VOLUME 6, ISSUE 3
2023 • ISBN# 9781970033311 • 99 pp • 6" x 9" paperback
Night Picnic is a journal of literature and art. We seek to share and celebrate all that is strange, dark, jubilant, complex, confusing, scary, mystical, fantastic, multidimensional, and metaphysical.
Alan Rice, The Seventh Wave
Marshall Geck, Our Garden of the Dark Ages
Harrison Cody Thrift, Welcome, Stranger
James Arthur, Blizzard Blue
Charlie Brice, Paper Cut & other poems
Suzanne Kelsey, Mistake
John Kucera, Limestone, with Traces & other poems
Enjoy work from this issue below:
How did I get it? What page
of my notebook was the culprit?
Or was it the novel I read? Did Madame
Bovary cause this cut while I was engrossed
in her adulterous doings? Or was it Raskolnikov
waiting for his landlady with an axe that got me to
turn the page thoughtlessly? It wasn’t Robert Jordon
in repose on that pine-needle floor. There was no page
to turn. The needles were sharper than any paper edge. His
trigger finger placed him on the cusp of forever and caused
a caesura that no stitch could repair. That tiny slit winces
at the vast array of pain life provides: a man’s empty
chest while reading his wife’s love letters to another
man; a woman’s bewildered stare as the axe handle
shreds bone; that oily taste when lips caress a gun
barrel — the strident clang of those places where
the bell tolls loudly for us all.
First Subway Ride, 1974
Surely, this is the acid test, I thought.
First the leggy stutter down
the steps of the subway station. A man
behind a glass booth talks into
a microphone. “What language is that?
I ask my fiancé. “English,” she says.
I can’t understand a word.
We stand on the platform and wait for our train.
Hollow-eyed men in torn sweaters roam
the platform. Women with baby carriages
and groceries wait with us. The sound is
mind mauling. Our train arrives and, like
lemmings to the cliff-edge, we push and
shove our way into the subway car. Graffiti sprawls
everywhere — street person immortality.
The train screams at start-up, screams while the car
rocks and rattles its way to our destination.
It must be about to uncouple, dislodge, break apart —
send us into the abyss of the midnight
tunnels we travel through. Someone who speaks
the same language as the man in the glass
booth announces our stops.
I can’t understand a word.
We disembark. I check to see if I still have a sense
of self, or any sense at all. I gaze back
at the graffiti-covered train and smile. I, a yokel
from Cheyenne, Wyoming, have passed
the subway test — got an A-. Now for the final exam:
meeting my soon-to-be mother-in-law
who only grades on a pass/fail basis.
Today was yesterday twenty-three years ago.
New Years Eve, 2000, the hysterics, broadcasters,
and conspiracy ninnies predicted a collapse
of the universe — a physics of catastrophe.
We ate pizza and drank fake wine at Dave’s
house. He dropped a pepperoni on the floor.
“Three second rule,” I said. Dave smiled,
“In our family it’s the thirty-minute rule.”
He gleefully ate that errant morsal. His wife,
Audrey, bookish and learned, fooled with
her knitting and told stories of Hemingway
on Walloon Lake. Bill, Dave’s brother-in-law,
told us hair-raising stories of his time as
a quality control officer at Ford. He set up
a sting operation that caught an employee
stealing heavy equipment he used to build
his own automobile in a barn in Detroit.
Bill’s wife, Emma, carefully cut slices
of the most delicious peach pie I’d ever had
and passed them around for dessert.
The millennium was coming to an end. We
counted down to midnight. Sure enough,
the lights went out — all of Petoskey went
dark, but only for three or four seconds,
enough time to feel terror and then relief
when the lights returned. No doubt some
good-old-boys at the power station had
a little inebriated fun. We toasted the
New Year and laughed at the perfidious
predictors of doom. Twenty-three years
later, Dave, Bill, and Emma are gone,
and gone is Audrey’s mind.
When I said I was hungry
You tilted your face down, flicking your eyes up to mine…
I didn’t care about your eyes; I was interested
in what was pulsing behind them ::through them::
You said, “Let’s get out of here,”
(a cliche line)
but I obliged. Your naivety was working in my favor.
We walked out arm in arm
you had an absurd skip in your step.
“Your place or mine,” you asked, biting your bottom lip.
I suppose you thought that was sexy.
“Mine,” I answered flatly, looking away as I raised my hand to flag a cab.
Once we reached my block and exited the taxi,
we walked several houses down
(I never have them drop me off out front).
I think this is about when you grew wary —
your steps slowed, your swagger melted, your eyes began flitting around the street.
I firmly gripped your elbow and guided you up the steps
through the entryway
…into my lair.
Locking the door behind us, I turned to you
poor little thing — you were shaking.
You knew this was a mistake;
you knew it was too late.
I invited you (I am always polite) upstairs.
You hesitated, once again flicking your eyes to mine, searching.
I smiled kindly down upon you, but you couldn’t tell
I was being facetious.
I extended my palm, which you took, and led you to my bedroom.
Upon crossing the threshold, I once again locked you in.
You didn’t even notice, so overcome by my exquisite décor were you.
When I approached from behind
and rested my hands on your shoulders,
I felt you relax.
You let me peel off your clothing, layer by layer,
until just your bare skin was before me.
You tried to do the same to me, but I grasped your wrists and backed you toward the bed
pinning you against the silk comforter.
You thought it was a game
and smirked up at me. “Kinky,” you said, and were going to say more,
but I smothered your mouth with mine.
When your moan vibrated down my throat,
I released you
with all the force I had
wrenched your head to the side, exposing your porcelain neck
your throbbing vein
Sinking my teeth into your soft skin
I heard you gasp
followed by a cry
ending in a sob
::my favorite sound::
Your body went limp as I drew more and more from you.
I had to check myself before I took too much
you were good.
Maybe you had a reason to be so cocky…
When I finished, just before you were gone, and pulled away
I caught a glimpse of your eyes
full of awareness.
You rolled them toward me, unexpectedly, and your jaw fell open.
“Mistake,” you hissed, “wrong choice.”
Confused, I pulled back and wiped my mouth, staring at you.
Your lips unfurled into a wicked grin
and just at that moment my throat began to burn,
my stomach clenched, and my body doubled over.
“What are you,” I managed to get out between dry heaves.
“A nightmare,” you whispered as you got up, dressing in front of me while I writhed on the floor.
The last thing I saw
kneeling beside me, face toward the floor,
flicking your eyes up
to lock with mine.
Limestone, with Traces
Climb inside this stone to find a forest,
a respite of calm order from earth’s chaos.
Here the trees are limbless and liminal,
boundless as they build their boundaries.
The particular oxides that quartz takes
into its predictable geometry
color every copse of six-sided trunks.
Having never seen light, they are greedy.
They break and bend the sun’s strongest rays.
The whole of the spectrum. You can see it
as if seeing an egg pour from its shell
or a forest in the first month of fall.
Why would a stone hide its gifts? Modesty?
Perhaps something in a stone wants mystery.
What mystery could this stone want? Empty
at center, unaware of its destiny,
never having heard a red wolf’s howl,
or the way a wren breaks out in a scold
at a climbing snake or a hawk’s silhouette.
Despite all this, nothing in the stone strays.
Nothing wanders from some swamp or reedy
marsh. What is here is here. Only a slow flux,
a fresh breeze that has just found these trees,
these crystals pyramid-capped like monks
of an older order. Their diaries
kept safe in caves, held shut by iron nails,
are now open, after centuries, to us.
Just the sight, the touch of them, and we feel blessed.
When my friend’s tongue seized up, writhing
in its chamber, it must have reached for something,
anything, it seemed, though who was I to tell?
The hour took forever, when, out of the muck
of syllable and stutter, he said, shit, and I knew
a barrier had broken, the first bricks tumbling
out of his mouth. Out of the warehouse district
of the southern brain, graffitied in obscenities
and roses: the throat of a motor that won’t clear,
won’t turn over, but we were going somewhere.
Not progress as we knew it, no, but what you hear
gasp in a shattered object, or creak in the chains
of swing sets in the breeze. A little damage is always
the first to arrive, last to go. Even silence breaks
something when it breaks, and if the music’s good,
your ribcage shakes, your heart flits on its trapeze.
If you are listening, you know, the way a garden
knows where to spread its net, to clutch an earth
whose body hangs over the dark of the other side.
For it is always there, the fundament, the stranger,
the midnight sky. I saw it in eye of the bewildered
creature, as we rode in the ambulance together.
Welcome back, I said, although I never heard him
curse before. Or after. Welcome back, my friend.
The tunnels could be reached by each building’s
cellar door, but my brother
wanted us to disappear
off the street, lifted the manhole lid, wheeled it aside,
made me lower myself first into the black circle,
then somehow with one hand held to the rim,
with his other dragged the lid and its darkness over us,
and we dropped into the steam
We moved in and out each doorsill’s
zone of light, wandering
deep under Harvard, took the same liberties the pipes did,
drawing words from our throats
that were the earth’s before they were ours.
Shadows ahead of us,
We walked till our legs ached and the ache
became a bond between us,
between the darkness and us.
Underground we told each other fears and dreams
we’d never share, even in bed.
Occasionally we’d grow so frightened
I’d beg my brother
to let us rise. In strange offices we’d pretend
to be lost, looking for the lunchroom
and bring down light’s nourishment with us,
once surer the brilliant world was still over us.
The air above us was clean and American
and dangerous, Timothy said,
our father’s world, not ours.
When we came to the door for the stairwell
leading up to father’s office
I lingered there,
ran my hand along its threshold’s brightness.
Timothy did too.
Then we moved on. I let my brother draw me away.
The Seventh Wave
The island they’d chosen for their vacation was better for her than for him. The main advantage for Allison was that there was a demand for watercolors, the sort she could turn out quickly and easily, and she’d made an arrangement with the local gallery so there was a ready market. And she didn’t mind catering to the tastes of the visitors to some degree. Those who sought out this place had, as a rule, a high respect for nature, a love of solitude and the sound of waves on the rocks. There were beautiful landscapes to paint, and perhaps she’d set up an easel in town and do charcoal sketches.
Robert’s recent book — his second — had done very well and for the first time in a long time they didn’t have to log into their bank account to check the balance before they ordered something on Amazon. But his current project wasn’t going anywhere, and Allie had suggested this place to stay for the summer. He'd told her about it before, when they were just newly a couple, and she’d remembered, in the same way that he would remember and file away details that might be useful later:
“Why don’t we get away?”
“It doesn’t matter. You don’t have any obligations. We’ve got money. What about that island? The one you went to when you were little. Off the coast.”
“There’s nothing to do there.”
“That’s the point.”
Allison handled everything without seeming to do anything, from renting a cottage on the edge of the village to packing their suitcases. It was mid-June, past the black fly season. They made the long drive up the coast, and then checked into a motel on the mainland to spend the night. A garage was engaged to keep their car for them, and they walked down to the dock to meet the ferry. The boat itself was old and worn, but clean. Supplies for the islanders were loaded first by a crew who had clearly been doing this for many seasons; their movements almost rhythmical in their ease and regularity. Passengers followed and wormed their way into whatever space was left. There were day-trippers on board, couples on the verge of middle age with their enthusiastic children, who made a calculated show of having their sea-legs already. Others, like the deck crew, looked as if they had been doing this for years, and betrayed no sense of thrill, or even interest. At nine o’clock the lines were cast off; the weather was clear, the breeze mild and the waves just tipped with white as they slid out of the harbor and made their way the ten miles across the bay to the island.
Out on the open water, the seas were steeper. They found places to stand up forward of the main cabin, and Robert steadied himself on the rail as Allie leaned against him. Occasionally, a wave would smack the bow and they’d be shocked with the cold sting of the spray. They’d laugh and hold each other more tightly. There was a freshness, an excitement, that he hadn’t felt with Allison in a long time, since before the novel was published. He felt a surge of affection as they stood at the rail, his arm around her, and the sly, knowing smile with which she rewarded him when he put his arm around her waist and pulled her close to him.
At the dock they accepted an offer from a man with a pickup truck to take their bags to their rental home. He introduced himself as Cal.
“Do you want to stop at the store to pick up anything?” he asked. “I don’t mind; I’ve got a couple of things to get myself.”
“Thanks,” said Robert, and Cal drove up to the general store and parked.
They picked up baskets and set about collecting necessities. One of the couples who had been on board the ferry was there, too. They were buying lunch and sunscreen. There was a girl, about ten or so, with reddish-brown hair wearing a tan print dress and a bright red baseball cap with a long brim wandering aimlessly about. The couple smiled at Robert and Allison in recognition, but immediately turned back to their own affairs. Only the girl glanced again at Robert, pausing for a moment as if studying him before going off down another aisle.
* * *
The cottage was roomy and comfortable, furnished in an unpretentious style. There was a separate room, a second bedroom, where he could write. He’d have to get back into a routine, and he reasoned that if he could at least get started, working a set number of hours a day, the same time every day, he’d be able to break the inertia that seemed to have gripped him. Mornings would be best, then they’d have the afternoons to hike. He’d picked up a map at the general store and noted a couple of trails that seemed sufficiently challenging. Allison could paint outdoors, when the light was best; unfortunately, there wasn’t really a place for a proper studio, but she could make sketches and studies that could be completed at home.
But on their first full day there, when it came time to actually work, Robert found it difficult to get started. Instead, he fussed about the cottage, tried writing emails only to discover that the Wi-Fi was erratic. He tried to nap in the afternoon but couldn’t. In the evening they had supper at a seafood stand by the down dock. The next day he slept late and let Allison be the early riser, up at dawn to catch the sunrise. He came into the kitchen to find a place set for him, orange juice poured and the coffee made; but despite his resolution to be productive he still couldn’t settle down. He decided instead to walk the unpaved road back to the village.
He stopped at the gallery. Allison had been there the day before, he discovered, and the ancient proprietor, whose name was Bea, was expecting some of her watercolors, which she would help Allie to frame. She hadn’t read Robert’s new book yet, but she was thrilled that there were a famous author and his famous painter wife on the island. He made a stop at the general store, but couldn’t think of anything he really wanted to buy. He was about to leave when the girl that he’d seen the day they arrived burst through the screen door and nearly bumped into him.
“Oh! Sorry,” she said, looking straight at him.
“That’s all right.” When she didn’t move, he paused. “Are you staying here? On vacation?”
The girl nodded.
“Do you like it here?”
“I think it’s boring.”
“Well, I suppose there’s not much for a girl your age to do.”
She looked at him. “Is that your wife who’s the painter?”
“Why, yes.” Robert was surprised. Allison hadn’t mentioned her. “How did you know?”
“Saw her. She was in the art gallery.”
“But how did you know she was an artist?”
The girl shrugged.
“Maybe you could ask her to paint you, next time you see her,” Robert suggested. The girl was pretty, and he thought she’d make an interesting subject with her turned-up nose, her freckles and sunburn, and the battered baseball cap.
“Maybe,” the girl answered coyly. Then, cocking her head, “What do you do?”
“I’m a writer,” he told her.
“Oh, yeah? What do you write?”
“No, more for grown-ups.”
“Uh-huh.” Her eyes narrowed. Robert suddenly felt uncomfortable, as if this child felt that he was hiding some dirty secret. He regretted suggesting that Allison paint her. He tried to disarm her with a smile.
“Maybe someday you’ll read them. When you’re older.” He smiled at her, hoping that his comment hadn’t offended her.
“Yeah, maybe.” She replied evenly. “Maybe some day you’ll write my story.”
“You mean a story just for you?”
“No. I mean, my story.”
She looked different to him. Maybe it was the baseball cap and the freckles that had given him the impression of an open, cheerful child, more at home in a fielder’s glove than a print dress. Maybe. But now he wondered if his first impression was wrong. She wasn’t friendly. She might play baseball, but he couldn’t quite see her as an enthusiastic teammate.
“What’s your name?” he asked her.
“Hello, Jane. My name’s—”
“Robert. I know. But I have to call you Mister,” and she smirked. Then she turned her back on him and proceeded into the store as if she’d not seen him at all.
He went back to the cottage. Allie had done a couple of quick sketches in crayon of the interior of the living room, with the window open to the sea. She was sitting in an armchair reading a book. She smiled when he came in.
“How was your walk?”
“Okay. I just went into the village.” He wandered into the kitchen and took a can of beer from the fridge. “You know that girl?”
“The girl with the baseball cap? We saw her yesterday on the ferry.”
“On the ferry? I didn’t notice.”
“Or maybe it was in the store.”
“Oh. Yeah. I guess. What about her?”
“Nothing. She was there, that’s all. In town. I saw her again.”
“If it’s the same girl. Maybe that was her in the gallery yesterday.”
“Did you talk to her at all?”
Allison closed her book and marked the place with a scrap of paper. “I don’t think so. Not really. She was hanging around, though. I don’t really remember. Why?”
“I don’t know. She asked me if you were the artist. She said her name was Jane.”
Allison frowned. “I can’t remember her saying anything.”
“What about her parents? Were they with her?”
“The couple, you know, on the ferry. They were at the store.”
“I didn’t see them.”
“Well, that’s weird.”
“She was alone when I saw her, too.”
“Maybe her parents just aren’t helicopter-types. How was your morning?”
“Okay. I think maybe I’ll take some notes this afternoon. Want to go out tonight? Or do you feel like cooking?”
“Let’s go out. It’ll be okay. No one knows us here.”
“Except Bea at the gallery.”
“And the girl.”
“And her. Whoever she is.”
* * *
The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.
Our Garden of the Dark Ages
Look around our house and you’ll see nothing but an infinite expanse of darkness. But it wasn’t always like this. It started the day my wife forced me to help her in the garden. Alice is English. Not only that, she was a botany professor. You'd be hard pressed to find someone who adores plants more than an English botanist. Gardening was never my thing, but I was on thin ice and willing to go along with anything at that point.
My retirement plan hadn’t exactly gone to plan. When my own final year as an engineering professor at the University of East Anglia ended, I had a long list of activities that I thought would keep me busy until I croaked. But five years in, I had finished reading that stack of books, traveled to most places in the world I wanted to see, decided I hated Alice’s yoga classes, put aside my memoir after months of writer’s block, and watched Erik and Freya’s requests for visits from their grandparents dwindle as the little ones entered their tween years. Shockingly, I even lost interest in learning Norwegian. I once thought this impossible, since my Scandinavian-American heritage was the one constant interest in my life. But there were few chances to speak Norwegian in East Anglia. Before long, I spent most days snacking on junk food and mindlessly watching the BBC.
This didn’t go over well with my also-retired wife. She scolded me for being lazy, gaining weight, letting my face fill up with scruff, and “wasting my golden years.” She dragged me to all sorts of activities, trying to get me active again, but nothing did it for me.
What pushed her over the edge, though, was when the booze started earlier each day. When a Bloody Mary became a regular breakfast staple, she raised an eyebrow. When I put myself to bed before the sun went down after one too many whiskeys, she rolled her eyes. But coming home from yoga to find me stumbling around drunk at 2 PM one afternoon was the last straw.
“Either you get your act together and find your passion for life again, or I’m gone,” she warned while staring me down with fiery green eyes. “You may be the love of my life, Jon, but I’m not going to stick around and watch you slowly die like this.”
So, there I was the next day, clean shaven, hair combed, on my knees in our garden digging around in the dirt with her. In truth, it wasn't so bad. It was a nice day to be outside. A cool autumn breeze swirled streams of granite-grey clouds and shook the slowly-yellowing leaves in the trees around our house. Hell, I might have actually enjoyed it, if not for the pestering hangover.
Suddenly something shimmered in the dirt as I pulled up a weed. I reached down, picked up a shiny object, and wiped away the grime. My eyes went wide and my heart galloped. It was something metallic, about the size of a credit card, and looked like solid gold. Even more fascinating was the design of twisting serpents framing the piece, along with an inscription in the middle written in a language resembling something out of Lord of the Rings.
It was absolutely beautiful, but I had no idea what it was. I called over Alice. She was equally stumped.
We didn’t have long before Robert showed up. I had invited him over for tea to show Alice I was making an effort to be sociable again. Robert may not have been her first choice, but given my current low, she would tolerate him.
"Jon! How good to see you," Robert exclaimed when he arrived. "I say, you don't look a day older than the last time I saw you. Must be all that blonde hair hiding the greys!"
The man was hardly in a place to comment on questionable appearances. Robert showed up in his typical half-kempt state. His spectacles, tweed blazer, and bow tie exuded the image of a respectable professor, but his shaggy grey beard, hastily-parted hair, and stains on his shirt suggested an eccentric slob.
We sat down to tea at the patio table in our garden. I enjoyed catching up on how things were going back at the university, though soon enough Robert monopolized the conversation with one of his usual monologues on some history subject. This never bothered me. After all, if he hadn't given me a wine-fueled rant on the history of Scandinavian immigration to America when we were randomly seated beside each other during an all-faculty dinner several years ago, we probably wouldn't be friends. Alice, however, couldn't have been more bored.
To get a word in, she mentioned the scrap of metal I found while gardening. I handed it to Robert. I knew we had something unique when he went uncharacteristically quiet while examining it. I was even more suspicious when his eyes lit up.
"Jon Anderson, my dear friend," he said, "I’m pretty sure this is gold, and the inscription is in Old English. The engravings are typical of 9th century Anglo-Saxon artwork. You might have a valuable ancient artifact on your hands!"
"That, or it's a souvenir from the Sutton Hoo visitor center made of tin," Alice contended with a sassy flip of her silvery-auburn hair.
Robert bit his lip and gazed upward, the gears in his head turning.
"You're one wise botanist, Alice," he said. "There is a way to find out. Let me take this to the university to have it carbon dated and translated. If it's old gold, I'll call you. If it's new tin, I won't bother. How does that sound?"
* * *
The outbreak surfaced the next day. While grudgingly out gardening again, I noticed several plants had black specks on them. They appeared to be rotting, although their shape and texture seemed fine. I pointed them out to Alice. She wasn't concerned.
"Probably just some fungus or disease," she said. “I’ll find out which and deal with it.”
By day two, she wasn't so sure. The black specks were growing and spreading across everything with roots in the ground. Our garden was becoming an Eden of autumn-colored vegetation swished with black paint. Alice examined each leaf with surgical precision, even breaking out her microscope from her days as a botany professor to analyze them.
"I've never seen anything like it,” she marveled. “Apart from this bizarre discoloration, they all seem completely healthy."
My cell phone buzzed. I fished it out of my pocket and saw it was Robert.
"Hi, old chap, have I ever got news for you!" he was out of breath as he spoke. "That scrap of metal was indeed gold from the dark ages, according to the carbon dating. Not only that, historians here have confirmed that it bears the marks of a charm used in old, ritualistic Anglo-Saxon ceremonies. It’s an archeological treasure, by all accounts. Let that be a lesson to trust my instincts!"
Robert’s laugh bordered on hysteria. I was stunned, but couldn’t help share his excitement. I laughed along with him.
“Wow, that’s incredible!” I said. “And did you find out anything about the inscription?”
“Ah yes! The inscription is even more astounding. The linguists have translated it from Old English. I have the translation here, just give me a second.”
I heard him rummaging through papers. He could not have possibly gone any slower.
“Here it is,” he finally said, clearing his throat. “It’s in the typical form of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which translates as follows:
Lo! We have endured the destruction
from the God-cursed spear Danes
Weapons and warriors from the sea
Our kinsman and clergy
Slaughtered by cold hands
Our fields and gold
Seized and stolen
At the enemy’s boundless greed
Death encroaches upon us
Humble servants of God
But may there be glorious vengeance
Famine in our wake
Hunger that tears at our enemies
May there be cold and frost
That ender of grains
Most of all
May there be darkness
Black as the raven
For all eternity upon this land.
Robert finished. A disturbing void of silence followed. My enthusiasm gave way to bewilderment as the tone of the poem became darker and darker. I didn't know what to think.
“Jon, are you still there?”
“Well…what on Earth does all that mean?” I stammered.
“I’m glad you asked! You see, during the 9th century, East Anglia endured numerous invasions by raiders from Scandinavia. These Vikings mercilessly pillaged the people of these parts during that time. The historians here reckon the poem is an elegy by the Anglo-Saxon residents, cursing their enemies and the grim times that befell them. It’s all quite fascinating!”
I didn’t find it so fascinating. Riveting as it might be to imagine that my backyard was the site of an age-old conflict, it was unnerving to think that my house had an ancient curse upon it. More unsettling, though, was another preposterous thought that sprung into my head.
“Rob, something strange happened to our garden since we found that gold scrap. All the plants are turning black. I know this sounds crazy, but could this have anything to do with the ‘eternal darkness’ that the poem mentioned?”
“What a tremendous idea! And how fitting that it should happen to you — a Scandinavian-American descendent of Vikings — just as the old poem curses the Vikings of the past!” Robert chuckled. “It's a most improbable suggestion, but I’ll never say anything is impossible. Anyway, the fellows here at the university think there’s more where your charm came from. They’re keen to excavate your plot. When can they start?”
“Uh…I’ll have to check with Alice and get back to you.”
“Well, don’t keep us waiting too long. This could be a more consequential discovery than Sutton Hoo!”
I hung up the phone, my brain feeling like mush, rattled by the accumulating oddities of the day. The discovery was easily the most exciting thing that had happened to me in years. Yet, there was no doubt; our garden had started transforming right after I found that ancient relic with the curse on it. The link seemed too extraordinary to write off as mere coincidence. I stood there wondering what it all meant, feeling I was a long way from understanding. Slowly though, my thoughts turned to the equally confounding puzzle of how I would ever convince Alice to allow a group of archeologists to tear up her garden.
* * *
The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.
HARRISON CODY THRIFT
Our town was one not easily found. To say it was hidden completely would not be true, because people would find us from time to time. It was rare, but everyone saw at least one Stranger in their lifetimes, or so the Elders tell us.
The day I saw my first Stranger was one I won’t ever forget, even if it was a day that was easily forgettable. I was thirteen and worked part time for the general store owner at the time and was on the porch sweeping when a man dressed in strange clothes stumbled from the trees onto our main road, his head twisting back and forth. The strange thing was not that his clothes were ripped and ragged, but they looked nothing like the clothes of our townsfolk.
I froze. He noticed me and limped toward me at a pace so fast it quickened the beating of my heart to an alarming rate. I realized no one was around to save me, as everyone was inside and the street was deserted.
The broom clattered to the porch, sending a cloud of dust into the air, as he shouted upon nearing me, “Hey! Hey you! I–I need your help!”
My legs finally thawed and allowed me to move, and I darted into the general store, slamming the door behind me and causing the bell to jangle violently, threatening to fall off the door altogether.
“What’s wrong, Joshua?” Mr. Harris asked, worry spreading across his face as fast as a wildfire.
Words caught in my throat. “M–m…there’s…a…man. A man!” I finally got out.
“Man? What man?” Mr. Harris dashed to the window and pulled the curtain to the side. He turned his head left and right and noticed the Stranger I had encountered. “Wait here,” was all he said to me before he ran behind the counter, pulled a rifle from beneath it, and took off out the back door.
I waited by the counter. I waited for what seemed like hours. I dared not look out or even move. The man scared me. His clothes, his tattered features, his voice; they were all the things of which nightmares are composed. Fear quaked beneath my skin, my bones, for the entire duration Mr. Harris was gone. Nobody came in to buy things during his absence, though I noticed shadows of people running by the front windows in the direction of the man from time to time.
The door burst open, causing me to fall onto the floor. It was not Mr. Harris, however, who caused the disruption.
“Joshua, c’mon,” my father said breathlessly. “It’s high time you see somethin’ like this.”
He pulled me out of the shop by my arm, despite my silent refusal. I don’t think he noticed my resistance. It was not disobedience that attempted to anchor my feet to that floor, though: it was merely fear. But I allowed him to pull me (I could not fight his farmer strength anyway, even if I wanted to disobey), and I witnessed a large crowd in the street.
My father shoved his way to the front of the crowd, pulling me along, until we could see the middle of the crowd and that terrifying Stranger. He was bound and gagged, kneeling in the dirt. The fear I felt within my soul was reflected in his darting eyes and his attempt to plead through the gag, wriggling in his binds, tears streaming down his dirt-caked face. The mayor gripped everyone’s attention in the speech he was giving.
“It’s been many moons,” he was saying, “since we’ve received a Stranger. Many of you have yet to see one in our midst. Why, I was just a child last our little hamlet had someone new cross our borders.” He smiled down at the man. Something stirred inside me upon witnessing that smile. It unnerved me, for reasons I was not sure. “Now the question we’re faced will be determined by this man’s decision: do we add another to our ranks, or let him leave?” He faced the Stranger, then said, “We anxiously await your answer, young man.” And with that, two burly men (Isaac and Harold) lifted the man beneath the arms and dragged him away. His muffled screams echoed all the way down the street, even as people cheered.
My father turned to face me finally. I hadn’t realized how awestruck we both had been watching. He smiled and said, “Like the mayor said, it’s been many years since we’ve had a Stranger.”
“What’s going to happen to him?” I murmured.
My father was silent for a long moment. I almost thought he didn’t hear me, and he responded just before I repeated my question, “It’s up to the Stranger. He can stay, or he can leave. We hope he stays. It’s always good when someone stays.” His eyes drifted somewhere above my head as he said that last part dreamily and lazily.
Realization about what he meant slowly washed over me. “So…some of the townspeople weren’t born here?”
“Not all of us, son,” my father replied, that dreamy expression still on his face. “Not all of us.”
Slowly, the crowd dispersed, murmuring excitedly. The other children looked just as bewildered as I did as we followed our parents home.
* * *
I couldn’t focus on my history lesson the next day as our teacher droned on about our ancestors. Even as the screeching of the chalk on the blackboard pierced my ears from time to time, my gaze was fixed on the tree outside, swaying gently in the wind, and my mind was equally fixed on what I witnessed the night before.
“Joshua?” my teacher’s voice echoed distantly. I slowly came back into reality and noticed the room was silent, every eye in the room staring holes into me.
I turned and looked at Mrs. Smith blankly.
“What is Harry Carlisle known for?” she said sternly, her hands on her hips.
“Oh…” I drew a blank. I know this, I thought. But try as I might, the answer wouldn’t come to me. The events of the previous night consumed every ounce of mental capacity I could muster. “I…I don’t know,” I finally admitted.
She sighed, shooting a disappointed glance in my direction before she turned to her next victim. “Arthur?” I felt my face fill with hellfire.
Arthur stiffened. “F-founding our town and giving us our Tenants,” he managed, his face seeming to burn as hot as mine had. Mrs. Smith gave him a smile and a nod, another quick and disappointed glance at me, and then turned back to the blackboard to continue the lesson. I sighed, my shoulders slumping.
My only friend, Martin, leaned over. “Did ya see all that last night?” he whispered with a devilish grin on his face. I nodded, but couldn’t match his smile. He seemed to take the grim look on my face as my continued embarrassment from before and continued, “Father said that was the first time in his whole life he’s seen a Stranger come through. I heard that Mr. Baker was the last one this town’s seen. You know how ancient that old—”
“Mr. Miller,” a stern voice interrupted. We jerked our heads to see Mrs. Smith was staring at us, brow furrowed, hands on her hips.
“S-Sorry, Mrs. Smith,” Martin murmured and settled back in his seat. I nodded quickly and, seemingly content with our apologies, she continued her lesson. Martin stole another glance my way and winked.
I returned his friendly gesture with a small — albeit sad — smile and turned my attention back to the tree outside. The swaying branches soothed my mind, if only for a moment, as something caught my eye and made my heart transform into a restless stallion. Out on the road, figures meandered about. I realized (which is what caused my heart to race off into the wild blue yonder) that the three figures were Mayor Thurman, who gestured about by pointing in various directions; the sheriff, Mr. Peters, who looked fairly grim and serious (his normal demeanor, which I could tell he wore even from this distance); and the Stranger, who was bound, gagged, and still wearing his tattered clothes, his hair mussed and matted from sweat, dirt, and blood. They neared the school, the mayor still talking, and I noticed the Stranger looked even more roughed up than he had the night before, with bruises covering his face, his right eye swollen, and a large gash going along his left cheek. He had a grave look and his shoulder sagged. Suddenly, his gaze drifted to the school, and I jerked my own away from the scene, trying to fix my attention to the lesson on fractions Mrs. Smith had moved on to. I didn’t learn a thing, all the way until the bell rang for recess. By then, the three outside had moved on as well.
* * *
The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.
Billy figured it was an odds-on bet school would be canceled tomorrow, getting confirmation from no less an authority than his mother. As usual he had been hustled into bed by eight, but the storm now raging through the Midwest had dumped a foot of snow outside in the last three hours and showed no signs of slowing. He had managed to get outside only briefly before his mother called him in for bed. “They’ll be plenty of time for that tomorrow,” she told him as she helped him remove his parka, Billy grumbling the entire time. “I can’t imagine you’ll have to go to school in that.” She jerked a thumb towards the window. This made him feel slightly better. In these sorts of matters he found her completely reliable.
“Bet you’ll love that!” Billy's father called from the living room, the sound of the basketball game all but drowning his words. Billy detected something in the comment, as if his father had been talking to his mother and not to him. All part of the “secret language” of parents, no doubt; he did not even pretend to understand. Billy had no idea what they might be getting at, but his parents spoke in a sort of code, using everyday language to communicate subtext when their son, not part of the conversation, happened to be within hearing distance. Billy had learned to pretty much ignore it.
He sat up in bed, his mother’s footsteps receding while the TV hummed away in the distance, spoken voices fuzzy and indistinguishable like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon. Waiting several heartbeats to make sure she was not returning, Billy threw back the coverlet, got out of bed, and pulled aside the blind, peering through his single window into the backyard. Snow was falling so heavily he could not see the tree twenty feet from his first story window or the tire swing dangling from its branch — a stinging reminder of the warm summer months. Dad had been promising Mom he would take it down since autumn gave way to winter, but he had been putting it off. He'd wait till it was time to put it up again, grin, and say, “Two problems solved at once.” Mom said Dad was a terrible “procrassator.”
Confirming it was indeed still snowing, Billy let go of the blind and returned to bed, pulling the covers up to his chin. The curious half-light that came with heavy snow peeked around the blind, filling the room with a spooky glow.
This gray-tinged light was not exactly a comfort, and the nightlight he usually plugged into the socket beside the half-open closet was useless on such a night, so he left it off. The monster inside the closet was not afraid of light, as boogeymen traditionally were, and it loved the shadows such lights provided. Billy had named the monster “Poo” at age five, two years earlier, and had long forgotten why he had given it such an infantile name (though it probably had something to do with potty training). It sounded silly to his slightly-older self, yet part of him knew that such a name took away some of the monster's power. While calling it “Poo” always brought a smile to Billy’s lips, he knew it would be a mistake to underestimate the wily creature. Like all boogeymen it came when his parents went away. And also like all boogeymen, it was after a single child: him.
Billy had studied the monster long enough to know that while it did come around with greater frequency after dark, it often made daytime visits when shadows lay upon the world — mostly on overcast days. That it traveled freely at any time, he had decided, was the scariest thing about it.
“Poo” had nothing to do with Christopher Robbin’s stuffed pal, as Billy tried explaining to his mother when he still thought she might do something about it. The thought that this name might be confusing to others never crossed his mind, the concepts so contrary to each other that when he first spoke about Poo in his mother’s presence he was puzzled by her response. “So, you’ve got Winnie the Pooh in here?” she said with a grin in her voice, opening the closet door as she had many times before, and continued to do to this day, her stated goal to prove once and for all that there was no monster in there and never had been. Of course she hadn’t found Winnie the Pooh in his closet, or anything else. Parents were such blockheads! Either Poo had not been there when his mother opened the door or it had hidden itself within the folds and wrinkles of Billy's clothing when it heard her coming; it was not stupid. It might be a lot of things, but it certainly wasn't that. Poo used wrinkles and straight lines as roads and highways into the human world from wherever it came from. This Billy knew, but he had long ago stopped trying to explain such things to his mother. She would belittle his fears, ruffle his hair, and tell him what an overactive imagination he had.
If Mom wanted to see a kid with real imagination, she ought to talk to his friend Juniper from school. Talk about crazy ideas! She was a cutie — one grade ahead of him. Every boy in class had a crush on her: with her lustrous black hair in pigtails and her cherubic cheeks as red as Macintosh apples. When she started hanging around him on the playground, out of all the boys, he had been as shocked as anyone. He did not see himself as much different from the others, yet she had even invited him to her house a few times and once for her birthday party (he had been only one of two boys there). So she must have liked something about him. Anyway, during recess one time she told him a secret: that everything she drew became real. What would Mom say about that?
Even if a crummy nightlight would not stop the monster, and he knew it would not, Billy continued to use it as a sort of early warning system. Maybe get to see Poo's shadow on the wall before he saw it, give him a one second advantage that might be enough to save his life. Billy had an idea, an intuition really, that the boogeyman would be coming for him soon. It had been moving around inside the closet a lot over the past few weeks, and he saw this as the worst of signs. He would hear the thing in there, making sinister rustling sounds as it found pathways through his clothing, the noises ceasing when the monster arrived at an occasional dead end. And it was furtive, as if Poo were trying not to be heard. If anything spoke of the monster's true intentions, Billy decided it was this; it would not mind being overheard if it meant no harm.
No doubt it would have gotten Billy already, but he had (quite by accident) stumbled on a way to trap it in the closet. One evening he did not feel like hanging his jeans or draping them over the back of his chair. His mother hated messes anywhere in the house, but she absolutely would not tolerate them in her son’s room. Dad reassured him she was “obsessive” about neatness, it did not necessarily concern Billy. Maybe this happened to be true, yet it certainly felt as if Billy were being singled out for special treatment. “Hang this up,” “put that away,” and “don’t leave that lying around” were phrases he heard nearly every single day — and they were not being directed toward his dad.
Sometimes Billy wondered if Mom had been replaced by a robot. With her single-minded drive she certainly acted like the ones on TV. Once he concocted an elaborate fantasy: Dad had assembled her in his basement workshop from a kit purchased at a local hobby shop. Even if this might be intriguing to think about, Billy knew it could never be true. His father had little technical know-how and even less motivation. And if those things weren't enough, there was his “procrassation” to think about. The project would simply never be gotten around to, even if his father did have the technical know-how. If his mother was a robot, she had become one without Dad's assistance. Billy could perhaps go with the alien invasion angle, but he had enough worries without adding that to the list. Besides, he had determined, mostly by talking with Juniper on the school playground, that all parents were kooks and oddballs, and that his parents were not exceptions to this — tempting as that might be to think about.
Because he did not feel like hanging up his pants, Billy had tossed them into the closet so Mom would not rag him about picking them up. Funny to think he’d saved himself by being lazy! Imagine what Mom would say if I told her that!
Until that night the boogeyman had traveled freely about Billy's room. Before, the boy would often lie awake listening in terror as Poo roamed freely between the four walls, bumping into things and making that creepy rustling sound that brought to mind drapes blowing in the wind. All through this Billy could not shake the conviction it was trying to be quiet. Why Poo never attacked him while it had had the run of the place was the real mystery. Maybe it had been trying to get into his bed and could not quite figure out how to go about it, although once it reached the end of his mattress, an event so traumatic Billy nearly wet himself. That night, as he prayed and kept his eyes shut tight, he waited for a final blow that never came. The monster whispered and rustled in the bedclothes at his feet for what felt like hours before abruptly falling silent. It had been confounded — Billy realizing this later when he put two and two together — by the tangled mass of sheets he had kicked into shapelessness at the end of the bed.
The chaos of tangled bedclothes: Poo had not been able to travel beyond it somehow. Similarly, the casually tossed pants had fallen upon the threshold of the closet and had sealed it off from the rest of his room. Why Poo had not climbed over them or crossed the ceiling where there weren't any such obstacles Billy had no idea; he only cared that he had found something that stalled the monster in its tracks. Maybe Poo was compelled to go through anything it came upon, these mazes of twisted and broken lines — even if there was no solution to the puzzle. Sort of like picking at a knot and not being able to unravel it. It moved, Billy soon discovered, by straight line only. In a way, it was as obsessive as his mom.
Poo had picked the right child in the right house with the right mother to chase after! All Billy's clothes were either folded with mathematical precision and put into his dresser, or ironed and pressed and hung in his closet — all by his neat-freak mother. Straight lines, then, were not exactly in short supply. And Poo certainly took advantage of that.
Until the pants incident, that was. These days Poo remained in the closet, unable to escape (rather like a kenneled dog). Each evening, after Mom tucked him in and left, Billy got up, tiptoed to the closet, and scattered clothes in the entryway. Just as each morning he rushed to get them off the floor and rehung as neatly as possible before his mother caught on to what he was up to. He had been caught a few times, but had never aroused suspicion of his ulterior motive. Not only would Mom never understand, she would assume he was making elaborate excuses for being a slob and likely give him a “time out” for lying. Billy felt a certainty that Poo was biding its time, waiting for a chance to make its move. He had to be ready.
How many children had been snatched by boogeymen with unwitting aid from disbelieving parents? No small number, Billy surmised, if his own parents' actions were anything to go by — making Mom and Dad accessories after the fact if he ever lost his nightly battle. No way could he be the sole child whose assertions had been ignored or belittled by otherwise well-meaning parents. Juniper had told him as such.
Mothers and fathers were really good at ignoring the evidence of their own eyes. His friend explained this was just the way it was. Wouldn't help to moan or gripe about it. People simply lost the ability to “see” as they grew older. You couldn’t really blame adults, Juniper went on, even if you wanted to and they kind of deserved it. It all came down to you in the end. You could never rely on anyone else to help; you had to save yourself if you happened to be in trouble, and Billy guessed this was about the way it was going to be with him, too. He hadn’t told the little girl from down the block anything about his particular problem. He had merely dropped a casual hint at recess several months back about having some issues with “things that go bump in the night.” Juniper had given him a knowing look, nodded seriously, and began to speak in that disconcerting way she had, the commanding tone of someone much older than she happened to be.
“I had a monster under my bed once,” she said matter-of-factly, as the two children scrambled like monkeys over the playground's geodesic dome, the cheerful cacophony of playful children rising about them like heat from summer tarmac.
Juniper reached the top of the dome, sat down, and dangled her legs between the bars. She fiddled with the braids in her dark hair. Billy saw a purple wildflower clipped into one of the braids. He thought it plastic, but closer inspection proved he had been mistaken; it looked remarkably fresh and alive. As he watched, a breeze caught its petals and they fluttered along with several loose strands of lustrous hair. One strand crossed her face and she absently brushed it away. Smiling widely, Juniper started kicking her legs back and forth.
Billy’s heart throbbed painfully in his chest. Every boy in class might have a crush on Juniper, but his was biggest of all. He stared at her while she grinned guilelessly back, somehow finding his lost voice in the silence of the moment. “So, what did you do?” he asked breathlessly. He could not recall exactly when he realized he could talk to the little girl about these things, yet he found Juniper enormously sympathetic, a person he could speak to about any subject his parents did not take seriously, which pretty much encompassed everything. She never treated him with casual disdain or subtle condescension. Juniper might be one year older than he, but talking with her was almost like talking to an adult who “got it,” who understood. To him Juniper was like the mythical all-knowing older sibling of many of his classmates, the one they deferred to in crisis. And since he was an only child, Billy had no one to speak with in his household who held such authority. Still, Juniper was better than any brother or sister. She had an omniscience about her. She knew things no one else seemed to know.
A red rubber ball rolled between the bars and into the dome beneath them, a refugee from a nearby game of kickball. Billy and Juniper were off in a corner of the playground, relatively isolated. Now the distant drone of playing children spiked about them as the game was propelled into their sphere, enveloping them within its chaos while the two friends, engaged in serious discussion, remained ignored and aloof above it. Kids swarmed about the geodesic dome like ants all over a sticky candy cane, each one attempting to get at the rubber ball which bobbed and weaved between their spindly legs. Several children slipped between the dome's steel bars to pursue it. After a short tussle, the ball, aided by some child’s well-placed foot, flew away from Billy and Juniper and back into the playground at large. The mass of children swarmed after it, their laughter and cheers once more receding into a white noise background hum.
Having waited until they were alone so that she would not have to raise her voice, Juniper said, “I drew it away.”
Billy did not understand and gave her a questioning look.
Juniper’s small face twisted with concentration as she decided best how to explain what she meant. “I mean, I took a red crayon and drew a picture of the monster.” Her smile widened. “And then I took another crayon, the black one, and scribbled the monster out. Black is best for getting rid of stuff,” she elaborated. “But that only trapped the monster behind the black crayon, see? Like bars of a cage. The best way I could think of to get rid of it was to throw it in the fire. Tearing it up was no good ‘cause it would’ve still been around. Luckily my dad was burning leaves in the backyard and I threw the drawing in when he wasn't looking.” She outspread her fingers in an expansive gesture. Then, puffing her cheeks like a chipmunk storing nuts, Juniper exhaled, adding the word “Poof!” for emphasis. “No more monster. I watched the ashes float upward with the smoke into a bright blue sky.”
“It’s really that easy?” asked Billy, not meaning to sound incredulous.
The girl's smile dimmed slightly when she next met his eyes. She patted him on the shoulder. “No, it’s not,” she said, and her normally-cheerful voice had taken on an added weight he had never heard in a child's voice before. “For me, sometimes, sure. I can do certain things, but," she sighed, giving Billy a sympathetic look, “it’ll probably be a lot harder for you. You can try it, but don’t expect a lot. You’ll have to figure it out on your own.”
The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.