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2024  •  ISBN# 9781970033335  •  88 pp  •  6" x 9" paperback

Night Picnic is a literary journal founded in 2018. We publish novels, novellas, plays, short and flash stories, fairytales and fantasy for adults, poetry, interviews, essays (including popular science essays), letters to the editors, and artwork. We seek to share and celebrate all that is strange, dark, jubilant, complex, confusing, scary, mystical, fantastic, multidimensional, and metaphysical.

This issue includes:

Brandon Michael Cleverly Breen, The Perfect Structure

Laura Stone, The Second Life of Tommy Parker

David Hinson, Collecting Snow

Alice Baburek, Yesterday

Nancy Pica Renken, Kiss of the Cailleach Bheur

Megan Liscomb, The First House

Michael David Wadler, Star Pupil

Glen Armstrong, From the Center of an X & other poems

E.L. Douglas, Cardinals & other poem

Jack Granath, The Go Rub Yourself Sonnets

Enjoy work from this issue below:



From the Center of an X


We are a people of eyes

and other dots,


glass beads and tiny circles

cut from the center


of an x. They never

welcomed us properly,


never had us

over for tea and awkward



never got us to stop


trembling. Our ancestors

understood crosshairs


before scopes even existed,

the dangers in the gauzy space


they occupied. 

They told stories equally


loved by haters and Haitians

who want their fight song back.


Some of the confetti thrown

in his honor finds its way


into the f-holes

of Charles's upright bass.





From Her Veranda


She ventures from her veranda

and shouts,


"There is nothing but cold air

at the beginning


of that which matters,

The Rugby World Cup or a love


affair, for example."

She stirs a little something in me


that needed stirring.

It's early in the morning,


and the January nights,

though shrinking, are still too long.


There's too much to remember

and not enough spin on the ball.


(There is no ball.)

There are too many horses


and not enough warm clothing

to go around.


There are too many sheer bathrobes

and not enough


taxi cabs for those wishing

to depart.





Return to Redondo Beach


To go swimming is to go to sea with no boat

and very little ambition. I return a little

sunburned with no stories of my adventures

in strange and distant lands. In ancient

times, teenagers would dance on the beach

to a network of transistor radios all tuned

to the same station, but now the young folks

stay home to post pictures of their bodies

on the internet: dancing, eating enormous

amounts of cheese, making love, vomiting

the cheese, getting dressed, applying makeup,

casting spells in the park . . . All the stars

have disappeared, and cloud cover has made

the night sky bright but unclear. I take

the moon's fullness on faith, its shape

obscured but its light still strong enough

for me to read the flier for a punk rock

concert someone left on my car while I

was swimming.




The steps to the front porch grow steeper every year.

The paint on the rocking chairs have long since chipped.

But I still sit there, gazing at the silver stars.


I brew cinnamon tea — your favorite.

There used to be more cups on the shelves,

but now I just need one.

I bring the tea out to the garden,

and the box with a loose hinge.


A cardinal lands in front of me,

on the angel statue forever watching

over our porch.


Every day, sunrise to sunset,

I rifle through hundreds of postcards,

all taken from spinning racks from

every date over fifty years,

piled into this perfect box.


Picnics against avocado and kumquat trees,

forever captioned, Wish you were here.


Greetings from Pigeon Forge,

first degree burns from

a clumsy cooking class.


Fishing on Lake Erie,

a beautiful day frozen in time

on a four-by-six card.


Our old address is on the back.

A forever stamp.


But you’re still here.


You’re in the garden.

You’re in your workshop.

You’re in the postcards.


The cardinal flies away.






Neon signs flicker and flash.

Pothole puddles are a sickly reflection

of synthetic sunlight.


The sun has long since set.

The shadow of the moon casts no light and

I rely on the signs of the late night diners.


Golden arches,

Butter over waffles,

Overhead lights that look like egg yolks.


I walk alone through the city of steel.

My raincoat prevents me from

becoming one of the city’s shadows.


I count the streetlamps that

wash me in a circle of yellow light.

I subtract the bulbs that have burned out.


In the darkness, I make out

scrawled handwriting over the bookstore sign:



The yellow marker runs in the rain.


I tug my hood further over my head.


I try to disappear into the darkness,

like the city had years ago.


My faded golden key struggles in the lock.

I toss off my yellow raincoat.

The amber lights barely turn on.


My eyes are drawn to an unusual spot of color.

In the corner of the living room is

a lemon tree.


I dig my nails into one of the yellow fruits,

letting the juice run over my hand.

It’s real. It’s life.


The Go Rub Yourself Sonnets




We met while stuck inside a muddy hole

Some twilit bar had flushed us halfway through.

Hannah put one hand against my soul,

Let down her hair, and shoved me up the flue.


The wet earth fit me like a falcon’s hood.

I couldn’t breathe but didn’t really care—

The dying I was doing felt damn good,

My body swaddled in her bread-warm hair.


A shudder then, that terrible cliché,

Sufficed me and I landed in the street,

Contented, briefly hog-like where I lay,

Sprawled in a slush of blood at Hanna’s feet.


The evening ended with a goodnight kiss,

The kind that feels, at bottom, bottomless.







I inched awake, my eyes sealed shut with slaver,

A dozen mastiffs tearing at the bed,

Panting after any petty favor

That might be yawningly distributed.


Hannah told me they were only friends,

And I believed her, even when they bit.

I argued, calculating dividends,

Let’s melt together and be done with it,


And she agreed, if evanescently.

She shambled bravely through the ritual

By stepping over Butch to stand with me,

While Rufus plainted something pitiful.


I didn’t realize it was a game

Until their laughter tipped its hand and came.







But no game can compete with one on one,

Which Hannah called for after our debauch.

She guaranteed me steaming loads of fun

And crouched down like a chimpanzee to watch.


My adversary was a chewing goon,

Who chose a rapier and a piece of meat

As weapons for a lazy afternoon

Of mulching me beneath his filthy feet.


I faced him with a page of day-old talk

That stropped the rusty razor of my mind

Until it flattered forth a tomahawk

And left my Western history behind.


I struggled fiercely, foaming, wolf-dance-hearted,

Slipped, got up, and then the battle started.








And from the far end of the sewer pipe,

Emerging on a devastated plain,

Two figures of apocalyptic type

Crawled across the shadows like a stain.


One of them was called the Comely Man.

The other, somewhat uglier, was me,

Meditating on my master plan

To live and let all interlopers be


Consumed by fire.  We had to talk about her,

He with a playboy’s crooked, shrugging smile,

I, the ardor-hardened double doubter,

Between clenched teeth while disemboguing bile.


Trust is like corn, a thing to sow and reap.

I think he tried to kill me in my sleep.







Maybe she found the damaged part attractive

Or pitied it and tingled as she did,

Her motherstuff benignly hyperactive—

Kiss of cow and eightfold hug of squid.


I didn’t mind.  I took what I could get

And let her salve my spiritual ache.

I played with probabilities and bet

My pleasures on a bountiful mistake.


My math was lacking, but I beat the odds

Until the two-by-four I wielded broke

And I lay cursing her by all the gods

Of my imagination, and she spoke,


Not having heard one red-hot word I said.

She dropped her jeans.  I dropped and quieted.







There followed five wet weeks of oily joy,

A beach scene in a movie with guitars,

And then she licked to life another boy

And jilted me beneath a scum of stars.


But in those weeks we gorged on love like leeches

Plastered to the ankle of a slut,

Sucked blood until we blew our farthest reaches

By reaching for a door forever shut.


The future lay behind it, and the past,

And all the other parasites of touch,

Those mewling lies, that pullulating caste

Of promises that lick their teeth too much.


Time’s hooligans exulted, being free,

Then thrashed me with my own philosophy.







My head exploded, it was no big deal.

I set off for the party after all

With my pet monkey and my glockenspiel

And an adolescent plan to have a ball.


It felt as if a can of sperm had spilled.

Everyone who’s everyone was there,

Including Hannah and the man she killed,

Tangled like a sparrow in her hair.


I took up my position at the bar

And watched that thickset evening drip like wax,

While Hannah worked her magic from afar,

Causing little cocktail heart attacks.


At twelve o’clock I tucked my wound away,

Shouted for silence, and began to play.



The Perfect Structure


“Class, there’s someone very special I want you to meet.” Twenty pairs of five-year-old eyes stared up at Ms. Robertson. “This is Michael and we’re getting married this weekend.” A wave of silent understanding passed through the group of kindergarteners.

          “Congratulations!” shouted one voice that couldn’t quite distinguish the difference between r’s and w’s yet. Murmurs of agreement chorused through the children.  

          “Do you love him?” demanded another voice.  

          Ms. Robertson giggled and looked Michael in the eyes. Michael chuckled back, captivated by her bright smile.  

          “I love him more than anything in the world. But, sadly, that means you’ll have a substitute all next week.”  

          Groans of protest went through the five-year-olds, but they knew this was important. They understood.  


* * * 

“You might feel a light tug, but the Novocain should take care of most of the pain,” the dentist told his patient. She murmured her consent. “Ready? One, two, three… and it’s done.” He dropped the tooth onto a tray on the side table. His assistant began to clean off the patient and switch her seat into the upright position.   

          “Did you want your tooth, Sarah?” The dentist asked. “Or should I just dispose of the little devil?”  

          “You can just toss it,” she said through a mouthful of gauze.  


          After the patient left and the assistant was helping someone else, the dentist made sure no one’s gaze was on him as he stuffed the small, white ball of enamel into his pocket.  

          He was as giddy as a child when he got home from work that day. The excitement echoed through the house as he tiptoed down the rickety basement stairs and flicked on the blaring fluorescent lights. The room was illuminated in a blinding flash of white as hundreds of teeth shone like pearls under the artificial glare.  

          “Beautiful, so beautiful,” the dentist murmured. He walked over to his display of molars to look for a spot to put his new prize. He wiped it off with a cloth and placed it on a small plastic stand. Then he took out a black Sharpie and carefully wrote on a label underneath: “Sarah, female age 32, October 2.”  

          The dentist stepped back to admire the new addition to his collection. A low buzz sound emitted from the light bulbs. The dentist stood drenched in pure white light and smiled.  

          Every tooth had a story. Every tooth was like a dear friend to him. Every tooth was like a page in a diary that the dentist hoped he would never stop writing. He remembered the first time he ever lost a tooth. He was seven years old and he recalled the memory with a euphoric fondness. He had felt his loose tooth for a week and one day he was pulling on it in front of his bathroom mirror when it fell down into the sink with a squirt of blood. Even at such a young age he realized that that was the most beautiful and pure thing he had ever seen, stained by the blood of his mouth. He was ashamed that he had dirtied this purity and spent ten minutes washing it in the sink. He knew he would keep that tooth forever. The next morning his mother had asked him if he forgot to leave his tooth for the tooth fairy, but he just told her he was too old to believe in that stuff.  

          Walking over to his small collection of children’s teeth, he looked at this tooth as he reminisced. It would have rotted years ago if not for the dentist’s meticulous attention. No part of the tooth was probably organic anymore, but that didn’t matter to him. As long as it retained its original beauty. The dentist shuddered as an erotic chill shook his body. He loved his collection of teeth. They were beautiful; they were pure. They understood him

The rest of this story is available in Volume 7, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.


The Second Life of Tommy Parker


was driving home from work when I first saw him, running for his life like a mad thing. My headlights picked up his frantic form, cutting a jagged path down the country road, weaving from side to side.

         The sight of a lone man, fleeing as if being pursued, was an alarming sight indeed. Factor in that I knew very well that this particular man had died over three months ago, and you had one puzzling situation afoot.

         Fortunately, I’m the curious sort, otherwise any one of those facts may have had me hitting the accelerator.

         I recognized his hair first. That flowing mane of gold, rippling past broad shoulders, matted with dirt and leaves. I’d spent a lot of time staring at the back of that head in my school days. He was beautiful. He should have been lying in a coffin. No man is perfect, I guess.

         Occasionally, Tommy threw a panicked glance backwards. I sincerely hoped nothing was chasing him.

         I drove very slowly in a wide arc around him. His movements were erratic and the last thing I wanted was to send him back to the grave without any answers. Idling a few feet ahead of him, I slowed to a stop before rolling down my window. Freezing air rushed into my car.

         Craning my neck outside, I peered back at the frenzied figure. I had enough sense to stay in the car for now at least. I’ve seen enough horror movies in my time, thank you very much.

         “Tommy? Yoo-hoo, Tommy Parker! That really you?”

         I don’t know, what else would you say, in my situation? It probably wasn’t a “yoo-hoo” kind of moment but I was panicking.

         It wasn’t particularly surprising when he barreled past me, staring straight ahead as if the devil were hot on his tail. My headlights painted a pitiful picture. A flash of a frightened face, the whites of his eyes showing. He was wearing a suit, a real nice one, apart from the dirt that coated it. I could hear the wheeze of his breath, was hit by the stench of sweat and earth. Blimey.

         Swearing under my breath, I unclipped my seatbelt and unlocked the door.

         It was fortunate I’d just finished a shift at the pub. I was wearing trainers, perfect for standing on my feet pouring pints for hours on end. Or running after potential zombies.

         I jumped out of the car and tore off after him.

         “Tom! Tommy! How the hell are you this fast?” I puffed. Dead for three months and fitter than me. I was fuming. “Stop making me run, you know I hate running!”

         My appeal was in vain. He seemed to be making a more controlled effort to sprint away from me, weaving less. It was infuriating.

         “Tommy, will you stop?! I want to help you, please!”

         He stopped so abruptly, I almost crashed into his back.

         I gasped for breath but kept my voice calm. “There now. Isn’t that better?”

         The look he gave me suggested he did not agree. Wide-eyed and practically snarling, he held his palms out as if to ward me off, clawing at the air. He was over six feet tall, stocky and muscular. I couldn’t see any obvious signs of injury. The thought that I could be a danger to him was almost funny.

         Plus he had that whole “dead man running” thing going on.

         “You be polite or I’m getting straight back in that car and leaving your ass out here!” I snapped, using the same voice usually reserved for unruly patrons at the pub. It was normally quite effective, but Tommy just looked baffled.

         I had no intention of leaving him alone in the cold. There was more dirt on his face and I’d just noticed the state of his hands, coated in grime and cut to pieces. He was even missing a fingernail or two.

         “Jesus!” I breathed at the sight. He flinched, and I tried not to take it to heart. Every inch of his body was thrumming with tension, clearly seconds away from bolting.

I couldn’t have that.

         “I’m Bonnie, remember? We went to school together. Smithy the Spitter’s year group? Called him that because of all the spit…” I trailed off, realizing I was only increasing his confusion. “Never mind.”

         “Y-y-you…” His voice was rusty. Tommy lowered his hands a fraction.

         “Yes, me. Bonnie. You know me,” I smiled encouragingly.

         “Bonnie?” A spark of recognition. His eyes gleamed in the dark. I could almost recall their vivid shade of blue. Dreamy.

         “That’s right,” I nodded as if I were talking to a child or a nervous animal. I sure hoped he wouldn’t bite.

         “What? Where am I?” He wrapped his arms around his body, looking exhausted. “I don’t remember—” Suddenly, he doubled over in a coughing fit.

         I reached out, intending to thump him on the back or something. He looked so pathetic. Even in his distracted state, he flinched away from me, still coughing, body shaking from the effort.

         He hacked up something, spitting it onto the ground with a splat.

         A smattering of dirt.

         I felt my features twist with revulsion but made sure my disgust was well hidden when he looked up at me. Tommy wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, looking apologetic.

         He groaned. “Oh God, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

         I did. I wondered how to break it to him. Tact was never my strong point. Should I do it right here?

         “What do you remember?” I asked, trying to disguise the eagerness in my voice.

         He frowned in concentration and I fought down an inappropriate smile. It was the cute furrow between his eyebrows that I remembered so well, whenever he was asked a question in class.                         Tommy Parker was never the brightest boy in our year, but he was the prettiest. Plus, he was always so nice to me — unusual for such a popular kid.

         “I remember nothing. Oh no…” he moaned, making a lunge for me. It took everything in me not to recoil or lash out. He was just upset, I reminded myself. It didn’t stop me longing for the cricket bat in the back of my car, for a split second. A girl could never be too careful coming home alone at night.

         He gripped my shoulders, trembling with desperation as he hauled me closer. “There was nothing! Just this deep, black emptiness… Where was I?”

         His voice went high-pitched with panic, remaining nails digging into my flesh. The scent of mulch was choking me with his proximity.

         I placed my hands firmly on his biceps to support him. His knees were buckling. He looked so wretched, the last of my reservations were scattered. This was no monster; he was a miracle. Just a frightened young man in need of help.

         Instead, he found me.

         “I think you were dead, Tommy,” I said gently.

         He wailed like a wounded animal. It wasn’t denial. I saw that he understood instantly. Probably had to claw his way out his own grave, the poor chap.

         His legs gave out. I wasn’t strong enough to bear his weight. He dropped to his knees, pulling me down with him. As I crouched on the hard gravel, I could only watch as Tommy Parker began to cry.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 7, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.


Collecting Snow


Lila sees you slipping away and gently kisses your shoulder. This close to sleep, you weren’t expecting any attention, and it worries you. Lila usually pulls you back from the brink of dreaming only when she wants to talk about something she thinks you’ll deflect if you’re fully alert.

         She grabs your arm and pretends to have trouble pulling you onto your side to face her, even though she does CrossFit and could probably bench-press you. You see the pretending as an attempt to seem playful, to disarm you. She finds and holds your hand under the covers. “You never say anything while we’re having sex.”

         Her tone transforms it into a question.

         It’s unlike her to be this indirect. You decide to take her words literally, as merely an observation that requires no response. You don’t have a useful reply anyway. Your exhausted brain produces vague attempts to connect the past and the present. Like how when you were younger and no one wanted anything from you except friendship, you felt ashamed of your sexual desires. Or later, how things you asked for in bed were met with giggles, hesitation, or refusal. Or how you’ve always hated your body and aim for invisibility when it’s exposed, and speaking will draw attention. So, shame and humiliation? But that’s too general an answer, and there’s nothing to be gained from saying that out loud.

         Lila squeezes your hand to pull you from your thoughts. Or maybe to wake you up. You don’t know how much time has passed as you tried to think of something to say, but Lila spares you by asking something else. “Are you afraid of me?”

         And you say no, hoping your reply isn’t rushed enough to make her think you mean the opposite.

         Lila releases your hand and rolls onto her back. “Michelle says you are.”

         Michelle, Lila’s former roommate, had been in town and the two of you had lunch with her last weekend.

         You stare at Lila’s profile. Above her nose and out the window, snow falls. You consider asking whether she believes Michelle, but you worry about sounding angry. You place your hand on Lila’s stomach to be physically affectionate as words fail you. She lets you do this and even lays her hand on top of yours. You ask what she’s thinking.

         “Why are you afraid of me?”

         You think you’re in over your head in this relationship and wake up every day wondering if it’s going to be the day she stops believing you’re worthy of her time or affection or generosity or any of it. And that’s another thing you don’t want to say out loud.

         Your issue is that you don’t know why she loves you. You’ve lied, exaggerated, and omitted so much. You’ve pretended to like, know, do, and have more than you do and to be more than you are, and you don’t know what she’s latched onto.

         It’s the ways you most differ from her that you try to keep secret. Lila lives in a newly-fashionable neighborhood within walking distance of the restaurants and bars you hear about most often at work. You live in a neighborhood so far away from the city’s main development efforts that you doubt it will ever gentrify. Lila has visited every continent except Antarctica, and you have only been to the seven states where you have family. Lila has five young cousins and can speak to anyone younger than her with ease. You felt flustered and intimidated when a coworker once brought her preschooler to the office for the week she couldn’t arrange child care. Lila has many friends, and some days you wonder if you have any friends other than her and the married couple you live with.

         You think Lila has more than you in every way, and you think she’ll leave you because of that. You decided early on that she was more than what you felt you deserved, but you pressed on. In conversation, you said little and nodded a lot. You looked up synopses of the TV shows and movies she mentioned so you could say something if they came up again. You listened to the most popular tracks of every musician she named. You never turned down a restaurant she chose. You experimented in bed only until you discovered what worked for her.

You don’t think twice about self-suppression. You want to be like the people you know who can reveal themselves and be loved all the more for it, but you’ve convinced yourself that the less you reveal, the more likely the relationship will last.

         Lila’s out of bed now. She pulls on underwear and a sweater, leaves the room, and shuts the door.

         You can’t bring yourself to follow her because you don’t know what you’d say. Instead, you climb out of her bed, turn off the lamp, and sit with your legs crossed on the bench she has in front of the window. The bookcases on either side of you, both painted black, are invisible in your peripheral vision, and it’s easy to convince yourself you’re floating. The hotel across the street that was not quite deserving enough to become a protected historical site is gone. The last of the debris from the controlled demolition was being carted away the first time Lila invited you here. You visited the website listed on the construction fence and found artist renderings of luxury apartments sitting atop retail space. You imagine it will be a grocery store offering food you’ve never heard of or a gym offering classes beyond your financial means and physical ability. But for now, the lot is a hole in the ground collecting snow, and beyond it you can see a part of the city’s downtown core — partially-lit skyscrapers whose upper reaches have disappeared into low-hanging clouds.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 7, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.




The old, decrepit woman leaned close to the overgrown rose bush. She hesitated a moment before carefully cutting the long, prickly stems. Brown petals spewed everywhere on the ground. It was that time of year again. Summer turned into fall. Cutting back the huge thicket of thorns surely guaranteed an enormous amount of healthy buds next year. Or did it? For a second she wasn’t sure. Is this what she did last year for such an abundant amount of beautiful red roses? She sighed then took a step back. Did it really matter? Her shoulders slumped. A brisk wind floated through and rustled the surrounding trees. She pulled at the tattered, faded sweater then glanced up at the cloudy, grey sky. A slight shiver ran down her curved spine. It was time to go in.

         Ana Kaplan waddled slowly toward the house. Remains of weathered paint patterned the aged home. Splintered wooden steps creaked under her frail frame. She set the rusted clippers down on the sagging porch. All her joints moved with resistance. Her arthritic fingers ached. Ana tried to ease the deep-rooted pain and rubbed her swollen knuckles. Every single day became more like a chore. Tricking her forgetful mind into thinking there was indeed a purpose to get up and dressed each morning. How she prayed for her time to end — end the misery called life.

         “Hello?” called a timid voice from behind. Ana doubted her ears. She reached for the worn, brass knob. The warped door moaned in protest. She pushed a little harder.

         “Excuse me? Hello? Ma’am?” The stranger’s voice persisted. “I don’t mean to bother you, but my car broke down about a half a mile from here. I tried to use my cell phone but I can’t get service in this area for some odd reason. Can you help me? May I use your landline to call a tow truck?” Ana turned to face the unexpected visitor.

         Her light brown hair was a mess. Curves of younger years carved out her reddened cheeks. She seemed out of breath for one so full of life. Wearing a silver hooded jacket and jeans. Ana stared at the out-of-place woman. She seemed vaguely familiar. Or did she?

         “Do… do I know you?” asked Ana. The unseasoned female smiled.

         “I don’t know… do you?” said the strange woman. Ana’s wrinkled forehead crunched in confusion. Her mind had to be playing tricks again.

         “May I use your landline, Mrs…?” Her voice was soft.

         “Oh, I haven’t been a misses for years. Ana… Ana Kaplan. And you are?” insisted Ana.

         “Rachael.” She hesitated a brief moment then continued. “I won’t take much of your time, Ana, I just need to call a tow truck.” A pearly white smile shined. Surprisingly, her intense blue eyes left Ana feeling at ease.

         “Come on in, Rachael. Help yourself to the phone. But I have to warn you, sometimes it works and other times… well, the connection just goes bad,” explained Ana. Rachael moved swiftly up onto the unsettled porch. Ana hobbled inside with Rachael close behind.

         “Would you like a cup of hot tea, my dear?” The warmth from the glowing ambers radiated the kitchen. Suddenly, Ana stopped in her tracks. “Rachael… well, what a coincidence, my middle name is Rachael. In fact, when I was growing up I often went by my middle name because Ana, at the time, seemed so old fashioned.” Rachael, once again, smiled at the aging lady. Ana stared hard at the young woman’s face. Why did she seem so familiar? Ana’s mind raced through dozens and dozens of faces trying desperately to make a match.

         “I guess we have something in common,” said Rachel. “May I?” She pointed to the rotary on the worn end table.

         “Why yes, of course,” said Ana. Slowly, she turned her back to the young woman inching her way to the antiquated stove. Ana carefully filled up the dented teapot with water. She then placed it on the burner. Meticulously, she struck a match and held it to the escaping gas. Instantly a bright flame shot upward. She blew out the burning match.

         Rachael held the stained receiver up to her ear. She tapped lightly on the hook-switch. “Hello? Hello?” Gently, she set the receiver back on the hook. “Nothing… there’s no dial tone. I’ll try again in a few minutes… if you don’t mind me staying a bit.” Without an invitation, Rachael pulled out the rickety, wooden chair and sat down by the deteriorated table.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 7, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.


Kiss of the Cailleach Bheur


He sat among the grey stones, haunted by the last words his father had spoken to him, "Do not disappoint me." He would have wept had it been possible.  

         Brr! How much longer will I feel this way? How much longer will I feel anything? 

Darkness fell in the clearing, and the newly-fallen snow blanketed him. Peeking out through heavy clouds and dense branches, the moon, bright and full, conjured an image in Diarmaid’s mind of his father, a round-faced, burly man.  

         Those twinkling, brown eyes! I can see him now, romping around the dirt floor by our hearth, with fingers bent, as the bow glided across the fiddle. And that fiddle — calling forth ancient melodies and filling our cottage with echoes of love and loss, telling legends of old. Oh, God, those legends! 

         His father, Fergus, whose good humor was well known, underwent a metamorphosis when an early frost blighted the family’s crops. Another vision took hold… his father before the journey: Fergus faltering among the ruined crops, clutching the remains of a withered stalk, crumpling it to dust between his fingers. His core heaving. Unintelligible sounds escaping his throat…

         The failed crops had left Fergus no recourse. The meager finances, now drained, had caused him to travel to a distant city to plead with less-than-compassionate creditors. 

         Diarmaid shuddered. He could almost feel his father’s bear-hug embrace from that late-autumn morning his father left the Highlands to begin the long journey to negotiate a loan extension. Tears slid down the big man’s face as father and son faced each other in the village before the departure. Fergus scratched his greying beard as he gave parting words to seventeen-year-old Diarmaid, his only son. 

         “Take care of your mother and Bonnie,” he had said. “We may just have enough food to last into spring. God willing, winter will hold off until I return.” Then, he paused. “Diarmaid, you have been neglecting your duties and coming home drunk. This behavior worries me greatly.” 

Diarmaid had looked up at his father, wide-eyed.

         Fergus frowned. "I know that Bonnie did the milking for you. She even chopped the firewood, didn’t she?” 

         Diarmaid opened his mouth and turned his hands outward. 

         “No, your sister did not tell on you. I saw her taking on your chores when you were away with your friends or flirting in town with the lasses. I find your lack of responsibility disturbing.” 

         “I would not—” 

         His father shook his head. “You have a wild streak about you. You’re young. God knows I’d have a drink in the tavern on occasion with my friends when I was a lad, but I always got my work done. I worry about you and the man that you’re becoming. I’ve told you the stories about what happens to those of poor character. They may be quaint, but stories have a way of taking on a life of their own. Alas, misfortune has struck. The last thing I want to do is to leave your mother, you, and Bonnie. I’ve worked hard and paid my taxes. I hope the bank considers that. I don’t know what I’ll do if they don’t. But, in my absence, I need to know that I can rely on you. I need you to take on the responsibilities of a man.” 

         Diarmaid’s eyes examined the ground before him. “Yes, Father.” 

His father had sighed. “Be sure to set and check the traps. You’ll need fresh meat. Can you do that?” 

         “Yes, Father,” Diarmaid mumbled. 

         Diarmaid had been listening halfheartedly to his father’s instructions until he caught sight of her near the holly tree, and then he stopped listening completely. The maiden had lengthy, blonde hair and eyes so blue they could hold a man’s destiny or a whole world hostage within them. She smiled at the wayward youth, and a dimple appeared on her right cheek. Her gown was a swirling green that made Diarmaid think of seafoam. He knew she was not from the village. No village lass looked like her. 

         If only I could meet her, my life would be complete!  

         His eyes lingered on her beautiful face. 

         “Diarmaid! Did you hear anything I just said?” 

         “Of course, Father.” 

         His father shook his head. “I hope so, son. Work hard. Take care of our family. Please follow my instructions and make me proud.” Fergus looked into Diarmaid’s eyes. “Don’t disappoint me.” 

         Diarmaid wished his father farewell. When he looked back, hoping to see the maiden, only a doe with bright eyes stared back at him next to the holly tree. 

         The doe’s eyes almost look like hers. Diarmaid sighed. If Father hadn’t blabbered on so much, she wouldn’t have slipped by me. No telling where she might be now. ‘Do your chores.’ Pish! And now, I’ve missed my chance to meet this maid.  

         Diarmaid shrugged his shoulders, took one last look around town, and started for home. He had only walked a short distance when two of his friends called out to him, inviting him to join them at the tavern.


The rest of this story is available in Volume 7, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.  


The First House


We saw two houses that Saturday. The first sold while we were eyeing the turquoise tiles in the bathroom. Then the second one — the real estate agent called it “a fixer-upper” — sold while we were on our way there from the first. James, handsome and still tan from vacation, sighed in exasperation. He’s always hated to lose. “This place is a 1970s nightmare,” he said, squinting in disbelief in the driveway with his hands on his hips. “It’s a dump!”

         “It’s a competitive market,” the real estate agent replied with a smile and a knowing look.

I loved those tiles though, each one a slightly different hue. All together they sparkled like the underside of a wave. “When we find our house,” I said on the drive back to our apartment, “we should do the bathroom just like that.” He didn’t answer, but I think he probably just couldn’t hear me over the wind rushing in the windows and the radio and the L.A. sun and the L.A. traffic and the engine humming as he steered us along.


* * *

James read an article about the best day to look at homes, something about when the listings go up, so the next week we didn’t wait for the weekend. He’s so much better than me about knowing the best way to do things. So we went out on Thursday afternoon, which his boss didn’t mind, but mine did. “If you keep skipping out on work like this, we might start questioning your dedication,” he said in a tone that told me he already had doubts.

         But it was okay, really. We saw three houses that day and put in our first offer for a two-bedroom that the real estate agent kept saying had “good bones.” I still don’t know what that means, but I think we could have been happy in that house, or the first house, or any of them really. Happy with those hardwood floors and stainless-steel appliances, sweeping dead leaves off the patio and watering the lawn. But we’ll never know. The seller chose someone else.


* * *

“What you oughta do,” James’ father said from his seat at the head of his table, “next time, you should write the seller a letter. Tell them about yourselves. A nice young couple like you. If I was in the market, I’d love to sell you two a house.” He swirled his glass of cabernet like a medieval lord.

         His mother nodded eagerly at the other end of the table. We were all his subjects.

         After dinner, the men went into his father’s study while we women cleared the table, scraped the plates, rinsed each one, packed leftovers away, scrubbed the pans, hand-washed the wine glasses, wiped down the counters, loaded the dishwasher, and swept the crumbs off the floor. My new engagement ring, slipped off so I wouldn’t lose it down the drain, bounced heavily in my pocket.

         “I’m so excited for you two,” his mother said, wringing dirty water out of a faded yellow sponge. “So many years ahead of you.”

         But that night I dreamed we were in the first house from the first Saturday, only it wasn’t quite the same. The hallways were longer, impossibly long. And I was sweeping up decades of dust and debris into an enormous mound, pushing it along with me from room to room. As I worked, something made scratchy breathy sounds inside the walls.

         I woke up sneezing. The room was dark and James snored raspily. I laid there for hours, staring up at the ceiling and taking slow, stuffy breaths through one side of my nose.


* * *

The next Thursday, James had a new real estate agent show us two houses on my lunch break. I don’t really remember them though — I kept having to answer texts from work. He saw two more without me when my break was over, which I agreed to. He’s just so much more particular.

We looked at all the listings together that night, curled up around his laptop in bed. They looked like they’d all been made in the same factory — white paint, subway tiles, gray cabinets and counters. I honestly couldn’t tell them apart. “I think this new agent really gets it,” James said. “We should put an offer in on this one.” He tapped the screen, leaving a faint, greasy fingerprint behind.

         “Okay,” I yawned.

         And then we were in the backyard at the first house again, digging up soil for a garden. We scraped the black earth with our spades and found stick after stick of fine white chalk stacked atop each other in the earth like lost catacombs. James used one to write his surname on the fence, the name I was dying to take. The rest turned into a pile of bones, small and frail like birds’. When I checked my phone in the morning for new emails and fresh bad news, a search was already open: “white chalk buried in yard meaning? spell??”

The rest of this story is available in Volume 7, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.


Star Pupil



Jesse Goodrich was far-and-away the brightest star in our high school firmament. And then, after graduating college, he suddenly blinked out, like some Unidentified Flying Objects have been known to do (more about UFOs later, much more).

         At our ten-year reunion, many of us wondered what had happened to Jesse. None of us knew of his whereabouts. A few enterprising classmates, including me, had attempted to contact him by mail, but the letters were returned as undeliverable. Others searched high and low for him, but all hit dead ends. Speculation ran amok: he was a secret agent in Russia; he became an international jewel thief; he got lost searching along the Orinoco for El Dorado, the legendary Gilded Man (that was my guess, based on a Donald Duck comic book I had once read).

         Curiosity morphed into mystery. Where in Creation was Jesse Goodrich? The truth, it turned out, was something so strange that none of us could possibly have imagined it.


I. High School

Jesse Ulysses Goodrich: brilliant — even a genius! Out of undisguised jealousy, most of us in high school referred to him as “Godrich,” but not I. That was way too obvious, as well as disrespectful. Instead, I made use of his initials “J.U.G.” and referred to him as “Jughead.” There was a slight resemblance between Jesse and the comic book character, mostly around the ears, so the name stuck. In retaliation, Jesse started calling me “Fat-Ass.” For some reason (I can’t imagine why!), that name also stuck.

         Despite the name-calling, we were friendly competitors — but only in English class. That was the one place where I was remotely in his league. He knew more history than our history teachers, more Latin than our Latin teachers, and more chemistry than our chemistry teachers. But English, if taught correctly, is not a memorization subject; it’s a creative subject. And creativity is the great equalizer.

         I’ll never forget our Great Debate. One day, I happened to mention that I believed in “flying saucers.” I had been interested in them since junior high school. My late mother would bring home books from the library for us to read and discuss; sort of a mother-son book club. At first, it was comedy books: P. G. Wodehouse, H. Allen Smith, Robert Benchley. Next, it was science fiction books: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein. Then, one day, it was flying saucer books: Major Donald Keyhoe, George Adamski, Frank Scully (whose surname would much later be appropriated for the X-Files). I was hooked!

         At that time, WOR Radio in New York broadcast a late-night program hosted by “Long John” Nebel, and it was filled with UFO stories — or, rather, interviews. Nebel (I imagined him sitting there in his long johns) would bring on a disc devotee, allow him to spin his preposterous yarn, then turn loose his panel of skeptics to rip him to shreds. Except, I often came away believing the story, despite the best efforts of actor Khigh Dhiegh — the original Wo Fat in Hawaii Five-0; Dr. Walter Martin — the “Bible Answer Man;” and James Randi — the world’s most infamous and obnoxious debunker.

          I subscribed to Sky and Telescope magazine. I joined, and became the president of, the school Astronomy Club, and even gave the planetarium lectures (yes, our school actually had its own planetarium!). I bought a 2.4-inch refracting telescope and searched the heavens from my tiny front lawn. One day, my star-gazing paid off when I spotted a genuine UFO! That experience formed the backbone of my debate with Jesse.

Meanwhile, Jesse had become president of the Chess Club and beaten everyone in the school. Seeking new heights to conquer, he joined the Debate Club. I attended one meeting, but was intimidated by the ravenous future lawyers who feasted on fresh meat like me. I watched one debate and never came back. Jesse, however, stayed and wound up on the interscholastic debate team (he was part carnivore).

         Now about our contest. The teacher explained the rules of the debate, and started it rolling: “First up, Mr. Jesse Goodrich.” Jesse, all five foot five of him, stood before our class of young overachievers and read from a neatly typed script. “Resolved,” he began, “that UFOs are not supportable by science, common sense, or even sanity.” I felt his sharp incisors on my jugular vein.

         He started out with science. “Where’s the evidence — grainy photographs which could be anything, or clear ones which are obvious fakes? How do you explain the impossible aerobatics: G-forces which would kill anyone on board and the unbelievably high speeds? Why hasn’t a single reputable scientist come forth to support these wild claims? Because they are just that: scientists, not pseudo-scientists.”

         Then, with surgical precision, he went to common sense. “So, you would have us believe that an alien race has the courage to embark on interplanetary travel, yet is too shy to say hello when they get here?”

Then, the coup de grâce: sanity. “The simple explanation, which is almost always the correct one, is that these saucerian spectators are merely manifesting the latest form of societal psychosis.”

         I have to admit, he had good arguments. But even more important, he had amazingly affected alliteration. There was a smattering of applause. The teacher just smiled wryly and called my name. “Next up, Mr. Wade Davis.”

         I stood up, all stocky six feet of me, and unfolded a hand-scrawled five pages of notes, which I had hastily authored that morning while on the 59 trolley car.

         “Resolved,” I began, “that flying saucers are real and extraterrestrial.” I had the class’s attention, even if they were looking at me a bit askew.

         “If you don’t look up,” I went on, “chances are you will never see a flying saucer. If you do look up, and happen to see one, your view of the world will be changed forever. For one thing, you’ll know how the government constantly lies about the subject.

         “I. Looked. Up. And noticed that one of the stars in the constellation of Cygnus the Swan was brighter than it was supposed to be. Way brighter. So, I dragged one of our Adirondack chairs onto the front lawn, sat down in the bitter cold, and continued looking up. In one of my beloved saucer books, I had read that UFOs sometimes parked in front of bright stars, so no one would notice them. No one, it turned out, except a certain saucer enthusiast on his frigid front lawn.

         “Nothing happened for about twenty-odd minutes. So, out of desperation, I tried to get into telepathic communication. ‘Show yourself!’ I commanded. ‘Show yourself!’ After a while, my intention was rewarded: the bright star started moving verrry slowly from its position, revealing the actual star at its correct brightness. It paused for a second; it accelerated, leaving a bright trail; and then it blinked out.

         “It was not swamp gas, as there were no swamps within thirty miles. It was not a weather balloon, as there were no weather stations in suburban Philadelphia. It was not mass hysteria, as there was no mass, just unhysterical me. None of the usual, shop-worn explanations applied — because it was an extraterrestrial vehicle, checking out the Philly suburbs. How did I know? Because, a few days later, at twilight, it returned — this time being chased by a jet from Willow Grove Naval Air Station. I ran into my house to get my 8mm movie camera and returned just in time to film the jet streaking by about sixty feet above my house. When I got the film back from the lab, I looked carefully for any sign of the UFO — but I had just missed filming it, although the jet was clearly visible. Thus, my evidence is one of logic: we don’t usually scramble jets to chase gas, balloons, or delusions — or our own aerial vehicles.

         “I’ve seen other unidentified flying objects, but most of them could not be certified as genuinely extraterrestrial. Some of them made crazy turns and were probably real-deal saucers, but I couldn’t be certain. Maybe the reason you haven’t seen one yourself… is that you don’t look up!”

         I took my seat. In my opinion, I had topped Jesse, because I was an actual eyewitness. Nevertheless, my speech was received with an awkward silence, punctuated with a few muffled giggles. And when the class voted, I was soundly defeated. In fact, I didn’t receive a single vote. I had to accept the bitter truth — that UFOs were imaginary and I should have stuck with P. G. Wodehouse.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 7, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

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