Saturday, October 29, 2016

Family Style

The can of meat had been sitting on the counter next to the sink for years, but no one had paid attention to it. Whenever it was time to clean the kitchen, Mother would simply lift the can and clean underneath it, replacing it to the exact spot it had been earlier.

"Are we ever going to eat that?" Sissy asked one day after watching Mother go through this ritual.

"Eat what?" Mother asked.

"That can of meat. It's been there for years, so when are we going to eat it?"

Mother looked at the can of meat on the counter in surprise. "Huh," she said. "I guess I never noticed it. How long has it been there?"

"Long as I can remember," said Dad. He also looked astonished. "Let's just toss it out."

"It might still be good," Mother said. "Look, the lid isn't even bulging out. Let's have it for supper and see what happens."

It fell to me to cook dinner that night. I decided to make a casserole with noodles and the meat from the can on the counter. I opened the can and looked inside. It looked like ground pork, moist and pre-cooked, ready for heating. I sniffed at it, and it smelled fine. I wasn't about to taste cold ground pork, but otherwise it seemed fine. I dumped it into the pan with the noodles and various spices and herbs and a can of mushroom soup and started heating it up.

We had the casserole with green beans and dinner rolls. I just poked at the meal, but my parents and Sissy chowed down, consuming every morsel, sopping up the sauce with rolls.

"That was incredible!" Sissy said. She eyed the pile of casserole on my plate. "Just like pork salad. You gonna eat that?"

I stared at my still-full plate, thinking about how much the ground meat in the can had looked like little worms. "I think I'm a vegetarian now," I said.

She didn't say anything else as she grabbed my plate and began scarfing down my casserole.

"Wait!" said Mother. "Let me have it!"

"I'm the father," Father said, "So it's mine!" He took his fork and began waving it around menacingly. "That's the rule!"

"I never heard of such a rule," Mother said, grabbing her own fork. "And the mother always makes the rules at the dinner table!"

"Have at you!" Father cried. Then the two of them began to duel with their forks, completely ignoring Sissy, who was still wolfing down the remains of the casserole. When it was gone, she looked at me, sauce dripping from her lips.

"More!" Sissy said.

"What?" Mother and Father said simultaneously. "It's gone?"

I nodded. "Sissy ate the rest of mine while you guys were fighting."

"Make some more!" Father demanded.

"Yes, more!" said Mother.

"I can't," I said. "There's no more meat. The can's empty and I threw it out."

Father dove for the recycling bin and pulled out every item until he found the can that the meat had come from. He sniffed inside. "Nothing here," he said, nearly growling at me.

"I rinsed it out. No food in the recycling bin. Isn't that the rule?"

"But I'm still hungry," moaned Sissy. "Are you sure there isn't any more?"

"I rinsed it in the sink," I said. "There might still be some juice in the bottom of the garbage disposal."

"OUT OF MY WAY!" screamed Mother as she ran toward the sink. She shoved her hand into the garbage disposal, then brought it back up. She smiled as she licked her fingers. "Mmm, delicious!"

"I want some!" Sissy said.

"No, it's mine!" shouted Father.

I couldn't handle it. "May I be excused?" I said. "I need to finish my homework."

No one answered me, so I just went upstairs to my room, closed the door, and began reading about the history of the Napoleonic Wars.

A few minutes later there was a knock on my bedroom door.

"Who is it?" I asked.

"It's your sister," Sissy's voice said from outside the door. "We're still hungry."

"So? The casserole's all gone."

"But Daddy just remembered what else tastes like pork. Are you ready for seconds?"

A chill went through me. "I'll be there in a few minutes," I said. "Start without me."

I left through my bedroom window, and I haven't been back.

And that, Samantha, is why I'm a vegan now.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Friendly Ghost

"But what happened to Casper the Friendly Kid?" the little boy found himself wondering.

On the television, the happy jingle to the Casper show played:

Casper the Friendly Ghost
Friendliest ghost we know
The kids all know that he loves them so
Casper the Friendly Ghost!

But Casper was a kid ghost, right? And ghosts were people who died, right? So it stood to reason that Casper was the ghost of a kid who died.

The little boy was smart about these things.

First, he read all of his Casper comic books. He thought maybe Casper was actually the ghost of Richie Rich (the two looked suspiciously like each other), but then he found a Richie Rich comic book where he talked to Casper, and you can't talk to your own ghost.

So he asked his mom about this (he didn't bother asking his dad, because he knew that Dad would only tell him tall tales).

His mom's face went pale. "Son," she said, "it's time we had a talk about Casper. Take a seat."

The little boy sat down on the couch next to his mom. His stomach was full of butterflies because she seemed so serious, and that often meant trouble for him.

"I wasn't watching too much television, I swear. I was just wondering."

"I know, sweetie. But you asked and now you have to know. Casper, you see, was a very naughty boy. He was a bully to the other children, he chased cats, he hit dogs with sticks, and was very mean to adults. Basically, he was a very, very bad boy."

"But Casper the Friendly Ghost is a good kid. Isn't he?" the little boy asked, suddenly full of confusion.

"Well, see, when Casper died, he was punished. He has to stay in Purgatory and be nice to everybody and watch himself and judge himself until he's fully atoned for all of the horrible things he did to everyone when he was alive."

"How long will that take, Mom?"

"I don't know, little Casper. I don't know."

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Spelling Bee

Every team had a different strategy for how to approach the game. Some teams, confident in their own success, would deliberately choose to invoke penalties, in order to increase the winnings. Samuel's team, however, had decided to play things a bit safer. There were only 50 words, after all, he had argued, back when they'd all first decided to enter the competition. So the odds were good that if they played it smart, they could pull this off. Maybe they wouldn't get the biggest prize possible, but there were things more important than money.

Of course, none of them expected Alisha to be taken out in only the 8th round, and then Morris succumbed on round 14 and Rosa 2 rounds later. So that just left Samuel with 34 more words to cover, all by himself.

Somehow, though, he'd managed to make it through, and now only one word remained. Samuel climbed up onto the podium and took his place directly over the trap door, wiping his hands nervously on his pants. He tried very hard not to look to the side, where his former teammates hung.

"Are you ready for the final word?" the host boomed. The audience cheered.

The lighted panels blinked in random patterns on the huge wall behind the host, until they finally settled, with 17 remaining lit in a row. The host turned to Samuel, a brilliant smile on his face.

"For this final word, you have no more penalties available. If you guess all the letters correctly, you'll win, but if you guess even one wrong, you'll join your teammates. Your time!"

The rope settled around Samuel's neck. The countdown music began to play.

Samuel took a deep breath

"Is there an E?'

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Oh, hell, Brenda thought, picking up the race paperwork at Fleet Feet downtown. Nobody ever said this was going to be one of those stupid costume runs.

It was the clown behind the registration table that made her think that. The clown wasn't taking registration fees or passing out bibs or Clif bars. No, it was just standing there, behind the women who were doing those things, just standing and staring. It looked friendly enough standing there -- Lord knew Sacramento had had its share of scary clown sightings as part of a nationwide frenzy -- but this one had a joyful grin on its face and big blue eyes and fluffy yellow hair.

Brenda double checked the paperwork in her hands. There was no indication that there would be costumes in this race or anything like that. This wasn't Bay-To-Breakers, for crying out loud, it was the Tower Run, a serious race for serious racers. It was also Brenda's first half-marathon in years and she wasn't going to let anyone, clown or no, ruin it for her.

The next day, the day of the race itself, she showed up at the starting line at Land Park. She didn't go to the rear end of the pack with the strollers and the walkers and the 5K-ers. She was going to run the whole thing, so she went straight to the front.

"Hi diddly ho!" cried a cheerful voice next to her.

Brenda glanced over. It was a clown, similar to the one she'd seen at Fleet Feet, but this one had blue hair instead of yellow, and a long necktie that looked like a rubber fish.

She did not respond to the greeting. The clown shrugged and looked away.

Brenda looked around. There were hundreds of people here, all ready for the half-marathon, or the 10K or the 5K or the one-mile "fun run". And there were dozens of clowns, milling through the crowd, just walking around. No one was interacting with them, or even acknowledging that they were there.

That was odd.

But Brenda didn't have time to think about it. The bell rang, and the race was on.

Half an hour into the half marathon, Brenda was feeling fine. Her feet didn't hurt, her legs felt strong and powerful, and her breathing was steady. But that was when she felt the spray of water on her face, and caught a glimpse of something red and bulbous to her left.

"What the hell?" she cried out, but she didn't break stride.

"Hoo diddly hi!" cried the clown that had come up next to her. It had sprayed her with a bottle of seltzer water and was laughing maniacally.

"Stop that!"

"Hoo hoo hoo!" laughed the clown, spraying her again. Then it bounded away on its ludicrously huge red rubber shoes, faster than Brenda was running, its wacky arms flopping and its wig jiggling.

"Oh no you don't," Brenda thought. She furrowed her brow in irritation, then picked up her speed. She had been a fast runner, once, but after all that time in the hospital, she had lost some of her conditioning. She was trying to pace herself, but she'd be damned if she was going to lose ground to this stupid character.

"HAHAHAHA!" shouted another clown from just behind her. "YOU'LL NEVER MAKE IT!"

"SHUT UP!" Brenda called back. Weren't clowns supposed to be jolly and fun? She was still chasing the one that had spritzed her.

But it wasn't long before her breath started to fail her. Her nose was dribbling, as it always did when she ran. She had some Kleenex in her pocket, but taking it out and wiping her face right now would be awkward. She had to slow down. There was a water station just ahead, and if she slowed down just a bit she could grab some water, maybe wipe her nose on a napkin.

Dammit, there was a clown at the water station. This one was bald, with a tiny beanie on its head and an absurdly oversized bowtie around its neck. It danced back and forth on its feet while holding up a bottle of water.

"Don't look at them," said another runner as he passed her. "If you look at them they'll catch you."

"The clowns?" Brenda asked, but the other runner, a trim man who looked to be in his fifties, had already passed by. "Wait!" she shouted at him. "What's going on?" She ran faster, caught up to him.

"I don't know," the man said, panting. "The clowns. I don't think they're human. They already caught my wife and son."

"What happens when they catch you?" It hurt to breathe and talk, but she was starting to get scared. "What do you mean?"

"I mean they just..."

And then the man stumbled. His foot caught on something on the pavement, something invisible, perhaps a pebble, and down he went. Immediately he was beset by the clowns, who descended on him, crowding him until Brenda could no longer see him. She slowed down, nearly came to a stop as she looked back.

"OH HO HO HOOOOO!" shouted a clown nearby. "READY TO PLAY WITH US?"

The man was gone. In his place was...

...another clown.

Brenda ran. She ran faster than she thought she could, given the condition of her body. She ran hard, avoiding the other runners who were being taken down by other clowns, avoiding the water stations, and breathing hard. A cramp in her left calf almost brought her down, but she ran through it.

12.0 read a sign.

Oh thank God, Brenda thought. Only 1.2 miles to go.

And that's when she stumbled.

And fell.

"Awww," said a goofy voice. "And you were nearly halfway there."

Sunday, October 2, 2016


Neither boy saw the doorway. Indeed, they ran right past it, flashlights wavering, chasing their dog.

No, it was Joe, the cemetery caretaker, who noticed the doorway in the ground at the base of the old willow tree. He watched the two boys scamper away, then approached the oak structure. Yep, a door. It looked like a barn door that had been built into the earth, huge, at least eight feet high and four wide, hinges set into stone, a rusty handle adorning one side. The ancient willow tree hulked over it like a shaggy old monster.

Joe approached the door with apprehension. A thin ray of light jutted through two of the slats and landed right on his eye. Something was happening there. He thought he heard faint music and voices.

No, he thought. Best to ignore it. Move on. Find something else to do. The old Hamilton plot, for example, needed tending; and, after all, it was late and Mrs. Joe would be worried if he wasn't home soon. Perhaps, if the door had just appeared out of nowhere this evening, then surely it would be gone in the morning, right?

Joe coughed.


He gripped the rusty handle and lifted, opening the door.

"Hooray!" cried a booming voice as Joe felt a sudden sharp pain in his side. "And now the feast can begin!"

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Said the spider

The sidewalk was empty, a breeze shifting leaves and dirt across the cement. Above, pale branches swayed slightly, but aside from the scraping of leaves across ground, there was no sound.

Faint laughter broke the silence. A trio of teen girls rounded the corner, pulling their coats closer around their bodies at the sudden chill as they chattered to one another.

The pale branches stilled. Footsteps crunched across the detritus.  

"Euww. There's something sticky."

One of the girls paused, yanking first one foot up and then the other. The other two paused, looking back at her. 

"Come *on*, we're going to be late." 

"My mom is going to kill me if this ruins my shoes." The first girl darted forward to catch up to her friends, shuffling her feet to try to scrape off the residue. 

They walked on, their voices fading into the night. Silence again.

The pale branches overhead bent down toward the sidewalk.

Something dripped.

Something exhaled.

The leaves were blown back across the trap.

Perhaps next time.