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The Alienation of Courtney Hoffman
by Brady G. Stefani
Review by Jarad Johnson
What would you do if everyone in your life thought you were insane? Courtney doesn’t have to imagine. It’s her reality. It has been ever since her grandfather tattooed a strange symbol on her rib cage and tried to drown her in a bathtub when she was seven. He claimed that he was being visited by aliens, but of course no one believed him. Now, as a fifteen year old, Courtney is having the same visions in her dreams; however, the aliens reveal to her that they had formed an alliance with her grandfather, and that it is now passed onto her. When her mother discovers this, she has Courtney committed. While hospitalized, Courtney makes friends, but even friendships come with the risk of making her feel insane. Her journey of self discovery begins. As the book unfolds, Courtney begins to feel that she and her friends may have the fate of the universe resting in their hands. Is it true or is Courtney losing touch with reality?
This book was not what I expected it to be, but in the best possible way. I can wholeheartedly recommend it. The fact that the main character does not always have a firm grasp on her reality keeps the tale suspenseful. The reader’s attention is riveted not only on plot points but on the shifting perspective of the main character. This adds a level of literary sophistication that is unusual for YA literature. Along with Courtney, the reader must question the existence of everything in Courtney’s reality. The author does not hand out easy answers and the reader must do some thoughtful work while enjoying the story.
In the end, this novel grabbed my attention from the first chapter to the last. I loved the element of the unknown, and how the reader got a look inside the life of someone who was thought to be mentally ill. It was an enjoyable read, and I look forward to more from Courtney Hoffman.
Jarad attends Middle Tennessee State University, loves tea, and tries to spend every spare second reading. Jarad is majoring in English. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!
By Julie Carpenter
Link to Chapter 1
The Thin Hungry Man felt himself in midair, and then he felt nothing. The nature of nothing being what it is, the Thin Hungry Man had no concept of how long he was in it, or exactly what was happening to him while he was - nothing happened, one may assume.
When he began again to know what was going on, he seemed to be on the very border of nothing still. His surroundings were almost black and he seemed to be still in midair. He could not see anything solid in any direction around him, and he seemed to be spinning a bit so that he had very little sense of direction. As he continued through the darkness, his eyes began to adjust themselves. He began to notice that other objects were traveling with him, some moving faster, some slower, but all in the same direction, the one he considered to be forward as best he could tell, as if they had all been flung out from a massive but innocuous explosion. After a bit longer, he began to notice what some of those shapes were but without real understanding because his experience was so limited. As such, he had no idea of the immense oddity of the company of creatures and objects that surrounded him. There was a lion in purple trousers talking loudly into a toy phone; there were sweaty dogs in business suits trying to do physics, even though one of them kept violently insisting that it was beyond their grasp because they were insurance salesmen; there was a small man who kept putting his toe in his ear because it was trying to tell him something but didn't seem to be talking loudly enough. He also saw many peculiar inanimate objects floating by. There were picture frames, spoons, old bits of cabbage and candy bar wrappers drifting along discussing the various fortunes they expected to make at their destinations, while some very ugly green living room furniture seemed to be at war over whether existentialism was still a valid point of view. It was all quite different from the forest where he had spent his life previously.
He so thoroughly enjoyed the newness of his experiences that he almost forgot that he was hungry. Once again, he had no idea of time. He occasionally slept and woke again, still spinning in midair.
At last one day or one hour, soon after he had awoken from a strange spinning nap, he noticed something in front of him that he hadn't seen before. There appeared to be a great dark something in front of him, so dark that it made the darkness behind him look gray. The dark something stretched out before him so that when he looked in its direction he couldn't see anything else. It was rather frightening because it gave him a sense of his own speed, and he seemed to be moving faster than he had previously noticed. He got the impression that soon he would meet the great dark object without slowing down at all. It was not a comforting thought by any means. He waggled his arms a bit because some small instinct within him seemed to be making a last ditch effort to save his hungry body and complete the quest for food. Unfortunately, this did not seem to work and he thought all in all it would be better to stop and meet his fate with some dignity, but his arms were determined to make the odd feeble waggling attempts regardless of what his mind tried to tell them. So he let them waggle and closed his eyes and resigned himself, much as he had when he had thrown himself into the void. He opened his eyes only once and that was to see the object coming at him with such sickening speed that he promised himself he would never open his eyes again in what he believed would be his very short life span.
He managed to keep this promise for some time. It was because of this that he did not realize that what was happening to him a few moments later. The Thin Hungry Man was falling through a roof. Fortunately it was a poorly thatched roof, and a rotting one at that. Whumpf! He hit the thatch. He fell through in a shower of straw and landed on a bed. He wasn’t dead at all. He sensed this with some relief and felt hungry again.
He opened his eyes, despite his previous promise to himself not to, and looked around. He immediately noticed a great deal of noise, more noise than he had ever heard before, in fact. There were creatures running round the bed in circles, at great velocity, shrieking and shouting. The creatures happened to be dwarves, the kind you see in stories with red caps and shiny boots and beards, singing happy songs on their way to the mines and convincing innocent young girls to keep house for them for free. These particular dwarves had put their caps neatly on pegs as soon as they returned from whatever work they had done, and now they happened to be throwing things at each other. This was all so interesting to the Thin Hungry Man that he failed completely for one second to remember how hungry he was. He also completely failed to notice the dangers involved in the dwarves' game and was quite unready for the blunt thunk of a thick, brown beer bottle bouncing off his head. He passed out.
When he came to again, it was entirely of his body's own volition because the dwarves seemed to have taken no notice of him. The fight seemed only more violent and chaotic than before; and The Thin Hungry Man noticed the violent and chaotic way his head seemed to be chastising him for making the trip. Nevertheless, he was a little more prepared this time. Having learned his lesson about being hit on the head with large heavy objects, he managed to duck a ceramic beer mug and an old piece of cabbage, which he sincerely hoped was not that same piece of cabbage that he had seen so happy and hopeful in the void.
As a matter of fact, even though his head pounded and ached, the fight excited him more than frightened him. One small bump with a beer bottle was little enough to worry about when you've spent your whole life being hungry. So instead of fear, he felt himself experiencing elation at being among other people.
He could not understand all that was being said and done; he assumed that things were as they should be. The dwarves might be simply interacting in ways that were, for all he knew, quite normal. So he sat on the bed ducking the flying mess the best he could and laughing and yelling, and really rather enjoying himself after his long life alone.
After a great while the fight seemed to slow a bit. The fact that it had lasted as long as it had was pretty remarkable. Most of the dwarves were not at all young and all were a little fat. The swearing had become apathetic and silly and most of the throws were completely off target. One of the dwarves tripped and slid under the table, which seemed to content him because he immediately fell asleep and began snoring loudly. Another sat down on the floor and satisfied himself with half-heartedly tripping the others as they ran past him. At long last the fight was over, and each of the dwarves stopped to catch his breath. It was then, for the first time, one of them noticed the Thin Hungry Man.
It was the Red-Haired Dwarf, who had sat in the middle of the circle tripping the other dwarves. He looked at the bed as if he were seeing a ghost. His Eyes boggled out and his face turned red.
"Hey!," he screamed. "Hey you! What are you doing on that bed? That isn't your bed, you know! Hey! LOOK! You stupid lumps, there's someone on our bed." The other dwarves had not noticed the Thin Hungry Man until this point.
All the little eyes in the room turned toward the Thin Hungry Man. He was smiling from ear to ear. He had never in his life been so happy. They saw him. He was not alone.
He hardly knew what to say. Their eyes pierced him with hostility. The dwarves glared their best glares. There were some muttered whispers among them as they pulled at their black beards, except for the dwarf who had noticed the Thin Hungry Man. His beard was red.
The Thin Hungry Man cleared his throat. His voice, now that he finally had the opportunity to use it, was choked with the happiness he felt. His eyes stung with joyous tears.
"Hey, you stupid lumps," he screamed elatedly. "This is a good bed. A very good bed!"
He hoped he had properly conveyed his excitement at meeting them.
We don't believe in invented people
We need evidence that you're real.
So we test you.
Ask you to replicate higgledy-piggledy
Upper and lower case numbers
And letters, point out the shopfronts
in photographs. Invented folk
Can't discern differences, you know.
How real are you on Facebook,
on Twitter. How many personas
can you make? How much
We want to believe in characters
on screen, in books, online.
And we should. It uses our imagination.
Folk live and breathe in our heads.
Paul Brookes was shop assistant, security guard, postman, admin. assistant, lecturer, poetry performer, with "Rats for Love" and his work included in "Rats for Love: The Book", Bristol Broadsides, 1990. His first chapbook was "The Fabulous Invention Of Barnsley", Dearne Community Arts, 1993. He has read his work on BBC Radio Bristol and had a creative writing workshop for sixth formers broadcast on BBC Radio Five Live. Recently published in Clear Poetry, The Bees Are Dead, Live Nude Poems and others.
The Thin Hungry Man Has an Idea and it Hurts
By Julie Carpenter
Once upon a time in a deep, dark forest far, far away, a very tall and incredibly thin man was hiking through a large and beautiful forest. He was very thin because he had no food. He had no food because there was not even one grocery store in the whole forest. However, he never managed to die because he was, in fact, only a storybook man and not a real man at all. In story books, of course, death does not come for the asking or the wishing; it comes at the will of the author. This thin storybook man suffered only from the incredible thinness mentioned above, and of course, a more incredible hunger, all because the author who had created him didn’t allow him to die and because she hadn't included a grocery (or even a mini-mart) of any kind in the forest. The most heartbreaking part of all was that the poor man didn't even realize that there was no such thing as food in the forest, and so he kept hiking endlessly in the hope that eventually he would find food. Perhaps the author was really no good at all at characterization; at any rate she had given the poor man very little in the way of sense or knowledge before abandoning the story, which now resided in a red paper folder inadvertently tossed under her couch. With his precarious world unlikely to be disturbed, the Thin Hungry Man was trapped in a plot which was unlikely to be resolved. It could be said that the only real sense or knowledge that the Thin Hungry Man had was of a lack; his only drive was the gnawing hunger. This hunger formed all there was of his character; it was his only gift.
The rest of the creation, if one surveyed it, seemed perfect. The forest was absolutely ideal. It was lush and beautiful, a virgin forest- completely peaceful except for the confused wanderings of the Thin Hungry Man. The trees were widely spaced and their branches and leaves laced themselves together over most of the forest, leaving the sunlight to filter through a canopy of emerald with fragments of gold flickering here and there and beautiful clearings filled with warm, clear light. One of these clearings contained a lovely little pond in the very middle of it, with a few darting silvery fish playing in the clear, clear water. There were birds and squirrels frolicking in the awning of trees. There were rabbits skipping about on the green floor of the forest. Snakes and bears and lions were never to be seen. It might have come from a fairy tale such a lovely scene it was, not too original perhaps but enticing nonetheless, and nicely done in its way. However, the land outside the forest appeared to be a huge void of nothingness. It was as if the author had had no idea what to do with it, or perhaps she simply had not done anything with it yet, or perhaps there was a reason for the existence or non-existences of the nothing. But to the Thin Hungry Man it was the wall that formed his prison.
The Thin Hungry Man wandered through the beauty day after lonely day with no thought of anything but his hunger. He did not ponder the reasons that he seemed to be surrounded by nothing. He did not curse the hand that had created him. He simply searched night and day for something that would cure the ache in his belly. And so the Thin Hungry Man found himself alone, utterly and completely alone in his world, not that he'd ever known himself to be otherwise. The absence of his creator made little difference in his paltry life. It went on much as it had before in an endless and meaningless search for food. Of course, his search would have been made easier by far had he had a better idea what it was he was looking for. He had a vague and distant idea about food. He somehow knew that there was in existence something that would stop the pain in his middle. Unfortunately, nothing that he found in the forest seemed to match his half-formed ideas of food. His brain couldn't seem to pull his fibrous, hand-me-down thoughts together in any kind of coherent pattern. They swirled about bumping into one another and scattering, holding out the promise of food without making clear the actions to be taken. Still he clung quite fiercely to that tiny shimmering hope. It was indeed a marvelous feat of emotional will, to be accomplished by someone so ignorant and weak as himself. So each day at sunrise he once more got up and, weary and hungry though he was, traversed the forest in search of breakfast, and quite sadly continued the search through lunch and dinner.
Many times in his quest he had come upon the little pond, and sometimes on those occasions he sat in front of it for a time and looked at himself reflected in the water. Each time he noticed his reflection in the water, a multitude of half-formed thoughts came rushing in upon the image, and he always sat very still, hoping to capture one and decipher its meaning. That image of himself, himself and not himself, had given him a vague and curious wondering about otherness. Had he not been so hungry it might have been a more absorbing interest. There were many fish, all as alike as possible, and yet separate. The only other thing like himself that he had seen was this shivering green and gold image in the water. And since he couldn’t see himself very well, even that was conjecture. But the image in the water had hands, like his hands, and moved when he moved. This was a poor reflection of the partnered dance of the many fish, flickering and flashing one behind the other, now reflecting, now opposing each other's movements.
He didn't sit pondering these things for very long though. He was too hungry. The thought of eating his forest companions did not occur to him and he had no one to teach him how to hunt or gather food. And he might have been hard pressed in his weakened state to catch any of the quick happy creatures in the forest. He had once tried grass like the rabbits but it did nothing to stop the pain.
The search for food went on and on. Considering that it was happening inside the pages of a story and not in reality as non-fictional people experience it, there is no way to assess exactly how long that was. To the sad man trapped in the reality of the incessant hunger it must have seemed just one second short of eternity. It could have indeed been endless, had it not been for a rather unexpected turn of events. One day, as always, he was hiking through the forest in search of food, when suddenly it came to him. He realized that there was no food in the forest.
The thought struck him so hard that he fell down. It was the first time that a fully formed idea had presented itself to him. But it was not the thought itself, as much as the extremely disconcerting nature of the idea that affected him in this way. The thought that there was simply nothing in the forest that matched his poor ideas of food was too much. He realized that there was no longer any point in his one ritual, the daily search for sustenance. He lay on the ground and cried. He cried until darkness came and the moon rose in its shimmering, distant beauty and put him uneasily to sleep.
And so his first real thought was not a happy one. It was only a knowledge of the deficiency of his world. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would never find what he must have.
When the Thin, Hungry Man woke up the next morning he jumped up ready to start his search once more, and then he realized. There was no more need to search. This fact abruptly deprived his life of all meaning. He suddenly found himself facing questions, questions that were very difficult for a hungry, weak brain on the morning after the world has fallen apart. If there was no food to be found in the forest, where did one look for food? The edge of the forest seemed to be the edge of everything. He could not see beyond its border. Of course, nothing existed outside the forest, so there was nothing to see. Escaping the forest seemed impossible. He thought about it for a while. He got up. There seemed to be nothing left to do. He was altogether tired of being hungry. He looked at the forest around him. It had appeared much more pleasant when he had believed there might be food in it.
He began walking. He was walking very fast. He had made up his mind. It wasn't a good mind for making plans but he had come up with a rather desperate one. He walked until he came to the edge of the forest. He looked, or tried to look, beyond the trees. Considering the fact that nothing is not easy to see nor is it easy to make sense of, what the man did next was fairly remarkable. He took a running start and leapt into it.
Dying on a chaise lounge
What am I doing? I should be at the doctor not staring at the sun on the mailboxes without really even seeing it with a thousand cigarette butts on the deck, pissed off because I suddenly don't have the motor skills to pick them up. And I'm not sure if I fell asleep last night but I remember calling the puddle of sweat on the pillow holy water, making wishes with pretend pennies
and pretty girls seem to look at me when I'm sick. They are to me, Ray-Ban, New York & Co. angels flocking around my loungechair with mercy, inherently cognizant of my ill health and all I can do is wish that my hair was combed and they are aware of this too which makes me even more nervous but serenely they smile...
Mary Magdalene Mademoiselles
they'll fly along the sides
of the ambulance the whole ride over to the hospital
and I remember how I could once walk down the street and nobody could see me inside the sidewalk and I liked it that way and I could dream through the trees and the rooftops and the eyeballs and the glasses and the dogs and the water ices and
when I came up for air I felt like I really
belonged right in the spot
I was standing in
phlegm on the deck
falling through the vertigo
deep inside the uncomfortable patio furniture
wondering how long it's going to take me to breathe.
I hear her showering...
I hear her showering
that moves me
like a downpour
My behavior has not been "off for awhile now."
I don't need to
call Dr. Guast
my meds adjusted.
I was with you.
I wish you were a breeze
through my very last afternoon
that has come to lick my neck and vanish
then I could begin to be acquainted with
the easy undertows of heaven and death
I hated the attention. They had already opened their Christmas gifts. So by the time I got to my grandparents house with all of my aunts and uncles for Christmas morning 2.0, it felt more like my birthday. It only magnified the fact that my parents were divorced. Uncle Scott pulls me aside and says I want to give you my gift now, so you have one less present to have to open in front of everyone. I wouldn't like that either.
O sweet grace in the hallways outside of the family rooms!
O childhood idol come down and made flesh.
Tears in your perfect smile.
I will breathe now.
O family the way I remember it!
O Holy Night!
Once, years later, he drove hours to my new apartment, leaving his day behind, just to help move my humongous, crappy old entertainment center. When he finally arrived he acted like it was no big deal, like he was doing a quick favor for a friend who lived 10 minutes away.
Seeing you pull up on the road
you look like a mirage
I can't believe you were
about coming all the way out here.
Seeing you pull up on the road
this strange new place
is now showing
There is much there. Many examples of the humbleness, the generosity, the fun. Many smitten with him. Many women asking if he was single. Even girlfriends I brought to meet the family would sit behind their dinner plates googly and gushing at the great Uncle Scott.
An instance that resonates with me is an especially divey bar we once went to together. He didn't need to adjust. He didn't make it seem like -Mmmmm, how interesting, this is a good story to tell my golf buddies! He just slid into his chair with his Miller Lite, talked college basketball, and never noticed that the mood of everyone in the place had been lifted, simply because he was there.
Sip with me
Sit with me
Sip with us
Sit with us
You remind me of something...
Something I hoped for?
The lifeguard I watched as much as he watched me?
Rocky with the flag wrapped around him?
Sit with us
Sip with us
Sip with me
Sit with me...
Sometimes we would fight. Actually, I would fight with him, he wouldn't partake. It was beneath him. I've wished many times since that it was beneath me too.
You can't fight with Uncle Scott.
It's telling Superman the S on his chest is too big.
Barking at you (King of sweet vigor, youth-charm.
Everyman Incarnate/gentle smile and eyes)
Look at the fool I am.
Standing here in my nastiness.
I am as cold
as the sidewalk
Many years before- My parents are still together- The family race. First one to get to the woods wins. Almost every time the winner is Uncle Scott. He's in the prime of his 20's. Fast, vibrant, muscular.
The only thing that matters-
The monumental task-
The most important thing in the world is-
that I touch a tree before he does.
Fourth of July sweat and cut off jeans
grass stains on white sneakers
Will my Aunt pull this one out?
No, it's me and Uncle Scott again.
Neck and Neck
Faster! Come on Danny.... Come on.....
No matter what
This I will remember-
Tan, perspiring, almost out of breath, with an ice water in your hand-
"You gave me a good race, Dan-O."
Dan Flore's poems have appeared in many publications, including Sick Lit Magazine and Lummox. His first poetry collection is forthcoming from GenZ Publishing.
The Merciless II
by Danielle Vega
Review by Jarad Johnson
Vega delivers a chilling horror story in the second chapter of The Merciless. This time, after her mother mysteriously dies, Sofia finds herself in a Catholic preparatory school known as St. Mary’s. While there, surrounded by an atmosphere of penitence, she is still haunted by that gory night when she and her three friends performed an exorcism that spiraled horribly out of control. Still, she works through it by letting her therapist convince her that it was all in her head. That is, until similar events begin occurring outside of her head. Her roommate’s pet dies, killed presumably by Sofia herself. The owner of the pet then breaks her leg onstage, and later dies whilst fleeing a fire.
After hearing all of this, Jude, a boy that Sofia is extremely attracted to, becomes convinced that she is possessed by the devil. What follows are the chilling results which put Sofia in danger. And it turns out that not everyone is who we think they are.
When Vega writes, she doesn’t play around. Her grasp of the horror genre is immense. She really knows how to build tension throughout her novels. This, first expressed in the first book, is again fully realized in its sequel. Throughout, there is an overshadowing feeling of suspense, slowly building up with each chapter. She is extremely capable of keeping her readers glued to the page with her unique brand of horror.
Overall, I liked this novel, but not as much as the first novel. I found it to be a little bit slower, and it took a little longer for the suspense to be fully realized. It was still a great read, although for me, it did not quite live up to the first Merciless.
Jarad attends Middle Tennessee State University, loves tea, and tries to spend every spare second reading. Jarad is majoring in English. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!
By Julie Carpenter
Maybe it had started with the mice, he thought. Maybe the exodus of mice was the first sign that there was something amiss in the church basement. The choir room had been plagued by mice for as long as Father Dingle had been there. Alan, the choir director, had been on about adequate storage for the music since he’d been there. Just last Christmas, Alan had gone on the warpath after finding a mouse nest made with scraps of the Hallelujah Chorus, a situation he found neither economically nor spiritually tolerable. But in the early autumn, just a few months ago, the church mice had begun moving out of the basement in droves. Father Dingle had arrived at church one morning to find several families of mice scurrying up the basement stairs and down the hall towards the front doors. More mice appeared each morning, waiting at the doors to dash out as soon as they were opened.
One morning he’d found a mouse quivering on the window sill in his office. It was so paralyzed with fear that he’d been forced to ease it out the window and into the scraggly rosebush outside his office with the end of a pencil. He could not bring himself to otherwise dispose of the poor shivering animal.
The mass evacuation of mice had conducted itself quietly up to a point. He was incuriously grateful that the mice were leaving. He’d chalked up the exodus of mice to a minor miracle and mentioned his gratitude in his evening prayers. But then there was that Sunday morning when pandemonium broke out in the choir loft during the opening hymn…
A bewildered and trembling mouse had apparently crawled into Edna Harrison Brook’s purse to escape the basement. Finding itself in strange new terrain, it ran up Edna’s arm when she reached into her purse for a Kleenex, leaving her in a state of near shock. Then it ran across the pew, behind the sopranos, shot up Mary Jo Baker’s choir robe and right up her neck and head where it perched trembling on her chignon, provoking not a few high pitched squeals from the soprano section. First Tenor Harlan Smith’s instincts took over and he swatted it out of Mary Jo’s hair. It flew up in a beautiful, acrobatic arc and soared high over the pulpit. It landed on the organ keys and the organist, Myrtle Anderson, a victim of both the mouse and the cleaning lady’s zealous over polishing of the organ bench, slid right off, landing on her posterior with a thump and a rather unfortunate and somewhat vulgar exclamation that echoed and bounced against the old church rafters. One could hardly blame her, but of course, some people had.
Father Dingle had retrieved a bottle of flavored brandy when he returned to his study after the incident. He contemplated the conversation he would need to have with old Mrs. Flowers, the cleaning lady, his trip to visit Myrtle, who had probably broken her tailbone, and he supposed he needed to go and pay a visit to Edna who’d nearly passed out after the incident. He shuddered as he remembered the sopranos gathering round to flail at her with church bulletins while one of the altos went for a wet paper towel. By the time he’d thought the whole thing through, Father Dingle found himself holding an empty bottle.
That wasn’t the last time Father Dingle sat in his chair drinking brandy and contemplating odd events. After the mice had left, two packages of Sunday school material had disappeared from the church steps. The postman stoically declared he had delivered them himself and left them right under the archway at 10:15 just like always; and Margie, the church secretary, had just as stoically declared that she had gone out at 10:20 to find absolutely nothing there. The Reverend Dingle found himself in the middle of the mess with phone calls to the Post Office and the publishing company. Father Dingle hated to be in the middle of a mess. Then the altar linens had disappeared and been the cause of an hours long search only to be found sitting nicely folded on a church pew, fouled with the print of a small hand that looked as though it had been dipped in ash. This had nearly caused a fistfight among the ladies of the altar guild. Oh dear! That had required some sorting. It made Father Dingle’s head hurt just thinking about it. And the copy machine had broken down in a spectacular manner. Margie had stepped out to the restroom while the bulletins were printing and returned to find the printer choking on a paper jam. Before the incident was over the office was filled with the smell of burning wires and the church was in need of a new printer.
Finally, one chilly Sunday morning, as the parishioners had filed past the somber marble angel guarding the tomb of the Reverend Barnabus Fletcher Cook, the first pastor of Whistlestop, they’d noticed that it was sporting devil horns, a pair of Ray Bans, and a Hitler mustache, all of which had apparently been super glued on. The constable had been called and all of the youth questioned, to their immense and haughty indignation, and to the dismay of Father Dingle who couldn’t imagine any of their teenagers at the center of such nonsense. All of these things were awful, but they were just precursors to the real show.
Father Dingle was now contemplating the most recent passage in this sordid history from the comfort of his old leather armchair. He had put on his old soft flannel pajamas, his robe and slippers. His cat, Cedric, was on his lap, slowly softening Father Dingle’s belly with his claws. Father Dingle absently rubbed Cedric’s ears. He needed the pretense of routine. He did not have a book in his hand because he couldn’t take this simulation of normalcy quite that far. Not tonight. Because tonight, Father Dingle was afraid. He’d been more than equal to ignoring the unease that had possessed him over the previous months. He was a master of ignoring disquiet and apprehension. This was different. Fear had settled on him like a heavy blanket, pushing against his chest, forcing him to choke down his blackberry brandy through his constricted throat. He felt smothered and had to remind himself to push his breath in and out. He had tried praying to the God he’d known before today, but found that his agitated brain had long since quit supporting his tongue. And now that he knew what he knew? It was all he could do to swallow the alcohol.
He tried, he really tried, to nudge his thoughts away from the events of the day. But his brain assaulted him again; it needed one more run at the problem. A door had been opened to something incomprehensible and his brain wanted desperately to turn that something over, to inspect it, to pull it apart and put it back together. Then, his brain assured him, it would close that door and tiptoe quietly away and curl up in the fetal position, somewhere safe.
Another sip of brandy and his brain swung back onto the circular track of the day’s events. The morning hadn’t got off to a great start. He’d come in a little late – truth be told with a brandy headache. Fine. He had to admit that. But he’d been sober, if a little worse for the wear that morning. He would swear that on a stack of Bibles. No. When he had arrived, he was fully in command of his faculties.
He’d gone round to the side door, not sneaking really, but he had to admit that he had hoped no one would note the time. And then Margie rounded the corner, nearly knocking him to the ground. Her red hair was falling around her face. Her usually pallid complexion was red and splotchy.
She was gasping out, “You’re not going to believe it. You’re not going to believe what they did!”
Father Dingle was taken aback. “Who? Did what now?”
“I don’t know! No one knows!” Margie burst into tears.
She led him into the church and took him to the nursery door.
In thick green paint, a huge and crudely drawn sea serpent, fangs dripping spots of blood red paint, mouth open, was hovering over the lighthearted mural of Noah’s ark, massive mouth ready to snap off Noah’s head. The serpent coiled around the ark, dwarfing it. Perhaps this was mere vandalism. He’d seen vandalism before, though. Normally, it was merely anger and angst bubbling to the surface of the teenage brain, a vessel too weak to contain it. This wasn’t like that. The art was primitive but it had a raw power. The serpent’s eye was on Noah but it seemed to include Father Dingle in its malevolent, twinkling gaze as well.
Margie left him staring keenly at the sea serpent while she went to call the constable. He was so absorbed that when Alan Cunningham came up behind him and touched his arm he almost went right through the ceiling.
“Why would you sneak up on a man like that, Alan?” he yelped.
Alan tugged on his arm and darted away, “The basement! Come quick!”
When he rounded the corner behind Alan, wisps of sinuous green smoke were easing themselves up the basement staircase and round the rails like serpents. They seemed to be emanating from the choir room.
“We’ve got to save the Christmas music!” Alan was gone…leaping down the stairs, taking them two at a time.
“Alan! Stop!” Father Dingle cried after him in vain. That’s when the fear had first hit him in the chest.
Father Dingle’s fear had wrapped around itself like a snake eating its own tail. He was afraid of what he would find in the basement. He was also afraid of the disgrace of neglecting pastoral duty. The thought of the young and lovely Margie seeing him run like a frightened mouse from the basement flitted across his brain and propelled him through the terror to the bottom of the stairs. Then he realized that Alan had already made the turn into the choir room.
Father Dingle paused, his feet felt like lead. There was something emanating from the choir room, invisible but more unyielding than smoke, a something that pushed him away like an invisible hand. He somehow made the turn into the choir room.
“Alan! Forget the music!” he called.
But Alan had already forgotten the music. He was standing mesmerized in the center of the room, looking towards the open supply closet. A steady stream of green mud with blood red streaks was bubbling up from its floor, as though from a witch’s cauldron, and creeping out onto the floor. Father Dingle’s first thought had been that there had been some sort of geothermal event. Was the church crumbling into the earth’s core?
His second thought was that he had inadvertently purchased the LSD variety of frozen waffles because as he lurched forward to rescue Alan, he too became mesmerized. Out of the bubbling cauldron of red and green mud, improbably large bubbles were forming. As they floated past, they caught on various objects and burst, releasing swirls of green smoke that fell to the floor and slithered away and up the stairs. But that wasn’t the thing that had kept Father Dingle’s feet planted. It was the enormous green globule that was currently forming on the lip of the now simmering supply closet. Unlike the more translucent smoke-filled bubbles, this globe was thick and gelatinous. It was oily and oozing.
Father Dingle meant to move forward, to grab Alan’s shoulder and run, but before he could make contact, the dreadful egg swelled up and popped!
It shot out tracers of slime like a goopy green firework. Some of it splashed up and landed on the men. As he wiped specks of slime from his face, Father Dingle saw it. A foot-long, green creature, with wings – some awful, miniature admixture of human and reptile, the word imp came to mind – had been hatched out of the egg. Its wings were bat-like and streaked with crimson red. It stood blinking at edge of the closet, shivering and spitting, flinging slime around the room. It shook its wings to dry them and then let out a piercing shriek and flew up and around the choir room, skimming neatly over their heads.
“Alan!” yelled Father Dingle, “We have to get out of here!”
Alan was looking blankly at Father Dingle. A splatter of green fell from his hair. Father Dingle had no choice. He slapped Alan. Hard.
“Hey! Ow!” Alan snapped out of his stupor, eyes wide.
“Let’s go!” Father Dingle yelled.
Alan’s eyes slid back towards the music cabinet for one last glance, like Lot’s wife at Sodom.
“Bugger the Christmas music Alan! Let’s go!” Father Dingle bellowed. The two men ran for the door, sliding on green slime and choking on the snake-like wraiths of smoke that squirmed around them. As Father Dingle turned back to close and lock the door to the choir room, all that he could think to do under the circumstances, he noticed three new green eggs swelling from the bottom of the supply closet.
He hadn’t handled things well from that point on. He had to admit it. None of them had. But who could be prepared for known reality to go careening out of orbit? It ought to have felt like a bad dream. But it didn’t. The whole thing had a three-dimensional sharpness and clarity. Even now with his pajamas on, sipping brandy with Cedric on his lap. He’d been hoping that remembering it here, in relative safety would take some of the edge off. He wanted to be able to believe that it wasn’t real. That he’d been wrong. But that wasn’t possible. Not yet. He took a few more sips of brandy.
The three of them should have immediately left the grounds, reported it he supposed. Would anyone have believed them? And pray tell…to whom does one report imps? Or demons, as he now suspected. He suspected, upon reflection, that a portal to Hell had somehow been opened in the church basement. How and by whom were questions beyond his ken.
But they hadn’t run for help. For a few moments the three of them had stood outside the windows of the basement choir room looking in, trying to wrap their minds around the bizarre scene. The crimson and green mud had lapped out and reached the first set of choir risers, by now seven of the little green creatures were zipping around the room, screeching like pterodactyls. They were eating everything they could find. One of them was tearing through a choir robe and swallowing the shreds. One was crunching through the leather and paper of a music folder. One was gnawing through one of the legs of the practice piano. One had found the box of Christmas music. It had eaten almost all the cardboard and had frantically started shoveling down the cantatas, chewing them with obvious fervor. After a few seconds, it belched a shower of confetti and started again.
Father Dingle watched as one of the creatures tried to swallow what appeared to be the G3 hand bell, a larger lower octave bell. Two of the imp’s companions were working on the higher octaves with more success. The creature appeared to be trying to unhinge its jaw in an attempt to swallow the enormous bell. One of the other imps noticed its distress and shot out a bony hand. It pulled its companion’s jaw down and with a clang the entire hand bell disappeared.
“There goes the G3,” Alan said miserably. He was also the director of the hand bell choir.
Yes in retrospect, Father Dingle had to admit that standing around the window watching all Hell break loose in the church basement might not have been the best response to the situation.
The demons had been in a perfect frenzy of eating. They were shrieking and splashing in the red and green mud, fighting over the gray sweater that Edna Brooks always left draped over her chair, until one of them snatched it up and vacuumed it into his wide mouth, starting with one of the sleeves. The piano was listing badly to one side and the piano bench had been reduced to mostly splinters. The cubby where the folders were kept had been reduced to half its size. They’d all gasped when one of the monsters began chewing through a metal music stand. Alan’s score had been on it. He gave a little cry of anguish as it too became confetti.
What to do? What to do? The refrain had been running through Father Dingle’s brain the whole time. What to do? But there was no frame of reference. He didn’t even know what had happened, much less how to stop it. He could only look on in horror. Surely a priest should be able to do something about the situation but Father Dingle didn’t know what. He had never been a brave man and no heroic actions came to mind. In fact, no actions of any kind came to mind. He hadn’t even thought to run. He’d been cowardly and stupid.
One of the imps had looked up, straight at the window. It caught Father Dingle’s eye with its own. It was a malevolent and twinkling eye, just like the eye of the sea serpent on the walls of the nursery upstairs. With a shriek it flung itself at the window. Glass splintered. Father Dingle had just enough time to throw himself on Margie and push her to the ground before the creature burst through the window and went rocketing past them. Alan flung himself to the ground as well. They heard a chattering, shouting noise above their heads and more glass splintering and then all of the imps were free of the church, some flying to the trees and some hopping and clambering among the gravestones, flicking out their tongues and spitting. Father Dingle noticed for the first time how dark the sky had become, ragged and black through the trees. A few drops of rain pelted down and the creatures shrieked, whether with excitement or displeasure Father Dingle could not tell. They gathered in the large twisted maple in the center of the graveyard, a shrieking knot of bat wings.
Father Dingle lifted his head and once again caught the eye of one of the creatures. It gibbered and pointed at him, then put its hands on its hips squealing and bouncing. It flung down a shower of acorns and spewed out a small fountain of green spit. He looked down again, and then carefully looked up out of the corner of his eye. His submissive posture seemed to mollify it. The rain began to come down more seriously. But Father Dingle found that if he moved more than an inch or two, one or more of the little demons turned a baleful eye in his direction and began spitting and throwing things.
“Keep still!” he hissed to Margie and Alan.
His bald head was getting wet and it occurred to him that his glasses would soon be almost useless in the rain. He had no idea how they would escape, but moving now was out of the question. Perhaps they could wait the creatures out.
“We have to get out of here!” Alan hissed back. “I can’t stay here any longer. We have to get out of here!”
Alan’s voice was trembling. Father Dingle glanced at him through the mud, over the top of his foggy glasses. Alan was pale and wide eyed. He was going to crack.
“Hush!” Margie whispered back, urgently. “Be still like Father Dingle says.”
“We can’t just stay here forever. We can’t!” Alan whispered, his voice crackling and warbling. Suddenly he shrieked, “Somebody has to do something.”
Then out of the corner of his eye, Father Dingle saw Alan raise himself up to his knees. He was shaking his fist. He picked up a rock.
“No! Alan!” Father Dingle hissed.
Margie reached over to tug at his pant leg, “Alan! Stop!”
But Alan’s fear had made him very, very angry. “Get out of here you little monsters!” he called out. “Go back to Hell!”
Alan threw the rock. It hit the smallest imp squarely in the back of the head. The imp slowly turned and eyed Alan. Alan remained on his knees, locked in a stare down with the creature in the pouring rain. The other imps stopped their noise and they all turned to look at the three humans lying on the quickly dampening earth.
In a trembling voice, Alan yelled, “I said go back to Hell!”
Father Dingle couldn’t endorse such behavior, but he had to admire it.
The imp who’d been hit hunched forward on a gnarled tree branch, looking intensely at Alan. It turned its head to one side, like a dog who’s trying to make out whether you have a treat in mind or a trip to the vet, and it made a chuckling noise. The other imps chuckled with it. For a few seconds they chuckled and clucked like overwrought hens. Then with a shake of its head the small imp flew down and landed in front of Alan, who was still on his knees. Alan gazed down at it. From his vantage point, Father Dingle thought Alan looked like teacher getting down on his knees to talk to a small and ugly child. The imp turned its head this way and that, clearly thinking. Then it reached out its bony fingers, stroking Alan’s chin and his neck, all the while peering into his eyes. It clicked its tongue, still wagging its oversized head from side to side, considering. Finally it rubbed the back of its head where Alan had pelted it with a rock.
Suddenly, it leapt on Alan’s neck, biting hard and deep. One bite. It lingered at Alan’s neck for a few seconds, tracing the bite mark almost tenderly with its bony claw like fingernail, then flew back to its companions.
Alan remained on his knees for a few seconds, like a tree after the felling cut. Father Dingle could see the bite mark on Alan’s neck from where he cowered on the ground. It was a perfect circle of teeth marks…for an instant. Then the blood began to ooze from the wound, marring its circular perfection, welling up into large beads then dripping down Alan’s neck in a stream of crimson. Alan toppled, stiff as a log and then he was still. The whole swarm of imps had gathered and flown off like a dark cloud up through the trees and into the tattered sky.
Father Dingle took a few more sips of brandy. He swirled the liquid in his glass and shrugged. He downed it. More images swam up from the brown liquid. Alan lying pale and motionless, barely breathing. The weight of Alan’s head in his hand as he tried to keep it up and out of the mud and water. His hand covered in Alan’s blood. Father Dingle came back to the present, rubbing his hand compulsively against his belly as if to remove the stain. Cedric, displeased at the disturbance, bit his hand, released a pinpoint of Father Dingle’s own blood and then licked it off.
Father Dingle closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on the scratchy tongue of the cat, but he was back in the graveyard; there was Margie’s retreating back as she ran through the tombstones, fiery red hair against the slender blue coat to meet the constable and the ambulance and direct them to Alan. She disappeared into the fog of his rain smeared glasses.
Father Dingle had not moved. He had remained kneeling on the ground holding Alan, mud oozing through his pant leg and creeping into his shoes. He did not know whether he held a man or a corpse. He felt that he could not breathe, but his body remained alive. Then realized he was breathing not air but fear. Fear filled his lungs. Fear coursed through his veins. It filled his belly. It slid downwards and his intestines cramped with it. Every crevice of his body and soul, every crack, every wrinkle, every cavity was full of fear.
The fear that the demons had unleashed was a magnet for every other fear he had ever felt, and Father Dingle had always been afraid. This new fear devoured his fear of the dark and expanded. It devoured his fear that he would lose his job. It sucked up his fear of confrontation. His fear of hunger. His fear of sex. His fear of loneliness and his fear of intimacy.
Now enormous, the Fear loomed over him. And he recognized it. This was the god he had attempted to pacify all his life. His religion was not an invitation to the sacred and mysterious. His religion was an attempt to keep those things at bay. Hell had broken through his illusions with a battering ram…and a message. All his rituals and liturgies, all his attempts to be good had been pointless, because Hell found a way in anyway. He’d been right to be afraid. The universe was and always had been oblivious to his magician’s chants and hymns.
This knowledge broke him. For a time, he could no longer summon the existential vigor to trouble himself. His strength ebbed and he relaxed himself into the mind of Fear. His soul, drowned in terror, was numb. Submission to Fear had released him from its feeling. His god had at last given him the religious ecstasy he had so long been denied.
Constable Henry had dropped Father Dingle at home and here he was now…in his pajama pants drinking brandy. He’d locked the doors and windows and closed all the drapes. It wasn’t until then that the numbness released him and his sense of self-preservation and with it his terror, returned. No one had believed them, of course. Alan had been removed to the hospital, still unresponsive. The search was on for the assailants who had attacked them. Probably with a smoke bomb said the Fire Chief and the Constable, searching for a reasonable explanation for the damage and injury. But now Father Dingle knew. The universe did not have to wait to sneak in through an unlocked window. It did not have a rule book. The universe could simply unleash Hell.
Still, he tried. He tried to think of some reason this had happened. He pondered how. He pondered why. He pondered who. Most of all he pondered whether he was somehow to blame. It was his church after all. Allowing a door to Hell to be opened in its basement had to fall under his responsibility. His brain had circled the track until it was exhausted. Now it was inching back toward its default position. He could make no sense of the thing. Odds were he wasn’t suddenly going to become a brave or useful man. He found it hard to repent of his fears when it seemed that all along fear had been the most appropriate response to a universe that was at its mercy.
After all, what could be done? He had no magic tricks or seminary tidbits to close the portal to Hell. Perhaps it had closed itself. Perhaps it hadn’t. No one had believed his story, except Margie, and what exactly could a roundish, balding, middle aged pastor and twenty-something part time church secretary do to fight the powers of Hell? Not one thing he could think of. Not one thing.
In spite of all his efforts, in spite of all his religious supplications to the infinite to leave him alone, the mysterious universe had broken through. It wasn’t a good thing – as he had suspected all along. What could he do? He was at the mercy of powers beyond his control. He suddenly relaxed back into the infinite Fear. There was nothing he could do. He would simply go back to hoping that the universal mystery would leave him alone. What were the odds of such a thing happening again? He would hope the imps had flown into the mountains (or even another village, as long as it wasn’t his own). Hope that somehow Alan would be okay in the morning. Hope that the church could be put to rights again and that no more portals to Hell would open in the church basement. It was a poor tired hope. But it was all he had.
He was exhausted. The brandy was finally doing its work. He stood up. He would get Cedric his tuna, he would go to bed and lock his door and pull up the blankets and he would sleep as long as ever he could. Yes indeed. Certainly he had a good excuse for calling in sick for a few days. The universe could sort its own damned self out. Father Dingle was done trying to manipulate it. He would hide from it the best he could.
He started to walk to the kitchen when the phone rang. It jangled his nerves. It rang again. That was twice. Another loud, jarring brrrrrrng. Two more rings and it would stop. Whoever it was would think he was in bed. Every nerve in his body quivered. The phone itself might have been a small bat winged demon it unnerved him so. It battered his fragile new wall of exhaustion and serene despair.
The final ring shook him into action beyond his control. His hand shot out, quivering and he heard himself answer the phone.
“Hello?” he trembled into the phone.
“Father Dingle! It’s Margie,” the phone said to him. He removed the phone from his ear and looked at it with distaste.
“Father Dingle, are you there?” she was speaking loudly and he could still hear her.
He put the phone back to his ear.
“Yes,” he said uncertainly.
“What are we going to do? Samantha, my roommate saw one! On her way home, she saw it in the park! They’ll have to believe us now Father! We have to…” Margie’s voice snapped off as Father Dingle clicked the phone gently back into place.
“Come, Cedric,” he said, his voice quivering. He almost fell over the cat, which was rubbing its face on his leg in anxious anticipation of tuna. But he forced his trembling feet to shuffle toward the kitchen, “It’s time for tuna. And then off to bed. If there’s one thing I’ve learned today Cedric, it’s that the only proper response to this universe is fear. And if we swallow enough fear and brandy, we won’t feel a thing.”
I saw it on FaceBook
The Holy Grail of Womanhood
The great sacred mystery of domesticity
The perfectly folded fitted sheet
But I am not a household saint
My mysteries are more mundane
Why does the trash can smell
Like a monkey cemetery?
Why is a bowl balanced, perched
Precarious so that it will lurch
Onto my head when the door
To the cabinet is opened?
Why do my feet go squick, squick
When I cross the floor in the kitchen?
What is the liquid that sticks
Stubbornly to the bottom of the fridge?
Why has the cat barfed again
On the sofa pillow, the large one?
The dog left crumbled bone
To mix with slopped water from her bowl?
The signs of my failure surround me
The path to perfection is too steep
Too many steps ahead
I give up.
Advice From the
by Uncle Morty
In which musings on various topics tumble from Uncle Morty’s empty skull
On those who seek certainty
Those who seek clarity, certainty, and safety above all else are the most dangerous of the living. The only way they can be certain of themselves is by getting rid of you.
On finding truth in writing
The truth of a story is not particularly related to its believability.
On writing narrative
Don’t be afraid to write a story as sweet as candy going down as long as it can still bite after it’s been swallowed.
On the relationship between insanity and art
It’s not that the insane are predisposed to be artistic. The act of producing art sometimes reveals rifts in the universe to which the proper and only response may be what is commonly called insanity.
On being able to hear the truth
The Devil will tell you a pious lie. The homeless man on the corner may tell you a vulgar truth.
Give of Yourself: A Bizarro Christmas Tale
By Lee Widener
Review by Julie Carpenter
Once again, our favorite Bizarro author, Lee Widener, gets weird. And this time we’re taking a holiday trip. In this tale, he explores what it might mean to truly give of oneself at the holidays.
Explore the holidays with Angelo Flortwire and his family. Visit a place in the multiverse where cell phones are a distant and nostalgic memory, where robotic butlers play upside down chess and make Christmas dinner and where giving someone your heart is a very intimate event.
Like all of Lee's books, this novella turns your brain inside out and in the process makes you consider some things that you might not otherwise.
So take this far out holiday trip, but be sure to come back intact. You need to be ready for the next adventure.
Lee Widener has been writing and drawing the unusual since age 10. He's been involved in theater as well, running his own company for a time. After an unpleasant stint in "the real world," he decided to come back to writing. Check out his author page for more of his stories.