Secret Box

Before becoming pregnant, Laura spoke all her secrets and dark desires into the box, locked it, and stored it on the top shelf of the bedroom closet. She had also confessed some secrets and desires to friends. But nobody had heard all of them. Until the box. She hid the key in her sock drawer.

Months later, tapping made Laura think a mouse was in the closet. She peeked. The box was twitching to the side, tapping against the wall.

Laura shrieked and stumbled in retreat, until the backs of her legs touched the bed. Her first thought: a monster was stuck in the box. Another part of her brain called that notion crazy and said a mouse must’ve gotten inside the box. But how? The box was metal, not cardboard that a mouse could chew through.

She ran to the kitchen pantry, retrieved the broom, poked the box with the rounded end of the broom’s handle. If a mouse was inside, wouldn’t the little thumps of the broom against the box scare it? Yet the box didn’t stop moving. It kept twitching, so it tapped the wall.

Another run to the kitchen, this time to underneath the sink to retrieve a garbage bag. She held the bag open below the closet shelf with one hand, and she swiped the box off the shelf with her other hand. Swiping the box quickly to touch it as little as possible. As if the box was hot and would’ve burned her. In the motion, Laura didn’t see or feel a hole in the box. It looked intact.

Once the box dropped into the garbage bag, Laura cinched the top of the bag and wrapped a twist-tie around the neck.

The garbage can in the side yard wouldn’t do. Laura was worried the box would’ve kept twitching, and Henry would’ve investigated. She was convinced no mouse was in there. And she was scared of what strangeness the box held. Had her confessions given birth to a ghost? That was far-fetched. But so was a box capable of moving on its own.

Laura placed the garbage bag on the passenger seat of her car, and drove out of her suburban neighborhood, to the stretch of businesses. At a fast food restaurant, she drove to the back of the parking lot. She stopped the car, tossed the bag in the dumpster.

Back home, Laura felt lighter. Relieved. She wished she could drink a glass of wine to help calm her nerves, but her swollen belly was a constant reminder of the doctor’s instruction to not drink any alcohol.

So she turned on soft music and sat on the couch and breathed deeply and told herself to try to forget about the box and stop guessing what was inside.

Snakecharmer Blues

I’ve started to revist short stories I wrote in the late ’90s, when I submitted them to magazines in the hope for publication. None of the stories were accepted, and they slept for many years in a filing box. This is the first story I revisited, then edited. It felt surreal, of traveling back in time to my younger self. In my mind, I saw the room where I typed the story. I can’t remember all that I thought and felt back then to come up with this story, blending a little mystery into the walk down memory lane.

I hope you enjoy the story…


Snakecharmer Blues
by Dave Williams

Henry Despres knew something was wrong as he sat on the barstool and watched his friend play guitar.

When Louis played in bars before, talking among the bar’s patrons typically stayed to a minimum. Murmurs at some of the tables. Drink orders said to bartenders. Over all of it, the music from Sweeter Than Night was clear.

Not this time. Zeke’s customers chatted, their din competing with the music. The music stayed on top, but not by much, like a wrestler barely outmuscling his opponent.

Up on stage, Louis looked like he was trying too hard. His face was twisted with effort, sweat sliding down his wrinkled forehead and cheeks in thin streams. Blue and purple stage lights danced across his face, giving it an ugly shine. His fingers jerked on the guitar, seemingly attacking the strings to force out each note.

Henry Despres sipped his beer. Shelly was right; the music was off. Henry was glad she had called him several days ago to share the news about her husband, even though the news had arrived in a voice heavy with concern: “He’s been moody. Sometimes he’s really, really happy, like he’s about to burst. Talks up a storm, says we’re gonna do this and that, and things are gonna be great. He’ll go on and on about he’s gonna take me on the road and play in other cities and we’ll have the time of our lives. Then other times he’ll be angry and complain about his boss and how he doesn’t give a shit about Louis and treats him like dirt. And about he doesn’t get the chances he deserves when he can play so good. But Henry, you know how he blew that chance he had.”

Since Shelly had paused, Henry had filled the gap: “Yeah, that was sad. Do you think his moodiness is because of that?”

“Don’t know,” Shelly had said. “Could be. But that was months ago, and he looked like he was rolling with it back then.”

“Maybe he was just acting like he was rolling with it,” Henry had said.

“Yeah,” Shelly had said. “Maybe you’re right. Could you talk with him? See if something’s bothering him that he won’t talk to me about? I know he doesn’t tell me everything. But I’d hope he’d talk to me about important things.”

Henry had said he’d have a chat with Louis, see if he could dig up what was bothering his good friend.

The old Louis bared his soul to the music. Played with every ounce of passion and heart inside him. The crowd in the bar stared at the man at center stage. The music was so mesmerizing, you couldn’t look away. Like a spell was cast over the bar patrons.

And when people danced to the old Louis, they did it with their eyes half-closed. They lost themselves in the music. They forgot about the mundane things of every day. As if in a trance, listeners swayed like wheat in a field blown by wind. Gerard’s drums and Nina’s bass guitar provided the backbone of the blues music played by Sweeter Than Night. Louis’s lead guitar rose and fell in driving riffs, searing to the ceiling, pulling you in, telling you to let go, release your worries and join the dance or sit there and nod your head and tap your feet. The important thing was to let go.

The dancers came to the bar with worries squeezing them into tight balls. Work, bills, rents, mortgages, troubles, regrets, anxieties, frustrations. Within the music, the people uncurled and stretched, writhed and shook their hips.

During each extended song, Gerard and Nina simmered their drums and bass guitar to a low groove, giving space for Louis to explore a freestyling jam, the notes swirling around the dancers. Then the drums and bass picked up volume and speed, catching up to Louis. The three musicians lifted to a peak, sustaining that for an ecstatic moment, ending the song in a long peal from Louis’s guitar. In the sudden silence, the music echoed in everyone’s ears, even seeming to hang in the air, holding on to any auditory crevice, reluctant to leave. Louis spoke banter into the microphone, gave a joke or two, and the band started the next song.

Louis knew he was a snakecharmer.

One night a few years ago, and this was before Louis and Shelly got married, two friends went out on the town. Henry and Louis did that on some weekday nights, since Louis played for crowds on Friday and Saturday nights. The friends listened to other bands. After last call in a bar, they stumbled—clumsy, noisy, bourbon-breathed—to Louis’s apartment. Henry collapsed on the couch.

Louis picked up an acoustic guitar before plunking on an easy chair. His mood fit the style of chair. He strummed a soft mellow rhythm, and said: “Nothing like it. When I’m playing and people’re dancing. Man, it’s a great feeling. And it goes on and on the whole night. Yeah, some of ’em get all drunk and sloppy like us right now, but not all of ’em.”

Henry grinned. Many times, he had heard Louis describe his feelings on playing music. Henry didn’t mind hearing it again. He drifted with the acoustic guitar’s melody and Louis’s words, like the musician was trying his hand and mouth at spoken poetry over music.

“I want to give ’em a break for a night,” Louis said. “Let me take all that sad shit away. And when I’m done, y’all go home and get some sleep and maybe you’re in better shape to deal with your problems in the morning. Not if you’re hung over, though.” Louis chuckled. “Then you got another problem. But everybody needs a break now and then.”

Even drunk, Louis played a good lullaby. Henry passed out on the couch. Like many other nights before Louis got hitched.

Tonight at Zeke’s, however, Louis was charming nobody. Gerard and Nina’s faces were hard to read; you couldn’t tell if they were disappointed in their lead guitarist’s stabbing out notes. Maybe they were used to it.

Henry hadn’t seen Louis play for a good bit. After the wedding, Louis didn’t go out drinking and seeing other bands. Just played with his band at bars. Part of that came with the life change. A newly married man’s friends figured the fresh groom was busy at home once he and the Missus returned home from the honeymoon. Also, Louis had started saying he and Shelly were saving money for a house. Everyone saw it as getting a larger nest to fit a family that planned to expand.

Henry’s focus had shifted to other buddies, work, his own wondering if he should get serious about settling down. Louis and Shelly had hosted Henry at their apartment for dinners, and those were enjoyable, but in a different way than the two bachelors used to spend time.

Taking a swig of beer, Henry remembered Louis’s excitement over the invitation to try out for a record label. A big executive in a pretty suit had asked Louis to “test drive” some songs. That’s the phrase the exec had used. If the test drive went well, they’d make a record and go on tour. Money would be made. Then more records and tours and more money. Louis showed up drunk to the studio and played decently. Far from his best. The exec threw a fit and threw Louis out.

And maybe Louis was merely acting that he was rolling with the smashed chance. Maybe his turmoil grew until it needed a release.

Last night, Shelly had called Henry again and got to the point, her voice cracking: “It’s drugs.”

“What? How … how can you know that? Did you see him take some?”

Shelly had sniffled. “I found a little bag of white powder in his guitar case. In the little box where he keeps picks and extra strings. You know how he always breaks strings.” A pause for another sniffle. “I know, I know. I was snooping. But I felt like I had to, with the way he’s been acting.”

Air seemed to rush out of Henry’s body, leaving him hollow. He had never guessed that as the reason for his best friend’s unusual behavior. Henry had said, “Don’t feel bad about snooping. Probably be a good thing in the long run.”

“If I confront him about this, he might lose his top,” Shelly had said. “That’s how he’s been. You’re gonna talk to him, right?”

“I said I would.”

“Tell me how it goes. I’m really worried.”

The music stopped and the guitarists set down their instruments to scattered applause. Louis approached the bar and smiled when he saw Henry. The friends clasped hands and embraced. Henry felt a familiar comfort he hadn’t realized he sorely missed.

Louis sat on a stool and said, “Been a helluva long time. How’ve you been?”

“Hanging in there,” Henry said. “How about yourself?”

The bartender pushed a drink across the counter to Louis. He hadn’t ordered the drink; it simply arrived.

Louis nodded to the bartender and knocked back some of what looked to be straight bourbon. Louis said, “Surviving. You know how it is.”

“Sometimes I don’t,” Henry said. “You looked mad up there.”

“Think so? Not so much. I’ve just been in a funk.”

“Really? That’s it?”

“Happens to everybody once in a while,” Louis said, his eyes looking annoyed. “Why? Did I sound bad?”

Henry considered a reply other than a rude, but honest, yes. He said, “You didn’t sound like you usually do.”

Louis gave a dismissive wave. “Can’t be on fire all the time, you know. I’ll get back to it soon.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Listen, let’s catch up more after the show. Have a couple and chill.” Louis took his drink backstage.

Henry supposed he had started too strong in the interrogation. Smarter would’ve been to grease the conversational wheels, then wait till later to bring out the observation about Louis seeming mad and forcing out the music.

In the second set, Louis’s playing was toned down. He came across as tired. As much as Henry hated to admit, Louis was phoning in the performance. Henry and Louis had quickly described other musicians that way, back in their bar-touring days. Now, Henry was reluctant to stick the same label on Louis.

Talking and laughter were easier to hear amid the customers, their attention away from Sweeter Than Night and joshing with each other.

When the music stopped, mediocre applause rewarded the band, then the musicians started packing up the drum kit and other equipment. No encore would happen tonight.

After the stage was cleared, Louis carried his guitar case over to Henry, who finished off his beer. The men waved bye to the bartender and headed out.

“Coffee at the diner?” Louis said.

“How about we walk some?” Henry said. “Be nice to stretch my legs, and I could use the fresh air.”

“You’re not the one who’s been standing for two sets.”

“I’ll carry the guitar,” Henry said. “Let’s go for a little ways, then hit up a diner.”

Louis grunted as he handed over the guitar case. Henry liked the feel of the handle and the appearance of the case, giving him a cooler look—to him, it did. While loving to listen to music, he seemed to have all thumbs when Louis had taught him several chords, and they eventually gave up the lessons.

Small talk started by Henry relaying news about the friends he had hung out with lately. Who had moved to another city. Who had gotten different jobs. A band that broke up. Changes. The city’s buildings stood still, but not much else did.

Louis offered comments, like: “Sam always kept going on about leaving for Chicago. Seemed like he would always think the grass was greener somewhere else.”

They walked without a specific destination, and Henry knew he was putting off the direct questioning to Louis, but Henry enjoyed this quiet time with an old friend. The streets were mostly empty of people, except for small groups of loud folks partying on the young weekend.

Louis said he needed a rest. Since no diner was in sight, the men sat on the front step of a darkened restaurant. Closed up, having fed Friday night customers and waiting until the Saturday lunch crowd. The sign above the door read Fais de Beaux Rêves in ornate lettering. The place looked fancy, the food surely costing more than the men could afford to spend on dinner.

Henry and Louis leaned their backs against the restaurant’s glass door. The guitar case was placed on the sidewalk before them.

Hefting a sigh, Henry said, “I’ve got to get serious. What’s really going on with this funk you’ve got?”

“This again?” Annoyance was spiked in the question. “Like I told you, it happens.”

“Just that I haven’t seen you like that before,” Henry said.

Louis’s eyes settled on him for a stretched moment, as Louis possibly weighed whether to continue pushing back or offer an explanation.

Then came Louis’s decision: “A lotta things’re going on. All those bills and shit. The stack of bills keeps getting higher. You pay one off, and two more take its place. And people’re calling up, asking for shit. Everybody wants a chunk out of you. I’m getting tired of it.”

Progress. A small flame of hope shone in Henry’s heart. He said, “Yeah, I get it. How’re you dealing with it?”

Louis tipped his head in the direction where they had come from. “Back there. Playing’s always been an outlet for me. You know that.”

“Sure, sure. But is it working like it used to?”

“Don’t mess around,” Louis said. “You already know the answer to that.”

“So if it’s not doing the trick, what else you doing?”

“What’s gotten into you? Why all these questions?”

“’Cause I’m worried,” Henry said. “Shelly’s worried. We want to know about what you’re going through.”

The disgust in Louis’s grunt-laugh could’ve offended the restaurant. “She called you. Figures. I should’ve fucking known. You show up out of nowhere. When’s the last time we talked? I should’ve known, hearing you talk like that at the bar after we haven’t seen each other in so long.”

“Sorry for not coming to see you before,” Henry said. “I’m gonna see you more often. Promise.”

“Okay, fine.”

“And, yeah, Shelly called me,” Henry said. “What do you expect? You’ve got her worried. You’re not talking straight to her. She’s your wife, for Christ’s sakes. Think about what that means.”

“You kidding me?” Louis said. “I know what that means. She’s been complaining about me being moody. She nags and nags, won’t give it a rest. I tell her what’s up, same as I just told you, but she keeps nagging at me. So goes and calls you.” He shook his head, apparently in disbelief at Shelly’s action.

Silence took over. They watched the lit sign of Ron’s Bakery across the street. The men sat side by side, but Henry felt they were on different parts of the country. He wondered what Louis was thinking. He missed his friend’s old ways: easy with a laugh and a smile, easy to sit for a bit and talk about anything that came up.

Louis said, “It gets tough. Yeah, I get angry sometimes. Everybody does. You get frustrated and mad at the stupid shit and sometimes I ain’t the best guy to be around. But I get through it. What’s the choice? That or go crazy. Crazy don’t appeal to me.”

“Me neither. I know how you get through it. Shelly told me.”

Louis’s head whipped around, to stare at Henry, and Louis said, “What? What’d she tell you?”

While the earlier part of the conversation had challenged Henry, the next part seemed a wide gap he needed to jump over. Or retreat from. The path would’ve been much smoother—for Henry—if Louis had fessed up.

“I wished it would’ve been booze,” Henry said. “That would’ve made more sense.”

“What’re you talking about? You’re not making sense.”

“Drugs.” Henry closed his eyes as he spoke. “Shelly said she found some in your guitar case.”

As Louis kept quiet, Henry looked over to see his friend staring ahead, with an expression in a mask that offered no evidence of the thoughts behind it. The guitar case also kept silent, with no excuse given for what it could be hiding now.

Louis looked beaten and sad. “I wasn’t looking for it. It wasn’t like that. Shit was getting to me, but I was dealing with it. Trying to, at least. Then one night we had a gig uptown. Classier place than Zeke’s. It was a good chance to get our sound out there more. You never know who’s in the audience. And we played a hot night. I was excited, ’cause we played so good, and a couple guys came up to us afterward. I forget their names. Anyway, they asked if we wanted to go to a party. Gerry and Nina said they were tired and wanted to get home. I was supposed to go back with them in the van, but one of the other guys said he’d drive me home. Said it was on his way, no problem. So I went with them to this sweet apartment. Well, we’re drinking and having a good time. Then somebody breaks this shit out. I’m feeling fine from the playing and the booze, I say, why not, you only live once.”

He didn’t need coaxing. As if he was lifting the secret off his chest. Henry absorbed each word.

“Those guys hooked me up with more of the stuff,” Louis said. “It gives me that same feeling I get when my music’s true and people’re dancing. That same high. Maybe I wouldn’t need the stuff if I had a gig every night. But I don’t. Gotta get through all those work days to get to the gigs. Then the shit piles up and pushes you down. Feels like happiness is so far away, you might never feel it again. But the stuff’s right at hand. When you got it, it is. So you go for that sweetness. It’s not complicated, man. I wanted to forget the pain and feel good.”

Henry waited in case Louis had more to say, but he seemed to have finished his piece. Somebody howled from another block. Sounded like a drunk answering an ancient urge to yell as a wolf at the moon.

“That stuff’s turning you into someone else,” Henry said. “You get that, right?”

Louis gazed at him from the corner of an eye. “Now I do, yeah.”

“I can help,” Henry said. “Shelly, too. Of course she would. You’ve got lots of friends. All of us can help. But you’ve got to be open to that. Are you?”

After a moment, Louis said softly, “Yeah.”

“Good. ’Cause I’ve got to wonder, if you keep playing like you did tonight, that Zeke’s and other places might not ask you to come back.”

“Was it that bad?”

Henry said, “It wasn’t great, I’ll tell you that. I wasn’t kidding when I said I’ll come to your shows more. It was stupid how I got out of the habit. I’ll change that.”

“You better.”

“And you’re welcome to drop by my place anytime,” Henry said. “If you want to sit and have some beers and talk about shit that’s bothering you. If you want to talk to someone besides Shelly.”

Louis nodded. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

As Henry stood, he felt lighter. He’d gotten through what he’d set out to do tonight. And they’d gotten through a difficult conversation. Louis was clearly embarrassed, and there was no need to beat the issue to death.

“Let’s get you home,” Henry said, extending a hand, and Louis clasped it for assistance in standing.

Henry picked up the guitar case. The men began walking back where they came, heading toward the nearest bus stop. Most of the city was asleep on this crisp, cool very early morning. The streetlamps created cones of illumination that broke up the darkness. Their lighted circles on the sidewalk and street could’ve been spotlights on a stage, or islands of hope.

End


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

To the Castle

“He’ll judge in my favor,” Erik said confidently as they walked the long road to the castle. “You can be sure of that.”

“Hardly!” Rodney spat. “The king has more sense than that. Just because my chickens keep going to your yard doesn’t mean they now belong to you.”

“Where they choose to live should be their home.”

“Hardly! I need to build a better fence. Good fences are necessary for the order of things.”

Erik lifted his head to point at their destination. “I’d say the king would agree with you there.”

Rodney grinned a victorious grin. “Those walls are better than any fence.”

“But within them sits a man much wiser than you. You shall see.”

After a wait inside the castle, the two men were escorted to plead their cases in front of the king, who patiently listened to them.

The king then spoke to Rodney, “Fix your fence, but give two chickens to your neighbor to keep goodwill. And to both of you: don’t forget to pay your taxes.”


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Valuable Dating Advice

“She wasn’t impressed,” Burger King said, his voice pained. “Like, not at all. I don’t know what I did wrong. Or maybe it wasn’t anything I did. Maybe she was having a bad day for whatever reason.”

Colonel Sanders raised his hands in a dismissive gesture. “Beats me, dude. From what you said, you did everything right.”

“Hardly.” Earl Grey drank from his teacup and dabbed his lips and grand mustache with a cloth napkin. He said, “After you’ve been dating a woman for a while, she’ll probably be okay with a burger and fries on a date. Actually, some women might be okay with that on a first date. But I would not — absolutely not — put Lady Godiva in those categories. You should’ve come to me first and asked for restaurant recommendations for your date with her.”

“What should I do now?” Burger King said.

“Bring her chocolates,” the earl said. “Good-quality chocolates. Apologize to her. Say your judgement was thrown out of whack because you were so taken with her luxurious hair. Suggest another dinner. French this time.”

“French could be good,” the king said.

“It will be good. Wooing a proper lady is a delicate process. One that should not to be taken lightly, my good man.”


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

There Be Giants

“What if there really are giants?” the girl asked from the backseat.

“Giants?” her father repeated from the driver’s seat. “Sure there are. Remember when we looked up that stuff? The most poisonous snake in the world, all that stuff? Remember the world’s tallest person? That guy was way up there. Forget how tall, though.”

“No, no, I don’t mean tall people. I mean giants. The ones that’re taller than houses.”

“Like in Gulliver’s Travels?”

“That wasn’t a giant,” she said from the passenger seat. “He was regular size. The people were really small. The Lilliputians.”

“I always thought he was a giant,” he said.

“Nope. But there was a giant in Jack and the Beanstalk.”

“Right. That was a giant. A giant with a castle in the clouds.”

“What if they’re real?” she asked from the backseat. “What if they’re not in the clouds, but they’re hiding down here? Like behind those mountains over there?”

“Could be,” he said. “I can’t see over those mountains, so they could be there.”

“Would they be mean giants?” she asked from the passenger seat.

A pause, then from the backseat: “Maybe some of them. But not all. Like people. Some are mean, but most are nice.”

“Do the nice ones keep the mean ones in line?” he asked from the driver’s seat.

“Yeah. Yeah, they do.”

“Good. ‘Cause if the mean ones got loose, wouldn’t they smash things? Being giants and all, couldn’t they smash buildings to bits?”

In the rearview mirror, he could see her roll her eyes.

“Why do you go right to the violence?” she asked from the passenger seat.

“Dunno. Just figured if giants are real, then people should be worried. Those giants could snap skyscrapers like they’re made of twigs.”

“What if they’re just shy?” she asked from the backseat. “They don’t destroy things, and they don’t walk around because they’re really, really shy.”

“Could be,” he said. “So… what do they do all day?”

“Hide. Maybe they don’t want people to steal their stuff, like Jack did.”

“Like when he stole the giant’s gold?” he asked.

“Exactly,” she said from the backseat.

“But what if they built castles in the clouds to get away from us?”

“Even that’s not safe. As proven by the story.”

“True, true. I suppose they’re smart to hide then.”

“Yep. ‘Cause they’re really good at it.”

The three of them looked far into the distance, at the clouds and mountains, and tried to see if they could spot any evidence of giants.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

The Churning

Image of a house and "waterwheel" sitting on an outcropping of crop land curving downward, in a land's version of a waterfall.
“Landfall” by Erik Johansson

A surreal image for MindLoveMisery’s Menagerie Photo Challenge #363. The creator of it, Erik Johansson, has a video on YouTube that shows what went into creating the image — it’s really neat to check out.


The Churning
by Dave Williams

The Earth had had enough. The planet was taking matters into its own hands.

This time, well beyond the events we had grown accustomed to happening on a somewhat-regular basis. The powerful hurricanes, “ordinary” earthquakes, underwater earthquakes leading to tsunamis, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions.

The ground moved. Some people said it was like a conveyor belt, the belt ending and dropping everything into a pit. Then, miles away from the pit, the land opened and out came the buildings, roads, trees, cars. But all those materials were in pieces. Like a bunch of machines below the Earth’s surface had crushed the materials, chewed them up, and spit out the pieces above ground.

But no machines were doing that crushing and chewing. The Earth had its own devices.

So the people who said it was like a tumbling compost bin were more accurate. The kind of bin where you throw your food waste and yard clippings, then you rotate the bin to stir up all the goodies, aerate them, in the hope they will break down and become lovely, nutricious compost for your garden.

If more people did that in real life, perhaps The Churning would not have happened.

The event occurred randomly around the planet. Scientists said they found no reason why some places were affected while others were not. If the Earth wanted to cause the highest impact, only the big cities would’ve been churned.

And some big cities had been churned. I tried typing the names of those cities for this piece, but I broke down and couldn’t do it. Everything I’ve heard about those cities, the movies I’ve seen where the action took place in those cities. Gone. Gone before I had a chance to visit them. Of course I would not have visited all of them, especially the ones far away from me. But I liked knowing they existed. They were parts of humanity’s tapestry.

That tapestry has been ripped and new patches sewn.

Seeing news coverage was mind-blowing. I didn’t believe my eyes. It has to be a movie, I thought. But no, it was real. I heard the whapping of the helicopter’s blades above the cameraman. I saw the land moving, dropping, a fresh mass reappearing. The Churning.

Then came news coverage of the aftermath. Rubble mixed with dirt. If the Earth wanted renewal, why not keep the human-made stuff underground? Why not replace it with just dirt above-ground? People said it was to remind us of not being more careful. Maybe they’re right.

We were shocked by the horror coming from below us. We’d been scared of aliens attacking us, meteors smashing us. Death from above. But it came in the opposite direction.

And now, as the dust has settled, we have no way of knowing if a second Churning will happen. So people are living as if it will happen at any time, and there’s chaos.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Morning Interruption

Photo of man wearing a fedora and talking into a microphone
by Keith Channing

My story for the above photo prompt at Kreative Kue #309, hosted by Keith Channing…


Morning Interruption
by Dave Williams

The words were loud and unexpected in the city square. The words surprised me. Everyone else sitting at tables in the cafes seemed surprised, too. We looked around to find the source of the words.

“I repeat, get up and form a line on the south side of the square.”

A few people spotted him first. As they said, “Over there,” other people turned to see the speaker of those words.

A man in a gray suit and tie and fedora stood by the fountain at the square’s center. He held a microphone plugged into a speaker on the stone ground.

“We will begin inquires shortly,” the man said. “They will proceed more quickly if you are organized about it.”

Ridiculous. Because the man wore a suit and tie and fedora, we were supposed to follow his instructions? Must’ve been a prank or street theater — something like that. Around me, people muttered, asked each other what was going on.

“I haven’t made myself clear,” the man said. “This is not voluntary. A new government program has begun. We are questioning citizens to ensure only true patriots live in our beloved country. Anyone with anti-government views will be sent to a special school, where they can learn how to become true patriots.”

Even more ridiculous. This had to be fake. A film school student was completing an assignment. Any moment, the student director would appear next to guy holding a videocamera. All part of some strange art film.

Soldiers marched from the south entrance into the city square. I didn’t recognize their gray uniforms. They weren’t dressed like the soldiers I had seen on the news. Nor were they dressed like police officers I had seen. Their automatic rifles could’ve been movie props. I don’t know.

People buzzed around me, their repeated asking what was going on grew more worried, more frantic. Some people sounded panicked.

Men and women in gray suits entered the square from the north entrance. They carried desks and chairs, which they set down and arranged in a row.

The original man in the suit said, “Anyone who does not comply will be sent to the special school. They will be taught how to follow instructions and how to become a true patriot.”

A few people stood and walked to the south side of the square. That was all it took. More and more people got up from their chairs and joined them. Me among them. We formed a line, a quiet line, and watched the soldiers who watched us. We waited for the next instruction.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Hunting Gamble

Photo of person wearing hooded sweatshirt and carrying a shotgun over their shoulder. The person's face can't be seen in the darkness of the hood. In the background, snow falls in the woods.
by Harrison Haines/Pixels.com

A story for Fandango’s Flash Fiction Challenge #115


Hunting Gamble
by Dave Williams

The crash was difficult and embarrassing. Arrested in a Las Vegas hotel room, no time to hide the cocaine — although the cops surely would’ve found it anyway. At least the woman wasn’t paid company. Although, she — Katie? Kaylee? — had enjoyed what his money could buy.

Serving jail time became a marker in Brandon Keener’s life. A separation of what came before and what happened afterward.

Lock-up reminded him of an earlier marker. High school English class, an assignment was finally given that was much better than Shakespeare — which was hard to understand and boring except for the sword-fighting scenes.

“The Most Dangerous Game,” by Richard Connell, was short and thrilling. Brandon had enjoyed The Hunger Games, but that was set in another world, another time. The short story could’ve happened in the current world.

Brandon was more focused than most of his peers after high school. While others partied, Brandon studied for his classes — and the stock market. Rarely did he go to a party and blow off steam.

After college, he landed an entry-level job at a consulting firm. The hours were long, but Brandon still studied stocks. Fortunately for him, mom and dad had paid for college in full, so he wasn’t burdened with paying back a loan. His available money was invested in stocks.

Some of his risky bets lost money, but some hit big. The financial rewards were reinvested. While others went to restaurants and clubs, his money bought stocks.

When Brandon was in his mid-thirties, he quit his job to trade stocks full-time. He relaxed his policy of just occasionally going out. Now he could afford better restaurants and clubs than his peers.

That relaxing was controllable for a while in going out with friends and dating. He bought an enviable condo and filled it with expensive toys. He jetted off on luxurious vacations with various women. Top-shelf booze flowed and drugs were inhaled.

Brandon’s control slipped and the dam burst. He lost big at card tables in Vegas. Stumbled to the suite and partied harder than he ever had. Then lock-up.

He came to feel grateful for jail. After he survived the transition to sobriety, he poured energy into exercising his body and mind. Lifted weights and read business books, which gave him an historical perspective that wasn’t part of his research when he was younger.

Once into freedom, Brandon focused on rebuilding his wealth. And he acted smarter how he spent free time. No drugs, only booze. No crazy gambling trips.

Brandon purchased a large swath of wilderness land and hired a contractor to build a spacious lodge. He asked his old drug dealer for other contacts, and through a network, Brandon met “Mr. Dulin,” who wore a thick gold necklace and claimed to be able to deliver what Brandon wanted.

Sure enough, Mr. Dulin brought a man in his fifties to the lodge, the man’s head covered in a hood and his wrists restrained together.

Excitement thrilled through Brandon as he explained to the stranger: “You’ll get two days to rest. Then the door to your room will be unlocked. I’ll give you three hours head-start. Then I’ll hunt you. If you can make it off my property, you’ll be a hundred grand richer. I’ll give you a phone number to call.”

“What the fuck,” the stranger yelled. “Are you fucking crazy?”

“No,” Brandon said. “Just inspired.”

The stranger was placed in a locked cabin away from the lodge. He never saw Brandon’s face. The cabin was stocked with food and clothes.

On the morning of the release, Brandon’s voice came through a speaker in the cabin: “You have two hours until starting time.” The man yelled it was unfair and his captor really was fucking crazy.

The door was unlocked. Cameras on the cabin’s exterior showed Brandon that the stranger rushed off. Bulging pockets on his jacket showed that likely food was stuffed in them.

Brandon killed the man that afternoon. Didn’t take long for Brandon to track him, as the stranger wasn’t careful in rushing through the woods. Brandon could’ve bought a rifle and shot the man from long range, but that didn’t seem sporting. Nor as rewarding. So Brandon walked closer to the stranger. Let the stranger see the face of his killer. Raised the pistol and fired three times. Exhilaration and nerves burst in Brandon. The death was wrong, yet he could not deny the rush he had felt. Better than drugs.

Brandon called Mr. Dulin and told him they were going to have a long and profitable relationship. At Brandon’s request, Mr. Dulin’s delivered younger, more fit strangers. They came in different seasons to mix up Brandon’s game. And he mixed up the weapons he used.

Every time, he told himself that each stranger had a chance to win more money than they’d earn in a year. And every time, he killed them and burned their bodies and buried their ashes.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

If the Creature Arrives

Woman wearing mask sits on the end of dock, holding a lantern, and looking into a lake
By Kamil Rybarski/Pexels.com

Today’s story is based on MindLoveMisery’s Menagerie Photo Challenge #362, using the above photo as inspiration…


If the Creature Arrives
by Dave Williams

The scene could’ve been in a fairy tale, even though Harriet knew that wasn’t the host’s intention. Asher Griffin aimed instead for a scene in an Edgar Allan Poe story.

That was how Owen had described an over-the-top Asher Griffin party fo Harriet. Growing up with parents who loved to entertain, Asher appeared to have caught the bug. His parties weren’t held at the Griffin mansion, however. Once or twice a year, Asher rented a beautiful venue and threw a party in such themes as Venetian masquerade, Victorian gothic, and Great Gatsby.

Tonight was Harriet’s first time at one of the soirees, and she now believed Owen’s stories about Asher. The two men had met in college and swiftly became great friends. Owen didn’t belong in the wealthy arena of the Griffins, but his quirky sense of humor and his love of discussing literature more than sports meshed well with Asher.

Harriet had been introduced to Owen’s friend over dinner in a seafood restaurant, where she had enjoyed his boyish attractiveness and his enthusiasm to learn about her. She had assumed he would be stuck up and unleash comments like “Oh my goodness, the Côte d’Azur is delish!” She was glad her prediction had been off the mark.

After that night, Harriet had told some of her friends about the experience. They had suggested she should’ve ditched Owen in favor of Asher. The choice was akin to the woman’s version of Betty or Veronica, and a sizable percentage of the men to whom the friends had posed the choice had picked Veronica for the family bank account.

Except that Harriet had been dating Owen for ten months and she was too smitten to cast him aside for a rich man who made a good first impression. A man who might’ve had undiscovered hang-ups. Besides, Harriet didn’t match Asher’s type. According to Owen, Asher tended to date women who also came from wealthy families, and they zipped off to luxurious locales at the drop of a hat.

Here was a locale made more dream-like by the strings of fairy lights swooping from tree to tree in the spacious patio between a house and lake. The large house could’ve belonged to a tycoon during the Gilded Age of the 1920s. If so, this party would’ve likely fit with the parties of old: pretty little lights, glow of lanterns, well-dressed guests, waiters carrying silver trays of hors d’oeuvre and strolling amid the crowd.

Harriet thought the party’s masquerade theme added a bit of mystery. She would not have known the other guests without their masks. This was a societal circle in which she did not fly. Yet it was delish to fly in the circle for a night.

A series of tinking sounds calmed conversations and caused the guests to turn toward Asher standing on an ornate metal chair and tapping his cocktail glass with a spoon.

“Wonderful to see all of you tonight,” Asher said. “Thank you for making the long journey from the city.” (Long was subjective; the journey from city to lake had taken a few hours’ drive.) “I chose this place because the view is quite lovely.”

The host extended a hand to the lake, as if welcoming a special guest. The tiny lights were reflected on the lake’s surface, still and soft in dusk’s light. The trees ringing the lake and the few other houses were also soft in the dwindling sunlight of late summer.

Asher continued, “But that’s not the only reason I chose it. There’s a story about this lake. You see, folks around here say a creature lives in there.”

Murmuring came among the guests, and one gentleman said, “You realize we’re not in Scotland, don’t you?”

Asher laughed. “Come now, Reggie. I haven’t had that much to drink. Not yet, anyway.” As laughter from the guests faded, Asher said, “But Reggie’s right. We’re not in Scotland. Is this creature related to Nessie? I don’t know. But the locals say the creature comes out at night, under the cover of darkness. Easier to hunt that way. They call it Mugrik.”

“Just a myth!” another gentleman said.

The pessimistic statement brightened Asher’s face. “Maybe it is. But what if it’s not? What if we get to see this amazing thing? Wouldn’t that be fantastic?”

While some in the crowd gave encouraging comments, most guests downplayed the idea, calling it preposterous.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” Asher said. “Most likely, it’ll show up after midnight. And if it does show up, we can run into the mansion. We’ll be perfectly safe there. But in the meantime, please take a gondola ride while you can. The rides stop promptly at eleven o’clock.”

As the host stepped down from the chair, the guests returned to conversing in groups clustered around the patio.

Harriet thought Asher’s phrase “perfectly safe” was wrong. No such place existed. The risk of something bad happening always loomed over you. People were struck by lightning. People died in house fires. Granted, the risk was low of those events — but they did happen.

“You seriously think he believes in this thing?” Harriet asked.

Owen chuckled and said, “He really could. He’s mentioned it to me before. The Mugrik. Weird name. But it doesn’t really matter if he believes in it. He wants it to be true. He wants to see it with all these people around, all these witnesses. He wants to throw a party that nobody forgets.”

“I’m not going to forget this,” Harriet said. “It’s beautiful.”

“But the monster adds a nice touch, doesn’t it?”

Harriet had to agree.

The creature also added a conversation starter, one beyond the standards: What do you do for a living? How do you know Asher? Where are you from?

At times, Owen wasn’t by Harriet’s side, as he went to order more drinks or headed inside the house for the restroom. Harriet wasn’t very comfortable in a crowd of strangers, but the cocktails helped ease her mild anxiety. Everyone she talked with was polite, some even cheery. The other guests seemed to know each other (at least somewhat), and they were quick to fill silences during conversations with Harriet.

She and Owen joined the line on the dock. They watched the three gondolas glide along the shoreline. The wait wasn’t long for the dating couple to have a turn in a boat.

When the gondola departed the dock, Harriet said, “Why aren’t the boats going to the middle of the lake?”

“It gets too deep for our poles,” said the gondolier, a woman dressed in black-and-white striped shirt. “We could go farther than this, but we’ve been asked to stay close to the shore.”

Harriet guessed Asher had been behind that instruction, to give guests the idea that the lake’s center was too dangerous. A probable ruse. A lantern hung from the boat’s prow, its light dancing on the water. She imagined a beast’s head breaking the water’s surface, rising high above them, the long neck stretching. A silly idea. Harriet leaned against Owen and gave into the romance of the sliding boat.

Back on land, as the evening progressed, Harriet hoped the monster would appear and she hoped it wouldn’t. Its arrival would’ve been thrilling. She would’ve tried to snap a photo, record a video with her phone. She and Owen would’ve gone into the house, out the front door, to their car in the parking area, and driven off. Surely, they were faster than the older guests. A calculation from horror movies: the slowest of the fleeing mob was killed/eaten first.

But escape wasn’t guaranteed. She and Owen could’ve been in the car, and the monster could’ve breathed fire and roasted them — if the beast had such a power.

Harriet didn’t want the creature to stomp out of the lake simply because it would’ve ruined the luxurious time she was having. She inwardly laughed at herself for imagining the creature.

Guests said good-byes and left in small groups, and eventually half of the original crowd remained. Then a third. Then a fourth. They claimed to be ready to stay until sunrise. Then they would head to their hotels, their bed-and-breakfasts, and get some sleep. They could arrange for another night’s stay if checkout time was too early. Or slip the maid some cash to come later for cleaning the room.

As for the lake house, Asher had rented it until noon. Some of the catering staff left, and the remaining ones replenished the coffee urns and trays of desserts.

Owen switched from drinking wine to coffee before Harriet did. She was relieved. A few of the previous men she had dated would’ve continued swallowing booze — especially free and high quality — for as long as liquor bottles were available. She liked to think her taste in men had matured along with herself. She saw no need to drink tonight until she stumbled about.

Harriet also liked that Owen was game to stay at the party. The atmosphere was pleasant by the two fire pits. Harriet now felt the guests were friends from long ago rather than people she had met tonight. They kidded each other, they talked of other times they had stayed up through the night, like when they were kids and it was a grand adventure to see how the world looked when they would’ve typically been asleep. The magic of those times.

Harriet picked up a lantern and walked with Owen to the dock. To the end. They gazed into the dark water. Gazed across it, and were unable to see the opposite shore. Gazed at the stars seeming to envy the fairy lights still lit.

“If that thing actually exists and comes up,” Owen said, “we’re goners for sure.”

She grabbed his hand and squeezed. “So be it.”

The night had transitioned from a Poe-inspired party to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Harriet found enjoyment in both stages, as did Owen. A good sign for their future.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

A Pause in the Rush to Keep Up

Photo of a cupped hand holding dirt, and the fingers are forming the shape of a heart.

An earthy story based on Carrot Ranch’s April 22 Flash Fiction Challenge, which is:

April 22, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about earthing. Put a character’s hands, feet or body and soul into the earth. Who needs recharging? What happens between the interaction? Go where the prompt leads!


A Pause in the Rush to Keep Up
by Dave Williams

News said it was popular and she thought Why not? so she went to a creek trail and normally she would’ve felt happy inside the weekend crowd but not now so she went Monday (work was slow) and the walk was quieter, a pause from pre-Covid trend-flitting: coffee shops wine bars brunch cafes fusion restaurants new movies.

Seeing someone else do it inspired her to sit on a stone amid the creek, eyes closed. Listen. Water birds wind.

Her own idea: remove shoes and socks, barefoot in the creek. Feel. Chilly water smooth pebbles. Life underneath trends.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Photo of two feet in a creek, with rocks around.
by Dids/Pexels