Jean McKinney

Strange Stories for Strange Times

Category: Fantasy Flash Fiction

“It Could Happen To You”- A Soledad City Story

Sun’s a fingernail in the fog when he gets on. Night man on a downtown bus full of day people: glass-faced Westsiders curled in Armani shells pinch their ears and nostrils shut when he fills up three seats behind the driver.

Extravagant in filth and fatness, enthroned on bulging garbage bags,  he scratches the hole in the crotch of his greasy sweatpants, rubs his gritty stomach and throws the story at them:

How the Hare Krishnas got him. Just sneaked up when he was asleep in the doorway of a dead pawn shop down by the Post Office on Main Street. And they poured their juice, that Hare Krishna juice, right over him.

Well it was sticky and purple and it smelled bad too, so he begged enough change for the laundry at 4 am.  Had to beg some more for a pint or two just to get past the shock.

Got to watch out for those Krishnas.  They got plots in those little naked heads. They’ll get you every time.  And that juice of theirs? Well they’d just love to splash those slick leather shoes or drown some thousand dollar suit.

You know

It could happen to you.

“It Could Happen To You” was inspired – no, dictated – by an encounter I observed on one of my many foggy, early morning bus rides when I was teaching in Los Angeles.  Taking the Pico-Rimpau route at dawn has inspired a lot of my weirder flash bits.)

“Where Angels Tread” – A Sorrows Hill Story

When the Reverend Henry Chilton sees the angel, he drops to his knees sobbing with joy. The half-scribbled sheets of tomorrow’s sermon fly from his desk, floating down on a summer-scented breeze from the open window, and his teacup, caught by an unwary elbow, shatters into porcelain shards on the floor.

He was writing the sermon when a sound like the rustling of pigeons in the rafters made him look up. And there was the messenger of God, settling demurely onto the top of his bookcase, dangling bare white feet over his head.

The angel’s translucent skin is luminous and perfect.   Fair hair tumbles over the bones of its classic face. And the wings — God, the wings! Think of the blinding white of swans, the sweet softness of doves.   Those wings are muscular and functional, and they drape the angel’s shoulders like a velvet cloak. Chilton’s mouth is an O of fascinated delight.

Kneeling among the fragments, trousers soaking in cold tea, the Reverend Chilton raises his eyes skyward and gives thanks. Finally, finally: so long he’s prayed, so long he’s waited!

Tears slip from the reverend’s eyes. Ever since he was a child he’s wanted to see an angel. When he got to seminary he prayed till his throat was raw, begging God’s favor for just a glimpse of one of those celestial heralds.   And now, after all these years, all these tedious postings to backwater towns and Sunday after Sunday of earnest sermons to indifferent flocks, success! A visible mark of God’s own grace.

“Reverend? Reverend, you’ve got a visitor.” A sharp rap on the door rips Chilton’s attention from the angel.

“Who is it, Mrs. Reedie? I’m busy with the sermon just now.”

“A young man, Reverend. He says he’s come all the way from Richmond to see you.” Mrs. Reedie’s voice drops. “Quite well turned out, he is. Shall I have him wait?”

Chilton glances at his other visitor. The angel cocks its head like a listening dog.

“I said, I’m busy, Mrs. Reedie. Tell him to come back after supper.”

The housekeeper’s sniff is audible through the door. Ignoring the staccato tap of her heels down the hall, Chilton turns back to the angel.

“So sorry, holy one. As I was saying — what have you to tell me? How am I so blessed on this day?”

The angel regards him blandly and preens a wing. Chilton draws a breath and tries again. “How may I serve you? Only speak –”

“Reverend Chilton?” The doorknob rattles.

“For the last time, Mrs. Reedie! I am busy!” snarls Chilton.

Scuffle of footsteps; gasp of outrage. The door flies open on Mrs. Reedie’s furious face, and a young man shoves past her, closing the door neatly behind him.

“Don’t you remember me, Reverend?” he asks.

Chilton swallows. Something in this gorgeous young man’s lean face and long narrow nose , the curl of dark hair on an expensive white collar, tickles his memory.

As the silence stretches, the young man’s mouth twists.

“Laurence Shandy, Reverend. I’m Laurence. It’s been twelve years.”

The silence turns leaden. Chilton forces a smile.

“Laurence, yes, of course! You’ve grown up. Doing well, by the look of you. I wondered what had become of you.”

“Did you?” asks the young man silkily. His hand slips free of his pocket. Sunlight gleams along the barrel of a tiny pistol. “Couldn’t you guess?”

“Put that down.” Chilton backs a step or two. “Laurence, put that gun away . . . you moved to Richmond, didn’t you? That’s what it was, your father took up a new post at the hospital in Richmond. Isn’t that right?”

“No.” The gun trembles in Laurence Shandy’s fingers. “Twelve years, Reverend Chilton . Twelve years in that hospital. Locked ward. I tried to kill myself. Tried to escape to kill you. I prayed, I wept . . . I remembered every moment of what you did to me. And what you said about me, after.”

God, yes, Laurence Shandy. Big mouth boy with a rich, angry father. The only way Chilton had got out of that one had been to assert, again and again and again, how the lad was crazy, possessed maybe, misconstruing his pastoral ministrations like that.

“But, “ Shandy continues, “You always said, if you pray hard enough for long enough, God hears. And so it is.”

“What — ” whispers Chilton, eyes on the dancing barrel of Shandy’s weapon, “what did you pray for, Laurence?”

“I prayed for justice.” Shandy’s finger tenses on the trigger. “And an angel to guide me.”

The shot sounds a little like a cork popping.    Blood flowers on the front of Chilton’s good shirt as he topples to the floor. On a rustle of heavenly wings, the angel rests its fabulous head on Laurence Shandy’s shoulder.

 

 

 

“Run With The Moon” – A Soledad City Story

 

Deep in the hour just before dawn, Adam jolts awake. What did he hear, out there on the makeshift front porch of this battered old Airstream? Or was it nothing but a dream of gunfire and roadside bombs in that other desert, half a world away?

He lies still, listening. No sounds now but the usual ones: a night bird’s sleepy chitter, yip and giggle of coyotes down the wash. But after a moment, there it is again, a rustle and thump right out front.

“God damn it,” says Adam. Where’s that crazy streak of witching when you need it the most? Well, he’s got other ways to handle business. Swinging out of bed, he reaches for the gun beside his pillow.

Slipping silently as his bad leg lets him, Adam pushes the screen door open and peers out. There’s a white full moon hanging just over the mountains, and the sky is turning silver blue with daylight coming.   Across the stretch of empty field out front, a neon sign blazes bright: Holland’s 24 Hour Truck Stop and Cafe. A couple of big rigs and a handful of cars dot the parking lot, but there’s not a soul to be seen.

Adam steps out, good leg first, onto the little deck he’s built out of pallet wood.

And he smiles. Adam’s heart is a cold dark place, But right now, warmth like summer noon spreads right through him.

Curled behind the rusty lawn chair in a nest of her own clothes, she sleeps like a puppy. Long coppery hair streams across her face and her bare legs are streaked with dried blood. There’s a long raw cut on her forearm and a smear of blood on her lips, and Adam’s never seen anything so beautiful in his life.

He leans in and gently pulls a twig of mesquite from the hair behind her ear.

“Mornin, Velocity,” he says.

Her eyes pop open, whiskey gold and wary wide, but then her mouth curves up. “Hey, Adam.”

She sits up cross-legged, her bare skin fairy dusted with freckles and her little nipples hard in the chill of the morning. For a dizzy moment Adam feels like flying. She came. She has the whole desert to run in, but she came here.

What do you think that means? That voice in Adam’s head is his own.  What the hell do you hope that means, boy?

“‘Want some breakfast?” he asks. “I got bacon and eggs, toast maybe.”

“I already ate,” she tells him, glancing at the blood on her leg.

“Guess you did.” Adam leans against the Airstream’s curving side.   “Had a good night?”

Velocity stretches out her arm, examining the cut. “Oh, man. That moon – did you see it? – just burning in our eyes, so bright. Uncle Silver and the pups flushed out some rabbits down by the wash. Me and Auntie Whitefoot and Sweetwater were coming up behind, but we all got some.”

She licks thoughtfully at the wound. “Sweetwater and I jumped the same big old buck. We got into it a little bit, but Uncle settled things down pretty quick.” A flashing grin. “Sweetwater’s all right. That ear’ll heal up fine. She’ll think twice next time, though. You got any coffee?”

If his legs would let him, Adam’d probably be dancing right now. Instead, he nods and hobbles back inside to put the coffee on. Odd thing about mornings with Velocity. Most days, he wakes up to the endless mutter of the voices in his head, talking and talking till he falls asleep at night. But whenever she stops by here, they shut right up.

By the time he brings out two steaming mugs, she’s just about dressed, T-shirt and jeans and a pair of battered caballero boots from Mexico. She’s twisted her hair into a messy bun and used one of his shop rags to wipe her face.

Adam hands her a mug. The sky’s turning to pearly pink and the moon’s faded to a ghost of itself over the ridge and he knows this moment’s going to slip away fast. Velocity wraps both hands around the cup and runs her tongue around the rim before she takes a sip.

“Aah, that’s good.” She sprawls in the lawn chair, legs outstretched. “That’s one thing you don’t get – out there.” She glances at the desert stretching behind the trailer: low creosote and mesquite scrub, and a few big cottonwood trees following the angle of the dry wash off north.

“I imagine not.” Adam follows her gaze.   Across  the wash, the coyotes yip and howl. A shadow crosses Velocity’s face. She’s missing them already. What must it be like, to shed your clothes and your human shape and go running under the moon, eyes blazing and senses on fire with the night?

A moth flitters past Adam’s nose, coming to rest on the screen door. Soft grey wings spread wide, it regards him with blank black insect eyes. For a moment, Adam’s inside its busy little mind, looking out in a dizzying multifaceted way at himself. He shakes his head.

Velocity watches over the rim of the mug. “ You were inside that bug brain, weren’t you.”

Adam blinks. “Damn, that hasn’t happened for a while. Not since that palo verde beetle blew in during a rainstorm. Nearly made me puke. I hate those little shits. Can’t seem to stop ‘em though.”

“You’re Adam Voss, the witchman. Everybody knows that. Seems like you could find a use for ‘em somehow.” Velocity glances at the glow rising over the ridge, and Adam’s heart sinks. “ I got to get back to town,” she says, just as he knows she would. “Charlie Juan’s not comin in this morning. I’ve got no cook; goin to have to do breakfast all by myself.”

She shoots him a sideways smile. “You could come and help.”

Ride with her all the way back to Soledad City? Help her open up the Hummingbird Cafe for its breakfast run? Adam entertains a wild thought of the two of them standing side by side in the kitchen, baking muffins and turning omelets in the pan. Oh hell yeah.

But the sounds of morning traffic and the endless concrete and glass of downtown and the constant stream of people moving, jostling, jabbering on their cell phones … he can feel the panic rising just to think of it.

Velocity sees the change in his face and the smile fades. “Damn. I am so sorry. I was just – I didn’t mean to -”

“No, I know.” Adam takes a swallow of coffee, pushing it past the lump in his throat. “I would – if I could.”

She sets the mug down on the deck. “I know you would.”

Rising, she leans in, swiftly drops a kiss on Adam’s cheek. He smells mesquite and blood and the dry musty scent of desert creatures. “You stay well, you hear me?”   And then she’s off, quickstepping across the stretch of bare desert between his trailer and Holland’s back lot.

There’s a dusty Chevy truck parked behind the cafe. He watches as she gets in and drives away, following her till the truck turns onto the interstate at the top of the on-ramp.

It’s starting to warm up. The voices in his head begin their morning chatter. Feeling empty inside, he gathers up the mugs and starts toward the door. But there’s a sudden sense of eyes on his back and he turns slowly around.

Half hidden in a thicket of creosote a couple of yards away, a coyote stands watching him. Sun gleams silver on its shaggy mane and its eyes are level and golden meeting Adam’s own. A prickle sneaks across the back of his neck, but he stays put for the big male’s once-over.

“Don’t worry, Uncle Silver,” he says. “I’m lookin out for her too.”

In Santa Cruz: A Soledad City Story

 

In Santa Cruz, the border is only a breath away. On summer nights the searchlights of la migra stitch the mountains and the road spins out snakebelly white between Tombstone and Nogales. Taking those empty curves through the grasslands you lean hard on the gas because

 
You’re looking for the Virgin with the cracked feet and the poppy smile. You saw her once, high on a hill: eyeblink glimpse from the back seat of a car bound for Mexico. She was framed in white stone and dead flowers, and offerings of broken dolls and stuffed animals filled the mouth of her cave.

 

You’d thought she vanished under the weight of the years between then and now. But this midnight squirms with nerves and heat lightning and a roadside prayer might cool your fevered soul.  She was somewhere along this two lane. You’ll know her when you see her.

 

South of Patagonia, bats drift against the stars like burned paper.  Your high beams snag a bullet-chopped sign that says Quarantine. In Santa Cruz, rabies always simmers in the blood of the land dwellers.   Cinder-eyed on the fringes of the light,  ibex watch you pass.  They never have rabies.

 

But there’s no Virgin in these parts.  Maybe a mad bat bit her one of these glassy nights. At Lochiel, bronze plaques declare the place a historical site, but you push on. You know the story anyway: doomed boys in blue, cavalrymen dropped by cholera before the Apache ever got close.  They never knew your Virgin anyway. She prays for sorefooted travelers begging with dime store candles and drifters with frayed hearts.

 

She has to be close now. You can trust a hill Maria. She won’t take her broken toes to Nogales where the music fills up the empty spaces in the night.

Up ahead, trees get thick and moths ride the headlights.  You round a skinny curve and river smells rise up around you.  This is it; she’s here.  Cottonwood trees lean on their shadows as you pull over under her hill.   Crowned in white stone she waits in plaster silence while you climb the little path worn down by many feet.

You breathe in the scents of her sanctuary: dying carnations and candlewax and dust.  A ceramic pig and a one-legged doll lie inside her circle.  With no other offering  than your own fractured heart, you wait with them for the mercy she holds in that one chipped eye.

© 2017 Jean McKinney

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑