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“Crows at the Farm” by Vincent Rupp

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Crows at the Farm

By Vincent Rupp

“You taking the truck out?”

“Yeah, saw a couple crows yesterday. Gonna make sure there isn’t a roost in the woods.”

Billy gasped and looked at Rose. Quietly, she whispered “The Crow Man!”

Margaret turned the dough in the pot and looked briefly over her shoulder to ask “Who’s the Crow Man?”

Rose spoke quickly, with excitement. “He’s made of crows and can disappear and then come back anywhere.”

“He’s not MADE of them.” Billy, exasperated, corrected. “He’s a man who BECAME a crow and he flies with them and keeps them safe.”

Margaret understood: The long bus ride, the endless speculation, a story embellished across decades of children. George was lacing his boots, shaking his head. She set the rings on the towels, blotting the extra oil. “Hush, children, the doughnuts will be ready in a few minutes.”

“Why didn’t we just buy them at the store? A dozen was only four dollars.”

“We don’t have money to waste on something your mother can make herself.”

Margaret agreed, but she’d have been less harsh. The other children had newer clothes and their parents’ truck tires weren’t bald.

She listened to the engine noise dwindle while she put on the glaze and let it set. Hours to make the treats, and they’d be gone in minutes. It reminded her of their new existence here; so much work, and it could be gone so quickly.

“Momma is that a crow?” Rose pointed out the window at the yard. Margaret wiped her hands and came to look. A jet-black bird poked its beak around in their waste heap with quick motions.

“Yes it is, sweetie.”

The crow looked up, unmoving. Billy pointed “Look, there’s two more.” Margaret saw them, further from the house, close to the field. The sweet sprouts of corn had just appeared the previous morning. The bright green dots in the rows had brought her immense relief, but now a low dread crept back in.

There was a rush of feathers and flapping against the glass; they all drew back, startled. A large crow had landed on the windowsill, black toes and black claws gripping the ledge. It took a few steps and cocked its head.

Billy peered closely at the crow’s black eye. “Is it looking at us?”

“Don’t be silly. It’s just a bird.”

The crow took another step and jammed its beak at a spider web, coming away with a large brown spider.

“Ewww crow don’t eat that!”

“Look there’s even more now!”

Another three birds landed on the grass, looking around in the dirt.

“We’ll tell your father later. For now, go scare them off.”

They ran for the door, four arms flailing. He charged the birds, cawing and flapping his arms. Rose shrieked and laughed as the crows scattered to the wind.

——

“Damn birds are everywhere. Woods are crawling with them for miles.” He scrubbed his hands in the sink. “Another section of fence came down too. Never should have hired that kid.”

Margaret rubbed his shoulders. They knew the first years would be difficult, but they’d work hard. They’d pay down the debt, find good help, and buy more land.

“We’ll make it work. We’re doing better than most new folks.” He nodded; weather, illness, pests: stories of ruin were everywhere. He rinsed the dirt out of the sink.

“Mommy the crows are back.”

“What?” George rushed angrily to the window. Two crows had landed on the apple tree; its branches were still bare from winter. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d seen them?”

“George, it’s okay. The owls are keeping them out of the fields.” The old-timers swore by real owls, expertly stuffed, mounted on five-foot stakes, and repositioned every morning. These owls eat crows, they said. George had fumed at the cost, but protecting the fields wasn’t optional.

He wouldn’t wait and hope. He grabbed his gun from above the door, a Winchester 1873 carbine, handed down from his father before the infection took him. “George, stop!” She pulled on his arm, but he jerked it away.

“They’re gonna get bolder if we don’t scare them off.” The seeds had gone in late; there wasn’t enough growing season left to replant.

The crows didn’t react when George banged the door open and stormed down the steps. When he fired a shot into the air, they stopped and looked at him, sideways, one black eye each.

He pulled the action and leveled the gun. Both birds stepped off their branches and took to the air. He lined up carefully, and fired at the closer bird. The crow jerked hard, but didn’t drop. He’d hit its wing, near the body.

For minutes, it tried to fly. A species never known for graceful soaring, this specimen beat its mangled wing against the air, climbing at first but then losing altitude as it lost blood. Its light lifeless body struck the ground nearly soundlessly.

Crows nearby peered at the corpse, saw it motionless, began to caw and croak. Others picked up the call, flew to investigate, and within minutes the crow funeral was underway.

Billy saw the flocks first. They came quickly from the woods past the horizon, and then from all directions. There were scores of flocks, hundreds of birds to a flock, a million ink-black feathers moving and so many voices cawing incessantly. The sound filled the fields as the shadows raced over them.

Rose held Margaret’s leg tightly. “Mommy, are they mad?” She pressed her head into Margaret’s dress.

Margaret held Rose’s head with an almost steady hand. “I don’t know, sweetie.”

An hour later, the crows still called from the distance, but the family had gone back inside. Out of sight of the house, a solitary figure approached the fallen bird. His ragged black clothes fluttered behind him, his black hair shook in the breeze. The ten thousand mourners quieted as one. He kneeled near the bird, took it gently in his hands, and spoke very softly, under his breath.

He rose slowly, his gaze fixed on the distance, in the direction the crow had come.

——

George woke early, even before the pre-dawn light. He’d not had enough food or enough sleep, but it’d be better in a few hundred days, if he put in his time. He went first out back to feed the chickens, then into the barn to tend to the horses and milk the cows.

Sometimes he woke up Maggie to help, but he liked to watch her sleep; she’d gather the eggs and have biscuits ready before he went back inside anyway.

It was barely light when he left the barn. That’s when he saw them, filling the fields, standing a dozen per yard along the length of every row of barely-sprouted corn. He froze, stuck between rage and terror, but slowly he calmed; the corn shoots were still there, still green, as far as he could see in the indigo light.

The crows all shook their wings. Dozens alit into the air, flapping furiously before diving onto the owls, thrusting beaks through the feathers and tearing off bits of carefully preserved skin.

If he’d had his gun, maybe he’d have tried to shoot them. Instead, he watched, helpless and awed, as a large portion of his inheritance was destroyed by the blades of tiny mouths. In under a minute, as a mass, the thousand crows took to the air and dispersed in a hundred directions.

George went to the nearest owl; he took it in his hands and knew the loss was total. Looking up, choked with powerless rage, he saw a black figure far on the horizon. He shouted and ran, heedless of damage to the crop he was so desperate to protect. He ran hard for minutes, stumbling across the soft ground. But the figure turned and walked away and disappeared in the darkness.

Margaret noticed the owls and found George loading the truck. He’d siphoned five gallons from the tank and was hefting the canister into the bed. He didn’t wait for her to ask. “He did this. I saw him.”

“They didn’t touch the corn. Just leave it alone.”

He shook his head adamantly and got in, slamming the door. “We gotta protect what’s ours, Maggie. No matter what.” He wrenched the truck into gear and sped off, leaving her helplessly watching his trail of dust.

When the road ended, he drove into the trees until the brush was too thick. He pushed the canister off the bed and rolled it deeper into the trees. All around him, every bare branch was covered with dense black feathers and inquisitive little eyes.

“Come out!” he yelled. He uncapped the canister and pushed it over. Gasoline spilled out with a slow glug-glug. He took out the matches. Louder, he shouted “You better come out!” The trees fluttered darkly, casting deep shadows on a figure dressed in black tatters a hundred yards away.

“You leave my fields alone!” Crows leapt from the trees and took to the air, circling overhead and through the branches behind him. They began cawing at once, tens of thousands of overlapping threats.

He shook the matches. “You think I can’t kill them all?” The noise drowned out his words, and he knew he couldn’t. He put the matches away and pulled his rifle from the truck. He braced it against his shoulder and pointed at the still figure in the wood’s depths. The birds changed course; they flew densely between the men.

“Damnit!” He threw the gun into the truck. Whether he tried to kill the birds, their habitat, or their master, he would lose. “What do you want?!” he screamed above the shrieking of the crows. At his words, they fell silent, stopped their insistent flapping, sat gently down, and all was still.

George looked around, surprised. “That’s it? That’s all you want?” A single caw pierced the silence and hung in the air. “And you’ll leave my fields alone?” From a different direction, another caw sounded.

The early sun glinted on a million shining black feathers as George loaded the half-full canister back into the truck.

——

It’s a cold winter morning, with frost on the panes. A black bird brings a stick to a garbage can, pries the metal top open, and nudges the lid onto the ground. The clatter attracts a girl to the window. Excitedly, she says “Mommy a crow opened our trash!”

The mother knows the land’s generations; she doesn’t look over, just simply says “Better leave it alone, sweetie.”

© 2013 Vincent Rupp

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“Processing” by Eva Sylwester

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Processing

By Eva Sylwester

April was nervous about her blind date. But weren’t blind dates all small talk anyway? Being brand new in the big city, she hadn’t had much but small talk for a while, so at least she was up to speed on that. The office busybody do-gooder, however, had managed to find out after a lot of focused effort that April was single and a lesbian, and had immediately concluded from there, “You should date my friend’s daughter. She is a real hoot. Real colorful, eccentric young lady — very Portland. It would be like an opposites attract thing. She actually seems to like the quiet types best.”

April was so shocked by the request that she went silent and blushed really obviously. “So you’ll think about it?” the busybody said.

“Sure, I’ll think about it,” she said. She thought she had managed to look embarrassed enough by the request for the busybody to shut up about it permanently, but the next day, the busybody brought it up again.

“Have you thought any more about dating my friend’s daughter?”

“I don’t know.”

“You should do it. She’s been on a lot of first dates, so she’d be fine with one more.”

Other people in the office were starting to gather around to eavesdrop, so April said, “Okay, okay, fine,” to quickly end the conversation.

Anyway, here they were in a coffee shop. The date, Corinne, was easy to find. As an icebreaker, Corinne had a huge bird, probably an owl, on her shoulder. That made it easier for April, as it was normal human curiosity, not a weird awkward date question, to ask about the bird.

“So, what’s the bird about?” April said.

“I’m an animal trainer specializing in owls,” Corinne said.

“Okay. You’re allowed to bring her in the restaurant?”

“We’re regulars here.”

They were up to order. April had been so distracted with the bird that she hadn’t even been looking at the menu. “What’s good here?” she asked.

“I personally like the soy cappuccino for the coffee, and you can’t pass up the doughnuts. But we’re going Dutch, so you can get whatever you want.”

April realized she did not want to spend $4 on coffee, so that narrowed her options. She finally ordered a plain coffee and a plain doughnut, $4 total.

“So you’re new in town, I heard,” Corinne said.

“Right.”

“Where from?”

“Placid Valley.”

“I know somebody who used to live there,” Corinne said. “He said it was a place where injured people go to heal.”

“Really? I’d never heard that before.”

“Were you from there?”

“Yeah, I lived there my whole life.”

“Maybe it’s different for people who are from there. He just lived there for a while after college, and he said he heard it from someone else who lived there.”

“What was he healing from?”

“I know he and I talked about it a long time ago, but it was so long ago that a lot of things have happened since then — like I’ve processed it, you know?”

April noticed the owl shaking her head a bit, maybe like a cough or a hiccup. Then the owl fluffed her feathers. Corinne extended her arm onto the table, and the owl waddled down. April was too busy noticing the clacking of the owl’s claws on the tabletop to notice the owl eating off her plate until Corinne called out, “Don’t eat that!”

The owl shook her head as though willfully disobeying Corinne. “Sorry, she’s new,” Corinne told April.

“Birds eat doughnuts?”

“The owls mainly eat mice at their designated feeding times, but, when they’re socializing with me, they eat what I eat,” she said. “Maybe they’re not really supposed to eat doughnuts, but I guess we’re not really supposed to eat doughnuts, either.”

“They come down on the table and eat with you at every meal?”

“Oh, yeah.” Turning to the bird, Corinne said, “Here, sweetie, you can have some of my doughnut.”

Dating was supposed to be about planning a future with someone. Though it was early to be thinking about that, could April really see having a bird eat off her plate at every meal for the rest of her life? She didn’t know much about birds, but she had heard they could live a long time. “So what are you training them for, then? I mean, when I hear animal trainer, I think like, obedience school, that kind of thing — like keeping the animals off the table.”

“I’m more interested in the cognitive capabilities of owls. If I were interested in having them do physical tricks, then, yeah, I would want to establish the standard dominance relationship with them, but the birds actually open up more mentally when you spoil them.”

The owl seemed to be returning to Corinne’s shoulder. “So what are their cognitive capabilities?” April asked.

“Well, they aren’t called wise for nothing. Anyway, enough about me for now. Now I’m really curious about your hometown. How long did your family live there?”

“My grandparents transferred there for work when my dad was in high school, so that was about 45 years ago.”

“Where were they from?”

“Nebraska.”

“I drove through there once on a really crazy road trip in college. Nothing but miles and miles of cornfields, right?”

“Right.”

“You’ve been there?”

“Still have some family there. I’ve been back a couple of times.”

“So they just transferred for work? No big injury?”

“Well, my dad wasn’t happy about the move, enough that he still talks about it. He was popular at his old school, not so much at the new one. But that was after the move.”

The owl then looked really uncomfortable, appearing to seize and twitch.

“Is she okay?” April said. “The doughnut didn’t kill her, did it?”

“It’s just an owl pellet, like a cat coughing up a hairball. She’s fine.”

“That looks pretty nasty.”

“I’m used to it by now. You know, the funny thing is, a few years back I sold owl pellets from my birds to Urban Outfitters for a while.”

“How did you get them to buy owl pellets?”

“It was their idea. They looked for people with owls to be their suppliers, and they sought me out. Go look it up on your phone. It’s real.”

April looked it up on her phone. “Oh my god, it’s real. What were they thinking?”

“Hipsters apparently thought displaying the vomited-up mouse skeletons in their homes made them look rugged. Maybe in a few years I can find a place in Portland that will get the same idea again.”

“It looks like there’s more in the pellet than mouse bones,” April said. “Is that a piece of corn in there?”

“Could be.”

“That’s so weird. We were just talking about corn. Wouldn’t it be weird if the owl knew what we were talking about?”

“When I first got owls, I used to wonder what they would say if they could speak in English. I don’t wonder that any more. They communicate what they want to tell me without words, and I’m sure they find out what they need to know from me and from other humans around them. In addition to their intellect, they’re very wise emotionally.”

“I can see why you’d spoil a creature that smart,” April said. “I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of that. But what exactly are you training them to do?”

“Everyone always asks me about my owls,” Corinne said. “I want to talk about something else for once. I really want to dig deeper into this rumor about Placid Valley.”

“Why don’t you just ask the guy who told you the rumor?”

“I’m trying to get validation from multiple sources, and I don’t meet that many people who are from there.”

“Fair enough.”

“He told me there was a big drug scene in Placid Valley.”

“People who really want to get in that kind of trouble will find it wherever they are. Maybe there are a few potheads in Placid Valley who get more attention than they deserve, but people abuse, for instance, prescription drugs all over the country.”

“You know something about that?”

Before April could voice a reply, the owl shuddered and hacked up another pellet. This one had a pharmaceutical pill on top too obvious to miss.

“My dad said his mom used too many prescription drugs after the move,” April said. “Valium and that kind of thing, like a lot of women did in the 1970s. How did your bird know?”

“She’s good at processing.”

April got up, leaving a lot of her doughnut behind. “I can see why you have a lot of first dates,” she told Corinne, walking out of the coffee shop.

It would have been really interesting to see the owl pellet exercise done on someone else. But April knew the national corporation her grandfather worked for arranged his transfer and substantial promotion to Placid Valley not primarily on the merits of his work, but primarily to discourage him from reporting to police that his boss had raped April’s grandmother, and she couldn’t bear to see the next owl pellet come out with two mouse skeletons intertwined in that act — even though she knew Corinne could get a lot of money selling it to Urban Outfitters.

© 2013 Eva Sylwester

“Thanks Hank” by Bob Ferguson

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Thanks Hank

By Bob Ferguson

The blistering sun and dust from the corn fields gave his face a swarthy look and his hands a leathery feel. He was tougher than the land he had tilled his entire life, but looked older than his sixty years.

It had been nearly a year since Samantha had passed away and Samuel Butler couldn’t move on. She was his ranch partner as well as his wife. In Fox Hollow, Alabama they were referred to as The Sammies. Everyone called each of them Sam, but to each other they were Samantha and Sam. They had been high school sweethearts and were fixtures in the community their grandparents had helped build. Her death came after a two year battle with cancer. Watching Samantha die had been like watching the slow wilting of the grandest rose in the garden. It withered Sam.  He was a hard-boiled, horse trainer, but her cancer was not something he could rope, brand, hog tie, and bend to his will. He could only watch and weep.

Sam put the tractor in the barn for the season. Harvesting was done. His tired body climbed the well worn stairs and he took a seat in one of the two rockers. He looked out over his acreage and was pleased with what he had done by his own hand. He took a cigar from the box of White Owls he kept on a wicker table.

The night was warm. He grabbed a cold PBR from the fridge.

He looked at his old acoustic guitar hanging on the wall. He took it down, tuned it, and began to sing.  His voice was like the rest of him, ruggedly sexy, and welcomed anywhere. He had been singing the same song since Samantha’s, the Hank Williams classic “I’m so lonesome I could cry.” He sang the same verse over and over:

“Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die
That means he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry”

Tears streamed down his face. Six PBR’s couldn’t ease the pain. For some odd reason he sang the last verse.

“The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry”

That verse jolted him from his misery. While he was wondering “where you are” he knew Samantha would be the first to tell him to buck up and get on with the business of living. He drank the last of the beer and began packing.

His ’63 Chevy was like the one he had in high school. It was made to run. He put the guitar in the back seat and a few bags of clothing in the trunk. He had arranged to have the farm taken care of for the next month and he now had a plan to live with gusto. He even whipped a few doughnuts in the front yard, and made a bee line to the county road. He would rejuvenate his mind and body on the beaches of Mobile, play his guitar and sing in the karaoke clubs. Samantha would like that.

On the edge of Montgomery Sam stopped for lunch. Nothing fancy, but a city diner.

“Hi there hon, take a seat anywhere,” the waitress said. “You look like you’re the real deal, not like the guys who come in here, they’re all hat and no cattle.” She handed him a menu and said “We had a little problem with our stove today so you don’t want to eat the jambalaya, but we’ve got some good four dollar gumbo.” She was filling his water glass and wiping tables all at the same time. She was a hard worker like Samantha.

“Where ya’ll from?” She asked.

“I’ve lived my whole life up in a little place called Fox Hollow,” Sam said.

“You gotta be kiddin’ me,” the waitress shouted. “Let me take another look at you baby cakes. I lived in Fox Hollow for a few years myself. I hated to leave it, my dad got transferred.”

Their eyes met. They were of the same vintage, no wedding rings, life’s experiences etched their faces, and there would be no need for awkward flirtation.

“Charley, I mean Charlene is that really you?” Sam said, remembering her as one of the prettiest girls in school.

“And you’re the guitar playing Sam who married Sam!” They had the rest of their lives to fill in the rest of their stories.

“Well, I’m single again.” Sam was going for it. He was starved for fun. “Since we seem to be between the lunch and dinner crowds, how about if I sing for my supper?”

As he went to fetch his guitar he heard another refrain that Hank made famous,

“Hey, hey good lookin’ What ya got cookin’
How’s about cookin’ somethin’ up with me?”

The End

© 2013 Bob Ferguson

“Saddlebrook” by Sarah Kindler

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Saddlebrook

By Sarah Kindler

In Saddlebrook, the first freedom we all learned was how to leave town. The second was how to lie about it. Usually this happened around the age of sixteen if you had a friend with a brother with a truck, or sometimes younger if you were particularly ambitious and not averse to bicycling several miles of dusty shoulder. The lying was important because there was nothing outside of town. The town limits divided some acres of cornfield from some others far before you got to another main street. But still there were places you could go, out of view of the road and nondescript enough to seem like you had discovered them. Places that couldn’t be found. Places that could be anywhere. So when you told your mother that you were going to Josie’s for dinner and when Josie told her mother that she was going to yours, you were safe in that secret spot. Safe and free.

Once we started lying about where we were, we began to invent entire personalities. We stole pieces of lies from the internet, from television, or else concocted them in the boredom of always going to the same secret places and having nothing secret to do. We had a set of lies for our parents, a set for our teachers, one for our siblings and one, carefully and painstakingly constructed, for our friends. We held each other to them, judged each other by how good they were and how convincing you could be and how many people believed you. Eventually, everyone believed.

Wanda really had made it all the way to Chicago over the summer break. Harry had found a two-headed deer flat and dead on the side of the road. Kim was meeting a secret boyfriend from the rival school when she disappeared on weeknights and was late for class the next morning. We could be anything when we lied, so we lied about what music we listened to. We lied about who we knew. We lied about the weather and what day it was and what time the party was starting. We didn’t question or second guess or doubt. If you were the only one who showed up to Tom’s, you told him that you were looking for his sister, and if she was home, you asked her what the math homework was and she made something up and you did that assignment.

We thought at first that we were the only ones who knew how to lie, but some of us were paying attention and noticed that the adults did it too. They weren’t flashy about it and usually wouldn’t contradict the obvious, but Josie did notice that her mom always said she’d be home half an hour sooner than she ever was. Michael’s dad was never angry, even when Mike’s little brother sank the lawnmower into a flooded gully and wrecked the motor. We supposed that the lying had always been there and we hadn’t noticed sooner because we’d been brought up to respond to it, like animals to our trainers. It was easy to be obedient to a lie because the lying was instinctive. Sometimes we’d catch them trying to remind us that honesty was the best policy, but honestly who were they kidding.

It was after Kim stopped showing up for class altogether but before the time Tom spent the night in jail that the Lowells moved to Saddlebrook. Their daughter Alicia was our age. We knew she was a little funny right off because although she had learned to drive (proved when we saw the license Mike once swiped from her wallet), she never left town. She never went anywhere. She said she liked to eat dinner with her family. She said she didn’t know anyone in town well enough yet to go to Tom’s party. Naturally we figured she was lying. That’s when someone said that the Lowells knew the mayor’s family, and then everyone claimed to have gotten to know her. After a few weeks though when no one had seen her at any of the places we all were, we didn’t know what to think. That’s how we figured she was telling the truth.

We started asking her questions to see if she’d keep doing it. Where was she from? Chicago, well actually just outside it. We couldn’t substantiate. What did her parents do? Her mom was a veterinarian and treated livestock. Her dad wrote for the news station in Dubuque. We caught a glimpse of his name in the paper the next week. What was the English homework? Read the next two chapters of The Great Gatsby. We were all surprised, the teacher included, when the whole class had done the correct assignment.

The third time Alicia didn’t show up at Tom’s, I decided she needed help. Maybe she just needed someone to show her how things worked in Saddlebrook, and anyways even though I still saw a lot of Josie and Wanda it had been a long time since they felt like friends. But I didn’t say that, because by all accounts we were thick as thieves. Even though the general consensus was that I had probably never been to Chicago like the other girls had. Even when I tried to say that I had been south to St. Louis, not to Chicago. I wasn’t the best of liars.

Saturday morning, my older brother Bobby said he was driving to a friend’s house, so I asked if he’d take me along and if we could pick up Alicia Lowell on the way. I was pretty sure he was headed out of town. He looked me over, rolled his eyes, and said, “I’ll need money for gas.”

“I only have four dollars,” I told him, even though I had about twice that in my pocket.

“Give it here. You can get me the rest later.” I agreed and handed over half my crumpled bills. When we pulled up to the Lowell home, Alicia’s father was weeding in the front yard. I nodded to him as I went to the door. When Alicia opened it, one eyebrow raised, I asked if she wanted to go for a drive.

“Where are we going?”

“Oh, couldn’t say,” I smiled. She sighed.

“No, I guess you couldn’t. Sure.”

“You want to?”

“Yes.” I was delighted, rare as it was to get a straight answer.

“Come meet Bobby. He’s driving.”

We set off, going west to the freeway. It was a nice morning for a drive, sunny and not too cool. We chatted about a class we shared and Bobby chimed in with what he remembered from taking it the previous year. The cornfields flew by. Alicia was easy to talk to. Direct. I found myself starting to imitate the way she spoke by the time we arrived in Waynesfield.

Bobby pulled into the Eat N’ Pump and let us out by the front door, giving me his order (“Tuna melt, a side of eggs, glass of milk. Whole.”) before going around back to fill up. Inside, we sat down in a booth. “Get a doughnut,” I urged Alicia after I placed my order. “They’re why I come out here. They’re the frozen kind, but they heat ‘em fresh every morning in real oil.” Alicia got a glazed and a black coffee. I liked to load up my coffee with cream and no more than four sugars, and my doughnut was a big jelly-filled thing covered in sprinkles and powdered sugar.

“Don’t eat that,” Bobby said, sitting next to Alicia. “You’ll get my truck all sticky.”

“What am I, eight?” I said through a mouth full of confection. Alicia ripped her doughnut into chunks before dunking them in her coffee and popping them into her mouth. “Good, right?”

“Yeah.” She paused. “Is this where people are always going to? Places like this?”

“Nah,” was Bobby’s reply. “The Eat N’ Pump is kind of slow.”

I scoffed. “Sometimes we do come here at night. It’s open late because of the motel down the road. We come out here to meet all sorts. Real night owls and folk.”

“How do you get out here in the middle of the night, little sis?”

“Wanda knows how to drive stick.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. One time she came here by herself when she was real mad at Harry and got picked up by a guy who plays for the Badgers. The handsome one.”

“What was he doing here?”

“Passing through.”

“Uh-huh.” He scooped the last of his eggs onto a piece of sandwich.

“She has his watch.”

“He probably paid her with it.”

“Jerk.”

“Dweeb.”

Alicia slurped her coffee. “I’m sorry I asked. I’m always sorry that I asked.”

I turned to her. “What do you mean?”

“She means that she’s new here.” Bobby looked around at her impatiently, then stood up. “C’mon, let’s go.” Once his back was turned, I left the remainder of my money on the table and then followed my brother outside.

“I’m dropping you off,” Bobby told us when we were back in town. “I have people to see.”

“Yeah right. You’re probably just going to drive around until it gets dark.”

“Later,” he said as I shut the truck door behind me. Alicia watched him drive off and then turned to me. “No one here just says what they mean.”

“Sometimes they do. Or at least even if they don’t you kind of get it anyways.”

“Don’t you get tired of not being able to trust anybody?”

“You learn how to trust people. Take Bobby. I’ve always known that he’s never done what he says he has.” Alicia crossed her arms.

“Or he’s always done what he says he hasn’t.”

“Hey. He’s my brother. You don’t know him.”

“Sorry,” she said.

We moved on and then parted for the day, but afterwards I saw a lot more of Alicia. She remained straightforward, which was reassuring. Slowly I found myself confessing things to her. Just small things, whispered things, but things I had never told anyone before. I started to feel like I could tell her anything. She kept calling that trust, but I was starting to feel less trusting of everyone else. When people laughed or smiled or were angry, I wondered why, really. And I wondered why we didn’t just say.

Alicia told me things too. She told me that she was angry with a guy who kept bugging her at school, but that mostly people had started to let her be. She found that as long as she said less and paid attention more, people lost interest in making up things about her. I asked her why she minded the lies. “Because who cares, right? It’s not like any of them really tried to know me. They just made things up. Why would anyone care about the things people make up?”

Wanda and Josie thought she was weird and didn’t understand why I was hanging out with her. “You never go anywhere,” they complained. “You never do anything anymore.” I tried to make up something but I knew they had decided not to believe me. Besides, it was true. I wasn’t leaving town as much except sometimes just with Bobby. I wasn’t going to parties much.

I didn’t go to Tom’s party, the one he threw despite being on probation. The one where afterwards they found Kim in a ditch, thrown from his crumpled station wagon.

The adults all said it was an accident, a tragedy, a real shame. Everyone agreed they hadn’t seen this coming, not Kim, not in this town. Quite a shock. Tom was in deep trouble, the poor thing. It was almost too much–they were dating, didn’t you hear? Losing his car and his girlfriend in the same night. I had heard a hundred versions of the night’s events before Alicia stepped forward. That was when I found out that I had really been the only person not to go to Tom’s that night.

Alicia said she had been there and it was true. Everyone had seen her. So when she said that she had seen who had gotten behind the wheel of Tom’s car even though he had hardly been able to walk, they all believed her. And all eyes turned to my brother. Bobby, who could always be trusted to have done what he said he hadn’t. Bobby didn’t graduate from high school that year. Already eighteen, he was tried as an adult.

I didn’t speak to Alicia much after that. After the trial, somewhere between school and home, I confronted her because I thought I trusted her to have told the truth, but once we were face-to-face I didn’t know. I looked at her standing there in the street and I couldn’t place her. It wasn’t that Alicia always told the truth, but it wasn’t like she was honor-bound to her lies like the rest of us. I had never known when she had lied to me, and I had no way to tell if she had. All I knew was that she had taken my brother from me, and what was worse, I had no idea that he didn’t deserve it.

© 2013 Sarah Kindler

“An Animal Tamer” by Patricia Robertson

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

An Animal Tamer

By Patricia Robertson

Despite a decade’s experience as an animal trainer, Olivia didn’t know much about instructing owls. She focused on large cats during her career. She made her reputation training lions for the movies, and enjoyed the dangerous edge to her famous career. She was fond of the felines but appreciated their wildness and never had a serious injury. She never considered training avian predators.

It started with a mysterious letter from Mr. Horace Sned offering a job as an owl trainer. The purpose of the training was to teach owls to carry messages. Her initial interview did not describe the company’s product beyond “agrarian enrichment”. It offered a $2,000 a week and since jobs training lions were scarce, she decided to pursue this opportunity further. She needed to expand her skills anyway, why not work for an agricultural firm to train owls?

First she drove around rural Oregon– searching barns and cornfields to observe owls in their natural habitat. She spent 4 dollars on a used Audubon society guidebook to owl behavior. She spoke to several top ornithologists and developed a novel program for owl behavior modification.

Her first day at the FOOD corporate headquarters revealed very little about the company. The sleek metallic training dome was larger than Olivia expected, even given the avians’ needs for exercise and a large room to practice sending the birds on messenger missions.  The facility’s entrances were guarded with massively armed and uniformed guards. Despite her qualms, she agreed to train the owls. She initially offered mice as positive reinforcement, but eventually found donuts to be a superior reward. The owls were easier to train, but at times could be reluctant to perform on command. Her supervisor, Horace Sned quizzed Olivia extensively on her methods. Despite working more one month, she never met another employee. MOre worrisome was that after several weeks she noticed subtle changes in the owls behavior. They became more territorial -even aggressive.

One day she decided to learn more about FOOD. She secretly trained one owl to flush the guards to interior hall. The she dashed past them as her main owl hooted and flapped the interior guard.

In a secret darkened office she found a glowing screen. She thought quickly. After several dead- ends she entered the successful password “corn syrup”.  The screen flashed rapidly through an frightening algorithm.

Olivia had uncovered the master plan to feed the owls genetically modified seeds. These owls would then function as distributors. The seed would get “deposited” over the USA and cause widespread and a crash of the US economy.

She had to act quickly as some owls had already departed.  She furiously snapped pictures using her iPhone.

That evening she debated how to best use the information. She tossed all night, then turned on her computer. After she typed the last word, she signed off, satisfied that she had made the best use of her information.

Her u-tube video “Don’t eat that” went viral and alerted the world to the dangers of consuming crops from the the FOOD corporation.

© 2013 Patricia Robertson

“Holly Springs” by Pree K. Kastelic

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Holly Springs

By Pree K. Kastelic

“Frances? Are you Frances Miller?”

Even though he sat next to the swamp cooler, the sound of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” was not masked beneath the whirring, displaced air of the fan. Frank detested Journey, and his aching headache throbbed against his jaw as he gritted his teeth. Willing his hands to stop shaking, he raised the third cup of black coffee to his lips. If he were to sit in the tiled lobby of “Holly Rollers” doughnut shop long enough, he would hear this 1981 chart-topper three times or more, and each time his entire body thrummed with intense annoyance. Instead of looking immediately at the stranger, who had pounded through the door only moments before, he continued staring down at the pages of his Tom Clancy book, raising it to keep it in eyesight as he lifted his mug for a noisy sip. With a defeated, heavy sigh, he set the open book on plastic pink laminate tabletop, avoiding the circle of moisture left from his mug.

He already knew what this was about. Frank had thought he was through with this particular chapter, after the visitors into town had dwindled to nothing almost three years before. Never supposing he would have to deal with this conversation again, he had begun going ritualistically back into town to run errands on Sundays.

There’s no protection in having habits, Frank decided.

“I suppose you’re here about that night?” he said, gesturing toward the door where the man had come. “No need to look surprised. I had a lot of visitors that first year, when people around town were still gossiping about it. Just sit down, boy, and let’s get this over with.”

The boy visibly hesitated, watching him beneath a head of slightly unkempt blonde hair. After a moment, he pulled out the chair with a gentle screech across checkered tile and sat, pulling his backpack over one shoulder to cradle on his lap, his jaw set and his gaze uncertain.

“My name is Matt Hanson,” said a mouth surrounded by gruff stubble. Though the man looked young and boyish to Frank, he placed his age somewhere in the mid-20’s. Hardly a boy at all. A bright-eyed, sturdy-jawed man sat in front of him, watching him, less nervous as he settled into his seat.

“Well, it seems you know who I am– and I know better than to tell you to shove off,” Frank said, putting his down coffee cup as he paused. “Nope, that never worked. Just… Tell me, first. Why all the interest? Why come all the way to Holly Springs, Mississippi to talk to a man about crop circles? Don’t you have something better to do?” Frank’s voice conveyed just how old this topic had become, and he had by then received a wide array of answers to this question, most of which bored him within the first few sentences. Stories of alien abductions and searches for the truth against a governmental conspiracy were frequent and, by this point, expected. This man, however, was pulling out a notebook and didn’t seem to hear him for a time, his hand scrambling around the bottom of his bag.

When he finally spoke, his voice was nervous no longer. He had the clipped voice of a professional, staring the older man straight in the eyes until Frank’s gaze trembled and darted away. “I’m a Master’s student at the University of Texas. My professor and I are currently studying the mental phenomenon of alien hallucinations and other paranormal stories,” he disclosed.

“Well, Hansen, I don’t know anything about aliens. I never saw any aliens. I’ve been telling people for years– it was a bolt of lightning. I put out the fire with a central pivot irrigation system.”

This seemed to snap the man out of polite courtesy. “I don’t eat that!” he reproached, defiant. “Not even for a second.”

In his hundreds of interviews, Frank had never received this reaction. It made him stop mid-sentence, suddenly, his mouth suspended in time. As he closed it, Matt Hanson continued to speak, unhindered by the near interruption.

“I’m telling you, Mr. Miller, it’s a phony story. You’ve rehearsed that exact explanation, hundreds of times, but you’ve never explained just how you managed to find the fire at two o’clock in the morning, walk a mile from your house, move the central pivot to the correct positioning, and put out the fire before it spread more than eight meters across. I’m not here to be dismissed so easily.” Clearly, he had been anticipating this explanation, and he was gaining confident fervor every moment while the greasy, slightly dirty man in front of him watched in disbelief. “Tell me. Please. What really happened that night?”

For a moment that dragged through the doughnut shop, Frank’s thoughts were like a chugging locomotive. The blonde man’s gaze held him steadily, he could feel them taking him in– sizing him up. Frank wondered how he had been described by whomever had pointed him here. “Long hair. Thick facial stubble. Clothing, dirty. Fingernails, dirty. Jeans, torn. A ruddy drunk escaping into mystery novels and shoving doughnuts into his face– may explain why he’s been thickening around the middle, too. Can’t miss him.”

Pulling himself back to the present, Elton John’s “Guess That’s Why they Call it the Blues” wailed from a pair of old speakers. The fan whirred on, raising goosebumps on the thin arms of the man in front of him. Finally, Frank let out another long, smooth sigh. “Alright, kid. You win. I’ll tell you. Just go on up to the counter and get a bear claw. Listen… The least you can do is spend $4 and support a family business– not many people travel this way since the Bankhead Highway’s been sidestepped.” Frank was standing, heading for the door, but he left his paperback on the table.

The sun beat off the asphalt like a living organism, the air thick and humid as the few cars in the lot twinkled metal sunlight his direction. Frank stretched himself on a seat outside the window, his brow glistening instantly with humidity. The door swung helplessly on its hinges as Matt Hansen emerged, holding a plate full of large pastry.

“You won’t find a better bear claw a hundred miles around,” Frank said, conversationally. As the man began tearing doughy pieces and flaking sugar glaze from his treat, Frank watched him, succumbing with a tired hand through his greasy hair. “I’ll tell you everything I remember.”

~~~

Frank was unaccustomed to the uncomfortable feeling that follows a great-grandparent’s death. Knowing it would happen eventually, and not being particularly close with his mother’s grandfather, he found himself the newest resident of Holly Springs, Mississippi. Within the town that reports a smaller population each year, he was forced to accept the condolences from strangers with a somber grace. An awkward, forced interaction would ensue, consoling memories fondly shared by many residences of the small town regarding his great-grandfather’s work ethic. Though Frank hadn’t visited Mississippi often as a child, he was now suddenly put in charge of the “family farm”. His mother, an only child, had called him one morning to tell him the news. She had a career, she said, travel plans, and had no intention of leaving California.

His mother looked a little different every time he saw her. The money she garnered from her third husband, a medical lawyer, during the crux of their dark divorce supported her desire to remain young and wrinkle-free. She barely resembled herself, all lips and chest. Frank never knew what to talk to her about, but she usually filled a conversation without requiring any discourse. Each phone call became a steady stream, Frank holding the receiver and waiting only long enough for a pause to promptly end the conversation.

In the weeks that followed, repeated phone calls and classic Catholic guilt had removed any choice Frank, thirty at the time, may have had otherwise. There was no one else to move across the country, to Mississippi, to attend the property and continue the family tradition. Plus, with his Bachelor’s degree in English, Frank had worked only hard enough to support his drinking habit as he received rejection letters from his writing exploits. He had no family, no obligations, and he had spent his twenties penning dark poems in bar corners. The plot of land had passed through the generations since the late 1800’s– any thought of abandonment was utterly out of the question.

Each time he spoke with Brittany on the phone the first year away, she told him how rarely their mother was home. His sister was not completely self reliant at twenty-five, due to her location on the Autism spectrum– Frank knew she needed supervision and guidance, and their mother had no space in her life for maternal cares.

Frank had to admit that he was only marginally superior as a caretaker. He often left her alone too long, and would find her still camped in front of the television where he had left her, sinking into the cushions with a sagging air of complete despondence. Opening another beer by skillfully pivoting the neck against the countertop, he took a long guzzle as he went to the pantry for some noodles and canned spaghetti sauce for dinner. He had never learned to cook much else.

They learned early on that there is very little work associated with corn farming. They worked only a few days a year, it seemed, and the rest had cadenced in a severe and depressing boredom. He would often tune out her incessant rambling about what she watched on television, but sometimes he could only scream to keep from despising his sister, his only company on this desolate island of farmhouse amidst the windswept waves of government-subsidized corn crops.

It seemed, after five years or so, that the rest of the world had abandoned them. Television, hangovers, and beer became his daily ritual, and he gauged a successful day by the amount of hours he spent outside the house. Sometimes, he would look out from the porch where his grandfather had often camped, surveying the acreage with bored resignation.

When he was young, his first exposure to death had shaken him for weeks. He had been riding his skateboard down the sidewalk when he stopped short, suddenly, feeling the concrete beneath his sneaker to cease his momentum. Abandoning the skateboard, it rolled into the weeds of the field and waited. He took to his knees and found himself suspended above a baby mouse, back broken, helplessly feeling the world with blind sweeps of its impossibly tiny front legs. Its mouth opened and closed in silent screaming, wordlessly desperate cries for help.

He had been too horrified by the macabre of the scene to turn away. He did nothing but watch, his cut-off shorts and ACDC t-shirt, the sun above baking the skin underneath. His father had once gone, alone, put their cat to sleep when it was diagnosed with feline leukemia. “Put to sleep” was such a nice thought, an animal being put in a state of perpetual, peaceful resting. This was different. The mouse on the impossibly hot sidewalk was suffering in every jerky, wretched movement, and he was utterly helpless to assist. The mouse was better off dead, he realized. It would never recover from such a debilitating injury– even its mother had known that in some way, some cognitive understanding, before she left her baby on the sidewalk.

Throwing himself into the bushes, he kicked weeds aside in search. When he found a sizable boulder, a shadow of possibility passed over him. Slowly, his knees buckling under the weight of the boulder beneath him, he made the march back to the sidewalk with his heart helplessly pounding in his chest. It was merely a matter of positioning. Of letting gravity do the solemn task for him. He sat on the boulder and sobbed into his dirty hands.

The memory of that hot afternoon came back to him that night in the living room, his sister’s arms jerking involuntarily as she shook and jolted. Heart in his ears, he could only sit there and watch the seizure, his sister’s body jolting on the corner chair. A choking sound had alerted him, and he perched himself nearby, leaning against the arm of an old green sofa. The farm was nearly an hour away from Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, but he sat there with her and ran a drunken, mental inventory of everything they would need to make the trip to Tennessee. When her seizing stopped, she was quiet and still. He tried to sober up for their journey, and all he could say as he sipped water next to his barely-conscious sister was, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

Frank didn’t breathe until they were in Memphis. Though the two of them stayed overnight in the hospital and underwent a staggering number of tests, the two of them quietly left the next afternoon without solid answers. Life changed very quickly, then. Something inside of him had snapped to attention that night– perhaps the realization that things could have easily dissolved into chaos, and he had not been in a clear state of mind to deal properly with an emergency. Or, perhaps, in that moment when he watched his sister, helplessly immobile on the couch, he couldn’t stop the vision of a tiny, helpless mouse. He realized how deeply he loved his sister, and how broken and lonely he would be without her presence.

A month later, he was watching Brit’s smile, wider than he had seen in many months. She laughed and cried in happiness when the service dog moved into their dilapidated farmhouse. Trained to alert him to potential danger with his sister’s health, the animal became a steadfast commodity in the wake of two more seizures. His sister and the dog became instantly attached to one another, and Keen spent most of his time positioned near Brit’s feet. Before long, Brit and the dog were taking long, silent walks around the farm. There was a marked improvement in her ability to communicate– whether it was the changes in Frank’s behavior, or the presence of the dog, he was entirely uncertain.

The biggest change, however, was Jackie. Precisely one month before the crop circles appeared, an exquisite dog trainer from Memphis came to visit the farm for the first time. Only poets and philosophers could comprehend the sheer volume of Frank’s emotional investment in a woman he had barely met. Yet, from the first moment he opened the door and stared into those pale blue eyes for the first time, he was transfixed. Captivated. Enraptured.

She was everything a man could tick off on his fingers. Frank’s afternoons after that first Wednesday were spent in silent reverie. Beautiful, but not vain. Kind hearted, but not weak. With a smile wider than the rolling hills and a tinkling laugh that went straight through him. A polite, articulate angel who gave commands with unabashed assertiveness.

For the first time in seven years, he opened the pages of an old composition notebook that had been buried amidst the rabble of his belongings. The handwriting within had been inked by his college self, the frantic scratching of a youth that could not translate thoughts onto paper swiftly enough. Just like that sturdy-jawed, wrinkle-free man of his past, his lamentations came freely, filling page after page.

Frank’s awareness of composing a sonnet for this woman hadn’t formally been realized. Yet he found himself on hot afternoons planted on the back porch, jotting down lines to translate into iambic pentameter, and time stopped. Brit brought him a glass of lemonade with a smile, and sat next to him. Silent, for the first time in days, she perched herself on the steps in front of him, blinking in the sunlight. They sat there a long time, and a wave of contentment washed over his cognizance.

The writing desk in the upstairs hallway was full of his great-grandfather’s stationary, relocated deep in the recesses of his memory on one of his initial explorations of the old house. Frank penned the final product in careful cursive, discarding ruined attempts in crackling heaps, and when he held the finished product in front of his face at arm-length, the overall effect filled him with pride.

Though he had only met this woman four times, he knew — somehow — that their souls had met before. Perhaps hundreds of times. Perhaps thousands of times. It was this absolute knowledge that bade him to stop her near the door before she left. Blinking, she took the letter with a slightly dubious politeness, tucking hair behind her ear as she shouted final goodbyes to Brit and the dog. Frank followed her white sneakered feet out the door, and watched her climb into her small green Neon, blowing dust behind tires as she distanced herself along the road, away from the farm.

That was the last time he ever saw Jackie. Jacqueline, the song of his pen and the pathetic, tiny heart inside his chest. The entire week, he anticipated her Wednesday arrival. His pulse beat like a caged bird beneath skin when he thought of her, reading his poem, realizing what a beautiful treasure she held. Positive that she would be overjoyed to see him, he attended to himself. Shaved his face. Cleaned his fingernails. When he looked in the mirror that morning, his face had grown far more gaunt, wrinkled, and tired than he remembered. In fact, he barely recognized the face in the mirror. Getting older wasn’t supposed to feel this way– he had intended to age gracefully, to accept the lost functionality of his body with wholehearted fortitude.

Yet, when the doorbell sang through the old house, he did not find the slender-legged Jackie standing there. A man, instead, young and vibrant, smiled widely at him from the porch. No explanation was given. It appeared this person was newly assigned to the dog’s training in Jackie’s place– calling himself Park Kingsley, speaking sweetly and depreciatingly to Brit. As they settled in for a session in dog training, Frank went straight to the garage.

No drink had touched his lips since the night of Brit’s first seizure. From the moment he had understood, with clarity, the reason for Jackie’s countenance during their last meeting, he felt shattered. Ruined and utterly despondent. The alcohol helped as it clouded his vision, the fourth drink in his hand. He wandered directionless through the house, lost and vacant. Immune to the sound of Brit’s constant inquiries, he tuned out the sound of her voice with skill born through years of daily practice.

When Brit helped him into his bed, the sagging ceiling above him spun like a vortex. Somewhere between the despair and desolation, he must’ve fallen asleep. He dreamed the window was ferociously rattling in its pane. He jolted upright, eyes snapping to the window to investigate. No sooner had he stood than his spine arched backward in sudden, crashing drunkenness and he immediately lost his balance. A floodlight appeared through the window, blinding him. He was falling backward as his eyes strained against it, and suddenly his feet no longer touched ground.

Neck snapping backward against the force, he found himself propelled against the atmosphere in front of him. He was flying toward the window with alarming speed– no time to react against the collision. Holding his forearms in front of him to brace for impact, he grimaced with tension and gritted his teeth. Yet, the seconds passed and the collision never came. Opening his eyes, he found himself in bed once again. His body shaking with adrenaline, he sat up and did not recognize the scene that suddenly encompassed him.

This bedroom was unfamiliar, with neat furniture and white drapes slapping in the morning sun. Something stirred next to him, and he found a complete stranger sitting up  to reach for a nearby pair of glasses. She was pretty, with short black bangs, sleepily smacking her lips as she pushed a pair of thick-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose. He went to the floor-length mirror, and didn’t recognize the face as his own. It was fuller, refined, framed by short clipped hair. More rattling from the window drew his eyes outward. Four barred owls watched him from the casement, each making guttural, deep-throated hoots. They grew outward, each of them with thin arms and hands, reaching straight through the windowpane. Their eyes were impossibly wide, black, and vacant.

When he woke, he was still completely intoxicated. He sat up on the mattress, holding his spinning head in his hands. The house was silent, though he wasn’t sure how much time had passed since he lost consciousness. Like a shell of a person, he held himself against the bannister as he blundered clumsily down the stairs. The dog barked suddenly from the doorway of his sister’s room. The sound visibly startled him, but didn’t hinder his progress as he walked to the side door in the kitchen, leading to the garage. The dog was left barking at the door, barred from pursuit.

He had stacked the matches atop a red plastic jug earlier that day, and found it easily in the dark. Feet slapping gravel, then grass, he abruptly plunged into the rows of corn without reluctance. Yellow and dry from the heat of summer sun, only a week from harvest, corn stalks towered high above his head. His feet clumsily led him forward, sideways, east and west. He was blind amidst the stalks, the sloshing of the black-spouted jug disturbing his balance further as it hung near his knees.

Unsure of his location and unaware how long he had been traveling, he stopped suddenly. Unperturbed, he splashed nearby crops and sloshed the ground ahead of him until the jug ran dry. Carefully sidestepping the liquid, the strike of the match illuminated soaring walls of crops all around him. With a sudden flick of his wrist, the sliver of burning wood soared through the air. The shock of sudden, audible`flame made his stomach catch in his throat. Within moments, the intensely bright orange fire was licking the stalks of corn crops. Turning with the jug, he ran.

Directionless and scrambling, he did not see the deep irrigation ditch until it was too late. He found himself on his knees in a current of muddy water sweeping his waist, two shallow walls of concrete on either side of him. Frank looked upward toward the smoke rising from the direction he had come.

“No…” he breathed.

Standing against the force of irrigation water, he urgently located the sprinkler system some yards away, far above his head. “No,” he repeated breathlessly. “No, no, no…” Clambering out of the ditch, he located the nearby crank in the dark and scrambled toward it, finding the metal cold and rusted beneath his calloused hands. Suddenly the crops to the north and south were showered with buckets of hissing water. He realized, with sudden purpose, that the line of sprinklers would have to be moved above the flames in the distance.

No memory resurfaced, when he woke suddenly, on precisely how he had managed to drown the fire. He must’ve lost conscious on a tangle of broken corn crop, his jeans wet and swampy around his legs. The sun had risen to the east, and far above him the sprinkler system was still pumping water. Frank laid in the squelching mud that was streaming excess moisture into sizable puddles. Too debilitated to move, he was suddenly aware of a persistent, throaty sound nearby.

A pair of perfectly round, vacant, obsidian eyes watched him from between the crop rows. A deep, guttural, rumbling sound issued from the small bird, and he recognized it immediately. For a moment suspended in time, they watched each other– he and the owl in a stand-off, each refusing to back down. The creature was close, wind ruffling lightly over brown feathers as it observed him, unmoving. Without warning, it suddenly took flight and left him, sweaty in the sun, a headache pounding his forehead unceasingly.

When he entered the farmhouse, Brit was sitting at the table. The dog barked viciously, growling, from its place by her feet. “You came back!” she cried, suddenly grinning. “I had a feeling– I had a feeling they would give you back.”

~~~

Holly Rollers doughnut shop sat on a lonely road on the skirting edge of the small town center. The parking lot still beat the energy from the sun against the two men sitting in front, an empty plate on the floor next to Matt Hansen’s feet.

“You were right,” said Frank, defeated. “It wasn’t lightning. And now you know how I found the fire so fast at two o’clock in the morning. Are you satisfied?”

For a long time, Hansen watched him. He seemed to hesitate, unsure. “I must admit. That wasn’t the story I was expecting to hear.”

“If you go around with expectations, Hansen, life will beat you down… Every time.” Voice quiet, he pulled his hair off a sweaty neck, licking moisture off his upper lip. He leaned back against the chair, watching the younger man flip to a page in his notebook. Locating what he was searching for, he pointed knowingly at the page.

“Well. It’s just not the story your sister told me, that’s all. It doesn’t match up.”

Frank had never discussed that night with his sister. She had never mentioned it again, even when a crop-dusting airplane had reported the scene and alerted the local authorities. There was no end to the questions, and Frank maintained his lightning story in each retelling. This admonition of his sister’s knowledge surprised him, silenced him, made him turn his entire body toward the other man. “What do you mean?” he said, his voice gruff and challenging. “What do you mean?”

“She… Well, she said she went into your room because she heard an odd noise. ‘Frank talks about owls when he’s in his drink,’ she said. She showed me the taxidermic owl above the fireplace, and said you often stood in front of it with a horrible glare on your face. She’s an awfully nice girl, isn’t she? She stopped doing the dishes to serve me lemonade, and she told me everything. ‘That night,’ she said, ‘I saw them take Frank straight by the chest– out the window!’ I asked her if she was afraid… She said she wasn’t. The Owl People, she called them.”

A loud eighteen-wheeler blew past on the empty road, leaving the air rife with rumbling silence behind it. Not a word was spoken between the two of them, each staring out at the ramshackle parking lot. Clearing his throat, he wiped the sweat from his face into the bottom of his t-shirt, revealing a pudgy belly underneath. “You shouldn’t listen to everything my sister says. You’d go deaf if you tried. I guess the most important thing… Is what you want to believe.”

“That’s not the most important thing,” said Hansen.

“Oh?”

He was standing, and Frank could hear what sounded like deep, guttural hoots issuing forth from the man. His blood ran cold as he looked up, the air around them hanging like wet sheets. Hansen’s eyes looked wide, dark, utterly vacant in their sockets. “Every moment you stand at the precipice between what you’ve been in the past, and who you will be, going forward. The most important thing… Is what you do now.”

Frank didn’t need the theatrics. “I know,” he said. “I know.”

© 2013 Pree K. Kastelic

“Friends of Dorothy” by Will Keyser

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Friends of Dorothy

By Will Keyser

Even though she was dizzy, Dorothy still had enough sense about her to know that something was very wrong. Though she’d failed her prerequisites for the Butterfield branch of the Kansas criminal investigations unit, she still had the savvy to understand that great pools of blood were, more often than not, a sign that trouble was afoot.

“Sweet Wynona,” she whispered, taking care to hold herself steady, steeling her nerves in order to process the scene around her. “Oh, Toto! What in the world’s happened to this place?”

Toto glanced up at her, his tail wagging at the sound of his name. Once, not so very long ago, her ruby-red slippers glowed in brilliant contrast to the sweet, golden yellow of the famous brick road her and her friends had skipped down, arm in arm, singing songs of friendship, of hopes and dreams. Now, her shoes were barely noticeable amongst the malignant swatches of blood that smeared nearly every inch of the road she now stood upon. The air was thick with the scent of iron, and swaying from the tree limbs like limp, aimless vines, what could only be entrails hung and twisted aimlessly with the breeze. Toto, noticeably less phased by the carnage than Dorothy, patted over to one side of the road and began to gnaw on something small, chewy, and decidedly munchkin-like.

“Toto! Don’t eat that! That might be a friend of ours, or at least a part of one! You stop that right now!” Barking his dissatisfaction, he backed away and rested at Dorothy’s feet, unhappy to have had to quit his meal but obedient none the less. “We have to find our friends, Toto! We simply have to!” She paused, noticing the castle far off in the distance, a glittering jewel washed in the radiance of a thousand dreams. It was just as she’d remembered. “And I know just who’ll be able to help us find them! Come on!”

As if she were a bolt of lightning from the sky, Dorothy raced along the once yellow brick road. As she ran, she noticed carnage strung all along the length, transforming the once flat, polished brick into a sort of grim obstacle course. Here, the severed head of a flying monkey. Jump! There, the exposed chest cavity of lollipop guild member. Jump! Hop! Jump again! In no time, Dorothy and Toto both found themselves running out of breath.

“My goodness!” Dorothy exclaimed. “I wonder if this is what the obstacle course for the Butterfield investigations unit would have been like! Maybe it’s a good thing I failed that test where they make you take a number one in a cup and then test it for drugs and whether you’ve been saying your prayers or not. I don’t think I would have been able to do it!” His tongue hanging from his mouth, Toto panted in solemn agreement. Another couple hundred yards behind them, Dorothy slowed her pace, looking around at either side of the road. What had once had been fields of flowers and grass had grown wild and unkempt, looking less like a meadow than a malignant, snarling grip of weeds.

“These look like the cornfields after Uncle Henry’s spent too many weeks in the barn making his special cigarettes,” Dorothy mused. “I wonder what…”

There was a rustling beyond the thresh hold of the meadow, a far off swooshing of overgrown weeds and grass. Dorothy and Toto stopped. His ears pricked, Toto burst off into the brush, yapping as he headed toward the sounds of something moving.

“Toto, no!” But it was too late. A four legged bullet, he was here and gone before Dorothy could so much as take two steps toward him, vanishing out of her sight as easily as a shadow. She listened to the sounds of his barking until they abruptly stopped. Dorothy’s heart sank. “Toto! Oh! Oh, you silly dog, I can’t follow you in their! I’ll get lost for sure! And I have to find out what’s happened here! I have to see the wizard!” As if in response to her declaration, the rustling sound grew louder, fiercer, and decidedly closer. Wasting not another moment, Dorothy took off running once again.

“Oh, Uncle Henry, I so wish you were here,” Dorothy spoke aloud as she ran. “Or Aunty Em, or Hunk, or Zeke, or even that nasty Miss Gulch! I…oh!” Worried more about being alone than paying attention to where her feet were landing, Dorothy tripped over the legs of some creature and found herself flailing. She hit the cold, sticky surface of the road with a thump.

“Bother!” she hissed, swatting the folds of her dress as she righted herself on the ground. She kicked at the creature that had caused her to spill, crossing her arms and glaring. “Oh, just look at my dress! It’s ruined now, and it’s your entire fault! These are blood stains, do you hear? Blood stains!” She stared at the tiny person on the ground, still merrily dressed and otherwise presentable save for the top of his head, which was utterly missing. Dorothy huffed. “Oh, you don’t care about my dress at all, do you? You’re just like those silly old barn owls that keep leaving dead mice on my window sill every morning, no thought for me at all!” Picking herself up, she heard the unmistakable rustling again, the sound of someone or something out of site coming at her. She stumbled several footsteps back, lashing her head back and forth, desperate to find something she could use for protection.

“Nothing around here but slippery insides and popped eyeballs and oh, nothing I can use at all!” The sound grew steadily closer and faster, until Dorothy could see the weeds rustling in front of her, could hear the heavy footfalls coming at her, until all at once the weeds were flung apart and a great creature burst out onto the road.

“Cowardly Lion!” Dorothy exclaimed! “Oh, it’s so good to see you! I thought you were whatever it was that caused all of this!”

The Lion shook its head, fanning its paw out in front of his face. “Oh, Dorothy, I’ve been trying to catch up to you since you got here! Oh, it’s terrible, terrible, terrible!”

“What happened here, Lion? I’ve been all alone and scared ever since Toto took off into the field after you! Did you see him?”

“Maybe,” the Lion replied, looking up into the emerald sea of sky that covered Oz like a blanket. “And by maybe, I mean yes, I saw him. And by saw him, I mean that I ate him. So sorry about that.”

“Oh, no! Not my Toto! You ate my Toto!” Dorothy stepped forward and gave the Lion a sharp swat on the shoulder. “Bad Lion!”

“Look, I’m a Lion and he’s a dog!” said the Lion in defense. He paused, giving Dorothy a long, thoughtful gaze. “And boy, I’m gonna guess that if I didn’t eat him you would have, eventually. You’re not exactly at your fighting weight these days, Miss Dorothy.”

“Oh, that’s a wicked thing to say!” Dorothy said, giving the Lion another swat on the arm. She paused, looking down at herself, rubbing her hands down the length of her hips. “Aunty Em’s let this dress out three times already. They built a doughnut shop less than a mile from the farm, Lion! I guess I have been helping myself lately. I make four dollars a month working on Uncle Henry’s farm, and I spend it all on those gosh darned doughnuts. But they’re the best in all of Kansas!”

“You should have stayed there!” said the Lion. “Things have gone crazy around here since you left.”

“I can see that! I just got off the last tornado and as soon as I did I saw all of this! Oh Lion, is there another witch? There is, isn’t there? We have to find the wizard! And the Tin-Man, and the Scarecrow!”

Lion let out a deep sigh, his face twisting as the weight of bad news settled upon it. “The wizard of Oz is dead too, just like your Toto, minus the “me” eating him part.”

“Not the wizard! Oh no! What sort of witch could do all of this, Lion? Tell me, who?”

“It’s not a witch, Dorothy. It’s your “friends” the Scarecrow and the Tin-Man! They did this! All of this! Oh, bother!”

Dorothy threw her hands up to cover her mouth, disbelief shaking her from the inside-out. “Oh, Lion, oh no. No, they couldn’t have done this. I don’t believe you!”

“Believe it, Dorothy,” the Lion said. “After you left, and the Tin-Man got his heart and the Scarecrow got his brain, they both decided that having one heart and one brain wasn’t enough, so they started taking everyone else’s. Everyone’s! And as it turns out, no one in Oz can do a whole lot when a six foot steel robot with a hatchet decides to start hacking up the residents. And the Scarecrow? A lot stronger than anyone thought. Stronger, and oh! So much meaner!”

“But he’s just made of straw,” Dorothy protested. “How could he be that strong? Couldn’t someone just pull him apart?” She paused, considering. “Unless he’s been lifting weights, getting into shape, maybe doing…”

The Lion shook his head. “Don’t say it, Dorothy.”

“Maybe doing a lot of… Crow-dio vascular fitness?”

“I said don’t, Dorothy.”

“And then supplementing that with…Scare-oids?”

“Dorothy…”

“Probably learned how to build up his muscles from a “STRAWNG-Man” competition?”

“You’re on your own now, Kansas. Have fun getting your brains smashed out.”

“Oh, Lion!” Dorothy said, grabbing him by the arm. “I was just trying to make a joke! It’s so scary here, and I just lost my Toto, I was just trying to make us both laugh.”

“There’s a killer Scarecrow and Tin-Man on the loose,” Lion replied. “I’ve been hiding in these fields for weeks now. I don’t feel so courageous any more, and I certainly don’t feel like laughing. All I want is to get as far away from this place as possible!”

“Why, I can do that!” Dorothy took the Lion by the hand, pulling him close to her. “Just like before! Why, all I have to do is click my heals together three times, and we’ll be back in Kansas!”

“Oh, Dorothy! You’ll take me with you?! Oh, that would be wonderful!”

“Of course I’ll take you with me,” Dorothy replied. “You’re my friend, and I can’t leave you here to all this. This is no place for a formerly cowardly, presently talking Lion!”

“Are there a lot of talking lions in Kansas?” asked Lion.

“You’ll be the very first in the whole wide world!”

“Oh, goody! Goody, Goody Goody!”

“Now, just wrap your arms around me, Lion,” said Dorothy. “And hold on tight. Close your eyes, too, if you feel like you have to.” The Lion wrapped his arms tightly around Dorothy, closing his eyes with a smile.” “You’re the very best friend I’ve ever had, Dorothy.”

“Oh, Lion, aside from Aunty Em, Uncle Henry, Hickory, Zeke and his longtime companion Don-Fredo, and Toto before you ate him, you’re the very best friend I’ve ever had, too. Now, quiet. I have to concentrate on this part.”

Dorothy stood still, the Lion hugging her tight. She too closed her eyes and then said, quietly, “there’s no place like home…there’s no place like home…there’s no place like home…” And the grim, bloodied world of Oz vanished away from them.

“You sure about this, young lady? Aint a whole lot of talking lions running around the word, at least not that I’ve ever seen. You might get a better deal taking him someplace bigger and better, say, New York or Chicago.”

Dorothy glanced at the man standing next to her, the scent of hay mixed with dust swirling around her. Somewhere, not so far off, she heard the unmistakable cry of an elephant’s trumpet, the air shaking with the power of it. “I’m as sure as sugar,” she replied. “Have you trained very many lions before?”

“Oh yeah, yeah,” the trainer replied. “Been all over Africa and Asia, parts of Europe too, and I’ve trained as many lions as people have come to see them perform. Never one that could talk and carry on like your lion though, that there’s a first. I feel like a regular heal, only giving you two hundred dollars for him. ‘Course, you can come in for free whenever we’re in town, see the show. Complimentary peanuts, too.”

“Oh, that would be grand!” Dorothy replied. “I’ll just say my goodbye’s and then I’ll be out of your hair!” Dorothy walked away from the trainer and toward one of the large, striped tents that covered the ground. She entered, making her way toward a cage at the far end, where a familiar face sat waiting for her.

“Dorothy!” the Lion cried. “How could you?! Oh, just how very well could you?”

Wrapping her hands around the bars, Dorothy offered him her sweetest, most innocent of smiles. “Oh, Lion. Don’t be a grump! After all, it’s your fault that you’re here, not mine.”

“Mine? How in the world could the fault be mine? I warned you about the Tin-Man! And the Scarecrow! I verily saved your life!”

“You also didn’t laugh at my jokes,” Dorothy said. “And before that, you called me fat. This, of course, was right after you ate my dog. My dog, Lion. You ate my fucking dog.”

“Dorothy!” the Lion said, his eyes wide and moon-like. “You’re language! You’re no better than the Tin-Man and the Scarecrow!”

She shrugged. “Oh, don’t worry about me, Lion. You just worry about you and all the traveling you’ll get to do now that you’re part of the show. Like I said, you’re the only talking lion in the whole wide world! You’ll get to work for the very rest of your life! Your whole life, Lion, your whole life!”

“Dorothy!”

“You’re not in Oz anymore, Lion.” She smiled, clicking her heals three times while turning away from him. “Welcome to Kansas.”

© 2013 Will Keyser