The Look in His Eye

The Look in His Eye ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted a different version of this story previously.)

She worked as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home. She hated her job but she went to work every day and performed her menial duties to the best of her ability because she had a dependent child to take care of on her own, a nine-year-old son named Devin. She had been a widow since Devin was three, when Devin’s father was killed when a scaffolding he was working on, forty feet high, collapsed and sent him and two other workers to their deaths.

When she wasn’t working, she liked to have a good time. She smoked a lot of cigarettes and sometimes she drank enough beer to make her sick all the next day, but she was an attentive mother to Devin and rarely punished him for not eating his vegetables, making a mess of his room, or getting less-than-spectacular grades on his report card.

Usually on the weekend she engaged an old lady from the neighborhood or a high-school girl to sit with Devin, watch TV with him (no monster movies), give him pizza or a sandwich for dinner, and then make sure he brushed his teeth and went to bed at a reasonable hour. Sometimes she would not come home until the next morning. More than once, the old woman staying with Devin got tired of waiting and took him home with her and put him to bed on her couch, leaving a note for mother to let her know where they were.

Mother attracted boyfriends effortlessly. She specialized in low-life, no-account men, she said. Some of them had long hair and tattoos and were just out of jail. They were all right for a little while but she soon grew tired of them and could never take them seriously.

And then she met Kelly Gottschalk. He was different from her other boyfriends. He had gone to college but, more importantly, he had been an officer in the marine corps. He had a flat-top haircut and he wore form-fitting shirts that showed off his bulging muscles. He had been married to a couple of different ladies (not at the same time), but he found out after he married them that he didn’t like them as much as he thought and divorced both of them.

Mother had Kelly over for spaghetti so he and Devin could meet and get acquainted. From the beginning, they didn’t have much to say to each other, but they shook hands politely at the front door and smiled. Mother and Kelly hardly looked Devin’s way or spoke to him during dinner. Mother spoke quietly into Kelly’s ear as if she didn’t want Devin to hear what she said. Her eyes shone and she giggled a lot; she could hardly keep her hands off Kelly. Devin had never seen her act so silly. When dinner was over, they sat on the couch and watched TV, holding hands, while Devin went to his room and closed the door.

Devin wanted to tell mother he didn’t like Kelly, that just the look in his eye gave him a bad feeling, but he said nothing because she seemed happy and he didn’t want to give her anything to feel bad about.

A few days after the spaghetti dinner, mother told Devin that she and Kelly were getting married and there were going to be some big changes in their lives. Finally she could quit her job at the nursing home and stay at home and be a real wife and mother. They were going to live in Kelly’s house, with its big yard, garage, and basement. Devin would, of course, have his own room. He was lucky because he could keep going to his old school, although he would have a lot farther to walk.

Mother and Kelly were married by a justice of the peace (how romantic!) and were gone for three nights, during which time Devin stayed with a neighbor lady and her yapping miniature schnauzers. He couldn’t wait for mother to get back home so he could feel normal again, but the only problem was that when she came back Kelly was with her.

Within a week they had left their small apartment and moved into Kelly’s house. Devin had bad dreams at first because his room was upstairs and he was lonely and the stairs creaked on their own as if a ghost was walking up and down them. If he called out to mother, she didn’t come to him the way she used to because her bedroom was downstairs and Devin couldn’t sleep with her whenever he was scared and couldn’t go barging into her room any time he felt like it because it was Kelly’s room too and mother said they needed their privacy, as all newlyweds do.

She didn’t quit her job right away as she thought she would, because, as it turned out, she had some old debts to pay off and she didn’t want to have to burden Kelly with them. It meant that Devin, with mother at work all day, was left alone in the house with Kelly.

Devin still didn’t like Kelly very much but he would try for mother’s sake. He’d be civil if nothing else. He’d stay out of Kelly’s way as much as he could, watch TV, stay in his room reading his comic books, or occupy himself with something in the yard.

Kelly had other ideas, though, about the way Devin should spend his time. He believed in military-style discipline. To begin with, the TV would not be turned on during the day. It sucked up too much electricity and it was a bad influence on kids; it made them soft and unrealistic and made them want things they couldn’t have.

“Your mother indulges you too much,” Kelly said.

“What does that mean?” Devin asked.

“She lets you have your way all the time. She spoils you. I won’t do that.”

“That’s all right. I like to be left alone.”

“Yeah? Well, those days are over.”

After the “honeymoon” was over and mother had returned to her job at the rest home, Kelly gave Devin a broom and a dustpan and put him to work cleaning his room, pulling all the furniture way from the wall and cleaning behind it. When that was finished, he gave him a scrub brush and a can of cleanser and made him get down in the bathtub and clean the tile.

“That isn’t fair,” Devin said. “All this dirt was here before I came here. This is somebody else’s dirt.”

“Yeah? Well, tell me about fair,” Kelly said. “Life isn’t fair, is it? The sooner you learn it, the better.”

How Kelly loved his little book of rules!

You will take baths regularly, of course, if not daily. (He came into the bathroom while Devin was in the tub to make sure he wasn’t wasting water.) After the bath, clean the tub thoroughly, tidy the bathroom, and hang all towels neatly on their racks. We don’t live on Park Avenue and we don’t have a maid. You will be your own maid, which includes hanging up your clothes and putting your dirty socks and underwear in the laundry basket at the bottom of the basement stairs to be sorted later.

We observe nine o’clock bedtime every night of the week, even on weekends. (No more late movies on TV.) Going to bed early and getting up early is a healthy habit and it instills discipline.

Every morning, you will make your own bed before breakfast and before getting dressed. Change the sheets at least once a week and take the dirty sheets down to the basement and put them in the washer.

You will only have one light on at a time and that’s the light you’re using. When you go out of a room, turn off any lights that are on. When you open the refrigerator door, get out everything you need at once. Opening the refrigerator door repeatedly wastes electricity.

Mow the lawn at least once a week. Keep the rows straight and even. Rake up the cut grass and put it in bags made especially for that purpose. After the grass is mowed, pull the weeds growing in the flower bed. Repeat in one week.

At first Devin enjoyed operating the powerful mower, but the sun was hot, his arms ached and he hated having Kelly finding fault with everything he did.

“Go over that row again,” Kelly barked. “You missed some sprouts growing there.”

Mother came out of the house to observe. “That mower is too heavy for him,” she said. “You have to remember he doesn’t have the strength of a grown man.”

“He’s never too young to learn to do things right,” Kelly said.

“Watch him and make sure he doesn’t lose any fingers or toes,” she said.

Kelly had a temper and he liked to pout, mother said. She would do whatever was needed to stay on his good side. She didn’t want to cross him or do anything to make him mad.

“I hate him,” Devin one evening when he was drying dishes after supper.

“He’s trying to be a good father to you,” mother said.

“He’s not my father. I hate him.”

“You have to give him a chance. This is all new for him.”

“Can’t we go back home and forget about him?” Devin asked.

Mother laughed. “This is home now,” she said.

And then there was the attic and after the attic the basement. They hadn’t been cleaned out in years, Kelly said, and it was high time.

The attic was full of dust and cobwebs. There was old furniture and stuff his mother and father used and, even before them, his grandparents. Kelly wanted everything straightened up, righted, and dusted off. That meant lugging the vacuum cleaner up the steps and plugging it into the one bulb that hung from the ceiling and sucking up all the spiders and cobwebs and the years’ accumulation of dust. Then there was the nightmare of bundling up all the things to throw away, according to Kelly’s exact specifications, and setting it out for the trash collectors to pick up.

The basement was dark and frightening, with strange smells and piles of old furniture and boxes everywhere. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling all the way to the floor, making it seem like Dracula’s castle. Devin saw his first rat when he was moving some boxes and ran out into the yard, shivering with revulsion.

“I can’t do this!” he said. “I’m not a slave, for Christ’s sake!”

Summer vacation was over and he started fourth grade. It was the first time in his life that he was glad to return to school. He had to walk a mile each way, but he didn’t mind it so much, even when it was raining. He liked the rainy days best because on those days there was no yard work to be done.

Mother was tired and nervous when she got home from work. She cooked the supper that they ate in silence. Devin saw that she had changed since she married Kelly. She had dark circles under her eyes and she didn’t laugh anymore. He wished that things could be the way they used to be.

On some days Kelly told mother to leave the supper dishes for Devin to do on his own. He would take her into the living room and get her to lie across his lap while he rubbed her shoulders and whispered in her ear. Mother seemed to like that kind of treatment, but Devin hated Kelly for it. He hated to see them together. Sometimes they went into their bedroom and closed the door early in the evening, before dark, and Devin wouldn’t see them again until the next morning.

It was well into fall and the big trees in the yard were shedding their leaves. There were thousands of leaves, millions of them, so many that Devin had to rake every day after school just to keep up with them. They used to be able to burn the leaves but now they had to bag them up in yard-waste bags. Devin didn’t know which was harder. raking the leaves or getting them into the upright bags. Kelly wasn’t much help—though always present—because he had a couple of slipped discs in his back and couldn’t bend over and couldn’t lift.

On a Sunday afternoon toward the end of October, Devin was in the side yard working on the leaves. He had a sore throat, didn’t feel well, and wanted to go to his room and spend the afternoon doing what he wanted to do. The leaves were never-ending.

Kelly, for once, was occupied elsewhere. He had bought a vintage 1956 Cadillac and was restoring it. The Cadillac was in the driveway, near the house, and Kelly was underneath it with only his big feet sticking out. The tires had been removed and the front end of the car was jacked up; only a thin arm of metal kept the car suspended in the air.

Devin found a formidable-looking slingshot by the back fence. He didn’t know who it belonged to, but since he found it in his yard he would claim it as his own. He picked it up and pulled back on the rubber sling to test its resiliency. It begged to be tried out. Since Kelly wasn’t paying at attention at the moment, there was nothing to keep him from firing a few missiles into the air.

In the back yard was a walnut tree. The branches were heavy with walnuts but a lot of them had fallen to the ground and lay scattered about. (Yes, Devin would have to bag them up, too, when the time came.) He picked one up and felt its hardness and solidity. He shot one up into the walnut tree, scaring a squirrel and causing some birds to take to the air.

He fired one over the house and watched the satisfying arc it described in the air. He kept firing them in all directions, realizing it was the most fun he had had for a while. He didn’t care if Kelly saw that he was playing instead of working. He’d like to shoot one squarely between his eyes.

One of the walnuts went wildly astray. He saw too late that it was headed toward the Cadillac. If it hit the Cadillac of anywhere near it, Kelly would be out from under the car and all over him in a matter of seconds.

The walnut hit the jack holding up the car. It made a ping! sound and bounced off. The jack held for a couple of seconds and then shimmied and collapsed as if by design. The Cadillac came crashing down on Kelly. He let out one short, sharp scream and his legs twitched.

Devin dropped the slingshot and ran for the back door. Mother was standing in the kitchen. She already knew something had happened. She took one look at Devin and followed him out the door. She ran to the Cadillac to try to help Kelly, but of course there was nothing to be done.

A neighbor called the ambulance. The ambulance people came with their emergency equipment and lifted up the Cadillac high enough to pull Kelly out. They rushed him to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Lots of people came to the funeral home to see Kelly laid out in his casket. All the people from the neighborhood were there, all of mother’s coworkers, people she knew from as far back as high school. Relatives she hadn’t seen for years heard about the accident and came to pay their condolences.

Mother was standing in front of Kelly’s casket in her black dress. Devin went and stood beside her.

“Do you think it hurt when the car fell on him?” he asked.

“I don’t think he felt anything,” she said. “They said he died instantly.”

“I’ve never seen a dead person before.”

She put her arm around his shoulder and pulled him close. She started crying again.

“I’ve had two husbands and they both died in accidents,” she said. “I’m through with marriage. I will never be a widow again.”

What was going on in Devin’s mind no one could ever know, least of all her. He was the only person in the world who knew what really happened to Kelly. He would never tell anybody; people would think he did it on purpose and he would go to jail for the rest of his life. No, it was his one true secret and he would hold it close for as long as he lived.

Some new people came in and mother went to greet them, leaving Devin standing alone in front of the casket. How different Kelly was now, lying on his bed of peach-colored satin. No longer the big, blustering man, barking out orders in his best military style. He would go into the ground tomorrow after the funeral and turn to dust in his grave, never to speak another word.

Devin felt conspicuous standing there in the open. He heard his name spoken behind him. People were looking at him, feeling sorry for him. He went and found a chair against the wall where nobody could see him, flattened his hands under his thighs and took a deep breath. He wanted only to leave, to be left alone, to get into bed and cover up his head without anybody watching him or speaking his name.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The World That Comes After

The World That Comes After ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Katherine Isabel Burkhardt was born in 1898 and died of a summer fever in 1912 at the age of fourteen. When she found herself in the family vault, she was more afraid than she had ever been in her life. She didn’t know where she was or why.

Hello!” she called. “Is anybody there? Hello! Mother! Father! Are you there? Do you see me? Can you figure out how to get me out of here? I don’t like it here! It’s spooky and I think I’m going to cry! I think there’s been some mistake! I don’t think I ought to be here!”

She was on the point of screaming when she saw an old woman standing over her. She didn’t know the old woman but was so relieved she wasn’t alone that it didn’t matter.

The words came out in a torrent: “Who are you? What is this place? Can you tell me where I am? I need to go home! My mother and father will be worried about me if I don’t come home for dinner!”

“Not so fast!” the old woman said. “All your questions will be answered, but only one at a time.”

“I don’t know where I am. I don’t like it here! I don’t remember how I…”

She stopped in the middle of a sentence because she saw, not having noticed before in her excitement, that the old woman had a mellow glow emanating from her chest.

“What is that?” she asked. “I’ve never seen anything like it! You’re glowing!”

“Of course I’m glowing,” the old woman said. “We’re all glowing. You’re glowing too.”

“What?”

When she looked down, she was delighted for a moment by her own glow coming from inside her.

“What is this?” she asked. “What does this mean?”

“It’s very simple,” the old woman said. “You’ve crossed over.”

“Crossed over where?”

“You’ve passed from the world of the living to the world that comes after.”

“The world that comes after? Are you telling me I’m dead?”

“Yes. You must accept it. Embrace it.”

“But I don’t want to be dead! I have things to do. I promised mother I’d clean out my closet. I have my schoolwork to do. I have my cats to take care of. I’m going to a church picnic on Saturday.”

“The picnic will go on without you. That’s what happens when we die. The world keeps right on spinning.”

“I don’t believe you. I think I’m just having a bad dream. In a little while I’ll wake up and everything will be fine.”

“It’s a dream, all right, but not the kind of dream you wake up from.”

“Who are you anyway?”

“I’m your grandmother. You never knew me because I crossed over before you were born.”

“Just what is this place? Where am I?”

“You’re in the family vault. In the cemetery.”

“I remember! I remember the family vault! Father showed it to us on one of our Sunday drives. It looks like a little church with spires.”

“That’s right. Your great-grandfather, my father, was a wealthy man and he had the vault built at great expense so all of us would have a place to go when we die.”

“That was very thoughtful of him, I’m sure. Now, can you tell me how to get out of here so I can go home?”

The old woman laughed. “You can’t get out. This is where you belong now. With us.”

“There are others?”

“Of course, there are others. You’ll meet them all soon.”

Katherine began to cry real tears, as opposed to tears for effect. “I didn’t get a chance to tell anybody goodbye because I didn’t know I was going to die! Mother and father and Boyd, my brother. My cats.”

“They knew what was happening. They were in the room. They all said goodbye to you, even though you didn’t know it.”

“Will I see them all again someday?”

“It doesn’t hurt to hope.”

“I’m worried about my cats. They’ll starve if I’m not there to feed them.”

“Don’t you think your brother will take care of them now?”

“Yes, I suppose he will. He was always quite fond of animals.”

“All your worldly cares are over. You are at peace. Peace like a river.”

“I’m feeling so sleepy now, as if I can barely hold up my head.”

“That’s right. Time to sleep. And when you wake up you’ll meet the others.”

A curtain descended as at the end of an act in a play, and Katherine knew nothing again until she was being led by the hand to meet the rest of the family.

She felt shy at being brought before a gallery of strangers. She was not at all  surprised, however, to see that they all carried the mysterious and arresting glow inside them, the same glow that she now had.

Cousins Parry and Lomax, twins, were ten at the time they crossed over. (They went over a roaring waterfall in a rowboat on a flawless June day and drowned.) They looked at Katherine with wide-eyed wonder; each of them gave her a quick, unsmiling bow from the waist and then they were gone.

Great-grandfather was tall and broad, wearing his fancy dress suit and sporting the elaborate mustache and side whiskers for which he was known. He was a successful businessman, the millionaire who financed the family vault. On meeting Katherine, he tilted his head back and looked at her as if he couldn’t quite believe his eyes.

“I don’t think we’ve met, my dear,” he said. “How are you?”

“I’m dead, thank you, sir,” she said. “How are you?”

Uncle Evan, great-grandfather’s son, was handsome in his military uniform. He was only twenty-five when he crossed over during the Spanish-American War. He shook Katherine’s hand politely, gave her a grim smile, and receded into the background as his military training dictated.

Aunt Ida was a sad-faced woman carrying a baby. The baby, Augustus, crossed over at the age of three months when Aunt Ida was only in her twenties. Now that she had him with her again, Aunt Ida vowed that she and Augustus would never be separated again.

A formidable woman was Aunt Zel, great-grandfather’s sister. She had an elaborate coiffure piled high on her head and a stunning array of jewelry gracing her person. By her side always was her diminutive husband, Uncle Ivor; he was a hundred-and-twenty pounds when he was alive and eight inches shorter than Aunt Zel. He had lost his right arm, not on the field of battle, but to a rabid skunk when he was eight years old.

“I’m so happy to make your acquaintance, my dear,” aunt Zel said to Katherine. “I just know we’re going to be great friends.”

Uncle Ivor took Katherine’s hand in his and bent over and kissed it until Aunt Zel turned and gave him a warning look.

Uncle Jordan wore a dress suit with a diamond stickpin and silk cravat. He kissed Katherine on each cheek and then he was gone as if he had a pressing engagement elsewhere. The truth was that he avoided being around the other family members for long because none of them approved of him. In life, he had enjoyed himself a little too much, spent money freely that didn’t belong to him and died, deeply in debt, in young middle age of alcoholism.

Cousin Talbot’s appendix burst when he was thirty-two. Immediately after he crossed over, his beautiful young wife, Magdalene, married a man she hardly knew by the name of Milt Clausen. Magdalene did not honor Talbot’s memory in her widowhood. She was not in the family crypt and never would be. Cousin Talbot didn’t want her anywhere near him. He had renounced women and marriage for all eternity.

“If you were a boy instead of a girl, I’d advise you never to get married,” Cousin Talbot said to Katherine.

“I don’t think my gender makes much difference now,” Katherine said.

Cousin Emory was sixteen when he crossed over as the result of a crushed larynx sustained in an impromptu game of tackle football with some of his friends. The glow in his chest was a little brighter than anybody else’s and, indeed, extended upwards to his neck, face and head. His smile was infectious and he seemed all the time to be on the verge of laughter. When he touched Katherine’s hand, she felt he was a kindred spirit.

“How do you like being a ghost?” he asked her.

She shook her head and blushed, not knowing what to say.

“It was the same for me when I first came here,” he said. “I didn’t know why God would have me die so young. We learn not to ask why but just to accept things as they are.”

“I don’t like it here and I want to go home,” she said but she wasn’t sure if Cousin Emory heard her.

Before moving on, he leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I can show you around if you like. There’s a lot more than just this.” He held out his arms to take in the whole family crypt.

“If you find you have the time,” she said, “I think that would be lovely.”

There were others after Cousin Emory, but the truth was they blended together in a blur and Katherine couldn’t remember them after she met them.

The next time Katherine saw Cousin Emory, he showed her, much to her delight, that she could leave the family crypt at will (hers and not anybody else’s). All she had to do was press her body against the outer wall. Since the wall was solid and she was not, she could pass through it. He tried to explain the laws of physics involved, but she didn’t understand what he was talking about.

The cemetery was much larger than Katherine imagined. Cousin Emory took her to visit some of his spirit friends: a tall, criminally handsome policeman with a handlebar mustache who loved to tell stories about apprehending cutthroat desperadoes; a Civil War soldier who shook hands with Abraham Lincoln and spent ten minutes engaged in conversation with him; a victim of the Johnstown Flood (“the water came roaring down the mountain and swept away everything in its path”); a governor of the state who once had presidential aspirations; a group of twenty girls who died in an orphanage fire, all occupying the same grave; a twelve-year-old boy named Jesse who stood just outside his massive vault until another spirit came along and engaged him in conversation.

On one of their forays outside the crypt, they came upon a funeral on a hillside that resembled, with all the attendees dressed in black, an aggregation of crows.

“This is the fun part,” Emory said.

He walked among the mourners, pretending to kiss or touch or put his arm around certain of them. He also demonstrated the technique of coming up quickly behind them and making the more sensitive of them turn around to see who—or what—was there.

“They sense I’m there but when they turn around they’re not so sure.”

He made her laugh when he floated over a couple of old ladies in large feathered hats and, assuming a reclining position over them, pretended to pat them on the sides of their heads.

“I, for one, love being a ghost!” he said.

“Can I fly, too?” Katherine asked.

“We don’t really fly like a duck going south for the winter. What we do is float. We float because we’re lighter than air.”

“Can I try it?” Katherine asked.

“You can do anything you want, now,” he said.

He demonstrated his floating technique and they spent the afternoon floating all over the cemetery.

“Maybe there are some good things about being a spirit,” Katherine said.

“Of course there are!”

“No more head colds, sore throats or stomach cramps. No more trips to the doctor or dentist. No more nightmares or math quizzes. No more being made to play badminton with my little cousins. No more boring church sermons that make everybody cranky, and no more liver and onions for dinner ever again!”

Cousin Emory laughed, but then Katherine started thinking about all the good things she had left behind, such as her cats and her beautiful room at home and her mother and father and brother and all her friends, and she started to cry.

“I think it’s time to go back,” Cousin Emory said.

Katherine began venturing outside the family crypt often, either with Cousin Emory or on her own. And then, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in October, she happened to be in the right place at the right time and she saw them.

She recognized father’s automobile and then she saw that all three of them were riding inside: father, mother and her brother Boyd. She floated after the car—it wasn’t going very fast—and attached herself to the back of it as it turned out of the cemetery and headed toward home.

She held on easily enough until father pulled into the driveway of the old house. She was happy to see that everything looked exactly the same. The first thing she did was to go around back and check on her kittens. They were all there and seemed healthy and happy, but they were now adult cats. She cried when they meowed and purred and recognized her and begged to be picked up.

Her room upstairs was the same. Everything was just as she left it, the books and pencils on her desk, the dolls and stuffed animals on the bed and the chair, the pictures on the wall, the lamp, the rocking chair, the clothes hanging in the closet. Mother hadn’t changed a thing.

She was home again! With her family! Of course, her physical self—her body—was back at the family crypt in the cemetery, but the most important part of her was here—in her childhood home that she loved and never wanted to leave.

She would stay with her family always. She floated over the dining room table as had their dinner. She floated over their beds at night when they were sleeping. Sometimes she went up behind them and gently blew air on the backs of their necks. At those times, they seemed to know she was there because they smiled and sometimes they turned all the way around.

When they were all away for the day, she would go from room to room, touching the beloved objects: the piano where she learned to play, the horsehair sofa that was so comfortable for a nap, the dishes in the China closet, the books on the shelves, the worn rug on the floor, the ferns and philodendrons. All the things that made home what it was.

She spent time every day with her cats. She watched them as they grew up and had their own babies. Some of them left and ventured out into the world on their own, as cats will do. She watched as they grew old and cried whenever any of them became sick and died.

The years went by but, since she was a spirit, there was no such thing as time. She remained the same, always fourteen years old, but her family changed, as families will. Boyd went through college and got a job in New York City and left home. He sent postcards and letters, saying how happy he was. Father became old and stooped; he had a heart attack and had to stop working and draw a pension. Mother’s hair turned gray and her shoulders were perpetually bowed. She still fixed three meals a day and worked always at keeping the house clean and running smoothly.

Katherine was standing beside father’s bed when he died on a January night. She believed that in the last minute of his life he saw her and knew she was there. He died happily.

Mother continued in the big, empty house on her own. Always busy, she was never one to give up. She continued to cook meals and clean a different part of the house every day, even though nothing was the same for her. In the evenings, she sat in the parlor alone and read, sewed, or knitted. Sometimes she would stand up and go to the piano and play a hymn or a popular song from her youth that she recalled. And always, Katherine was close by. She longed to reach out and fold mother in her arms and comfort her.

In the time that was no time, mother also died. The house was sold and all the furnishings moved out. A family with four children took up residence. They were noisy and quarrelsome. They went in and out all day long, slamming the doors every time. They had two large dogs that barked at the slightest provocation.

Katherine couldn’t stay in a house that was no longer hers. She didn’t like the family that moved in. They were nothing like her own family and had their own way of doing things. They removed mother’s drapes from the living room and dining room and replaced the wallpaper in Katherine’s room with a print with sailboats that she didn’t like.

There was nothing left for her to do but go but back to the family crypt. Her grandmother was right; it was where she belonged.

In living time, she had been away for decades, but to the other spirits in the family crypt, it was no time at all. They weren’t aware she had even been away.

She was sad when she went back to the crypt, but not sad for long. Mother and father were both there with their own glows. Why had she not thought of it before? Weren’t they part of the family? Didn’t it stand to reason that they would be in the family crypt the same as any other member of the family? She had just never thought of them as dead in the same way she was dead.

They were all on the same side of the Great Divide now between Life and Death. There would be no more leave-taking. One day Boyd would be joining them. His spot was waiting for him on father’s right side.

In the middle of Katherine’s joyous reunion with mother and father, she heard a small sound like mewing. It could only mean one thing. Yes, they were all there. Every cat she had ever owned in her life was waiting for her, no farther away than the length of her arm. Now, at last, heaven was upon her.

Copyright 2020 by Allen Kopp  

Prentiss Peckinpaugh Prefers Pornography

Prentiss Peckinpaugh Prefers Pornography ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Miss Sullivan belched quietly into her handkerchief; the hamburger steak with onions she had for lunch didn’t quite agree with her. With the handkerchief over her mouth, she looked out over the thirty-two lost souls in her care until five minutes to the hour. They were all fifteen years old and most of them she would happily strangle if she could. She had been in the teaching profession for too long and was overdue for retirement.

Since it was Friday afternoon and everybody was waiting to be unleashed and unfettered until Monday morning, this group of ninth graders was engaged in what was called silent reading. Everybody must know that silent reading was serious business. You couldn’t write or giggle or daydream or think about what you were going to do when you got home or work on your algebra problems (it wasn’t study hall) or pass notes or whisper or gaze out the window or thumb through a magazine. You had to read a “good book,” preferably one from the reading list or one that Miss Sullivan herself had approved. You had to put the fifty-five minutes to good use, reading every word on every page, and absorbing what you read as if you would be tested on it.

Halfway through the hour, Miss Sullivan launched a surprise attack, suddenly standing up from her desk and walking the aisles between the desks, down one aisle and up another. If anybody was doing anything they weren’t supposed to be doing—reading a comic book or concealing a paperback of some kind behind a library book—she would catch them before they had a chance to hide it.

Prentiss Peckinpaugh was an odd boy from an odd family. He lived on a farm with his family; he had many brothers and sisters. His clothes always looked too big for him as if they had belonged to somebody else before he wore them. He always kept the top button of his shirt done up, even in warm weather. He walked with a cautious, forward tilt as if he had something wrong with his back.

Prentiss was sitting in the row of chairs against the wall. Miss Sullivan came upon him from behind, from the left, and her eyes fell upon the book he was reading, a paperback with a pink cover.

“What is that you’re reading?” she asked.

He closed the book so she could see the front cover. The title of the book was The Passionate Orphan.

“Where did you get that book?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“May I see it?” she asked.

He handed her the book and she flipped through the pages and read several passages, standing there in the aisle between desks.

“You’re reading this book?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Prentiss said.

“It’s ‘yes, ma’am’.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How far along are you in the book?”

“Almost to the end.”

“Do you know what this book is about?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What is it about, then? Would you care to tell me?”

By now everybody in class had their attention focused on the conversation between Miss Sullivan and Prentiss Peckinpaugh.

“I don’t think I can say it,” Prentiss said.

“Don’t you know this book is not appropriate reading material for ninth grade English?”

“No, I didn’t know.”

“Who gave you this book?”

“Nobody gave it to me. It’s my book.”

“You don’t know where it came from?”

“No.”

“Did you steal it?”

“Why would I steal it when it already belonged to me?”

“Did a grown man give it to you? Maybe a friend of your father’s?”

“No. I already said nobody gave it to me. It’s my book.”

“Do you know the meaning of the word ‘pornography’?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s what this book is. It’s pornography and if somebody in this school gave it to you, we need to know who it was. This is a book that certainly doesn’t belong in a school, in a classroom, where other people can see it. Do you know what I’m saying?”

“I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

“How about if we go downstairs and show the book to Mr. Ball?”

“I have the feeling I don’t have a choice.” Prentiss Peckinpaugh said.

“Right you are,” Miss Sullivan said.

Miss Sullivan put the class in charge of Mavis Blaylock, a know-it-all, holier-than-thou toady who would stop at nothing to gain favor with the teacher and would take down names of those who misbehaved. Mavis smirked with superiority and took her place at teacher’s desk.

After an admonition to the class to continue their silent reading, Miss Sullivan escorted Prentiss Peckinpaugh down the three flights to the principal’s office.

Principal Ball was engaged on the phone, so Miss Sullivan and Prentiss had to wait for about five minutes until he was free. When at last they were ushered into the carpeted, wood-paneled office, Mr. Ball took one look at them, frowned and said, “What’s this?”

“Well, we’ve been having silent reading this hour,” Miss Sullivan said, “and I found this boy reading this book.”

She handed the book to Mr. Ball.

“Just what is this?” he asked.

“Well, as I was just saying to him…”

“What’s your name, boy?” Mr. Ball asked.

“Prentiss Peckinpaugh.”

“Say ‘sir’ when you’re speaking to me.”

“Prentiss Peckinpaugh, sir!

“I was just saying to Prentiss here that this book doesn’t belong in school and should never see the light of day,” Miss Sullivan said.

Mr. Ball laid the book on the desk and turned over several pages, reading as he went.

“Who gave you this book, Mr. Peckinpaugh?” Mr. Ball asked.

“Nobody gave it to me. It’s my book.”

“Where did it come from?”

“It didn’t come from anywhere. It’s my book.”

“Don’t you know that a book like this is not allowed in school?”

“I don’t see anything wrong with it. Nobody sees it but me.”

“Do you have other books of this nature?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know.”

“No, sir.”

“Well, we’ll let you off with a warning this time because you’re young and you didn’t know, but I want you to know that if you ever bring pornographic material into this school again, we will take disciplinary action that will include a three-day suspension. Now, do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“When you’re on your own free time at home, you can read whatever you want, but in a school like this with hundreds of other students, you must follow our guidelines for what is acceptable and what is not. Am I getting through to you?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Take him to the library, to the fiction section, Miss Sullivan, and have him check out Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. That’s a good book and, more importantly, it’s an appropriate book.”

“I’ve read it,” Prentiss Peckinpaugh said.

“Well, read it again!”

“Are you going to give me back my book, sir, that you took from me?”

“No! I want to absorb it more thoroughly. I need to know what the students in this school are up to.”

The library’s one copy of Of Mice and Men was checked out, so Miss Sullivan suggested The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

“I’ve read it,” Prentiss Peckinpaugh said.

“Well, read it again! And after you’ve finished, I want a solid book report on it.”

“Okay.”

“That’s ‘yes, ma’am’.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

During study hall next hour, Prentiss Peckinpaugh went back to the library and checked out Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence. He wanted to choose for himself what books to read. He liked The Old Man and the Sea fine, but he didn’t want to read it again.

While reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he could easily hide it behind The Old Man and the Sea and nobody would ever know the difference.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Ground My Bed, the Leaves My Blanket

The Ground My Bed, the Leaves My Blanket ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted a different version of this story previously.)

The vast cemetery was many splendid acres of hills, trees, ponds, statues, winding roads, mausoleums, columbaria (for cremated remains), crypts, and walk-in burial chambers gouged out of the sides of the hills. For those inclined to notice, there was every shape, style (a century and a half of changing styles) and description of grave marker known to man, from no bigger than a shoebox to magnificent enough for a Roman emperor.

It was a sprawling city of some one-half million departed souls, but also home, on any night of the year, to dozens of indigents who didn’t have the price of a room or an acceptable flop and so found themselves with no other place to rest their weary (living) bones than among the unsuspecting dead.

Anybody who ever took up residence in the cemetery, if only for one night, knew it afforded many excellent and discreet hiding places where one might sleep, copulate, administer drugs, perform bodily functions, eat, bathe, think, drink, cry—or do any number of other things—away from the prying eyes of man.

As with every person in reduced circumstances who found himself or herself residing in the cemetery, Vicki-Vicki Novak had a story. After graduating from high school, she believed she had everything she needed to find herself a good job, so she left her rancorous mother and her unhappy home and spent six nausea-inducing hours on the bus and moved to the city. Life for her had always been hard, but it wasn’t until she came to the city that she discovered how cruel and unforgiving it is.

She would have taken any job she could find but the truth was there were no jobs of any kind to be had. She was turned away repeatedly because she had no experience of any kind. It didn’t matter that she was good at figures, was a stellar reader, and made better-than-average grades in school. She couldn’t get a job as a cafeteria worker because there were already seventy-five girls on the list ahead of her. She applied for a job in a laundry but was told she was too young and too slightly built to carry heavy loads. The sad truth was she didn’t make a good impression on those who might have hired her; she was too diffident and naïve; she knew too little of the world.

She spent her first two weeks in the city in an old hotel but, when she saw how fast her money was being used up, she took what little she had left and moved to a cheap boarding house where she slept in a tiny, box-like room and ate two small meals a day.

Finally even the boarding house was too expensive for her and she ended up living on the streets, where she met a coterie of other down-and-outers just like her. They gave her advice about how to survive and where she might get a bite to eat or a place to flop for the night. More than once she engaged in sexual congress with nefarious men in exchange for a small amount of cash, a package of cigarettes, an orange, or a couple of pills that were guaranteed to make her feel wonderful and forget all her troubles. She abhorred these couplings at first but after a time didn’t mind them so much because she disconnected herself from the proceedings and felt nothing.

Vicki-Vicki was fortunate in one respect because when she first began living on the streets of the city, it was May and the cruel and dreadful winter was past and wouldn’t be coming around again for a while. During a police crackdown on the street people, she sought refuge in the cemetery on the advice of a friend, one Chester Burnside, a man who might at one time have been a woman (one of those aberrations of nature all too abundant in the large city). The number-one piece of cemetery advice that veterans like Chester Burnside had to offer to newcomers like Vicki-Vicki was this: Don’t get caught because if you do you might get your brains knocked out or you might end up in jail. All the veterans had horror stories about people getting their brain matter literally knocked out of their heads onto the ground by leering, sadistic cemetery guards.

On a Friday afternoon in October, Vicki-Vicki was washing up at one of the cemetery’s fountains. She trailed her hands in the water and brought them to her face. The water was fresh and clean. She wished she might take off all her clothes and get down in the water naked and give herself a good scrubbing, but if she dared to do such a thing, somebody was sure to come along and see her, so she just contented herself with rinsing her arms and face.

Towering above the fountain was a seven-foot tall lady angel. Her wings were only marginally chipped and bird-splattered; she looked down with a benevolent and loving expression.

“What are you doing here?” the angel asked, bending her head in Vicki-Vicki’s direction.

“I was washing myself,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“You might drown yourself if you have any sense.”

“Why would I do that?”

“It’s October. Winter’s coming. Are you going to go home while you still can?”

“I don’t have a home.”

“Everybody has a home.”

“My mother said she’d kill me if she ever saw me again.”

“When did you last eat?”

“I don’t know. Yesterday, sometime, I think.”

“Life is hard, isn’t it?”

My life is. I don’t know about anybody else’s.”

“You must do better.”

“Tell me how.”

Somebody was coming. They both heard the footsteps moving through the leaves at the same time. The angel went back to being mute and immobile, while Vicki-Vicki ran and hid behind the nearest large tree.

When she peered cautiously around the tree, she was relieved to see it was the old wino Eulah Knickerbocker and not a cemetery guard.

Hey! You!” she said, stepping out into the open.

Eulah Knickerbocker jumped and only kept from screaming by placing her filthy hand over her mouth. “You shouldn’t scare people like that!” she said. “My nerves is shot all to hell!”

“Why? What’s the matter?”

“I’m going around telling everybody I see. It’s lucky I found you. There’s going to be a purge tonight.”

“What’s a purge?”

“They’ve took on extra guards. They’re going to go through the cemetery and round up everybody who doesn’t belong. Some of us will end up dead.”

“Just hide,” Vicki-Vicki said. “That’s what I do.”

“No, dear! You won’t be able to hide from them this time. If you’re here, they’ll find you. You’d better get out before dark.”

“Where would I go?”

“How on earth should I know? Go back to the city.”

“But I came here to get away from the city!”

“I know! It’s terrible, ain’t it? But if they find you here tonight, it will go very bad for you. They might throw you in jail, and if they do you might never get out again.”

“They don’t scare me,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“Take it from somebody who’s been there, dearie. I’ve been living on the streets for seventeen years. I know how these things go.”

“You haven’t seen that fella they call Diego, have you?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“If I did, I’d try to forget it.”

“He owes me money.”

“You’ll be lucky to get a nickel out of him, even if you do find him.”

“No, he’s been working, clearing brush. If I can catch him before he spends all his pay, I can get my money and have enough for a decent room for the night.”

“Say, you wouldn’t mind me coming along, would you, darling? Two can stay in a room for the same price as one.”

“Not this time, Eulah. I just need to be alone tonight.”

“Well, all right. I figure it don’t hurt to ask.”

“No, it don’t. Have you got anything to eat?”

“If I did I’d share it with you.”

“I know you would, Eulah.”

“Have you seen my twin sister, Beulah?”

“No, I don’t think I have.”

“She’s the great beauty of the family. Have I ever told you about her?”

“I believe so.”

“She’s coming to get me and take me home with her to live. I don’t know if it’ll be tonight but any day now.”

“I hope it all works out for you, Eulah.”

“It’s bound to, this time.”

The sun was going down and the air suddenly had the feel of late autumn. It would be about the time that normal people who live in houses would be sitting down to dinner. She needed to think about where she would spend the night in case she didn’t find Diego and get her money. The important thing was to find a snug little place out of the wind that hadn’t already been claimed by somebody else.

She went to the oldest part of the cemetery, the part she liked best and the part where she was mostly likely to see a ghost if there were any about. The trees were sheltering; the gravestones were large and close together. She began piling up dry leaves to make herself a bed in a secure little spot between stones when she heard someone coming. She started to hide but it was too late; she had already been spotted.

“Hey, there, little chicken!” a man’s voice said.

Right away she recognized the voice as that of Julius Orange. He was tall and rather handsome but his face and hands were crusted with dirt all the time as if he never washed them and one of his eyes was permanently half-closed.

“I thought you were one of the guards,” she said breathlessly.

“No, but I could have been. Have you heard the news about the raid tonight?”

“Eulah Knickerbocker told me.”

“You’d better get out while you can.”

“No, I’m going to stay,” Vicki-Vicki said. “I’m cold and I’m sick and I don’t feel like walking all the way back to the city tonight.”

“It’s your funeral.”

“I don’t think the guards will come all the way over here. They’re afraid of ghosts.”

“You’re cold, aren’t you?”

“I have ice water in my veins.”

“I know a way to warm you up.”

“You got a bottle of whiskey?”

“No, I don’t mean that,” he said. “I was wondering if you’re open for business. I got four dollars.”

“You’d spend your four dollars on me?”

“And a lot more.”

“Save your money. Tonight I’m not worth four cents.”

“Well, if you change your mind…”

“Say, you haven’t seen Diego around anywhere, have you?” she asked.

“Not that I remember.”

“He owes me money.”

“You can have my four dollars and catch yourself a bus back to town.”

“Thanks. That’s awfully sweet, but I’m just going to bed down here for the night and see how things go.”

“It’s your funeral,” he said, and then he was gone.

It was fully dark now. She kicked at the leaves and shivered in the rising wind. She looked up at the sky anxiously, hoping to forestall any rain, but the sky wasn’t telling any tales. She burrowed into the leaves like an animal and gathered the leaves around her like a warm comforter.

The smell of the leaves was earthy and good, an uncorrupted smell, untouched by human filth. She was completely hidden from view, she believed, but she could still breathe and could still see up into the trees as far as the darkness would allow. This is not so bad, she thought. If only life could be like this always.

She felt the cold rising from the ground. She shivered and her teeth chattered but soon she felt warmer and went to sleep. She dreamed she was in a big bed in a warm room in a snug house and those who cared for her were within the call of her voice and there was nothing to be afraid of.

She jerked awake to the sound of men’s voices. They were far away but coming closer. There might have been as many as ten of them and they might have been at a drunken party for all the fun they seemed to be having.

She lay still and breathed deeply. There were so many leaves on the ground and she was sure they wouldn’t bother looking through all of them. They would just make a quick sweep and, finding no one, move on. She would laugh later at how close they had been but still missed her.

She was right. They did move on, but one of the men had detached himself from the others and was searching through the leaves between the gravestones. She heard his slow, decisive steps and then felt a rush of cold air on her face as he scraped the leaves away that were covering her.

“Come out of there!” a deep voice said.

She gave a little yelp and covered her face with her hands but knew there was no use resisting.

“Leave me alone!” she whimpered. “I didn’t do anything!”

“You’re not supposed to be here!”

“I’m leaving. Please don’t hit me with your stick!”

“Nobody’s going to hit you. Get up and talk to me.”

She stood up. The man, towering over her, shone his flashlight in her face. She couldn’t get a good look at him, but she knew from his voice and his bearing that his face, if she could see it, would be beautiful beyond believing.

“How did you know I was here?” she asked.

“Magic,” he said.

“Please don’t take me to jail.”

“It’s where you belong. Don’t you know you’re trespassing?”

“I’m going, I swear!”

“It’s dangerous for you to be here.”

“I know! I’ll leave right now.”

“People freeze to death out here all the time. Last winter we picked up thirty frozen dead bodies.”

“I was looking for someone, but he’s not here now so I’ll just go.”

“If I turn you over to the others, you’ll go to jail.”

“Please don’t do that!”

“I’ll let you go this time, but only one condition.”

“Anything!”

“Promise me you’ll get out and don’t come back. If I see you again, I’ll remember you and I’ll turn you in. You don’t want to end up in jail, do you?”

“No!”

“Go home. Don’t you have a home?”

“No.”

“Go to a shelter in town, then. There are people there who will help you.”

“I will. I promise.”

He handed her a small paper sack, which she took unquestioningly. Switching off his flashlight, he took off his coat and dropped it on the ground beside her. He gave her one last look and then he was gone.

“Wait a minute!” she said. “I was…”

She could still here his voice after he was gone. If I see you here again, I’ll remember you and you’ll go to jail.  

“Take me with you!” she called out, but he was already gone and couldn’t have heard.

She remembered the paper bag she held in her hand and opened it. Inside were a ham sandwich wrapped in paper and a little carton of milk.

She ate the sandwich and drank the milk as if tasting those things for the first time and when she was finished she vomited, bending over at the waist and leaning against a tree.

When she was finished, she wiped her mouth on her sleeve and then as she was turning away from the tree she remembered the coat lying on the ground and picked it up and put it on. It was much too big for her, going almost to her knees, and it still held the warmth of the man’s body and traces of his man smell.

She hugged her arms to her body and, like a princess in a fairy story, was transformed. A celestial light appeared above her head and shone down on her, entering her brain and settling around her heart. She heard the sweetest music she had ever known, coming from a faraway place. She trembled all over and fell to the ground in a kind of religious ecstasy, having looked, at last, upon the face of the one and only God.

Two hours later, by which time she could no longer remember she was supposed to hide herself, she was taken into custody by a second wave of guards making their way through the cemetery. Nobody hit her with a stick or beat her, but she was taken to jail and locked up.

She spent the night sitting up in a filthy, stinking cell with about two dozen other women. In the morning at seven o’clock, she was given an egg sandwich and a cup of coffee and released. When she stepped out onto the sidewalk, the sun blinded her and she didn’t know where she was or where she was supposed to go.

A sympathetic soul, someone who knew the kind of person she was, gave her a ride back to the cemetery. She wept when she found herself back in the familiar place. It was like going home.

It was a much warmer day than the day before. The sun shone and the breeze was refreshing instead of chilling. After the night in jail, she wanted only to sleep.

She went to what she thought was the most secluded part of the cemetery and found an ideal sleeping spot under some bushes. It was like a little cave or animal’s lair. The ground was dry, covered with soft needles, and there was just enough sunlight filtering through the leaves to create a soporific warmth.

Knowing she would not be disturbed, she slept comfortably throughout the day. When she awoke, it was just turning dark. She pulled herself out of the bushes, trying to remember the last thing that happened to her. Oh, yes, there was Diego. She would find him and get the money he owed her. She would get herself a roast beef sandwich, a bottle of wine and a room for the night, and it would be just like heaven.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Never Mix, Never Worry (I Was Dancing and I Was Ridiculous)

Never Mix, Never Worry (I Was Dancing and I Was Ridiculous) ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted a different version of this story previously.) 

They were out all night and didn’t get home until after dawn. Honey was sick from too much to drink and went right to bed. Nick slept on the couch in the living room, slept the morning away, and didn’t wake up until the middle of the afternoon. When he awoke, he had a terrible headache that he hadn’t been aware of while he slept. He wasn’t sure if his body was going to allow him to get up, but after a while he pulled himself to a standing position, head reeling, and went into the kitchen.

Honey was sitting at the table reading a book. She had a cup of tea beside her; she always said tea with lemon settled her stomach. When Nick came into the room, she didn’t look at him but concentrated on her book.

“Hello, Honey,” Nick said, going up behind her and affectionately putting his hands on her shoulders close to her neck. She flinched and leaned forward; he took his hands away as from a hot stove.

“What a night!” he said with a little laugh. “Whew! I feel like eating something but when I think about what I might eat I think I’m going to puke.”

She marked her place in the book, closed it, and laid it aside. “Want me to fix you scrambled eggs?” she asked.

Nick groaned. “I can’t stand the thought of eggs.” He went to the refrigerator and opened the door. “Don’t we have any bacon?”

“I haven’t been to the market yet. I was planning on going today but I don’t think I’m up to it.”

He poured himself a glass of orange juice and sat down at the table across from her. “Can somebody please tell me what happened last night?” he said.

“You haven’t asked me how I feel,” she said.

“How do you feel?”

“Lousy. I feel lousy.”

“Were you able to stop the vomiting?” he asked, pulling downward on his face with both hands as if trying to pull it into shape.

“Yes, a person can only vomit so much. I’ve stopped for now, but I don’t dare eat anything. I think it’s going to take several days for me to feel right again.”

“Do you want me to fix you some toast? Do we even have any bread?”

“No, if I eat anything, I’ll vomit again.”

“All right.”

“We need to talk about last night,” she said.

“Not now, Honey,” he said. “I don’t really feel like a serious discussion at the moment. And, really, I think it’s better if we don’t talk about last night at all. Don’t you agree?”

“Better for you, you mean,” she said.

“I’m going to take a shower,” he said, standing up. “If you feel better later, we’ll go out and get some chicken or something.”

“Maybe I need to talk now!” she said in an insistent voice that made him stop in his tracks.

“Talk about what, Honey?”

“I humiliated myself last night.”

“You didn’t! You didn’t do anything the rest of us didn’t do.”

“I was dancing and I was ridiculous.”

“We were all dancing. It was all in good fun.”

“Then why do I feel so humiliated today?”

“You’re tired and you’re overly sensitive.”

“Don’t talk down to me!”

“I don’t mean to…”

“I’m humiliated. I drank bourbon and scotch. Not together, but one after the other.”

“That isn’t anything to be humiliated about. We were all drinking. It was a drinking party. We’re all grownups. Grownups get to drink as much as they want. That’s what it means to be a grownup.”

“Yes, but you know my one steadfast rule: Never mix, never worry. Well, I mixed and I’m paying the price.”

“Honey, nobody’s perfect,” he said. “We all have little lapses.”

“Stop treating me as if I were a child!”

“Why don’t you go back to bed? You can stay there all day and I’ll wait on you. How will that be? If there’s anything you’d like to have to eat, I’ll go and buy it.”

“The faculty party was bad enough, but after that was over we couldn’t just go home and go to bed and quit while we were ahead the way any two normal people would. No, we had to go to an after-party party.”

“Yeah, I admit it was a mistake,” he said. “I wish we had never gone.”

“Then why did we?”

“She’s the daughter of the president of the college and he’s a senior professor in the English department.”

“The history department.”

“It never hurts to cozy up to the entrenched people. They’ve both been around a long time. They’re part of the landscape. She’s daughter of the president of the college, for Christ’s sake!”

“You’re thinking of your career, of course.”

“Well, one does what one can to get ahead.”

“Just once I wish you would give the same consideration to me that you give your career.”

“Honey, that’s absurd,” he said. “There’s no comparison.”

“Well, I’m glad you admit it!”

“That isn’t what I meant!”

“A night like last night causes me to question my entire existence.”

“What do you mean?”

“Are we going to spend our lives hobnobbing with disgusting people just so you can get ahead in your career?”

“No!”

“Because I’m telling you, Nick, I don’t want to live that way.”

“It was just one party.”

“You can find out a lot from one party.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“If those people, that George and his wife Martha, are representative of the life in this college, then I don’t want any part of it. The way they tear each other apart is indecent. And when they’re finished attacking each other they go after whoever happens to be present at the moment. Just being in their presence makes you feel degraded.”

“You’ve been reading too many books.”

“Did you know he called me ‘angel boobs’?”

He laughed. “Yeah, I think I heard that,” he said.

“And ‘monkey nipples’.”

“He really called you ‘monkey nipples’? I didn’t hear that. When did he call you that?”

“When you were doing your provocative dance with that horrible woman.”

“He was making a joke! You ought to be able to take a joke! You’re not a child!”

“How can you stand by and do nothing when a strange man calls your wife filthy names?”

She began to cry. He sat down next to her and put his arm around her shoulder. “You take things too seriously, Honey.”

“How would you like it if he called you those names?”

“I think I might have punched him in the nose!”

“But it’s all right when it’s me?”

“That’s not what I meant!”

“I can never face those two again,” she said. “I vomited all over their bathroom. It was as if they saw me without my clothes.”

“You were just being human, Honey. It happens to the best of us.”

“How can we live here and you teach here when I feel so uncomfortable?”

“It’s just something you’re going to have to get over.”

“I don’t think I can. I want you to start looking for another position right away. If not today, then tomorrow.”

“But, Honey, we just got here! Do you know how hard it was for me to get this job?”

“I don’t care! If you have as much regard for me as you do for your career, we’ll leave right away!”

“Honey, that’s so unreasonable! You can’t be serious!”

“I have never been more serious in my life.”

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “We’re here and we’re going to stay.” He picked her book up off the table and threw it hard against the far wall, not because he was so angry but because he wanted to make a point.

“I can always leave on my own,” she said. “I don’t necessarily need you.”

“Fine. Go home to your mother. Tell her what a mistake it was to marry me.”

“I want to know what happened between you and that woman, that Martha, while I was passed out.”

“Nothing happened! What do you mean?”

“I’m not as stupid as you obviously think I am. I heard them talking about it afterwards.”

“Heard who talking?”

“George and Martha. They thought I was still passed out, but I was just lying there, fully awake, with my eyes closed. I heard the words stud and houseboy. They were talking about you! Were you a stud or were you a houseboy?”

“I didn’t hear any such thing, so I don’t know what you mean.”

“How are you going to face them again?”

“I don’t think I’ll see them again until the next faculty party and that probably won’t be for several months. Everything that happened last night will be forgotten by then.”

“Well, I can tell you right now I’m not going to any more faculty parties.”

“What do I say when people ask me where my wife is? She’s too squeamish for university life? She throws up a lot and can’t stand to be teased a little bit?”

“I don’t care what you tell people. It’s your career, not mine.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m going away tonight.”

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know yet. I’ll think of something.”

She stood up from the table and went upstairs.

“I’m hungry,” he said to the empty chair where Honey had sat. “I’m going to see what I can find to eat.”

A little bit of humoring would bring Honey around. She would never leave him. She was too dependent on him. He’d finesse her, just the way he finessed everybody. He’d cajole her, buy her a new coat or a piece of jewelry and everything would be fine. She needed to get out more and meet more people. If she happened to meet a young fellow, a handsome athletic type, who wouldn’t mind romancing her, so much the better. Nick would encourage it. Casual infidelity was all part of the game. The sooner she realized it, the better off she’d be.

And as for Martha, she wasn’t half-bad. A little bit gone to seed, but obviously with a few good years left in her. If she really liked Nick—and he would give her every reason to like him—she could help him in ways he hadn’t yet imagined. Of all the pertinent wives he might plow to further his career, the daughter of the university president had to be the most pertinent. And what could he do for her? He could make her feel good, make her feel young again. Remind her, if she had been inclined to forget, what it’s like to be with a real man.

He started to make himself a sandwich but then stopped what he was doing and went to the phone and picked up the receiver. He looked over his shoulder to make sure Honey wasn’t in earshot and then he dialed Martha’s number, which he had committed to memory. He let it ring twelve times and was about to hang up when she answered.

“Hello,” she said.

“Martha?” he said.

“Yeah, who is this?”

“It’s Nick.”

“Nick? I don’t know any Nick.”

“Nick from last night?

“Oh, yeah! You woke me up, you bastard!”

“Well, I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you are! Tell that little slim-hipped wife of yours she vomited all over my downstairs bathroom last night. Nobody can stand to go in there today. I ought to make the little twit get her ass over here and get down on her hands and knees and clean it all up.”

“She’s not feeling very well today.”

“Got a hangover, huh?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, what can I do for you, lover boy? It’s Sunday, you know.”

“Is your husband at home?”

“No, he’s at school. Even on Sunday the old bastard goes to the old salt mines, just to get away from little old me.”

“I was wondering if we might get together today. You know, just the two of us.”

“My goodness! You are an eager beaver, aren’t you?”

“I had a really nice time last night.”

“So did I, lover boy. What did you say your name is again?”

“Nick. The stud. Remember.”

“Sure, baby, I remember! Who could forget?”

“So what time can I come over?”

“Make it about an hour.”

“Perfect!”

“And when you get here, you can clean up the vomit in the downstairs bathroom.”

“What about my wife?”

“You can drop her down a well as far as I’m concerned.”

After he hung up the phone, he had the distinct impression that Honey had been listening in on the upstairs extension. He was sure she took down every word in her secretarial shorthand. She would use it in a court of law during the divorce proceeding.

He crept to the bottom of the stairs and looked up. Not a sound came from Honey’s bedroom. He went halfway up the stairs and stopped, as if afraid to go the rest of the way.

“Honey!” he called. “I just remembered some work I have to get done today in my office at school! I’m going to be gone for a couple of hours. When I come home, I’ll bring you a cheeseburger and a milkshake. How does that sound? Bye-bye!

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Baby No Baby

Baby No Baby ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Little Thelma Kane, eleventh grader at Button Gwinnett High School, had been absent for two weeks. When she returned to school, it was with her mother, Nova Kane. The two of them presented themselves in the administrative office.

“I’m Nova Kane,” Little Thelma Kane’s mother said to Ima Chiclet, the receptionist. “I want to see the principal, Mr. Middledyke.”

“Do you have an appointment?” Ima Chiclet asked.

“No.”

“You have to have an appointment to see Principal Middledyke. He’s terribly busy.”

“Well, I don’t have one, so where does that leave us?”

“You don’t get in.”

“Look here, doll face,” Nova Kane said. “I’m in no mood. I had to take time off from my job to be here.”

“What is the nature of your business?”

“It only concerns Mr. Middledyke.”

Ima Chiclet sighed and stuck the tip of her tongue out between her ruby-red lips. “I don’t think Mr. Middledyke will see you without knowing the reason.”

“Just tell him it’s personal.”

“Name?”

“Nova Kane, mother of eleventh grader Little Thelma Kane.”

“I’ll see if he’s free.”

Ima Chiclet stood up, swiveled her hips across the floor, tapped on a door in the back wall, went through the door and closed it. In less than a minute she came back out.

“Mr. Middledyke says he will see you, but I have to check you for firearms before I let you in.”

“Check me for what?”

“I’ll need to look inside your purse.”

“Look inside my what?”

“Your purse!” Ima Chiclet said. “Please open your purse and let me take a look inside!”

Nova Kane reluctantly opened her purse. “If you find anything interesting in there, let me know.”

Ima Chiclet squinted into the depths of Nova Kane’s purse and then lifted her head and nodded.

“What about you?” she asked Little Thelma Kane.

“I don’t have a purse.”

“Are you hiding a gun in your coat?”

“Why would I be?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.”

“No, I’m not hiding a gun anywhere.”

“Hold your coat open please.”

“What?”

“Hold your coat open!”

Little Thelma Kane held her coat open. Ima Chiclet stood up and patted her down, inside her coat and out.

“Hey!” Little Thelma Kane said. “Not so rough!”

“You’re both clean,” Ima Chiclet said. “You may go right in.”

Mr. Middledyke was a small man sitting behind a large desk. He didn’t bother to smile or stand up as Little Thelma Kane and Nova Kane walked in. He knew they weren’t important.

“What can I do for you today?” he asked.

“Mr. Middledyke?” Nova Kane asked.

“Yes. Who might you be?”

“I’m Nova Kane, mother of eleventh grade Little Thelma Kane.”

“And who might you be?” Mr. Middledyke asked Little Thelma Kane. He pulled his thick-lensed glasses down so he could look at her over the top of them.

“She’s my daughter, eleventh grader Little Thelma Kane,” Nova Kane said.

“Can’t she answer for herself?” Mr. Middledyke asked.

“I’m eleventh grader Little Thelma Kane,” Little Thelma Kane said.

“Are you a student at this school?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Say ‘yes, sir’ when addressing me.”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s better,” Mr. Middledyke said. “What can I do for you today?”

“Little Thelma Kane wants to quit school,” Nova Kane said.

What?

Nova Kane leaned over the desk and said in a loud voice: “MY DAUGHTER, ELEVENTH GRADER LITTLE THELMA KANE, WANTS TO QUIT SCHOOL!”

“I need to hear it from her own lips,” he said.

“I WANT TO QUIT SCHOOL!” Little Thelma Kane shouted.

Oh, no, no, no!” he said. “We discourage anyone from dropping out of school! I need to know the reason for your contemplating such a move.”

He gestured to the two chairs in front of his desk and Nova Kane and Little Thelma Kane seated themselves in them.

“I’m getting married in a couple of weeks,” Little Thelma Kane said.

“That’s right,” Nova Kane said. “She’s getting married.”

“Married? At your age? You’re too young!”

“I’m sixteen,” Little Thelma Kane said.

“Just give me the paper to sign giving my permission for her to quit school and I’ll sign it,” Nova Kane said.

Mr. Middledyke looked from Little Thelma Kane to Nova Kane and back again, as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “It’s never a good idea to quit school,” he said. “If you quit school, you’ll always regret it. We’ll do whatever we can to make sure you stay in school.”

“You don’t understand,” Nova Kane said. “And how could you? I don’t understand it myself.”

“I’m going to have a baby in about seven months,” Little Thelma Kane said.

Oh, my, my, my!” Mr. Middledyke said in the voice of a fussy old woman. “You should never have let that happen! Is the boy a student at this school?”

“Boy?” Little Thelma Kane asked.

“The father of the baby!”

“He’s not a boy,” Nova Kane offered. “He’s thirty-two years old.”

“No, my boyfriend is out of school,” Little Thelma Kane said.

“He’s been married a couple times before and he’s got several kids already,” Nova Kane said.

“Three,” Little Thelma Kane said. “He has three children.”

Oh my! Mr. Middledyke said. “Do you know what you’re taking on?”

“The kids don’t live with him. They live with their mothers, but he pays plenty in child support.”

“And what does this man do for a living?”

“He’s a hair burner.”

“He’s a what?”

“She means he’s a hairdresser,” Nova Kane said.

“He does men and women,” Little Thelma Kane said.

“So this man you’re going to marry is twice your age and he works as a hairdresser?”

“That’s right.”

“Where does he live? Does he have a home?”

“Right now he lives in a mobile home.”

“She means a trailer,” Nova Kane said.

“Yeah, he lives in a trailer right now,” Little Thelma Kane said. “It’s all he can afford with all the child support he pays.”

“Do you really want to marry him?” Mr. Middledyke asked. “This…what’s his name?”

“His name is Lester Upjohn, but his professional name is Mr. Lance.”

“Do you really want to marry this Lester Upjohn?”

“Of course I do! I’m in love with him!”

“At age sixteen, are you sure you know what love is?”

“Of course I do!”

“She’s terribly in love,” Nova Kane said.

“And you encourage this?” he asked.

“Do I have a choice?” Nova Kane said. “Now that there’s a baby on the way, I want Little Thelma Kane to marry the baby’s father. I won’t have any bastard children in my family!”

“She doesn’t have to get married just because she’s going to have a baby,” Mr. Middledyke said.

“Of course she has to get married! Do you think I want people saying she’s a whore?”

“She could have the baby and put it up for adoption,” he said.

“Nobody in my family has ever given away a baby before,” Nova Kane said.

“What do you think about it?” he asked Little Thelma Kane.

“Can’t we just sign the paper and go?” Little Thelma Kane said.

“I’m just trying to get you to see there are other alternatives,” Mr. Middledyke said. “You can get married and still stay in school and have the baby. Other people have done it.”

“People would make fun of her,” Nova Kane said. “She’s already a freak as it is.”

“Not everybody thinks I’m a freak!”

“You can stay in school until right before your baby is born. Other girls have done it.”

“And then what?” Thelma Kane asked.

“When she’s over the ordeal of giving birth, she can come back to school and start afresh. She can make up the classes she missed or she can go to summer school. I just want her to know she doesn’t have to leave school just because she’s going to have a baby.”

“Can I strap the baby to my back and bring it to school with me?” Little Thelma Kane asked.

“Well, I don’t know…”

“Can I nurse it in class and get up from my seat and change its diaper when I need to?”

“Well, I think you’d have to get somebody to take care of it during the day when you’re in school.”

“And then, when I go home in the afternoon, will I be able to spend all the rest of my time taking care of it and listening to it scream all night?”

“That’s what it means to be a mother,” Mr. Middledyke said.

“I don’t think so!”

“What are you saying?” Nova Kane asked.

“I don’t want a baby!  I don’t want to get married! I don’t want to quit school! I don’t want to do anything! I only want to sign the paper and go home!”

“She’s overwrought,” Nova Kane said to Mr. Middledyke by way of explanation.

“A hormonal swing, I’d say,” Mr. Middledyke said.

“I don’t want to marry Lester. I thought I did but I don’t. I don’t love him. I don’t even like him.”

“What about the baby?” Nova Kane asked. “The baby needs a father. I don’t want an out-of-wedlock baby for a grandchild!”

Baby, baby, baby! I’m sick of everybody talking about the baby all the time, as if I don’t matter at all! Don’t you get it? There is no baby!”

What?” Nova Kane said. “You’ve been lying the whole time?”

“No, not the whole time. When I was sick, I thought I had a baby coming, but then the sickness went away and I started having my period again.”

“Why didn’t you tell me all this?” Nova Kane asked.

“Because I thought I really wanted to marry Lester. He said he loved me and he’d be good to me and the baby. We’d be a regular little family and we’d be happy.”

“You little liar!” Nova Kane said. “Wait till I get you home!”

Now, now!” Mr. Middledyke said. “There’s no need for any of that!”

“I thought it would be fun to not have to go to school and stay at home in Lester’s trailer all day waiting long for him to come home from the shop, smelling like hair chemicals and lady’s perfume. But then I realized that’s all my life would ever be for as long as I live, and I want more from life than that!”

“So Lester believes you have a baby on the way?”

“Yeah, I haven’t told him the truth yet. I thought I’d wait until after we’re married and tell him the baby was a false alarm.”

“You should never lie to a man about something as important as that,” Mr. Middledyke said.

I don’t know where she ever learned to be such a little liar,” Nova Kane said. “That’s not the way she was raised.”

“So, can we call the whole thing off?” Little Thelma Kane asked. “I don’t want to quit school, and I’m sorry I wasted your time.”

“I’m glad you’re not quitting school,” Mr. Middledyke said. “It always breaks my heart to see anybody quit school.”

“I think you really mean it,” Little Thelma Kane said.

“You’ve given me a splitting headache,” Nova Kane said. “I just want to go home and lie down and try to get this awful thing out of my mind.”

“I’d like to come back to school on Monday morning,” Little Thelma Kane said to Mr. Middledyke. “If that’s all right.”

“I think you’re making the right decision.”

That evening Little Thelma Kane had what would be her last date with Lester Upjohn, otherwise known as Mr. Lance. She told him the truth about the baby. In his relief that he wasn’t about to become a father again, he became overly affectionate, but Little Thelma Kane was having none of it. She had become revirginized, and a virgin she would remain, at least until she had her high school diploma.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

A Bee’s Life

A Bee’s Life ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Queen Lucretia XXV, the Queen of all the Bees, came into the hive dragging her enormous egg sac, a cigarette dangling from her lips.

“Where the hell is everybody?” she said with a sneer. When she spoke, her ill-fitting dentures made a whistling sound, sending a chill down the spine of all the worker bees. Her harlequin glasses were crooked from when she sat on them on the bed with her full weight. If anybody felt like laughing, they didn’t.

When she saw one of the worker bees—her own offspring—working a crossword puzzle, she bit his head off and ate it without a moment’s hesitation. Before she went into her office and slammed the door, she turned to the room at large and said, “Now let that be a lesson to everybody!

“My goodness, she certainly is in a foul mood today!” Wallace said to Marge, the worker bee closest to him.

“She always gets that way right before she lays her eggs.”

“I’m not scared of her,” Vivian said. “She’s full of turkey doodle. Somebody’s going to drive a stake through her heart one of these days, and a lot of bees are going to be very happy.”

“And I suppose you’ll be the one driving the stake,” Wallace said.

“I’ve imagined it many times.”

“And then who will be our queen?” Carpathia asked.

“I’d make a better queen than her any day!” Vivian said. She stood up and sashayed up and down the aisle, trying her best to be queen-like. “My first official act would be to have her thrown out of the hive!”

“Be realistic,” Wallace said. “She’d raise an army and come back and re-take the hive.”

“That’s right,” Carpathia said. “Just ejecting her from the hive wouldn’t do any good. You’d also have to kill her.”

“I can’t do it alone,” Vivian said. “I’m going to need some help.”

“We’ll all help, Carpathia said.

“If she ever tries to eat my head,” Sherwood said tearfully. “I’m not going to just stand there like a statue and let her do it. I’ll put up a fight.”

Sherwood was still a little shaken over seeing the queen eat a worker bee’s head. He knew it happened all the time but had never seen it before.

“Oh, and just what do you think you’re going to do about it?” Wallace asked, turning around and facing Sherwood. “You know you’re powerless against the queen.”

“I’ll punch her in her egg sac and then when she doubles over I’ll stick a knife in her eye. When she’s howling in pain, I’ll leave the hive. I’ll fly so far away nobody will ever find me. I’ll fly to Tanzania.”

“You know that would never work,” Wallace said. “The drones would catch you, no matter where you are, and bring you back. She’d eat your head anyway and she wouldn’t do it quick either. It wouldn’t be pretty.”

“He’s right,” Carpathia said. “The queen always wins. The rest of us are puny nothings compared to her.”

“Be careful what you say,” Wallace whispered to the others. “I think Georgie is listening.”

They all turned and looked at Georgie. He seemed to be engrossed in his work but they knew he was listening to every word and would repeat it all to the queen the first chance he got. He was her pet worker bee. There were even rumors that she took him to bed with her sometimes.

“I say we kill him, too,” Sherwood said. “If we kill her, we’ll have to kill others.”

“We’re bees!” Wallace said. “Bees don’t kill other bees!”

“They do when they have to,” Sherwood said.

“Oh, he’s not going to kill anybody,” Vivian said. “He wouldn’t have the nerve to kill a maggot!”

“You think so, do you?” Sherwood said. “Maybe I’ll surprise you one day. Maybe this will be the day.”

The door to the queen’s office opened; she stepped out and stood at the front of the room, hands on hips. Everybody suddenly became very busy.

“There seems to be a lot of non-work going on here!” she screamed. “You jerk-offs need to realize I’m not blind and I’m not deaf. Just because I’m not in the room doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on!”

All the bees kept their eyes on their work and pretended the queen wasn’t yelling at them. Georgie was the only one who looked at her, and that was with adoration.

“Georgie!” the queen said, bringing him out of his reverie. “I want to see you in my office! Right now!”

“Yes, your majesty,” Georgie said.

He stood up, almost falling over his own wings, and ran into the queen’s office and slammed the door.

“He has always been such a toady!” Wallace said.

“She needs him to wipe her ass and she knows he’s the only one that will do it without complaining,” Sherwood said.

“Well, I’m relieved he’s out of the room,” Carpathia said. “I think I’m going to take a break and go to the little girls’ room. Want to come along, Vivian?”

“No thanks,” Vivian said. “My boyfriend’s going to call. I don’t want to be out of the room when the call comes through.”

A few minutes later Carpathia had returned from the little girls’ room and was freshening her makeup at her desk. Vivian was blatting into the phone to her boyfriend about where they were going to have dinner. Wallace was balancing his checkbook, trying to figure out exactly where he had made his latest mistake. Sherwood had taken off his shoe and sock and was picking at a scab on his foot while he whistled a happy tune. Suddenly the door to the queen’s office opened with a suck of air, and once again she was upon the worker bees like a Kansas cyclone.

“You should see yourselves!” she bellowed. “You all look like you think you’re vacationing on the Riviera. Well, I’m got a news flash for you! You’re not vacationing—but you are all really close to being on permanent vacation, if you get my drift!”

“Call you later!” Vivian said into the phone and hung up, hoping the queen hadn’t noticed she was on a personal call.

“Is there something we can do for you, Your Majesty?” Carpathia asked sweetly.

“I want all you lazy slugs to get your worthless asses into my office right now! And that means this minute! Pronto! Post-haste! Chop, chop!

The worker bees filed into the queen’s office with a sense of foreboding. They knew something unusual had occurred. Wallace had a lump of dread in his stomach. Carpathia had gone pale and her lipstick was smeared because the queen startled her when she was putting it on.

When they were all seated around the table, the queen closed the door loudly and regarded everybody with disgust.

“Is anything wrong, Your Majesty?” Wallace asked with a nervous smile.

“Wrong? I’ll say there’s something wrong! I’ve just been going over the figures from the last month. Honey production is down twenty-five percent! This is unacceptable! I feel like firing the whole lot of you!”

“Then who would make the honey?” Sherwood asked.

“I’ve just been discussing this problem with my lieutenant, Georgie. He suggests we work longer hours with fewer days off until honey production is what it should be.”

They all looked turned their heads and looked at Georgie. He was smirking with superiority. Wallace, remembering the remark he had made earlier about bees not killing other bees, wanted to kill him.

“Now, after today I’m going to be on maternity leave,” the queen said, “for I don’t know how long. Georgie will be in command while I’m gone. He will be my eyes and ears. He has assured me he knows how to increase honey production, so I’m going to turn everything over to him. We’ll see what stuff he’s made of. If production hasn’t increased by the time I get back, there’ll be some heads eaten, of that you can be sure!”

After the meeting, the calm after the storm, the worker bees were silent and worked very diligently. Georgie was working on a new work schedule whereby days-off and vacations were to be canceled. All worker bees were going to have to come in an hour earlier in the morning and stay an hour later in the evening until honey production was up.

When the queen left for the day, the worker bees still had hours to go before their day was over. They were tired and didn’t know if they were going to be able to keep up the pace, but they knew that Georgie was watching them and would report everything to the queen, so they at least tried to give the appearance of being productive.

“Killing the queen never seemed like a better idea,” Vivian whispered to Sherwood when Georgie had stepped out for a moment.

“You can’t kill the queen,” Wallace said. “It just isn’t done.”

“Wouldn’t you kill her if you had the chance?”

“You have to be realistic. Even if we could get rid of her, we might get stuck with a queen ten times worse. I know it’s hard to imagine anybody being worse than her, but, believe me, it’s a real possibility.”

“I don’t think we should even be talking about it,” Carpathia said. “The walls have ears, you know, even with Georgie out of the room.”

“Maybe there’s another way,” Sherwood said.

“What do you mean?” Wallace asked.

“I’m going to keep wishing for her to die, praying for her to die. She deserves to die. If there’s any justice in the world, she will die. I’ve willed bees dead before!”

“Just a coincidence,” Wallace said. “They would have died anyway.”

Die, queen! Die, queen! Die, queen! Die, queen! Die, queen!” he chanted.

“I don’t think it’ll work,” Carpathia said.

“I can certainly try,” Sherwood said. “Would anybody like to place a bet?”

Georgie took over the queen’s office, making it his own during her absence, but he kept the door open at all times so he could keep an eye on the worker bees. He was going to enjoy being boss and he hoped the queen might have some complications with laying her eggs so she’d take a much longer-than-expected maternity leave.

The afternoon progressed slowly. While the worker bees gave the impression of being immersed in their work, they all had their minds on other things. Wallace was trying to keep from watching the clock; it was only two minutes later than the last time he looked. Vivian was considering how familiar she was going to let her boyfriend, Alphonse, get on their date that night. Carpathia was thinking about her children at home by themselves; she longed to get home and make sure they were all right. Sherwood was thinking about the movies he had seen in the last few months and was arranging in his head a list of the ones he liked best.

Once, when Wallace raised his head from his work and looked at the ceiling to relieve his stiff neck, he saw two drones, looking very business-like, go into the queen’s office and close the door. In a little while, everybody in the hive heard Georgie wailing, as if in great pain.

“What the hell is going on?” Vivian asked.

“Maybe they’re arresting Georgie,” Sherwood said with a hopeful smile.

In a little while Georgie and the two drones came out of the queen’s office. The drones left and Georgie stood at the front of the room and solemnly raised his arms for quiet. When he had everybody’s attention, he began, with difficulty, to speak.

“It is my painful duty to inform all the worker bees: we have confirmed reports that the queen has died.”

There was an intake of breath as everybody absorbed the momentous news.

“It worked! It worked!” Sherwood said, but only loud enough so those closest to him could hear what he said.

“What happened to her?” Carpathia asked.

“Not long after she left the hive this afternoon,” Georgie said, “she stopped on a tree branch to rest and have a sup of water.” He stopped and lowered his head and dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief.

“Yes?” Wallace said. “Go on.”

“A crow came along from out of nowhere and, seeing her majesty sitting on the branch, swooped in and ate her in one gobble and then flew off. There were two worker bees there who saw the whole thing. They’re being questioned by the bee police this very minute.”

“Are you sure this is not a trick?” Vivian said.

“That crow must be dead or really sick by now,” Sherwood said.

“Out of respect for our beloved queen, “Georgie said, “I’m going to shut down the hive for the rest of the day. You are all free to go, but remember to be back here tomorrow morning bright and early. We’re all going to have to work extra hard now to honor her memory.”

After Georgie had left, bent over with his grief, all the worker bees who had heard Sherwood’s boast turned and looked at him.

“Do you have some kind of magical powers?” Carpathia asked him. She had started to cry in spite of herself.

“I don’t know what you would call it,” Sherwood said, “but I definitely have something.”

“We’d better all try to stay on Sherwood’s good side,” Vivian said.

“Hey, didn’t you bees hear what the man said?” Wallace said. “We are free to go home now! Tomorrow is another day.”

“I wonder what we’ll do now for a queen?” Carpathia said.

“They’ll probably bring one in from outside,” Sherwood said. “I think that’s what usually happens in these cases.”

“They don’t need to bring anybody in,” Vivian said. “I am fully positioned to assume the throne.”

“I think you have to be born to it,” Wallace said, trying to keep from laughing.

“I have a feeling Georgie is going to initiate a coup to make himself the new queen,” Carpathia said.

“Aren’t you forgetting one little detail?” Wallace asked. “Georgie is a male bee. A male bee can’t be queen.”

“Well, anything is possible.”

“Maybe Georgie really is a woman,” Sherwood said. “I’ve always had my suspicions about him.”

When they were all outside, ready to leave the hive together, Sherwood said, “Now that the queen is dead, I’m going to take a few days off from the hive. I want to find that crow and tell him what a hero he is to all of us, even if he doesn’t know it.”

“Make sure he doesn’t eat you, too,” Wallace said.

“Not a chance,” Sherwood said and buzzed off happily.

“The queen is dead!” Vivian said, waving her handkerchief in the air as she flew away. “Long live the queen!”

All the worker bees, as they left the hive that day, felt hopeful and happy. They were sure the good feeling was going to last forever.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Death and Dismemberment

Death and Dismemberment ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

Coralie Killabee, always a lady, killed her husband, Desmond Killabee, at the breakfast table on a Wednesday morning in June. She hit him in the head, hit him with a cast-iron skillet, hit him hard enough to crack his skull. He pitched forward face-down in his oatmeal and then sideways to the floor.

Seeing he wasn’t dead yet, but just making little wah-wah-wah sounds with his mouth, she held a pillow over his face, leaning on it with all her might, until she knew he was no longer breathing and his heart no longer pumping blood.

Here’s how it happened: Coralie put a plate of bacon on the breakfast table. Fabian jumped up on the table from out of nowhere the way cats do and tried to pick up a piece of the bacon in his mouth. Before Fabian had a good purchase on the bacon, Desmond smacked him with his knuckles, hard, on the side of the head. Indignant, his feelings hurt, Fabian bounded off the table and ran for cover. He had never been smacked before, by Desmond or anybody else, and didn’t know what to make of it.

If there was one thing Coralie would not tolerate in her house, it was mistreatment of any animal but especially of her beloved cats. Without even thinking about what she was doing, she picked up the cast-iron skillet and brought it and Desmond’s head together in a harmonious union.

With Desmond lying dead on the floor, the cats, sensing excitement, came from other parts of the house. First there was Button and then Chick and finally, Fabian, looking none the worse for having been smacked. They sniffed Desmond’s face and hair, danced around him and waved their tails. They had never liked Desmond anyway and were glad he was dead. Fabian seemed especially gleeful; he meowed loudly several times and scraped his paws on the floor in front of Desmond’s face as though cleaning up a malodorous accident. Coralie picked Fabian up, kissed him where Desmond had smacked him and examined him with her fingertips to make sure he wasn’t hurt.

Coralie didn’t want to leave Desmond’s body there on the kitchen floor—it seemed so untidy—so she quickly thought of a plan. She dragged him by the legs to the top of the cellar stairs, opened the door and let his body tumble down— what a wonderful thing is gravity!—the long, narrow flight of cellar stairs. Thump, thump, thump he went until he could go no farther.

In the cellar was an old chest-type freezer that had belonged to Desmond’s mother. It was only about half-full at the moment, with a two-inch coating of permafrost on its insides that made it like a tiny piece of the North Pole. Coralie hoisted Desmond to an upright position, almost standing, and let him topple headfirst into the freezer on top of the layers of frozen corn, lima beans, strawberries and cuts of meat. She arranged his arms and legs to her satisfaction and then let the lid fall with a satisfying whack.

She knew she wouldn’t be able to leave Desmond in the freezer forever, but for the time being she didn’t want to think about it. She wanted to enjoy the rare experience of having the house to herself and her cats for a while. It was like a vacation not to have to cook Desmond’s meals, remind him to take his medicine, listen to him snore, clean up after him, and listen to his complaints.

To celebrate her freedom, she went to the animal shelter and adopted three more kittens in need of a home to add to her little family. She named the new additions Felix, Tiny Tim, and Ann Darrow after the screaming girl in King Kong. With the three she already had, she now had six little ones to brighten her home, take liberties in the kitchen, wake her up before daylight, and help with the housework.

She went to the grocery store and bought luxuries that penny-pinching Desmond would never have allowed: desserts, exotic fruits and vegetables from foreign lands, fillet mignons, lobster, caviar, champagne, wine, chocolate-covered nuts, and the best and most expensive cat foods from the pet aisle.

No matter what she was doing, though, the thought of Desmond lingered in her head. The longer she left him in the freezer, the more she ran the risk of being found out. A dead man in her freezer was something for which she would not be able to offer a reasonable explanation.

After Desmond had been in the freezer for a few days, Coralie remembered an old meat saw that hung in the recesses of the cellar behind the furnace. It had been there so long she didn’t remember how it came to be there or who it belonged to. She never had any reason before to give it any thought.

Armed with a flashlight and a broom to brush away cobwebs, she retrieved the meat saw from its decades-long resting place and took it upstairs to get a better look. It was slightly rusted but not as bad as it could have been. She cleaned it, sanded the rust spots, and wiped it down with an oily rag. When she was finished, it looked serviceable and more than adequate for the job.

So, if she applied the meat saw to Desmond’s body, what would she then do with the pieces? She couldn’t exactly flush them down the toilet or put them down the garbage disposal like leftovers from dinner. She couldn’t burn them or hide them or bury them. She had to be careful—she didn’t relish the thought of spending the rest of her days in women’s prison.

An idea came to her in the night. Why couldn’t she cut off a little piece of Desmond’s body every week and conceal it inside her weekly bag of trash? In no time at all, all the pieces would have been loaded onto the trash truck and taken away to the land where the bong tree grows and nobody would ever suspect a thing.

Before she began dismantling Desmond’s body with the meat saw, she thought about what she would say when people began asking nosy questions about where he might be and what he might be doing.

She typed up a letter on Desmond’s typewriter, explaining, in Desmond’s own voice (if he still had a voice), how he had been engaged in an illicit love affair with a foreign woman for two years and was going to go live with her in her own country. He would learn to speak her language and sever all ties with his past life and the country of his birth. “Don’t try to find me,” (s)he wrote, “because it will be useless.”

She signed Desmond’s name to the typed letter with a ballpoint pen in a close approximation of his handwriting, folded it and put it in an envelope. She would have it ready when she needed it.

With all six cats at her feet, she began the distasteful job of removing Desmond from her life forever by first cutting off his left hand. She was surprised at how easy it was to cut through the frozen arm with the hefty meat saw. All the blood in his body was frozen, so there was virtually no mess.

She wrapped the hand in newspaper, before it had a chance to thaw, and then wrapped the newspaper-wrapped hand in several layers of plastic and carefully concealed it inside her weekly trash. She put the large black trash bag (containing Desmond’s hand and a week’s worth of trash) in the metal trash container outside at the curb in front of the house for the trash truck to collect.

In weeks to follow, she disposed of the right hand, the left foot and the right foot. This was followed by the legs (each one in three sections), until both legs were sheared off at the groin. Then came the arms, which were less meaty and easier to cut through than the legs. When Desmond was headless and armless, she cut off the head.

The head was heavier than she ever would have thought. She let it fall to the floor; it was ice-encrusted and solid as a cannonball. Crouching on her knees, she cut the head into four neat sections the same way she would have quartered a watermelon. It took four weeks to dispose of the head, a quarter of a head at a time.

The thick part of the body, where the stomach, intestines and other organs were, was more problematic. She wasn’t able to cut all the way through this part of the body with the saw, so she cut off small chunks of three or four pounds each. If anybody happened to see these chunks in her trash, they wouldn’t know what they were seeing

So, in this way, she disposed of Desmond in his entirety in about three months. The task was completed on the first day of autumn. She celebrated the event by burning all of Desmond’s old books and papers, donating his clothes to charity, and buying new furniture for the living room.

A few weeks later, toward the end of October, a man came to the house looking for Desmond. Coralie opened the door a few inches and as soon as she saw the man’s face she knew she was in for some trouble.

“I’m looking for Desmond Killabee,” he said, smiling.

“He’s not here.”

“Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“Never.”

“Why not?”

“Look,” she said. “I don’t have time for this. I have an appointment with my hairdresser in less than an hour. Desmond is gone. I don’t know where he is or how you can reach him. Sorry.”

“Do you think I could come in and we could have a little talk?”

“No. I’m very busy.”

She started to close the door; the man blocked it with his arm.

“I won’t take up more than a few minutes of your time, I promise.”

She reluctantly allowed him into the living room, where he took a seat on the couch.

“What is this about?” she asked.

“I’m Desmond’s brother, Moe Killabee. ”

“Your name is Moe?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Desmond never told me he had a brother.”

“No, he wouldn’t. Say, do you think I could have a drink of water? I just walked six blocks from the bus depot and I’m awful thirsty.”

She went into the kitchen and filled a glass with water and took in back into the living room and handed it to him.

“That’s awfully kind of you,” he said.

He drank the water down, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and handed her the empty glass.

“I’m sorry I can’t help you,” she said, “but if you’ll excuse me now…”

“I road all night on the bus from Memphis to get here,” he said. “The bus kind of wears my ass out. Do you think it’d be all right if I took a little nap?”

“What? No! I need for you to leave now. As I said, I’m very busy. If you’re looking for Desmond, he isn’t here and I don’t know when he’ll be back.”

He put both arms on the back of the couch and looked her up and down. “So you’re the little wife?” he said.

“I’m Desmond’s wife, yes.”

“When was the last time you saw Desmond?”

“He left in June. I haven’t seen him since.”

“Why do I have the feeling you’re not telling the truth?”

“Now, look!” she said. “I don’t have to convince you of anything! I think you’d better get out of my house before I call the police!”

“The police might be a lot more interested to hear what I have to tell them.”

“Who are you anyway?”

“I think you know perfectly well where Desmond is.”

“I can show you a letter that he wrote before he left. It should explain everything.”

“All right, then. Let me see it.”

She went to the desk and took the letter out of the drawer. When she handed it to him, she tried to conceal that her hands were shaking.

He read the letter with a smile. When he finished, he refolded it and returned it to the envelope.

“That letter doesn’t sound like Desmond at all. Where would he meet a foreign woman to fall in love with?”

“You’ll have to ask him that question.”

“I think you wrote that letter.”

“Desmond signed his name.”

“I think you signed Desmond’s name.”

“Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.”

“I’ll give you about ten seconds to get out of my house or I’m calling the police.”

“You won’t call the police.”

“And why not?”

“Because I won’t let you.”

“Who are you anyway and what is it you want from me?”

“We might start with some money. Let’s say ten thousand dollars?”

“Why would I give you money?”

“I don’t think you have any other choice.”

“That’s blackmail.”

“Oh, my! That’s such an ugly word, isn’t it? We’re family. I would never blackmail you. You’re my sister-in-law.”

“I don’t believe for one second that you’re Desmond’s brother. In fifteen years of marriage he never mentioned your name.”

“Now, isn’t that odd?”

“He’s always told me he didn’t have any family.”

“He isn’t much of a family man, is he? Or should I say was? He’s really rather an odd duck, isn’t he? Or he was.”

She sat down in the chair across from the couch to give herself a chance to think.

“You said your home is in Memphis?”

“No, I said Memphis is where I came from. I don’t have a home. Now that I’m here, I’m thinking about making this my home.”

“Why would you do that?”

“To be near my dear brother, my only living relative, and his lovely wife.”

“If you think you’re going to stay here, in this house, you are very sadly mistaken.”

He laughed and gave her another searching look. “You’re a fine-looking woman,” he said. “You must get pretty lonely at night with nobody around. I think you could get to like me a little if you’d only give yourself a chance.”

“I already loathe you and I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Haw-haw-haw! I remind you a little too much of Desmond, is that it?”

“I have some people coming over for dinner. I think you should leave now. I can give you money for cab fare or for a bus ticket back to Memphis or wherever you want to go.”

“This is where I want to be, sweetie,” he said. “Right here. I’ve traveled a long way. A long , weary road. Now that I’m here, I’m not going anywhere.”

“I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you leave right now.”

“Oh, come on, now! Don’t you think we can do better than that?”

“You’re an extortionist! I don’t believe for one second you’re Desmond’s brother.”

“Oh, gee! Don’t you think we’ve had enough of that kind of talk? I can be quite nice if you just give me a chance.”

“All right. You win. You can stay tonight in the guest room, but tomorrow you’re going to have to make other arrangements.”

“Maybe after you’ve had time to think about it you’ll change your mind about having me stay in the guest room. I can be awful good company, you know. Haw-haw-haw!”

“You must be hungry.”

“I’m so hungry I could eat the wolf at the door.”

“I can fix you something while you get yourself cleaned up. I don’t have much in the house, but I have bread and some ham and eggs in the refrigerator.”

“That sounds delightful.”

“The bathroom is right upstairs. There are towels and anything else you might need. If you need anything you don’t see, call down to me and I’ll get it for you.”

“You’re awfully kind.”

“Desmond will be glad to hear I was kind to his brother.”

“And you won’t call the police while I’m having a bath?”

“Oh, no! I don’t think there’s any reason for that now. We’ll talk more about it later.”

“See? I knew we could be friends if you’d just gave me a chance.”

She watched him go up the stairs, heard the bathroom door close and, a little while later, water running. She went into the kitchen and took some eggs out of the refrigerator and began making an omelet.

In fifteen minutes he came back down, decidedly cleaner than when he went up. He had wet his hair and slicked it back.

“Sorry I don’t have any of Desmond’s clothes you could put on,” she said. “He took everything with him when he left.”

“That’s quite all right,” he said. “All I need now is a toothbrush.”

“Sure, I have a spare one in the drawer upstairs.”

He sat down in Desmond’s chair at the table, lord of the manor. She poured him a cup of coffee and spooned hot food from the skillet onto the plate. He picked up the fork and began eating like a hungry wolf.

“This is so good!” he said.

“Eat up! There’s plenty more.”

She went to the sink and began filling it with hot water for washing the dishes. It was while he was holding the coffee cup to his mouth that she crept up behind him and cracked him in the back of the head, with all her might, with the same cast-iron skillet she had used on Desmond. He never knew what hit him. The cup flew out of his hand and broke against the wall. He pitched forward onto the table and then to the floor.

It was while he was lying on the floor, looking up at her, trying to focus his eyes, that she began kicking him.

“You lying scum!” she screamed. “What kind of a fool do you take me for? Who do you think you’re dealing with?”

She kicked him repeatedly in the head and upper body until she knew he was dead.

With the cautious delicacy that cats possess, Fabian, Button, Chick, Felix, Tiny Tim, and Ann Darrow came out of hiding and sniffed at the body of the stranger on the kitchen floor. After they had made a thorough inspection and satisfied their curiosity, they were ready for their dinner.

Coralie dragged the body to the top of the cellar stairs and let it tumble down on its own: thumpity-thumpity-thump-thump-thump. The cats stopped eating for a moment, looked over their shoulders toward the unexpected disturbance, and went right back to their food. They weren’t alarmed or even interested. They had seen dead bodies tumble down the stairs before.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Euthanasia Clinic

The Euthanasia Clinic ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The bus let me out at the bottom of a hill. I stood in the silence after the bus roared away and looked at the sign by the side of the road. An arrow on the sign pointed upward.

I began the ascent slowly, taking in the country view around me. It was spring and I couldn’t help noticing how blue the sky was, how vibrant the blues and yellows of the wildflowers. The tree-covered hills extended as far as the eye could see; there were birds everywhere, singing and zigzagging in the sky.

When I got to the place where I was going, I was out of breath and sweating. The young girl at the reception desk asked me if I needed assistance and when I said I didn’t she asked my name. She checked it against a list and then smiled and told me I could move on to admissions, down the hall on the left.

Another woman greeted me in admissions. After I told her my name, she asked me if I had any valuables or money. I gave her my watch and wallet containing two worthless dollars. “You can do whatever you want with them,” I said.

In exchange for my worthless valuables, she gave me a pair of loose-fitting pajamas with a matching robe and told me to go into a little room and put them on, putting all the clothes I was wearing into a basket on the table. When I came out, she led me down the hall and up a couple of flights of stairs, apologizing for the elevator being out of order. She took me through a door marked RECEIVING, told me somebody would be with me shortly, and left.

The room was nearly empty except for a couple of chairs and a low cabinet with a TV on top, tuned to the news from the city. I went to the window and looked out to keep from having to look at the TV, when a thin, tired-looking woman came in wearing a white coat like a doctor and I turned around to face her. The name tag on the white coat said her name was Margaret.

“I want to hear this!” she said, going to the TV and turning up the volume.

The pictures were of rioters turning over cars, hurling bricks through windows, setting fire to anything that would burn. Absolute chaos.

“I just came from there,” I said.

“I’m worried about my son,” she said. “He’s still in the city. I’ve tried calling him but the phones are dead.”

“I’m sure he’s safe,” I said.

“He was going to come here so I could administer the end drugs for him.”

“The buses are still running. He’ll probably be here any minute.”

“Any time someone comes in, I look to see if it’s him.”

“Have faith.”

“If I couldn’t administer the end drugs for him, I wanted to at least give him Father Time.”

“What’s Father Time?”

“The do-it-yourself end pill.”

“Why haven’t I ever heard of it?”

“There are only a few left. People in the city were killing each other for them up until a few days ago.”

“Ironic, isn’t it?” I said. “People killing each other for a pill that will kill them. ‘What fools these mortals be’.”

“The world has been off the rails for a long time now,” she said.

“I think we’re getting what we deserve,” I said.

“We?”

“The human race.”

She began crying. She took a handkerchief out of her pocket and covered her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “That wasn’t a very appropriate thing to say.”

“It’s all right,” she said, trying to smile. “Most of the time I’m resigned until I think about him being all alone in the city and I’m here.”

“Maybe he’s not alone. Maybe he’s with friends.”

“He isn’t able to get around very well. He has an artificial leg.”

“Oh.”

“The last time we spoke he promised he’d come here to me for the end. He’s all I have left now.”

“How old is he?”

“Twenty-one, but I still think of him as a child.”

“What’s his name?”

“Christopher.”

“Bearer of Christ,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s right. His father wanted him to have that name.”

“All my family died in the Final War,” I said. “So you can see I have no reason to want to go on.”

“A lot of other people share that sentiment.”

“Yes, I’ll have lots of company when I get to the other side.”

“I think we’d better get on with it,” she said. “Are we ready to proceed?”

More than ready.”

“I’m going to give you a shot to calm you down.”

“I’m already calm.”

“It’s just procedure. We do it for everybody.”

“Okay.”

“Then, after the shot I’ll take you upstairs and you’ll get into bed and get comfortable. Then I’ll hook you up to the machines and after a few minutes all your troubles will go flying out the window.”

“Will it hurt?”

“Only a feeling of euphoria, I promise.”

“Will I see the face of God?”

“If that’s what you want.”

“What about afterwards?”

“Afterwards?”

“My dead body?”

“You don’t need to worry about that.”

“I’m not worried. Just curious.”

“You’d be surprised at how many people ask that question,” she said. “We’re not supposed to say anything that will make you anxious in your final moments. Professional ethics.”

“The body isn’t important anyway,” I said. “When we die, it’s an empty shell that we cast off. What matters is the soul.”

“Each to his own beliefs,” she said.

“You don’t believe in the soul?”

“It doesn’t matter what I believe,” she said. “I’m here to help you.”

“When I was young, I was afraid of death.”

“You’re still young.”

“Now that I’m faced with it, I feel almost happy.”

“That’s the start of the euphoria.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette on you, would you?” I asked. “Before we get on with it?”

“No smoking in here.”

At that we both had a good laugh. She went to the cabinet and opened one of the drawers and took out a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches and handed them to me.

“If there was ever a time to relax the rules,” I said, “it’s now.”

I lit up and took a big puff and drew the smoke down into my lungs. “I was always afraid of smoking,” I said. “Afraid of what it would do to my body. That seems kind of silly now, doesn’t it?”

“We’re afraid of dying only when we think we never will.”

“It’s been good to talk to you,” I said. “I haven’t had a chance to have a real conversation with anybody for a long time.”

“I’m not much of a conversationalist,” she said. She took my cigarette and took a couple of puffs on it and crushed it out in the trash can. “Are you ready for the shot now?”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I was just thinking.”

“Time to stop thinking.”

“No, I don’t mean I was thinking about dying. The buses are still running, at least for today. I was thinking I could go back to the city and get your son and bring him back here.”

“Oh, no! I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

“You didn’t ask. I’m volunteering.”

“It’s too risky. I don’t think you’d make it back. I wouldn’t put you through that.”

“If I find him and if we aren’t able to get back out here to the clinic, I can take him a little gift from his mother.”

“Father Time?”

“Yes, and there’ll be one for me, too, I hope.”

“No, it’s too dangerous,” she said. “If people knew you were traveling with Father Time, they’d kill you to get it.”

“Nobody will know.”

“No, I don’t want you to…”

“Look, I’m going to die anyway. If not today, then tomorrow or the next day. I figure it doesn’t make any difference if I die here or in the city. This is my last chance to do a good thing. It might square me in heaven.”

“I wouldn’t want to be responsible for…”

“Then it’s settled?”

“Well…”

“I’ll bring Christopher back here if I can, if the buses are still running, but if I can’t he and I will die together. He won’t die alone.”

She started crying again, uncontrollably this time. Sobbing, she went out of the room and closed the door. She returned a few minutes later bearing a small envelope and my clothes I had put in the basket.

“Get dressed,” she said. “Put the envelope in your pocket. Father Time is in it, one for Christopher and one for you.”

“Got it,” I said.

“Here’s a small picture of him to give you an idea of what he looks like. It was taken when he was eighteen, but he hasn’t changed much since then. On the back I’ve written his address in the city.”

“Seems you’ve thought of everything.”

“Bring him back here if you can, but if you can’t you’ll know what to do. Tell him his mother is here, still alive, and thinking of him at the end.”

“Leave it to me.”

She turned away while I threw off the pajamas and got into my clothes. She gave me the pack of cigarettes and the matches, a bottle of water, and a couple of energy bars.

“Do what you can,” she said, patting me on the upper arm. “I’m not expecting any miracles.”

I went down the stairs and out the building without meeting anyone.

I jounced down the hill in half the time it took to go up. A few clouds had gathered in the sky and the air was cooler now, but the sun was still brightly shining.

I figured it was a waste of time to wait for the bus, which might be along but probably wouldn’t, so I began walking in the direction of the city. I wouldn’t think about how far it was but only about each step as I took it. If I laid down in a ditch along the road and died, I would have at least tried.

The world was beautiful, nature was thriving, and man was in his death throes. God’s million-year experiment with the human race was about to end. Soon the world would be given over entirely to other living creatures, as it had been for tens of millions of years before man came onto the scene. Maybe the human race would continue on other planets—there was all kinds of speculation on that subject—but for now, at least, humans on Earth were finished.

We had been told two days ago that everybody would be dead in a week, but when I got the city, I began to think it was happening sooner than expected. I saw few people and those I saw looked and acted like frightened animals. They were confused, looking for food or a place to hide out. It seemed I had nothing to fear from any of them; they didn’t approach me or even look at me.

The city was almost unrecognizable. Large sections of it had been burned and torn asunder in the rioting. Stores and businesses had been not only looted but ripped apart and burned. Bodies in various stages of decay lay everywhere. Cars had been smashed into each other and set on fire. A noxious stench mixed with thick smoked hung over everything and darkened the sun. It was a scene that I might have imagined out of hell.

I was tired from my long walk and found a place out of the way to sit down and rest. I was surprised I was still able to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. I took some small sips of the water I had and was glad I had it. Food was a distant memory; I hadn’t eaten in so long I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to eat again.

After I felt at least partially rested, I took the picture of Christopher out of my pocket and studied it so I would recognize him if I saw him and then I turned the picture over and memorized the address on the back. From what I remembered of that part of the city, the address was ten or twelve blocks from where I was. It was going to be another long walk and I had no way of knowing if I would ever make it.

I walked for an hour or more and saw no signs of anything I knew. Buildings I had known or at least seen had been burned or lay in ruins. In places the streets were impassable and I found myself climbing over mountains of bricks and debris. I saw an occasional foot or arm sticking out, but I just looked away and went on. The few people I met moved slowly and dream-like; they seemed to pose no threat but if they challenged me I was more than ready to defend myself to the death.

Finally—quite by accident, it seemed—I found the street I was looking for and once I found the street, I found the number easily enough. It was a four-story brick apartment building. Some of the windows had been broken out and the side of the building was caved in as if it had been rammed by a tank, but the building still stood while many others were only piles of rubble.

The door to the building was blown off its hinges so I went inside as if I belonged there, quickly before somebody saw me and tried to stop me. I found my way down a dark, filthy hallway to a flight of stairs and I began going up them to the fourth floor. I found the door with the number I was looking for, amazed that I had made it this far. I knocked loudly and put my ear to the door.

I heard a faint rustle coming from inside and I knew somebody had heard my knock.

“Is anybody there?” I said.

“Go away,” came the voice from inside. “I have a gun and I don’t mind blowing your fucking head off.”

“Christopher?” I said.

“Who is it?”

“My name doesn’t mean anything to you. I just spoke with your mother.”

“My mother’s dead.”

“No, she’s not. I just saw her.”

“You just want to rob and torture me.”

“No, I don’t. Can you open the door? I have something I want to show you.”

He opened the door as far as the chain would allow and I held up the picture of him his mother had given me with his address written on the back.

“Where did you get that?” he asked.

“I just told you. I saw your mother at the clinic where she works.”

“I don’t believe you. It’s a trick.”

“Why would I want to trick you?”

“Why does anybody do anything?” he said.

“Could you open the door all the way and let me come in?”

“Do you have a gun or a knife?”

“No. No weapons of any kind.”

“I don’t mind killing you if I have to,” he said.

“So you said.”

He unfastened the chain and opened the door and I went inside. He was indeed the same person as the one in the picture. He had a crowbar in his hand instead of a gun. As soon as he take one step, I saw how debilitated he was with his artificial leg.

“I walked from the clinic,” I said. “I’ve been walking for hours to try to find you.”

“Why would you want to find me?”

“Your mother was worried about you. She thought you were coming to the clinic so she could give you the end drugs, but you never showed up.”

“Somebody on the street told me the clinic had been raided and everybody killed.”

“That’s not true. I just came from there.”

He insisted I turn out my pockets so he could see what was in them. When he decided I posed no threat, he put down the crowbar and relaxed.

“Are you a friend of my mother’s?”

“I never met her until today.”

“Why would you want to help us?”

“Why does anybody do anything?”

I sat down heavily in the nearest chair without being asked. I wasn’t able to stand on my feet any longer or take another step. He got me a cup of water and I took the envelope out of my pocket and tore it open and held the two of Father Time in my palm and then laid them side by side on the table where he could see them.

“What is that?” he asked.

“The way out of hell,” I said.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Every Word on Every Page

Every Word on Every Page ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

His name was Mr. Crimm. He was a man in his fifties with the bulk of a gorilla. There was something about him not quite savory; he was missing a finger on his right hand and he had bristly hairs growing out of his nostrils. He looked more like an auto mechanic than a book dealer. He knocked savagely on the door. Mrs. Fairleigh went to let him in, disliking him at once.

“You got some books?” he said, baring his yellow monkey teeth.

“You’re the book expert?” she asked.

“That’s what they tell me,” he said. “You called for somebody to come and take a look at some books?”

She opened the door for him. She took two steps ahead of him and then stopped and turned to look at him. “My late husband was the book collector. He loved books, mostly novels and books on history. The Renaissance and Magellan and that sort of thing.”

“Uh-huh,” Mr. Crimm said, obviously not impressed.

“I don’t know much about them myself. The books, I mean.”

“Are you going to show me the books,” Mr. Crimm said, “or are we going to stand here all day and gab?”

She took him up the stairs, along the hallway to the last door on the left. She opened the door and stepped inside, Mr. Crimm following her.

“This is a bedroom, but all it has in it now is books,” Mrs. Fairleigh said.

Shelves from floor to ceiling were loaded with all manner of books, old books and newer books, every shape, size and color. Where the shelves were overflowing, books on their sides were laying on books standing upright. Books were stacked on the floor in front of the shelves, in corners and in every available space. Cardboard and wooden boxes full of books allowed only a narrow path through the room.

Mr. Crimm made a sound in his throat of disapproval, as if about to discharge a ball of phlegm.

“They’re not very well organized, I’m afraid,” Mrs. Fairleigh said. “Ever since my husband died, I thought I’d go through them and organize them in some way but I never seemed to find the time.”

Mr. Crimm selected a book at random from the shelf, opened it and turned a few pages. Putting the book back, he did the same thing with another one.

“Not worth much,” he said.

“What?”

“I said nobody wants books like these. They’re not worth anything.”

“You’ve hardly even looked at them.”

“I’ve been in business for a long time. I know what people want and what they don’t want.”

“It seems you’d look at each book individually and establish a price for each one.”

“I ain’t got time for that. That’s not the way I do business.”

“Well, I’m sorry to have wasted your time, but I don’t think…”

“I give you two hundred dollars for the lot.”

“What?”

“I said I give you two hundred dollars for every book in this room. That’s very generous. I might even buy the shelves if the price is right.”

“They’re worth a lot more than that, I’m sure!” Mrs. Fairleigh said.

“You just said you don’t know nothing about no books,” Mr. Crimm said. “Believe me, this is a lot of junk and it’s not worth anything. A thing is only worth as much as somebody is willing to pay for it. This is a lot of crap, I can tell, and I’m offering you two hundred dollars to take the whole mess off your hands this very day.”

“No, I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to call somebody else.”

Mr. Crimm gave an exasperated sigh and leaned his monkey-like paw against the door frame. “You can call any book seller in the city and they’ll all say the same thing. Do you want me to give you a little time to think about it? That’s what people always say.”

“No, I’ve already made up my mind. I’m not going to sell to you.”

“Do you mean to say you got me all the way out here for nothing?” Mr. Crimm asked.

“I’ll give you fifty dollars for your time and effort and that’s the best I can do.”

Mr. Crimm looked at her as if she was a very difficult case. “I give you two hundred fifty dollars,” he said. “That’s the best offer you’ll get anywhere.”

“No, that’s not enough for this many books. There are thousands of books in this room. I’m sure they’re worth more than that.”

“You won’t do no better, believe me.”

“I’m sorry your time had been wasted. I’ll write you a check for fifty dollars and we’ll call it even.”

“Three hundred! That is my last and final offer!”

“No! Don’t you understand English? I’m not going to sell to you!”

“That’s no way to treat a businessman, you know!” Mr. Crimm said. “You get me all the way out here in good faith and then you back out of the deal? I don’t think I’m going to let you treat me in this way! There’s such a thing as ethics in business, you know! Don’t you have no ethics?”

“I’m not going to stand here and argue with you!” Mrs. Fairleigh said. “I want you out of my house this very minute!”

“I think we can work something out.”

“There’s nothing to work out!”

“You have a very bad attitude, you know that?” Mr. Crimm said. “You can’t treat people like dirt and expect them to take it lying down!”

“Is there any way I can make it any clearer? I want you out of my house! Right now!”

“I’m not leaving until we’ve concluded the transaction.”

“The transaction is concluded!”

“I’ll make it four hundred dollars but only if you throw in the shelves. That is a very generous offer and I know I’ll never make a cent of it back.”

“That’s not enough for this many books. Some of these books might be worth four hundred dollars on their own!”

“My driver is outside in the truck. His name is Paolo. I’ll get him to come in and help me and we’ll have this room emptied out in no time at all.”

“I don’t believe you’re an expert on books, at all,” Mrs. Fairleigh said. “I think you’re a junk dealer.”

“You don’t have to insult me on top of everything else!” Mr. Crimm said.

“A person who knows books would take the time to look at each book separately and assess its value. I’m sure some of these books are rare. Some of them alone may be worth thousands of dollars!”

“I’ve already told you what they’re worth, and they ain’t worth diddly squat!”

“You think I’m only a stupid woman. You’re trying to cheat me, but I’m not going to let you do it! I knew the second I saw you that you didn’t know a thing about books.”

“I know as much as anybody else and I know these books ain’t worth shit!”

“Well, they’re my books and I’m going to keep them!”

Mr. Crimm was no longer listening. He had been writing out a check. He tore it from his book and handed it to her.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“It’s your check for four hundred dollars for the books! Did you think I wouldn’t pay you what I said?”

She looked at the check and tried to give it back. “I don’t want it!” she said.

When he wouldn’t take the check from her, she tore it up in little pieces and threw them in his face.

“I see you are a very unstable woman,” he said.

“Get out of my house now or I’ll call the police!”

Ignoring her, Mr. Crimm called his driver, Paolo, on his two-way radio and instructed him to come inside. Paolo was no more than a boy, but in less than two minutes he and Mr. Crimm were hefting boxes over their shoulders, carrying them down the stairs and out the door.

“I’d advise you to stop with that right now!” Mrs. Fairleigh said, but she knew they were ignoring her. She had no other choice but to stand by and watch them.

She was going to call the police but she believed she needed more immediate help than they could offer. She went to her bedroom and got her husband’s loaded gun out of the dresser drawer. Holding the gun to her side, she went outside.

Mr. Crimm was loading boxes into the dark interior of the nearly empty truck and didn’t see Mrs. Fairleigh standing at the curb looking in at him. Paolo was still inside the house.

“Unload those boxes from your truck and set them here on the sidewalk!” Mrs. Fairleigh commanded.

Mr. Crimm was pointedly ignoring her. His face was inscrutable. “I’ll mail you a check for four hundred dollars,” he said, “since you tore the other one up.”

She pointed the gun at him. He didn’t bother to look at her until he heard the gun cock.

He laughed. “You going to shoot me?” he said.

“You think I won’t?”

“You going to shoot me over a load of old books?”

“No, I’m going to shoot you because you’re robbing me.”

“Put the gun down and stop acting like a child,” he said.

She fired the gun one time above his head. The bullet hit the far wall of the truck and made a hole clean through to the outside.

Mr. Crimm threw his arms up in surprise. “You shoot me, you crazy bitch!” he said. “What’s the matter with you? Are you insane?”

“No, I wasn’t trying to shoot you that time, but next time I will.”

“Wait just a minute!” he said. “You don’t have to shoot again! We’ll talk about this thing!”

“There’s nothing to talk about. Unload those boxes and set them here on the sidewalk and then get into your truck and drive away and forget you were ever here.”

“You crazy woman!” he said.

“Unload the boxes! Now!”

“All right! All right! It just ain’t worth it!”

He set the boxes on the sidewalk as he was told and when he was finished he stood looking at Mrs. Fairleigh as he rubbed his hands together. “You going to shoot me now?” he asked.

“Get back up in the truck!” she said.

“What?”

“I said get back up into the truck!”

“Why?”

“You’ll see why.”

He did as he was told. About halfway to the back of the truck, he turned and looked down at her. He put his hands on his hips and smiled. If he had been afraid of her before, his fear had passed.

“I don’t like you,” she said. “I didn’t like you from the moment you first knocked on my door.”

“Let’s just say it’s mutual,” Mr. Crimm said.

She shot him in the thigh of his right leg. He grabbed the leg, looked at her in surprise, screamed and fell back, cursing her in a language she didn’t recognize. Still holding the gun in her right hand, she slammed the doors of the truck, effectively shutting Mr. Crimm off from the light and air and out of her life.

Paolo came out of the house carrying a carton of books under each arm. When she saw him, she smiled.

“I don’t know if you understand English,” she said, “because I haven’t heard you speak a syllable, but I want you to listen very carefully to what I’m about to say.”

He smiled, nodding to show he understood. He set the cartons down alongside the others on the sidewalk, took a cigarette from behind his ear and lit it.

“I don’t know what relation this man is to you,” Mrs. Fairleigh said, “but I hope for your sake he isn’t somebody important to you because I just shot him in the leg. You probably heard the gun fire. Take him to the nearest hospital. Tell them a stray bullet hit him in a violent neighborhood you were passing through. You didn’t see exactly where the bullet came from. If you don’t follow these instructions to the letter, I have another bullet for you, with your name on it, and I have to tell you I’m not a very good shot. If I aim for your leg, I might hit something more vital.”

Paolo shrugged and smiled again and tossed his cigarette into the street. He climbed into the driver’s seat and slammed the door. He started the truck, grinding the gears and, pulling away from the curb, rattled away down the block and disappeared from view.

While Mrs. Fairleigh was still standing on the sidewalk, her next-door neighbor Mrs. Bushmiller came out and stood beside her. She had a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth and her hair was pinned up in bobby pins, making her appear to be wearing a tight-fitting brown cap.

“What was that noise?” Mrs. Bushmiller asked.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Mrs. Fairleigh said.

“It sounded like a car backfiring.”

“That’s probably what it was, then, dear.”

“Why are these cartons sitting here on the curb?”

“They’re some books I had delivered. I need help carrying them in the house and up the stairs.”

“Don’t worry,” Mrs. Bushmiller said. “I’ll get my sixteen-year-old son, Trippy, to help you. All he does is lay around the house anyway.”

“I’d be glad to pay him.”

“You won’t pay him a cent. What are neighbors for?”

Mrs. Fairleigh stood and waited while Mrs. Bushmiller went to get Trippy. In no more than a minute, he came running out of the house, eager to help a neighbor lady with a lifting job. How kind people are, Mrs. Fairleigh thought, as Trippy leaned over to get a good grip on the first box and she stared intently at the elastic of his underwear.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp