Short Story — “The Beggar”

The Eye-Dancers, it’s my hope, tackles, among other things, the very concept of what we term “reality.”  What does “real” mean?  And is the line that separates “reality” from our perceptions and dreams and nightmares truly as distinct as we might imagine?  What other worlds and universes exist, and how can two strangers, so far apart it’s nearly impossible to imagine the distance, share a psychic connection, a cosmic bond, with one another?

Of course, there are many ways a story can question our perceptions and our views of reality.  Over ten years ago, I wrote a short story titled “The Beggar,”  in which the protagonist  is confronted by something, and someone, who ultimately contradicts some of his long-held assumptions and challenges the way he looks at the world.

I hope you enjoy “The Beggar.”





“The Beggar”

Copyright 2014 Michael S. Fedison


Looking through the bus window, Mark saw the beggar. The old man was standing in front of a middle-aged blonde woman, no doubt asking, pleading, for money, just a dollar, just a quarter, anything to help out. Mark knew the routine. He’d been on the receiving end of it more than once.

“Look at that old loser,” Mark’s seatmate, a prematurely graying accountant named Harold Gardener, said. The bus slowly lumbered on, and the beggar disappeared, as if by magic. A Winchell’s Donuts, a Burger King, and the entire assortment of suburban paraphernalia came into view and then slipped past in a never-ending display of sprawl. “I’ve seen that freeloader way too many times. Why don’t they arrest him? Or shoot ‘im.”

Mark said nothing. He sat with Gardener several times a week—the accountant worked four blocks north of Mark’s office and never said good-bye when Mark got up to leave, so Mark had stopped saying good-bye, too—but he’d learned early on that they disagreed on most issues, the beggar among them. Gardener seemed to hate him, eyeing him as he would the carrier of some soul-infesting disease. But Mark could sympathize with the old man. Even the word beggar sounded distasteful to him. Maybe the guy was all right. Maybe he’d even been successful once.

“Filth, that’s what bums like that are,” Gardener continued. He glanced at Mark, as though awaiting a reaction. When he didn’t get one, he said, “I didn’t move my family out here to deal with filth like that. Know what I mean?” With that, Gardener faced forward, looking at the brown hair of a businesswoman seated in front of him.

Mark looked at Gardener. “I think you’re too hard on him. I mean, c’mon, filth?”

Gardener snorted. It was the kind of sound a man makes when in the presence of unspeakable stupidity. “I see enough of those bums in the city. Down by Coors and the train station. I don’t need to see them here.”

Mark thought of pursuing the conversation, but he didn’t. He knew Gardener’s view of the old man was set in granite, and it was just too early for an argument. Better to let it rest. Hopefully, they wouldn’t see the beggar again. The bus rarely passed him.

But Mark had seen the old man several times, never knowing when or where he’d turn up. The beggar seemed as unpredictable as the weather. The first time Mark encountered him, in fact, he had been walking down the litter-free streets of an upscale neighborhood.

It had been a chilly day in mid-October, with a perfect Colorado blue sky and a tang in the air that felt so pure and fresh, Mark wanted to take a bite out of it. He was enjoying his daily lunch stroll, walking through the neighborhood behind his office. He rarely failed to take a walk at lunchtime, even during winter cold spells or spring snowstorms or summer rain showers. It was a running joke at the office. They said, rain or sleet or snow, Mark will take his walk, even more reliable than the postal service! You could set your clock to it. But he didn’t mind the teasing. At least he stood out for something. Besides, it was good to get away from the cubicles and the people and the stress. It was—

A gaunt old man with a full, gray beard and a tattered wool hat turned the corner at the nearest stop sign. He was heading toward Mark.

Mark did a double-take. The man’s appearance did not fit in with the affluent surroundings of the neighborhood. Most of the lawns were large and well-tended, and the houses—sleek, new ranches with attached garages and gigantic western-facing windows—all looked shiny and polished, as if they had just been given a coat of varnish.

Not wishing to judge a book by its cover but unable to avoid it, Mark quickly deduced the man was a vagrant. Trying to appear indifferent, acting as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Mark slowly crossed the street, wanting to avoid the man without making it look so obvious. He whistled a tune as he did, giving the performance an air of nonchalance it otherwise might have lacked. He focused his attention to the west. Over the rooftops of the ranches, the distant snowcapped peaks of the Front Range sparkled like sunlit diamonds.

“Pardon me, young man? Young man?”

Mark turned his head. The drifter was there, staring at him. He berated himself. While he had been carelessly enjoying the view, the old-timer must have snuck up on him.

“Do you live here?” The beggar had no teeth that Mark could see. His face was covered in a scraggly forest of white hair. His wool hat had holes in it. It looked nearly as old as the man who wore it.

“Uh, no, no, I just work here.” Mark was looking for an out. He could have simply walked away—he knew most guys would—but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. His wife had always told him how much she appreciated his sensitivity. Right now, he wished he could be as bottom-line oriented and callous as Gardener. “I work over on East Hampden. I’m just taking a walk.”

The old man nodded, then said, “It’s good that you have a job. I had a job once. A whole bunch of them. But I don’t have one now. What do you say, my young friend? Can you help a fella out? I didn’t eat any breakfast this morning, and my stomach’s groaning.”

Mark couldn’t believe how fast the man had launched into his sales pitch. He started to walk away.

“Hey, wait!” the old man said, following Mark. “Even a dollar would help! Even a quarter.”

Mark kept walking, but the man had caught up with him. “Why are you in this neighborhood, mister?” Mark asked. He picked up his pace. So did the beggar. “You might get arrested just for hanging around here. You shouldn’t be here.”

“Oh, I know,” the man said. He was huffing now, struggling to keep up with Mark. “People here are much too good to even look at me. But I wanted to do something different today. Is that so bad?”

“No, it’s just—”

“And then you came along, and I thought—‘well, what a break. That nice young fella will help me buy some lunch. Thank the Lord for his kindness’. That’s what I thought, yessir. Now, how about it, fella? Give an old man a break, huh? Just a few bucks. A few measly bucks. What’s it to you?”

They walked past a white ranch with skylights and a privacy fence to the rear and sides. A young woman in a ponytail was working in her flower garden, preparing it for winter. She eyed Mark and the beggar with suspicion. What is that grungy old man doing on my street? her look said. We don’t have people like that on my street. Mark shot her a disapproving look right back, and suddenly felt a strong impulse to give the man some money.

Turning a corner, walking past more polished, white ranches, Mark stopped. The beggar stopped, too, then bent over and gasped as if he had just sprinted five miles and needed to get his wind back.

“You walk too fast, young man,” the drifter said once he had sufficiently recovered. “Give an old guy a break.”

Mark took out his wallet, fished inside, then handed the man a ten dollar bill—and imagined how fiercely his wife would protest. He had been stopped by beggars before, and he almost always gave them something. One time, two summers ago, she let him have it after he had given some guy a twenty.

“What’s the point?” she had said. “All they do is go spend it on booze. They’re better off without it.”

“But he said he wanted to buy something for his daughter. He said—”

His wife rolled her eyes. “Oh, please, Mark. Spare me.”

“I thought you liked my sensitivity,” he said, a pout on his face. He fought to remove it. Pouting never worked with his wife.

“There’s a fine line sometimes,” she said, frowning, “between sensitivity and stupidity. Giving a beggar a twenty and thinking he’s gonna spend it on something other than booze? That, I’m afraid, crosses the line.”

That ended the discussion. He thought about pressing his case—the man’s eyes had looked so honest, so needy—but he admitted to himself that his wife was probably right. Still, what could he do about it? She’d told him before he had a face that attracted beggars.

“What?” he’d protested. “How so?”

“Because,” she’d replied. “They can see you’re a softie.”

Last year, they’d moved out of Denver and headed southeast. They now lived in a brick ranch several miles outside the city. Their neighborhood was quiet, even dull, but peaceful. And there were no beggars. He worked in Aurora, and for a while he hadn’t had to deal with any beggars there, either. But the old man in the wool cap changed all of that.

Handing the ten dollar bill to the man, Mark resolved not to tell his wife about it.

“Bless you, son, bless you!” the man gushed. He seemed like a kid on a treasure hunt who has just discovered the coveted prize. It made Mark uncomfortable. The man’s ridiculous display, his outright begging—he had no pride, no dignity. That’s what bothered Mark the most, and that’s what made him think he could never beg for money himself. “You don’t know how grateful I am!” the old man said.

“It’s okay, really,” Mark said. “Just go get something good to eat. No big deal.” He looked around at the white ranches. No one was outside. But that didn’t mean someone wasn’t watching this spectacle from behind a window. He told the old man he needed to get back to the office.

“Bless you, young man,” the beggar repeated when Mark started to walk away. “I’ll never forget this.”

I hope you do, was all Mark thought.

The bus did not pass by the beggar again for a long while. And Mark himself had been spared dealing with the old man, too. After that first encounter, he’d been flagged down by the beggar a handful of other times—and he always gave the man a dollar or two, never again a full ten—but it now had been months since their paths had crossed. That was okay with Mark. He suspected his wife’s harsh view applied to this beggar as much as it did to any other—though he never recalled having smelled alcohol on the man’s breath.

As more time passed and he didn’t see the beggar, Mark wondered if maybe the old man had moved on to another section of town, or even died. It certainly was possible. He had to have been at least seventy, and, with his vagabond lifestyle, he couldn’t have been in good health. The possibility of the man’s death had no effect on Mark. It did not sadden him. What was an old drifter to him? Nor did it please him. He was positive the beggar’s death would please Gardener, though.

But the old man was not dead.

“I swear, if he ever tries that with me again, I’ll punch ‘im, tear ‘im in half!” Gardener raged. “Old freeloading . . . ”

“Where’d you see him?” Mark asked.

“Right outside my office! Can you believe it? The nerve of those people!” The bus worked its way through streets still soaked from on overnight thundershower. But the sky was brightening by the minute, and warm spring sunshine filtered through the window, striking Gardener on the side of his face.

“I thought he might be dead. I hadn’t seen him in a while,” Mark said.

“Well, he’ll wish he was dead if he ever asks me for money again! Old piece of—”

Mark tapped Gardener on the elbow and nodded imperceptibly (he hoped) across the aisle. Gardener glanced in that direction, at the people seated across from him and Mark. An old woman with a floral dress sat next to a little girl with pigtailed blonde hair. The woman was glaring at Gardener—and Mark—and the girl was gaping at them with wide-eyed delight, as though she were hoping to hear a forbidden word. Mark had never seen either of them before, and he doubted he’d see them again.

Gardener clenched his teeth and whispered, “Great. Now I can’t even talk about it.”

“That’s why a wife is good,” Mark offered. “Great sounding board.”

Gardener shook his head. He’d said before he wasn’t the marrying kind.

“What did you say to him?” Mark asked. He didn’t understand why he cared, but for some reason, he did.

“I told ‘im—” Gardener said, his voice loud again, and Mark nudged him. Stealing a quick glance across the aisle, Mark was sure that if the old woman’s eyes could shoot laser beams, both he and Gardener would be vaporized by now. The pigtailed girl was still smiling. From the back of the bus, there was laughter. From the front, a few muffled words, but mainly silence, save for the drone of the bus’s engine and the swoosh of the tires as they sloshed through the rain-drenched street.

“I told ‘im to get his filthy, lice-infested self out of there,” Gardener said quietly, obviously fighting to keep his temper in check. “I told ‘im to go beg somewhere else, or go stand in front of the next garbage truck he sees. Then they could run ‘im over, pick ‘im up, and take ‘im to the dump with the rest of the trash.”

Mark said, “Man, you really hate that guy, don’t you?”

“Yup,” Gardener said. “Like I hate fleas, or roaches. Pests. Like I hate pests.”

That day on his lunchtime walk, Mark crossed paths with the beggar. It had been so long since he’d seen him, it caught him by surprise. He was walking through a different neighborhood today, several blocks away from the office. The houses in here were not as polished, not as large, and several For Sale signs dotted the bottoms of lawns. He liked this neighborhood, in part because it did not feel so suffocating, in part because it had a lot of trees—primarily maple, Russian Olive, and spruce, but there were also a few aspen and dogwood. He also liked it that no one else from his office ever walked through this area. Some of the others strolled through the upper-class neighborhood close by, but no one came this far out. Any time he really needed to get away from it all, he came here.

He had been thinking of what to get his wife on their wedding anniversary in August. It would mark their eighth year together, which amazed him. It seemed just yesterday that they had exchanged their vows. He wanted to surprise her this time, really come up with something original. But before he could construct a mental list of potential possibilities, he spotted the beggar.

He had just turned a corner and was walking toward Mark, briskly, with a purpose, as if he’d known Mark would be walking down these streets today. Mark brushed that idea aside as sheer foolishness. Just a coincidence, that’s all, and not a very appealing one. He didn’t want to deal with the old-timer today. He hated the begging, the loss of all self-respect. If the drifter was not embarrassed at his own behavior, Mark was embarrassed for him. Instinctively, he felt for the bulge in his pants pocket—his wallet. He was pretty sure he had a few singles in there.

This time, Mark did not pretend he wanted to cross the street. He walked straight for the old man. The best thing to do, he figured, was to get this over with, give the man some small bills, then cut short the “bless you, young man” performance that would undoubtedly follow.

They approached each other. Mark looked down at the pavement. If the beggar wanted to stop him, he would. If not, Mark would keep right on walking. No reason to offer money unasked.

“Young man, young man.”

Why am I not surprised? Mark thought. He noticed the beggar was still wearing his wool hat, despite the heat of the day.

“Hey, slow down, and give an old guy a break, huh?” the man said. “Don’t make me run after you again.”

Mark came to a stop. He and the beggar stood on a sidewalk in front of a beige ranch with a roof that looked like it needed repairing. Mark thought that roof must have leaked last night, during the rain storm. A tall maple tree, its leaves still wet and glistening in the sun, provided the two of them with welcome shade.

“You remember me,” Mark said.

“Of course I remember you. Ten dollars last fall. Made me have a heart attack almost, chasing after you that way. And whenever I’ve seen you since, you’ve been generous.”

Mark winced. Generous? What was a dollar or two? He wondered if most people responded to the old man the way Gardener did. If so, it was easy to see how his pittance had seemed generous to the man. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and took out a five dollar bill.

“Here you go, mister.”

The beggar just looked at the bill, then at Mark. Tears welled up in his eyes and spilled out into the tangled, gnarled beard that covered his cheeks. Then he shook his head. “No,” he said. “Not today.” He reached into his own pants pocket, and for a moment, Mark worried that the old man was going to pull out a gun. But all he had was a one dollar bill. “I know it isn’t much,” he said. “But take it, and please know I’d give more if I could.”

Mark stood there, and he felt his jaw drop open. He didn’t know if he should feel honored or insulted. What exactly was going on here? In the distance, from somebody’s backyard, he could hear the giggling of a little girl.

“Look,” Mark said, “just take this, okay?” He thrust the five dollar bill out further. “Go buy lunch with it.”

The beggar shook his head fiercely. “No! Take my dollar! I’m giving it to you. Don’t you see? I’m giving it to you! I don’t want your money today. Please take it.” The man’s hand was trembling, and the dollar fell to the ground. Mark snatched it up. “Keep it,” the old man said, then started to walk away.

Mark easily caught up with him. “Wait!” he said. “I don’t need your money, mister. Take it back, and take the five, too.”

The beggar brushed past Mark. He continued walking. Shaking his head even harder, he said, “You don’t understand, you don’t understand.” Then he reached the next intersection and turned the corner.

Mark just stood there on the sidewalk, feeling stupid and sad. He folded his five and the beggar’s one and stuffed them into his wallet.

“Thanks for the dollar, old man,” he said.

In the distance, he heard the little girl giggle again.

Gardener wasn’t on the bus today. He was probably in bed with the flu. A nasty bug was going around. It was September, and a cold snap had come in strong and bitter, blowing down from the mountains and reminding everyone that winter was not far off. Mark heard that the people of Vail had awakened to nine inches of snow that morning. But that just made him smile, as he thought of the anniversary gift he had bought for his wife last month—a weekend stay at her favorite ski lodge the second weekend of December. He had everything reserved, right down to the privacy booth in the restaurant she liked. All he needed now was for the mountain weather to cooperate. With nine inches of snow already, things were headed in the right direction.

Mark sat by the window. People on the sidewalk were bundled in winter coats and scarves. They were shivering, not used to the below-freezing temperatures. Just last week, it had been in the eighties.

“Whew, it’s freezing out there,” Mark heard someone say. A young woman with flushed cheeks sat down beside him. “Feels like February.” She took off her hat and scarf and placed them in her lap. Long black hair fell over the puffed bulk of her winter coat. She looked familiar to Mark, but he had never sat next to her before.

“Yeah,” he said. “Good weather for sleeping in, huh?”

“Tell me about it,” she said. “I wish I could. But, duty calls, y’know?”

He just smiled. The bus slowly worked through its rounds. Three stops before he would get off, Mark spotted the beggar. He had his coat wrapped tightly around himself, and he was talking to a young blond-haired man on the sidewalk. Mark saw the blond man hand the beggar a bill. He couldn’t tell what denomination, but he saw the old drifter smile and nod, almost bow, and he could read the lips: “Bless you, son, bless you.”

The bus pulled away from the curb.

“I don’t think I could ever do that, could you?” the woman next to Mark said.

“Do what?”

“Give away money like that guy just did. I mean, I feel bad for someone who doesn’t have a bed to sleep in at night and all, but, I mean, like, what do they do with five bucks? It isn’t gonna really help them get a life or anything.”

“No,” Mark agreed, “but maybe it can buy them a hot meal.”

The woman shrugged. “That’s what the shelters and soup kitchens are for. They can get their meals for free there. It just bothers me, the way they come up to you and just, like, beg. They have no respect, for themselves or anybody else. Being that poor, I guess it makes you self-centered, y’know? Never thinking of anything but your own needs. Always wanting to take.” She shook her head. “I wouldn’t give him a penny.”

At the next stop, she got up.

“Keep warm,” she said, then headed for the door.

Mark nodded and smiled. But he didn’t feel warm at all.


Thanks so much for reading!



Short Story — “Cemetery”

There are moments in The Eye-Dancers when the main characters, particularly Ryan Swinton, wrestle with the concept of growing up.  Ryan especially sometimes wishes things could be simpler again, the way they used to be when he was seven, his little brother Tyler’s age.  But now, on the cusp of being a teenager, he feels the pressure to fit in, to make people laugh at his jokes, to be liked.  He is all too aware that as we grow up, even as things are gained and learned, other things are lost.

“Cemetery” is a short story I wrote several years ago.  And while the point-of-view character is a grown man, the story does also deal with childhood, and the things we love, learn, and lose.

I hope you will enjoy “Cemetery” . . .










Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison


The squirrel was crushed, stuck to the pavement as if glued.  It had been run over so many times, it was now flat, looking like a two-dimensional cutout from a children’s coloring book.  In the distance, Jerry heard another car approaching.

 “C’mon, Bak,” he said.  “We better get out of the road for a minute.”

 He took his daughter by the hand and retreated to the base of their driveway.  The car sped past, leaving a plume of dry dust in its wake.  A truck carrying loose earth had come through a little while ago, dropping some of its load as it went.

 “He didn’t go over the squirrel, too, did he, Daddy?” Bak asked, peering through the dust.  Hot June sunshine struck her in the face.

 Jerry looked at her and smiled.  Bak.  Seven years old.  His pride and joy.  She was so sweet, she had to be Bak.  They had named her Jennifer, but that wouldn’t do.  She was too special for that.  Jerry had thought about the sweetest thing he knew, and, after spending more time on the subject than he would admit, came up with baklava, his favorite dessert.  Ever since, his little girl was Bak.

 “I don’t know, Bak,” he said.  “I think he might have missed it.”

 They went back into the road.  Bak bent down over the squirrel.

 “Did it hurt, Daddy?” she asked.  “Did getting flat hurt the squirrel?”

 “Probably not,” Jerry said.  “It would’ve been so fast, so instantaneous, probably not.”

 Bak squinted up at him.  “What’s insta-taneous mean?”

 He snapped his fingers.  “Like that,” he said, and snapped them again.

 Bak nodded and looked solemnly at the squirrel.

 “Can you take him out of the street, Daddy?” she asked.

 “Sure, honey, I guess so, but why?”

 “So we can bury him.  Like they did with Mommy.”

 Jerry nodded.  Yes, they could bury the squirrel.


 Lisa had been twenty-eight.  They had just moved into a small apartment, with leaky faucets, too many cockroaches, and a heating system that was, to put it mildly, temperamental.  But they tried to focus on tomorrow.  He had recently been promoted at work.  They would live in this apartment for a while (it came cheap, if nothing else) and then they’d buy a home in the country, where they would grow a garden, play Frisbee, and sled down the hills made slippery and white with snow.  They’d have two more children, maybe three, and they’d have their cat, Mitsie, whom they had adopted from the Humane Society shortly after their wedding.  They would live well, they would watch their children mature, and they would grow old together.  Once the kids all left, it would be just the two of them again, their hair graying, their faces wrinkling, their eyesight clouding over with age.  They’d have each other, though, and they would be happy.

 But on a mild, overcast winter evening, when Bak was just two, Lisa died.  She was sitting at the table eating supper, listening to Jerry as he shared his day with her.  As he was talking about a difficult co-worker (“He never lets me get a word in!  He’s just looking for a fight, I know it, and, you know, I just might give it to him!”), she suddenly grabbed her head, gasped, and fell off her chair.

 “Lisa?” he asked, his voice so soft, so weak in his ears.  “Lisa?”  He couldn’t grasp what he had just seen.

 Time seemed to have stopped.  Everything was locked in place, as if the earth had fallen out of orbit and was floating in the cold depths of space, farther and farther away from the sun, a frozen shell of a world.

 He stood up on wobbly legs, looked at the floor.  She was lying there on her back, perfectly still, her mouth open, her eyes staring up at him.  They’re not blinking, he thought.  Her eyes.  Not blinking.  Time was no longer stopped; it moved mercilessly on—tick tock, tick tock, the clock over the sink mocked—and Jerry wished he could grab that clock, turn its hands back three minutes, and start over.

 He went to his wife, got on his knees, calling her name, over and over, louder and louder.  She didn’t answer, didn’t stir.  Swallowing, blinking, he checked her pulse.  There wasn’t one.  What was going on?  How could this be?  He was just talking to her about Chuck at work.  He had just complimented her on the lasagna she’d made.  They were going to stay up late after putting Bak to bed and watch Notorious, an old Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman movie.  She loved Cary Grant.  They were going to eat popcorn, drink hot chocolate, and wrap themselves in a crocheted blanket his mother had made for them as a wedding present.

 He shook her, gently at first, then more frantic, hoping it would revive her.  It didn’t.  He called 911, barely able to get the words out.  The ambulence arrived within minutes, waking up Bak.  She had played hard that day and was tired, taking a nap in her room.

 No.  It was the only word that came to mind, the only thing he could think.  No.

 Later, an autopsy revealed that Lisa had died of a ruptured brain aneurysm.  No one knew she had been living with an aneurysm, all those years.  She had never had any significant problems—a few migraines every now and again, but nothing that would have caused any alarm.  She died quickly, instantaneously, the doctor told him.  She probably didn’t even know it happened.  By the time she had hit the floor, she was gone.

 Jerry hadn’t eaten lasagna since.


 During a break in the traffic, he scraped under the squirrel with an old putty knife.  He knew he needed to work fast, as they were on the main road, and hundreds of cars and trucks whipped past every day, going sixty, often seventy, miles per hour.  He and Bak had just moved here three days ago.  Lisa would have loved it, the traffic notwithstanding.  It was an old cape, and it needed a lot of work it was true, but the land!  Ten acres of meadow and woods, with hills and perennials, a fully-stocked fishing pond, an old barn that had been converted into a garage, a garden shed, and maple trees near the house that would turn red and gold in the fall.

 He finally pried the squirrel loose from the pavement.  For some reason, its crushed, flattened body brought to mind the pressed leaf collection Lisa used to keep.  Elm leaves, maple leaves, poplar leaves, every leaf she could get her hands on.  She would gather them in the fall, after they had turned color, press them, and place them in a photo album, where they would stay, preserved, like trinkets in a time capsule.

 He balanced the remains of the squirrel on the fat blade of the putty knife and walked to the driveway, where Bak waited.

 “You know where you want to bury him?” he asked her.

 She nodded.

 “Then lead the way, Bak,” he said.

 She led him to a shady corner of the yard, nestled between two maples and backing up against a stand of sumac and wild burdock, and the remnants of an old stone wall that had deteriorated into a state of disrepair.

 “Here,” she said.  “This’ll be our cemetery.”

 “Our cemetery?”

 “He won’t be the only one, will he?”  She pointed at the dead squirrel.

 “No,” Jerry said.  “No, Bak.  He won’t be.  A lot of animals will get hit in that road, I’m afraid.”

 “Then this is the place we’ll bury them,” Bak said.

 This was more than he had bargained for.  One squirrel, sure.  But every animal that got hit in front of their home?  That would add up, and all too quickly.  In the road, an eighteen-wheeler sped by, adding emphasis.  But Jerry figured it was okay.  They had ten acres, after all.  What was one small parcel tucked away in a corner?

 “Okay,” he said.  “We’ll need to prepare it then.  Let me dig all the grass up over here and make this a real plot.  Then, when I’m done with that, you can bury this squirrel.  How’s that sound, Bak?”

 “Will you make the cemetery big enough?” she asked skeptically.

 Smiling, Jerry said, “It’ll be the biggest one of its kind in all the county.”  Then, thinking it might be the only one of its kind anywhere, Jerry expanded that.  “It’ll be the biggest one in the whole state, Bak.”

 “I hope,” was all she said.

 Jerry placed the putty knife on the ground, went to the garden shed, and grabbed a spade that had been left behind by the previous owner.  He hurried back to the corner Bak had chosen for the cemetery, and, under her watchful eye, began to dig.

 When he was finished, he gave Bak a small potting shovel, which she used to dig a hole.  Jerry reached for the squirrel, but Bak stopped him.

 “Let me do it, Daddy,” she said.

 “Okay, Bak.”

 She gently picked up the squirrel and placed it in the hole.  Then she folded her hands and bowed her head.

 “Bak?”  Jerry said.

 “I’m praying for him, Daddy,” she said.  “You pray, too.”

 Feeling a little silly, Jerry knelt down and prayed with his daughter over the remains of the nameless squirrel.  But it didn’t remain nameless for long.

 “He’s Charlie,” Bak said.

 “Who?  The squirrel?”

 “Uh-huh.  His name is Charlie.”  As she spoke, she covered the squirrel with the soft earth she had dug, the calligraphy of her handprints like a personal signature of her work.  When she was finished, she stood up, examining the makeshift grave.

 “We need a marker now,” she said.

 Jerry hadn’t thought of that.  But there were small pieces of pine wood in the shed.  They could use one of those.

 “This’ll be okay, I guess,” she said once he’d returned with a piece of the wood.  It was short and wide, easy to write on.  And Bak wanted to write on it.

 “But it’ll wash off, honey,” he said.  “If the rain doesn’t do it, the snow sure will.”

 “Then cut letters in it,” she said.  “Can’t you cut them in it, Daddy, like they do at Mommy’s cemetery?”

 Jerry had a Bowie knife his father had given to him when he was fifteen.  It was the first time his dad had given him a grown-up present; he remembered it well.  The Bowie knife’s tip would do the trick.

 She wanted him to engrave the following:  “Here lies Charlie.  He was just a squirrel.  But a good one.”  He finished quickly, and the grave was complete.  They went to the edge of their new cemetery and looked at it.  Jerry thought the single wooden marker looked lonesome, but he knew it wouldn’t be for long.  The road would take care of that.

 “Why did you want to bury him, Bak?” he asked her.

 She squinted up at him.  Sunshine filtered through the maple trees, kissing her long red hair and making it look two shades lighter than it was.

 “Charlie musta had a family,” she said.  “He woulda had a mommy and a daddy, maybe even a wife.  They miss him now, I guess.  Like you miss Mommy.  And you go visit her in the cemetery, so maybe Charlie’s family will visit him here, too.  Maybe his friends will come.  Like Mommy’s.”

 She looked at the single grave again, using her hand to shield the sun from her eyes.

 Jerry wanted to say something, to respond to his daughter in some way, but she had rendered him speechless.


 Early the next morning, they stood by Lisa’s grave.  The cemetery was gloomy, inhabited by hundreds of pine, oak, and maple trees, which stood over the tombstones like watchful sentries.  It was windy this morning, and cloudy, a chill in the air that would have seemed inconceivable in yesterday’s hot sunshine.  Bak had a hooded jacket on and Jerry a wool sweater that Lisa had bought for him as a birthday gift when they had been engaged.

 He watered the flowers next to her grave.  He had planted them years ago—purple and pink peonies—and he was pleased that they came back and bloomed every spring.

 “Those are pretty flowers,” Bak said.

 “Thanks.  Peonies were your mom’s favorite.”

 They were silent then, listening to the voices in the wind, the rustling of the leaves, the echoes of the good people laid to rest here.  Jerry got on his knees and touched the gravestone, gently, gently.  He picked off a piece of moss that had gathered at the base.



 “What color were Mommy’s eyes?”

 “Blue, like yours, like the clear sky in October when the humidity’s gone, and you can look up forever.”  He closed his eyes, fought back the tears.  Now wasn’t the time, not here, not in front of Bak.

 “Mommy musta been so nice,” Bak said.  “I wish I’da known her.”

 “Me, too, Bak.  You would’ve loved your mommy.”

 “Do you think you’ll get married again, Daddy?  And get a new mommy for me?  Like Chrissy Pitkin?  Her Daddy got married again, and she doesn’t like her new mommy much.”

 “No, Bak,” he said.  “I don’t think that’ll happen.  I could never marry anyone else.  Your mom was the only one for me.  I hope you haven’t been pining for a new mom.”

 “What’s pining?” she asked.

 “Wanting, wishing for.”

 “Oh.  No.  I guess not.  I was just wonderin’.  Chrissy Pitkin acts like having a second mom is the pits.”

 Jerry stood up and stroked his daughter’s hair.  “C’mon, Bak, let’s go.  We’ll stop at McDonalds on the way.”  He always stopped at McDonalds with Bak on the way back from the cemetery.  He figured she deserved a treat after visiting such a solemn place.

 “Egg McMuffin?”  she said.  “Hash brown?”

 “You bet,” he said, and a tear did fall then, but he wiped it away before she could see.


 That evening, Jerry on the sofa, Bak on his lap, she said, “It makes you sad to go visit Mommy at the cemetery, doesn’t it?”

 “I guess,” he said.  “But not really any more than I already am, Bak.  I miss your mommy more than you can know.  Always.  When I’m at her grave, I guess it’s harder to block it out.  My missing her just hits me like a big wave in the ocean—it just swallows me up.  I try to think of other things a lot, ‘cause it hurts to think of your mom, but when I’m there, well . . .”

 Bak nodded and buried her face in his neck.  Jerry squeezed her tight, thankful he didn’t have an office job anymore, didn’t have a daily commute that would take him away from Bak ten hours a day.  His company let him work from home now.  That was one of the reasons he felt it was a good time to move out to the country.

 “You won’t die, Daddy, will you, and make me hafta visit you at the cemetery?”  she said, his neck muffling her words.

 “Not any time soon, Bak,” he said, grimacing.  That’s what Lisa would have said the day she died, too, if someone had asked her that question.

 “I . . .”  Her voice trailed off, and he knew she had fallen asleep.  Slowly, carefully, he got up and carried her to bed.  When he tucked her in, she woke up.

 “Daddy, did anyone visit Charlie today?”

 “I don’t know.  I haven’t seen anyone.”

 “I hope they do.  I hope they know where he is, that he’s here, in our cemetery.  So they can visit.”

 “I hope so, too,” he said, and kissed her forehead.  “Good night, Bak.”

 “G’night, Daddy.”

 He turned to leave the room.


 “Yes, Bak?”

 “Why did Mommy hafta die?  Why do the animals get hit in the fast road?”

 “I don’t know,” he said.  He wished he could say something to help her understand, help her make sense of it all, but he couldn’t.  “Go to sleep, Bak.  Rest.”

 When he didn’t hear a reply, he left.


 Later that week, they buried a chipmunk.  It was lying at the foot of their driveway, its body grotesquely bent and broken.  The day after that, another squirrel was flattened, welded to the road.  Jerry had a tougher time picking this squirrel’s remains off of the hot pavement than he had the first one.  Three days after that, another chipmunk.  It remained that way throughout the summer, and by the first week of September, twenty-five small wooden graves stood in their cemetery, the markers set in two straight lines and half of a third.  It was the day before school started, and Bak would be attending a different one this year.  She was scared, but excited, too.

 He watched as she dug the hole for the twenty-sixth grave.  Beside her lay a crushed rock dove, run over that morning by a pickup truck.  Jerry had seen it happen, had heard the sick thud on impact, and was grateful Bak had been in the house.  He wondered if the pickup driver even knew he had killed a bird.

 She lovingly placed the dove in the hole, then covered it with the loose dirt she had unearthed.

 “What’s his name, Bak?”  Jerry asked, Bowie knife and wooden grave marker in hand.

 “Johnny.  Johnny Dove.  ‘A good friend to all,’ that’s what you should cut into it.  ‘Cause he looks like a good friend, so I’m sure he was.”

 Jerry carved the words into the wood, then handed the marker to Bak.  She stuck it into the earth, just behind the spot where the bird lay.  This was easy for her because Jerry had sawed the bottom of the wood, shaping it into a sharp point.  He had been doing that to all of the markers since the middle of July.

 Bak knelt down to pray, and asked Jerry to join her.  He played the part, but he wasn’t praying.  He was observing, looking at his solemn daughter as she clasped her hands together, closed her eyes tightly shut, and mouthed a silent prayer for the dead rock dove.  He swallowed hard, and suddenly felt a terrible sense of loss.  He had been mourning Lisa for years, but now he was mourning his daughter, the little girl she was but wouldn’t remain.  He wondered how much longer she would dig miniature graves for animals killed in the road.  He wondered how much longer she would want him to carve the names she gave them into blocks of wood and memorialize them in this small corner plot, shaded by the maple trees just now showing a hint of the color show to come.  He wondered when the time might arrive when she would look at the wooden markers and shake her head, proclaiming what a silly fool she had been, what a dumb little kid.  He wondered how she might react to seeing a dead animal in the road when she was fifteen.  Would she walk by with some girlfriends, say “yuck,” and then without a second thought, go on talking about boys and clothes and the cute math teacher?  He hoped not, but it was a faint hope.

 Bak unclasped her hands, opened her eyes, and stood up.

 “I hope you get a visitor, Johnny Dove,” she said.  “I hope someone comes here, someone who knew you.”

 Jerry put a hand on her shoulder.  “C’mon, Bak,” he said.  “We should go in and get ready for supper.”

 She put her hand in his, and they walked to the house.

 “I hope you stay this way forever, Bak,” he said, as they went in through the back door.  “Like a little girl who thinks a dead rock dove deserves a grave.”

 “Johnny Dove,” she said.  “Not just any old dove.  Johnny Dove.”

 “Sure,” he said.  “Sorry, Bak.”

 He squeezed her hand, tightly but gently.

 “Whatcha makin’, Daddy?” she asked.

 “How about hot dogs and tater tots?”

 “Yum!”  She smacked her lips and smiled.  “Hurry!”

He hugged her, then got about to making the supper.  Later, as they ate, as Bak dunked her tater tots in ketchup and took bites from the hot dog that were too big for her, they talked–about graves and squirrels, speeding cars and rock doves.  And about the new school year that would start tomorrow, the students she would meet, the friends she would make, the new page that was about to be turned.


Thanks so much for reading!


Short Story — “Tailgater”

There are many occasions in The Eye-Dancers where one of the main characters feels bad after doing or saying something.  Joe is impetuous, and too often acts without first thinking things through.  Mitchell, with his penchant for lying and storytelling, sometimes feels a pang of guilt after one of his tall tales.  Ryan second-guesses himself with regularity, always wanting to please people, never wanting to anger or provoke them.  And Marc too often puts people down, without even intending to.  He is, in a nutshell, a know-it-all, and sometimes, as Mitchell himself reminds him at one point in the novel, his horse gets pretty high sometimes.

The main character in the short story “Tailgater,” which I wrote just as I was beginning the first draft of The Eye-Dancers, also experiences a crisis of conscience, an onslaught of guilt . . .

I hope you will read the story and see how he deals with his predicament.












copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison


As Paul gripped the steering wheel, cruising down the Thruway at seventy miles per hour, he wondered if he should have gift-wrapped the stolen ring.  But in his haste, his eagerness, his second-guessing, he had simply pocketed it, hoping his co-workers and customers would not find guilt etched on his face like a brand.  Besides, who had the time?  His shift had ended at eight thirty, and he wanted to reach Tammie by eleven, at the latest.  That thought prompted him to push down harder on the gas pedal—and the car sped up to seventy-five.

It still didn’t feel fast enough.  He’d jack it up to a hundred if he thought he could get away with it.  It was tempting, too.  There weren’t many motorists out tonight, and he hadn’t spotted a trooper since getting on the Thruway a half hour ago.

 “Go for it,” he said over the radio.  Someone on NPR was talking about the effects of global warming.  Paul chuckled over that.  It had been well below freezing for two weeks now, since before Thanksgiving.

 He glanced in his rearview mirror, checking for a rogue state trooper.

 “Hey.  What the . . . ?”

 A pair of blue, halogen headlights were reflected there, and he had to look away.  Where had that car come from?  Just a moment ago, no one had been anywhere near him, and yet, suddenly, out of thin air, it seemed, he was being tailgated.  And the creep had his lights set on high beam, too.

 Paul gritted his teeth.  Few things annoyed him more than tailgaters.

 “What are you waiting for, you idiot?” he yelled to the driver behind him.  “Why don’t you just pass me?”

 As far as Paul could tell, no other cars were around.  Why on earth was he being tailgated, then?  All the guy had to do was move over into the other lane and speed ahead.  He seemed intent on deliberately giving Paul a hard time.

 “You asked for it,” Paul said, and gently braked.  He slowed down to seventy, sixty-five, sixty, fifty-five . . .  Still the vehicle behind him stuck, as if the driver wanted to touch license plates.  Beads of perspiration formed on his forehead, and his temples started to throb.  He didn’t need this.  Not now.  Not tonight.  Not after what he’d done.

 Suddenly, he gunned it, and he zoomed ahead, leaving the tailgater far behind.  He was going ninety now, but how could he be blamed for that?  The jerk behind him had forced his hand—or foot, as the case may be.

 Glancing in the rearview mirror, he spotted the blue headlights, at least a hundred yards back.  Still no other traffic in sight.

 Good riddance. 

 He took his right hand off the steering wheel and reached into his pocket, feeling for the ring, checking that it was still there.  It was—of course it was—and it felt hot to the touch, though the band was cold.

 Looking around, at the dead cornfields illuminated by the moon-glow, at the scattered farmhouses with their trusty porch lights on, at the grain silos that loomed in the darkness like sleeping monoliths, he felt small and alone.  The events at the restaurant seemed almost dreamlike, and he wondered if perhaps he might wake up in a moment, his bedsheets wrapped tightly around him, the drone of the clock ticking off the slow seconds of the night.

 But no.  This was no dream.  It was real.  All too real.

 He had never stolen anything before . . . at least not anything of value.  He had swiped a few stray pens and pencils—even a five dollar bill once—but nothing remotely like this.  It hadn’t been premeditated.  He didn’t even know the ring existed until just a few short hours ago, when he saw the woman at his table fiddling with it.  She was eating alone, which was peculiar in itself . . . she was young, attractive, and very clearly affluent.  Her outfit—black Piazza Sempione jacket, red silk blouse, black velvet trousers—probably cost more than his entire wardrobe put together.  And she had ordered the most expensive bottle of wine to go with her meal.

 At first, Paul was merely hoping for a generous tip.  She seemed like the kind of woman who might reward good service.  But as he repeatedly made the rounds to her table, asking her how she was enjoying her food (“It’s very good, thanks,” she said more than once), he couldn’t help but notice the way she absently played with her ring.

 It wasn’t an engagement ring, at least he didn’t think it was.  It had a white gold band, with a black pearl set on top, wrapped in a swirl of diamonds that glittered in the lighting of the restaurant.  He had no idea what the price of the ring might be, though it was clear it hadn’t come cheap.  A thousand dollars, perhaps?  Two thousand?  Three?  Way too much, in any event, to be fiddling around with it—taking it off and twirling it between thumb and forefinger—as this woman was doing.

 It made him think of Tammie—beautiful, kind, big-hearted Tammie who lived paycheck to paycheck, working overtime at the factory every other week just to make ends meet.  She was the best thing that had ever happened to him.  He’d met her six months ago.  She was visiting old friends in Rochester, and they had come into the restaurant.  He waited their table.

 He hadn’t openly flirted with Tammie that evening, nor she with him.  But there was something between them, something so charged he thought he’d be electrocuted if he could reach out and touch it.  He had never believed in love at first sight, but how else to explain it?  He could tell she wasn’t at home in the restaurant . . . where the food was pricey and the clientele white-collar, bordering on snobbish.  Later, she told him her friends insisted on taking her there, though she would have preferred a local diner or pizzeria.  Paul chuckled at the memory.  But only for a moment.  It made him sad, bitter even, that she didn’t own anything special, no diamond ring or gold necklace.  It wasn’t fair.  She deserved it.  She deserved so much more. . . .

 He went up to the woman’s table.  The remains of her meal were heaped on the dinner plate, her glass of wine nearly empty.

 “Are you all set, ma’am?” he asked.

 She smiled, nodded; he took her plate and left the bill with her.  He noticed she wasn’t wearing the pearl ring.  What had she done with it?  Put it in her mouth, just for kicks?

 A moment later, he had his answer.  Amid the uneaten morsels of food, he spotted it.  Just lying there.  He laughed, picked it out of the leftovers, and prepared to return it.

 Then he hesitated.  He again thought of Tammie.  Christmas was in two weeks, and he had only bought her a cheap book he’d found on sale, a scarf, and a pair of red mittens.  It made him ill that he couldn’t buy her something nice, but his landlord had raised the rent last month, and Paul was scrimping as much as possible.  He’d been planning to move to Syracuse sometime next year, anyway, to live closer to Tammie.  The increased rent served only as an incentive to get out sooner rather than later.

 His head was suddenly full of scenarios, justifications, rebukes, pros and cons.  Should he give the ring back to the woman?  Yes.  Of course.  What other path was there, really?

 Well . . .

 Maybe he could keep the ring.  Just sort of slip it into his pocket, while no one was looking.  Who would ever know?  And then he could give it to Tammie.  Surprise her with it tonight, after his shift.  Why wait until Christmas?  He wanted to see her face when she beheld the ring—the shine in her eyes, the exuberance of her smile.  All because of him, his gift that would make her feel special and adored.  He couldn’t wait two weeks.

 Besides, if he waited, he might chicken out and give the ring back to its owner.  And why should he do a thing like that?  She didn’t even care about it.  She probably had dozens just like it back at the mansion or townhouse or lakeside bungalow she called home.  What was it to her?

 He returned to her table, the ring in his pants pocket, his cheeks feeling hot.

 “Excuse me,” the woman said, “you didn’t happen to see my ring anyplace, did you?  A black pearl ring?  With a white band?  I seem to have misplaced it.”

 Before he answered, he wondered if she had stuck the ring in her leftovers on purpose, to see what he would do, to test him.  Would he try to steal it?  Or be a good, honest waiter and give it back to her?  Was this all a setup?

 Behind him, he felt a rush of air.  Nicole, a new waitress they had just hired yesterday, hurried past, balancing three plates and smiling as she approached her customers.  He overheard her telling them to flag her down if they needed anything.  Striving for the tip.  That’s what it was all about.  Just like Tammie, working those sixty-hour weeks at the plant.  Trying to stay afloat, hoping to get by.

 Thinking of Tammie gave him a fresh injection of courage.  He took a breath, and a chance.  “I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am.  I’m afraid I haven’t seen it.  I’ll go back and tell all the staff you lost it, though.  It’s bound to turn up somewhere.”

 A shadow fell over the woman’s face, and he almost caved in then.  Maybe he had it all wrong.  Maybe she did care about the ring.  Maybe it had been a gift, from a boyfriend or a relative.  Maybe she was just upset tonight about something, her mind elsewhere, and that was why she had been so careless with it.

 Maybe.  Or maybe he was just conjuring up abstract potentialities that likely didn’t exist.

 “Well,” the woman said, “I don’t know what could’ve happened.  I just had it.  And how could anyone have taken it?  I was here the whole time.”  She looked on her seat, under the table, checked her pockets.  “I don’t understand!  Am I going crazy?  I just had it!”

 “I’m sure it’ll turn up, ma’am,” he said.  “Like I said, I’ll ask around.  And I’ll keep looking in this area, too.  It’s got to be here.”

 She sighed, swore under her breath, shook her head.  “Well, if you do see it, please give my cell a call, okay?”  She jotted down her number on a napkin, and handed it to him.

 “Sure thing,” he said, smiling.

 She gave him a long, hard look.  It felt like she was searching his conscience, attempting to decode his lies.  He wondered if his heartbeat, which sounded like a sledgehammer in his ears, was audible to her, right through his chest.

 “Well, I hope to hear from you later.”

 He didn’t like the way she said that, and he was certain that she suspected what he’d done.  Or was it merely his own guilt, in an effort to prod him into returning her ring?  Whatever it was, he stood his ground.

 When she finally left, he let out a deep breath.  Now he just wished the next couple of hours would fly by and his shift be over.  Then he could get out of here and drive the ninety miles to Tammie’s place, knock on her door, and surprise her.

 He picked up the folder on the tabletop and let out a snort.  He’d had it coming, he supposed.

 She hadn’t left him a tip.

 NPR was beginning to annoy him.  He needed something soothing, comforting.  Turning the dial, he settled on a station playing a piano rendition of “Away in a Manger.”  Perfect.  Just the sort of melody he was looking for.

 He hummed along with the mellow music, trying to forget about the nagging in his head, the doubts that wouldn’t go away.  He could still turn back, call the woman on her cell, tell her he had the ring . . .

 “Can it,” he said, and forced himself to concentrate on the song.

 An SUV passed him on the left, and by instinct, he checked his rearview mirror, to see if anyone else might be close behind.

 Blue, high-beam headlights glared at him, blinding him temporarily.  He turned away from the mirror, rubbed his eyes, and picked up speed.  How had that pest caught up with him again?  No one had been there a second ago.

 “Who cares?” he said.  He’d leave the jerk in the dust again, just like the last time.

 He sped up to eighty, but the car behind him did not fade back.  It stuck to him like a stubborn cold.  He slowed down, sped up again.  Still he couldn’t shake the tailgater.

 That’s when he wondered.  Was the person following him the woman from the restaurant?  Or a boyfriend of hers?  Could that be?

 Don’t be an idiot.  She doesn’t even know what car I drive.

 Yeah, but she might have waited outside and followed you when your shift ended.

 Shut up.  Why would she do that?

 To run you off the road, maybe?  Get her ring back?

 He violently shook his head, and snapped off the radio, as if that might also turn down the volume in his mind.  The Christmas music, calming at first, had turned grating, incongruous.

 “Why are you doing this to me?” he shouted in his mirror.  But his only answer was the flash of blue halogen lights.  “Who are you?”

 He floored it, reaching a hundred miles an hour.  Still, the lights remained just behind him.  The woman, or guy, or whoever it was, would not let him get away.

 Suddenly, he spotted a white Neon directly in his path.  He’d been so focused on losing his pursuer that he hadn’t been paying attention to what lay ahead.  Swerving, slamming on the break, he jerked the car into the passing lane.  The driver of the Neon beeped the horn at him and he could see her gesture angrily even in the dark.

 He passed the Neon, then glanced in his mirror again, hoping nothing would be there.  No such luck.

 The blue headlights still tailed him.

 “All right,” he said.  “If that’s how you want to play . . .”

 He swung back in to the slow lane, then, just as abruptly, changed lanes again, into the passing lane.  He continued to do this—back and forth, back and forth.  Finally, he checked his mirror again, hoping the nutcase behind him had had enough.

 “Well, whaddaya know,” he said, and a smile crossed his lips.  He checked his reflection, and an odd glint was in his eyes now.  The thrill of the chase, he guessed.  It had made him euphoric, half-crazed, even.  The headlights were gone.  Not simply further back.  But gone.

 Odd.  Why would that be?

 From inside his breast pocket, there was a piercing chirp.  His cell.  Someone was texting him.  Was it the woman?  Dropping the game and demanding her ring back?  Don’t be stupid.  She didn’t know his number.  He hadn’t given it to her.

 He took the phone out, his eyes on the road.  He had it mostly to himself.  He passed a pickup truck.  No one else was ahead of him, as far as he could see.  Checking the mirror, there was still no sign of the blue headlights anywhere.  In the distance, another hulking grain silo brooded over the frost-strewn earth.

 He glanced at his cell, read the message.

 Hey, where r u?  Tried calling ur place but no answer.  Thought u’d b home by now.  R u ok?

It was Tammie.  He didn’t want to tell her he was on his way to see her.  But he knew he needed to respond immediately, or else she might worry.  Ahead, he spotted a sign.  The next travel plaza was coming up in two miles.  Good.  He could pull in, text her, then be on his way again.

 With the cell in his hand, he again considered calling the woman from the restaurant.  He hadn’t yet crossed a point of no return.  And, he realized, with each mile he drove, the closer he came to Tammie’s exit, the more uneasy he felt.  He still had an out, a chance to set things right.  Once he saw Tammie, once he gave her the ring and kissed her, there was no way he could then take it back from her.  If he was going to reconsider, it would have to be soon.  Time was running out.

 He’d think about it more when he stopped at the travel plaza.

 No, there’s nothing to think about.  Tammie will love this ring.  That other lady lost it.  Too bad for her.  She shouldn’t have played with it like that.  She—

 In his rearview mirror, there was a sudden flash of blue light.

 “Hey!  No way, not again!  It can’t be.”

 But it was.  His pursuer was back.  He forced himself to look in the mirror again, trying to ignore the burst of light and get a good look at the driver.  But the beams were too bright—they made him think of that light the optometrist shone in his eyes during examinations, so strong that tears cascaded down his cheeks and little black dots floated in the field of his vision for minutes afterward—and the vehicle’s windshield was dark.  For all he knew, the car was driving itself.

 But at least he could pull into the travel plaza this time.  And if the tailgater followed him, he’d confront the jerk once and for all.

 He signaled, slowed down, turned onto the entrance ramp, and coasted into the plaza’s parking lot.  When he checked his mirror, he fully expected to see his nemesis right behind him.  But there was nothing.  For the second time, the car seemed to have vanished, as though it hadn’t been there to begin with.

 “How the . . . ? He was just here!  He was just here.  Wasn’t he?”

 He parked his car, turned off the engine.  Then he looked at his reflection again.

 “Hey, you’re okay, aren’t you, Paul?” he said.  “All the circuits are fully juiced, screws tight, nothing floating loose up in there.  Right?”  He took several deep, calming breaths, trying to rid his mind of tension.  But it was no good.  He was way too edgy, his nerve endings like live wires.

 He texted a quick reply to Tammie, telling her he was fine, just out Christmas shopping.  He figured he’d go out after his shift, late, and avoid the crowds.  He hated to lie, but how could he tell her the truth?.

 Call her.  Call that woman and tell her you have her ring.

 No.  He wouldn’t do that.

 “I need some air,” he said.

 He got out of the car, inhaled deeply, and scanned the lot for the tailgater.  A half-dozen other vehicles were scattered about—any one of them might belong to the guy who’d been tormenting him.  He didn’t even know what his car looked like—only that it had two exceptionally bright high-beam blue halogen headlights.

 “Just forget about it,” he muttered, and strode toward the travel plaza building.  He hadn’t eaten a thing since lunchtime, and the place had a McDonald’s inside.

 But as soon as he passed through the doorway, he realized that he couldn’t just forget about it.  He didn’t know for sure if his tailgater had followed him into the parking lot, but he highly suspected it.  What had seemed like a mystery, an improbability, seconds ago now made perfect sense.  The guy had switched off his headlights as soon as he turned on to the entrance ramp.  Why?  To give the illusion that he’d vanished.  And then, as quick as a subconscious thought, he must have driven to a remote corner of the lot—before Paul could see him.  Yes.  That was it.  He was sure of it.

 But couldn’t he have just continued on the Thruway, and not pulled in here with me?

 “No.”  Paul didn’t believe that.  Somehow he knew, intuitively, that he was still being followed.

 He placed his hand on his forehead.  He could feel the beginning of a nasty headache coming on.

 “Just get some food,” he said.  “Eat.  Calm down.”

 He walked passed an artificial Christmas tree, bedecked with tinsel and cheap-looking gold and silver bulbs.  Above the tree, a placard hung from the ceiling, with the words “Happy Holidays” written in a bold, bright red.

 He looked around.  Three of the plaza’s restaurants were closed for the evening.  Only the McDonald’s was open.  A couple of customers were sitting in booths, enjoying a late-night meal.  Other than that, the place was deserted, save for an old man who was occupied inspecting a scale just outside the men’s room.  This struck him as suspicious.  Wouldn’t that be just what his pursuer might do?  Pretend to be absorbed in some innocuous contraption but in reality, out of the corner of his eye, watching Paul?  Monitoring him?  Sizing him up?

 “Shut up.”

 He ordered a double cheeseburger and a large fries, and sat at one of the booths, by the window, looking through the glass and at himself.  His shadowy reflection glared back at him, frazzled, shaken up.

 He took a bite of the burger—but, though he was hungry, it didn’t go down easily.  His throat seemed to constrict.

 C’mon.  Relax.  What’s your problem?

 Other than stealing an expensive ring?  Being tailgated by a maniac?  Stalked by a person who could very well be dangerous?  Sure.  What could possibly be wrong?

 He took half-a-dozen fries and stuffed them in his mouth.  Good and salty, just the way he liked them, but, again, his throat did not want to cooperate.  “Get out of here,” it seemed to be saying to him.  “Don’t waste time.  He’s here.  He’ll jump you if you let him.”

 He glanced at the two other McDonald’s patrons.

 There was a middle-aged blonde woman seated three booths down.  She was sipping a medium-sized soft drink and picking at a chicken salad.  She looked tired, frumpy.  Her hair was stringy, and she wore a pair of wire-frame glasses that continually fell down her nose.  She would push them up, then they’d fall right back down again.  As she played with her food, pushing it around with her black plastic fork more than actually eating it, she muttered to herself.  Her eyes were droopy, as if she had been on the road all day.

 The other customer was a fiftyish guy in a long gray coat.  He sat on the other side of the restaurant, but he was in clear view and Paul was able to get a good look at him.  He was eating what appeared to be a filet-o-fish sandwich along with two large orders of fries, and he must have been hungry, because he was wolfing the food down.  He was burly, with salt-and-pepper hair and a long, hawklike nose.  As he ate, his shoulders would rise and fall, rise and fall—like a nervous twitch.  Was he the rich woman’s boyfriend, perhaps?  Paul doubted it  Too old.  And too ugly.  But how could he be sure?  You never could tell who a person might fall for.

 He took another bite of his cheeseburger, and this time he nearly spewed it back up.

 “This is impossible,” he said, getting up.  He tossed his food in the waste bin.  Money down the drain, but he couldn’t eat.  As far as he could tell, neither the blonde woman nor the guy with the nervous shoulders had even glanced his way.  And yet, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched.

 He walked out of the McDonald’s, past the tacky artificial tree.  He noticed the old man, still standing by the entrance to the men’s room, studying the scale.

 “Care to weigh yourself, fella?” the man said.  “I weighed myself.  One hundred and fifty-three pounds.  Not a pound lighter, or heavier.  One fifty-three.  I’ve weighed that same amount since the Eisenhower administration, don’tcha know.  Wanna give ‘er a try?”

 He shook his head, picked up his pace, and bolted through the doors.  He needed to get out of this place, see Tammie.  Give her the ring.

 Walking to his car, he felt exposed.  The tailgater could pick him off so easily out here—maybe turn on those blue headlights, shine them in his eyes, and race toward him, slamming into him before he could dodge out of the way.

 He began to run.  If anyone saw him, they would think he’d lost his mind.  But he didn’t care.  He needed to reach the security of his car, before it was too late.

 When he got there, ducked in, slammed and locked the door, he let out a long, tortured breath.

 “What’s the matter with me?  Jumping at shadows.”

 He started the engine, looked around the lot—still nothing out of the ordinary—and drove off.  When he passed the front of the travel plaza, he saw one of the customers coming out.  The big guy, with the beak nose!  So he was the one!

 He pressed down hard on the gas.  If he got on the highway ahead of him, maybe he could pull far enough away and lose him.

 The exit ramp was straight ahead now, and he continued to accelerate, passing an island of self-serve gas pumps charging exorbitant fuel prices.  Still no one behind him.

 “You’re gonna make it, Paul,” he said.  “You’re gonna make it!”

 He took a quick, cursory glance in his rearview mirror, sure that nothing would be there except the glow of the travel plaza’s lights, the pumps, and the black emptiness of the December night.

 A blinding explosion of blue beams made him close his eyes and slam on the brake.  He pulled over to the side, hoping his pursuer would take the hint and zoom past, onto the interstate, out of his life forever.  But the vehicle just slipped in behind him, the blue halogen lights still shining in at him like an accusation.

 That’s when Paul understood.  There was no escape from this madman.  He was like a killer in a grade-B horror movie.  Always one step ahead of his prey.  Always right there behind you, no matter what you did.

 He was through running.  He couldn’t do it anymore.  The confrontation could not be avoided any longer.

 That guy is huge.  He’d probably break you in half.  Probably has a gun, too.

 He sighed.  He didn’t know for sure that the driver behind him was the guy in the gray coat, the ugly man who looked like he’d been an NFL linebacker, or a heavyweight boxer, in his prime.  But he hadn’t seen anyone pass him on the exit ramp, either.

 That doesn’t mean he’s the one behind you now.  Maybe he’s still in his car back in the parking lot.  Listening to the radio.  Making a call. 

 “Just give it up,” he said.  He was through speculating.  It was time to get out of the car, and see what the guy wanted.

 He wants the ring.  You know that.

 Yes, he did.  He was sure of it.

 Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out the napkin on which the woman at the restaurant had scrawled her cell number.  The guy behind him was likely dangerous, maniacal.  He had shown that already, tailgating and harassing Paul the way he had.  What if he killed him?  Simply shot him or strangled him, then deposited his body in the frigid waters of the lake?

 He had an urge to speed away then.  He didn’t want this, didn’t want to face this unknown danger on some exit ramp in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing but old farmhouses and dead fields and cold, hard blacktop.  But where would that get him?  To the next travel plaza?  The exit booths, taking him off the Thruway?  What good would that do?  His adversary would be right there behind him, ready to strike.  It would merely serve to postpone the inevitable.

 He looked at the number on the napkin again.  His tailgater’s headlights, reflecting off the rearview mirror, bathed the napkin in a blue, alien-like glow.  The guy still hadn’t turned off his engine, or gotten out of the car.  He just idled there, waiting, waiting.

 “I don’t want to go out like this,” he said.  “I can’t go out like this.”

 Closing his eyes, he visualized Tammie.  He pictured the ring on her finger, how beautiful it would look, how right.  But thinking of that only made things worse.

 He picked up his cell phone.

 “It’s your lucky night, lady,” he said to the interior of his car, and then dialed her number.

 One ring.  Two.  Three.  Four.  He thought maybe she wouldn’t answer, that he’d get her recording.  It was late, after all.  Should he leave a message?  Or call back later?  Would there even be a later, after he’d dealt with his unrelenting pursuer?

 But on the fifth ring, she answered.  He wondered if she was still wearing her expensive jacket, or if she’d since returned home and had changed into something more casual.

 “Hello?” she said.

 He introduced himself, told her he’d found her ring.  Would she like to come by the restaurant to pick it up tomorrow morning, or should he drive to her place tonight and give it back to her?  Morbidly, he thought, Or maybe you could find the guy who’s behind me now after he kills me, and get it from him. 

 “Oh, thank goodness!” she said.  “You are a lifesaver!  I was sick all evening, thinking of how I’d lost it and wouldn’t ever see it again.  Thank you!  You are so awesome.”

 He swallowed.  Yeah.  Real awesome.  All I tried to do was rip you off tonight.

 “I’ll pick it up tomorrow morning,” she said.  “I suppose I can trust you with it for one night, right?”  She laughed.

 “Right,” he said, and laughed back.  Or tried to.  He doubted it sounded sincere.

 “Well, thanks again,” she said.  “This means so much to me.  See you tomorrow.”

 She said bye, and hung up.  He rubbed his eyes.  It felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted from him.  The albatross was gone.

 But now the real trouble was at hand.

 He turned off the engine, and, without hesitation, got out of the car.  It was better to get this over with quickly.

 “Okay, mister, I—”

 There was nobody there.  No car idling with blue high-beam lights glaring at him.  No hulking man in a gray coat with a long, twisted nose and murder in his eyes.  Nothing.

 “But . . .”

 He walked to the rear of his car, and even peeked underneath, as if the vehicle that had been trailing him had somehow become miniaturized and was now attached to his undercarriage.  Was it possible that his tailgater had grown weary of the chase and had driven off while he was on the phone?  No.  He was sure no one had passed him.

 Then what?

 He didn’t know, and was too tired to think about it.  He just knew he felt like himself again.  That’s all that really mattered.

 He felt for the ring in his pocket.  It was there, safe and secure.  He smiled.

 Maybe the woman would give him a belated tip when she saw him in the morning.


Thanks so much for reading!


Short Story — “Cover-Up”

Each of the characters in The Eye-Dancers carries with them some emotional pain–a fear of rejection, a lack of self-confidence, family concerns, the loneliness of not fitting in at school.  They also have a tendency to hide their issues–or at least try to.  Marc Kuslanski, for example, underneath his know-it-all exterior, is a boy in desperate need of a friend.  He doesn’t like to admit this, to himself or others, but his bouts of denial do not negate the truth.  Thankfully for him, the events in the story unite him with Mitchell Brant, and a friendship is indeed formed.

In the short story “Cover-Up,” which I wrote a few years ago, the protagonist is also carrying with him the baggage of emotional pain, the burden of regret and self-blame.  And, just like Marc, he tries his best to conceal it.  But on a long, cross-country train trip, his seatmate sees right through his mask.  Will he open up to this stranger, or throw up his customary wall?

I hope you enjoy “Cover-Up” . . .












Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison


“So, do you wanna talk about it?” the young woman with the terrible scar asked.

He was sure he didn’t.  What Patrick really wanted to do was sleep the ride away.  But that didn’t seem likely.  It was still light outside, and the train was bumpy, lurching often and sometimes feeling precariously close to derailing.  Not for the first time, he asked himself why he hadn’t just flown.  “Talk about what?”

The woman looked at him.  Her eyes were a light, pastel shade of green.  “You know . . . whatever’s bugging you.  I can tell something’s really got you down.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” he said.  “I’m fine.  Just tired, I guess.”

“It’s not good to hold things in, y’know,” the woman said.  “You need to let it out.  And I have a good ear.  Really.  All my friends say so.”

He silently wondered if she actually had any friends, she was so nosey.  But she had seen right through his lie.  Something was bothering him.  He was annoyed that he wasn’t able to hide it, especially considering all the practice he’d had.

“Hey, really, I’m fine, so just drop it, okay?” he said.  The train lurched, and he was thrust forward, grabbing the seatback in front of him.  “Man, real smooth ride, huh?”

The woman smiled.  “What’s your name, anyway?”

“Patrick,” he said.  Taking advantage of his window seat, he looked through the glass.  They were traveling through the flat country of western Illinois now, past dead cornfields and crisp, white farmhouses with covered porches and weathervanes and dirty plastic sheets draped over the windows, flapping in the wind.

“Hi, Patrick,” she said.  “I’m ‘Becca.  Well, Rebecca.  Everyone calls me ‘Becca, though.  So, are you a Patrick?  Or a Pat?”

“Patrick.”  His dad used to call him Pat.  He didn’t even want to think of that name.

“So, Patrick . . . have you ever taken the train before?  I love it.  It’s like a real trip.  You get a chance to really talk to people, y’know?”

No, he didn’t know, and he didn’t reply, hoping she would take the hint.  He just wanted to be left alone.  But she was hard to ignore.  That scar was hard to ignore.  It was the deepest, longest scar he had ever seen on a person’s face.  He’d noticed it right away, as soon as she had boarded the train and decided to sit next to him.  It started to the right of her eye, just below the brow, and twisted its way down her cheek, not stopping until it reached the point of her chin.  Every time he glanced at her, his gaze fell upon it.  What had caused such a gash in the first place?  He had no idea, and preferred to keep it that way.  Just another reason to stare out the window.

“Where are you headed, anyway?” she asked.

“Denver,” he said.

“Really?  So am I!”  Great.  Just great.  “You must’ve gone back home for the holidays.  I did, too.  But now it’s time to return to real life and work and paying the bills.”

“Yeah,” he said.  Real life.  Work.  That was fine with him.  He never should have gone home in the first place.  The faster he forgot about it, the better.  Mom and Jayne crying.  Jayne laying into him for leaving a few days early.

“That’s just what you did before!” she’d said.  “You ran away.  Can’t you stay a measly couple days more?  For Mom?  And for me?”

But he couldn’t.  What did his presence help anyway?  They were all miserable together.  He just wanted to leave, so he had.

The door at the far end of the car opened and then snapped shut.  A couple, likely returning from a meal in the Dining Car, walked down the aisle.  Three young children, two girls and a boy, trailed right behind them like a small school of pilot fish.

He looked out the window again.  The winter sun, sinking to the horizon, gave off its last weak rays of the day.  The porch light of a distant farmhouse flicked on and shone like a beacon across the frozen fields and dead, windswept grasses.

“So, what do you do, Patrick?” Becca asked him.  “Where do you work?”

He wished she’d shut up.  He wasn’t up for this.  Still, he told her he was a technical writer who worked for a computer software company.  He wrote the how-to manuals no one liked to read.  But he enjoyed it.  Wrestling with the minutia of the programs, figuring out the meaning behind the engineers’ logic, crafting documents that somehow translated the highly complex material into understandable language for the end users.  It allowed him to get lost in the safe world of code and technology, sweeping unwanted emotions, unwanted memories, aside.

Another couple entered the car.  The next call for the Dining Car would be due shortly.  But he was thinking about going to the Lounge Car.  A few stiff drinks sounded good.  He was feeling warm, claustrophobic.

“You hot?” he asked her.  “They got the heat turned up way too high.”  He took off his jacket, placed it under his seat.

“I’m not hot,” she said.  “But if I was hot, I wouldn’t know, so . . .”

What did she mean by that?  He looked at her, but saw only the scar, which seemed almost to pulsate with a life, a vitality of its own.  Whatever had happened to her must have caused unspeakable pain and anguish.  But that thought just made him hotter, more in need of a drink.

He sidled past her, into the aisle.  The train lurched again, and he almost fell.  He would have, too, if he hadn’t grabbed onto the seat in time.  She didn’t ask him where he was going, and he didn’t say.  The last thing he wanted was for her to tag along.

“See you later,” she said.

He nodded, and headed for the Lounge Car.

It was almost deserted.  Just a young couple sitting next to each eating pretzels and popcorn, and a bald, thin man sitting by himself looking out the window into the darkening twilight, his left hand wrapped around a glass of wine.  Perhaps he, too, was attempting to drink away his troubles.

Patrick bought a beer, inwardly groaning that the kid behind the bar didn’t want to see ID.  He had just turned thirty.  Getting asked for ID used to be a hassle, five years ago.  Now he felt slighted when someone failed to do it.

He sat down, as far away from the couple and the bald man as he could get.  He needed to be left alone for a while, to enjoy the taste and buzz of the beer.  He wanted peace and quiet, light, airy thoughts.  But his mind had other ideas.  He closed his eyes, and saw his mother crying.  Not yesterday or the day before, but two years ago, after the accident.  He saw his sister crumpled on the sofa, her face buried in a pillow.  And he saw himself, standing there, hands in pockets, not knowing what to say or do.

It had all been his fault.  It never should have happened—not to Dad.  Patrick had recently moved into a new apartment across town, and didn’t visit his parents very often.  That evening, he was coming over for supper.  His car had a transmission leak and on the way over he had intended to buy some fluid.  But his thoughts had drifted, he’d forgotten, and now the car was shifting with difficulty—the transmission was dry.  When he said he needed to run to the automotive store, his father said not to think of it.  He would go.  Patrick should stay with his mom and his sister.  Patrick protested—he was the one who forgot to buy the fluid, after all—but Dad was adamant.

“Be back in fifteen minutes,” Dad had said.

They never saw him again.

Patrick took a long drink of the beer, trying to submerge the memories in alcohol, washing them down some fast-moving stream that would carry them away to a distant ocean, forever adrift, forever removed from his consciousness.  Several seats in front of him, the bald man slammed his wine glass down, causing some of the wine to spill onto the table.  He muttered under his breath, drank more wine, then banged the glass back down again.  To Patrick’s left, the young couple were whispering to each other, as if gossiping about the two lushes sharing the car with them.

He wished he were drunk.  But he was all too sober.  Suddenly, and with ferocious clarity, he heard the knock on his parents’ door.  Dad had been gone over an hour, they were getting worried.  But still, what could have happened?  The car-parts store was less than three miles away.

Images, sounds, smells raced into his head, like snapshots from a nightmare.  The door opening, revealing two police officers.  They appeared solemn, yet mechanical.  Just doing their job.  Mom shrieking when she heard them say Dad had been blindsided by a teenager running a red light.  The table had been set, the glasses full of water, the salad ready to eat, tossed in the flower-patterned bowl Mom had owned since before Patrick was born.  Dad’s plate and silverware and napkin laid out in his spot, at the head of the table.  The smell of pot roast in the oven, mashed potatoes with butter on the stovetop.  And seeing the calendar on the kitchen wall, the picture showing a snowy field in some distant mountain valley, sparkling under a blue sky the color of his dad’s eyes.  And on the date he had come over—February 17—Mom’s curly, pretty script:  “Patrick coming for supper!”

But more than anything, he remembered the cries of his mother.  She yelled at the officers, “No, no, it can’t be!  This can’t be happening!”  Later that night, Mom was in her bedroom, in the bed she had shared with her husband for thirty-two years, crying and saying, softly now, over and over, “No.”

And through it all, Patrick could only feel one thing, one repeating thought, bent on driving him mad:  It should’ve been me.  Not Dad.  It should’ve been me.  If only he hadn’t forgotten to buy the transmission fluid.  If only he had insisted that he, not Dad, go to the store!  It should’ve been me.

The train lurched again, causing some of his beer to spill.  That apparently struck the young couple as funny, because they giggled harder.  Patrick wished he could share even one-sixtieth of their good humor.  This wasn’t working.  Coming to the Lounge Car had only made things worse.  He cursed himself for having gone back home for Christmas.  All it accomplished was to cause these memories to bubble back up to the surface—after he had spent the last two years forcing them down.  That’s why he’d moved away.  He couldn’t take it anymore.  Every time he visited his mom or saw Jayne, he saw the sadness in their eyes.  And when he saw that, he felt condemned.  He knew they didn’t do it on purpose, but he didn’t need to see it, either.  Going home for the holidays, nothing had changed.  So Patrick decided to leave ahead of schedule.  He needed to go back to Denver, far away from his mom’s sad eyes, no matter what Jayne accused him of.  Running away?  Yes, he was running away.  He needed to rebury those memories again.  Shove them deep inside an impregnable vault where they couldn’t touch him, couldn’t harm him, couldn’t haunt him.

It should have been me.

“Shut up!” he yelled, and the bald man turned to glare at him.  Even the couple stopped giggling.

He downed the remainder of his beer, then got up to leave.  He realized he was better off chatting with Becca, as long as she didn’t pester him to “talk about it.”

“That was quick,” she said when he brushed past her and took his window seat again.  Outside, it was full dark now.

He rested his elbow on the base of the window, cupped his chin in his hand, gazing out into the pitch nothingness of the night.

“Guess you didn’t have such a riveting time, huh?”  she said.

He looked at her, and she smiled.  Despite her awful scar, he actually thought she was pretty.  But the scar distracted him.  He tried not to fixate on it, but he couldn’t help it.

She traced the outline of the scar with her fingertips.  “Mmm-hmm, I know,” she said.  “Hard to miss, isn’t it?”

Immediately, he looked away, at the seatback in front of him.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to—”

She smiled again.  “Hey, it’s okay.  At least you weren’t staring with your mouth hanging open.  People do, you know.”  He swallowed, still feeling like he’d done something wrong.  “I don’t mind talking about it,” she went on.  “I mean, it’s a part of me, you know?  It’s the first thing everyone sees.”

There was a call over the PA system, they were taking more reservations for the next meal to be served in the Dining Car.  A short, fat man, middle-aged, immediately rose from his seat and waddled down the aisle.  He nearly tripped and fell when the train lurched, and a blond-haired kid snickered.  The fat man blushed and cursed, then walked through the doors into the adjoining car.

Becca eyed the blond kid with amusement.  “You know, I wasn’t much older than him when I got this,” she said, still touching her injury.  “I was only a little girl, five at the time.”

“Look, you don’t have to tell me about it,” Patrick said.  They were passing through a small town now, past a darkened post office, a brick town hall, and a row of stores that appeared to be closed for the evening.  “I’m sure it’s not something you like to talk about.”

She glanced past him, out the window.  “I was left by myself—only for a couple of minutes, but that was all it took.  I found this pair of scissors, and it was like I was in a trance or something.  I wanted to see if I could make myself feel something, I had to feel something, even if it hurt.  Just to see what all the fuss was about, you know?  Everyone was always telling me to be careful, but I just couldn’t understand.”

That makes two of us, Patrick thought.

“Remember how I told you before you left that I wouldn’t know if it was too hot in here?” she asked.  He nodded.  He remembered, all right.  She was a strange one.  “Well, if you want to know the truth . . . you’re sitting next to a true marvel of the medical community.  I’m a real find, y’know.  I’m one of only sixty people in the United States with CIPA.  And only a fraction of us ever get through childhood.  And here I am, twenty-six and still kicking.  I should get a medal or something.”

He just looked at her.  Every time she opened her mouth, she lost him a little more.

“CIPA . . .” she continued, apparently sensing his confusion . . . “Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis.  It’s a condition you’re born with.  Basically, I can’t feel any pain.  I can’t feel the cold or the heat.  You can kick me in the face ten times and I won’t feel a thing!  Or throw me in a bucket of ice water, and I wouldn’t feel cold.  Pretty crazy, huh?  You should Google it sometime.”

He gave no reply, and she paused to allow him to digest it all.  His first thought was that she was making it up.  But then he figured she was probably telling the truth.  Why would someone lie about such an odd, unheard-of condition?  How would that benefit her?

“And, see, that’s what really made me want to do something to cause a sensation, to even cause pain,” she said.  The train had left the small town behind, as it continued its journey over the prairie-like countryside.  Soon they would cross the Mississippi River, into Iowa.  A long way to go before reaching Denver.  “I mean, everyone was always telling me that knives were dangerous, fire was dangerous, scissors were dangerous.  But it was just words to me, you know?  It didn’t mean anything.  So I had to see.  What can I say?  I was five.

“So I went to the dresser where I knew the scissors were, and I . . . well, let’s just say I was a very curious little girl.  I jabbed the sharp end into my face, right here. . .”  She gently massaged a point on the scar directly beside her eye.  “Good thing I didn’t go a little to the left, huh?  Or else I’d be blind.  But I still didn’t feel anything, and I was like, ‘What is this?  What’s the big deal about scissors?’  So I pushed them in a little deeper and then I dragged them all the way down to here.”  She touched the bottom of her scar, just an inch away from her chin.  “And you know, I still didn’t feel anything, and I started to see all this blood.  But I didn’t know what to make of it.  I mean, I felt fine!  So I was about to try the other side of my face, and that’s when my mom came into the room.  I guess you can figure out the rest, huh?”  She smiled.  “They took me to the hospital, and I had to have surgery.  They did the best they could, but . . . .  Anyway, I try to look on the bright side.  I mean, when I get a filling, they don’t need to shoot me up with Novacaine.  And you know what?  I can’t even sweat!  How many women would love to be able to say that?”

She laughed, and he laughed with her, though he felt awkward laughing on the heels of such a grisly story.  More than that, he felt dazed, as if he’d had five beers instead of only one.  It was so hard to wrap his head around this, to make sense of it.  But it was true.  She didn’t feel pain.  She was like a rock.  The more he thought of it, the more he liked it.

“Man, imagine that,” he said.  “No matter what happens, not to be able to feel a thing.”

She tilted her head, looked at him closely.  “It’s really not such a great deal,” she said.  “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“Why not?  It sounds pretty good to me.”

“But don’t you understand?  I can’t feel any pain!  Don’t you see what that means?  I would have killed myself with those scissors if my mom hadn’t come back when she did.  I would’ve killed myself without even knowing it.  And even now, it’s like, I know not to do things that are dangerous, but it’s still kind of like secondhand knowledge, you know?  It’s like if you read about a volcano in the Indian Ocean or something.  It’s just news, information.  It’s not personal.  I know a knife will make me bleed, but I won’t feel the wound.  You see what I’m trying to say?  And what’s to stop me from burning myself on an electric stovetop?  I can touch the burner, and I wouldn’t even know it’s on!  Then when I look at my hand later and see all the skin is gone, I’d be like, ‘Uh oh.’  Or what if I stuck my hand in a sink full of soapy dishwater and jabbed at a piece of broken glass without even knowing it?  I could slice my wrist open.  Every day is like a minefield, Patrick.”

A handful of passengers walked by, most likely heading to the Dining Car.  They were serving three-cheese lasagna this evening, among other possibilities, all of which sounded good.  Maybe he’d go a bit later, but not now.  Not now.

Becca took a deep breath.  “It’s all just like a mask, a gimmick,” she explained.  “I mean, I can’t feel pain, but I can still get injured.  I still bleed and bruise, and my bones can still break.  The feeling no pain . . . it’s just a cover-up.  It doesn’t really protect me from anything.  It’s like pretend.  Like an act.  I mean, no matter what you’re born with, or what you try to make yourself believe, the things that can hurt you will hurt you.  You know what I mean?”

He just sat there, staring at his lap.

“I think you do,” she said.  “I think you know exactly what I mean.  Don’t you, Patrick?”

He was disconcerted, again, by the way she saw right through him.  He wanted to deny it, to deny her, but he couldn’t.  He dared to look at her, and she had concern in her eyes.  Understanding.  Compassion.  But none of those things set him off.  It was the scar.  That deep, old scar that slithered its way down her cheek like the imprint of a snake fossil.  He visualized Becca at five, wanting desperately to feel, even as she gouged her face and spilled her own blood.  And somehow, he just couldn’t deal with that.

The tears came, suddenly and with great force.  He coughed on his own phlegm, burying his face on Becca’s shoulder.  His body rocked and jerked.  He was sure he caused Becca to rock and jerk right along with him, but he couldn’t stop.

“That’s right,” Becca said, putting an arm around him as he kept on crying.  “You just let it out.”

He was aware, vaguely, that people were staring at him.  He sensed the blond kid’s eyes boring a hole through Becca’s back and right into his head.  But he didn’t care.  He was aware, too, that this was the first he had cried since . . . he couldn’t even remember the last time.  He just knew he hadn’t cried since Dad’s death.  Not at hearing the news.  Not at the funeral.  Not even when he moved away from home, halfway across the continent.  And certainly not yesterday, with his mom and sister.  When he saw them crying, he never thought it did them any good.  What was the point?  People needed to move past their losses, push them away.  If you gave into them, they would paralyze you.  That’s why he’d never allowed himself to cry.  He always feared that once he started, he wouldn’t be able to stop.  He thought he’d only get bogged down in the morass of guilt and regrets and lost dreams that floated high above, always out of reach.

But when the tears finally slowed, and then stopped, he found that he felt better than he had in a long time, as though a monstrous weight had been lifted from him.  He sat upright again, not looking at Becca, and peered out the window at the blackness, at nothing.

“Better?” she asked.

He shrugged, nodded, still not looking at her.

She reached over, gently turned his face to hers.  “It’s okay,” she said.  “It’s all right.”

He felt a lump in his throat, and worried he might cry again.  But he didn’t.

“So,” she said, “you ready to talk about it now?”

He looked into the green eyes of this stranger, this scarred woman he had chanced to meet on his long way back to the studio apartment where he laid his head down to sleep each night.  Where he was running back to as a desperate man in search of a refuge.  But it wasn’t a refuge.  He knew that now.  It never had been.  He looked at this stranger who was no longer a stranger, this friend who had seen him more clearly than anyone ever had.  Even himself.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I think I am.”


Thanks so much for reading!


Short Story — “Relics”

We learn early on in The Eye-Dancers that Mitchell Brant is a comic book collector.  The old, vintage issues transport him to a different place, one filled with magic, wonder, and gold-glittered avenues that lead to a world of endless possibilities.  As it turns out, these qualities will become essential to his survival.  As the novel progresses and things seem more and more hopeless, Mitchell must tap into that sense of magic and wonder.  He must believe in those possibilities, and keep the faith that everything will work out in the end.

I wrote the short story “Relics” while I was still writing the first draft of The Eye-Dancers.  The main character in “Relics” must, like Mitchell, believe in the unbelievable, and hold on to faith when all reason, all logic dictates that hope is lost.  And, surely, Mitchell would appreciate the role that vintage comic books play in this story.

I hope you enjoy “Relics” . . .







Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison


Looking at his wife from across the room, it was easy for John to pretend that things were normal, the way they should be, the way they used to be.  She was sitting on the couch, her light blonde hair in a ponytail.  Everything seemed in place, as if their life, her life, hadn’t taken a sudden, irreversible turn four months ago.

But then his eyes shifted, just a little, to the right, and he saw the wheelchair.  He swallowed hard at the sight of it, took a deep breath, and crossed the room.

She smiled at him when he sat beside her on the couch, and he reached for her hand.

At least she can move her arms, can breathe unaided, he thought.  At least the damage was only from the waist down.  The doctor had told him, hours after Lori had been rushed into the ICU, when his world felt like it was spinning and reeling, out of control, that his wife was fortunate.  The collision had been head-on.  It could have been much worse.  She was lucky to be alive.  And, after assessing her injuries, the doctor assured him that she would live, recover enough to lead a productive life.  There was only one catch.

She’d never walk again.

“Never?” John had asked.  Nothing seemed real.  Lori was fortunate?  Fortunate?  Is that what this guy had just told him?

The doctor looked away for a moment.  “Well, I suppose I shouldn’t say never.  But, in all honesty, it would take a miracle.”

A miracle.  He had read very little on paralysis—he’d never had reason to.  It hadn’t touched his life or that of anyone he knew.  But now, now, it loomed before him, a towering monolith, tottering, toppling, about to land on him and crush him to dust.

He scoured the Web for hours, days, gleaning information, searching for guidance, stories of recovery, of hope.  He read about the latest research, the new and exciting discoveries that were being made every day.  Of course there were differences of opinion among the experts, but nearly all of them agreed on one thing:  a cure was still a long way off—years, decades, even.  Someday, catastrophic injuries to the spinal cord would be healed.  There was little doubt about that.  But that day was but a speck on a distant horizon, ten thousand tomorrows hence.  What good would it do Lori?

“I think I have a little more feeling in my right leg,” she said.  Sitting next to her on the couch, as he had so many times before the accident, the questions came in a torrent.  Why couldn’t he turn back the clock?  Why did she have to be driving on that road, at that moment?  Why did the other driver, intoxicated beyond all reason, have to pick that night to lose control, why did he have to swerve into the wrong lane just as Lori was approaching . . .?

He rubbed his temples, his forehead.  A raging headache was coming on.  Ever since the accident, he’d been getting headaches regularly.  Thinking too much.  Brooding too hard, too often.

She loved to run.  She had been training for a marathon.  He tried to join her a couple of times when she went out for a run, but he couldn’t keep up.  Lori was like that with everything—a dynamo, always in motion, full of energy and life.  Now what was she?

A cripple.

“I just have to believe, that’s what I tell myself,” she said.  He saw her veins bulge out on the side of her neck, felt her hand squeeze his, hard.  She was trying to move her legs.  Pearls of perspiration beaded on her forehead.

He felt like telling her not to strain herself.  It wasn’t worth it.  It wasn’t worth the frustration, the effort, the heartache.  And yet, every day, multiple times per day, she kept trying. . . .

“Unnnh,” she said, and finally relaxed again.  She let her head fall back, against the couch cushion.  Immediately he noticed moisture forming in her eyes.

“Damnit!” she said, lifting her head, looking at him.  “Why won’t they move?  Why can’t I make them move?”  She cried then, and he reached out to hold her.

“Ssh,” he said, stroking her hair.  He wanted to follow this up by saying everything would be all right, things would get better.  But he didn’t.  He had no right to say such a thing.  He wasn’t the one who could no longer walk.  He wasn’t the one who now owned a broken and battered body, full of pain and unending, unrelenting frustration.

He again thought of what the doctor had said.  It would take a miracle for her to walk again.  The therapists at the rehabilitation center—where Lori had learned how to compensate for a crippled lower body, where she learned the skills she would need to lead a reasonably independent life, where she learned how to cope—all of them had said the same thing.  It was better, more productive, to work hard at rehab, focus on today, on realities, on tangible goals and graspable plans.  For the most part, Lori was adjusting remarkably well—better than he would have, he was sure.  She even intended to go back to work at some point.  But she had not been willing to believe that her paralysis was permanent.  Not when she first heard the news, and not now.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sniffling.  “I didn’t mean to cry like that.”  He could tell by the determined expression on her face that she was readying herself for another try.

He didn’t want to watch her strain and strain, to no avail.  Not again.  He got up, feeling guilty, as he often did these days, at the easy functionality of his legs.

“I’ll go back to making supper,” he said.  The fact was, he hadn’t even started supper yet.

She looked at him.  There was a hurt in her eyes, and it had nothing to do with her now useless legs.  She had asked him before to believe with her, pray with her, dare to hope.

“Miracles are like flowers,” she had said just yesterday.  “They need watering.  They need care.”  Perhaps.  But he couldn’t raise up his hopes, only to have them dashed every time he saw her struggle to move her legs.  Maybe she was simply stronger than him.  Or more naïve.  Then again, it was her legs, not his, that were paralyzed.  He wondered, had their situations been reversed, how he would be coping.  He guessed that he, too, would be hoping, working, for a miracle, just as she was.  The difference was—if she were in his place, she would, undoubtedly, be believing, too, right alongside him.

“I’m making spaghetti and meatballs,” he said, feeling like a jerk, as he walked away, “with lots of garlic in the sauce, the way you like it.”

He hoped she’d smile at this, but she didn’t.  She just stared, straight ahead, concentrating, getting ready for another round of exertion.

He cleared his throat, wishing he could find the words she needed to hear, the words he needed to say, whatever they were.  But all he did was walk out of the room, into the kitchen.  He made supper, burning the sauce and boiling way too much spaghetti.  He didn’t have much of an appetite.

That night, after she had maneuvered out of the wheelchair into the bed without assistance, she was thumbing through a photo album.  In the pictures, Lori was usually smiling, moving, the camera catching her in full stride, or with a tennis racquet, about to strike the ball, or playing Frisbee, reaching out to make a one-handed grab of an errant toss.  There was one picture of the two of them, taken with a self-timer, on the summit of a mountain they climbed five years ago, a lifetime ago, on a trip they had taken to the Pacific Northwest.

Beside her in bed, his gaze, inevitably, continued to fix itself on her legs—how healthy they looked in the photographs, how ready to scale and run and conquer the land.  Why did she look at these relics?  These reminders of a life that used to be, but could never be again?  What good did it do?

He turned away.

Beside him, he heard the photo album snap shut.

“You know, it would really be nice to have you support me, John,” she said.  “It’s hard enough trying to deal with all of this.  I didn’t think I’d need to do it by myself.”

That stung.  It made him feel like a failure, a pathetic excuse of a man.  On the other hand, what was he supposed to do?  What was he supposed to say?  They didn’t exactly write instruction manuals on how to adjust to life after your wife becomes paralyzed.

“I need you to believe in me,” she said then.  “In what I’m trying to do.”

“Why?  So I can watch you cry and be disappointed day after day after day, when you can’t move your legs?”  The words shot out of him, too quickly, before he’d had a chance to think them over.  But now that they were out, he needed to go on, needed to explain the way he felt.  “Why do you look at those pictures, Lori?  Do you like torturing yourself?  Is that it?  I don’t understand it!”

“No,” she said.  “You don’t.”

“Why can’t you accept the truth?” he went on.  “We both need to accept it.  I have.  But you . . .”

“You must really think I’m stupid,” she said.  There was a quiver in her voice.  I put that there, he thought.  I hurt her, again.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  The anger was gone, replaced by a heavy, massive blanket of regret.  Why had he lost his composure?  Didn’t she have enough to overcome, without his outbursts?  “I didn’t mean that.”

He thought she would turn away from him, stonewall him for the rest of the night.  Instead, she took hold of his hand.  “I know this is hell for you, too,” she said.  “And I’m sorry for saying you haven’t supported me.  You have.  You’ve been by my side throughout all of this.  Don’t think I’m not aware of that, John.  And grateful for it.  It’s just . . . Look, I know you don’t want me to get hurt, to believe I’ll be able to walk again, and then . . .”

He started to say something, but she stopped him.  “I have accepted this,” she said.  “I know it probably doesn’t seem like it, but I have.  Well . . . I’m working on it, anyway.  I know I might not walk again.  I know what the doctors said.  But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to lie down and tell myself it’s impossible.  I won’t stop trying, John, and I won’t stop believing.  And what I really need, more than anything, is for you to believe, too.  I need you on my side for this.  Can you do that for me?”

The logic-oriented part of his brain wanted to argue with her.  If she had accepted her situation, why would she still be trying to accomplish the impossible, or, at the least, the highly improbable?  Why put herself through that?  But he didn’t argue with her.  He just nodded, and said, in a whisper, “I’ll try.”

“Hi, John, glad you could make it,” Seth said, smiling, the creases in his face multiplying like randomly expanding spider webs.

John smiled back.  He liked Seth.  He’d worked for him at his previous job, and the two became friends.  When John quit, moving to a higher-paying position at a company across town, they remained in touch; though, since Lori’s accident, he rarely got out to see anyone.  He hadn’t seen Seth since the older man had visited him in the ICU, when the nightmare was still fresh and new.  He’d barely heard what Seth had said that day.

“Been wanting to stop in for a visit,” Seth said.  “But I figured it was still too soon, you know.”

John nodded, and an awkward silence hung in the air.  It was Seth who broke it.

“Come on inside,” he said.  Another smile, more multiplying spider webs.

Seth’s house was a spacious ranch, overlooking a two-acre backyard, complete with a trout pond, lilac bushes, a well-kept flower garden, and a vegetable garden that was his pride and joy.  He had boasted about his garden dozens of times at work, before the start of a meeting, as employees shuffled in to the conference room.  But the boasts were true, and now, at the height of its midsummer lushness, the garden looked to John like an oasis, a rich, green world just waiting to lure him in with its charms.

Seth led him to the back den, with its wall of windows and glass-sliding door that opened out onto the green expanse of the yard.  There was a birdfeeder just beyond the windows.  Blue jays and grackles scuffled for control, while a cardinal and two grosbeaks looked down from a nearby perch, waiting for a chance.

But what really caught his eye were the comic books.  There were two stacks of them, side by side.  One stack piled at least three feet high, the other much less substantial—only a dozen or so comics.  Beside this smaller stack, a pair of scissors, a collection of envelopes and stamps, and several clipped-out old advertisements lie scattered on the floor.

Seth sat down in a cream-colored, comfortable-looking oval chair.

“Plant yourself,” he said, motioning to the sofa across from him.  “Make yourself at home, John.”

He did as instructed, sat down, let out a breath that felt as though it had been building for months.  It actually felt good to be here, away from the house, for a little while.  He wasn’t sure if he should leave Lori alone, but she had all but pushed him out the door, assuring him that she’d be fine.  Besides, his extended leave of absence from work was coming to an end; he would be going back next week.  So this would be good practice for both of them.  She wouldn’t be a burden to him, she said.  They needed to get on with their lives.

“What you must think of me,” Seth said.  “I didn’t even offer you a drink.  Maybe that’s what being a department manager does to a fella after a while—gives him a big head.”  He jumped up, spry as a man decades younger, and walked swiftly into the kitchen.  He returned a moment later, with two glasses of lemonade.

“Thanks,” John said, reaching for one of the glasses, taking a drink.  Very tart, just the way he liked it.  But he felt shy being here.  Usually, when he saw Seth, they met for lunch or coffee in one of the cafes downtown.  Sometimes they golfed together.  Rarely did he come here, to his ex-boss’s house.

He eyed the stack of comic books, looking for a diversion.

“Yeah, I just found those the other night,” Seth said, sitting back down in his oval chair, the glass of lemonade already beginning to sweat, in his hands.  “Ever since I returned from my trip back home, I’ve been puttering around the attic lately.”

“You went back home?” John asked.  He’d been so out of touch with Seth, with everyone.  This was the first he’d heard of it.

Seth nodded.  “My nephew got married a couple weeks ago.  I went back for the wedding.  It was nice.”  He paused, brought his finger to his lips.  It was what John had always thought of as his thinking pose.  He sometimes used to do that at meetings, too, before saying something.  “Going back was odd, though,” he went on.  “Hadn’t been there in years.  I saw some old friends, talked about the old days.”  He shook his head.  “When I got back, I started looking for any junk I might find, lying around.  Stuff I’d maybe forgotten about.  I found my high school yearbook, flipped through that.  Looked at some old pictures.  And I came across those comics I bought way back when.  Most of them are more than fifty years old, you know.  Fifty years!”  He let out a whistle.  “Where’s the time go?”

John couldn’t relate.  Time, to him, had nearly stood still these past few months.  The vigil in the ICU, the long, tedious, torturous days at the rehab center, and now the days spent at home, with Lori, as she struggled to readjust her life, to master what had once been the simplest of tasks but now, thanks to the recklessness of one drunk driver, had become grueling tests of grit and patience.

“Why do you have them in two piles?” he asked.  He didn’t want to talk about time.  And he sure didn’t want to talk about Lori.  He needed to steer things in a direction of his choosing.  “What are the scissors for?”

Seth glanced at the scissors, then at him.  John could almost hear the cogs and circuits spinning in the older man’s head, could almost hear his thoughts.  Didn’t he come here to talk about his wife, about what happened?  Isn’t that what he needs?  To talk about it?  But, to his relief, Seth didn’t push or prod.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Seth said.  His mouth hinted at a smile, but didn’t consummate it.  “Going back home, seeing how so much has changed . . . I guess it made me feel kind of old.  I guess it . . .”  He waved his hand dismissively, set his lemonade aside.  “Ah, never mind.  I’m just rambling.”

But the clipped advertisements, the stacks of old comic books—these weren’t merely ramblings. . . .

Outside a blue jay hollered at a bold grackle, and there was a flutter of wings as they both flew away.  Eager to pounce, the grosbeaks descended on the feeder.

“Besides,” Seth went on, “you’re still young, John.  I don’t expect that you’d really want to hear any of this, or that you’d even understand if you did.”

Young?  Lori was young, too—in her midthirties, a lifetime ahead of her.  But what did it matter?  What kind of life would she be able to lead?  Yes, she would reenter society, return to work, read, think, dream, imagine.  But would she be able to run again, to train for marathons, to hike up hills and mountains?  Young.  What was youth to her now?  What was it to him?

He took a sip of the lemonade, hopped off the sofa, knelt on the floor, beside the comic books.  The top one on the taller stack was a Superman, with a cover story titled “The Man with the Zero Eyes.”  He examined the cover, admiring the artwork, then looked at the ads, scattered on the floor.  There was one for sea monkeys, another for a Daisy Air Rifle, another for free passes at an amusement park—valued at twenty-five cents, the ad boasted.  The advertisements themselves were brittle, the paper yellowing.  Relics.

“Did you just cut these out?” he asked then, as he picked up the Daisy Air Rifle ad, examining it.  Grinning boys, guns in hand, smiled back at him from across the chasm of fifty years.

Seth smiled, but there was no joy in it.  “Yeah, I did.  Stupid, I guess.”

John didn’t know very much about comic books, but he did know that old collectable comics were worth a great deal of money—sometimes astronomical sums.  He also knew that if you clipped out the ads, said value would plummet like a failing stock.  What was Seth up to?

“I used to cut out the ads that interested me back when I was a kid,” Seth said.  “Then I’d mail ‘em off, and wait.  And believe me, the waiting wasn’t easy.  I’d run home from school and ask my mom right off if anything for me had come in the mail.  Probably drove her crazy sometimes.”  He paused, looked away.  “It’s funny.  Back then, I remember wanting to grow up, you know?  Finish up with school, move away, make a lot of money.  Guess I did all those things.  But now, it’s just the opposite.  Now, I wish I could go back to those days, maybe try out for the high school baseball team, maybe appreciate my folks more, while they were still here, you know?  Maybe ask Gloria Cooper out on that date, like I always wanted to but never did.  I wonder whatever became of her. . . .”

John knew that Seth had never been married.  He rarely talked about his past, but he had mentioned once how lucky John was to have found Lori, to have found love.  And John knew he was right.  He hadn’t met Lori until he was twenty-eight, and he often wished he had gone to school with her, had a chance to meet her sooner in life.  But then he’d stop himself.  He was fortunate to have met her at all.  They’d planned on having children, but hadn’t yet.  They thought maybe next year would be the right time to start a family.  But that had been before the accident . . .

“Why’d you just cut these out now, though?” he asked.  His train of thought was moving too much toward his own life, his own loss.  He didn’t want to deal with that, not now.  Hadn’t he come over Seth’s to get away from himself, even if only temporarily?

The older man just sat there.  John thought about repeating his question, but he didn’t.  Surely Seth had heard him.

Seth glanced at the stack of comic books, the scattered pile of snipped-out ads.  “You know, most people would say I’ve had a good life, and I guess they’d be right.  I can’t complain.  I’m still healthy, successful.  I mean, look at all this.”  He swept his hands in a wide arc.  “This is what I always wanted, what I strived for.  But maybe, all this time, I was striving for the wrong things.  Because now, I . . .”  He smiled.  “It’s kind of hard to explain, I’m afraid.  Guess I’m just having my midlife crisis a little late.  Because looking at these comic books now . . . there are lots of ads in them that look good, you know?  They remind me of a time, a place, I had almost forgotten.  But now I wish I could go back to that time, to that place, and do things over.  Some of them anyway.”

John just looked at the older man.  None of this was making sense.

“Guess you’re still wondering why I cut out the ads,” Seth said.  “Well . . . I suppose you could say I’m looking for a miracle.”

“A miracle?”

“Yeah.  I used to believe in miracles, once.  I think we all did.”

John swallowed.  “What do you mean?”

“Guess it’s like I said.”  Seth reached for his lemonade, took another sip.  Outside the jays and grackles had returned to the feeder, squawking and pecking at each other.  “I wish I could go back—someway, somehow, at least for a little while.  So I’m clipping out those old ads.  And you know what?  I’m gonna send for them, just like I used to.  Oh I know they’ll probably just get returned, I know the addresses can’t possibly be good anymore.  But then, who knows?  Maybe one of them will get a response.  Maybe I’ll even get the product I sent for, at a price half a century old.  It doesn’t hurt to believe, does it?  To hope.  Sometimes, I think, believing is what we need the most.  Sometimes, that’s what carries us through.”

“But . . .”  All of a sudden, it seemed like there was so much to say, and yet nothing to say.

“Why don’t you take a comic or two, John?  I don’t mind.  As you can see, I got plenty to spare.”

He was ready to tell Seth that this was all crazy, a childish scheme, ridiculous.  A waste of time.  But he found his fingers rifling through the stack of comic books.  He felt them pull out an issue of Journey Into Unknown Worlds, number 36.  The cover featured a species of giants, preparing to menace the ill-prepared human race.

What am I doing? he thought.  Why am I taking this?

As if reading his mind, Seth said, “Maybe you can clip an old ad out of that, too.  Send it off.  And hope.”

He was in the living room, flipping through the comic book, actually enjoying the stories.  It was published in 1955, but the material held up surprisingly well.  Whenever he saw an ad, he examined the merchandise, considering whether or not to clip it.  He had a pair of scissors at the ready, on the seat beside him. . . .

“C’mon,” he said.  “Don’t be stupid.”

But one ad in particular caught his eye.

“Mystery!  Science!  Fun!  Magic!” it read.  “Magic wand to amuse and amaze your friends!”  It was fourteen inches long, with a black center and white tips.  It enabled the amateur magician to perform dozens of tricks.  It—

“Unnnh!”  It was Lori.  She was in the bedroom, supposedly taking a nap.  Apparently, she hadn’t felt like sleeping.  “Unnh!”  Every few seconds, he would hear her grunting.  He didn’t need to go to the bedroom to know what she was up to.  He formed a mental picture of her—sitting on the edge of the bed, arms pressed firmly down on the mattress, supporting her weight, as she struggled to move her legs.  He could easily visualize the sweat forming on her forehead, her face scrunching up, her eyes tightly shut as she pushed, focused, threw everything she had into the effort.

“Unnh!” she said again.

He looked at the ad of the magic wand, and suddenly he felt a firm conviction.  With his wife straining in the other room to move her legs, her feet, just a little, just a twitch, a spasm, anything—he picked up the scissors, lined them up just so. . . .

“I love you, Lori,” he said, and began to cut.


Thanks so much for reading!


Short Story — “The Hitchhiker”

Have you ever felt inexplicably called to do something, even when you can’t figure out why, and even when it flies in the face of logic and common sense?  Certainly Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton have.  In The Eye-Dancers, in the recurring dream they share with one another, they feel compelled to look into the “ghost girl’s” eyes, unable to avoid them.  She has an almost magical, hypnotic force about her, and the boys cannot fight it, no matter how much they might want to.

Likewise, in the short story “The Hitchhiker,” which I wrote while in the middle of working on The Eye-Dancers, the protagonist feels compelled to pick up a hitchhiker he sees walking along a country road in western New York State on a cold, dark November evening.  He doesn’t know why he feels he must give this stranger a ride.  He just knows, instinctively, it’s something he has to do. . . .

I hope you enjoy the story.





“The Hitchhiker”

Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison


It had been nearly twenty years since he’d left, but now, coming back, Kyle’s memories felt so near, close enough to touch.  He wished it weren’t so.  Some memories, some people, were better left in the blurry, distant past.

The road leading out to the college was also much the way Kyle remembered it.  The hills came and went, like a gentle roller-coaster ride, as the road passed through a handful of small towns, with their old brick storefronts and well-kept, tidy main streets.  It rolled through the countryside, past farms with yellowed, desiccated corn stalks and Holsteins grazing contentedly on the still-green grasses.  It wound through stretches of woodlands, the bare branches of the trees blending in with the early evening gloom, gray on gray, faded brown on dull slate.

“Welcome home,” he said, as he cruised along in his rented Subaru.  “About the kind of reception I’d expect from this place.”  But then, how did he think it would be?  Warm and sunny?  This was western New York State in mid-November, after all.  For years, his alma mater had asked him to come back, give a presentation.  He’d always refused, but this year he accepted.  Now he wondered why he hadn’t decided to come in the spring, when—

There was a man walking backwards along the shoulder of the road, arm extended, thumb up.  He wore a black hooded sweat jacket, and carried a duffel bag.  Odd.  Why would someone be hitchhiking at this hour, in this chill?  In just a few minutes, it would be dark.

He passed the guy, still not getting a clear look at him.  All he could see was the arm flop back to the man’s side.

“Sorry, buddy,” he said, glancing back in his rearview mirror.  “But you know how it is.”

He drove on, his rental car effortlessly conquering the miles.  He glanced at the digital clock on the dashboard.  Four-thirty.  No wonder he felt hungry.  He hadn’t eaten since breakfast—and that had been breakfast on London time.  He would stop for a bite to eat at the first diner or fast-food place he saw.  And he knew from memory, there were plenty of both along the route to the college.

Sure enough, a place called Shirl’s Diner came up on the right.  He’d never heard of it, but it would do.

“Hope their food’s all right,” he said, as he pulled into the parking lot.  A dozen other cars were parked out front.  “Wouldn’t want to come down with food poisoning the day before my speech.”

He smiled.  Still talking to himself—that was a habit he’d never been able to shake.  He remembered how Renee had caught him doing that several times, rambling about a homework assignment, the Mets’ chances at making the postseason, a short story he was plotting, or, most embarrassing of all, his growing fondness for her.

“Well, I’m flattered,” she’d told him one time after walking in on one of his monologues.  He’d been saying how beautiful her eyes were, how much he liked to look at them, at her.  “But you know, you might have told me directly.”  She smiled then, and hugged him, and it felt so good.  So good.

“Stuff it,” he said, getting out of his rental, pressing the automatic Lock button on the handheld remote.  Thinking about Renee again.  That’s the last thing he needed.  She was a part of his past, the past he’d escaped—the stifling small-town life, the provincial narrow-mindedness, the ignorance.  He’d visited New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Paris, Berlin, before completing his MFA in London, and settling down there.  He’d met brilliant professors, talented writers, intellectual giants.  He’d brushed away the residue of his childhood home.  It was the best decision he’d ever made.

He went inside, heading right for the counter.  Three men sat there, scattered, no one sitting next to anyone else.  He followed suit, finding a stool three removed from the closest patron.  From a radio behind the counter, a Country singer he didn’t know whined about losing his job and his girl.  Off to the left, a few other people sat in booths, couples mostly, talking with each other, eating the burgers, fries, and greasy fried chicken that evidently was the staple of Shirl’s Diner.

“What can I get ya?” a middle-aged blonde woman with cigarette breath asked him.  She had bags under her eyes, and her forehead was wet with perspiration.

“I’ll have a cheeseburger, well done, and a side order of fries,” he said.  He hadn’t had a burger in months.  It sounded good.

“K,” she said.  “That’ll be just a few minutes, hun.”  She rang him up, then vanished momentarily through an open doorway that led to the kitchen.  Kyle could see her telling something to the cook, an overweight guy with a bald head and a goatee.

He glanced back at the booths again.  One couple in particular caught his interest.  They were young, probably college undergrads, and they looked so happy with each other, so comfortable, so alive.  They even held hands across the tabletop as they ate.  He saw them share their food, letting each other sample what the other had ordered.  At one point, the girl leaned across the table and kissed the guy, then sat back down, a flush on her face.

She made him think again of Renee, of the times he’d shared with her, the way her nearness always had such an effect on him, the way her laughter always made him feel as if he were soaring.

He shook his head.  Why was he thinking so much of Renee?  Maybe it was because he’d returned home, the place where they’d met, loved, and ultimately bid each other farewell.  Well, he had done that.  He explained to her that he had to leave, had to see the world, cultivate the talent he’d been born with.  He was destined to be a writer, he told her.  Writing was his first love.  Besides, it wasn’t as if he had any close family.  His mom had run out on Dad and him when he was just a kid, and Dad died a few years later in an automobile accident.  He had no brothers, no sisters.  There was nothing to hold him here.  Couldn’t she understand?  If she would agree to travel abroad with him, to relocate . . . but she wouldn’t.  She said he could be a writer right here, in western New York.  He didn’t need to go to Europe.  He told her she was naïve, and left her in tears.

It was the right thing to do, the only thing he could do.  Better to sever the strings than leave her hanging, waiting for a change of heart that wouldn’t come.  And when he would sometimes think of her in the years since, lying in his bed alone at night, lingering under the massage of a hot shower, during those moments, when her face, the one she had years ago, young, unlined, a fresh canvas upon which the passage of time, the pain of experience had yet to carve their testimonials, came to him, he would tell himself that he didn’t miss her, didn’t long to be with her, didn’t wish for the warmth and closeness of her embrace.  He of course had his share of flings with London women, but none of them had ever evolved into anything serious.  Perhaps because no one else could replace Renee.  Or perhaps because he was just too busy, and didn’t have time to pursue a serious relationship.  That’s what he liked to tell himself, anyway.

“There you go, hun,” the waitress said, breaking his train of thought.  It was a welcome interruption.  What was the matter with him, anyway?  It was as if coming back to his roots had reawakened his old feelings, sending an electrical charge through them.  Had Renee ever moved away?  Or was she, as he sat here now, within a mere few miles of him?

“Makes no difference,” he said, taking a bite out of his burger.  It was greasy, but thick, a mouthful of meat.  Delicious.  “Imagine that.  Still like the cheap stuff.”  He preferred to believe that he’d changed over the years, improved himself.  Maybe he hadn’t.

He glanced back at the love-struck couple.  They still held hands, still gazed in each other’s eyes.  He wondered if the guy would one day tell her he had to leave, to make it big somewhere else.  He wondered if she’d go with him, or stay behind and cry.

He blinked, looked away.  This was too much.  He should just wolf down his food and get out of here, make the drive out to the college, check in to the hotel they had booked for him.  Look over his notes for the presentation he would give tomorrow evening—telling the audience how writing is a passion.  If it’s in you, it has to come first, or else you’ll never make it.  Yes.  That’s what he needed to do—think of his work, his career, perhaps even write a few more pages on the novel he was crafting.  Something to get his mind off of the past.  Off of Renee.

He finished his meal in a hurry, then left.  Back outside, the last lusterless drop of daylight was bleeding away, as though being sucked into the low-lying clouds, which hung over the landscape like dirty laundry.

Hopping into his rental car, he switched on the ignition, and cranked up the heat.  Living in London for years now, he was used to the chill.  But somehow the cold here in upstate New York seemed to penetrate more.  Or maybe it was something else that caused him to shiver.  He couldn’t know for sure, didn’t want to.

Back on the road, he accelerated to sixty-five, ten miles per hour beyond the limit.  Surely no cop would care, there was virtually no traffic out here.  The biggest problem he had was relearning to drive on the right side of the road.  It was ironic, really.  For months, in England, he had all the rules of the road in reverse—sometimes he worried that he’d never get the hang of it.  Now, it turned out, he’d gotten the hang of it too well.  He had to fight the impulse of swerving past the yellow line, into the other lane.  He laughed.  That wouldn’t be a good idea.

“Nope,” he said, considering whether or not he should turn on the radio or drive in silence.  He normally liked the silence—he was able to come up with story ideas, ponder character motivation, enjoy the faint echo of his thoughts.  But this evening, with his mind taking him places he didn’t want to go, perhaps it would be better to turn on some noise, listen to some local talk-show host jabbering in that nasal western New York twang he’d fought so hard to get rid of in the years since leaving.

He reached for the dial, then stopped.  Up ahead, arm extended, thumb up, walking backwards along the shoulder of the road was the same guy he’d seen earlier.  That was strange.  He’d passed this guy over ten miles ago.  He’d been in the diner no more than a half hour.  How could the guy have gotten ahead of him in such a short span of time?

Unless someone picked him up back there.  Yes.  That must have been it.  But why would someone pick him up only to drop him off a few short miles down the road?

He was nearly beside him now, but still couldn’t get a good look at the man’s face.  The hooded sweat jacket, coupled with the near-darkness, concealed his features.  He might be a maniac for all Kyle knew, a madman with a collection of hunting knives in his duffel bag.  Then again, if someone had just picked him up, maybe he was harmless.  And it was a chilly evening.  And he was driving in the same direction the guy was headed. . . .

He was surprised as he slowed down, then came to a stop a few feet ahead of the hooded man.  He had never picked up a hitchhiker in his life, and never thought he would.  It was a foolish, dangerous thing to do, especially on a country road like this, in the November dark, with barely any traffic around.  And yet, something inside him seemed to urge him, tug at him, telling him to stop.  Besides, there was a town just a couple of miles ahead.  Surely he would reach it in time if the guy tried anything.

Before he could second-guess himself and pull away, the passenger-side door opened, and the hooded figure hopped in.

“Thanks,” he said.  “Gonna be a cold night.”  Then he shut the door, buckled himself in.

Kyle rubbed his chin with the palm of his hand.  This wasn’t the normal way it went, was it?  Wasn’t the hitchhiker supposed to ask the driver where he was headed, or vice versa?  Wasn’t the hitchhiker supposed to look the driver in the eye, so the two of them could examine each other and decide whether or not they wanted to take the risk?  As it was, he still had no clue about this guy—not where he wanted to go, not his name, not even what he looked like.  The overhead light in the car wasn’t working, and the man still had his hood up.  For all Kyle knew, the guy seated next to him might have a scar raging along the entire length of his cheek.  He might be wearing earrings or a necklace.  He might have a head full of wavy hair, or be completely bald.  There was no way to tell.

He decided to just go with it.  That feeling inside him, the instinct, if you wanted to call it that, which had made him pull over in the first place still urged him to drive this guy along.

“I’m headed for the college,” he said.  “Well, not exactly.  Not tonight, anyway.  I’m giving a presentation there tomorrow.  Tonight I head for the hotel on the other side of town.  So, that’s as far as I can take you.”

Against his better judgment, perhaps, but still believing it was something he was supposed to do for some reason, Kyle pulled back out into the road.

“That’s perfect,” the guy said.  “I’m a student at the college.”  That wasn’t surprising.  He did sound young.  Still, what had he been doing, wandering along the roadside in the dusk?  “Oh, just thinking, I guess,” the hitchhiker said when Kyle asked, as if that explained why he was more than ten miles from the campus without any transportation.

They drove along in silence, passing through the next town in less than a minute, then finding themselves back out in open country again.  A deer suddenly darted in front of the Subaru, but Kyle braked in time.

“Dumb deer,” he said, watching the animal disappear into the yawning mouth of the night.  “I’m not used to them jumping out in front of you like that anymore.  Nothing bolts out in front of you in London except people.”

“You live in London?” the hitchhiker said.

“For seventeen years now,” Kyle said.  He glanced at the young man beside him, still unable to see anything save for the side of his hood.  Even so, there was something about him.  Something . . .

“You know, I sometimes think I wanna go live somewhere else, too,” the young man said.  “I mean, I want to learn, to experience things, you know?  But I don’t know.  I mean, I’m not sure if I want to move away or not.”

They passed a green road sign with fluorescent white letters, telling them that the college was six miles ahead.

“Well, I couldn’t encourage you enough to shake the dust of this area off your shoes,” Kyle said.  “I grew up here, went to college here.  That’s why they want me to give a talk tomorrow night.  I’m a writer.  And they want me to talk about how to succeed, how to define your dreams and then reach for them.  Maybe you can attend.”

The hitchhiker just sat there, glancing out the window at the dark fields, the impenetrable shadows of the nighttime woods, the occasional farmhouse with its trusty porch light on, cutting a swath of brightness through the murk.

“I want to be a writer, too,” the hitchhiker said, still looking out the window.  “And I know there’s a lot I can learn by seeing the world.  I just had a professor talk to me about that the other day.  It’s just . . .”

“Family?” Kyle asked.  That was the reason Renee gave him.  She wouldn’t leave her mom, her dad, her brother.  She couldn’t.

The hitchhiker just shook his head, as they drove on, nearing the college.  It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was preying on his mind.  He must have a girlfriend.  What was it with these kids?  Couldn’t they understand that the relationships you share when you’re twenty rarely last?  Couldn’t they look beyond the narrow confines of the present and appreciate tomorrow?  He suddenly felt angry.  How many great writers had never been published?  How many literary masterpieces had never been written, because their would-be authors gave up too soon or failed to dedicate themselves to their calling?  How much wasted talent existed, littering the earth like the confetti of a million unrealized dreams?

“Don’t waste your skills,” Kyle said then.  “I’ve never seen your work, but you must know if you’re any good.  If you are, don’t let anyone hold you back.  When I was your age, I had a choice to make.  Stay here, maybe settle down, have a steady job, a family.  Or come to terms with the fact that I had a gift, a responsibility to use that gift, to give it back to the world.  I chose the latter.”  He paused, amused, realizing he had pronounced the word “latter” like a born-and-bred Englishman.  “If you give up now,” he went on, “you’ll never know.  You’ll never know if you might have made it.  That’s a tough way to live, if you ask me.”

The hitchhiker offered no response.  He just continued to glance out the window, then looked down at his lap.  Kyle hoped his words were getting through.

Yeah, tell him to live like you.  Tell him to give up on the things that really matter.  You’re blowing it with this kid, and you know it.  You’d give your right arm to do it over again, to marry Renee, spend your life with her.  Coming back here, to this place, you know that now, don’t you?

“Shut up,” he said, and the hitchhiker glanced at him quickly, then turned away.  “I wasn’t talking to you,” he said, feeling a touch of warmth on his cheeks.  “Sometimes my mind doesn’t want to shut up, that’s all.”

The hitchhiker nodded.  “I know what you mean.”

They were in the town now, and Kyle could see the campus lights straight ahead.  He pulled in to the main parking lot, trying to quell the longing he felt.  How many times had he walked along the pathways and lawns of this campus with Renee beside him, their hands clasped, their fingers intertwined?  How many times had he kissed her, held her, stayed up late and studied with her, shared secrets with her that he wouldn’t tell anyone else, and never had in the years since?

He felt an urge to tell himself to shut up again, but he didn’t.

The hitchhiker opened the passenger door, ready to get out.  Kyle still hadn’t gotten a good look at him.  But what did it matter?  “Thanks for the lift,” he said.  “And the advice.”

Kyle nodded.  “She . . . she must be a special girl, I bet,” he said.

“Yeah.”  The young man shifted in his seat.  “Yeah, Renee’s the best.”  And then he got out, gently shutting the door behind him.  There was a sadness in his gait as he walked away.

Kyle blinked, took a deep breath.  It all came clear to him now—why he felt such a need to stop, to pick up this particular hitchhiker.  No.  That was the only word his mind could construct.  The writer, the wordsmith—all he could think was, No.

“Wait!” he yelled, but the hooded figure of the boy, of the young man, was gone now.  Gone.  And Kyle knew that he would never return.

“Wait,” he said, softly.  “Please.  Please wait . . . ”


Thanks so much for reading!


Short Story — “Myron”

In The Eye-Dancers, when Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski find themselves in the variant town of Colbyville, they experience profound feelings of homesickness.  They are, quite literally, a universe away.  Amid the obvious differences they encounter in this strange and foreign place, they take some small comfort in the familiarities they find.  Which of course is a normal thing to do.  Certainly when I’m somewhere unfamiliar, and feeling especially out of sorts, I tend to gravitate toward those things that remind me of places I know well.

I wrote the very short story “Myron” a few years ago.  It explores just this theme–familiarity, permanence, trying to cope with the onslaught of time and change, even in the face of real or potential tragedy.  The narrator of this story, in his own way, feels very similar emotions to those experienced by the four protagonists of The Eye-Dancers.








I hope you enjoy the story . . .


Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison


Myron wasn’t on the bus that day, and I wondered where he was, if he was okay, and if what I had sensed yesterday had been real or imaginary.

But I didn’t want to think about that.  I just looked around at the familiar surroundings of the bus.  Across the aisle from me was the old man in the turtleneck.  He always lugged an oversized black briefcase with him, and once in a while, he’d be on the receiving end of a seatmate’s complaint.  But that did not deter him.  If anything, it seemed to motivate him to continue bringing the gigantic briefcase onboard.

Then there was the young businesswoman.  She always came on five stops after mine, and she always sat at the back of the bus.  The regulars never took her seat.  If someone was in her seat, it was a newcomer, someone who didn’t know the rules yet.  She would glare at the person, and the next day that seat would be hers again.  When she passed by my seat, I usually had to rub my eyes because they watered from the perfume she wore.  I don’t know what perfume it was, only that she wore far too much of it.

And of course, there were the Stack brothers—Tony and Drew.  They worked at a LoDo software firm, and they always sat together and talked loudly.  They generally talked about sports (especially the Broncos), the stock market, and dating.  Most of the time, they annoyed me and I’m sure many of the other passengers as well.  But no one told them to be quiet.  They always got off long before I did, anyway.

There were a few other regulars, too, but most of the passengers were in a state of flux or a period of transition.  They rode the bus for a few days, maybe a few weeks, and then they were gone.  When Myron first got on the bus, over two years ago, I had no reason to think he would become a regular.  But as the weeks passed and he kept appearing, it was apparent he was there to stay.

Myron rarely talked to anyone, and he always looked the same:  short slicked-back hair, neatly combed; gold-rimmed glasses that made him look scholarly, bookish; small brown briefcase that was always crisp and shiny; unwrinkled dress pants; beige two-button blazer; black tie.  I never actually learned his name.  I just started thinking of him as Myron.  Not sure why, really.  He just seemed like a Myron, that’s all.  He looked like an accountant or a banker.  Everything always ordered, always in place.

Myron was constant.  He never took a vacation day.  Every morning, he would quietly board our number 57 bus at the corner of Speer and Downing, quickly show the driver his bus pass, nod a curt hello, and take his seat.  He generally sat on the driver’s side toward the middle of the bus.  But mostly, he seemed to want a seat to himself.  If his usual seat was not empty, he’d find another that was.  If no seat was empty, he’d stiffly (and reluctantly) sit beside someone.  I would look at him, not being too obvious, of course, and marvel at his sense of detachment, his calm, almost robotic exterior.  When he got off, I would think, So long, Myron.  See you tomorrow, old pal.

Only that day, he hadn’t been on the bus.

I recalled the previous morning, there was something a little different about Myron.  He was quiet and stoic, as always, but there was something . . . I couldn’t put a finger on it.  He sat by himself and silently looked out the window as the bus made its familiar rounds.  But just before he got off, just before he left his seat, I saw a teardrop escape from under his glasses. It slowly meandered down his cheek, and he wiped it away, still with that air of detachment.  Then he left the bus.

I watched him merge with the people on the sidewalk, and then the bus pulled away from the curb, and Myron was gone.  I couldn’t grasp that he had been crying.  He was Myron.  He was steady, as reliable as an expert clockmaker’s masterpiece.  He didn’t cry.  I was sure the next day, everything would be back to normal.

But it wasn’t.  Nor the next day.  Nor the day after that.  An entire week passed and still no Myron.  This was unheard of.  Had something terrible happened?  Had his mother died in a sudden accident?  Had he lost his job?  Was his wife ill?  He didn’t wear a wedding band, but not all married men do, so I couldn’t rule the possibility out.  I just knew I missed him, his calm, unchanging presence.  I felt like things were too fragile without him.

The other regulars seemed not to notice his absence.  Tony and Drew Stack continued their high-volume conversations, arguing daily about the Broncos and their chances for the playoffs.  The old man in the turtleneck continued to drag his huge black briefcase onto the bus with him, and he even took the seat Myron favored much of that week.  Where’s your loyalty? I wanted to ask him.  He was a regular.  He should’ve known better than that.  Show some respect.  And the young businesswoman continued to horde her seat at the back of the bus.

One morning, when the bus was absolutely packed, I sat across from her.  Feeling talkative, edgy in Myron’s strange, prolonged absence, I cleared my throat, and said, “Been busy on the bus lately, hasn’t it?”

At first, she ignored me, perhaps not realizing I was talking to her.  But when I repeated the question, she turned in my direction.  It was the first time I had really looked at her, closely.  She appeared to be a little older than I had always thought—mid thirties, maybe; about five years older than I was.  She wore a lot of makeup, and her lips were so red I couldn’t help but stare.

“Sure,” she said.  “It’s always busy on this bus.”  She seemed unfriendly, like she didn’t want to talk to me.

“It helps that you always get the same seat, though,” I said, not sure why I was pursuing this with her.

She nodded.  “I like this seat.  It’s away from things.  And it’s familiar.”  With that, she faced front again, effectively ending the conversation.

Familiar.  Yes.  That made sense.

When I was three, my last surviving grandparent died of a heart attack.  I don’t remember it.  No one else close to me has died.  My parents had me when they were in their late thirties, but they are in excellent health still.  My two older sisters and three older brothers are all fine, and their spouses and children are fine, too.  I haven’t married yet.

I remember a conversation I had with my mother when I was six.  Somehow, my grandfather came up—the one who had died of a heart attack when I was three.

“What did Granddad die of?” I had asked.

“Granddaddy had a heart attack, Mark,” Mom had said.

“Did it hurt?” I asked.

“No, dear.  I don’t think so.  He died in his sleep.”

I thought about that for a second.  Then I said, “Is that how I’m gonna die, Mom?”

She narrowed her eyes and took me in her arms.  “Mark, that’s not anything you should be thinking of.  You’re a little boy.  You have a long time to live.”

“What about you, Mom?” I had said.  “And what about Dad?  You aren’t gonna die, are you?”

“Not any time soon, Mark,” she said, but she had hesitated.  “Your father and I are fine.  So stop thinking about such things, okay?”

I nodded, feeling so safe with my face buried against her shoulder.  I never wanted her to die.

“You promise you won’t die, Mom?” I asked.

I felt her arms tighten around me.  But she didn’t answer.

“Mom!  Promise!”

“Ssh,” she said.  “You just calm yourself down, okay?  Just don’t you worry.”

I stayed that way, in her arms, for a long time.  When I went to sleep that night, I dreamt that she had died in a car crash.  I woke up screaming.  She came into my room and after listening to my hysterics, she calmly explained that there had been no car accident, that she was perfectly okay.  She invited me to sleep with her and Dad that night.  So I did.  The next morning, my brothers mocked me and called me a baby, but I didn’t care.  Mom could never die.  Never.  I couldn’t let that happen.

And it hasn’t.  I wonder how much I’ve changed, grown up, since that day almost twenty-five years ago.  I still can’t imagine my life without Mom and Dad, without my brothers and sisters.  My parents live far away now, in Florida, but just knowing they’re there, knowing they’re doing well, makes me feel the same now as it did when I was six.  The particulars may change.  Hair may thin and gray.  Wrinkles may crease the forehead and smile lines may carve living testimonials onto faces, but the essentials remain unchanged.  The permanence endures.

On a snowy November Monday morning, two weeks after his disappearance, Myron came back.  He climbed the bus steps, showed the driver his bus pass, and nodded hello.  He took his familiar seat toward the middle of the bus, on the driver’s side.  He looked out the window as the bus pulled away from the curb, watching the fat snowflakes accumulate on the sidewalk and brush against the ice-caked pane.  It seemed as though nothing had changed.  The routine clicked right back into place.

But something felt different about him.  His behavior, his appearance, these were the same as before.  But there was a change.  It wasn’t the sort of thing you could see or put your finger on.  It was something you felt, beneath the rational refuge of logic or the concrete reality of  your perceptions.  And I knew that someone he loved had died or was incurably ill.

Even though I never asked Myron about this, I knew.  I had never been more sure of anything in my life.  There was a mark on Myron that said, “Look at me.  I’ve just stared tragedy in the face, and it sucked my spirit dry.  Look at me!  Look at me, because soon, you’ll be in my place, too.”  Maybe other people would not notice it, that mark that had not been there before, but I did.  Heaven help me, I did.

But as the days passed and Myron’s routine stayed constant, I found it was easier to overlook that mark and pretend that Myron had never left, that nothing terrible had happened to him, that everything was the same as it had always been.  The alternative seemed too terrifying, too much like acknowledging that life is transitory and that everything you love will pass away.


Thanks so much, as always, for reading!


Short Story — “Lucy”

There’s one scene in The Eye-Dancers where Mitchell Brant and Marc Kuslanski find themselves in Chase’s Department Store in the variant town of Colbyville.  They approach a mannequin, and Mitchell remarks that mannequins have always given him the creeps.  Marc, ever the logical one, asks him why on earth that would be.  Mannequins are merely lifeless shells, after all.  How can they give anyone the creeps?  Then Marc reaches out, touches the mannequin, and abruptly pulls his hand away.


What did he feel?  What did he sense?  Was there something more?  Something beyond the fiber glass and lifeless, unblinking eyes?  I know that I, for one, share Mitchell’s view.  I know mannequins are not alive.  Of course I know that.  And yet . . .  And yet . . .


With that in mind, a few years ago I wrote a short story called “Lucy,” which features as one of its main characters–you guessed it, a mannequin.

I hope you enjoy this short story . . .


Copyright 2012 by Michael S. Fedison


Edward peered through the store window, wondering if he was out there.  Surely he would not come this morning.  It was raining too hard.  Besides, he wouldn’t keep coming indefinitely, would he?  He’d have to give it up at some point.

Unceasing, metronomic, the rain pelted the window glass.  Checking the sky, Edward saw that there was no sky.  Gray clouds, fat, swollen with water, hung over the street like malignant tumors.  Who knew when the sun might show itself again?

Confident that the old man wouldn’t come in this weather, Edward turned away from the window.  Is everything in order? he asked himself.  Colleen out, Jodie in, Matthew coming in late.  He scratched his chin, looking like a man contemplating the mystery of the ages.  And in a way, he was.  It was hard being a shop owner these days.  Two national chains had come to the area last year, and his customer base was slowly eroding.  He tried cutting prices, but he couldn’t compete with the big box stores.  The only things he had in his favor were the loyalty of longtime patrons and his commitment to providing top-notch and personalized customer service.  Too often, though, it felt like he was sliding down a muddy cliff, slowly, inexorably, searching for handholds that didn’t exist.

There was a knock on the shop door.  Edward looked and saw him—the old man.  He was not able to see him clearly in the gloomy October dawn, but it was him, all right.  He’d come after all.

Edward raced to the door and unlocked it.  He didn’t particularly want the old man to keep coming like this every morning, before the store opened, but he didn’t want to see him—or anyone—stand in that miserable chill and rain either.

“Hey, you don’t even have an umbrella!” Edward said when the man came inside.  “You walked all this way in the rain without an umbrella?”

The man nodded.  “Lucy’s worth it.”

Edward shut and relocked the door.  The shop would not open for another twenty-five minutes.  He noticed across the street that Mr. Henderson had arrived at his deli—“Henderson’s Old-Fashioned Deli” was written in large white letters on the window.  Mr. Henderson inserted a key in the door lock, turned it quickly, pushed open the door, then rushed inside, eager to get out of the rain.

“Hey, Mr. Mertinak, you want a cup of hot coffee?” Edward offered.  The old man was shivering.  “I just brewed a pot in my office.”

The man shook his head.  “No, thank you.  I just want to see Lucy.”

“You sure get here early, Mr. M.  If you’re not careful, you’ll beat me, and on a morning like this, that means you’ll be standing in the rain.  And it’s gettin’ cold, too, October and all.”

The old man—Mr. Mertinak—waved his hand dismissively.  “What is cold to a man like me?  I would walk to the Arctic to visit Lucy.  And the rain wouldn’t touch me if you had an awning.  When will you get one?”

Mr. Mertinak had asked that before, and Edward didn’t like it.  An awning would be nice, sure it would—the hardware store next door had one—but it cost money.  Not a fortune, but even a modest sum was beyond Edward’s means at the moment.

“Why do you look so, so despairing?” Mr. Mertinak asked.  “Lucy didn’t run away, did she?”

Edward sighed.  He had given up trying to reason with the old man weeks ago.  “No.  She’s right where you left her yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that.  But I, well, I—”

Mr. Mertinak’s eyebrows furrowed.  Suddenly, he looked like a principal about to dress down a student.  “You what?  Is Lucy okay?”

“Sure.  I mean, I changed her outfit and her hair.  The holiday season’s coming up, and I needed something different.”

“Her hair?”  Mr. Mertinak’s eyes were wide.  “I need to see her.”

“Follow me,” Edward said, and they went past racks of coats and ties, to the back of the store.  On the way, Edward thought of that first day, that first encounter.

It had been late in the afternoon on a September Monday, and every worker in the shop wanted the business day to end.  The weather was perfect, with clear skies, lazy late-summer sunshine, and a cool breeze coming in off the lake.  Even the customers, what few there were, seemed eager to leave the store.  That’s when Edward noticed an old man standing on the sidewalk, staring through the window.  The man’s face was pressed against the glass, mashing his nose and lips.  Edward thought, fleetingly, that the man looked like a Martian from an old science fiction movie he had seen when he was a kid.

When the man didn’t leave, when he just kept his face pressed against the window, Edward figured something was wrong.  Was the guy on drugs?  Was he drunk?  He didn’t want to know, but he needed to deal with the situation before it carried on any longer.

He walked outside.  The man continued to stare through the window, oblivious to his presence.

He cleared his throat.  When the man did not respond, Edward tapped his shoulder.  The man’s head snapped back as if he’d been struck, and he glared at Edward through bloodshot eyes.  So he had been drinking.

“Sir,” Edward began, “I’m sorry.  But you really shouldn’t stare through the window that way.  Some of my staff are getting nervous.”

The old man just looked at him.  His breath smelled of whiskey.  Grizzled stubble coated his cheeks.  A band of teenagers walked past them on the sidewalk, giggling.

“So, if you don’t mind . . .” Edward pressed on, trying to word things just right.  You never could tell what an old guy like this might do.  “. . . please just be on your way.”  He was about to go back into the shop, but the man grabbed his arm.  Edward pulled it away, as if touched by a leper.

“Where’d you get her?” the man said.  The whiskey on his breath was very strong, but his words were not at all slurred.

“Sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Edward observed two of his employees looking out the window.  They were whispering to each other.  He boiled.  They should have been attending to the customers, not watching this sideshow.

“Her!” the old man said, loud enough for a passerby to look at them.  “Where’d you get her?”  He pointed to a mannequin just inside the store window.  “That’s my wife.  That’s Lucy.  Let me go in and talk to her!”

Edward was starting to feel a little nervous.  He had been in the retail business for years and had seen a lot of strange things, but he had never encountered anything like this.  “Sir, that’s just a mannequin,” he said, talking slowly, as if to a backward child.  “If it looks like your wife, it’s only a coincidence.”

“Let me talk to her!  I don’t know how you found her or how you made her young again, but I need to go in and speak with her!”

Edward tried to talk sense into the man, but after a couple of wasted minutes, he understood nothing was going to work.  It was either argue with the old nutcase the rest of the afternoon, leave him outside to stare in his shop, or let him in.  He hoped if he let him in, he’d say a few things to the mannequin and leave.

“Okay,” he said.  “You win.  Let’s go in and you can talk to the mannequin if it makes you happy.  But please try not to disturb the peace, okay, sir?”

The man didn’t respond.  He only stared at the mannequin through the window.  “Lucy,” he whispered to himself.

Once inside, the old man went straight to the mannequin and took its hand in his.  “Lucy, dear, dear Lucy, how did you get here?” he said.  The mannequin stared out the window, at the sidewalk and Henderson’s deli, and the pedestrians who walked past.

Edward went to the cash register.  Colleen, his top clerk, was there.

“Old guy’s batty,” she said.

“You’re telling me.  I tried to get him to leave, but he wouldn’t budge.  I hope he doesn’t stay long.”  He saw the old man kiss the mannequin’s hand, then whisper something in its ear.  “He thinks the mannequin’s his wife.”

Colleen rolled her eyes.  A customer came to the register.  Colleen rang up the order and bagged the merchandise.  “Sorry about that,” she said, glancing at the man.

The customer, a middle-aged woman with a long, hook-like nose, said, “You know who that is?  That’s Mark Mertinak.  He lives up my way.  Used to go to our church.”

“You know that man?” Edward said.

“Sure.  His wife just died, a couple weeks ago.  It’s been rough on ‘im.  They were inseparable.  Well, I think it’ll blow over.  He’s a decent enough old guy—just lonely.  Thanks for the sweaters.  Can’t find a deal this good at those cookie-cutters up the road, huh?”  She smiled and left.

A half hour went by, but Mr. Mertinak still had not gone.  Other customers stared at him.  A few came up to Edward and asked him to get rid of the old man.  One young lady complained that she had her little girl with her and she didn’t appreciate having her daughter witness such a spectacle.  Then she left, without buying a thing.  Edward knew he needed to get rid of the man.  Inwardly groaning, he approached him.

“Look, mister,” he said, “we’re gonna close soon, so I’m afraid you’ll need to be leaving, okay?”  They weren’t closing for an hour still, but maybe the old man hadn’t read the hours posted on the door.  He had been so wrapped up in his imaginings, that seemed likely enough.

“It’s all wrong,” Mr. Mertinak said.  “The outfit.  Lucy didn’t wear clothes like this.  She was modest, a lady.”

Edward looked at the mannequin.  It wore short red shorts and a white tank top.  He had outfitted it with those just yesterday, hoping to draw attention to the last of the summer clothes he had in his inventory.  So far, only five pairs of shorts and six tank tops had sold.  The other mannequins were already wearing their fall attire.

“Well, this is very temporary,” Edward said.  “I’ll be changing the clothes on this mannequin by next week.”  Why in the world was he justifying himself to this insane old man?

“And her eyes, they were blue, not black, like this.  But everything else is perfect.  How did you find Lucy?  How did you make her young again?”

“Look, Mr.—Mertinak, is it?  This isn’t your wife.  I’m sorry you lost her, I really am, but this is only a mannequin.  It isn’t alive.”  Edward tapped on the mannequin’s forearm.  “Hear that?  That’s not the sound real skin makes.  Now, please, sir, if you’ll leave.  We need to close.”

Thankfully, Mr. Mertinak agreed.  Edward breathed a sigh of relief.  At the door, the old man said, “I never walk downtown.  Why did I today?  Because Lucy was here.  She directed me somehow, and now, that I know she’s here, I will come back.  I will be back tomorrow.”

Before Edward could protest, Mr. Mertinak had left.

He did come the next day, and the next, and he never stopped coming.  The dwindling customer base dwindled a little more. . . .

One day, after the old man had been haunting his shop for a week, Edward went to Henderson’s for lunch.  He went to the deli counter, where a sour-faced Mr. Henderson greeted him.

“Hey, Ed.  What’ll it be, the usual?”  Edward nodded.  Pastrami on whole wheat, topped with Swiss cheese.  You couldn’t beat it.  “Hey, you better watch it, bud,” Mr. Henderson said as he fixed Edward’s sandwich.  “I’m losin’ business on account a you.  That creep keeps talkin’ to the babe in your window, and I’ll tell ya, you’re clearin’ people outta here, man.  You’ll send us all packin’.”

Edward told him he would deal with the matter and that he was exaggerating.  People weren’t being scared away.

“Yeah they are,” Mr. Henderson said as he wrapped the sandwich in white deli paper, then secured it with a rubber band.  “Oh, sure, there’s sickos who like watchin’ other sickos, but I know of at least ten people who don’t wanna pass by your store no more.  Scares the kids, they say.  Hey, it scares me, too, Ed.  Old whacko talkin’ to a mannequin like it’s really his dead wife.  It’s sick.  Get rid of him.  I’ll see to it if you don’t.”

“I’m working on it,” Edward said, wishing he had bought his lunch elsewhere.

The best he could come up with was allowing Mr. Mertinak to come early, before the store opened.  Mertinak would have some time with the mannequin, then he’d need to leave no later than ten minutes before business hours began.  He told the old man that good customers were scarce enough.  He did not need them taking their business to the chains.  Mr. Mertinak was surprisingly agreeable, and Edward hoped the early routine would grow wearisome; then the old man might stay away for good.

This dogged Edward.  He could have simply barred Mr. Mertinak from his store.  He had that right.  And if Mertinak came and mashed his face against the front window again, he could get him arrested for trespassing or loitering.  That’s what Henderson would do, for sure.  But he didn’t want to be like Mr. Henderson.

As they walked to the rear of the store, Edward thought back a week, when he had moved the mannequin out of the display window.

“Why’d you take Lucy away?” Mr. Mertinak had wanted to know.  Edward could smell last night’s liquor on his breath.

“I didn’t,” Edward responded, hating that he had to explain his business methods to the old man.  “I just moved her to another section of the store.  I do that with all the mannequins from time to time.”

“Lucy deserves to be in the window always,” Mertinak said, but then he had dropped it.

This morning, Edward hoped the old man would be less disturbed by the new wig and outfit.

They reached the mannequin, surrounded by racks of ladies’ coats and scarves.

“Oh, what have you done to Lucy?” Mertinak said.  He reached up and gently touched the wig.  “You made her hair red.  She never had red hair.  It was brown!  Impossible.  Change it back!”

“Mr. M, I change all the wigs twice a year.  I never used to, but Colleen got me to do it.  She says the variety is good, that it makes everything look new and different, even the clothes.  So I tried it.  Can’t say it’s worked so good, though.”  He shook his head and stuffed his hands in his pockets.

Mertinak stared at the wig for at least a minute.  Then he said, “Hmm, now that I think of it, Lucy sometimes did say she’d like a different hair color.  She never said red specifically, but it does kind of suit her.  She could be spontaneous when the spirit moved her.  Yes, yes.  It looks fine!  Just fine.  Lucy could make green hair look beautiful, you know.”

Edward just smiled.  He knew by now that the best approach with the old man was to let him talk.  And while he never would have admitted it to anyone, Edward sort of liked Mertinak, after a fashion.  Sure, it was eccentric talking to a mannequin, but Mertinak said he’d been married to Lucy for fifty-three years.  It was no wonder, then, that he would be crushed by her passing, or that he might be tempted to grasp at straws and bend reality to suit his needs.

“Did I tell you how beautiful Lucy was?”  Mertinak asked, gently fingering the mannequin’s lips.  Vacant, empty eyes that stared at a nearby slacks rack greeted the touch with indifference.

Edward nodded.  But he knew the old man would continue anyway.  He checked his wristwatch.  They still had a few minutes.

“She could outshine the sun,” Mertinak said, closing his eyes.  His fingers still stroked the mannequin’s lips.  “I fell in love with her instantly.  She was so much more beautiful than anything I had ever seen.  And her spirit.  Pure as the first snow that comes falling down in November.”  A single tear snaked its way down the old man’s cheek, falling to the carpeted floor.  “Lucy,” he said.  “How I love you, Lucy.”  He reopened his eyes and stared at the mannequin.  “Red hair becomes you, darling.”

Edward cleared his throat.  This was a bit much, even by Mertinak’s standards.  “I’m afraid it’s about that time, Mr. M,” he said.  Better to cut things short before they got out of hand.  “Need to get the store ready.”

Edward half expected Mertinak to protest, but the widower just nodded, then kissed the mannequin on the lips.  “I shall see you tomorrow morning, love,” he said.  “And we can reminisce.  Remember our Thanksgivings, darling?  And our Christmases?  Christmas is coming up, you know—just a couple of months away.  But don’t worry.  I’ll buy you something special.  Just like the gold necklace I bought you in 1977.  My, didn’t you scold me for being frivolous!  But it was nothing, dearest.  I would buy you an entire nation if I could.  Just be patient.  Christmas is coming.”

The old man kissed the mannequin again, then turned away.  He smiled at Edward.  “Thank you,” he said.  “Same time tomorrow morning?”

Edward nodded.  “You sure you’ll be all right, walking back home in this rain?”

The old man shrugged his shoulders.  “What’s rain to a man like me?”

They reached the front door.  Through the glass, a scowling Mr. Henderson stood in the gloom, protected from the rain by a black umbrella.

Opening the door, Edward walked outside, followed by Mertinak.

“Mr. Henderson,” Edward said.  “Odd seeing you here.”

“I need to talk to this old creep,” Henderson said.  “Since you won’t.”

Edward took a step toward Henderson.  Rain slammed into him, making it hard to be brave.  “You leave this to me, Henderson.  It’s my store.”

With surprising speed, Henderson pushed Edward, forcefully enough that he slammed into the shop’s window.  “Get out of my way!  You ain’t man enough to do it, so I will!”  Henderson’s lips twisted into the snarl of a predator.  Then he turned on the old man.  “You!”  He planted his finger in Mertinak’s chest, hard.  Mertinak stumbled backwards, but didn’t fall.  “You get this straight, you miserable old scum.  Your wife is dead, do you hear me?  Dead!”

“That’s enough,” Edward interrupted.  He had been caught off guard by Henderson’s appearance and aggressiveness, but now he was ready.  “Leave, right now, or I call the cops.”

Henderson glared at him.  There was a challenge in that glare, and Edward did not wish to meet it.  “On what charges?  This ain’t your property.  It’s a sidewalk, open to everyone, and when they come walkin’ in front of your stupid store, what do they see?  A no-good old whacko who talks to a hunk of fiber glass and thinks it’s his dead wife.  Well, this is where it stops.”  He looked at Mertinak again.  The old man was soaking wet.  “You old sicko, your wife is dead, dontcha get it?  You’ve been talkin’ to a mannequin, a freakin’ mannequin!  An’ your scarin’ business away.  That’s why Ed here don’t let you come to the store no more while customers are around.  But I’m around, see, and I don’t wanna see you no more.  She’s dead, old man, dead!  Get it through your thick, drunk skull, and don’t ever come back here!  You ain’t wanted around here.  You got it?”

“You’re way out of line,” Edward said.  “You have no right to threaten him.”

Mertinak held up a hand.  “It’s all right,” he said softly.  Edward didn’t like the look in the old man’s eyes.  It was as if someone had turned off a switch in his brain, shutting out the light.  “He’s right.  I am an old fool.”  He looked straight at Henderson.  “But I’m not as much a fool as you think, young man.  I know my Lucy is gone.  I know.  I didn’t need you to tell me.  I know it every day, first thing, when I wake up in bed alone.  I know it every night when I reach for her and she isn’t there.  But in this store, I could pretend I was with her again.  I could pretend so hard, it seemed she was really here.  And don’t you see?  That’s all there is anymore.  I’m very old.  I didn’t think an old man’s pretending would cause anyone harm.  But I see I was wrong.  I’ll be on my way.”  He took a few steps.

“Mr. M, wait!”  Edward caught up with him.  “It doesn’t have to end like this.  Henderson has no control over my store.  You can come back!”

“Don’t you try it!” Henderson snarled behind them.  Edward could hear the pitter-patter of rain hitting the deli owner’s umbrella.

“I’ll be on my way,” the old man said again, and he walked away, along the sidewalk.

Edward stared after him as he retreated, watching Mertinak’s figure slowly melt into the surrounding atmosphere, until man and rain, human and morning became indistinguishable.  It seemed that the gloom had swallowed him.

“You’ll thank me later,” Henderson said.  He was standing next to Edward now.  “Rotten old man.  Lush.  Better off without him.  He should just die and get it over with.”

Edward turned away from Henderson and, without a word, went back into the store.

The next morning, upon arriving at the store early, Edward wondered if Mr. M might turn up.  The old man seemed so defeated yesterday, but maybe a good night’s sleep had reenergized him.  He hoped so.  He didn’t want Henderson to have the final word on the matter.

But Mr. Mertinak didn’t come.

Edward still held out hope for the next morning, but Mertinak didn’t come then, either.  When a week elapsed, and Mertinak failed to show, Edward grudgingly acknowledged the truth.  Instinctively, he started to check the obituaries in the newspaper.  He didn’t have to for very long.  The first week of December, Mark Mertinak’s name appeared.  Aged eighty, it said, died of natural causes.

That whole day, Edward felt depressed, as if he had lost something important in his life.  This puzzled him.  Had the old man meant so much to him?  He didn’t think that was it, not exactly, anyway.  But something had meant a great deal to him, something that had been gradually eroding and withering for years, yet struggling to survive against the odds.  Whatever it was, it had died right along with old Mr. M.

The day after reading of Mr. Mertinak’s passing, the first heavy snow of the season fell on the holiday-bedecked downtown street.  In the predawn stillness, silence surrounding him like a soundproof glove, Edward smiled at the mannequin.

“Hey, Lucy,” he said.  “Ready for the prime spot again?”  He paused for a moment, as if expecting some response.  Then he carried it to the front display window and set it down.  It was dressed in a knee-length winter coat, a scarf, and boots.  He was about to walk away, but he took note of something.  The mannequin had a sad face.  Most of his other mannequins had perpetual smiles, or at the very least, pleasant expressions.  Come winter, spring, summer, or fall, regardless of what happened in the outside world, they would appear cheerful, ready to please.  But not this mannequin, not Lucy.  He’d looked at it countless times, but somehow the somber expression had never registered with him before.  Prior to this morning, familiarity with the mannequin must have blinded him to it.

He left the mannequin’s side, needing to attend to other matters before Colleen and Matthew came.  But he turned around, as if pulled by a magnet, and looked at the mannequin again.

Had that mannequin looked so sad before?  He shook his head.  Of course it had.  It must have.  Mannequins’ expressions don’t change.  But later that day, as he glanced at Lucy again, he wasn’t so sure.

Staring lifelessly out the window at the silent, falling snow, the mannequin almost appeared to be mourning.


Thanks so much for reading!


Short Story — “The Christmas Figurines”

As I mentioned last week, I will gradually post a few of my short stories on The Eye-Dancers website, and since it’s the holiday season, I thought I’d post one today that fits right in with the time of year.  I wrote “The Christmas Figurines” several years ago, and that is evident in the scene where the protagonist, Chad, goes to the video store and rents a VHS tape.  Ah, yes–the “old” days!  I could have gone in and updated that scene, made it more suitable for 2012.  But I’ve decided to leave as is.  After all, it’s not video-transfer technology that is at the heart of this story!

In The Eye-Dancers, the four main characters all have to deal with a sense of isolation–and not just due to their other-worldly surroundings as the story unfolds.  Even in their “normal” lives, Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc all struggle to “fit in.”  This fitting in, or not fitting in, is a major theme in “The Christmas Figurines.”

I hope you enjoy it . . .

“The Christmas Figurines”

Copyright 2012 by Michael S. Fedison


The first thought that popped into Chad’s head when he saw Mr. Coomtromb was, This guy doesn’t have any teeth.  But then the old man started to talk so much, it was hard to think at all.  Chad had been standing in the kitchen, munching on a handful of stale potato chips and staring at the boxes he still needed to unpack when there came a sharp knock on his door.

“Great,” he muttered under his breath, and a few chip remnants fell from his mouth to the tiled floor.  “Just what I need.”  He walked through the maze of boxes and furniture, while the knocking persisted.  “Hold on!”  he shouted.  “I’m coming, okay?”

By the time he opened the door, he was in a foul mood.  Why the intrusion, now of all times?  He had so much to do.  He—

“Hi there,” a tall man wearing a stained white shirt and faded corduroy pants said.  He was old—at least seventy, Chad estimated at first glance—and his cheeks were covered with a gray five o’clock shadow.  “I’m John Coomtromb, but all my friends just call me Coom.  I live right across the hall, young man.  So, seeing that we’re new neighbors, I took the liberty of coming over here and saying hi.”

For a long moment, Chad was at a loss for words.  Then:  “Uh, well, I’m really sort of busy unpacking, and—”

“Nonsense,” the man interrupted, holding up a hand.  “I won’t mind at all.  Besides, what are neighbors for?  I’ll help you.”  Without an invitation, Mr. Coomtromb brushed past Chad, into the apartment.

“Wait a second,” Chad said, closing the door.  “Look, I—”

“Say,” the old man broke in, “you aren’t from around here, are you?”

Chad shook his head.  Was it that obvious?  “No.  I just moved up here from Georgia.  But, really, I’m still unpacking my stuff.  I’ve got a lot left to do.”

Mr. Coomtromb appeared not to hear any of this.  He opened a box and pulled out a bottle of wine.  “Very nice,” he said, smiling toothlessly.  “Maybe I’ll join you for a toast to celebrate your arrival to this fine city.”

Chad couldn’t believe this guy.  Was he drunk?  He stepped closer to Coomtromb, and sniffed.  Nothing, except maybe the hint of fried onions on his breath.  Was he high, then?  He must have been something.  How else to explain it?

Before Chad could stop him, Coomtromb opened another box.

“Goodness, this is beautiful,” the old man said.  “Where did you get it?”  He pulled out two porcelain figurines, a winged female angel in a flowing, ankle-length dress and a young boy looking up at her with wonder-filled eyes.  The two figures stood on a white base powdered with artificial snow that glittered in the light of the room.

Chad considered taking the guy by the arm and flinging him out into the hall.  Maybe he would, too, if Coomtromb didn’t quit bothering him.  Surprising himself, not quite understanding his patience, his tolerance, Chad merely answered the question.

“It’s my mom’s,” he said.  “She got it as a gift when she was a little girl.  Thought I’d want it now that I’m so far from home.  You know how it is.”

Coomtromb nodded.  He stared at the figurines, as if bewitched.  “Yes.  I suppose I do.  Does it play?”  He looked at Chad, and for a moment, he seemed like a little child fascinated with a new toy.

“Yeah,” Chad said.  “It plays ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’  You wind up the crank at the base.”

“You don’t say,” Coomtromb said.  “Can I . . . can I play it?  Please?”

Chad felt a sense of unreality wash over him.  This whole scenario was just plain weird.  Coomtromb was weird.  But maybe if he let the old man play the song, he would leave, and let Chad get back to work.  This made Chad bristle.  Why didn’t he just kick the guy out of his apartment?  That’s what most people would do.  And it’s not like it would be rude or mean.  He was busy.  He didn’t need this.  Somehow, though, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Sighing, he said, “Sure.  Knock yourself out.  But I got a lot of stuff to finish.”  Chad picked up a heavy box, placed it on a faded-brown sofa, and began sorting through the contents.  Here was a photograph of his father, looking impossibly young.  And one of his mother on her wedding day.  How pretty she looked.  Had she always been so beautiful?  He’d never really noticed, or if he had, he had taken it for granted.  Perhaps it took moving away to appreciate it.  Perhaps that’s how—

Suddenly, the angel figurine was singing.  The melody of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” filled the room, and Chad looked back over his shoulder.  The angel was twirling around the little boy, and he turned in concert with her, his eyes never leaving hers.  They were doing their choreographed routine, a routine Chad had seen hundreds of times through the years.  But he didn’t mind.  He liked the song, and the quality of the sound was first-rate.

Then he glanced at Mr. Coomtromb.

The old man was staring at the figurines, unblinking, mouth agape.  Tears formed in his eyes and rolled slowly down his cheeks.  When the performance ended, he bowed his head, as if in the presence of something holy.  Chad had no idea what to make of it.  He figured he should just ignore the old man and continue with the task at hand.

He emptied the box of its contents, and placed the photos and other paraphernalia on the kitchen counter.  He’d hang them later, when a certain odd old man was gone, safely across the hall.  He opened another box, and began to rummage through it, wishing he were more organized.  There seemed no rhyme or reason to the packing method he had used.  His mom had helped him, but she wasn’t so good at packing, either.  She hadn’t had much practice.  His parents had never moved from the house they bought the year they were married.

“That was . . . breathtaking,” Chad heard Coomtromb say.  The old man was sniffling, but the tears had run their course.  “Just breathtaking.  Thank you.”

Chad shrugged.  It was just an old music box.  Sure, it had been in the family for a while, and it meant a lot to his mother, but still, what was the big deal?  Coomtromb, of course, was more than ready to shed some light on the mystery.

“Do you know what that song means to me, young man?  Do you know?”  He wouldn’t take his eyes off the angel.  He still seemed in a state of rapture.

Chad didn’t reply.  He just waited for the man to continue.  Showing a moment of interest, he set the box aside and planted himself on the sofa.

“When I was young, I adored the movies,” Coomtromb said.  “I know, I know, many children do.  But I loved them.”  His gaze finally left the angel figurine, and locked itself onto Chad.  “They offered . . . I don’t know, an escape, I suppose, a place I could get lost in.  You see, my folks, they died when I was just four—car crash.  Can you imagine?  A fatal crash in 1937?  But we had them back then, too, you know.  My grandparents took me in.  They were old and didn’t understand me terribly well, but they cared for me.  And they knew how much I loved the movies, so they took me as often as they could.  And this one day, back during the war, they took me to see Meet Me in St. Louis.  They had wanted to see it, and asked if I desired to come along.  Me, turn away a movie?  Of course I went along!  And, oh, little did they know, little did I know, how that scene, that wonderful scene, would move me.  Do you know which one I mean?”

Chad shook his head.  He had never watched the film.

“At one point,” Coomtromb said, “when it seems the family in the movie will have to move away, and everyone is all sad and despairing, Judy Garland sings a song to Margaret O’Brien, who plays her baby sister.  Magnificent!  There wasn’t a dry eye in the theatre after she got done with that song.  I cried and cried, and tried to turn my face away, but, oh, who cared, even Granddad was crying!  Don’t you see?  She sang ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’  I can remember it like it was yesterday.  It was at the old Palace Theater that used to be over on Lower Elm Street.  I went home that night and just wrapped myself in my blankets and I wished, I wished I had a big sister like Judy Garland.  I wished she would be there to comfort me and sing to me, and just be my friend.  I wished I could share my Christmases with a sister like that.  My, how I wished.  I guess . . . I suppose, in a way, I still do.  Do you have any sisters, young man?  Or brothers?”

“Yeah.  Two of each,” Chad said, but he didn’t really want to think about them right now.  Looking at the photos of his parents a moment ago, and now this.  Was Coomtromb trying to make him feel more homesick than he already was?

“You’re a very fortunate fellow, my young friend,” Coomtromb said.  “I was an only child.  I could watch Judy Garland, and I could dream of a big sister—or a big brother.  But that’s all it ever was—a dream.  Just a dream.  But here now, do you mind if I play the song again?”

“No, go ahead,” Chad said.

The old man left a few minutes later, after playing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” six more times.  “I’ll be back soon, young man, don’t you worry,” Coomtromb had said.

“I won’t,” Chad responded, wondering if the intended sarcasm was apparent.  “Take it easy, Mr. Coomtromb.”

“Coom!” the man said.  “Coom to my friends!”

“Okay, Mr. . . . Coom.  See you around.”  But not too much, I hope.

After Chad closed the door behind Coomtomb, he went into the kitchen and grabbed another handful of potato chips.  Something about his unannounced guest grabbed hold of him and wouldn’t let go.

“Weird guy,” he said to the bare white walls, the fingerprint-smeared windows, and the smiling faces in the old family photographs.

Throughout the next week, Chad got situated and began to explore his new neighborhood.  He’d take long walks, despite the cold, taking advantage of his free time.  He’d moved in on the first, and he wouldn’t need to begin work until the day after the New Year, so he had ample opportunity to get acquainted with the sprawling city.  He would leave in the morning and stroll through the streets for hours, stopping every now and then at a café for coffee and a pastry.

He walked through the entire apartment complex several times, as well, attempting to see into the building’s past.  Perched alongside the cold, gray river, two stories high and half a football field in length, the structure had once been a paper mill.  In fact, the locals still called it “The Mill.”  It struck Chad as quintessentially New England.  He liked the antique feel of the hallways, the odd angles in the corners, the unfinished wooden stairway at the heart of the building.  When he tried hard, he could almost smell the sweat pouring off the workers a century ago, he could almost hear the clanging of the building’s old machinery and the piercing shriek of the five-o’clock whistle.  But he also felt out of place here.  It struck him as the sort of residence only natives should live in, not transplanted Southerners.  But the price had been right.

He’d run into Coomtromb on several occasions since that first day.  The old man had knocked on Chad’s door and invited himself in a handful of times, and intercepted him in the hall more than once.  It was always the same.  Coomtromb wanted to talk, to prattle without pausing for breath.  Chad would nod and say an occasional “uh-huh,” and then he would tell the old man he needed to get on with some task or other.  He didn’t want to seem abrupt, but Coomtromb would talk all day if he didn’t put a stop to it.  Sometimes he let Coomtromb wind up the angel figurine, and listen to the song again.  That always sent him away happy.

One thing he’d noticed.  No one else spoke, or even looked, at the old man.  Whenever Chad saw someone pass Coomtromb in the hall, they just kept walking, as though the man didn’t even exist.  Guess people just aren’t as friendly up North, Chad thought, and left it at that.

“Oh, excuse me, I didn’t mean to bump into you,” the voice said as Chad was knocked into from behind.  He was in The Mill’s foyer, taking off his gloves and scarf following another brisk morning walk.

“That’s okay,” Chad said.  “No harm done.  It . . .”  He paused when the person who’d bumped him came into view.  She was a young woman, probably around his age, with long brown hair and large, silver wire-frame glasses that gave her the look of a reference librarian.

“Hey,” she said.  “I’ve seen you around.  You’re the new guy on the second floor, right?  I live down the other end from you.  Name’s Nan.  Nan Butler.  Pleased to meet you.”  She smiled, and offered a red-mittened hand.

Chad shook it, feeling awkward.  He’d never been comfortable around women his own age, and he sensed the blood rushing to his cheeks.  He introduced himself and told her he was pleased to meet her, too.

“Hmm,” she said, cocking her head to the side, “you’re not from around here, are you?”

Smiling, he told her he was from a small town in southern Georgia.  Then he said, “I can’t believe how cold it is here.  Do you ever get used it?”

“Not really,” she said, as someone else rushed past them on the way outside. “I’ve been here all my life, and when winter comes, it still feels cold as ever.  Maybe colder.”

“Great,” he said.

She smiled.  “Let’s go upstairs.”

On the way up, she said, “Hey, I’ve seen that old creep Coomtromb talking with you.  Is he buggin’ you?  You can report him.  Lots of people have.  I almost did, too.  He’s been here, like, forever.  Whenever someone new comes along, he strikes like a vulture.  New people are the only ones who give ‘im the time of day, ‘cause no one who knows him will talk to him.”

They reached the top of the stairs.  The long, narrow hallway was empty in both directions.

“But why?” Chad said.  “I mean, he comes on strong, but what’s so bad about him?  Seems pretty harmless to me.”

She snorted.  “You’ll learn.  He steals, you know, so you better watch out.  No one’s proven anything, but anyone who’s been here knows he does.  Like, a couple years ago, I had a friend who lived in the room right next to his.  Her second day here, he went in and just . . . took some of her family photos.  He tried to, anyway.  Lucky for her, she saw him do it.  He said he just wanted to look at them, that he’d planned on giving them back.  He was, like, ‘Oh, I just wanted to talk with you.  If I borrowed these, I knew you’d come back for them.’  I mean, can you believe this guy?

“And he’s . . . I don’t know . . . weird.  Like, sometimes in summer, he’ll go to the park and just . . . sit there.  Some of my friends have seen him there, sitting on a bench and watching people.  For hours.  I’ve seen him there myself.  Mostly, though, he just stays in his room all day, doing God knows what—at least until someone new comes to live here, anyway.  So take my advice, and tell ‘im to quit pestering you.  That’s the only way to set him straight.”  She started walking toward her door.  Though his room was in the opposite direction, Chad found himself following her.

“But how does he live here, then?” Chad asked.  “I mean, if he stays in his room most of the time.  Doesn’t he have a job?”

“Who’d hire him?” Nan said.  “No, he’s retired, I guess.  Must have a great pension, ‘cause, like I said, he’s been here for years.  I wish he’d go to a retirement home or something.  But at least I’m way down the hall from him.  You’re right across.”  She stopped at her door.  “Hey, I’ll be seeing you around, Chad.  Maybe we can go for coffee or something.”

Again, he blushed.  “Sure,” he said.

“Can I ask you something?” she said then.  “Sorry, but I’m kinda nosey.”

He chuckled.  “Ask away.”

“Why’d you move here?  I mean, why did you come up North?  Do you have family up here?”

He shook his head.  “No.  I graduated this past spring, and couldn’t find a job in my hometown.  I started searching online, and a place up here hired me right over the phone.  Can you believe that?  I start in January.”

“What will you be doing?” she asked.

“I got hired on as a technical writer.”  When she looked perplexed, he explained that he’d be writing how-to manuals for computer software.

“Wow,” she said.  “But, why’d you come way up here, though?  Couldn’t you have found a job in Atlanta or Charlotte?  Someplace closer to home?”  She smiled and looked away.  “Hey, I’m sorry.  Like I said, I’m nosey.  You don’t need to answer if you don’t want.”

Down the hall, a door opened and shut with a resounding, echoing snap.  A tall man in a frayed brown coat emerged, walking briskly toward the stairs, then down them, out of sight.

“No, that’s okay,” he said, trying hard to fight the rising heat in his cheeks.  It was easier when Nan was doing most of the talking.  “I . . . I guess I wanted to get out on my own.  I’ve always lived at home.  I wanted to go somewhere different, while I’m still young.  I’d never been anywhere but the South.  I didn’t think I’d miss home as much as I do, either.  Mom was pretty shook up, too, especially with me being away for Christmas this year.  But she’ll be okay.”

“At least you were home for Thanksgiving,” Nan said.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I guess.”

As Christmas neared, the weather turned even colder, and Chad had serious doubts about his relocation.  How could he live in such a climate?  Yet, there was no snow.  Only wind and gray clouds and raw, cutting rain and dying grass and bare, skeletal trees that seemed poised to reach down and strike.  He had heard of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), but had never experienced it . . . until now.  He had called home yesterday, and it was sunny and seventy-four degrees.  “See?” his mom had scolded.  “You should come home.”

He had met several of The Mill’s residents now, and the ones who lived on his end of the hall often warned him about Mr. Coomtromb.  “Stay away,” they said.  “Old nutcase,” they said.  “Ignore him, and he’ll get the message,” they said.  And Chad had to admit, he was getting close to the point of no return, the point where he would tell Coomtromb to get lost.  If Coomtromb could only show a little restraint, it wouldn’t be so bad, but the old man was almost always there, ready to pounce.

As much as he wanted to tell Coomtromb to leave him alone, Chad knew it would be hard to do.  Coomtromb didn’t mean any harm, Chad was sure of that.  But his reluctance to tell Coomtromb off ran deeper.  He did not really understand it, and could scarcely believe it, but he knew, on a level beyond logic and common sense, that there was something he shared with the old man, some odd form of kinship.  On the surface, such a notion seemed beyond laughable.  What could the two of them possibly share?  But he felt it.  It was real, and as sharp as the cold crack of dawn in that hour just before the sun rises above the horizon.

It was morning on Christmas Eve, and Chad had made it downstairs undetected by Coomtromb.  He was going to take a walk—a nice, long walk in the snow.  Three inches had fallen already, and no let-up was in sight.  He felt like a schoolboy let loose in the playground.  He’d never seen so much snow in his life.

“Hey there,” he heard someone say behind him.  “Where ya going?”

It was Nan, and he was glad to see her.  They hadn’t talked much since that first encounter—only a handful of times—but he enjoyed her company.  He wasn’t the type to go out on the town at night looking for a match.  If he were ever going to meet someone, this would be the way:  gradual, unforced, a natural progression of daily events.

He told her he was going for a walk in the snow, and she said she wanted to come along.  They walked around The Mill, then down the side streets to the west of it, him looking up at the flakes as they fell, like white magic, from the clouds; her pointing at stately colonials that brooded in the distance like old poets contemplating the meaning of life.  “That’s the old Bartlett place,” she said as they strolled past a mansion-sized house.  “They say it’s haunted.”  She proceeded to tell him the stories, the legends, not only of the Bartlett house but several others.  He listened, and asked questions when he needed to, and he laughed with her often.  More than anything, he found himself wishing the moment could linger.  He felt a connection—with her and the neighborhood.  Maybe it was the snow, the time of season, the holiday wreaths hanging from the front porches and doors.  But for once he felt like he belonged here, like he was a part of a whole, a vital link in a moving, living chain.

Then she brought up Mr. Coomtromb.

“When are you gonna give him the boot, Chad?” she said.  “A few people are starting to lump you two together, you know.  You don’t want that.  Trust me.”

“Well, after New Year’s, I’ll be starting my job, and it’ll probably blow over,” he said.

She stopped, suddenly, and put her hands on her hips.  “What is it with you?  Do you, like, like him or something?”

“No,” he said, “not really.  It’s just . . . he needs someone to talk to, that’s all.  He seems lonely.”

“Pss,” she said, and started walking again.  Snow landed on her hat, then melted.  “Big deal.  Everyone is lonely.  Haven’t you ever noticed?”

Chad looked away.  Not until I moved up here, he thought, but he said nothing.

Two hours later, they got back to The Mill, dusted with snowflakes.

“Thanks for the walk,” Nan said as they pushed their way into the foyer.  “That was nice.”  She took off her glasses and wiped them with the end of her scarf.

“Any time,” Chad said.

When they had climbed the stairs, Chad, taking an uncharacteristic chance, invited Nan to his room for coffee and a snack.

“Sure,” she said.  “I’d like that.”  They walked slowly down the hall, and Chad mused that they probably looked like a couple.  “Hey,” she said then, “your door’s open!  Someone’s in your room, Chad!”

At first, he figured it must be some optical illusion, some trick of the light.  But no—his door was definitely open.  “Stay out here,” he told her.  “I’ll go in an check.”

“Be careful,” she said.

He tiptoed into the room, wary, on guard.  He had never learned how to fight, and he didn’t know how he would fare if someone picked one with him now.  Maybe the—

Then he saw him, and he knew there would be no need for a fight.

Mr. Coomtromb was seated on a chair, next to Chad’s coffee table.  He was caressing the angel figurine, staring at it with that same rapture Chad had observed before.  But how did he get in?  Had he picked the lock?

“Mr. Coomtromb?” Chad said.  “What are you doing here?”

A gasp escaped the old man, and he quickly put the figurines back on the tabletop.  “I . . . your door was open, it wasn’t locked!” he said.  “Oh, believe me, my young friend, I knocked and knocked, I surely did, but you wouldn’t answer, and I just had to see it, to hear the song, you understand, and I didn’t want to wait, oh, it seemed so cruel to wait.  But I didn’t break in!  I just tried the knob, you see, just in case, and it opened!  I wasn’t going to do anything bad to your place, young man.  I was just going to take—to borrow—your lovely angel for today and tomorrow—for Christmas, you see—and return it after.  I promise, I would.  I will!  You believe me, don’t you?”

“Tell him to get out of here.”  It was Nan.  She had entered the apartment.  “He was trying to rob you, can’t you see that?  I told you!  He’s an old crook!  You better check your drawers, ‘cause I bet he took some stuff and snuck it in his room by now.”

“No,” Coomtromb said.  “I did no such thing.  I just wanted to borrow this angel, and the door—”

“I cannot believe this guy,” Nan interrupted, and Coomtromb shook his head, back and forth, back and forth.  His toothless mouth was set firm.  He looked to Chad like a gradeschooler denying the accusations of a teacher.

“Look, just calm down, everyone,” Chad said.  “Just chill.  No harm’s been done.  I guess it’s just as much my fault as anybody’s.  If I left the door unlocked . . .”

Nan’s mouth dropped open.  “Are you really that stupid?” she said.  “You actually believe this guy?”  The sigh that escaped her lips then had a finality to it, a hard crack of firm, unalterable judgment.  “Look, I need to get back to my room, okay?  Thanks again for the walk.”

“Nan, wait . . .”

But she was already gone.  He could hear her rapid, stiletto footsteps on the hallway floor, receding into the distance.

“I am sorry about that,” Coomtromb said.  “She’s a pretty girl.”

“Yeah,” Chad said.

“But, my young man, I promise you, I did not break in.  When your door was unlocked, I—”

Chad gestured for Coomtromb to stop.  “Don’t worry about it.  And go ahead.  You can borrow the music box, I don’t care.  Just be careful with it.  It’s kinda special to my mom, and she’d be ticked if something happened to it.”

Coomtromb began to speak, but Chad again halted him.  “Look,” he said.  “I really just wanna be left alone, okay, Mr. Coomtromb?”

“Coom to my friends,” Coomtromb said.  “And, yes, I will leave now.  I know all about being alone, you see.  Intimately.  Especially over the holidays.  Have you ever been to a party or a get-together, my young friend, and just felt . . . separated, apart, as though a wall, a barrier, existed between you and the others?  So many people talking and laughing and dancing all around you, but you . . . you’re alone.  Have you ever?  That’s the way it is right here, too, right here in The Mill, right here in the city.  So many people all around, and yet. . . .  But I thank you for your kindness, young man, and do not worry—these beautiful figurines are in good hands.  I will treat them with the utmost care and delicacy.  And I promise, I will return them on the twenty-sixth.”

Chad sat in his apartment that afternoon, trying to feel festive.  It was Christmastime, after all.  But he didn’t.  Nan’s words stung him.  He told himself it didn’t matter, that she didn’t matter—how could she be so quick to accuse Coomtromb, anyway?  She wouldn’t even hear the guy out.  He tried telling himself that she wasn’t his type, that she wasn’t the sort of person he’d hoped she was, that it was no great loss.  But it was a loss, and not all the philosophizing in the world could deny it.

He also thought of Mr. Coomtromb.  He wasn’t sure if he believed the old man’s assertion that Chad’s door had been unlocked, but it didn’t really matter.  What mattered were Coomtromb’s words.  He thought about being at a party, being here at The Mill, surrounded by people, by strangers who didn’t know him and didn’t care.

The snow had not let up.  If anything, it was coming down harder now—a white Christmas was assured.  A white Christmas.  Such a concept was to him, until this moment, a fairy tale.  And that’s how the world outside his window seemed, too.  The snow fell from a bruised-gray sky, covering everything under a veil of silence.  Car tires rotated through city streets without a noise.  Pedestrians, flaked with white powder, walked quietly along the sidewalk, their steps muted, the sound absorbed by the snow cover.  And in the gray-white distance, Chad could barely make out the river as it flowed along like a stream of liquid lead.

He felt an ache to be in Georgia, to be with Mom and Dad, and his brothers and sisters.  They would be laughing now, probably, and drinking eggnog, and sitting in front of the hearth.  “Chilly outside,” Mom would say, though “chilly” to her would mean fifty-three degrees with a slight breeze.  And Dad would throw another log in the fire, then take Mom onto his lap and hold her close.

But all Chad could do here and now was look out at the snow, look down upon the streets and sidewalks and storefronts adorned with holiday wreaths and lights in the windows.  Just sitting there.  Or, was there something else he could do?

He left his room, and locked the door.  Before he walked away, he tested the lock twice.

The video store was down at the corner, just a half mile away.  But it seemed like hours to get there.  The wind had turned harsh, and the afternoon was fading like a dim memory.  It was nearly dark when Chad went out, though it was just barely past four o’clock.

When he entered the shop, he was covered with snow, and very eager to get out of the elements.  The first thing he noticed was the shopkeeper, a balding fat man with a thick, bulbous nose, standing behind the checkout counter.  There were no other customers.

He went over to a shelf labeled “Classics.”  The shopkeeper immediately came up to him.  “Can I help you find something in particular?” he asked.  “I’m about ready to close.  Most weeknights, I’m open till seven, but not Christmas Eve I ain’t.”  The man’s accent was so thick, Chad thought he could hear the chowder coating each word.

Chad asked him if he had Meet Me in St. Louis.

The shopkeeper looked hard at him, as if noticing something about him for the first time, and not liking it.  “Ain’t from around here, are ya?” he said.

Chad shrugged.  “Georgia.”

The man grunted.  Fingering through the movies on the shelf, he pulled one out and handed it to Chad.  “Well, here you are,” he said.  “Lotsa years, this is rented out for Christmas.  You got lucky.”  They went to the checkout counter, and Chad filled out the necessary paperwork to become a card-carrying member of the store.  All the while, the shopkeeper fidgeted and stared at the pen as Chad wrote, as if willing it to move faster.

When Chad released the pen and slid the papers back across the counter, the shopkeeper processed the order at warp speed and handed over the cassette.

“You got it for five days,” he said.  “Live it up.”

Chad nodded, and walked out.  As soon as the door had shut behind him, he saw the shopkeeper flip over the “Open” sign.  “Sorry, Closed,” it now read.  Then a stiff gust of wind came up, and he started back for The Mill.

Knocking on Mr. Coomtromb’s door, Chad was strangely nervous.  It seemed backwards.  Coomtromb was the one who was supposed to knock on his door.  When there was no answer, he knocked again.

“Mr. Coomtromb . . . Coom . . . open up,” he said.  “I rented a movie for us to watch tonight.”

The door swung open.

“A movie?”  Coomtromb was in his night clothes already.  “Which one?”

Chad showed him the case.  For a moment, he worried that the old man was going to drop over from a heart attack.  His hands flew to his chest, and his mouth gaped open.

“My great goodness,”  Coomtromb said.  “Words fail me, young man.  It has been years, years, since I last saw that wonderful movie, that wonderful, wonderful scene!  But . . . but I don’t have a VCR.  Even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to operate it to save my life!  Oh, no!”

“That’s okay,” Chad said.  “I have one, and I even know how to use it.  We can watch in my room.”

“Oh, yes, that would be fine, fine!” Coomtromb said.  “But first, I must pop some popcorn—I have a microwave, you know, and dentures, too, have you ever seen me wear them? I usually don’t like to, but for popcorn, well . . . And I must pour some beverages, and open some snacks, and . . . Come in, come in!  You can help me prepare!”

Chad went in.  The first thing he noticed were the Christmas figurines standing atop a cluttered desk.  He was about to approach them, but Coomtromb had other ideas.

“Come along with me, my young friend,” Coomtromb said.  “I am so looking forward to the show, and we need to get ready.  Let us not delay!  My microwave is extremely temperamental, you know!”

He followed the old man into the kitchen, where they made popcorn—Coomtromb burned it on the first try—opened a bag of pretzels, and grabbed some orange sodas from the refrigerator.  Then, fully stocked, they went to Chad’s apartment, where Chad contributed eggnog and even a little sparkling cider to the mix.

They sat on the sofa, the popcorn bowl and pretzels between them, the drinks on the coffee table, and watched the movie.  Coomtromb stared at the television screen, rapt.  Several times, his eyes widened to the size of silver dollars, and once he laughed so loud it was hard to make out the movie’s dialogue.  He asked Chad to rewind the tape so they could watch the scene again.  “And I promise,” he said, “this time I will not laugh, and we’ll be able to hear.”  But he did laugh, and they didn’t hear.

Chad enjoyed the movie more than he thought he would, but he kept waiting for the pivotal scene.  The scene Coomtromb had talked about so often.  And when it came, the old man cried like a little girl.  “I’m sorry,” he said when it was over.  “I can’t help it.  I’ve never been able to help it when Judy Garland sings that lovely, lovely song.”

An hour later, standing in the doorway, Coomtromb thanked Chad.  “That was the best Christmas present I’ve had in a long time,” he said.  “You have no idea, my friend.  And, whatever you do, don’t concern yourself with the figurines.  I’ll bring them back, day after tomorrow, you’ll see.”

Christmas came and went, and Mr. Coomtromb failed to deliver the figurines.  Whenever he talked to Chad, the topic of the figurines did not come up.

He talked to Chad less and less as time pushed on.  Chad started his job at the beginning of January, and usually worked late.  Additionally, a couple of new residents had moved in, which distracted Coomtromb.  But sometimes, on a Saturday, the old man would knock on Chad’s door and come in; sometimes, early on a weekday morning, Coomtromb would stop him in the hall and ramble on about the past, about the old Palace Movie Theater, about wishes and dreams.

Regarding the figurines, though, Coomtromb was silent, and by the time spring at last beckoned, Chad knew he would never see them again unless he requested their return.  And he planned to.  His parents had called and told him they wanted to visit in the fall, to see the New England foliage at its peak of color.  That wasn’t the holiday season—but it was close enough.  He knew his mother would inquire about the figurines, and probably would want to see them, or even ask for them back.

The evening after his parents’ phone call, he stepped into the empty hallway and approached Coomtromb’s door.  He raised his hand, ready to knock.  That’s when he heard it.

Coomtromb was in there, playing the song.  Through the solid wood of the door, Chad could hear “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and he could picture the old man, his eyes as wonderstruck as a little boy’s, staring at the singing porcelain angel.

“After all this time,” Chad said softly.  “After all these months.”

The song stopped.  A moment of silence.  Then the song began to play again.

Chad let his hand drop to his side.  “Sorry, Mom,” he said, “I just can’t.”

He turned around, walked slowly back across the hall, and went into his room.


Thanks so much for reading!


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