Busker For The Dead (Part 1)

I don’t have that look. Some people do, but I’m not so lucky. I don’t look like my profession. I’m a busker. Don’t laugh, it’s a living. Problem is, when you shut your eyes and picture a busker in your mind, be they small or tall, slight or portly, I will never fit the bill. I have the unfortunate appearance of someone whose job title is preceded by the word man. Milkman. Mailman. Garbageman. Just not a streetmusicman.

You may be asking why this is important. Fair enough question. When you’re panhandling for money—come on, let’s face facts, street performing is begging with a musical accompaniment—having the look of a starving artist plays as much a part in getting people to part with their hard-earned cash as talent.

“Oh, look at the poor wretch having to sing for his supper, let’s toss him a pittance, shall we, dear?”

Some of the others have nailed the look down from the hair that refuses to be tamed to the ragged clothes just over the borderline from being hip and trendy. Me? I look like a well-fed blue-collar worker trying out a new hobby. That’s why I have to work twice as hard to earn half as much as my compadres. My audiences tend to be tight-fisted, self-absorbed philistines that expect blood for the bits of copper they toss my way.

Oh, I should probably mention that I busk for the dead.

Not the kind of job you rush out and apply for. Me? I kinda just fell into it. Turns out a friend of a friend knew a guy who used to work for the cousin of a woman who lived next door to a guy who was complaining that his employee just up and quit on him. Seems he couldn’t handle the stress of performing in Perdition, which I can plainly understand now.

What? No, I’m very much alive, thanks for asking. My work ID acts as a sort of day pass and allows me to mull about in Hell without experiencing any of the torment and damnation. Kinda cool, but it takes some getting used to.

Although it’s a paying gig, it ain’t enough to cover rent and bills—minimum wage in Hell is murder, no pun intended, so I rely heavily on the gratuity chucked into my hat. And yes, the dead have real money. Don’t ask me how that works. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the day pass into Hell thing.

My spot is the corner of Abaddon and Wretchedness, and while a part of the overall design of Hell, it’s technically Limbo, the waiting area where souls are processed and dispatched according to assessment. And as time moves differently in Hell, the wait can be an extensive one, so you figure folks would jump at the chance to experience anything that takes their minds off the situation at hand. That is so not the case. When facing damnation, the furthest thing from their minds is to listen to anyone sing. This is made evident from the contents of my hat. Today’s take so far consists of three dollars and eighteen cents in coins, a stick of chewing gum, a balled-up snotty tissue, and a punch card from some boutique java spot with one punch away from receiving a free coffee. The coins stay in the hat, the gum in my mouth, the tissue—ick—in the trash, and the punch card in my pocket. I’m not one to go in for designer coffee but like The Police sang, “When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.”

“Not what I expected,” a voice says from behind, nearly startling me out of my skin.

I turn to see a woman in her sixties, seventies, maybe—I’ve never been good at guestimating people’s ages—all done up as if for a night on the town. “You’re not the first person to say that.”

“And is it just me or is it chilly here?”

She was right, you’d figure being so close to Hell there’d be some sort of radiant heat, but there was a constant wind that blew shivers down the spine. “Not just you.”

“You’re not half bad, you know.” the woman said, looking into the hat. “You deserve more than that.”

I look up and down the avenue, We’re the only two people on the street at the moment. “It’s like they say, it all comes down to location, location, location.”

The woman opens her purse, a small clutch bag that’s a throwback to a classier time, and produces a two-dollar bill. “I’m afraid I’m not in the habit of carrying cash, so this is all I have.”

“It’s the biggest tip I’ve received in a long while.” I smile as she places the bill into the hat.

“Not that I’ll have much need for it anymore.”

“Not unless you were crossing the river Styx.”

“You mean the ferryman doesn’t accept the card?” the woman pulls out an obsidian credit card. “I was told never to leave home without it.”

It’s an outdated reference, but we both chuckle at it.

“If you’ll pardon the intrusion,” the woman asks. “How did it happen?”

“How did what happen?”

“How did you die? Peacefully, I hope.”

“Oh, no. I’m not dead, I just work here.” I show the woman my day pass.

“How interesting.” and she appears to actually find it interesting but her expression drops.

“What’s the matter?”

“It would be my luck that the first conversation I strike up in the afterlife would be with a living person. I was sort of hoping to find a travel companion for what lies ahead. I’ve always dreaded doing things by myself.”

“I’m not sure that’s how it works here. I think isolation is part of the torment process.” I realize what I’m saying just a smidgen too late to pull it back.

“Torment. I hadn’t considered that.”

“Sorry.”

“Not your fault. You’re not responsible for my sins.”

“I know I’ve just met you but it’s hard to believe you’d have anything to worry about.”

“Kind of you to say, but we’re all sinners in one fashion or another. I just wish there was a way for me to plead my case. I believe my sins were righteous.”

“You can always try.”

“No, no. I’ve never been good at that sort of thing.”

“Maybe if you practiced, rehearsed what you want to say? You can try it out on me and I’ll give you my honest feedback.”

“No, I couldn’t.”

“What have you got to lose? If you botch it up, you’re still being condemned anyway, at least this way you’ll have had your say.”

“Like my final words?”

“Exactly.”

She contemplates it long and hard. “All right then, if it wouldn’t be a bother.”

I gesture up and down the block. “Not like I’m doing anything else. Ready?”

“No, but go on.”

I straighten my posture and assume an authoritative voice. “You stand here accused of the sin of…”

“Murder,” she adds, sheepishly.

“Murder,” I repeat, stunned. “What say you in your defense?”

“I don’t deserve to be here. I was sent to the wrong place. I did what needed to be done, what no one else had the courage to do and now I’m being punished for my actions.”

“And whose life did you take?”

“My own.”

“Why?”

“Others would have died if I didn’t.”

Not The End…

Tiny Stories: The Million Dollar Choice

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

The cloth bag placed over her head not only prevented her from seeing where she was being taken but also blocked out all sound. Erica had no idea technology like that even existed. When the bag was removed, she found herself seated in a small nondescript room with a high-end tripod-mounted camera trained on her.

On the table before her sat an open attache case filled with twelve stacks of $100 dollar bills, eighty-three used and non-sequential notes to a stack. Beside the case were two glasses of red wine, one untampered with and the other laced with a deadly toxin.

Erica heard about things like this, private rooms on the dark web where people with money, people to whom a million dollars wasn’t life-changing like it was for her, but merely pocket change, wagered on the lives of the desperate and destitute. There were Russian roulette rooms, perverse puzzle rooms, and deadly escape rooms. She had gotten off lucky, she supposed. Hers was a simple fifty-fifty choice.

If she chose correctly, Erica stood to walk away with enough tax-free money to pay off her debts and do things the right way this time around. The smart choice would have been to ignore the invitation in the first place and find some other way to repair her damaged life, but she was inflicted with a serious gambling disease, something she inherited from her mother, and the opportunity was simply too good to pass up.

The catch? She was a lousy gambler, notorious for making bad choices even when she second-guessed herself, and her fatal flaw was that she could never pass up a dare or a bet.

Erica wasn’t allowed to touch the glasses before making her choice, so her eyes darted left to right, from one to the other, looking for the slightest discoloration between the two, and she even sniffed the air above each glass, which was pointless. These people were professionals and whatever lethal venom they used was no doubt undetectable by sight or smell.

She had a feeling in her waters that the one on the left was the dead cert unpoisoned wine glass, but was it strategically placed just a half-inch closer to her to make her select it subconsciously? Then she opted for the one on the right but suspected she was outfoxing herself. Then there was the possibility that both glasses had been tampered with. No, she couldn’t allow herself to think that way. Morty, the guy who set up this bet, had always been a straight shooter. He looked out for her whenever he could. Even when you made a habit of dealing with less than reputable people, you had to place your trust in someone. So Erica girded her loins and went with her initial instinct.

Was it her overactive imagination playing tricks on her or did she feel a static shock of electricity as she lifted the glass on the left by the stem? She tilted the snifter slowly, praying to the gods of luck and good fortune, and the moment the chilled wine touched her trembling lips, she knew…

Tiny Stories: Muse For Sale

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

I know the original classified ad read:

WRITER’S MUSE FOR SALE: Well-worn around the edges. Ridden hard and hung up wet. Can handle whining insecurities. Willing to trade for a large meat lovers pizza and a domestic 6-pack.

but I have to be honest with you, I like my muse very much but my super-jealous, super-insecure girlfriend does not, so I am forced to rehome her.

She’s fashion-forward and we’ve been together for 10 long years. She enjoys playing board and card games, is a nite owl, has acquired a taste for expensive meals, is double-jointed (hey, you never know when that might come in handy), knows how to distill beer, grows her own pot (for medicinal purposes only, of course), has constant access to free concert tickets, has an open-minded twin sister (hey, you never know when that might come in handy), knows how to handle herself in a bar fight, has absolutely no interest in learning about your fields of interest, and has a tendency to be a bit of a jerk at times (time-out step not included…you’ll have to build your own).

She also receives occasional visits from her shady brother, Gronte, who, once invited inside your house, is the thing that will not leave. He’s a griffulous, groffulous grue. Nobody likes Gronte. Not. One. Solitary. Soul.

So, if anyone’s bored, lonely, or desperate enough to take a petty, spiteful, and controlling girlfriend off my hands, come and get her. My muse and I want her rehomed as soon as humanly possible because we’ve got some serious work to get back to.

13 for Halloween: Sebaceous Splendors (audio)

I run a shoppe on the High Street, a tiny place that has a terrible word of mouth reputation, primarily for the produce I sell.

In my shop, Sebaceous Splendors, you can find the finest cuts of skin, the purest jars of blood, and the cleanest bones on the continent. Looking for a body part? Come to Sebaceous. Need a fresh organ to grind? Sebaceous has you covered. And where do you go when your sinew and tendons run low? You guessed it: Sebaceous.

In the cold light of day, townsfolk would not be caught dead entering my establishment, which is why I switched to night hours.

Under the cloak of twilight, as the rest of the village sleeps, slippered feet shuffle across cobblestones and slink into my shoppe. The shadowed alleyways surrounding my business are choked with clientele awaiting their turn to dash in and purchase a bit of the abnormal, either for spells and enchantment or to satisfy an unnatural appetite. I cast no aspersions. I sell what I sell. What you do with it is your own affair.

Not all who visit are right-minded, as one might surmise. Some syphilitic fingersmiths seek to cheat me of my efforts by attempting to nick a spleen or appendix and make a mad dash for it, which is why I purchased a NeverEver dog, so named because if one ever sank its five rows of teeth into you, you would never commit that or any crime ever again.

So, the next time you have a craving for something that cannot be procured at your local mart or need to bind someone to you, heart and soul, for all eternity, consider dropping by Sebaceous Splendors, open Midnight to Dawn, with nightly Hour of the Wolf specials!

13 for Halloween: Mise en Place (audio)

Everyone wrote Mise en Place off as another cheap reality competition knockoff tv series because the premise was identical to a much better cooking show in which two teams of amateur chefs competed for a lucrative position at a Michelin 5-Star restaurant, while working in a restaurant-style kitchen set up in the television studio sound stage.

In order to test the rookie chefs’ knowledge base and skills, a series of cooking challenges that escalated in difficulty were designed to eliminate weaker contestants until there was a single winner.

Despite this similarity, the show set itself apart immediately in the very first episode during the “Eat It, Now Meat It” challenge, where chef-contestants had to recreate a protein dish prepared by celebrity chef and host, Jacquez Devereaux, by taste alone. The loser of the challenge faced elimination after the host delivered the show’s signature catchphrase, “You have been cut from the line, prepare to be served.”

When it was later revealed that the protein in the dish was human flesh which also had to be correctly identified by gender, nationality and country and city of origin, in order to secure a win, and the loser was escorted to the show’s abattoir to be cut into sections for the next competition, the show became an instant ratings success.

13 for Halloween: A Noise In The Woods (audio)

Part 1

Coralin Ann Bloye never ran with any of the crowds, popular, dangerous, nerdy or otherwise. Even from a young age, she was that oddly shaped piece that never fit any societal puzzle, but she wasn’t exactly unpopular, being blessed with a certain charisma that couldn’t be hidden or ignored. It wasn’t long before the myriad other high school misfits were drawn into her sphere of influence.

Coralin’s Clique, as they were casually referred to, never involved themselves in normal activities, so when All Hallow’s Eve rolled around, the group, too old for tricks or treats, too disinterested in dressing up in lame costumes for themed parties or participating in Mischief Night, opted instead to camp out in the woods overnight and honor the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain.

“Are we gonna sacrifice cattle?” asked Andy. Every group had that one questionable tagalong and Andy never failed to take a matter to the extreme.

“You even think about what you’re gonna say before you open your mouth?” asked Janae, the clique’s self-appointed second in command. “And do you have access to livestock? I know I sure as hell don’t.”

“We’re observing the ritual only, no animal cruelty,” Coralin advised. “You need to satisfy your bloodlust, pick up a soy burger on the way and have at it.”

***

The spot chosen for the campsite was far enough away from town so they shouldn’t be disturbed all night, the weather was actually decent for the end of October, the moon was full and bright, and the ankle-deep mist that hugged the earth in a comforting blanket that moved as serene water, perfectly set the stage for their festival. When it came down to who would collect the wood for the fire, no one volunteered so they played several rounds of roshambo and despite her best efforts, Coralin lost in the end.

“Don’t you dare start without me,” warned Coralin.

The clique promised they would wait but while their de facto leader was away, Janae, who not-so-secretly wanted to dethrone Coralin and run the group by her lonesome, showed the group a video she came across while scrolling YouTube. It featured a naked middle-aged man and woman doing things to themselves and each other that were unexplainable. If it was sex or even some sort of weird torture, it was kink on a level unlike anything they had ever seen or read about or could even have imagined in their dark and depraved teenage minds. But one thing was for sure, none of them, no matter how confused or disgusted they were, were able to tear their eyes away from the video that played on a loop.

The collective sound of their young minds snapping was almost audible over the ambient noise of crickets, owls, and frogs.

Not long after, Coralin returned to the clearing, twigs and branches bundled under one arm, saying, “You better not have…”

Her sentence trailed off at the sight of the empty campsite, but the cooler, backpacks and rolled sleeping bags poked their heads above the fog, so Coralin knew her friends hadn’t ditched her.

“Ha ha, funny joke, planning to jump out when I least expect it, but you’re wasting your time,” Coralin called out to the surrounding trees. “I don’t scare that easily.”

She let the firewood fall to the ground, which dispersed the fog enough for Coralin to notice something strange about the grass. The moon provided enough light so that she wasn’t stumbling around in the dark, but she pulled out her phone and turned on the flashlight app to get a better look.

The ground beneath her feet was moist, which she naturally attributed to evening dew but upon closer inspection the yellowing grass was freckled red and so were her white sneakers.

“What was this meant to look like, blood splatter? Are you kidding me? Your stupid little prank got fake blood all over my sneakers! If this stuff doesn’t wash out, so help me God…”

There was a noise. It came from the treeline to her left.

“I am seriously going to kill every last one of you,” Coralin said without any real conviction because a suspicion that something wasn’t quite right was slowly creeping up on her, largely due to the blood that trailed off in the direction of the noise she wasn’t able to properly identify.

Following the swath of liquid red, she stepped into a place that wasn’t the woods anymore, at least not any sort of woods she had ever been in. This patch of land had been transformed into hell on earth. The smell of excrement and blood was overpowering; the air rang with the lingering echoes of screams of pain, cries for help, and wails of mourning. And what she saw, shifted the earth beneath her feet.

Coralin fell on all fours, her own heartbeat pounding in her ears, and she vomited violently as the blood rushed from her head and pooled at her hands and knees before turning into molasses and weighting her to the spot.

The trees surrounding her creaked and groaned from strain, threatening to collapse under the weight of the disemboweled bodies of her friends, and somewhere amongst them was the thing that had caused all this misery. It remained hidden, leaping from shadow to shadow, with the only visible bit being the claw-like hand that held a smartphone playing a video that was too far away for Coralin to make out.

But whatever this creature was, it wasn’t alone. Noises were coming from all around her, unnatural noises that existed just above the invasive low-frequency hum of nature, and hidden by the trees and evening fog, something was scrambling toward Coralin. That was all that was needed for a rush of panic-driven adrenalin to unlock her paralysis. Without realizing it, she sprang to her feet and hauled ass in the direction of the main road.

Although running in a blind panic, Coralin accidentally stumbled upon her car, a gray Mazda 3, handed down by her old man when he upgraded to a Dodge Challenger, hidden in the brush just off the road’s soft shoulder. Frantically rummaging through her pockets, she prayed to God that she hadn’t somehow stupidly left the keys at the campsite. Luckily she found them, fumbled to slot the key into the lock, and managed to shut the door behind her just as something massive slammed into the side of her car with the force of a speeding truck.

“Please start, please, please,” Coralin pleaded. Fear lodged in her throat as she turned the key in the ignition. She knew for certain the engine was going to stall because that was the way of the world and just her dumb luck. But on this occasion, she was dead wrong. The engine turned over and she stomped on the gas pedal to the squeal of metal pulling away from inhuman claws as the Mazda peeled off out of the brush and onto the deserted road.

In the rearview mirror, Coralin definitely saw something, some things, on the road in the distance chasing after the car. Pedal to the metal, she pushed the car as fast as it would go, trying to put as much distance as possible between her and whatever the hell they were.

Safety and reinforcements were just up ahead. She spotted a bonfire, hellabig, that was probably part of a bunch of idiots’ mischief night prank, but Coralin quickly discovered it wasn’t a bonfire at all.

Her entire town was burning to the ground.

13 for Halloween: The Act That Couldn’t Be Unseen (audio)

It all began, as a great many things do, with a young girl being a nosy parker and snooping on her parents’ computer in a private folder that, in all fairness, should have been password protected. In that folder there was a video clip that ran exactly one minute and fifty-four seconds, the average length of a movie trailer.

It was once believed that homo sapiens only used ten percent of their brains and though that myth had been debunked, the truth of the matter was a region of human gray matter was purposefully made inaccessible as a sanity safeguard. There were things in existence, arcane matters which lived outside the boundaries of mortal ken, that were meant to remain forever unnoticed and unknowable. The video clip featured one of those forbidden subjects.

How her parents came into possession of the knowledge, why they decided to not only engage in but also record an act so heinous that it couldn’t be unseen or unremembered, remained a mystery to this very day.

What the young girl witnessed stripped away her common sense reasoning and even though she knew better, she downloaded the clip to her phone to show her best friend at school the following day, who made a copy and uploaded it to all the popular social media sites. These sites and their corresponding apps suffered an outage in the United States and most of Europe, remaining offline in excess of six hours. As a result, the President of the United States shut down the internet in North America but by then it was too late.

The act had been seen by millions, infecting all who viewed it and the madness was spreading, heralding the resurrection of the dormant Old Gods.

Tiny Stories: The Scent of Memory

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

If you are fortunate or unfortunate, whichever the case may be, to live as long as I, you will discover that the past becomes little more than a confustication of events which have been divorced from the depth of time and in that jumbled mental mix, you may find that you occasionally misplace those you love. My mother is one such person.

Her face is all but forgotten and the sole recollection I have is a time when I fell into her arms and inhaled the scent of her shampooed hair. I was aware of how fast her heart was beating against my chest. Why? I cannot rightly recall but I felt her tears washing down my face which let loose the flood that had been building up inside me.

Many has been the time I attempted to plant my feet in the soil of that instance in order to explore the reason for our tears and excavate other buried memories of my mother but the moment always passes too quickly.

All that lingers is her scent.

Tiny Stories: Meat Cute

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

Of all the things that could potentially ruin societies the world over, destroying religious ideals, tearing apart the family unit, pitting toxic masculinity against extremist feminism, breaking down the education system, dividing the races, removing the population’s right to bear arms, inhibiting self-reliance and ingenuity, collapsing the internet, destabilizing economies…who ever thought that all humankind had built could have fallen apart over the disappearance of edible meat?

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease as it was commonly known, first reared its ugly head in Britain in 1986 when British herds were fed the processed animal remains of sheep infected with the brain-wasting disease, scrapie.

Isolated cases had shown up in Ireland, Canada, and the United States but the situation was considered under control…that was until July 22, 2002, when all the gamey animals (beef, horse meat, mutton, venison, boar, and hare) and the white meat animals (pig, rabbit, veal, lamb, duck, and goose) contracted the disease, plunging the meat manufacturing industry into chaos as their infrastructures collapsed. Herbivores were now the ruling class and non-conforming carnivores were doomed to extinction.

That was when the rioting began. Rogue carnivorous factions set crops ablaze, poured bleach over produce in supermarkets, rampaged through farmer’s markets causing as much destruction as they could in order to level the dietary playing field.

The meat industry was hard at work searching for a major scientific breakthrough when a geneticist and cloning expert discovered a process to save the carnivore population, and soon national meat lotteries were held. Hopeful contestants purchased tickets for a chance to win 10 pounds of USDA lab-grown meat.

Tammy “Finnsy” Finnegan purchased a ticket on a lark. She’d never won a thing in her life but when she purchased a container of milk at her local bodega and the clerk had no folding money in the till to offer her as change and she hated carrying loose coins, so she opted to put the money on a lottery ticket instead. And as was the way of the world and her life, because she thought nothing of it, the universe decided to grant it to her.

The ticket was redeemable at a meatpacking plant that had been converted into a lottery reclamation center. There she met the runner-up winner, Mick McCaffrey, who went by the name, Mooch.

It turned out that Mooch was diabetic and his blood sugar was low. He explained that normally he fell asleep when he was low, but this day as a result of being a winner, he was very animated and laughing and jumping around. Finnsy tried to calm him down and to stop him from running through the facility, she held his hand.

Once Finnsy got Mooch to calm down and sit, she sat next to him and talked, and though she would never admit it in a court of law, she might have flirted with him a bit. She found him cute, after all.

Mooch kept saying he loved her smile and asked why her face was turning red. When there was finally a lull in the conversation, Mooch asked Finnsy to dinner, and offered to cook his share of the meat for her.

She said yes as the lottery officials called Mooch in to collect his prize. Finnsy found it odd that they would award the runner-up prize first, but soon let the thought pass. A while later, the official returned and awarded her the 10-pound meat prize. She loitered a while to talk to Mooch and finalize their dinner arrangements, but was informed that he had left while she was conducting her news interviews.

Little did Finnsy know that when she sat down and tucked into the steak she prepared later that evening, that she was indeed having dinner with Mooch.

Tiny Stories: Name Not Nature

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

“I owe you the world’s biggest apology,” Corinne said. “For not being here when you needed me most. I was in the Dzanga-Sangha National Park. Do you know where that is? Central Africa. It’s a rainforest reserve where they have gorillas, elephants, forest buffalos and a host of other wildlife but the thing it doesn’t have are telephones or internet, so it took awhile for word to get to me. But I came as soon as I heard and what’s important is that I’m here now.”

Blue sat on the sofa, silent as stone, hugging her knees to her chest. She made no eye contact with her aunt or even acknowledged the woman’s presence.

“There’s certainly no denying that car accident dealt you a bad hand,” Corinne continued. “You lost your mom and dad and I lost my sister, but we’re still a family, you and me, and while I can never replace your parents, you’ll never be alone, even if you choose to be because I will always be around, pestering you with stories about your mom when she was your age that will knock your cotton socks off. And I hope one day you’ll tell me things about my sister that I didn’t know.”

Was there a slight head twitch? An eye movement from her niece or was it just a trick of the light? Either way, Corinne pressed on.

“And if nothing else I say sinks in, I hope this will: Blue is your name, not your nature. Inside and out, you’re the type of beautiful that lasts forever, just like your mom. So, I hope you find your way back to me through this dark cloud because I am in desperate need of a rainbow.”

Definite movement that time, as the young girl’s chin began to quiver and her eyes moistened with tears.

Corinne wrapped her arms around Blue and pulled her into an embrace. Her niece resisted at first but she refused to let go and eventually the tears came and the struggling died down.

The wall between them was still firmly in place, only a brick had come loose, and one brick might not have seemed like a great accomplishment, but it was a start.