Night Picnic_Cover_v3i1 eBook.jpg

VOLUME 3, ISSUE 1  

FEBRUARY 2020

2020  •  ISBN# 9781970033090  •  240 pp  •  6" x 9" paperback

Contents: Volume 3, Issue 1
Authors Page v3i1
Hotel Maldoror
1/5

Enjoy a selection of work from this issue below:

POETRY

MARY ELIZA CRANE

T h e   B o t a n i s t   P o e t

 

Her white hair

a shock against deep green leaves

               head bowed, pen in hand

a model of contemplation

observation, small and bird-like

               seeking prey.

 

Her quickened eyes

scan the tame autumn garden-scape

               right, left, up, down         

hand skitters across paper

then she scrambles to another vantage

               out of sight.

 

Does she desire

to pluck the twin peach-colored apple globes

               twist, pull and snap

a gentle tug into dehiscence

that brings the season’s ripe fecundity

               to hand?

 

Does she resist

the pale green tinge on the shadow side

               scrutinized

four days or seven days betrayed

a week before sugars sweeten up

               the juicy flesh?

 

When her legs

brush past lavender and scent wafts up

               is it enough?

E x t i n g u i s h e d

 

Lose first all that you know how to lose.

Youth, teeth, faith, and lovers. It’s good practice.

The woods are filled with wisdom and madness.

 

Your hands are only so big, even cupped to the brim,

you must spill out one thing to pick up another.

Space falls into black holes, and we are out of time.

 

Time has stopped curving back on itself

and provisioning an infinite benevolent universe,

eternity gone wrong, over and over again.

 

Deer trails still call for a soft footfall

and mushrooms devour detritus of the forest,

but surely you know they have left you behind.

 

You wanted it all, but will lose your heart,

your liver, and the belief anything could last forever.

The cosmos is bleeding, the stars, surrendered, are laying down arms.

 

 

 

C a c o p h o n y

 

We are always ashamed after the fact of these hysterias.

This one will be no different. – D.P.

 

A bench of rough hewn logs

overlooks a shallow pond

ringed by reeds, cattails, spirea and moss.

 

A flock of geese squawk.

Flap, scudder and scatter chaos

through a cold cacophonic afternoon.

 

Were there an interlude of quiet

I would hear dulcet tones from

the smallest of passerines,

 

a bassoon of upstart frogs

asserting their own space on

a moldy wood-rotted stage,                                                                         

the mother drum of woodpecker

excavating dinner and a nest

in a domesticated alder hollow,

 

all anyone ever needs.

 

I long for the glide of one humble bird,

perhaps a white-feathered golden-eye,

to trace a fine line on peaceful water.

 

 

 

T i g e r   L i l y

 

Early summer under the shift of blue-gray sky

purple foxglove blooms beside oxeye daisy,

Digitalis purpurea, which can make or break your heart.

 

Do I straddle both sides of the cardiac fault,

these roadside flowers more familiar now

than tiger lilies wilding beside the Mohawk?

 

How can one line in a book, the rhythm of one poem

evoke a lost summer, when a volume of verse,

like the Sight unbidden, grasped everything

 

on the cusp of change? As unsought as eternal love

for an audacious black-speckled orange flower

against the steel blue drift of the river,

 

bearing me away from an angry childhood.

I take the slow steady pulse of dreams fulfilled.

 

 

 

H e r d

 

We all want what others have

under our lonely colorless skies.

We are abandoned and adrift, bereft

 

of fractured tribes and the feel
of calloused feet upon the earth,

knowing only shoes and concrete.                                

We all want to know we can make it

through the cold hard winter,
thin and ragged, naked in our skins,

 

to remember how to wake
with a wild mammalian quiver
and a pulse, a harmony of hot breath

 

and pounding hearts, in symphony

with our own small, lost selves.

RC DE WINTER

g h o s t   d i n n e r


when i'm hungry for heartache
i go down to the basement of memory
flip open your coffin and pull off a piece of you

 

you're my nourishment on days when the liverish sky
reminds me there's nothing out there for me

but what can be dredged from the loam of love

chewing slowly

i taste your breath your words the silk of your soul

caressing my tongue with the bitter honey of herb-of-grace


you slide down my throat
molecules fluctuating in the ribs of that raw pink tunnel
as my heart beats in the rhythm of a tango never danced

T h e   P l e b e i a n   G a m e s

 

In a bed soaked with nightmares and sweat

I wake to the voice of the wind.
The gray fury of every betrayal I carry
rattles windows. Rattles bones.
I wake to the voice of the wind
dredging up
the gray fury of every betrayal I carry
in the coffin of my chest.

Dredging up
the scrim of courage
in the coffin of my chest,
I drown the maenads of heartache.
The scrim of courage

rattles windows, rattles bones.

I drown the maenads of heartache
in a bed soaked with nightmares and sweat.

 

 

 

a f t e r   y o u
 

you were a study in contradictions
your measured softly lulling speech
disguised the passion that fueled your breathing

and everything else you did with such feral elegance


you reached in with a strong swift hand and stole my heart
a sweet and bloodless extraction so sure and smooth

it felt like an inside out kiss caressing my invisible self

with the bedrock of you


i remember the savage scrape of your tongue

anointing me with sainthood

painting me in the colors of the rainbow

with all the delicacy of gravel on unprotected skin

 

hearing your voice in autumn's thunder
i luxuriate in the furious debauchery of grief
beating in the heart you dropped
when you ascended to your own anointing

WILLIAM DORESKI

W h a t e v e r   D e p t h   A p p l i e s

 

The heavy smell of haunting

reeks from rooms no one enters.

I live in the annex. The main house,

furnished with Art Deco trinkets

and ancestral canopy beds,

has gone unused for decades.

When I open the door and sniff

the stale air I feel a treble

of detachment shiver through me.

How easily I could slip outside

myself and become a cloud apart,

a puff of winsome, fibrous gray.

No history of motion informs

these sultry places left to sigh,

so when after years of dither

I decide to explore, the weight

of my passage room to room feels

heavy as plowing a blizzard.

So many rooms, cigar-colored

hallways and shuttered windows,

bedside tables strewn with sterling

implements, unwound watches, books

with mildewed leather bookmarks.

The drawing room sighs as if

the last party ended in a draw.

Carpets wheeze a few yellow moths,

but no dust tickles the morbid

and carefully filtered sunlight

weeping through the slatted blinds.

I’ll never retrace my steps

to the annex. I find the kitchen

expensively stocked with sterile

appliances from the Fifties.

The refrigerator still hums,

but stands empty and unloved.

I return to the maze of bedrooms

and lie on the purest coverlet                    

and let the atmospheric depth

reclaim me body and soul —

a moment stalled forever

or until fire claims this stone-dry

construction of which I’m part.

F r o m   t h e   T r e e   A l p h a b e t

 

A lone word stuck in the fork

of a white oak deep in the woods.

light flickering through it

to expose its intricate structure

like something angelic and true.

 

I can’t read it from here. Too old

and brittle to climb the tree,

I peer into the shudder and gloss

of wind-teased canopy and catch

the blush of a single letter

from that infamous tree alphabet

only deceased savants can read.

 

But I want to know who placed

that word in the tree and why

it clings there against the wind.

I want to know if it’s scrawled

on paper or on seamless air.

Mixed motions propel the woods

from one moment to the next.

 

Age is not an issue for trees

as long as their roots can touch

something essential in the soil.

I lack the sap to anchor me

so firmly to the living process,

which I’m sure that one word explains.

 

Maybe I should attempt the climb

despite my stiff and aching legs,

my awkward L-shaped arms

that once were athletic enough

to hoist me into atmospheres

not everyone could enjoy.                                          

I watch the word flutter like

a pennant and want to cheer.

but it might condemn me if

I misread it, or maybe even

if I read it and understood.

 

 

T u n i n g   U p   

t h e   O r c h e s t r a

 

Tuning up the orchestra

dreams me back to the moment

I realized I’d never play

the piano with the aplomb

of Serkin, Liszt, or Rubenstein.

 

Tuning this orchestra of the air

involves peeps and squeaks like bird calls.

Wind instruments like the pickerel

or elbow need puffs of breeze

from a cumulus summer sky.

 

Stringed instruments like the violet

or the Jell-O need the tender touch

of a woman young enough

to tickle the audience silly

without offending proprieties.

 

The brass section, tubes and bubbles

blown by strumpets, lacks the fire

and fury my unwritten symphony

requires of every detached member

that wishes to earn its keep.

 

If I could tune the orchestra

to the Nth degree of stress

maybe the chords it emits

will wrap themselves like boas

and squeeze us all into sense.

 

Pater would be appalled,

but his musical moment,

shaped by Brahms and Schubert, passed

in a gust of dry leaves torn

from unwritten, unread scores.

 

A   S h o w e r   o f   A r r o w s

 

A sunlit glimpse of stained glass

in a cathedral in a city

I’ve never seen and couldn’t

readily place on a map.

A day after thunderous rain

lilies have withdrawn their favors

and the mountains look resolved.

 

I don’t know why this angle

of vision has reorganized

the sensuous parts of the planet,

but a shower of arrows shot

from intangible tensions flocks

the atmosphere, singing aloud.

Although far above, those arrows

prickle my taste for nonsense,

and pierce the little defenses

manner and morals hoisted

overhead centuries ago.

 

I used to feel so dutiful

sitting every day to write

in clarified butter no one

lacking true faith could consume.

I used to tickle my senses

to radiate into vacancies

and fill them with flesh-colored joy.

Now even the lack of color,

pure black or white, avoids me,

refusing to catch my eye.

 

I would kneel in that cathedral

and in the carnival of light cast

by the sincere old stained glass

acknowledge my little despites.

But I can’t place myself on maps,

never mind the abstract cities

that have always haunted me

with ornament and imperative

so often mistaken for war.

 

 

S m o o t h   O p e r a t o r s

 

On the subject of locomotives,

we agree that spending millions

on a new one would be foolish

 

when we can find a rusty Alco

still chuffing from the Forties.

Our short line is short enough.

 

The single track runs from

your head through the darkest

tunnel straight into mine.

 

At the memorial reading

in honor of our deepest friend

I thought a heavy freight of thoughts

 

I had to haul by willpower through

that tunnel. It nearly killed me.

No one else noticed my strain.

 

They were busy with their egos,

herding them into a little pen

where they could feed and water them.

 

You think I’m crude to foster

such naked little metaphors

and would prefer I spend more time

 

maintaining our short line —

replacing spikes and rotted ties,

spraying weed killer along

 

the entire right-of way,

dumping ballast in washouts.

But until we purchase a diesel,

 

a good old smoke-choking monster

with a cyclopean headlight

to challenge that gloomy tunnel,

 

I won’t waste time on a railroad

running from nowhere to nowhere

with its nervous rails tingling.

J.J. STEINFELD

A   N e w   W o r d  

 f o r   M a d n e s s

 

You crouch and hide

behind an ancient tree

in a forest that lingers

in childhood memory

a landscape malformed

in any of a hundred other eras.

It is self and its accomplices

searching for you

for reasons that stretch

as far as any horizon of madness.

Madness, that isn’t the best description

much too overused in a world

that churns out madnesses

as if they were going out of style.

You want to make the world better

not as fragmented and unbalanced —

a new orbit, perhaps,

or different tides and length of days,

new, brighter nights

and less jarring mornings.

From behind the ancient tree

you crouched like a scientist

who has forgotten all science

mistaken dreams for escape

you plan and plot

the saving of the world

and search most diligently

for a new word for madness.

T h e   D a r k e n i n g   N i g h t ’ s

D e s i r e   f o r   T r i c k e r y

 

A nighttime parade with straightforward resolve

and there, in the midst of the makeshift celebration

a dark-eyed man counting on his fingers

something unseen, deep from within

or moving now and previously

past and through his misshapen life

the finger-counting undissolved

back and forth, fingertips exact as harm,

finger after determined finger

perhaps the counting as significant as lost loves

or unfaded insults and flawed disappointments

maybe as unimportant as immortality.

 

A considerable sadness, a weary half-smile

despite the moon’s sense of humour

and the night’s desire for trickery,

I look at my hands, the restless fingers,

and cannot resist the slow counting

as the darkening night strengthens —

as for me and my finger counting,

it will be the spate of life’s missteps

and the occasional smooth dance

to music long past, attempting to appease

the darkening night and its desire for trickery.

 

 

T h e   P r a c t i c e   o f   

N o n e x i s t e n c e

 

Standing atop the tallest metaphor

in Creation, wondering

Does it now end like this?

Will I be sentenced

to Heaven or Hell?

contemplating the distinction

between waiting for and awaiting

an upended philosopher stumbles

inspecting a life mismanaged

so many inconsequential thoughts

fragile desires, fading memories

a patchwork of identities, a collection of blunders

then the metaphor belonging to someone else

turns concrete and forbidding                                         

and the stumble becomes a departure

from words and thoughts

into another’s poem

of an upended philosopher

standing atop the tallest metaphor

in Creation, wondering, contemplating

waiting for and awaiting

as a poet stumbles

upon the philosopher’s fate.

 

 

 

E x i s t e n t i a l   A c q u i t t a l   

T e m p e r e d   w i t h   

A b s u r d   D r e a m i n g

 

The stranger with the pinpoint sharp teeth

and the pinstripe suit begins asking questions

of me in a voice loud as night’s darkness:

What is more unambiguous, birth or dying?

What is more unequivocal, truth or lying?

What is more desirous, nothing or everything?

What is more burdensome, lying or dying?

 

I might be joking or feigning madness

I might not, put me on trial

make me swear melodious oaths

to the heavens or anywhere thereabouts.

 

Without warning, I hear the verdict,

Guilty as charged,

and I turn my head

see the demons from

someone else’s nightmare

and I scream, This is not fair,

searching for my own nightmare

and existential acquittal

tempered with absurd dreaming.

JOHN GREY

H o w   I   I n t e r a c t

 

I dine alone

but I listen in company.

I pretend to read

the magazine on the table

in front of me.

But it’s the voices

on either side,

ahead and behind,

that provide

my evening’s enlightenment.

 

I hide behind my solitude.

No one can see me here.

As far as these strangers are concerned,

their words are more likely

to be picked up in space

than by ears a few feet away from them.

 

My curiosity is like the long

floppy ears of Bassett hounds.

It pulls in sounds from the static,

tweaks them loud and clear.

All of the gossip, the scandal,

the adulterers, the family civil wars,

are mine for the taking

as I sip wine,

nibble on a medium-well steak.

 

By the time the check arrives,

I know as much about these people

as they do about themselves.

Not that I’ll use this information.

Unless, that is,

a mental smirk is a use.

D o n ’ t

 

Look both ways when crossing a street.

In fact, don’t cross streets at all

unless I’m with you.

Don’t approach wild animals.

They could be rabid.

Don’t pick up bugs or snakes.

Despite the temptation,

don’t chase butterflies.

They could lead you to bees and wasps.

Step carefully on polished floors and in tubs.

Grip the handrail when descending stairs.

Don’t talk to strangers.

Don’t even go near them.

And remember,

just because a man is old

that doesn’t make him your grandfather.

 

Don’t go near swimming pools

if there’s no adults around.

In fact, only if that adult is me.

Sure, that sparkling coolness looks tempting

but so does someone in a car.

Don’t play around electric sockets.

and touch stove plates

to see how hot they are.

 

In general, just take care.

And don’t just drink any liquid.

Or bite on anything that could be food.

Or spend hours watching television.

Just because it feels good,

doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

And don’t go near cliff edges.

Or lean out of windows.

Or unbuckle your seat belt

when we’re driving somewhere.

 

I know it must sound as if

life is no more than a series of cautions.

But keep in mind

I love you very much.

Don’t take that as a warning. 

 

 

 

T h e   I n s e c t s

 

I heard the insects when she died.

The room itself was silent as the tomb

but outside, the buzzing,

the shirring, the clicking, was incessant.

These tiny creatures

were surely worked up

by something.

 

She'd already handed out her keepsakes.

We each in turn had our portions of her.

squirreled away.

So there was nothing left anyway.

Just breath like a slow leak in a tire.

She'd already been assigned to the afterlife.

Only the insects were unsettled.

 

The watching eyes

had done enough tearing.

They were as dry as the sounds

but not as electric.

 

Someone shuttered her eyes.

Another lifted the sheet

over her peaceful face.

Everyone left the room.

The air outside was stifling.

A storm would have been welcome.

 

I heard the insects long into the night.

For all of its seamless return to

the great amalgam of all matter,

a death really does interfere.

 

 

 

M y   H e r m i t a g e

 

I've decided to no longer answer the phone.

So information, from this end,

will no longer be forthcoming.

I don't want to meet you for coffee

or buy your product

or give to your cause.

Nor do I wish to discuss my shortcomings,

provide solace,

assist you in remembering the name of a song

or discuss who is six months pregnant

or up on a DUI.

It’s not that I'm becoming a hermit —

okay so maybe it is —

but I’ve lived too long

with the distractions of human contact.

So if we haven't spoken in a long lime,

then it's about to become even longer.

And if you want to say how much you love me,

say it to yourself instead.

Same if it's abuse you had in mind.

You're probably wondering why I don't just go ahead

and cancel telephone service altogether.

Truth is, if the phone doesn't ring,

there's nothing for me to ignore.

Yes, I prefer a splendid isolation to a passive one.

KIM WELLIVER

i n   w h i c h   t h e   p r i n c e   r e g r e t s

 

 

               her great dull eyes        

bend back the sealight

the lucent delft skies       

their black (shallow          pans of ink)        

 a shark’s              glossless

blinkless              ever watchful

 

*   

               her skin’s pallor

he cannot abide to touch

the almost-moisture (like something

   dead)

he shuns the marriage bed

               where she strews kelp

mollusks (smaller than cod roe)

& sea lice             cluster

at her nape (he once

called her hair’s dark fire

glorious, but now                             finds its weight,

               its heavily oiled texture

                              call shudderingly to mind

slicks of eelgrass,                                            algaed

& long submerged)

 

               he shudders at the bedlinen’s damp brew

her brine-slipped touch

 

               he cannot—

              

                                             *

when they met      she appeared a mute,

              (lovely doll

all childround face             & sleepcast eyes

all bruised poppy lips)

now  he knows 400

the fine needled teeth

filling her mouth

(splinters bonewhite as coral)

               the cold gray tongue &

fish-rich breath                                                                                    

                             

                                *

he dreams of hooks in briny gills

               of gaffs in razored fins

the glossy spill of black entrails

&  marks a calendar

               of revulsion

SHORT STORIES

FRANK ROGER

H o t e l   M a l d o r o r

 

               Day 1. The train ground to a halt in the station of Shepherd’s Creek, where I got out. So did the three other men who had been my fellow travelers. We had apparently embarked on a journey with the same destination, perhaps even for the same reason. I hadn’t exchanged a single word with them, and there was no indication that the silence was about to be broken.

               The train station was in shambles, its walls only held together by the lavishly applied graffiti. I had been told that the station had been officially closed for years — the train only stopped here for those who were bound for Hotel Maldoror. A shuttle bus would transport all those with a valid booking voucher to their final destination.

               A bit further down I could indeed see a ramshackle van, waiting for its passengers. Its rust spots and faded colors perfectly matched the derelict station and the desolate surroundings. At first sight it looked as if it had been abandoned there a long time ago, until I saw the driver behind the wheel, an arm dangling from the open window, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, wisps of smoke dissipating in the breeze.

               As the train left the station again, we headed for the van. The driver checked our vouchers, and we climbed aboard for the short ride along the dirt road, partly overgrown with weeds, to the lakeside hotel. Was everything in bad shape here? I hoped the hotel would at least offer some basic service and comfort, even if I knew it wasn’t exactly a typical holiday resort.

               But then again, we weren’t on holiday here. Hotel Maldoror catered to a very special kind of guest. I was hoping to find out if there was any truth to the stories that were told, or if they were merely myths. I tended to opt for the latter, and would be happy to debunk the myths, to expose the hotel management as a fraud, ripping off people who were both desperate for a way out and naive, on the run, and seeing no other way out.

               About ten minutes later, the four of us were ushered into the lobby and duly checked in. We had to pay for an entire week in advance — standard procedure, it would appear. The hotel staff seemed efficient, but none too friendly, barely polite. They were doing their jobs, asking for more would have been unreasonable.

               I checked into my room and found it had all the basic comfort I needed. It would certainly do for the duration of my stay.

               For now, all I can say is: I have arrived.

               Who knows what the following days will bring?

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

GEENA PAPINI

D a r k e r   T h i n g s   t h a n   S h a d o w s

 

               Be careful of the woods at night, her mother always warned her, for you never know what you will find there in the dark. Lucinda had always been a peculiar child, though, and the thought of darkness was only ever comforting. There was something holy in the power of the darkness.

Her boots disturbed a thin layer of untouched snow as she teetered on the edge of the forest. The air was crisp, pinching red circles into her cheeks and tugging the breath from her lungs like smoke to dance in front of her.

               The wind blew gently and she heard her mother’s voice carried along the breeze, begging her to come back. Lucinda, it said, come inside where it’s warm. Your father and I wish to speak with you…

Lucinda almost looked back at the sleeping village behind her, almost turned away from the cold expanse of the woods before her. But ghosts had been disappearing between the trees all day. She watched their dark, smudged figures drift from the town, away to someplace at the heart of the twisting branches and hedges. Something about their movement pulled at the place between her ribs, and a foggy remembrance of a face, a perfect copy of her own, swam before her. The same crooked teeth, the same freckles, the same mouth that turned down ever so slightly so it always looked melancholy. Christine…

               No one else saw the ghosts, but Lucinda was used to that. People often failed to see what she did. Her father would scold her horribly if she were to tell anyone, tell her she was too old for such childish fantasies now. He didn’t understand. She had to find her sister.

So Lucinda stepped into the woods.

               The night was draped in pitch, the moon only a sliver in the inky sky. Her lantern cast a glow of light around her small frame, just enough for her to see by, and she thought she must look like a faerie child, or a will-o-the-wisp, to anyone looking towards the woods. If indeed anyone was looking towards the woods.

               On occasion, and only ever during the day, she and her mother would wander into the outskirts of the woods to gather mushrooms or lemon balm. In the embrace of darkness though, the trees looked very different. Lucinda let her feet carry her further and further along the wooded path until she was utterly lost, with no idea of the direction in which she had come. She realized, with a small shudder, that she could no longer see the ghosts.

               Something crunched beneath her feet and she looked down to see her path now covered in wild mushrooms, red, tuberous things with white splotches. Not wanting to crush any more, for fear they might mark a faerie ring, Lucinda stumbled backwards and came to rest on a snow-covered log. She held her lantern out in an attempt to illuminate her surroundings. All around her the manmade paths were disappearing, engulfed by mighty elm and birch trees. The paths turned into a web of animal trails, narrow and forbidding, with bramble branches waiting to snatch at little girls’ cloaks. Little girls who had no place in forests dark as this.

               She drove the stick of the lantern deep into the snow and drew her cloak tighter around her small frame as she contemplated which direction to take. Fungi, little orange bulbs oozing thick liquid, clung to the trees around her, and dead man’s fingers sprouted up from beneath her log. They all seemed to point in the same direction, towards a path where the snow disappeared and strange grasses grew between the thicket. Perhaps the ghosts were showing her the way after all.

               Lucinda picked up her lantern again and got to her feet. As the light swung to and fro, the foliage swam before her, morphing into demons and ghouls with wailing faces and terrible eyes as she struggled to see into the darkness. Something rustled in the bushes before her and she stopped up her lungs and gripped her lantern tightly. As she listened, Lucinda realized whatever was making the sound was small. It moved swiftly through the underbrush but without any of the thunderous crashing that could be expected of larger animals, like boars or bears. She decided to follow it, for she did not know what else to do now that the ghosts had disappeared.

               Thorns and brambles pricked at her skin as she pressed through the dense forest, like goblins’ fingers waiting to spirit her away. Lucinda fought and struggled through the thicket, all the while listening attentively to whatever creature was unknowingly guiding her. She pushed aside a tangle of dead ivy and found herself abruptly bursting from the bushes into a small clearing surrounded by oak trees so large that five grown men could encircle them with arms outstretched and still not touch. Lucinda had never seen such trees before and couldn’t help but wonder if she had somehow tumbled into the Otherworld. The wind blew sharply through the leaves and she shivered, wishing she’d worn a warmer cloak. This part of the forest was eerie and cavernous and somehow not like a forest at all, but more like the bowels of the underworld, the entrance to Hell itself.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

GERRI R. GRAY

R e i n d e e r   G a m e s

 

               Faith stared at the blinking colored lights on the small Christmas tree standing in the corner of the isolated mountain cabin, sap slowly bleeding from its trunk. “She didn’t put up much of a fight, did she? Not like the two before her. It was almost as if she wanted us to torture and kill her.”

               Outside, a light snow had begun to fall, turning the bright crimson path of bloodstained snow leading from the cabin to the secluded spot in the dense of the forest white. Faith’s boyfriend, Christian, had dumped the butchered body of the young woman in that forest, calling her ‘the plaything.’ That’s what he liked to call the women whose lives he took great pleasure in snuffing out: playthings. They had no names, no identities, no relevance or importance. He regarded them as less than human. They were simply playthings to him, existing only to satisfy his brutal and demented desires.

               Christian picked up the bottle of Jack Daniel’s that sat on the counter next to the sink, poured some whiskey into a shot glass, and downed it in one gulp. “The next one will be better, Faith. Wait until you see the games I’ve got planned for her.” He drifted into an almost trance-like state, enraptured in dark fantasy.

               Nuzzling the back of her head into her pillow, Faith shut her eyes and remembered a time, not very long ago, when Christian was enraptured by her, and her alone. But when his brutal undertakings with his female victims graduated to a sexual level, all of that seemed to change. When confronting Christian about it, his reaction was one of anger and he threatened that she would ‘meet the same fate as the others’ if she ever attempted to leave him.

               Having complete control and domination over others, including his partner in crime, was of the utmost importance to Christian. He was the one in charge, and intended for it to remain that way. There was no way he would ever permit any woman to manipulate him or stand in the way of his sexual gratification.     

There suddenly came a loud thump at the cabin’s door. It was followed by another loud thump and what sounded like a sharp object scraping against the wood.

The bedsprings creaked as Faith bolted into a sitting position, a startled look on her face. “What was that?”

               With his muscles tensed, Christian picked up the knife he had used to disembowel the plaything with, made his way over to the window at the front of the cabin and peered out into the snowy remains of the afternoon. After a few moments, the bloodlust in his eyes subsided and he shut the curtain.

               “There’s nothing out there. Whatever it was, it’s gone now.”

He slithered into the creaking bed and gently ran the tip of the knife across Faith’s throat, sliding it down to her cleavage and across her left breast, where he teasingly circled her engorged nipple. The chill of the steel brought a shudder of excitement to the naked girl and she shut her eyes and moaned, arousal building in her loins.

               Faith was born with killer looks… and killer instincts. She knew Christian regarded himself to be her mentor; however, her appetite for murder was roused long before he came into her life. She committed her first killing at the tender age of six when she crept up to her baby brother’s crib in the dead of night and quietly smothered the life out of his tiny body with a pillow. The death was attributed to sudden infant death syndrome and no one was ever the wiser. Her parents never once suspected that their sweet little girl with the rose-colored cheeks and ribboned pigtails could be a psychopath. She was sugar and spice and everything deadly.

               Another thump, louder and more violent than the previous ones, sounded at the door, obliterating the couple’s excitation. Like before, it was followed by an ominous scraping sound. Another thump came, and then another, and another.

               Faith gave a gasp as her eyes widened with fear. An icy chill sprouted a multitude of goose bumps on the flesh of her forearms. She pulled the blanket up to her chin in a futile effort to warm herself.

               “Christian,” she spoke in a near whisper. “You don’t think, that girl…”

               “Don’t talk like a fool,” Christian snapped as he vacated the bed and proceeded to the door, the knife clutched tightly in his hand. “I gutted that whore like a fish after you suffocated her with that plastic bag. Trust me on this; she’s a slab of lifeless meat. She isn’t going to come back from the dead and pound on the goddamn door like some kind of flesh-eating ghoul. This isn’t Night of the Living Dead.”

Faith held her breath and watched with eager attention as Christian turned the knob and pulled the door open. A rush of cold air spilled into the cabin, ruffling Faith’s tousled whorls of peroxide blonde and set tinkling the glass ornaments hanging from the boughs of the slowly-dying Christmas tree.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

FRANK DIAMOND

J o e y   C r a c k e r s

 

               I once tried to count the times that Joey Crackers spat in my face. My therapist didn’t think that was such a good idea, but she didn’t order me to stop. Therapists don’t order, they guide. She said: “Erica Johnson: Do you really want to go there?”

               “You know something? I don’t!”

               And in the years since, I have given the Joey Crackers ordeal about the same amount of thought you might give to childhood’s night terrors. That is, hardly any thought at all.

               Until now.

               For now, I am waiting for the train at Suburban Station and thinking about the shape of time when Joey Crackers bounds through the double doors onto platform 3B. I recognize him right away. He must also be there for the 2:12 to Fox Chase. That’s my stop, anyway. I am visiting a sick friend. Who knows where Joey Crackers gets off?

               He glances around, sees no openings on the platform benches. As he pivots toward the tracks, his shoulders slump. I bet he just sighed, resigned that he must stand for an unconscionable seven minutes.

               Poor Joey.

               It’s been about 20 years since we graduated high school and he’s changed. Then: Tall, lanky, and handsome in a boy-next-door, aw-shucks kind of way. Now, the wavy brown hair’s been replaced by a baldness that some men pull off beautifully, and he’s one of them. The extra pounds and beginnings of a                Dad bod make him seem like he could be a friendly neighbor.

               I wonder if he’s still evil?

               I don’t try to catch his attention. He wouldn’t recognize me, for I am not — repeat: not — the girl he abused. I too have changed.

               Yeah, the shape of time. Does it in fact have a shape or is it just as linear as we live it: second by second, always just this short of the eternal now? And what’s more linear than a train? Cars and trucks can change lanes, but trains? No getting off them tracks. Just like time, or how we think of time.

               My nieces and nephews call me Aunt Ericane. I don’t try to take over the room at parties and other family gatherings; it just happens. Mostly because of my laugh which my boyfriend describes as addictive.                But I am a good listener, too, because I am the strong one.

               Now.

               I’d gone through a rough patch back during the Joey Crackers hell and even for some years after, slogging through fogs of depression that sometimes kept me in bed for entire days. No one called me Ericane back then.

               Maybe therapy fixed me or maybe Mom’s prayers finally paid off. Or just maybe some switch buried deep in my DNA flipped. No matter. I made a decision that began my evolution to becoming Ericane. I found myself, finally, in my mid-20s. Don’t we all? I left behind the fragile, pimply-faced awkward girl who never quite fit in, the girl Joey Crackers abused.

               The past is dead, and it should have the decency to stay dead.

               Now, the past stood not 12 feet away from me, his feet planted on the yellow warning path.                            Careful, Joey. You don’t want to get too close to the edge. What if someone were to push you in front of the Fox Chase?

               Time encircles us.

               In high school, Joey went out with one of the girls who treated me with the type of condescending kindness that stung worse than the causal insults and offhand cruelties of the mean girls, the cool boys, and all the other sadists who devil kids like me. If you really want to deeply wound a girl, pity her.

Daphne Carlisle and Joey Crackers. Carlisle and Crackers. Sounds like a law firm, or maybe a wine-and-nibbles combo served at intermissions. She captained the field hockey team, sat on student council. Joey Crackers — Joseph Stanislav Krakowski — played basketball and also sat on student council. He charmed people, that’s what Joey did. He became a salesman after college and then started his own company but, hell, that was no surprise. Joey could have started his own country. He and Daphne went their separate ways, as you’d expect (and would even hope) for two people enamored with each other in high school.

The first time Joey Crackers spat in my face was in his cellar after I’d gone down on him. He jolted up, furiously rebuckling his belt. We’d done it — I did him — on a moldy couch that his family just couldn’t part with, and as I uprighted myself, using that forlorn piece of furniture as leverage, Joey turned to me and growled: “You’re not my girlfriend.”

               “Joey, it’s OK,” I stammered. “I love you.”

               Then he spat on me. The spit landed just below my eye, and I felt abundant saliva trailing down my cheek. How could he have worked up so much warm fluid in just one nasty gesture? Of course, I’d thought that just moments ago when he’d gently patted me on the head.

               “Why?” I stumbled back while wiping it off on my sleeve.

               What did I do wrong? I must have done something to have caused this.

               How many of the abused sing that refrain? Correct. Too many.

               His face, with that old friendly grin, morphed like plastic in a fireplace. I’d never seen such disgust and self-loathing.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

RICHARD RISEMBERG

T h e   U n b u r d e n i n g

 

               He stood in the back yard, feeling a mixture of elation and despair. From where he was, between the detached garage and the fallen back fence, he could see parts of four neighboring properties: the clapboard corner of a house, a patch of lawn, the dead tree next door, a gathering of rusted junk by a back fence. Behind every garage was a tiny utility yard. His father, when he was still with them, had planted theirs with zucchini and tomato plants. Now it was bare dirt and weeds, and pieces of the picket fence. The fence had no meaning; the neighbors behind them, whose names he had ignored, had a chain link fence of their own. They handed him blackberries over the double barrier when he was a child; there was a patch of berry bushes behind their own garage. The berries seemed miraculous though they weren't really very good. He had been a sort of gentle lout as a child, too shy to make eye contact or return a greeting. He didn't know why they bothered being nice to him. They probably liked his mother. Everybody did, except his father, in the end.

               His mother was a great beauty: men would see her passing in her car, an uninteresting Ford, and would turn their own cars around and follow her home. Their disappointment at finding a husband and child at home was obvious in spite of their efforts to disguise their feelings of defeat. Of course he didn't understand this as a child; his mother explained it to him later, and his own observations over the years confirmed it. After the divorce, she dated some of her sudden admirers, always the wealthier ones, the ones who could take her out to the places his father would never go. His father was not poor but was uninterested in social life or fine food or wine; in fact he never drank. The post-divorce boyfriends all drank. They were invariably quiet, sad-eyed drunks with plenty of money, always kind to him. She never let them stay all night until after he left for college. She had told him this.

               Now everyone was dead except his father, who had moved to another state with another wife. The house his father had paid for had become his mother's house after the divorce and now was his. He didn’t want it. But there he was, standing in the back yard looking over the neighbors' fences. The neighbors he had known were dead, but the houses lived on. The neighbors' children had sold the properties and taken the money off to their own lives, as he would too, no doubt. He had never been close to any of them; he had been too shy in those days. He knew one, the neighborhood fat boy, had become the manager of a large grocery store on the other side of town. Even the fat boy had been more popular than he himself had been. He had grown up lonely on a street full of kids. There were no children there now, or at least none that he could hear on a bright Saturday morning. There was nothing left except memories of boredom.

               That, and the detritus of his mother's life. The house was full of it, cheaply-made showoff sofas and chairs cadged from a boyfriend, now also dead, who had owned a furniture store. More booty was stuffed into the garage. The tables in the house displayed gimcracks given to her by other boyfriends, some of them verging on Vegas-gaudy, along with kitchen appliances she never used. She had grown up wealthy enough to have maids, and had never learned the culinary graces, nor much about housekeeping. A cleaning lady came in twice a month, and dinners, if they didn't take place at restaurants, were composed of the single dish she had learned to make, chicken roasted in a pan with a scatter of vegetables. It was usually tough and stringy. He suspected this also was a ploy, to keep her in restaurants. The boyfriends put up with her take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards them. She had fought as an equal with his father, but she assumed an air of command with the woozy gentlemen callers, and, cowed by her beauty and confidence, they always gave way. He suspected that the ones that didn't ran off early on, or were exiled. After his father left, she never dated a sober man that he knew of. Now all that remained of her pride was a houseful of junk.

               He heard the back door open and shut, and his wife came to the back of the yard looking for him. When she saw him, she smiled and shook her head. "I never really looked at all that crap in there before," she said. "Your mother was such a… distraction."

               "She was proud of being a distraction. It's a pitiful mess, isn't it?"

               "I was hoping…" She shook her head again. "But no, I don't want any of it."

               "Good. I wouldn’t let it in our house anyway. Even for you. I don't need to be tripping over bad memories every day."

               "But our furniture is so…"

               "At least it's ours. We have good taste. Or you do. You saw what I grew up with."

               "So, anyway, why are you just standing around here, looking blank? We've got a lot to do."

               "I guess I'm looking blank because I'm feeling blank… Right about here is where a friend and I tried to dig a hole to China. He was another misfit kid, belonged to someone my mother knew. We got about five feet, which was pretty good, really. The dirt here is so hard. Then we took turns standing in it with our chins on the ground, trying to look like decapitated heads. Took Polaroids of each other. I hope we find them, even though the whole thing was pretty stupid."

               "You won't find them standing around reminiscing."

               "It's what you do at a time like this. The hole to China was a high point of my childhood. Which was kind of a blank."

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

JACOB KLEIN

A   F o r m u l a   f o r   I n t i m a c y

 

               Joseph got an offer to work at a new wing in a museum in the city. It’s a big museum, prestigious and well-known. Certainly much larger than our modest, crumbling little building. It’s not quite as intimate, not quite as carefully crafted as our one-and-a-half-person affair. But it’s vast. And it’s stable. Joseph wouldn’t have to salvage old specimens to make ends meet, the letter said. He could craft something more permanent. Of course, its wording was more delicate than that. But the whiff of Pity wafting from the paper was unmistakable to Joseph's expert nose. That might have been on purpose.

               There's just one condition, the letter said. He comes alone. Makes a new start.                               Nonnegotiable. Which means I can't go with him. I told Joseph he should take it.

               “I don't want a new assistant. You're the only person I can work with. Everyone else feels too... I don’t know, but it's distracting. And it contaminates the specimens. You know that."

               "I feel very content right now. Is that distracting?"

               I was wearing Contentedness at the time. It was from a new exhibit: a blend of three parts Satisfaction, two parts Secureness, one part Amusement, and a faint undertone of Ignorance.

Joseph started to squeeze his hand. I rubbed at my face with my sleeve.

               "But I made that. That's different."

               I rubbed the last of the Contentedness off and returned to normal. I felt clear as a cloud and as featureless as the face of the sun. Joseph's hands returned to his sides. I could see him studying my face, his eyes trawling over my every feature. His eyes moved liked swampy gemstones grinding in a socket, wet and unreal. His gaze was like seaweed’s engulfing caress. But, in my natural, emotionless state, I was unaffected by it. My impenetrable neutrality seemed to calm him, as it usually does.

"I still think you should take the offer. You wouldn't have to sell off specimens to make space anymore. And it won’t be long before the repairs become too much for me. I know you love this place, but you deserve more than a little museum with just the two of us that’s about to fall apart. The world is going to drag you out of here eventually. Why not now? It is a good offer."

               Joseph began squeezing his hand again. His eyes darted to his desk, to his research. He had been dissecting a mass of crude Bliss, and its pulsing, organic form was still pinned down on a board. He poked at it and rubbed the glowing, blue residue between his fingers.

               "But we work well together. I’d miss you. I mean, I know I made you, but you’re more than just a doll. I can't even remember what it was like before you worked here. And what would you do?"

"I'd find something. I'll be fine. This will be good for you."

               Neither of us said anything for a while. A brick nearby started to crumble and shake. I went over to gather the bits of stony Certainty and piece them back together with a sticky solution of Comfort.

Then, with my back turned to him, Joseph spoke, "I'll think about it. Why don't you close up for the night?"

Joseph acted strangely after that. I didn't think much of it at the time. After all, Joseph built this museum himself. He constructed every brick out of Passion and Desperation and Wanting. He made me shortly after it opened, after he had fired three assistants for being too disappointing.

               In the front, beyond the vestibule, were three exhibition rooms. They had an order, but the rooms didn’t always follow it. And sometimes a room would get infested — Loneliness, in particular, could be persistent — or break in half and I’d have to weave a quick tunnel out of Determination and/or Apathy for guests to get from one room to another.

The first room was dark. The only light came from spotlights that illuminated rows of emotions. They were in their crudest, semi-organic form, dissected and pinned to the wall. This was what he crafted me out of.

               The second room was the biggest. It had a large pit in the center. Joseph sometimes set emotions free in it to see how they would interact. There were glass cages built into the walls. These cages held emotions in their liveliest forms, bestial but amorphous. A menagerie of sorts.

               The third room was the smallest, but it was the most valuable. Crowded shelves loomed over crowded aisles. They held hundreds of meticulously labeled bottles of clear liquids. Tight on space, that room was where Joseph stored emotions in their most refined form, locked behind glass doors. He allowed me to leave some bottles out on tables for visitors though. We are a museum, after all. Though we've learned to be more discerning with our samples after that incident with an overdose of Doubtfulness.

               There were two private spaces in the back. One was for Joseph and one was for me. Joseph had the larger space, since he needed room for his experiments. My office was adequate. I didn't need much space to write labels and record repairs.

               I had to pass through Joseph's lab to get to my office. I set it up like that on purpose to make sure I could always check up on him. I'm not sure he ever realized that was the reason. He was always so easily distracted.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

JOSIAH OLSON

T h e   M e l t i n g   W i n d s

               I met Angel on the coldest day of summer in a concrete cave that reeked of oil. Her father, a thick hairy man with hands like pork chops and face as solemn as a totem, wouldn’t help me. In fact, he wouldn’t even take a look at the car. I fought back burning tears as I pulled the cash off the counter and stuffed it back into the Bell jar. As I left through the parking lot — I saw her. She wore overalls that were once blue but had since become a grey rain cloud, and her dark hair framed her face at a slight angle, like a picture hung crooked on the wall. There was energy in her, like a music box that had been wound in full; I could see a bounce clenched in her ankles, a smile hiding in her cheeks, and a song climbing up her throat. All of that, however, was covered up, just beneath the surface.

               “Hey!” she called to me from where she leaned against the wall outside of the auto-shop. “Did I hear ya say five hundred?”

               I nodded. She looked me over, her mouth opening and closing like Pac-man’s, as if she wanted to show off the bright blue gum she was chewing.

               “I get off in a half hour. If ya stick around I’ll take a look at her.”

               Again I nodded.

               “Alright then,” she said, walking past me and going back inside. She pointed to a box on the floor. “Make yourself useful and grab me that, okay?”

               I picked up the box and followed her inside. For a half hour, I helped her by unloading a truck, sorting out a box of nuts and bolts, and mopping a hallway. Her father looked over at me several times to scowl, but I didn’t mind much. I’ve always liked working, I usually turn it into a game of sorts.

She tapped me on the shoulder. “Let’s get out of here.”

               I dropped the mop and followed her to the parking lot. Then she turned around and threw her hands up. “What’re ya doing? I don’t know the way, quit following me.”

               Her words startled me, but when she laughed, I laughed too. I took the lead and she followed me over the bridge, through the patch of trash-littered woods, and into the trailer park. We stopped in front of my home; white-paneled and wrapped in empty flower boxes and dried up gardens. Parked in front of it was my birthday gift; a dark car with two flat tires, three rusting holes, more dents than I could count, and an engine that wouldn’t make a sound.

               “I don’t know much about cars,” I said.

               She held out a hand, her fingers rough and red, oil-nibbled and skin-peeling. “Keys.”

I handed them over and she went to work. She looked like a doctor, peeking around in every corner of the car’s guts. Finally she looked up.

               “It’s got a bit of everything,” she said with a laugh. “I hope this didn’t cost much.”

               I didn’t know how much my mom got it for, but I guessed it wasn’t much; she wasn’t one to throw money around, especially for me. I shrugged.

               “Well, I’ll come back tomorrow with some tools, okay?” she said. “I’m Angel by the way. Although ya can call me Angie if ya want.”

               I took her hand and gave it a shake; hers was stronger.

               “Moses,” I said.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

HARRY KIDD

A n n e   S e x t o n   C a r v e s   a   P u m p k i n

 

               Toby sat under the yellow lights of the diner. Outside was dark blue and the trees black. It was the end of another day. His hands folded in front of him, his head bowed, he looked to be in prayer. Maybe he was praying.

               He unfolded his hands to drink his cup of coffee. Black, it tasted faintly of burning meat, dirt, water, and coffee. Looking down into the dark liquid in the cup, he saw the yellow light bulb above. He moved the cup slightly and the light bulb's reflection moved back and forth, rippled with motion. He looked up at the bulb, it was perfectly still.

               The mug he drank from was smooth. It had a chip somewhere on the base. He could tell as he rotated it on the table with four fingers. Fingers fat and rough, peppered with nicks from the sawmill. He rubbed his hand softly and slowly against his windbreaker, the calluses scratched against the nylon. The movement sounded like one long crackle, like rain, a record, or brushing the hair of a horse.

               When he was done, he left change on the table and walked home.

 

               "Hi!" Mary shouted from the kitchen. The screen door slammed behind him. It had a very tight spring. He heard another slam then, but from the kitchen.

               "Hello!" The house was entirely dark except for the faint orange of the stove light. He shouted as if he was calling down a well. He smelled burning.

               Toby found Mary's skinny body blocking the oven. She looked at him with surprise, then laughed loudly, "I hope you won't be mad at me!"

               "Did you burn something?" He said. After all this time, he still could only smile, but the smiles had gotten much smaller.

               "I think so yeah." She brought her thin wrists up to her chest. She only wore her underwear, army green.

               "That means yes." Toby said with a sigh. The smell of smoke was overwhelming. He had not noticed it before. He wondered why that was. Was his mind so busy he had forgotten about his lungs? He simply had to take two steps with his large legs and Mary naturally moved away from the oven. He opened it. The smoke alarm went off. Mary dashed to turn it off. He heard her rip it out of its socket and toss it on the couch in the dark. She stubbed her toe and swore.

               "Was it a turkey?" Toby called out as his scarred hand fanned the smoke enough to reveal a blackened hunk of something.

               "I'm really sorry." Her voice, usually bubbly and boisterous, had become as thin as her body. Words out of her mouth were twigs snapping.

               He flicked on the extractor fan. It whirred. With the stove light on, he could see the tiny motor inside the grating. The blades spun around. Toby partially put on a pair of oven mitts, too small for his hands, and lifted the baking sheet out of the oven. He banished it to the sink and ran cold water over it. Steam violently erupted from the tray for a few moments before the sheer, icy temperature of the water overpowered the burning heat. The oven mitts still straddled onto his fingers, he flung the turkey into the trashcan. It was a small turkey.

               The sun had gone down. It was too dark in the house. Toby did not like it. He heard Mary's sniffle. She would begin to cry soon. After a few moments, she did. Even had she not been crying at this time, he always knew where to find her frail body: in the living room hanging off a corner of the couch, a poached animal on a fence.

               "I'm sorry," she wailed, "I wanted to cook, but I don't know how."

               This was true, Toby thought. He sat on the couch with a thud. He did not say anything.

               "You can turn a light on." She reached for the lamp but he had gotten there first. He clicked it on.                The lamp held a similarly yellow glow to the lights of the diner.

               She tried to hide her limbs, but she was in her underwear.

 

               The lumberyard always smelled good. The pulp and sawdust one day started to smell like yellow cake mix. Toby started to work longer hours. He did not need to, but it helped to distract him.

               "Get out of here," his boss said one day. "A man can work too much. Go home to your wife."

               "Okay." Toby said. 

               One day one of the guys found an old barbell bench and some weights in the yard. They took turns pressing. In all of their eyes you could see fire, the kind that shoots out of the corneas via nostalgia. The men were getting old and, as the bar went down and came back up, they relived their best times.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

EDWARD AHERN

T h e   V i s i t o r

 

              Between the divorce and his worsening cancer, Roger was operating with half a life — Janice had taken the house, furniture, and half of everything else. Thankfully there were no children, and Janice currently made more than he did, so no alimony.

              Janice hadn’t known how bad the cancer was when she filed for divorce, and he never told her. Roger had hoped for her love and not her pity. She might have left anyway, but he missed not having her often-bitchy company.

              He’d need a place to live, and hated the cramped quarters of an apartment. The house he’d quickly settled on had as many health issues as he did. Paint blistering inside and out, a leaky roof dribbling water down over the beams, and a furnace spewing soot over everything. Roger bought it. He might not be able to be healed, but maybe the house could.

              After all, it matches the state of my health, he’d thought.

              The asking price had been low — the grime had ensured that. He negotiated further down and closed on the house. The next day he scheduled in the roofers and furnace replacement crew. Once they were done, he had painters swarming inside and outside the house. Then he moved in the desk and laptop computer he’d been able to salvage from his marriage, along with consignment shop replacements, and his one luxury — a large flat screen TV.

              For almost a year, Roger got out of bed every morning at six am, shaved, dressed, had breakfast and coffee, and walked seventeen steps to his desk and laptop computer. His shirts hung loosely around his torso, and his pants flapped against his thighs. The almost bare rooms echoed as he walked through them. The only thing hung on the walls was a calendar, and the windows were veiled with sheers that had been white a quarter century ago.

              It looks like an abandoned insane asylum. Suits my physical condition and my mood, I guess.

              After he’d settled in, Roger had briefly thought about exploring the on-line dating services, but Janice’s affair and divorce action had left him scarred, and he doubted his first dates would warm to his coughing into his napkin.

              His friends had largely turned out to really be her friends, and those still in contact were busy with their hard-wired marriages and families. His closest friends continued to call him for several months, but felt awkward about asking about his health, and guilty about describing their healthy lives. Over the year their calls tapered down to almost never. Roger rarely drank and didn’t do drugs, so his evenings were tedious.

              One evening, while suffering through a cable news cud-chew of a trivial political event, Roger had the prickly sensation that someone was watching him. He glanced around the room, then out the windows, but the only movement was televised light patterns shifting on the bare walls.

              I need to change the channel, these talking heads just suck balls.

              Roger jerked upright. He didn’t think like that. Nevertheless, he picked up the remote and switched to a rerun of a crime show.

              I should pay the extra and get some R-rated premium channels.

              He jerked again, and wondered if he’d taken the wrong meds that evening. Much as he’d enjoy the nudity and gratuitous violence, he couldn’t afford it.

              Got to recharge my superego, recover some internal restraint.

              I wouldn’t bother.

              Roger shut off the police show before the perp was revealed. He felt an alien twinge of annoyance, but moved into the bathroom and made the nightly, exactingly administered, and futile preparations to counter his lung cancer.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

JOSHUA ROBINSON

B l e s s i n g   i n   a   B u n

              Owen Miller, as he was called, arrived in Omaha, Nebraska in 1964, and in all of ten years since, had never set foot in are restaurant. Eating out was illogical, especially when supermarkets sold cans of food in bulk for less than half the price of a typical main course.

              But today was different.

              There was a place just across the street from his apartment building called Night ‘n’ Dayner. At 12:15 AM he decided to go. Might as well; it wouldn’t be there much longer.

              As he crossed the road toward the gray, tube-like building, the cursive, corn-yellow sign shone brightly against the starless night. A bell chimed overhead when he stepped inside. To the left and right, every pink-and-white-striped booth was vacant. At the counter, where he took his seat, there wasn’t a person around to muddy the peace and quiet. Perfect.

              The menu board listed plenty of options, but most were obscured by stupidity. Names like Super Waffle Fries and Smokey Yolky Dog were impossible to decipher. Did you get waffles or fries or both? Was the dog served burnt? Was it an actual—

              “Oh, hey. Sorry to keep you waiting.” The girl had come through the blue double doors out of the kitchen. She took out a pen and order pad from her breast pocket. “What can I get you?”

              No older than twenty-five, he approximated. She had deep-set amber eyes, inky hair styled in a high ponytail, and a tiny mole beside her right nostril.

              “Just bring me your most popular food item and beverage,” he said.

              “Uh-kay. Anything else?”

              “No. Thank you.”

              She nodded, then disappeared back through the doors.

              Baby pink uniform, he observed, with a white half apron. Then it occurred to him: if she were seated against the pink of a booth chair, would she blend in and look like a floating head from a far enough distance?

He pondered this until the girl in question — Samantha according to her nametag — returned with his order.

              “Here we are.” She put the plate and glass down in front of him. “One Moon Burger and fries. One milkshake. Enjoy. And just shout if you need anything else.”

              “Thank you, Samantha.”

              “Call me Sam. Everyone does.” She started wiping down the counter.

              On his plate was a kind of round sandwich. Beneath the top, seeded bun, which he pinched and lifted with forefinger and thumb, was a thick slice of sweaty meat, topped with cheese that had been cut to resemble the moon.

              “Something wrong?”

              “No,” he said.“Just never seen this before.”

              “Neat! Right? A crescent moon because we’re open all night. It’s funny. Adults seem to take it just as serious as the kids. There was this pastor not long ago. Holy man. Beard and everything. He demanded a whole new burger when he realized the cheese looked more like a first or last quarter moon. As in it didn’t curve inwards. Just a straight half-circle. Never got why he kicked up a fuss. End of the day it was only a little more cheese.”

              “You know a lot about moons.”

              “Of course,” she joked.“I’m a professional.”

              He raised the burger to his mouth—

              “What brings you here so late anyway?” she asked. “And on a Sunday. Well, Monday now, really.”

              Lowering the burger, he said, “I guess I’m what you’d call celebrating.”

              Sam put a hand on her hip then smiled with dimpled cheeks. “Well congrats. What are we celebrating?”

              “My team and I have reached the end of a very long project. Come tomorrow, we’ll finally get to reap the rewards.”

              “Nice,” she said, bobbing her head. “I’ll top off your milkshake when you’re done. On the house.”

              Owen itched his ginger head. “Isn’t that against your code of conduct?”

              “Yeah, but it’s only me and Henry in back, and trust me, he couldn’t care less. Besides, you said it yourself. Special occasion. Therefore, exceptions can and will be made.”

              “You’re kind.”

              “And you’re welcome.”She stepped out from behind the counter, making her way to one of the booths, spray and rag in hand.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

JOSEPH PETE

D e a d l i n e

               They sent the dead reporter to cover the house fire, even after half of his rotting left arm had fallen off, making it hard to take notes. It was cheaper to employ the dead, a big fiscal advantage for the perpetually struggling media industry that still hadn’t figured out how to monetize web traffic in 2088 and would finally die any day now, as the industry observers had been predicting for decades. Death, however, no longer guaranteed retirement for working schlubs after reanimation technology became prevalent. Many people were still on the hook for their ballooning student loans that had crept up to the high nine figures while wages only regressed.

               Sallie Mae, Navient, and other student loan lenders would revive fresh corpses with a wave of the scanner in the morgue and put them to work for long enough to settle their debt once and for all. Postmortem, they could garnish pretty much their whole paychecks since they were no longer legally on the hook for any other debt.

               Congress had chosen to protect student loan debt, to safeguard it from cradle to grave... and beyond, according to a commonly exploited loophole.

               Billy, as he had been known in life, had worked as a writer when his heart still functioned with all four ventricles pulsing and pounding, flooding his veins with that sweet, life-sustaining blood. He loved classic music like Courtney Barnett, (Sandy) Alex G, Future Islands, The Weakerthans, and Pavement. But he lived for writing.

               At his newsroom, there were breaking newshounds, investigative journalists, niche reporters, and feature writers who could craft a good yarn, fancied themselves as future novelists, and often thought of themselves in lofty and pretentious terms like storyteller. Billy fell firmly into that last camp.    His rumpled Oxford shirt was often coffee-stained, his deadlines blown past while he revised and revised, and his appointment book was usually filled with out-of-newsroom interviews so he could gather precious details that would bring the story to life and elevate it beyond the mundanity of daily journalism. He strove for something higher and polished his leads, his endings, and all the copy in between, burnishing it to a high literary gloss that he was at least halfway satisfied with.

               Billy won a bunch of awards over the course of his career. His plaques hung in the corner of his dank, moldy, unfinished basement of his ranch home that had been designated as his home office. Despite all the acclaim he had garnered for his journalistic craftsmanship, few people paid for the news anymore, the moribund industry limped along on life support, and his car was a whopping 19 years old when a semi-trailer plowed into it, killing him long before the paramedics even arrived at the scene. He still owned $62,983 on his college education that he had completed decades earlier, ultimately doing little to boost his earning power.

               Unconcerned with something as frivolous and shallow as income while the candle of life still flickered, he considered himself an acolyte of a higher calling, a craftsman of words. But after he was dead and had no rights, they shifted him to being a on-camera personality, a role he had never held or even trained for in life, because the social media giants were pushing for more video content to cater to the increasingly clipped attention spans and illiteracy of their audience. They pivoted him to video while he silently screamed for internal quietude, after they finally let his weary, moldering limbs rest.

               His rotting appearance was divisive among the audience but hate clicks were still clicks.

               The pasty, cocaine-white corpse once known as Billy stood out in front of the burning home, an apparently abandoned house that was now fully engulfed because some squatters were trying to keep warm over a burn barrel.

               Firefighters struggled to battle the blaze because the underfunded municipal water utility failed to generate enough water pressure through the hydrants. The splintered timbers all eventually succumbed to the licking flames.

               Megan, the chipper, perky fire department spokeswoman, agreed to an interview on camera.

               Billy’s deceased body held the microphone in her general direction though his decrepit limbs wobbled from lack of blood flow. He rattled off the who, what, when, where, and why. She riposted all his parries, quickly, efficiently, and professionally.

               An explosion erupted from the house behind them.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

D.C. GONK

T r u t h   B e   T o l d

The nature of chaos is not that it is random, but that it is a pattern only few can see.

 

 

              The bar is exactly as crowded as it should be on an evening like tonight  — busy, but with enough space for everybody to have a seat if they wanted it. Three guys, military, are sitting at the L-shaped bar with their backs towards the tables on the floor. Two of them are drinking beer, the middle one is drinking something stronger, as he always does, and complaining about their orders, their curfew, and anything else he could possibly complain about in regards to his service. Tom and Jodie, a young married couple, are sitting at the table closest to both the bar and the bathroom. The space between the Mr. and Mrs. has recently reduced from three feet to one foot, which must mean they’re patching over that scandal that’s been ruining them for the past few months. It won’t last long, but tonight is their wedding anniversary, so they might as well enjoy each other’s company for the evening. At the table across from them are a group of blacksmiths, still covered in soot and ash from their day at work, all of them with broad shoulders and the calm, slow hands of a fire expert. They’re showing each other tricks. One of them, the youngest, with no facial hair and hardly any scars on his arms yet, ignites the tip of his pinky finger in a blue flame.

              “Ah, ye finally learned yerself the purple ember, eh boy?” The oldest of the smiths asked.

              Then the young man made the fireball dance around his fingers, swirling down each one to the knuckle, then back up before jumping to the next fingertip.

              “Ouch,” he muttered as the flame went out on his own index finger.

              “Almost, kid. Looked good while ye had it goin’, though. Watch this,” the old one said, making a sound like a train whistle and blowing smoke out of his own ears.

              All the other smiths laugh and wonder how he does it. In the back corner of the bar is a table of young misfits, all looking for a thing to do; a fight, a girl, a game, anything fast and physical. Directionless sods with too much energy and nowhere for it to go. In the other back corner, facing everything unfolding in front of him was, of course, the man in the suit. Everybody knows the man in the suit, partially because of his suit, which is made from the finest of material, and is jet black with pure silver pinstripes. He wears the same one every day, but it always looks freshly tailored and brand new. The man in the suit is not, however, only known for his suit, but rather for his social and caring personality and his impact on the social and personal lives of all of the people in this small city inside of the Pollecano Nation. 

              The man in the suit ignites his index finger and brings it to the tip of the cigar in his mouth, checking his pocket watch — 9:55. Everything is in place.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

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