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Monday, February 27

Judging A Book By Its Cover

"Judging A Book By Its Cover"
Short Fiction - Literary
By Jeff Neale

From his air-conditioned office, Brian watched the old man in his wrinkled overalls walking slowly across the lot. If there was one thing he knew as General Manager, it was customers. He could tell right away this old geezer had no money. He probably couldn’t afford to buy his daughter’s tricycle, let alone any one of the new cars he had on the lot.

He chuckled to himself as he pushed the intercom. "Tom to the front. Tom to the front." I’ll let the new kid waste twenty or thirty minutes in the scorching heat, he thought.

"You called me?" Tom said, stepping into Brian’s office.

"Yeah, customer out front. Try to not screw it up, okay?"

"I’ll do my best," Tom said, straightening his tie as he walked out.

"Yeah, you do that," Brian said, turning in his chair and refilling his coffee cup. Brian shook his head. Tom had a lot to learn about selling cars. He was way too open and honest. You must be tough in this business to get ahead.

"May I help you?" Tom said, as he approached the old man.

The old man removed a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. "Shore is a hot one, ain’t it?"

"Yes sir, it sure is."

"Are you the man who sells the cars?" the old man asked.

"I’m one of them, yes. My name is Tom," he said extending his hand.

"Pleased to meet you," the man said. His hand engulfed Tom’s and it felt like roughened leather. "Matthew is my name. Arnold Matthew."

"How may I help you?" Tom said.

"Well, it’s like this. I’ve been a farmer all my life, never married, and lived with an old maid sister up until two years ago when she passed. My old truck is about to give out, so yesterday I thought I might as well buy a car for myself." He pointed around the lot with his finger. "Now, which one of these cars do you think I ought to buy?"

"It depends on your needs," Tom said. "Are you going to be traveling quite a bit, or mostly around town?"

"Town mostly."

"Do you have a certain price range you’re looking for?" Tom asked.

"Nope, I’m willing to pay a fair price for a fair car."

Arnold shuffled away slowly and Tom followed. He stopped in front of a dark blue Crown Victoria. "Is this here a quality car?"

"Oh yes, sir," Tom said. "We haven’t had any customer complaints on the Crown Vic’s. To tell you the truth, I think it’s one of our most dependable cars."

"I see."

Arnold pulled a pair of reading glasses from his pocket, slipped them on, and leaned down and looked at the sticker price. "You’re asking $24,000 for it?"

"That’s the sticker price, yes," Tom said.

"What would you pay for it if it was you?" Arnold asked, studying him closely.

Tom glanced back toward the office and then back at Arnold. "Honestly, I think it’s a little overpriced. But I think $20,000 would be fair."

"$20,000, huh?" Arnold said, scratching his chin.

"Would you like to take it for a test drive, Mr. Matthew?"

"Nope, I can tell how it’ll ride by looking at it. I got another question."

"Yes?"

"Do you have another one to match this one?"

"Excuse me?" Tom said.

"Another one, just like this one. You see, I’m eighty-one years old and I got me a girlfriend," he said, and smiled. "Her name is Goldie. I might just get her one, too."

"Seriously?" Tom asked, not believing his ears.

"Yep, if you’ve got two of 'em."

"Well, sure we could get another one to match it from another dealership and have it here in a couple of days."

"You’ll take $40,000 for the pair?"

"I...I’ll need to check with my boss, but I think he’ll go for it."

"You go ask him then, young man."

"Brian?" Tom said, standing at the office door.

"What is it?"

"The man outside is offering $20,000 for the blue Crown Victoria."

"Oh yeah? And I want to win the lottery. Did you check his credit?"

"Well, no, not yet."

"I didn’t think so. Now you tell him to take his hog manure covered boots and go on his way and stop wasting our time."

"But..."

"Go on."

"My boss wants to take a minute to think about your offer," Tom said to Mr. Matthew. "In the meantime what we can do is perform the credit check and talk about financing."

"I don’t have any credit. I don’t believe in it," Arnold said.

Tom felt his heart sink. "Oh, then I don’t know..."

"I pay cash." Arnold pulled a large roll of $1,000 bills from his overalls. They were held together by a rubber band.

Tom gaped. "You...have cash?"

"Yep."

"I’ll be right back," Tom said, and hurried into the office.

"What now?" Brian asked. There was irritation in his voice.

"He has cash. And he wants to buy TWO Crown Vic’s."

"WHAT?" Brian spit a mouth full of coffee onto his desk. "You saw the money?"

"Yes, he has it outside with him."

"For God’s sake, man, why are you making him stand outside in the hot sun? Bring him in. Bring him in."

Brian greeted Arnold with his best smile, full of teeth. "What a pleasure it is to meet you, sir," he said, reaching for Arnold’s hand. "Have a seat. Can I get you some coffee or anything?"

"Nope, I’m fine." He once again removed the bills from his pocket. "Tom here said you were thinking about my offer. Will you take $20,000 apiece for them?"

Brian salivated at the sight of the cash. "Of course, of course, sir. There was never any question."

"Good, we have a deal. Does Tom here get credit for the sale?"

"What? Oh yeah, he’ll get a small commission from the sale," Brian said, never taking his eyes from the roll of bills.

Arnold slowly peeled off forty of the $1,000 bills and laid them on the counter. Here’s a couple more for Uncle Sam. And Tom, you take a couple of these for your trouble. He’s an honest boy and a darn good salesman. You need to keep him around."

"Thank you so much," Tom said, staring at the two $1,000 bills in his hand.

"You’re welcome."

Brian had lost his voice.

Thursday, February 23

In His Mind's Eye

"In His Mind's Eye"
Short Fiction - Literary
by John Wilson


As a very young boy he had simply seen darkness. Voices and sounds that had no real tenor or substance yet. Nor did smells and touch hold any real telling, scented or soft clue at that early age. The pictures and scenes in his head were unfocused and undefined. It was a sad time for such a young boy, full of unfair challenges and a deep clinging loneliness. A difficult time, in which his hopes and very brief periods of happiness were buoyed only by a loving family and a few faithful friends. As he grew older, though, he had learned how to create visions and sense life in a special light. He drew the scenes, created the actors and painted portraits of his loved ones. He saw and watched his entire life through his mind's eye.

He had learned how to see his wife sitting next to him, saw her warm smile and had watched her, admiring her beauty and grace as she would come down the stairs to go out to dinner. The familiar fragrance of her perfume as she got near to him, reaffirmed his painting of her. This was a woman who had met him in college and stayed in his life, from the very first day. She had not walked away all those years ago, stayed by his side and had never abandoned him. She had loved him and still did, staying with him all these years. He knew exactly what she looked like and how beautiful she really was.

Many people thought he had missed seeing his children make their way through life; their first steps, school, sports and proms. He had witnessed it all, though, feeling their troubles and enjoying their happiness. Picturing them had been an ongoing project, changes and stages of their lives making up the great kids he saw now. He remembered their graduation robes had been the color and texture of his own making and he had cried with happiness at his picture of them as they had waved diplomas and proudly walked back to their seats. Most recently his precious grandson had needed to be sketched in his mind. This little one, who had his chin he was told and had sometimes slept peacefully on his chest as they listened to music. He had seen it all. All of it.

Thinking back, there was little to want or desire, he’d always felt that he had actually been a very lucky man. He had tried to have a positive attitude and be appreciative of what he had, instead of what he had not. He did his level best to lead an honorable and just life, be a loving husband and father. His life journey had been blessed with joy and he wished for nothing. He could not see those he loved as other people did, but he felt the warmth of their love, touching the facial contours and satin features of them, that gave him vision.

He could not see the shade of grass and wildflowers of spring, but he gave them his own palette of colors and smelled their fresh bouquet. He could not see the birds outside the window, but could hear the sweet chirps and he knew the hue of their feathers. What he had seen was what he had been able to create and save, and this was his album of life.

It had been a lifelong effort to collect and complete this vivid and vast gallery of pictures in his mind. And now, the paintings were finally finished. They were perfect, as he mentally surveyed them around the room, they were wonderful, absolute masterpieces. He saw only love and beauty wherever he looked. The familiar voices, sounds and smells that surrounded him in the room now were just the finishing touch. Yes, he had been born without sight, but he had never felt cheated, disabled or in need of anything really. It was almost time now for another journey, another life. Those gathered around him wished so desperately that he could finally see them there, that he could be warmed and comforted by their faces of love. He assured them that he saw them, everyone there, and felt their love as he always had... Yes, it was time and he welcomed whatever awaited him there and when they would join each other again in a different place. It mattered not really, if he would be seeing them as never before or seeing them in his mind's eye, and he drifted peacefully off with that thought. One curtain closed slowly with a whisper and another curtain drawing open.

Saturday, February 18

Join The Club

"Join the Club"
Short fiction - Young Adult
by Tina Ferraro

They say bad luck arrives in threes, and I could pretty much vouch for that. On the first day of my senior year, I got a triple whammy.
First, learning my locker-partner had moved. Even though I wouldn’t miss her mirrors and white board, I’d gotten used to her, you know?

Second, meeting my next locker-mate, new girl, Tamara. With an oval face, iced-coffee complexion and piercing green eyes, she was now arguably the prettiest girl at school.

Third, discovering Tamara thought me her personal tour guide. Like I wanted to parade myself beside her in the halls, driving home my nothing face and ten-pounds-too-heavy waistline!

I was tempted to push her toward the Populars, where she surely belonged.

She followed me to the Caf later, grabbed the same kind of sandwich, then asked where my table was.

I choked back a laugh, then pointed to some empty seats. “Uh, you know, first day of school. People just sit wherever.”

I dove into my food. No use getting to know her. Soon enough she’d figure out the heights her looks would take her, and I’d go sit with Ashley and Mags and listen to them talk about “their boyfriends”, Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp.

But Tamara had questions. About school--and me. I ended up telling her how my parents owned a laundromat, and how I planned to run a local business myself some day.

“So you take business electives?” she asked.

“No, I figure I can pick that stuff up later. Mostly I take art.”

“Art,” she said, and looked around the Caf. Assessing her other--and better--options, I was sure.

But the next day, she stayed close. And the next. It was like we were becoming...friends. Which would have been great, if I thought it would stick.

So when she asked if I’d take her to the first Art Club meeting that Friday, my tongue sort of stuck to the roof of my mouth. “I--I never joined,” I finally admitted.

“You’re kidding! Well, Steph, today’s the day. And who knows? We might love it, and end up doing set decorations for the spring play.”

Spring play? I’d be lucky if she was saying hello to me in the spring.

“Oh, I know what you’re thinking,” she said and gave me a playful punch. “That clubs are dorky! But sometimes dorky things can be fun, too.”

In class, I couldn’t stop thinking about her idea. But I was more a loner than a joiner. And how awful would it be to work around Tamara after she realized she was too “cool” for me?

After class, I headed back to our locker, prepared to tell her no dice. Only to find her surrounded by some Populars, a guy and a couple girls.

My breath caught in my throat, even though I’d known it was only a matter of time.

“Hey, Steph,” Tamara said, spotting me.

The Populars didn’t glance at me, even when I pushed toward my locker. I threw some books inside and moved on. Trying not to think or breathe or feel.

“Wait up,” Tamara said, suddenly beside me. “The Art Room’s in the other direction, remember?”

“Go with your new friends.”

“Huh?” She glanced back toward our locker. “Oh, them? Puh-lease.”

This had gone too far. “Look, you could get one of those guys, be one of those girls.”

“Maybe. If I wanted to. But I had all that at my last school. And you know where it got me? In a head-on collision, when my drunken boyfriend drove a bunch of us into a pole.”

She swallowed hard. “No one was killed, thank God, but it was like a wake-up call. So when we moved here, I decided to do things differently. Make the right kind of friends this time. Not the party people. But people who cared about grades and school and their futures. People like you, Steph.”

I stared into her cat green eyes, feeling like the world was spinning around me. Had I judged her as superficially and unfairly as the Populars judged others?

Maybe it was time I made some life changes, too.

“Art Club,” I said. “Sure. Let’s go.”

Because hey, maybe good things come in threes, too. A new friend, a club, and...who knew?

Saturday, February 11

Lullabye

"Lullabye"
Short Fiction - Crime
By Paul Nain

This house welcomes no one; even the rain refuses to collide with it, droplets on the window pane fleeing upward, bustling past each other in the effort to escape. The sun mumbles an unconvincing protest at the presence of clouds, no doubt more than happy at their timely obstruction. The snow should melt at this onslaught from the heavens, but there is no snow. People think Winter is about snow, but there is no joy to be had from Winter. I know, I've tried to pry it from Her cold dead fingers. All She did was laugh.

Have you ever heard the dead laugh?

Ah, but the house. Strange. I have tried in vain to find a moment free from its imprint on my mind, yet now as I hope for a release through these words, it hides from me. And the rain, fighting to find a more direct route through my jacket, clinging to the branches above me with an inhuman ferocity. I feel safe on this side of the street, but I still shudder involuntarily at the thought of putting my foot on the tarmac. The light in the upstairs window is on. The irony of it should be funny. A light. A window. Yet everything around it is darker because of it. As dark as an abyss. But the abyss doesn't scare me. I've stared into it so many times, it's like looking at my face in the mirror. It's the window that scares me.

I imagine floating up, peering in from the refuge of shadow. Hearing the stumbling footsteps, as he makes his way up the stairs. The slurred voice whispering a name, as a young girl gathers her duvet tighter around her. In my mind I can hear what she's thinking. It's louder then the rain, louder than Winter's laugh. If I'm quiet enough, maybe I can be invisible, maybe he won't see me. Again, he breathes the name, makes it sound like it belongs to him. But it doesn't; that name is mine.

But I'm not in that room anymore, not for a long time. I'm standing across the street, trying to steal strength from somewhere, anywhere. Hand in pocket, my fingers curl around the handle of a gun; sharp angles and cold metal fashioned from an intangible scream. It tells me my next step, but doesn't give me the strength to take it. I close my eyes, still smelling the gin on his breath, feeling those calloused hands strip me away one night at a time, his cloying breath on my neck; and take a step forward.

Tarmac. Sidewalk. Grass. Porch. Front door. And I'm home.

But Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. Jack pours himself another, something with a kick.

And this, this is the house that Jack built.

Wednesday, February 8

Our Father

"Our Father"
Flash Fiction
By Kelly Parra

Once a year, since the death of our father five years before, my sister went to his grave. Like clockwork on his birthday, she'd buy the flowers at the local farmer's market and refresh his tombstone. And every year she gave me the look. The guilt look that said I should be going to.

But he wasn't there. Nobody was there. It was just a cold stone in the ground, his soulless corpse beneath.

This year was no different, but this year she couldn't hold in her frustration any longer.

"You're disrespectful to our father's memory."

I didn't say anything. I'd said it all before.

"I'm the one who goes every year. I'm the one who shows him I love him."

I rolled my eyes.

When she finally realized I wouldn't take her bait, she stormed out of the room. The slam of the front door echoed through the house.

"All she has to do is open her mind," I said almost to myself. Almost.

From five feet away, the air began to swirl, the space solidifying into a tall form. I wasn't quite ready to open my mind to more, but enough to see the outline...

Of our father's spirit, waving his hand at me.

I smiled. "Happy Birthday, Dad."

Friday, February 3

The Two Barns

“The Two Barns”
Short Fiction – Photographic Vignette
By Jason Evans



Joseph squeezed the old wood in his hands and leaned. The door shivered, but didn't move. Rollers were rusty. Tired, he heaped himself against the edge. He didn't care if he fell. He didn't care if the ground snapped his bones.

The door lurched and chattered in the track, and the barn's darkness shrank. Joseph leaned more. When the latch finally hit, the planks in the wall rattled.

A breeze whipped against the barn and swirled up Joseph's legs. It splashed white hair into his eyes. Despising how fragile he felt, he propped himself on a knee, breathed, then unbent his back.

Cold morning, he thought. Snow's melted. But I can still feel it.

Inside his boot, he wiggled his foot to smooth a lump of sock. Some mud from the laces flaked onto the ground.

Gonna be cold tonight.

He tugged his pants straight and started off.

March. Hell of a month. The constant freeze and thaw demolished the ground. Each step, his boot soles squished. The sod and dead grass oozed water. It leapt off the tips of his toes and hit his legs.

Joseph walked, skirting the hedgerows of the nearest field. It was also the oldest, and out of respect, he farmed it gently. Two hundred years of rocks were tossed into mounds just inside the tree line. Some still clung to the shape of a wall the work of his grandfather's grandfather.

He walked farther. He walked until he reached a patch of his highest ground. There, he stopped and let the chilly air whistle into his lungs. The rhythm of the land rode like swells in a calm sea below.

The two barns hugged the road--their color splintered by branches and branches of leafless trees. He listened to birds hopping in briars and eating last year's berries. Their chirps and tiny footsteps alone defied the monotony of the wind.

Joseph dropped his attention lower. Across the rows of broken stalks, he saw his son approaching. The blackness of his suit bled along the ground. Joseph's eyes retreated to the sky. He watched the way it moved, the way it curled inward and reformed.

The dark shape drew near. His heart rumbled as black leather shoes thumped close. The new polish was spotted with mud.

"Shouldn't be out here in them shoes," Joseph said.

"What are you doing, Dad?" the man asked.

Joseph refused to look his son in the face. Silence wound around them.

"Dad? Are you going to answer me?"

Joseph didn't intend to.

"We have to go soon," his son said.

A hand settled on the old man's shoulder. The silence squeezed tighter. Joseph raked in a hitching breath.

"They're waiting for us at the funeral home."

Joseph knew it, but knowledge wouldn't break the dread. Three nights ago it snowed. Sunday night. Outside the hospital, the showers shrouded the empty streets of town.

Twisting his boots in the mud, Joseph gazed past his son to the two barns in the distance. Like two souls, they stood over the farm, one for him and one for her. An old married couple in nails and wood.

Such a lie. Nothing had changed.

Nothing. The two barns. The thaw. The birds stealing along the hedgerows. But everything had changed. Joseph wanted to see the destruction in Earth and stone.

"I'm glad," his son said after a long silence.

Joseph snapped up, but the younger man had also turned to the expanse of fields.

"I'm glad," he said again, "to have this. I see you and Mom everywhere. Over there, you and I built that fence when I was eight. The first real work you ever let me do."

Joseph remembered.

"I felt so important, so grown up. Like I was someone you needed. And over there, the asparagus will be coming up. How old are those plants now? Mom had such a way with them. Anything I plant dies. I don't even try anymore."

True. Very true.

"And the old barns. Who started calling them mom and dad, anyway? I look there and see them still together, you know? It's like she's not gone at all. I'll always have that. And all these other things. Not many people make a mark like Mom did. And you did. You'll never be gone from here. I can always find you."

Joseph bowed his head.

The water still pooled around his feet like tears from the soil.

"I know Mom's really here," his son said, "not lying in that funeral home. But, we still have to go."

Joseph smiled. His son was right.

"You gonna polish up those shoes?" Joseph asked, pointing at the glistening mud.

"Hell no," his son said. "We'll take a little of her with us."

Joseph slapped him on the back. A surge of brightness unfolded in the sky, then fell again under grey.

"Alright," he said. "Alright. Let's go."