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The Passionate Orphan

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The Passionate Orphan ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Miss Wagstaff belched quietly into her handkerchief; the Swiss steak she had for lunch didn’t quite agree with her. With the handkerchief over her mouth, she looked out over the thirty-two living souls that were in her care until five minutes to the hour. They were all fifteen years old and most of them she’d gladly strangle if she could. She didn’t understand children of that age and she was so old she couldn’t quite remember ever being that young.

Since it was Friday afternoon and everybody was waiting for the final bell that would unleash them on the world, this group of ninth graders was engaged in “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 Wagstaff 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 Wagstaff 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.

Wardell Freiholtz was an odd boy from an odd family. He was a quiet, aloof boy, dreamy in a way. He seemed to always be in a world of his own making. His clothes, though clean, were always too big for him and looked as if they had been handed down to him by an older person. He didn’t have a father; his mother worked as a prison matron to support herself and her three children, of which Wardell was the oldest.

Wardell was sitting in the row of chairs against the wall. Miss Wagstaff came upon him from behind, from the left, and her eyes fell upon the book he was reading, an oversized 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 and looked innocent.

“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,” Wardell 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?”

By now everybody in class was looking at Wardell, listening to every word.

“I’d rather not say,” Wardell said.

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

He shook his head and looked down.

“Who gave you this book?”

“I don’t remember.”

“You don’t know where you got it?”

“No.”

“Did you steal it?”

“No.”

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

“No. Nobody gave it to me.”

“A boy in high school didn’t give it to you?”

“No.”

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

“No.”

“Well, that’s what this book is. It’s pornography and if an older person gave it to you, a boy in high school, or a person out of school, that’s a crime. It’s called ‘contributing to the delinquency of a minor’. Do you know what I’m saying?”

“No.”

“We’re not getting anywhere, are we?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Well, we’ll go downstairs and have a little talk with Mr. Gribble. See if he can make any sense out of this.”

She put the class in charge of Maris Holland, a notorious snitch. The corners of her mouth twitching, she directed with her forefinger that Wardell Freiholtz was to stand up and proceed her out the door of the classroom and down the three flights of stairs to the principal’s office.

Principal Gribble was talking to his wife on the phone, so Miss Wagstaff and Wardell had to stand and wait for about five minutes until he was free. When at last they were ushered into the carpeted, wood-paneled office, Mr. Gribble took one look at Wardell and asked, “Has this boy been misbehaving in your classroom, Miss Wagstaff?”

“Well, you decide for yourself!” Miss Wagstaff said with satisfaction.

She handed the book to Mr. Gribble and he sat down at his desk and examined it, front and back.

“And just what is this?” he asked.

“Well, just take a look at the title and open the book and read a few sentences randomly and I think you’ll see right away what it is.”

The Passionate Orphan,” he read slowly, as if the words for difficult to him.

He opened the book and turned several pages, looking dumbfounded.

“It’s pornography!” Miss Wagstaff said helpfully.

“But it has no pictures!” he said.

“The pornography is in the words!”

“Oh, dear me!” he said. “Yes. Yes. Yes, I see what you mean. Where did you get this book, young man?”

“I don’t remember,” Wardell said.

“Did somebody give it to you?”

“No.”

“You can tell me the truth. Where did you get it? Did you buy it at a secondhand bookshop?”

“No.”

“Do you know what this book is about? Do you understand it?”

“Yes, I understand it.”

“Don’t you know that this is not an appropriate book to have at school where others might see it?”

“I didn’t think about it. I’ve been carrying it around with me all week and nobody noticed it until today.”

“Does your mother know you have this book in your possession?”

“I don’t think so. She never comes into my room except to clean.”

“I’m going to have to call her.”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

“It’s important for you to know that we don’t allow books like this in our school.”

“I didn’t know there was anything wrong with it.”

“Do you have any other books of this nature?”

“No.”

“If a book like this—pornography, I mean—should come into your hands again, throw it away, but, more importantly, don’t bring it with you to school.”

“Okay.”

“Okay what?”

“I won’t bring it to school.”

“I’ll let you off this time, but if you bring another book of this nature to school, you’re in for a three-day suspension. A three-day suspension can affect your scholastic standing for the entire school year. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“So, go to the school library and check out The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. It’s a good book but, more to the point, it’s an appropriate book.”

“Yes, sir.”

“It’s on the reading list,” Miss Wagstaff said.

“You may go now. First to the library to pick up The Old Man and the Sea and then back to class.”

Wardell Freiholtz stood up from the chair he had been sitting in and scratched his head. “Can I have my book back? Please?”

“I think I’ll keep it for now,” Mr. Gribble said. “I want to take a closer look.”

After Wardell left the office, Miss Wagstaff clucked her tongue at Mr. Gribble. “I’m afraid that’s not enough,” she said. “I think a more severe punishment was in order.”

“Well, he’s a fairly good student,” Mr. Gribble said. “I don’t want to be too hard on him. He’s never been in any kind of trouble before.”

“Too lenient,” she said.

“I think the matter has been settled to our satisfaction.”

She huffed her way back up the stairs to her classroom. She burst through the door to catch everybody unawares and was gratified to see that Wardell Freiholtz had The Old Man and the Sea propped up in front of him on his desk and appeared to be absorbed in it.

As for Mr. Gribble, he began reading The Passionate Orphan in the privacy of his study as soon as he got home. It stirred something in him that he thought was nearly dead. At bedtime, his mousey, middle-aged wife was surprised by his ardor.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

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Time Enough for Champagne

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Time Enough for Champagne ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The Saturday after Thanksgiving was a cold night in Boston but people were out celebrating anyway. Everybody was happy. Soldiers were on furlough, showing off their uniforms, flirting and dancing with the girls. Who would ever think the evening would turn out the way it did?

The tables were close together without much elbow room but nobody seemed to mind. A girl in a white evening gown with a big lipsticked smile and a camera passed among the tables and booths offering to take pictures. Only one dollar, please, payable in advance. Oh, well. What’s a dollar? You only live once.

Lorraine told Michael to order a bottle of champagne. The waiter brought it to the table in a bucket of ice, just like in the movies. He opened the bottle and filled the glasses, but when he started to fill Rosalie’s glass she smiled at him sadly and shook her head. “I’m only seventeen,” she said.

The picture girl stopped at the table and was going to take a picture of all three of them but Lorraine stopped her. “Just the two of us!” she said, moving closer to Michael and gripping his hand in hers and smiling her brightest smile.

Michael paid the dollar and wrote down his address so the picture could be mailed to him.

“This is so much fun!” Lorraine gushed. “I always wanted to come here!”

Michael smiled at Rosalie. “I hope you don’t mind the Coke,” he said.

“Oh, no!” Rosalie said. “I don’t want to get anybody in trouble.”

“There’ll be plenty of time for champagne later, when you’re older.”

“Sure.”

Michael and Lorrain stood up and went out to the dance floor. The orchestra had just finished Moonglow and melded deftly into Imagination. Rosalie knew from the way Lorraine moved that she liked having people look at her. Her dress was expensive and lovely, a filmy sort of pale yellow, the perfect complement to her auburn hair and rosy skin. She might have been a movie star.

Rosalie felt a little self-conscious sitting at the table by herself, but when she looked around and saw that nobody was paying any attention to her, she took a deep breath and relaxed. She hated the black dress she was wearing but believed it was no worse than what a lot of the other girls were wearing. Not everybody can look like a movie star.

The number ended and Michael and Lorraine came back to the table, but before she sat down again Lorraine made Michael admire her ankle bracelet with her name engraved on it, for the third time already that night. Michael had given it to her as a gift on Thanksgiving night and she couldn’t stop admiring it. “Oh, it’s just the sweetest little thing I’ve ever seen!” she gushed.

Michael looked flushed and overheated. He was uncomfortable in crowds and didn’t like dancing, but he was a good sport usually willing to go along with whatever the crowd wanted. He offered to dance with Rosalie, but she declined. “I’m afraid I’m a horror on the dance floor,” she said.

The waiter brought another Coke for Rosalie and it was time to order dinner. Lorraine wanted roast beef and Michael a steak and Rosalie fried chicken. When the waiter went away with the order, Lorraine regarded Rosalie across the table.

“Thank goodness one of us inherited mother’s fashion sense,” she said. “That dress is unbelievably dowdy.”

“I know,” Rosalie said. “I hate it.”

“Then why did you wear it?”

“It’s the only thing I have that’s appropriate for a place like this.”

“I think she looks very nice,” Michael said.

“You think everybody looks nice, and compared to you, they do.”

“I’m wearing a new suit.”

“Yes, and it looks just exactly like your old one. It looks like something your father would wear.”

“Most of the men not in uniform are wearing dark suits,” Rosalie said.

“People are probably looking at Michael and wondering why he’s not in uniform.”

“You can’t say I didn’t try,” Michael said.

“Oh, yes, it was a tiny heart murmur, wasn’t it, dear, that kept you out of the service?”

“You know it was.”

“Did you pay the doctor to say you had a heart murmur so you wouldn’t have to go off to the bad old army and leave your poor little Lorraine behind?”

“Yeah, that’s it. You guessed my little secret.”

“I would so have liked to have gone stepping out on the arm of dashing war hero.”

“Why don’t you see if Robert Taylor is available?”

“I would marry Robert Taylor in an instant. All he has to do is ask me.”

“I think he’s already married to Barbara Stanwyck,” Rosalie said.

“Well, we’ll just have to get rid of little Barbara then, won’t we?”

“You’re forgetting one thing,” Michael said.

“What’s that?”

“You’re married to me.”

“Oh, yeah. That keeps slipping my mind.”

Michael lit a cigarette and blew smoke toward Lorraine, knowing she hated it.

“Put that cigarette out and let’s dance again,” she said.

“I don’t want to dance anymore. My feet hurt.”

Rosalie, seeing that Michael and Lorraine were headed for one of their fights, sought a change of subject by saying, “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a nightclub. It’s very exciting.”

“The first of many for you, I hope,” Michael said, lifting his glass and taking a big gulp of the champagne.

“Don’t drink too much of that stuff, dear,” Lorraine said. “You have to get us home safely, you know.”

“Yes, sir, captain, sir!”

The waiter brought the dinner and they began eating. The fried chicken was the best Rosalie had ever tasted. Lorraine picked around the corners of her plate and didn’t seem interested in eating.

“I’d hoped we could have a little talk tonight,” Lorraine said to Rosalie. “Just the two of us.”

“What about?”

“Well, now that mother’s dead and I’m paying all the bills, I see there’s not as much money as I thought. I’m afraid we’re going to have to economize.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re going to have to sell the house.”

“Sell the house! But why?”

“I just told you why. It’s too expensive to keep up and, besides, you can’t go on living there by yourself.”

“Why not?”

“You’re a minor.”

“So what?”

“You’re going to have to move in with Michael and me.”

“But I don’t want to move in with Michael and you.”

“Well, I’m your legal guardian now and I’m making all the decisions until you’re of age.”

“Are you sure this is the time and place for this kind of a discussion?” Michael asked.

“Stay out of this, Michael! It’s none of your business!”

“But what about school?” Rosalie asked, on the point of tears. “I can’t keep going to Cleary High if I live with you and Michael. It’s twenty miles away!”

“You can transfer. There’s a lovely new school less than a mile from where we live.”

“I’m in my last year of high school. I’ll graduate in six months. I don’t want to transfer now.”

“Mother always let you have your way about everything.”

“What’s that go to do with anything?”

“She overindulged you because you were sickly as a baby and she thought you were going to die. You were her menopause baby. You were never supposed to happen. Well, mother’s not here anymore and I’m telling you that things are going to be different from now on.”

“I think that’s quite enough of that kind of talk,” Michael said. “We’re supposed to be having a good time.”

“Well, I had to tell her these things some time. I didn’t want her to go on thinking she could continue to live in mother’s big house by herself.”

“I’m afraid you’ve just spoiled the evening.”

“Doesn’t the house belong to me now?” Rosalie asked.

“It belongs to both of us.”

“I’ll get a job and pay the expenses on the big house until after graduation.”

“And what would you do?”

“I don’t know.”

“What exactly are your job skills?”

“I can read and write.”

“Who’s going to hire a dowdy seventeen-year-old girl with bad skin and unmanageable hair?”

“I’ll babysit.”

“Yes, for a dollar an hour. I’m afraid that won’t do much good, when it comes to paying the heat bill and the electric bill, insurance and property taxes.”

“I can get a job as a waitress.”

“Nobody would hire you.”

“Don’t worry about it now,” Michael said to Rosalie. “We’ll think of something later.”

“I thought I told you to mind your own business, Michael,” Lorraine said. “When it comes right down to it, this isn’t any of your business at all.”

“Yes, I’m sure you’re right,” he said. “You always are.”

Rosalie was crying now. Her dinner was ruined. She pushed the plate away. She couldn’t eat another bite.

“I hope you’re proud of yourself, Lorraine,” Michael said. “Couldn’t this have waited until a more appropriate time?”

Lorraine stood up and threw down her napkin. “I’m going to the ladies’ room,” she said. She left the table and began making her way through the crowd. It was the last time Michael and Rosalie would ever see her alive.

A few minutes after Lorraine left, there was a scream on the far side of the room and then another scream louder than the first. The people drinking and eating stood up. The dancers stopped dancing. The orchestra stopped playing. Everybody turned toward where the screams had come from.

“Fire!” somebody yelled. “Fire! Fire! Fire!”

For a few seconds there was absolute silence and stillness and then people began moving wildly, unthinkingly. Some were turning around in circles, looking for a way out, not knowing what to do or which way to go.

Michael grabbed Rosalie by the wrist. “We’ve got to find Lorraine!” he screamed into her ear.

They began moving with the crowd. They were pushed from behind so consequently pushed those in front.

“Everybody calm down!” somebody yelled. “Just make for the fire exits!”

The lights went out. The far wall, fifty feet away, was illuminated by an eerie orange glow. The fire was making its way up the stairs from another part of the club. The crowd became a stampede. Those knocked to the floor never had a  chance to stand up again.

Some of the fire exits were chained shut and wouldn’t open. People pushed helplessly against them but weren’t able to make them move. When they saw it was hopeless in one place, they moved on to the next one.

Michael held on to Rosalie’s wrist. The two of them managed to remain standing, pushed along helplessly by the crowd. Soon a door was opened in front of them, miraculously, like a gate into heaven, and they found themselves outside in the freezing air.

They stood there, dazed and gasping for air. There were about twenty other people who had made their way out with them. Most of the women were crying and screaming. The men stood helplessly, stunned into silence. Finally a man from the fire department came along and told them they would have to move as far away from the building as they could.

Other groups came out in other places, three or twelve or twenty or sometimes more at a time. They were all herded around to the other side of the building, away from the smoke and flames. Michael ran frantically from group to group, searching for any sign of Lorraine.

The next few hours were a hellish dream, punctuated by sirens, screams, billowing smoke, walls of flame, confusion, firetrucks, ambulances, men running back and forth. How could such a terrible thing be allowed to happen?

Casualties were heavy. Firefighters began bringing bodies out and laying them side by side on the street or on the sidewalk, until a temporary morgue could be set up. Police kept onlookers back until the proper time for identification.

Every time Michael went away and came back again to the spot where he had left Rosalie standing on the street corner, she asked him if he had spotted Lorraine yet, but she already knew by this time it was hopeless.

Six hours after the fire broke out, Michael found Lorraine’s body in a row of bodies on the sidewalk. Her face was covered, but he knew it was her by the ankle bracelet with her name engraved on it and by the yellow dress. He started to pick her up but a policeman stopped him.

“She’s my wife,” he said. “I have to take her home.”

“You have to leave her here for now until positive identification can be made,” the policeman said.

He wrote down Michael’s name and address, along with Lorraine’s name, and put a tag around her wrist with a number on it, indicating that she had been identified by a family member.

Hundreds of people attended Lorraine’s funeral, many of them curiosity seekers. They wanted to see the body but the casket was kept closed. Michael knew it’s what Lorraine would have wanted.

More than eight-hundred-thousand dollars came to Michael as Lorraine’s husband. He arranged with his lawyers for Rosalie to get half of everything, since the money came from her family, and, since she had no family left, he became her guardian and let her remain in her mother’s big house as long as she wanted. He brought her groceries a couple times a week and took care of paying all the bills. As for Lorraine, he hardly ever mentioned her name again.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp   

Time That is No Time

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Time That is No Time ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Leatrice awoke and found herself in a strange place. It wasn’t morning and she wasn’t in her familiar room, in the bed where she had slept for the twelve years of her life. All around her was darkness, allowing her to see only a short distance in front of her; she was afraid of what the darkness might be concealing. “Hello! “Hello!” she called out for someone to help her but no one answered.

Finally someone approached her, an old woman. Leatrice had never seen the old woman before but she was somehow familiar.

“Where am I?” she asked. “Who are you? I want my mother!”

The old woman made a shushing motion with her hands. “Not so loud, child! You’ll wake the others.”

“What others?”

She noticed then that the old woman carried a glow inside her chest that allowed one to see inside her to her ribs and veins. The glow made the room a little brighter by about one candle’s worth. “What is that?” Leatrice asked in alarm. “Why are you glowing?”

“You’re glowing too,” the old woman said.

When she looked down she saw it was so. “All right, what is this? Am I dreaming?”

“In a way you are.”

“In what way? Am I asleep?”

“Asleep, yes, but not in the way you’re used to.”

“Can you please tell me where I am?”

“First things first. Tell me your full name.”

“Leatrice Geneva Fitch.”

“And in what year were you born?”

“Nineteen hundred.”

“What year is it now?”

“Nineteen-twelve.”

“That makes you twelve years old.”

“Yes.”

“You will always be twelve years old now. The year, for you, will always be nineteen-twelve.”

“What are you talking about?”

“My dear, haven’t you figured it out yet?”

“Figured what out?”

“You’ve made the transition that we all must make.”

“What transition? What is this place?”

“You have passed from one realm of existence to another, from the physical to the spiritual realm.”

“Are you saying I’m dead?”

“My dear, that word doesn’t mean anything here.”

“Well, am I?”

“If that’s the way you way you want to put it, then, yes, you are. Dead.”

Leatrice let out a breath, mostly to reassure herself that she could still breathe and said, matter-0f-factly, “I don’t like this place. I want to go home.”

“This is your home now.”

“What happened, anyway?” she asked, fighting back tears. “I don’t remember being sick.”

“You weren’t sick. It was very sudden. You got in the way of the streetcar downtown. The conductor rang his bell, but for some reason you didn’t get out of the way.”

“Funny thing, I don’t remember.”

“No, we never do.”

“And who are you, if I may be so bold? You look something like my mother.”

“I’m your mother’s grandmother, your great-grandmother. I’ve been here since long before you were born.”

“Here? Where?

“The family crypt.”

“What?”

“Yes, you’re in the family crypt, in the cemetery, surrounded by all those who went before.”

“Oh, no! That can’t it be!”

“Why can’t it be?”

“I’ve seen the family crypt and I don’t like it.”

“You’ve only seen it from the outside.”

“Yes, and it’s scary. It seems to me that, once you’re on the inside, you’ll never get out again.”

“Well, now you’re on the inside so you’ll know firsthand, won’t you?”

Leatrice let loose with the tears she had been trying to restrain. “I don’t like this place and I want to go home! Where are my mother and father? I want to see them.”

“Where do you think they are? They’re still alive. They’re where they’ve always been.”

“Will I ever see them again?”

“More than likely you will, but who can say for sure?”

“But I have cats. What will happen to my cats now that I’m no longer at home to take care of them?”

“Your brother will take care of them. They’re his cats now.”

“Will they come here to me when they die?”

“You’ll find out in time,” great-grandmother said.

There was a lapse then, a darkness, as of a veil being drawn. When this nothingness ended (and who knows how long it might have lasted because in this place there is no time?) great-grandmother was leading Leatrice by the hand, inviting her to meet the “others.”

Cousins Parry and Lomax, twins, were ten at the time they came to the family crypt. (They went over a waterfall in a rowboat and drowned on a summer’s day.) They looked at Leatrice with curiosity. She knew from their manner that they were shy of her and didn’t know what to say.

Great-grandfather was tall and broad, wearing a dress suit, with the elaborate mustache and side whiskers fashionable at the time of his passing. (He was the one who built the family crypt so he could have his family all together in one place.) He smiled at Leatrice and patted her on the head and then he was gone.

Uncle Evan, great-grandfather’s son, was handsome in his military uniform. He entered the spirit realm in Cuba when a bullet struck him in the neck during the Spanish-American War. He smiled at Leatrice and winked and touched her on the shoulder.

Aunt Ursula was a tall, thin woman with a sad face. She carried her three-month old son, George, in her arms. George entered the spirit world over thirty years before aunt Ursula. Since Aunt Ursula arrived, she had held baby George in her arms and refused to part with him. They would be together forever and forever.

And then there was aunt Zel, great-grandfather’s sister. She was a formidable woman, coiffed and bejeweled. By her side always was her husband, Little Otis. (People called him Little Otis to distinguish him from his father, Big Otis.) He was eight inches shorter than aunt Zel, with one arm missing. (He lost his arm not on the field of battle but from the bite of a skunk.)

Uncle Jordan was dressed in an expensive dress suit, with diamond stickpin and silk cravat. He kissed Leatrice on each cheek and then he was gone. He avoided being around the other family members for very long because they were contemptuous of him. In life, he had enjoyed himself a little too much, spent more money than he had a right to spend and died, deeply in debt, in young middle age of alcoholism.

Cousin Phillip’s appendix burst when he was only thirty-two. Immediately after he entered the spirit world, his young wife married a man she hardly knew named Milt Clausen. Odette was not in the family crypt and never would be. Cousin Phillip had renounced all women, bitter than his lovely young Odette had not honored his memory by staying a widow.

Cousin Gilbert was sixteen when he entered the spirit world as the result of a crushed larynx that he sustained in an impromptu game of keep-it-away with some of his friends. Leatrice immediately saw cousin Gilbert as a kindred spirit. The glow in his chest was a little brighter than anybody else’s. When he touched her hand, she felt a kind of connection with him that she hadn’t felt with any of the others.

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

She shook her head and looked down, again on the point of tears.

“I was the same way when I first came here,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that God would have me die so young. We learn not to ask why we’re here but just to accept it.”

She nodded her head to show him she understood and he leaned in to her and whispered in her ear, “I can show you around if you’d like.”

There were other introductions but the truth was that Leatrice wasn’t paying much attention after cousin Gilbert. He gave her a glimmer of hope, somehow; not that she could go home but that she might find death and the family crypt more to her liking.

The dark nothingness came upon her then and she and all the others slept peaceably for a piece of time in the place where time no longer existed but peace was in ample supply.

When next she saw cousin Gilbert, she was delighted to learn that she might leave the family crypt at will. He showed her how to press herself against the outer wall. Since the wall was solid and she was not, she could pass through it with the right amount of concentration, a trick of the will.

The cemetery was much larger than Leatrice imagined. Gilbert took her to visit some of his spirit friends: a twenty-seven-year-old policeman in uniform; a Civil War soldier who had exchanged words with Abraham Lincoln; 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 one day hoped to be president but never was; a group of twenty girls who died in an orphanage fire (all buried in the same grave); a twelve-year-old boy named Jesse who stood just outside his vault until another spirit came along and engaged him in conversation.

“He’s lonely and seeks companionship,” Gilbert explained.

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

“This is the fun part,” Gilbert 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?” Leatrice 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?” Leatrice asked.

“If you want to do it, you can.”

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,” Leatrice said.

“Of course there are!” Gilbert said cheerily.

“No more head colds. No more stomach aches. No more trips to the doctor. No more nightmares, math quizzes, boring church sermons, liver and onions or squash.”

Gilbert laughed, but then Leatrice started thinking about all the good things she had left behind, such as her cats and her beautiful room at home, and she started to cry.

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

Leatrice began venturing outside the family crypt often, either with Gilbert or on her own. And then, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in October, she saw them.

She recognized father’s automobile that he was so proud of, and then she saw who was riding inside: father, mother and her brother Reginald. She floated after the car—it wasn’t going very fast—and attached herself to the back of it.

Leatrice held on until father pulled the automobile 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, halfway on their way to being grown. She cried when she saw they recognized her. She longed to pick them up and nuzzle them against her face and hear their sweet purring.

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 neatly in the closet. Mother hadn’t changed a thing.

While mother, father and Reginald were having dinner in the dining room, Leatrice walked around the table, stopping and putting her hands on the back of each chair, experiencing the odd sensation of being in the same room with those closest to her in life and their not knowing it.

It felt good to be home, but she knew things could never be the same again. She could only observe life going on around her and not be a part of it. But still, wasn’t it better than nothing?

Since she dwelt in the spirit world, time, of course, didn’t exist. All time was the same. A minute was the same as an hour, a day the same as a year. In the time that was no time, her brother grew up, got a job in another state and left home. Mother and father grew old and frail. At ninety-one years, father died in his own bed and mother was left alone.

On winter evenings, while mother sat and read or knitted, or sometimes played the piano, Leatrice was nearby.

“I’m here, mother!” she said. “Don’t you see me? I want you to know you’re not alone!”

At times she was certain mother knew she was there but at other times she wasn’t so sure.

In the time that was no time, mother also died. The house was sold and all the furniture moved out. Another family took up residence, four children, two dogs and no cats.

She couldn’t stay in a house that was no longer hers, even if she was just a spirit, so she went back to the family crypt. Since time didn’t exist in the spirit world, cousin Gilbert and great-grandmother and the others didn’t realize she had been gone, although, in the world of the living it would have been decades.

There were additions to the family crypt, of course, in all that time that was no time. Mother and father were there with their own glows and they had a surprise for her: her cats were there, too—all the cats she had ever owned. Nothing else could have made her happier. She experienced a feeling of completeness, then, of going full circle and ending up back where she had always meant to be. Happy in life and now happy in death. She could never want anything more.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp 

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

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

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. Upon awaking, 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 very hard on the printed page.

“Hello, Honey,” Nick said, going up behind her and putting his hands on her shoulders close to her neck. She flinched and leaned forward until he removed his hands.

“What a night!” he said with a little laugh. “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. “Do you want me to cook some 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 ran his hand over his face 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 feel like a serious discussion at the moment. And, anyway, I think the least that’s said about last night, the better.”

“Better for you, you mean,” she said.

“I’m going to take a bath,” 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 a too-loud voice.

“What about, Honey?”

“I humiliated myself last night.”

“No, 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’m not!”

“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.”

“Yes, but you know my one steadfast rule is ‘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, “and 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 very long time.”

“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 teasing you! It was all in good fun.”

“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.

“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 got up from the table and went into the bedroom and closed the door.

“I’m hungry,” he said to himself. “I’m going to see what I can find to eat.”

He knew Honey would never leave him, but if they were ever going to settle in to university life, she was going to have to grow up. At twenty-six, she was still a child in so many ways. She needed to see the world as it really is. Yes, it’s ugly and sordid but people do what they must do to survive, to get along. You can’t teach in a university and not play the games that everybody plays. People expect you to play. They want you to be like them. If you’re not, you’ll never be accepted.

A little bit of humoring would bring Honey around. It wasn’t going to be a problem. He’d finesse his way through, just as he finessed his way through everything else. He’d 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 nice fellow, maybe a young athlete, who wanted to take her to bed, 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.

As he took the mayonnaise and pickles out of the refrigerator, he thought about Martha and felt a little stirring. He wondered what she was wearing; if she wasn’t out of bed yet, maybe nothing. He looked at the phone on the wall and wished he could call her. If he was sure George was out of the house at the moment, he’d risk it. He wanted to tell her how much he enjoyed his time with her; he hoped they’d have a chance to do it again very soon. In the morning or the afternoon, during a free hour between classes. One hour with her in own her bed with George away would be most enjoyable.

He was a stud and not a houseboy. Martha knew he was a stud. Everybody knew it. The only person who didn’t seem to realize it was his own wife. He was twenty-nine and attractive to woman. He would still be attractive to women twenty years from now, maybe thirty. It was a tremendous asset in a university, especially with a lonely, frustrated woman like Martha whose husband was a bit of a misfire. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she was the daughter of the president of the university. She wielded a certain amount of influence. One good word from her might go a long way.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Welcome to the Neighborhood

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Welcome to the Neighborhood ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

A moving van pulled up at the house across the street and three bear-like men got out and began unloading furniture. A late-model red car pulled into the driveway from which four people emerged: a lanky boy and a man from the front and a girl and a woman from the back. The man had a big stomach and a balding head and was slightly bent over. The girl looked like a younger version of the woman; they were obviously mother and daughter.

“Looks like a girl about my age,” Stephanie said. “She’s fat and is she ever ugly! I’ll bet she has her driver’s license, though, and probably her own car.”

“Not if she’s ugly,” Zane said from the sofa without looking up. He was reading a story in True Romance magazine about a woman with four husbands at the same time.

“Ugly people have cars.”

“If they’re ugly, they don’t need cars. They don’t have any place to go.”

“I know lots of ugly people with cars.”

“You’d better quit spying on the neighbors. They’re going to see you and know you’re insane.”

“You ought to see this old couch they’ve got. It looks like it’s about a hundred years old. If it was mine, I’d set it out in the yard and douse it with kerosene and strike a match to it.”

“Maybe they’re just waiting for the right moment to do that very thing.”

“And there’s a big glass thing that looks like a fish tank. I always wanted a fish tank.”

“Why don’t you go over there and ask them if they’ll give it to you?”

“If they can afford a fish tank, that must mean they have lots of money and if they have lots of money that girl must have her own car. I wonder what her name is. She sure is ugly. I’m sure she’d have an ugly-girl name like Agnes or Clarabelle.”

“If she saw you, she’d think you’re ugly, too.”

“Oh, look at this! They’ve got a big thing that looks like a sun lamp and a huge dining room table and one, two, three, four, five, six chairs that go with it. They must have a lot of people over for dinner if they need six dining room chairs.”

“Who cares?”

“Now here comes a dresser with a big round mirror and a bed and some mattresses and a chest of drawers and—wait a minute!—here’s another bed and some more mattresses. The mattresses look brand new. They haven’t been peed on yet. Now they’re bringing out a couple of big upholstered chairs and some more boxes and—oh, my gosh!—here’s another bed and another set of mattresses. How many beds do they have, anyway?”

“Your interest in their beds is disturbing.”

“Now, what do you suppose that thing is? It looks like a big square washing machine.”

“Why do you care what it is?”

“I have natural curiosity. I want to know what’s going on around me. Oh, wait a minute! The girl is standing on the sidewalk looking up at the roof with her hands on her hips. She just pulled her underpants out of her crack. That’s the kind of thing people do when they think nobody’s looking at them. Come and take a look!”

“I don’t care about seeing an ugly girl with crack problems,” Zane said, but he put the magazine aside and stood up from the sofa and went over to the window. “This better be good,” he said as he reached for the binoculars.

“She’s ugly all right,” he said. “Her hair looks like the nest of a scavenger bird.”

“What did I tell you? Wait until she turns around and you get a look at her face.”

“She’s turning around now and she’s saying something to one of the moving men. She’s telling him where to put some boxes. I can almost read her lips because her mouth is so big.”

“What are you talking about?” She snatched the binoculars back from him. “That’s not the girl, you goof! That’s the mother! Oh, wait a minute! Here’s the girl now, just coming out of the house.”

“Oh,” he said. “The mother and the daughter look just alike. They’re both ugly.”

“Well, the mother is about fifty years old and has on a ton of makeup and the girl is about my age. That’s how you tell them apart.”

“What do I care how to tell them apart? Maybe I just want to ignore them and mind my own business.”

“I think we should go over there and welcome them to the neighborhood. That’s what you’re supposed to do when somebody new moves in.”

“Not me!”

“You won’t go with me?”

“No.”

“I might just have to tell mother about the collection of questionable magazines hidden in your room.”

“I don’t have any magazines in my room.”

“Don’t you know there isn’t anything that goes on in this house that I don’t know about?”

“I think you should mind your own damn business and stop snooping around!”

“So you will admit that you have magazines hidden in your room?”

“I admit nothing.”

“Just the suggestion of those magazines in the house would probably kill mother. You know she’s not a well woman.”

“Could we please talk about something else, or not talk at all?”

“Then you’ll go with me?”

“I’ll go because you’re a sick person who needs help, not because I have any magazines in my room.”

Stephanie put on grandma’s widow’s hat with black feathers. The veil resembled a mosquito net that went down past her chin. She got her baton out of the closet and held it in the crook of her arm, ready to twirl. Zane put on his steampunk goggles and his Trader Horn pith helmet. Arm in arm, they went out to the front yard.

The woman and the girl were taking boxes out of the back of the red car and didn’t look up when Stephanie and Zane appeared. The moving men were moving something heavy out of the back of the van, keeping up a steady patter of invective.

“They look busy,” Zane said. “Maybe we’d better wait and go over later when they’re finished moving.”

“I know how to get them to notice me,” Stephanie said. She began marching up and down in front of the house like a soldier on sentry duty with the baton as her gun. She marched so strenuously she became winded.

When they still didn’t pay any attention to her, she went into her drum majorette routine. She had tried out for drum majorette two years earlier and, even though she had failed to be chosen, she still knew all the moves. She kicked her left leg as high as her head, and then her right leg. She threw the twirling baton six feet into the air and caught it with the tips of her fingers.

“I saw a woman doing this on TV with both ends of the baton flaming,” she said. “She was blindfolded, but she never burned her hands. I’d like to try that sometime.”

While Stephanie was twirling frenetically, Zane began doing experimental cartwheels on the grass. His pith helmet fell off every time, so he began doing them much faster. When he was able to do a cartwheel and not have the helmet fall off, he congratulated himself effusively.

The baton twirling and the cartwheels still garnered no attention from the people across the street, as they continued to be absorbed in the business of moving furniture, boxes and barrel-like cartons into the house.

“Am I going to set off an explosion to get them to notice me?” Stephanie said. She threw the baton down and began walking on her hands on the sidewalk and then up the steps of the porch and down again, all the time maintaining her superb balance.

Zane left off doing cartwheels and began walking on his hands too, but he wasn’t as accomplished a hand-walker as Stephanie. When he tried going up the steps to the porch, his arms weakened and he fell on his head.

“You’ll never be able to do that,” Stephanie said. “There are some things I’m just naturally better at than you.”

“I could do it with more practice,” he said.

“This isn’t working,” Stephanie said. “They haven’t looked over here a single time. I think I should sing a showtune.”

“Please don’t do that!”

“How about ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’?”

“No, I hate that song!”

“I know! I’m going to get grandpa’s wheelchair out of the basement.”

It was in a corner underneath some old clothes and a box of fur pieces and hats. Stephanie pushed everything out of the way and rolled the chair to the door and out into the yard.

They took turns riding the wheelchair down the slope of the yard toward the street, stopping just short of the sidewalk. The chair didn’t move very well on the grass, so Stephanie sat in the chair and Zane got behind and pushed.

On one run, he pushed a little too hard and the chair didn’t stop at the sidewalk but kept on going and jumped the curb and went out into the street, out of Stephanie’s control. She put her hands on the wheels to try to stop them but she was going too fast.

Up the hill, half a block away, Milton Sills the midget was working on his old Cadillac in front of his house. He was lying on his back and as he was coming out from underneath, he accidentally kicked the jack loose that was holding up the front end of the car. It began rolling backwards down the hill at about fifteen miles an hour.

Stephanie saw the Cadillac coming toward her but couldn’t stop the chair. She tried dragging her feet but there was nothing she could do; she was going too fast. She screamed and closed her eyes and threw her arms up over her head.

The wheelchair grazed off the rear bumper of the Cadillac and kept going. The Cadillac continued down the hill until it came to rest against a tree in the yard of an old woman who wore a white pageboy wig named Mrs. Nesbitt.

After the wheelchair turned over on its side, Stephanie was half in and half out of it. She had hit her head on the pavement and felt dizzy from it. She was bleeding and when she tried to stand her legs wouldn’t hold her. She was certain the people across the street would have seen what happened to her, but they had all gone inside and hadn’t seen a thing.

She had two broken ribs, a concussion and a fractured wrist. She spent five hours in the emergency room at the hospital waiting to get fixed up. She liked the cast on her wrist and the bandage they put on her head; it looked like she had been in a war. She hoped she would still be wearing them when school took up again.

When mother found out about the incident with the wheelchair, she called Stephanie a dangerous fool. She ought to be ashamed of herself (mother said) for dishonoring grandpa’s memory by using his wheelchair as a toy. She was confined to the house for the rest of the summer. It was a setback to her mad desire to get her driver’s license and drive wherever she wanted to go.

After a few days, the headaches lessened and she was able to come out of her room. She sat in the living room with the TV on, looking out the window at the house across the street. She hoped the fat girl would come out into the yard and she could go over and get acquainted with her, but she only caught a brief glimpse of her one time.

One day when mother went shopping, Stephanie went to visit her friend Claudia Beasley down the street. Claudia was two years older than Stephanie and a notorious gossip. If there was anything to known about new people in the neighborhood, Claudia would know it.

They shared a cigarette. Claudia had heard about Stephanie’s accident and wanted to hear all the details. Finally, Stephanie steered the conversation around to the fat girl and her family.

“Oh, them!” Claudia said. “They’re weird.”

“Why are they weird?”

“Have you seen that fat girl?”

“Yeah.”

“Her name is Veda Ann. She’s only fourteen.”

“I thought she was older.”

“Have you seen her up close? She looks like a middle-aged woman. That’s because she’s not right.”

“Not right how?”

“She’s…you know.”

“No, I don’t.”

“She won’t be going to our school.”

“Why not?”

“You know that retarded bus that stops down at the corner?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s the bus she’ll be taking.”

“Oh!”

“And that old man?”

“Yeah?”

“He’s her father. He won’t hardly let her get out of the house. He’s afraid somebody will try to kidnap her.”

“Why would anybody want to do that?”

“Well, you never know about people. There are men who like retarded girls.”

“Is that woman her mother?”

“No, that’s her older sister.”

“Who’s that skinny boy?”

Claudia laughed and reached for another cigarette. “That’s not a boy, silly! That’s a woman. She’s a special friend of the older sister. They’re…you know.”

“No, I don’t.”

“An old man, two lesbians and a retarded girl living together in the same house. That’s why they’re weird.”

“And to think I was almost killed trying to get them to notice me.”

As Stephanie was leaving, Claudia invited her to a dance at the armory, but Stephanie was sure mother wouldn’t let her go. There was no point in even asking.

When Stephanie got back home, mother had just returned from the store and was carrying in the groceries. Stephanie hurried into the house and went to her room and closed the door before mother saw her and had a chance to smell the cigarettes she had been smoking.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

A Head of Its Time

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A Head of Its Time ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Published in Death’s Head Grin.)

Frankie Zell was not accustomed to the fast life. She grew up on a farm, where she lived plainly and simply with her mother, father and two brothers. Painfully shy and stick-thin, she was never pretty or attractive in the way other girls thought themselves and in fact she never gave much thought at all to the way she looked.

In her late teens, though, Frankie began to change. She lost her adolescent awkwardness; she became rounded in the places where she had always been angular. She developed flawless, pale skin and a head of lustrous, chestnut-colored hair. She turned into the beauty she was always meant to be, like the lowly caterpillar turning into the ravishing butterfly.

She began to attract the attention of young boys and older boys into manhood, some of them as old as forty or fifty years. When she would go into town on a shopping trip or to pay the light bill or see the dentist, people would stop what they were doing and look at her because they weren’t used to see so pretty a girl on the streets of such a dreary town. Some more astute observers said she ought to go to Hollywood and try out for the movies. She was as pretty as Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner or any of those others.

Through a friend she became acquainted with a boy named Angus Persons who lived with his parents in the best neighborhood in town, where the finest homes were. His father was president of the bank and raised horses on a ranch he owned. Angus was the same age as Frankie and planned to be an attorney and one day go into politics. With his good looks and family connections, he would go far. He might one day be governor of the state or a senator in Washington. Frankie would be just the right kind of wife for him. They planned an elaborate June wedding to which everybody in town was invited.

Angus and Frankie indeed made a handsome couple. When they drove around town in Angus’s beautiful convertible sports car, they were like something out of a dream. People who saw them were admiring, envious, or maybe even a little bit jealous.

Frankie had never driven a car before but Angus taught her to drive. When he was busy working or at school and didn’t have time to spend with her, he let her drive his car as if it were her own. She enjoyed driving on the hilly, curvy country roads between the farm she lived on and the town where Angus lived. She liked nothing better than letting the top down on the car and driving as fast as she could and letting the wind blow her hair. She discovered that fast driving exhilarated her and made her feel free in a way that nothing else did.

On a brilliant May morning one month before Frankie and Angus were to be married, Frankie was driving in the hills and valleys she had known all her life. Bathed in the fresh morning sunlight as it was, the landscape was as beautiful as anything she had ever seen. Past fences and farms, horses and cows, and the occasional scenic barn or grain silo, she drove with abandon around curves and up hill and down dale. Her car—or rather Angus’s—was the only car on the road.

At one long downward hill with a sharp curve that wrapped around a scenic promontory of rock, signs warned prudent drivers to drive slowly and carefully. The treacherous curve could be difficult to negotiate even for the most experienced of drivers.

When Frankie Heywood came to the hill, she ignored the signs. She had driven the hill many times before and didn’t fear it. She sped up to experience once again the thrilling downward whoosh and the tension on the wheel as she struggled to keep the little car on the road.

In the middle of the curve, with her downward momentum and her accelerated speed, she lost control of the car as if an invisible hand had reached out and pulled the steering wheel sharply to the right. In the blink of an eye, the car left the road, became airborne, and sailed out over the tops of the trees. In her final seconds, Frankie had the time-stands-still sensation of being suspended above the earth—breathless and in defiance of the laws of gravity.

When she failed to appear for her luncheon date with Angus in town, he became alarmed and started calling all the places she might be, but nobody had seen her. He called her home and Frankie’s mother told him not to worry, that Frankie was probably enjoying herself too much—wherever she was—to be aware of the time. Deep down, though, Frankie’s mother believed that something bad had happened to Frankie.

The next day, when nobody still had not seen or heard from Frankie, her mother called the police and filed a missing person’s report. The police questioned Frankie’s mother and father and brothers extensively about Frankie’s habits and associations, but none of them were able to tell them anything that helped in finding her.

The police began an extensive search for Frankie between her home and the town. They theorized that she was living a secret life and had run away from home or that she had been abducted by a person or persons unknown. If they were able to find the car she had been driving, that at least might give them some clues.

Two days later a young police officer found a hubcap in the underbrush near the dangerous curve. Angus recognized the hubcap as belonging to his car. From this clue they were able to piece together what had happened to Frankie on the day she disappeared.

When they found the sports car a quarter of a mile or so from the road, concealed in the trees, Frankie’s body was in it. Her head had been sheared off at the shoulders, neatly and cleanly, as with a sharp blade.

Logic dictated that Frankie’s head would be not far from her body, but when police searched the surrounding area (and much farther away), they were never able to find any sign of the head. After a few days they gave up the search, telling Frankie’s mother and father that the head must have been carried off by wolves or some other wild animals. It was still possible, though, that the head would be found and, if so, whoever found it would be sure to report it to the police. Finding a head by itself was not that common an occurrence.

As distraught as Frankie’s mother was at having lost her only daughter, she was even more distraught at the idea of Frankie having to go to her grave without her head.

Frankie’s mother took an old china vase she had had for a long time that was roughly equivalent to the size and shape of a human head. On the front of the vase was painted a bouquet of flowers, but on the back was nothing, so on the back of this vase she painted a semblance of Frankie’s features using the watercolor paints that Frankie sometimes worked with. (Handles on the sides of the vase were a good approximation of human ears.)

When she was finished painting a fairly credible approximation of Frankie’s face on the vase, she put Frankie’s wig on it and then took it to the funeral parlor and asked the undertaker if he would put the vase where Frankie’s head should be. The undertaker was happy to comply, knowing that grief sometimes causes people to make unusual requests.

At the funeral-home visitation, people were surprised to see a painted vase in place of a real head, but most agreed the vase was less jarring than no head at all. The undertaker artfully arranged the collar of Frankie’s dress around the neck of the vase so that the vase did indeed look like a part of her body. He draped a veil across the open lid of the coffin to soften the effect, as he frequently did with the bodies of accident victims.

The entire town turned out for Frankie’s funeral, as they would have turned out for her wedding. Angus Persons, looking solemn and more handsome than ever, was impeccably dressed in a dark-blue suit and dark glasses that hid his eyes. Several young women, friends of Frankie’s who considered themselves fully capable of stepping into Frankie’s shoes, kept their eyes on Angus in the hope that he would look their way. Which one among them wouldn’t jump at the chance to marry the future governor?

Frankie’s head was never found. According to local legend, her ghost was said to walk along the highway at night near the dangerous curve, looking for her head. She wanted to find her head, the legend went, so she could stick it back on her body and go through with her wedding to Angus Persons. Every year at Halloween, different variations on the headless bride theme appeared at parties and on the streets of the town.

As for Frankie’s head, the truth was quite simple, as the truth often is. Not long after her head was separated from her body, a buzzard spotted her head lying in the brush about fifty feet from the wrecked car. It swooped down and picked up the head (by the hair) in its talons and flew away. Carrying its gruesome cargo, the buzzard was flying back to its lair (or wherever buzzards go when nobody sees them) when the weight of the head became too much and the buzzard dropped the head quite without meaning to.

The head landed in a tree, on a natural shelf formed by the convergence of several large branches thirty feet off the ground. The head was perfectly upright and lodged in such a way in the top of the tree that no amount of wind and weather would ever shake it loose. As long as the tree remained upright, the head would stay where it was and nobody would ever see it.

Crows pecked at the eyes until there was nothing left. Birds used the hair for their nests. Insects and other birds ate away at the flesh, tissue, and brain until, over time, the head was only a skull.

Several generations of chipmunks used the empty skull as their home. When the chipmunks moved on, as they inevitably do, the skull became a sanctuary for small birds, with one eye socket serving as a way into the skull and the other as a way out. As you see, nature always finds its own way to make use of things.

Copyright 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Doctor Dispenses Drugs from His Office

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The Doctor Dispenses Drugs from His Office ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Verna Shelton’s husband was long gone. The only thing she had to remember him by was a son, Cullen, and a daughter, Corinne. The three of them—Verna, Cullen and Corinne—lived in a small frame house in a seedy neighborhood on the edge of town near the railroad tracks. Verna had a job as office assistant for an osteopathic doctor, Dr. Bunch, on the upper floor of an old building across from the county courthouse. All day long she answered phones and coordinated a steady stream of people in and out of the doctor’s two examining rooms.

As a single mother, Verna did the best she could but she sometimes she felt she wasn’t equal to the task. The problems were unrelenting. One day it was a fever and a sick stomach and then the next day a chipped tooth, a new pair of shoes, a note from the teacher demanding money, or an injured ankle that needed to be x-rayed. The money she made never went far enough.

Her personal life was no more rewarding than her professional one. She was lonely, she wanted a companion, a mate, but she had an abysmal record with the unfathomable (to her) male of the species. To make it through her difficult days, she took handfuls of tranquilizers that kindly old Dr. Bunch provided to her free of charge and without a prescription. She frequently augmented the pills with wine, beer or whiskey straight out of the bottle.

And then Cary Mulvihill drifted into town from parts unknown. He was thirty-one years old, trim-waisted, dark-haired, blue-eyed, angel-faced. As soon as Verna saw him, her heart skipped a beat and she knew she was gone. He seemed equally taken with her. He asked her out on a date and, when that went well, he asked her out again and again.

All at once she developed a new outlook on life. She woke up in the morning with a smile on her face that lasted all day long, even through the most difficult days of car troubles, payments in arrears, and three-day measles. The number-one thought in her mind was when she was going to see him again. She was—dare she even speak the words?—in love.

He had a room in a hotel outside of town, causing her to think he wouldn’t be around long. When she asked him what his business was and what he did for a living, he told her he was a writer, traveling around gathering research for a book. When she asked him what the book was about, he told her she’d find out but not until it was published and sold in bookstores everywhere.

Unlike other men of her acquaintance, Cary was always a gentlemen. He held doors for her, helped her with her wrap, lighted her cigarettes. When they were alone, he never behaved inappropriately. Not only was he good-looking, he was smart and cultured; he knew about good food, good music, foreign films, books and paintings. He was a good dancer, fond of animals and children, and spoke lovingly of his mother. He was all the things she might have hoped for in a man and never expected to find.

One Friday at the end of October, he picked her up at Dr. Bunch’s office at the end of the day. With a headache, cough and sore throat, she was out of sorts and not feeling at all well.  How can you work in a doctor’s office with people coming and going all the time and not catch whatever is going around?

Cary was sympathetic. He smiled at her and put his arm around her and drew her close in the car. “I have just the thing that will make you feel better,” he said.

He reached into the back seat and brought forth a little leather case. He opened it and took out a syringe and a little bottle of liquid.

“What is that?” she asked.

“Trust me,” he said. “It’s just the thing you need for what ails you.”

She didn’t think to resist but rolled up her sleeve dutifully. He found her vein easily enough. It was over in a few seconds.

“You surprise me,” she said. “Are you a doctor?”

“Of course not,” he said, “but I’ve done this a lot.”

They went on to dinner and the injection, whatever it was, made her feel wonderful. She reveled in the food, the music, the dancing and the wine. The feeling of well-being lasted all through the evening. When Cary took her home at two in the morning, she believed she had just passed the most best evening of her life. She awoke in the morning happy, certain the happiness would last forever.

There were other injections, of course, any time motherhood was getting her down, a tooth was bothering her, it was her time of the month, or Dr. Bunch put extra work on her. And the injections always cast their magic spell. Whenever she asked him what the injections were that made her feel so good, he smiled and told her she asked too many questions. She came to see the injections as part of the wonderment of Cary Mulvihill, unexpected and delightful.

She had every reason to believe that Cary would ask her to become his wife. She invited him for a special dinner that she cooked herself so that he might see her domestic side. Cullen and Corinne loved him, as she knew they would, and he had a special way with them. He brought Corinne a stuffed elephant and Cullen a telescope.

It was all too wonderful! She had met the man of her dreams and he was going to rescue her from her dreary life. Cullen and Corinne would at last have the father they deserved and advantages in life they wouldn’t ordinarily have: travel, good schools, a promising future. Their names would appear in the society columns.

Finally Cary asked Verna to spend the night with him in his hotel room. She knew it was coming and was thrilled beyond measure. She saw it as the prelude to marriage. She arranged for a teenage sitter to stay overnight with Cullen and Corinne, packed an overnight bag, and waited out front for Cary to pick her up. She had bought all new underwear and sleepwear so he wouldn’t see her shabby stuff.

First they had a wonderful dinner, where they laughed and danced and relaxed. When she thought about what was to come later in his hotel room, her heart pounded with excitement. It was all so romantic!

After dinner, they went for a drive through town. Cary stopped his car on the street in front of Dr. Bunch’s office.

“I though it’d be fun to see where you spend your days,” he said.

“It’s not very exciting, I’m afraid.”

“Please.”

She took the keys out of her purse and unlocked the downstairs door and they went up the stairs in the dark, laughing and holding hands.

“Better not turn on too many lights,” she said, slurring her words.

When they were in the doctor’s office, he grabbed her and kissed her in the dark. She giggled, pushed away from him and turned on the lights.

“This is it,” she said.

He looked around admiringly. “I like being in a daytime place at night after everybody has gone home, don’t you?”

He wanted to see the examining rooms where the doctor saw patients. She took him into one and then the other. There was the table, cabinets, a sink, two chairs, a small, heavily curtained window.

“I’m impressed,” he said.

“We should go,” she said. “If the night watchman sees the lights, he’ll wonder what’s going on.”

“I want to see where the drugs are kept,” Cary said.

“What?”

“Didn’t you say the doctor dispenses drugs from a large closet.”

“Oh, yes. It isn’t much to see. Just shelves of stuff.”

She opened the door to the drug closet and turned on the light. Cary whistled. “That is a lot of drugs,” he said.

“Three-quarters of a million dollars worth,” she said. “That’s why we keep the door locked at all times.”

“I like it,” he said. “I like the whole layout. I’d like anyplace where you worked.”

When at last they were in his hotel room, he ordered a bottle of champagne in a bucket of ice, just like in the movies. They sat on the couch, drinking the champagne, talking in throaty voices. She nestled closer to him, took his arm and draped it around her shoulders. He kissed her and she purred like a kitten.

“Would you like an injection?” he asked after a while.

“Everything is perfect already,” she said. “I don’t know how it could be any better.”

“It will release you from your inhibitions.”

He gave her the injection and, as she was starting to feel it, he picked her up in his strong arms and carried her over to the bed and laid her on it.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I just want you to be comfortable,” he said.

“What about you?”

“Just rest. Everything will be fine.”

When she awoke, it was daylight. Fully clothed, she lay in the same position on the bed where Cary Mulvihill had placed her. She gasped and sat up, not at all sure of what had happened.

He left her a note that read: Please be out of the room by noon. I’m leaving you money for cab fare.

When she saw a hundred-dollar bill sticking out of the top of her purse, she knew he was gone. Gone and not coming back. She ran into the bathroom and heaved up the contents of her stomach.

Cary Mulvihill—with help from compatriots, of course—took Verna’s keys and cleaned out the drug closet in Dr. Bunch’s office in the early hours of the morning while the night watchman was napping. Three-quarters of a million dollars worth of drugs.

When Dr. Bunch arrived to open the office, he saw what had happened. Verna’s not showing up for work at the usual hour aroused his suspicions. He called her at home and when he didn’t get her he called the police. They were waiting for her as she got out of the cab in front of her house.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp