "The Agency sent me here to kill you, Mr. Spencer."
Standing with his back to Murdoch, Frank Spencer stared out the window as the storm festered in the night sky. Rain pelted against the window pane and globs of water drooled down the glass, obscuring the outside world. Frank turned and glared at the frail man who was sitting on the shabby sofa in his living room. He nodded his head, "I know why you are here, Murdoch." He looked over at the clock hanging on the wall. "Why so late?"
"I had a prior engagement." Murdoch twisted around and grabbed the white cotton macassar from the back of the couch. He turned back around, looked at Frank and held the linen in the air. "May I?"
Frank stared at the circle of cloth dangling from Murdoch’s fingertips, and a look of perplexity washed across his face. "I suppose."
Murdoch reached inside his coat and pulled out a nickel-plated revolver and slowly began wiping it down. He angled it up to the ceiling light for a thorough inspection. "That should do nicely." He draped the cloth over the pistol and used it to shove the gun back into its holster. He rose from the sofa and replaced the linen.
Murdoch walked across the room dodging the empty whiskey bottles and over-flowing ashtrays littering the floor. He stopped at a shelf cluttered with Hollywood memorabilia and picked up a trophy. "Midnight to Nowhere, I remember that flick; I took my first movie date to see that picture. Nothing would get a girl all hot and bothered like taking her to see a Frank Spencer movie. God, that was so many years ago, but I can still remember it like it was yesterday." Murdoch turned and looked at Frank. "That was your last memorable motion picture before your career hit the skids." He gave Frank a thoughtful look. "Didn't you win an Oscar for that film?"
Frank marched across the room and plucked the trophy from Murdoch's bony fingers. "I was nominated, but I didn't win the Oscar." He set the trophy back on the shelf.
"That's too bad." Murdoch wiggled the fingers on his empty hand. "Nothing like watching your greatest desire as it slips through your fingers." He raised his eyebrows and glanced up with his good eye. "I remember seeing your face plastered on the front page of every tabloid, along with your co-star Margaret Gray. There for awhile, you two were a hot item."
Frank returned to the window and stared out. A bolt of lightning highlighted his deep wrinkles and thinning white hair. "Don't believe everything you hear in Hollywood."
Murdoch glanced over his shoulder at Frank. "What do you mean?"
"Our romance was a cover up. Margaret Gray was a lesbian."
Murdoch blinked. "Gee, I didn't know that."
"That kind of publicity would have ruined a career back then and destroyed the studio's reputation." Frank walked away from the window and sat down in an overstuffed easy chair. He lit a cigarette and expertly sent two rings of smoke, one inside the other, drifting toward the ceiling. "Why don't we just move along and talk about the business at hand." He poured himself a whiskey.
Murdoch's thin lips transformed into an eager smile. "Sure, sounds good to me."
Nathan rode the eighteen-wheeler he stood atop of like a surfer rides a wave. It was going at least eighty and the wind threatened to rip him off the top of the cab. He aimed the shotgun. He knew he had one armor piercing shell in the chamber, but he didn't know if there were any in the magazine. So, if he wanted to get out of this alive, he'd better make the shot count.
The moment he pulled the trigger, the truck encountered a bump in the road, and for a brief moment, he suffered the pain of disappointment of a spoiled shot. But in the darkness, Nathan saw sparks and heard the clink of metal impacting metal. Fire spread rapidly across the hood of the car and it became a rolling ball of fire. It suddenly veered off the road and came to a halt. The glow of the flames highlighted the Wilkerson brothers as they bailed out and high tailed it away from the inferno. A second later, BLOOM!
Goddamn! It was just like in one of those high budget Hollywood movies! A big ball of orange fire rose up as pieces of shattered metal scattered through the air. A small shard whizzed by and nicked the lobe of his ear in its passing. He felt the sting. Warm blood trickled down his neck. He was about to jump through the roof hatch to the safely of the inside of the cab until he saw the obstacle in the middle of the road. He braced himself for the impact.
Call it fate or call it karma. Either way, this day had been a living nightmare right from the start.
He'd hot-footed it out of Gainesville before anybody could find out what he'd done and had been driving Texas Highway 4 all day. About the time the sun got sucked below the horizon, the needle on the gas tank hit bottom. The engine sputtered, chugged, and died. He coasted the 1963 Ford Falcon to the side of the road and let the radio play. The need for something to fill the silence across the miles had broken his tradition of boycotting music in the hopes of erasing the crap fest of the Eighties. For him, they'd sucked. He had high hopes for the fledgling nineties, but so far, they sucked too. When the song ended, Nathan shut the key off and grabbed the flashlight from beneath the seat. He got out. In the gray light, he began walking the long stretch of desolate road without much hope of finding a gas station or anything else. Other than the narrow beam from the flashlight, there was no ambient light to offset the pitch darkness that closed in around him and the serenade of insects gave him zero comfort as he covered the miles. He followed the strip of tar as it wound around a clump of pine trees. His emotional barometer that was hovering somewhere near sea level took a nosedive.
Caught, a fit of maniacal nervous laughter burst past his lips and then abruptly ended. His cheeks grew a deeper shade of red. Anger melded with embarrassment and he slapped her hand away. He bolted to his feet, hands balled in fists at his sides, and demanded, "Who in the hell are those two maniac throwbacks?"
"The opponents ," she replied.
Opponents. Opponents. Opponents. The word danced in his head. His bumfuzzled mind worked hard at trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. "What the hell are you talking bout?"
"They are my opponents in the game," she replied.
The accumulated tension came out as an involuntary burst of laughter that bellowed up out his belly. He cut it short. "What game? Those jerks sure didn't act like they were playing."
"It's a local thing. High risk, big money, and we locals take it dead seriously."
It still didn't make a damn bit of sense. "So, you've played it before?"
She shook her head. "Of course not. You only get one shot."
Her cryptic answers left holes in the story, and against his better judgment, he asked, "What are the rules?"
She shook her head again. "I've said too much already." She looked him up and down and then said, "Unless……."
Coaly Banks stared down from the second floor window of her apartment building at the busy sidewalk below. God, there were more of them, more this year than last year. Every year there were new ones. But what did she expect? The neighborhood was quickly approaching its centennial mark giving them plenty of time to multiply. Because of them, she hadn't left the building in six months. Next year, there would be more and avoiding touching one would become impossible. The thought made her shiver. She honestly didn't know what to do. The city refused to do anything about them despite her numerous calls of complaint.
That was it; she resigned herself to the fact that she would live the rest of her life as a recluse. She looked down again and hated them, hated them all. She had thought about counseling. But what would be the use of that? She would have to go out to keep an appointment.
She glared at them until her hate turned into loathing. She surrendered, threw her hands in the air and yelled down, "Go ahead, multiply like roaches. I don't care."
Only a few curious faces stopped to look up at the woman hanging out of the second story window with her dark frizzy hair blowing in the stiff summer breeze.
She had to do it and prove to them that they couldn't hold her a prisoner for the rest of her life. She took another look down and began to chant, "Coaly is a scaredy-cat, Coaly is a scaredy-cat." She slapped her hands over her ears. "STOP IT! STOP IT!" The agony on her face turned sour and she pointed at them. "You think I'm afraid of you? Well. I'm not. I'm coming down and you can't stop me." She slammed the window shut, grabbed her purse and stepped out of her apartment with her heart drumming inside her chest. She took careful strides down each step of the stairs. Heaven forbid taking the elevator; those things were nothing but a deathtrap. She strolled through the lobby with her head held high, confident that she could do it this time.
The front entrance of the building, leading out onto the busy sidewalk, drew closer as she took quick, punctuated steps across the cranky floorboards. Suddenly, she felt as though she were wading through a thick sludge of uncertainty. Her steps slowed. Why in the hell did this have to be so hard? She stopped, placed a hand on the brass door-knob and drew in a deep breath.
She stood in the gloom. "Now you've done it, Mister Fix It." A moment later, she sparked her cigarette lighter and the shadows, projected against the wall, performed a jittery dance that was choreographed by the wavering flame.
He aimed a finger at the fire. "I thought I smelled smoke down here. You're as good as gone."
Anger radiated from her eyes. "You can stay down here if you want, but I'm out of here." She used the lighter like a candle, turned and took a step toward the stairs.
A figure entered the basement through the back entrance Grogan had left open and hunkered down in the darkness. The trespasser's erratic strides across the room were disguised by the shadows as a silhouette on spidery legs performing a macabre ballet.
She planted a foot on the bottom step as Grogan reached out to seize her by the arm.
A split second later, the prowler popped out of the darkness wielding a butcher knife. In the same moment, Grogan fell to the floor and curled up in a fetal position. "Please! No!"
Before she could take her foot off the step and turn, the interloper wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled. The tug unbalanced her and she fell backwards against a bony chest. She looked down at the spindly arm clad in red spandex, yanked free and spun around. She held the flame close to a wrinkled face. "What do you think you're doing?"
"I told you, I'm here to protect you." He raised the blade over his head.
"Put the knife down," she commanded. "Grogan may be a creep, but he's harmless."
The costumed super hero shook his head. "Not Grogan." He pointed down. "It," he cried out.
Sharon looked down at the clumps of lint and stray socks rolling across the floor like wooly tumbleweeds and collecting in a pile near the broken shards of glass. The lint began to take on a humanoid form as it built itself from the floor up. The hairs on all of their heads rose and stood on end like a bad hair day commercial. "My God! It's true!" She turned to Grogan. "Come on get up," she said with urgency in her voice, "we've got to get out of here. NOW!" she yelled.
Grogan struggled up from the floor and onto shaky legs.
Oh my God, what have I done? Coaly Banks berated herself. Just a few sweet days ago she had been a sane woman, well, at least as sane as you could get nowadays, but now, here she was today, speeding along Highway Seventy-Three with a dead body in the trunk of her car and the inside of her head a big ball of confusion. And she blamed it all on that late-night infomercial.
Lickety Split was the name of the product and it guaranteed instant weight loss. You'll actually lose an entire person, the spokesman claimed. She ignored the fanatical glint in the speaker's eyes as they urged the viewer to Order Now! and she did. Then she soon fell into a contented slumber feeling hopeful for the first time in years.
The chime of her doorbell woke her bright and early the next morning. When she answered the door, there stood a salesman carrying a briefcase. He was short and he was thin, wispy really, and wore a blue, polyester suit and a starched, white shirt with a polka dot bow tie—not one of the horrid clip-on things, this one was hand tied. The breast pocket of his jacket bulged with pens and a Lickety Split button was pinned to the lapel. He wore black frame glasses over a pair of sparkling, blue eyes, and a white Boater Hat, made of straw with a red ribbon circling the crown, topped his dark hair.
He set the briefcase down, cleared his throat, and broke out into his own rendition of the Lickety Split jingle. It was the same words they sang on television, but that is where the resemblance ended, because his version wasn't nearly as good. His ditty ended with the line, it'll put some pep, pep, pep in your step, step, step. He capped his performance with a big, cheesy grin and removed his hat. "Mister Simon at your service." He took a quick bow. "May I come in, Miss Banks?"
Still stunned, she nodded. Trance-like, she stepped out of the way and motioned him inside. He picked up the briefcase and waltzed through the door like a child brimming with energy. Energy was something she lacked these days, and despite his off-key performance, she hoped his peppy step was a harbinger of good things to come for her future. She motioned to the large, overstuffed recliner. "Please, sit down." The small table next to the chair held a lamp that emitted a dim glow that, besides the TV, was the only source of unnatural light in the room. She always kept the curtains on the large window drawn, and her shrink had once declared that Coaly was trying to shut out the outside world and should keep them open. That was a year ago, and the curtains were still closed, and that little bimbo psychiatrist with the pouty lips was outta sight and outta mind. Right now, she was thankful for the darkness that hid the empty snack bags and drained soft drink cans that littered the room.
The man folded his thin frame into the hollow where she'd spent countless hours watching old, romantic movies while many women her age were out partying and having fun, or on dates with handsome men like the ones in the movies. She sat on the couch across from him and settled back. It groaned in protest under her weight and she shot forward and covered her face with her hands in shame.
"No need to be embarrassed," said Mr. Simon. "Come on, now; let me see your face." She parted her fingers and peeked out. His gaze roamed over her body. She'd always wanted men to look at her, but now that one was, she felt uncomfortable. Maybe it was because he was looking at her in a way an entomologist would look at an insect beneath the lens of a microscope. Coaly knew what a bug scientist was called because she'd seen documentaries on the subject and read nature magazines that were among the heaping mass of overflow from the bookcase in her bedroom. She finally lowered her hands and his wandering eyes settled on her face. "Such beautiful features," he said. "And those eyes."
She wondered why he was using such a hokey sales pitch when she had already called the 1-800 number and gave them her credit card information. And, he certainly wasn't flirting with her; she knew what she looked liked. When Coaly last weighed, the scale was tipping at the 280 mark. That was months back. She was sure that she had surpassed that milestone. She'd tried every fad diet ever invented and once even joined an exercise class full of skinny girls dressed in skimpy workout attire. She'd felt like Hyacinth the dancing hippo in the Walt Disney movie, Fantasia. While the slim chicks glided through the moves, Coaly was a sweaty, jiggling mass stuffed into gray, baggy sweats boogieing to the high-energy music with ungraceful moves. The demons inside her head eventually won out and she dropped the class, returned to her old routine of late night TV and junk food, and left the aerobic classes to the slim chicks that didn't need them.
Mister Simon opened his briefcase. "I want to show you something." He reached in and grabbed what looked like a small stack of cards. Okay, she figured, here it comes, the catch. It was probably meal plans; a list of food she could have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, like celery sticks and cottage cheese, or some other impossible condition she would have to do in tandem with the herbal pills to achieve weight loss success. He splayed them out on the coffee table. They were pictures. Mr. Simon pointed to one of them and exclaimed, "That was me a few weeks ago."
Coaly leaned down for a closer look at the face. Sure enough, the rotund man in the picture, taken seaside, bore a striking resemblance to the man sitting across from her. To be sure, she checked his face one more time, and it was then she noticed the thin, pink line running down the center. More than likely, he'd been involved in an accident.
It's not polite to stare, an old childhood commandment entered her head. It was in her mother's rigid tone of voice. Only it wasn't just her voice, it was a scene from the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy, the tin man, scarecrow, and cowardly lion stood quaking before the floating head of the great and powerful Oz. But, it wasn't the wizard's head she saw, it was her mother's, and Coaly herself was Dorothy. Coaly quickly withdrew from the vision and averted her gaze back to the pictures before he could catch her looking at his unusual marking.
"You see," said Mr. Simon. "I'm not just a representative for Lickety Split, I'm a client." He collected the pictures from the table and stuffed them back into the briefcase. He spent a few extra seconds foraging in the contents and produced a small bottle. It was tinted green with a yellow label on it. He held it up and shook the bottle. It clattered like an infant's rattle. "And here are the babies that will bring out the skinny girl in you." He set them on the tabletop. "The best part is, you can eat whatever you want and not gain a pound. Just imagine, a few days from now, you'll be turning some heads."
"A few days?"
He grinned widely, picked up the bottle, and pointed to the label. "Yep, it says right here, fast acting." Then he points to himself. "Just look at me."
Her head was swimming. "Isn't that dangerous?" She doubted losing a substantial amount of weight in two days could be safe.
"Well, if you don't want them—" With his smile gone by the wayside, Mr. Simon placed the pills back in his briefcase. "Of course you're under no obligation and your money will be refunded on your card in full." He closed the lid.
The Same Old Nightmare
This was nine. God, how could she have been so stupid? She'd sworn to herself that there would never be another one after eight. She had made that same promise to the big-guy-in-the-sky and then asked him for help. Coaly Banks rarely prayed, but times like this constituted prayer; it demanded prayer.
She thought she must have some kind of weird compulsive disorder. People get them all the time and then they spend hours on some psychologist's couch staring at the ceiling and counting the cracks and wondering why spiders build webs indoors instead of the outdoors where there are plenty of bugs. She decided a long time ago, no sir; she wasn't going to spend good time and good money laying face up on some fake leather piece of furniture crammed in a tiny room while spilling her guts about how rough she had it growing up as a kid. She would handle the madness herself.
However, here she was again, waiting, standing in line with a bunch of sweat-soaked bodies, with the anticipation of doing it again. Sure, she could rationalize it; doing this was okay. She wasn't like the rest of the poor, mindless souls sharing the line with her. They couldn't help themselves; they were slaves to the monarchy of trivial pursuits.
Coaly was next in line and she felt the fanfare of expectancy tickling her toes and working its way up.
"Next," the ticket master called out.
Brenda roughly shoved the man’s naked body off of her. She stood, scooped her dark-blue flight suit off the floor, and clutching the one-piece jumper in her hand, walked over to the small porthole. She pressed her face against the thick glass and stared out into the cold vastness of space. Her attention was drawn to the distant nebula slowly swirling around like a kaleidoscope of electric candy. The chill that gnawed at the pit of her stomach raced up her spine. She folded her arms across her chest and gave herself a reassuring hug.
Daniel was lying on top of his crumpled matching White Star uniform. His gaze lingered on the beautiful woman's back. He'd fantasized about making love to her for months, but not like this. He’d met her in the SETI Department while delivering a routine navigation report. Galaxy Cruise Line kept the astrobiologist on a permanent retainer on the off chance the intergalactic cruise liner should cross paths with extraterrestrial life. His personal opinion of the department was that it was dead weight, but that hadn't stop him from becoming instantly infatuated with her. His puerile attempts to gain her interest were as regular as the reports. Until now, she had snubbed his every advance.
She turned away from the distant stars that were like thousands of tiny lighthouse beacons promising a port in the storm. They were future solar systems in the making and not the help they desperately needed. She stepped into her jumper.
Ignoring the instrument panel flashing warning lights in the background, he picked up his glasses from the floor, nestled them on the bridge of his nose, and watched her dress
After she had covered enough flesh to make it uninteresting, he meekly uttered his fawning gratitude like a schoolboy who had stolen his first kiss, “Thanks for making love to me.”
The insecurity in his voice made her cringe. “I didn't make love to you, Bankum. You have to care about someone to make love to them.” She glanced at his body and crinkled her face like she had caught a whiff of some foul odor hanging in the air. “I just needed something to take the edge off.”
Although he felt the sting of her words, he could understand. His gangly limbs and thin body looked like they had stopped maturing just short of puberty after granting him only a few sprigs of hair on his chest.
A faint smile graced her lips as she looked away dreamy eyed. “Mmmmm, Brian Davich in steerage, now there's a guy I could wrap my legs around and fall in love with.” Her smile broadened. “Well, at least with that rock hard body of his.” She blinked and sobered when she looked at Daniel like she was observing some kind of a weird and grotesque bug. “Why couldn't I have been marooned with someone like that?”
His cheeks reddened and he felt a spark of anger. “But it wasn't Davich that saved your ass. I was the one that woke you and tossed you into this life pod.” He tapped a finger against his chest. "Me."
Shamefaced, and with a weak voice, she replied, "Look, I am grateful, but what about the others?" She gestured to the empty seats with her hand. "We could have put forty-eight more people in here."
"There were more life pods, plenty for everyone." He felt a spark of guilt after he replied.
She shifted her gaze to his eyes. "Do you think they escaped?"
Daniel clicked off a faint smile before he broke eye contact. "I'm sure of it."
Brenda hiked an eyebrow and parted her lips as if to say something, but the shrill sound of an alarm curtailed her attempt. Daniel jumped up, grabbed his flight suit, stuck one foot inside the coveralls, and hopped across the rubberized floor on one leg and stumbled past the twelve vacant inflated seats that were meant to be filled with surviving passengers and crew members. He arrived at the console with its blinking panel of lights, gathered his uniform at his skinny waist, and punched the touch-screen. The audible alarm silenced, leaving a red band-aid-sized warning sensor flashing. He turned around, still huffing from his trek across the cabin. “We just lost another battery.” He glanced back down at the control panel. “Power is down another fifteen percent.”
The red light flickered intermittently across her face and highlighted the concern in her dark eyes. “At this rate we only have about two days of power left.”
Daniel stuffed his other foot into his suit and pulled it up. He pushed the rogue sprigs of fiery-red hair that had fallen across his brow back to join the other wispy strands beginning to show early signs of thinning. “Three days at the most.”
She sighed and returned to her vigil at the thick glass. “Are you sure we can’t make it to any of those star systems?"
“No," he replied as he shook his head. "We can't." Daniel had graduated from an Ivy League university holding a degree in astronomy and when the job as a first class navigation engineer aboard the White Star popped up, he’d grabbed it. He had always fancied the idea of becoming an astronaut, so he figured it was the Universe’s way of handing him everything he wanted on a silver platter. “We are light years from anywhere that can support life.”
She turned and faced him.
Instead of the hangdog look he expected from her, a look of hope ignited a smile on her lips and a spark in her eyes that burned brilliant in a matter of seconds.
"The cruise line," she said. "Surely they'll send out a rescue ship!" Her smile widened into a gap of elation.
He wanted to fib and tell her that he was sure they would. He guessed that it never crossed her mind why they make the crew members and passengers sign a waver that releases the company from all liability. Most newbies are so thrilled at the opportunity of traveling deep space that they never thoroughly read the contract. He didn't. Over the years he gathered enough bits and pieces of information via conversations with other crewmates until he had pieced together a sizable chunk of information to know that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that was going to happen. “I'm afraid not.”
"What?" The magnitude of smile dimmed. When he didn't immediately answer, she let out a nervous chuckle and asked, "What are you talking about?" Her question left a crooked grin in its wake.