from "Deadly Angel" by Damian Serbu

March 31, 2009

THE FULL STORY APPEARS IN THE JANUARY 2009 ISSUE!

“Can the devil act as an angel?”

Nick looked at me as if I’d lost my mind, which I’d wondered for the last hour, too.

“Listen, I know that drunks get philosophical,” he said, “but this is way over my head. You’ve got to keep that theological stuff for when I’m sober.”

Here I sat in Sidetrack on Halsted, my favorite bar, listening to great music and watching hordes of men saunter by, thinking about theological issues on a Friday evening. So Nick was right. So right that I giggled, finally falling into peals of laughter.

Part of me found this funny, but I also laughed to entice him toward me. His 6’3” frame hovered over as his long arms engulfed me, pulling me into a kiss. I closed my eyes and lost myself in the passion, even though I knew that he looked back at me, green eyes open, the whole time.

I still grinned like a school boy when he sat back on his bar stool.

“I thought you were a history professor, anyway. Why are you talking about the devil and angels?” he asked. “I’m just a cop. We can’t keep up with these deep things, especially after two Cosmos.”

An eight-year-veteran of the Chicago police, Nick pretended he had nothing to do with intellectualism but in reality had deep insights and incredible knowledge. He often complained about the bad habits and stupid behaviors of too many of his peers on the force.

“What do you think three Jack and cokes did to me?!”

“Made you into some sort of crazed monk.” Nick poked me in the stomach. “Dr. Sean, the crazed monk is your new name.”

“Okay, okay, but answer my question. Can the devil act as act as an angel?”

“Are you smoking something?” Nick asked, even though I had never done an illegal drug and he knew it.

“Seriously, answer me.”

“Okay. But first explain what in the hell you mean.”

“I don’t think I can.”

“Alright, the devil as angel, an exposé by Nick,” he said in a mock reporter’s voice. “Can the devil become an angel? I suppose he can. Isn’t he a fallen angel to begin with?”

“Yeah. I guess that’s not what I meant. Can something bad or evil do good?”

“Listen, you’re a little nuttier than usual tonight. It has to be a possibility, unless you believe in moral absolutes – good and bad would have to be totally separate, which is something you don’t believe. You always defend people I’ve arrested. You talk all the time about how you could never do what I do because you don’t believe in a black and white world, the world of a police officer.”

Nick had me thinking. His logical, rational approach to everything really helped tonight because I had to describe something in my mind that defied explanation. I needed to hear him affirm what I had always believed, otherwise my mind might spin out of control through no fault of the whisky.

“Now,” he continued, “tell me what in the hell this is about!”

“Promise you won’t think I’ve gone insane?”

“No more than I always wonder.”

“Seriously, promise.”

“Alright, relax, just tell me.” He grabbed my hand under the table and squeezed tightly.

“I think I met a vampire,” I said. Nick raised an eyebrow but thankfully didn’t smile.

“Someone who drinks blood? I’ve told you about some of ‘em we’ve arrested.”

“No, I mean a real one.” The tension became too much, so I reverted to humor to relax myself. I affected my Anthony Hopkins as Professor Van Helsing voice: “Nosferatu, he lives beyond the grace of God.”

Nick laughed, then leaned over to me. “Listen, you never have trouble telling me anything, so spill it. I won’t make fun of you. Just tell me about this and we can go from there. Angels, devils, vampires, whatever, let it out.”

I took a deep breath and thought through the entire story in my mind, for probably just a minute though it felt like an eternity, making sure that I had all of the facts right. As a cop, Nick always required that I give him extremely detailed and accurate witness accounts.

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from "Stoned" by Robert Samoraj

March 24, 2009

FULL STORY APPEARS IN THE JULY 2009 ISSUE!

Little sister surprised my eyes when she took a mysterious round stone and summoned a needle. “The greatest junkie alive is coming to visit,” she said while preparing his fix. No idea who this was. “Who is this?” “Stone junkie!” No idea. The red liquid bubble in the spoon, floating around into a vial connected to the syringe. We sat on my bed, watching out the window, waiting for the visitor. Sister made a batch for both of us, and when I shook awake, something in Stone’s cold gray eyes attracted me. “Stay with us,” I said, wanting to know more.

“Only for a short time, but all right,” he said. It was an honor to host the great stone junkie for as long as he wished to stay. He even built his own needles to stick in those iron veins, transforming into a beautiful statue after each shot. His skin froze in the tidal action; the undulations turned to stone and he walked with the self-assured steps of a god with granite feathers. I took him for a ride too, down the sides of walls in my plastic hotel city, garden of flight and dilemma for the witch with the fake finger nails. I joined the junkie and the musician that played strings faster than anyone I knew. We spent time sharing stories and heroin delusions, until we started to become friends and I learned to love them both.

Maybe the false circumstances blew up the whole tangled mess.

“Man, I can’t handle this either,” Stone said when our highs started to push in their peaks. “See Bird. He’s falling apart too, playing his violin like that.” I witnessed the hallucination of this once great junkie while we nodded off in a bathtub with Bird flying on violin sounds.

The violin player stopped and smile, and he gave me a photo album of a beautiful place brought back to life. The books in the pictures would have made me cry, but we had just injected our orange-red solution and I was busy fighting with the monsters climbing from underneath the bridge on which we dozed.

“Stone,” I said, “you’re beautiful and graceful. Take a bath with me.” Coming down, so close. The moisture would soften his skin, melt him down. We could wash in that shed identity, and I would see his face.

But no. The tub stayed empty. They never brought flowers to my grave.

The musician and the stone junkie came and we danced, with great affair … there was a perfect love. The stone junkie was that which could not be touched. He violently refused to let me feel his cold hard skin, but he wouldn’t give anyone that sense. I understood, at least, why the layers cannot be penetrated. After all I had my own adamant shield to throw back attackers, friends, even lovers.

The musician strummed my guitar, clumsy but moving. He smiled, still, even after all of those images broke free from our minds. The sentinels and their plasma waves never stopped under the influence of the liquid we used. Our psyches broke down walls, and we shared the projections of our fantasies and fears.

A princess with a knife in her teeth stumbled forward, bloody and empty.

Dancing sea creatures on a lake of fire surrounded the rocky bridge where we stood.

Cars drove in three dimensions.

Dimensional barriers melted and the strangest sex was experienced, with a little death behind the skin.


from "Chalk Outlines" by Erin Popelka

March 17, 2009

THE FULL STORY APPEARS IN THE JANUARY 2009 ISSUE!

“You always drive too fast at night!”

“No, I don’t. I drive just fine. You’re the problem! You always grab the armrest like it could stop the car. And really, you don’t have to gasp every time the road curves. How am I supposed to drive with all that?”

“Well, I gasped with good cause tonight, didn’t I?”

Amber froze. “Beth, I’m sorry. That curve came around so fast and …” Her words dropped and then neither one uttered a sound. Beth looked hopelessly into Amber’s eyes, close enough that she saw her face reflected – the sharp line of her dark hair against her usually piercing gaze. Then she saw Amber, her lovely hazel eyes, always a different color depending on the light or the color of her shirt, and her strawberry-blonde hair, now with a few pieces hanging out of her braid. Amber’s lips usually seemed poised to speak; Beth only ever saw her truly relaxed in her sleep.

They both looked away, taking in the room around them. An overstuffed leather couch sat against one wall, facing a bizarre floating globe in the corner. Past the couch were two matching bookshelves, both filled to the ceiling. Light came from both an overhead lamp and a window that looked onto a rolling field of grass. Clouds blocked any view of the sky. Standing at this window, Beth tried to open it, but saw that there was no latch. In fact, there was no window seam at all. The glass seemed to be an extension of the wall itself. Fighting a rising sense of panic, Beth whispered, “Where are we? What just happened?”

Amber stood in front of the bookshelves, glancing through the titles. “The bookshelf might have some clues.” Tracing spines, she noticed, “Look, some of these are our books. They’ve even got our old college ‘Used’ stickers still on them.” Amber pulled a slender copy of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot off the bookshelf.

Beth was grateful for the distraction. “Oh, God, that book is from my tedious required English class.”

“Here are some of mine, too. Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Descartes – it’s been forever since I’ve looked at these.”

“Our strange friend in the corner might be able to tell us something,” Beth said, walking over to the globe.

“I don’t want to look at that yet. It’s creepy.”

“Not as creepy as the window – there’s no latch. And this globe is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it. Look – it’s a perfect sphere, and the screen somehow bends each degree along the curve,” Beth walked closer and reached out to touch the warm, smooth surface. “It seems to be hanging alone in mid-air. That can’t be – there must be some wire here somewhere. I wish I’d had this technology for my installation at the Keppler Gallery. I could have –”

“Beth, look at this. You took notes in the margins of Godot – they’re striking.”

Beth walked to Amber, took the book from her outstretched hand, and read aloud: “‘Waiting for Godot = waiting for God = purgatory.’ You think we’re in purgatory?”

“I don’t know. Yes, maybe? No? I was driving that tiny car and the curve happened so fast. It came out of nowhere. I should have been going slower, I should have been more careful in the rain, I should have –”

“Amber, stop,” Beth touched her arm. “There’s nothing we can do about it now.” She reached around Amber and pulled her close. They held each other, Beth leaning her head into the perfect crook of Amber’s neck, until Amber slowly pulled away.

“Beth, we’re dead. What are we supposed to do?”

Beth looked down at the book still in her hand, “Keep waiting?”


from "The Swamp Goddess" by Sandra Gail Lambert

March 12, 2009

FULL STORY APPEARS IN THE JANUARY 2009 ISSUE!

Behind the cottage is a shadowed trail through the mangrove trees. It runs parallel to the bay, and the ground to that side is littered with seaweed and dead branches. I stop to look at a trio of white birds while they stroll between exposed roots and use their curved, orange beaks to dig into the mud. It’s a peaceful, postcard scene until a salty wind ripples through their feathers and swirls in my direction. I shield my eyes. When I look again, the birds have clustered around a single tree. They shake their heads, beaks raised, and flutter their wings, flashing the black tips. The trunk has the shape of a woman’s face in the bark, and below it, the birds jump into the air, half-flying in their agitation. I can’t look away from the face. Chunks of bark drop away. The lips plump, the mouth shows its broken, grey teeth, the eyes blink, and strands of hair swirl out of the wood and twist in the breeze. In my head, I hear moaning– the same as with the turtle. The mouth widens until the edges disappear around the curve of the trunk, and I can see past the teeth, past the fleshy, agile tongue, and into an endless space. The moan becomes a howl. I put my hands to my ears which disturbs the rug of mosquitoes covering my bare arms. As if on cue, they sting one after another. The pain releases me, and I run down the trail. Slaps up and down my arms scatter the mosquitoes, but they fly close, stinging at my ears and neck as I race for the open, sunny area ahead.

Stopping only when I reach the edge of the bay, I brace both hands on my knees while I pant. When I finally lift my head, I see pelicans flying low over the water and two guys fishing off opposite ends of a boat. Farther out, red and purple kayaks skim through the waves, their paddles flashing in unison. I turn my head to look back at the trees. Maybe, I’m dehydrated. Maybe, some repressed relationship thing is manifesting. I need something to eat.

The path takes me to the marina store where I rummage through the freezer and find a restorative triple chocolate ice cream bar. At the register, I watch the cashier read my shirt and realize that she is preparing to say something about it. I brace myself for a Jesus reference.

“Oh, honey. You’re not here by yourself, are you?”

This is not what I expected. Why all the concern about my relationship status? Maybe, she isn’t straight. I give her a more appraising look. She’s big and bleached blond and has a pink, stretched-out tube top under her marina shirt. She’s sexy for sure, and she knows it. Being a trained investigator, I notice the wedding ring. It’s unlikely she’s coming on to me. Besides, her tone is more motherly than vamp.

“No, my partner and I are staying at one of the cottages.”

“A partner, that’s good. There’s no problem, then.” She hands over my change and turns to the next customer.

I take my treat and sit on a bench overlooking the water. A crocodile is sunning on the far bank. It distracts me long enough to take note of its upper and lower teeth and the interlocking pattern they form, but then I think about the cashier and the hotel clerk. Something’s not right. I try to analyze their behavior as some strange form of homophobia, but I can’t make it fit. Once the remains of the ice cream are licked off my fingers, I throw the stick and wrapper away and check the time. It’s still too soon to disturb “The Great Writer,” so I return to the store and buy breakfast and snack supplies for the cottage. As I pay and ask about a restaurant, I look for clues in the cashier’s expression, but she just smiles in a friendly way. I watch the crocodile until I decide that Jenn’s had enough alone time.

Jenn isn’t in the cottage and hasn’t left a note, but I follow the direction of her wheel tracks until I see her up on the observation platform at something called the “Eco-Pond.” I watch her talking to someone I can’t see. Her curls bounce and her hands move around in that quick, excited, come-hither manner that she has. Then they drop, and I see her lean in and listen in an overly-attentive way as she rubs her fingers slowly along her joystick.

It’s time to climb the steps, and, as I do, the person she’s talking to is revealed. A banded ranger’s hat and sunglasses are followed by the green uniform with its brass name tag – Ranger R. Rodgers. I snicker. The woman must hear a lot of “where’s Trigger?” I lean down and give Jenn a kiss.

“Hey there, babe. I missed you at the cottage.”

“Oh, I was just too antsy to write, and I decided to explore. B.J., this is Rebecca. She’s telling me all about the birds here. Look at that one, with the iridescent purple sides. It’s a, well, I’ve forgotten already.” My lover waves her hands helplessly and smiles at the ranger.

She smiles back and fills in the answer. “A purple gallinule.”

“Gallinule, gallinule. I love words that feel good in your mouth.”

It’s as if they’re getting it on, right in front of me. I’m most likely overreacting, but it’s got to stop.

“Ranger R. Rodgers?” I pause so that she can see me suppress a laugh. “I have a question for you. What’s the deal about being a single lesbian here? Everyone freaks out until I tell them I’m here with my partner.” The only other person on the platform, a guy with unusually pale skin for this part of the world, turns at the word lesbian but then raises his binoculars and looks out over the pond. I can tell that he’s listening.

“Oh that.” The ranger’s voice is dismissive. “It’s the Everglades version of an urban legend. Something about a female swamp troll of some sort that snatches away single lesbians every so often. They say it’s been going on for over twenty years. I think it started because a few women who camped here on their own, meaning, of course, that they must be lesbians, were never heard from again. Of course, something might have happened, but we are at the end of the world, and people often come here to escape from their lives back home. There’s never been any specific evidence of a crime.” The ranger tilts her hat back and looks at my chest. “I like your shirt. I had a similar one, but my ex got it in the divorce.” She grins at my girlfriend.

Jenn looks at her and then at me and then points into the distance and says, “Look at that sunset.”


"You Complete Me" by Zach Wong

March 7, 2009

Zach Wong’s “You Complete Me” has been chosen as the cover art for the July 2009 issue.

Zach Wong has been pushing pixels since 1991. He is a graduate Architect, published author, son, brother, friend and artist. His ongoing project in life is to continue to resonate with others through his art. His journey can be found at http://www.zachwong.com/


from "The Ballad of Tangleton" by Jim Nawrocki

March 7, 2009

FULL STORY APPEARS IN THE JULY 2009 ISSUE!

A few nights later, Park’s lover returned. Park saw him, made eye contact, and the young man followed him into the building carefully, at a distance, and even when sitting in one of the chairs in Park’s front room, he seemed uneasy. The street was quiet that night.

Park, somehow sensing that he had to make the first move, stood up from his own chair and walked across the room to the young man, standing over him, then reaching to caress his cheek.

“You owe me a story,” he said, kneeling on the floor next to the chair.

The boy looked at him. “I could tell you anything,” he said to Park. “And you wouldn’t know the difference.”

“I might,” he said. “After all, each one of us has heard versions of it before. You were born somewhere out in the settlements, or on your way there. They told you all about how the cities used to be, before it all happened. How it had been in Sydney, maybe. Or some of the others.”

“They’d lived in Paris,” said the young man. “And when things started to happen, they thought it might be safer here.”

“How soon did they see it all coming?” asked Park. “Most people didn’t.”

“You’re right,” he said. “They were privileged. My father was a high-level minister in the Polish government. He’d been serving as a diplomat, first in Korea. Then Egypt. He met my mother in Cairo. They’d been in Paris and had heard talk within the intelligence circles about the new weapons, about how the terrorist coalitions were starting to organize and target the financial centers. Then the plague started. They were able to get to Sydney about a year before things really started to turn.”

Park knew the rest. Sydney and other parts of the country had almost been overrun with plague refugees. The terrorists coordinated their strikes as soon as the plague started, figuring it was their last chance. They hit so many cities around the world that people really thought it was the end. In a sense, it was. Before the infrastructure broke down even more, Ring refugees had started to outnumber those fleeing the plague. Park remembered Stroessner’s phrase, the old life. The boy’s parents had had the means to get themselves out and to the relative safety of the outback settlements. Like most of the early ones, it had been a rough start.

“History is hard to come by, these days,” said Park. He was testing the young man. He sensed a keen intelligence, something beyond the surface charm of his articulateness. Somehow, somewhere along the line, the young man had had a very solid education. Probably in the same way that Park did, from the resources available through his formerly wealthy family, and then from one of the many groups of elders that ended up in the settlements, maybe someone like the one who had written the diary. At any rate, he was proving Park right. He tested Park as much as Park did him. The trust had grown between them slowly gradually.

“History is us, now,” said the young man. “We’re the ones who will have to make it.”
From his spot next to the chair Park moved round to the front, resting on his knees and he looked at him. “I still don’t know your name,” he said, waiting for the youth’s reaction.

Park heard him say, “Tah-dosh.”

“From your mother?” Park asked.

“My father, actually,” said Tadeusz. “It’s Polish.”

There was a hunger in his dark eyes that matched Park’s. Tadeusz bent down to kiss him and soon they lost themselves in each other.

from "The Visitor" by Jeffrey A. Ricker

March 3, 2009

FULL STORY APPEARS IN THE JULY 2009 ISSUE!

It’s the firsts with Dale that stand out in my mind. Like the first time he smiled at me; the first time our hands accidentally collided when we both reached for the sugar at the South City Diner, how Dale had withdrawn his hand and let me have the sugar, and how I’d wished I’d let go and taken Dale’s hand back instead. How we stood outside Dale’s front door while I hemmed and hawed until, after a silent, awkward moment, Dale asked me if I’d like to come inside.

And other firsts, I remember those too.

We were lying in bed; it was our fourth—date? I didn’t know what to call it. I was on vacation, visiting my friend Eleanor in St. Louis. Dale was her tenant. He lived in the upstairs unit of her two-family house on Arsenal across from Tower Grove Park. I hadn’t spent much time with Eleanor, and I would have felt guilty about that if I hadn’t been spending most of my time in Dale’s bed, which tended to keep my mind off of anything else.

It was Thursday afternoon. I had just finished telling Dale about my stable but boring upbringing in rural Maryland and asked him where his parents lived.

“Yeah, that.” Dale stretched his arms over his head, tucking his hands underneath the pillow. “It’s kind of complicated.”

My chin was resting on Dale’s abdomen and I stared up the line of his sternum to his face. Dale continued to stare at the ceiling. “What, were you born on an airplane or something?”

“No, not exactly.”

“Well then, how is it complicated? I mean, everyone’s born somewhere.”

Dale sat up, dislodging me from my resting spot. He drew himself up into a cross-legged sitting position, his back against the headboard. “It’s just that I don’t exactly know where I was born.”

“Oh.” I reached out and placed my hand on Dale’s forearm. The hairs were soft; they were so blond you almost couldn’t tell they were there except by touch. Touching him that way was arousing, but I tried to ignore it for the moment. “Were you adopted? It’s not like there’s anything wrong with that, you know.”

“No, it’s not that. Look, do we have to talk about this?”

What was this about? “Why shouldn’t we talk about this?”

Barely audible, Dale said, “Because you’ll think I’m crazy.”

“I don’t know about that.” I sat up too. “But you’re beginning to drive me a little crazy. What is it? You’re not in this country illegally, are you?”

Dale lifted his head, alarm painted in broad strokes across his face. “What makes you say that?”

“Well, what else is there? You’re not adopted, you weren’t born in transit. Either you’re not of woman born and this is some Shakespearean weirdness, or you’re an illegal alien. So which is it?”

Dale sighed. “I’m not illegal, but I’m an alien.”

I threw up my hands. “Well, why be so coy about it? Most people have a certain national pride, you know. Unless you’re from Canada. Every Canadian I’ve met has had an inferiority complex. Is that where you’re from?”

Dale shook his head. “You still don’t get it.”

“I know.” I was going to start yelling any minute, I knew it. Great, our first argument. Would there be make-up sex? “You’re being so evasive, for all I know you’re going to tell me you’re an alien from Mars or something.”

“Well, not Mars. More like ‘or something.’”

“Oh.” I looked down at my hands. “Oh.” I was sitting cross-legged too, the sheet tucked over my lap. I wasn’t feeling aroused anymore. What should I say next? Are you sure? Are you nuts? I couldn’t say that, though. It was what he was expecting, I could tell.

I’m sure I wasn’t quiet for long, but it was long enough that he looked at me in that way that wasn’t accusatory, but made me feel like I was accusing him with my silence.

“So,” I blurted; I had to say something. “You don’t remember anything about home?”

He shook his head and started talking about being brought up in the foster system, bouncing among a few families in California until he was a legal adult and on his own, as he had been ever since. I don’t remember many details of what we talked about after that —jobs, education, friends—and eventually we segued into the make-up sex that I’d wondered about earlier. Of course, we hadn’t really had an argument, but it was close enough, and he seemed so relieved that I didn’t think he was crazy that he really put his effort into it.

But I wasn’t relieved, and I wasn’t sure I didn’t think he was crazy. Afterwards, when I was lying in bed still exhausted and Dale was taking a shower, these things flipped over and over in my head. Of course he couldn’t be an alien; that was absurd.

Right?

Where was he really from, though? What happened to his parents? And what happened to make him believe in such an outlandish fabrication of his background?

The questions piled up as I lay there thinking. I wished I could go back to my happy ignorance of just a couple hours earlier, when I was high enough on lust that I didn’t need to know where this exciting new man in my life was from. And the longer I lay there, the more I realized how little I knew about him.