Genres: ,

Episode 259: Seer’s Salad by Barbara A. Barnett

Show Notes

 

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Seer’s Salad

by Barbara A. Barnett

 

There would be no snatching my laptop back from Diya. She slapped my hand every time I reached across the café table for it. I had been a keystroke away from deleting the amateur-hour comic panels cluttering up my hard drive–months of wasted effort that Diya was now inexplicably determined to keep reading. Her gaze remained glued to the screen as she shoveled forkfuls of salad from bowl to mouth.

“Tam, these are awesome,” she said, voice pitched at a chirpy, bird-like frequency. “It’s like George Romero meets Dostoyevsky meets Thelma and Louise meets an alien invasion flick.”

I shrugged. As much as I wanted to believe I had enough talent to create a successful webcomic, it was hard to take Diya’s encouragement seriously. I had seen her get equally excited over blueberry pancakes, after all.

“They’re nothing special,” I said, ninja-seizing my laptop before she could dribble dressing all over the keyboard. “Just drafts, really.”

Diya responded with a chiding wave of her fork. “You need to publish this shit,” she said–at least that’s what it sounded like through her mouthful of salad. Another bite, and she erupted into a violent coughing fit that sent bits of lettuce and tomato spraying across the table.

“Are you all right?” I asked, half standing. “Do I need to Heimlich you or something?”

Diya grabbed her water bottle and chugged. “I’m fine,” she said between gulps. “I just wasn’t expecting that.”

“Expecting what?” I studied her meal for possible culprits, only to end up with a case of lunch-buyer’s remorse instead. The scent of mango vinaigrette made me wish I hadn’t opted for the same chicken noodle soup I always bought. “Is there something wrong with your salad?”

“No, the salad’s great. But the guy who made it? Total scumbag. We’re talking shoots-stray-cats-with-a-BB-gun levels of scumbaggery.”

Out-of-the-blue segues like that were why I loved hanging out with Diya. She was random. Unpredictable. One of those people who seemed to walk on fairy dust with her big flowered hats and the sparkly nose ring that set off her brown skin. The one time I tried dressing like Diya, people looked at me like I was a Christmas tree on display in July. So I accepted my lot in life: I was doomed to remain boring old Tamsin, trailing one step behind in Diya’s glittery wake.

Diya stared toward the café counter, neck craned. “I should find out where this guy lives and report him.”

“How do you know he shoots cats?”

Diya’s eyes went wide, like a sparkly deer caught in headlights. “Oh crap, I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just that the cat thing caught me off guard and–“

“What are you talking about?”

Diya cringed. “If I tell you something, you have to promise not to make fun of me.”

Diya self-conscious? That was a first worth hearing more about. “I promise.”

“It was the salad. The romaine didn’t show me much–bad pickup lines at the bar, jerking off at the movies, that kind of crap.” With her fork, Diya pointed from one tomato to another, as if their positioning spelled out a secret code. “The really twisted stuff is in the tomatoes.”

She had to be messing with me. I had only known Diya for a couple months; we both belonged to the army of underemployed twenty-somethings slinging lattes down the street at the Bean There, Drank That Café. But it had been long enough for me to know that psychic salad visions were over the top, even for Diya.

“You know he shoots cats because of the tomatoes?” I said.

“I’m afraid to even touch the artichokes.” Diya downed more water. “Anyway, so I was telling my brother about that awesome ginger beer you made and–“

“Whoa, back up, I’m still on the salad and the cat shooting.”

Diya let out a dramatic sigh. “I see things about people, okay?”

“When you eat food?”

“Not just any food. Salad. Salad the person made.”

Definitely messing with me. But I decided to play along and see how far she was willing to take this new addition to her manic pixie dream girl routine. “So you knew seeing something awful about this guy was a risk, yet you ordered salad anyway?”

“He was hot. I wanted to find out if he was a decent guy.”

“Isn’t that kind of creepy stalker territory?”

Diya started to object, but snapped her mouth shut. Her face took on that pinched, tight-lipped look she got in the rare moments when someone got the upper hand on her. “You’re right,” she said. “It’s creepy. Lesson learned. But he’s a psycho, so in this case, I think it all evens out.”

I could have dropped the whole salad thing at that point; I had just scored a Diya concession, after all. How often did that happen? But no, I wasn’t going to let her off the hook that easily. “And you developed this power how? Exposure to a radioactive crouton?”

Diya shook her head in annoyance. “It’s a family thing, okay? Some people inherit blue eyes or curly hair. I got the psychic crap.”

“So does this family gift of yours work with pasta salad? Fruit salad? Or is this strictly a lettuce-based thing?”

“Great,” Diya snapped. “First I get the psycho cat-shooter salad, and now you’re making fun of me after promising not to. Thanks, Tam. Way to be a friend.”

Diya sank back in her chair. Instead of commanding the room with that larger-than-life way of hers, she looked deflated, her traffic-cone-orange jacket suddenly two sizes too big, her polka dotted scarf two feet too long. A sulky, Diya-style overreaction, sure, but she was right: I had broken my promise.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But most people would have prefaced this whole salad thing with something like, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but…'”

Diya sniffed, shifted in her chair, glanced at everything but me. The café chatter became deafening in her silence, conversations about workplace drama and the latest episode of some hot new sitcom amplified beyond tolerance. But as I listened to those conversations–those normal­­ conversations–my pity for Diya turned to annoyance. How did she expect me to react when everything she said and did was as outrageously kooky as possible? And this salad thing–play along with it, and I’d end up the butt of the joke, silly Tamsin blushing furiously as Diya burst into a fit of giggles. But call Diya on her bullshit, and she’d assault me with those wide, watery eyes, like she was a child and I had just taken her favorite toy away.

“Bring on the eyes,” I said.

Diya cocked her head to one side, on the receiving end of confusion for once. “What?”

“That puppy-dog eye thing you do. You’ll pout and give me that face until I say I believe you, and then you’ll be the one laughing at me.” I hated how harsh my tone sounded, yet the words kept spilling out. “I love you, Diya, but there’s only so much randomness you get to drop on a person before you lose the right to get snippy when they don’t believe you. I’m tired of playing the boring, gullible sidekick to your Princess Whimsy Pants.”

Diya straightened in her chair, mouth agape. “Princess Whimsy Pants?”

“Salad, for Christ’s sake. You’re making me mad at you over salad.”

Diya gathered up her vintage purse and the duck-shaped notebook she doodled in when she was bored. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to make you mad. But if you feel boring next to me? That’s not my fault. That one’s on you.”

Diya stood and strode from the café.

This isn’t about me, I wanted to shout after her. You don’t get to be the righteous angry one! But then my gaze fell on my plain old soup sitting next to her half-eaten, cat-torture salad. The drab vs. the colorful. The perfect metaphor for our friendship.

Yet I still ordered the soup. Every. Damn. Time.

“Crap,” I said, burying my head in my hands. Coolest person I knew, and I had just driven her away with my own snarky insecurity. How the hell do I fix this?

 


 

When I showed up at her apartment the next morning, Diya promptly slammed the door in my face.

“That went well,” I muttered, then set to knocking again, another monotonous round of knuckles-to-wood.

Nothing.

“Please, Diya, just hear me out.”

More nothing. I pressed my ear against the door. Not a breath, not a rustle. Just lots and lots of nothing. Time for Phase 2.

I reached into my oversized messenger bag, pulled out a covered bowl, and held it up to the door’s peephole. I just had to hope Diya was still on the other side and not climbing out the fire escape–it wouldn’t be the first time she had avoided an unwanted visitor that way.

“I brought you a peace offering,” I said.

Still no response. Just a long, uncomfortable stretch of non-reaction that had me peering under the door for signs of movement, then looking up and down the hall out of fear that a neighbor would emerge and think me some kind of creepazoid stalker. Which I was kind of starting to feel like.

I could tell them about my cat-shooting habit and my BB gun named Diya. Yeah, that would smooth things over real nice.

Finally, the door opened. Diya regarded the bowl in my hands with narrowed eyes. “It’s salad, isn’t it?”

“I made it. Because I’m sorry I upset you, and I’m willing to believe you about the salad thing, but you have to cut me some slack and prove it.”

“Been there, done that. No one ever likes what they hear.”

“Well, there is absolutely nothing scandalous or even remotely interesting about my life to see, so bon appétit, girlfriend.”

Diya waved me inside, where I immediately felt like a dark splotch of normalcy intruding upon her magical world of pink beanbag chairs and cinnamon-scented incense. But that was my problem; Diya had been right about that. The only thing stopping me from wearing nose rings and sparkly feathered boas was my own self-consciousness.

I peeled the lid off the salad and handed the bowl to Diya. She didn’t bother getting a fork. Just grabbed a clump of lettuce and popped it into her mouth.

“You didn’t make this,” she said, chewing.

“You sure?”

Diya barely finished swallowing before following up the lettuce with a slice of cucumber. “Yeah, this is from the deli on the corner. The chick with the bird tattoo made it. I just really wish she had washed her hands first.”

“Eeew,” I said, though a jolt of anticipatory excitement overshadowed the gross factor. I couldn’t verify the lack of hand washing, but the girl at the deli did have a mean-looking blue jay stamped on her right bicep. Still, Diya could have seen me in the deli earlier. Or it could have been a lucky guess.

I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out another container. “This one I really did make.”

“You sneaky little . . .”

I’m sure Diya was aiming for mad with the look she gave me, but there was no hiding the half-smile that snuck onto her lips. Perhaps I could salvage this friendship, after all.

Diya traded me the bowl for the new container. Apprehension quickly sent my brief moment of hope packing. If she wasn’t faking the psychic thing, then forget about whatever embarrassing slips of hygiene she might see. My dread stemmed from the vast amounts of boring restraint that had been my life to date. One leaf of lettuce might prove coma-inducing.

Diya frowned at the container’s contents. “No dressing?”

“Dry salad seemed about right to sum me up.”

Diya rolled her eyes. She plucked a cherry tomato from the salad and studied it as if it were a crystal ball. “Oooooo,” she intoned.

“Oh, would you just eat it already?”

Diya snickered, then slipped the tomato into her mouth. Instead of chewing, she pushed it from side to side with her tongue, making each cheek puff out in turn.

I glared; she smirked.

At last, Diya started to eat. First the tomato, then a sliver of carrot, next a clump of avocado. My stomach engaged in a series of somersaults as more and more bits of salad passed between Diya’s lips. Cucumbers, onions, olives, croutons. Her jaw moved up and down with careful, excruciating slowness, as if mastication were a sacred rite that had to be performed ever just so. Diya could have been dragging it out just to screw with me, yet with each swallow, I grew more certain and fearful that she simply hadn’t found anything of interest in her visions, for her expression remained an unchanging, blank-eyed look of veggie-inspired ennui.

“For the record,” Diya said, “it’s kind of insulting that you think I’d have spent all this time hanging out with a boring person. Granted, your social comfort zone is this teeny-tiny microscopic little thing that could use expanding, but boring people don’t teach themselves how to brew their own beer out of every random ingredient under the sun. They certainly don’t create comics about a badass lesbian couple fighting alien zombies in Russia.”

A slight smile found its way onto my lips. I didn’t sound nearly so dull when she put it like that. “So is that what you got from the salad?” I asked. “That I’m cool but insecure?”

“Screw the salad; this is me talking. I love you, Tam, and I don’t want you to be anyone but you. But sometimes I get the feeling that you won’t let you be you. Like you think you have to be me or something.”

Bam. Salad visions or not, Diya had nailed it. My obsessive coveting of her flashy style had sucked away every last bit of confidence I had in my own. But I didn’t need to wear sparkly clothes to be interesting. Hell, I didn’t even like sparkly clothes. What I did like was the would-be webcomic wasting away on my computer. I had the domain and the hosting secured, the site designed, at least six months’ worth of strips ready to publish–all I had to do was launch the damn site. But nope, I kept chickening out, convinced no one would be interested.

Diya chomped on a withered shred of iceberg lettuce. Her eyes widened and she squealed, pointing at the salad as if it held the cure for cancer. “Oh my god, this is exactly what I’m talking about!”

“What?”

“Your comic! You’ve had the whole site ready to go for like months now. And Siberian Genome? You told me you didn’t even have a decent title, you liar. What the hell are you waiting for?”

“Whoa.” I gaped at Diya. I hadn’t shared those details with anyone, making me suddenly certain of two things: my friend really did have psychic salad powers, and I didn’t have a damn thing to lose. Because seriously, psychic salad powers? That was kind of mind blowing. That was the kind of thing that spends hours sinking in before the full impact of it slugs you like a brick-loaded boxing glove in the middle of the night. So if I could hold the interest of a person who received salad-based visions, then I sure as hell could get some eyeballs on my comic on a regular basis.

“What the hell am I waiting for?” With a little squeal of my own, I plopped onto a beanbag chair and whipped out my laptop. “Let’s get this puppy online already.”

“About damn time, girlfriend.” Diya squeezed onto the beanbag with me. “One suggestion, though?”

“I’m all ears.”

“Sparklier background on the web page. As in, it currently has no sparkles. Just purpleness.”

“You’re the sparkly one, salad girl.” I knocked Diya off the beanbag with a playful shove. “This is gonna be my thing, and my thing doesn’t include sparkles.”

Where to find Cast of Wonders in Helsinki


Hello all! If you’ll be taking part in the Worldcon 75 festivities next week, here’s where you can find Marguerite, Katherine and Jeremy. Come say hello!

EA Fan Meet-up

Wednesday at 3 p.m. in the fan lounge

 

 

 

 

 

Jeremy Carter

Non-Fiction Podcasts (Thursday at 1 p.m. in 216)

Clouds on the Horizon: Where Physics Might Be Changing (Saturday at 1 p.m. in 102)

 

 

 

 

 

Katherine Inskip

Clouds on the Horizon: Where Physics Might Be Changing (Saturday at 1 p.m. in 102)

 

 

 

Marguerite Kenner

Asexuality in YA (Thursday at 11 a.m. in 203a)

Countering Surveillance with Souseveillance (Saturday at 4 p.m. in 207)

Oral Storytelling on Audio (Sunday at 1 p.m. in 215)

 

 

 

Hope to see you in Helsinki!

Wanna Read Some Stories?


We’re recruiting! We’re looking to add additional associate editors (also referred to as slush readers) to our team.

Cast of Wonders is a SFWA short fiction market. We’re looking for associate editors who can read and comment upon at least five stories a week during three to four reading periods spread throughout the year. You’ll be asked to help us select engaging, diverse, well-written and thought-provoking stories from our unsolicited submissions queue. The most successful slushers will be familiar with our work and be able to identify a good fit. It helps if you’re familiar with our episodes and our submission guidelines. If selected, you will still be able to submit to Cast of Wonders (and any other Escape Artists podcast).

We’re dedicated to publishing fiction that reflects the entire spectrum of the human experience. We acknowledge the realities of unconscious bias and make our best effort to account for it during our review process, and expect every one of our associate editors to do the same. As an intersectional feminist publication, we want to explore the full breadth of genre fiction and dispel the assumption that ‘YA’ means ‘stories for teen girls’.

This is an unpaid, volunteer position. However we take lowering the barriers to publication and experience seriously, and do our best to help associate editors gain experience. We will happily write letters of recommendation or references for both academic and employment applications for our readers.

EA is a tight-knit, welcoming and inclusive group. We encourage you to ask around about us and our reputation, or contact us directly if you have any questions.

If you would like to join our team, please complete our Associate Editor application form and complete the requested exercise. We will be accepting applications until Thursday, 31 August 2017.
We hope to hear from you soon!
-Marguerite Kenner, Editor
-Dani Daly and Katherine Inskip, Assistant Editors

Genres: ,

Cast of Wonders 258: Victory Music

Show Notes

Mermaid UK: http://www.mermaidsuk.org.uk
The Trevor Project: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/

Theme music “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Victory Music

by Daniel José Older

One of my favorite moments ever was when the boy called me an Arab and you said, “She’s Sikh, fucknut” and then when he said “Oh, like hide and go-“ you broke his nose. I heard music playing, I swear to God, and it was victory music, your music: A dusty, unflinching beat, lowdown and grinding. It didn’t matter that my family’s not even technically Sikh anymore since my parents went born-again and I’m just whatever. I smiled for days after that moment, Krys. Days.

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 257: Little Wonders 13 – Death

Show Notes

The Little Wonders theme “Neversus” is by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Chrysalis

by Jennifer Lee Rossman

 

The love of my life died on July third, 1983, at the respectable age of one hundred and nineteen. Oldest man on Earth, according to the good Doctor Hippen.

I can’t say his death came as a shock; when a man reaches that advanced an age, only the absolutely delusional would suggest he buy denture paste in bulk. Still, I hadn’t expected it to happen so suddenly.

We had just begun a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle (always the optimist, my Edgar). One moment, he was looking for a piece of the sky, and the next, he found a piece of his very own. How convenient that his death would coincide with Lasagna Sunday, the bane of his existence.

(Continue Reading…)

Genres: ,

Episode 256: Phalium Arium Ssp, Amans by Victoria Sandbrook

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Phalium arium ssp. anams

By Victoria Sandbrook

 

Nora tugged her gloves down further over her freckled wrists. Every other couple in line had linked arms, but John Reidy had not so much as inched his elbow towards her. She wasn’t sure what pained her more: the ache in her hands screaming that this parish carnival sideshow hid more magic than most or her inept suitor. The line could not move fast enough.

But nothing about this show was fast. Patrons shuffled between intricate, though fraudulent, displays: palm-sized peacocks with visible clockwork, chicken-sized dragon eggs wiggling as a hidden steam boiler hissed, monkeys that might as well have still had their old organ-grinder parts attached. Nora struggled not to roll her eyes. Dull, boring, badly engineered. And not a true cryptid to be seen. Everyone else had sighed, pointed, marveled. Only John Reidy seemed as disappointed as Nora. He’d polished his glasses, refolded his handkerchief in his pale fingers, and said “hmm,” three times.

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 255: Doors by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam


• Guest host Sandra M. Odell
• Narrated by Marguerite Kenner
• Audio production by Jeremy Carter
• Originally published in Interzone Magazine #258 (May/June 2015)
Read along with the text of the story.
• Discuss this story on our forum
• For a list of all our stories, authors and narrators, visit our Wikia page
• Come visit us on Facebook and Twitter


Listen above or download here.

Show Notes

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s fiction and poetry has appeared in magazines such as The Toast, Clarkesworld, PRISM International, and Lightspeed. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and curates the annual Art & Words Show in Fort Worth, Texas. She lives with her partner and two literarily-named cats: Gimli and Don Quixote. You can visit her on Twitter or through her website.

 

 

 

Marguerite Kenner is a native Californian who has forsaken sunny paradise to live with her true love in Merrye Olde England. She frequently wears so many hats that she needs two heads. When she’s not grappling with legal conundrums as a commercial solicitor, lecturing, editing Cast of Wonders, or helping behind the scenes as COO of Escape Artists, she can be found narrating audio fiction, studying popular culture (i.e. going to movies and playing video games) with her partner Alasdair Stuart, or curling up with a really good book. You can follow her adventures on Twitter.

 

 

Sandra M. Odell lives in Washington state with her husband, sons, and an Albanian miniature moose disguised as a dog. Her work has appeared in such venues as Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE, Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, Cast of Wonders, Podcastle, and Pseudopod. She is a Clarion West 2010 graduate, and an active member of the SFWA. You can find out more about her work at online and follow her on Twitter.

 

 

 


Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.

 

Artemis Rising 4


March 2018 will mark the fourth year of Artemis Rising, the annual showcase of women and non-binary authors across the Escape Artists’s podcasts. This year the month of stories will be edited by Dani Daly and Katherine Inskip, with assistant editor Alexis Goble.

Submissions for original short fiction will run September 1-30, 2017, via our Submittable portal. Anyone who identifies as a woman, to whatever degree they do, and non-binary authors are welcome and encouraged to submit a story. We strongly encourage submissions from people of historically under-represented backgrounds, including people of color, LGBTQ authors, people with disabilities, members of religious minorities, and authors from outside the United States.

Our fellow EA podcasts are taking part as well! Please visit Escape Pod for science fiction, Pseudopod for horror, and PodCastle for fantasy.

Here’s a summary of details:

  • Submission window runs September 1-30.
  • Payment at $0.06 per word. Please see our general Submission Guidelines for a description of the rights we purchase and our sample contracts.
  • Original stories only.
  • Word count: 2000 – 6000 words. We’re looking for stand-alone short stories, not flash.
  • Submit using an anonymous manuscript format.
  • No multiple submissions. One story per author or group of authors.
  • No simultaneous submissions. Decisions will be finalized by November 30, 2017.

And the answers to a few FAQ:

  • If a story has been rejected by Cast of Wonders in the past, can I re-submit it for Artemis Rising?
  • A: No.
  • Can I submit a rejected Artemis Rising story to the same podcast’s general submissions?
  • A: No, because Artemis Rising editors may refer your story to the show’s regular editors at their discretion. If your story is declined, please take it as the story being declined for all purposes.
  • If a story has multiple authors, do they all have to meet the AR criteria?
  • A: Yes.
  • If I’ve already submitted an Artemis Rising story, can I submit another I wrote with a co-author to the same podcast’s Artemis Rising?
  • A: No.
  • If I have a story on submission to a podcast, can I submit a different story to that podcast’s Artemis Rising while the first one is still in the queue?
    Or vice versa?
  • A: Yes, although we don’t anticipate being open to general submissions in September 2017.
  • Can I submit a different story to each of multiple EA podcasts for Artemis Rising?
  • A: Yes! Publication on one show doesn’t preclude publication on another. We’ve had multiple authors accomplish this impressive feat in the past.
We look forward to reading your fiction!

Sincerely,
Dani Daly, Katherine Inskip, Alexis Goble,
and the entire Cast of Wonders editorial team

Episode 254: A Complex Filament of Light by S. Qiouyi Lu


• Content Warning: Grief
• Narrated by S. Qiouyi Lu
• Audio production by Jeremy Carter
• Originally published in Anathema Magazine (April 2017)
Read along with the text of the story
• Discuss this story on our forum
• For a list of all our stories, authors and narrators, visit our Wikia page
• Come visit us on Facebook and Twitter

Listen above or download here.

Show Notes

S. Qiouyi Lu is a writer, editor, and translator who has also narrated for PodCastle, GlitterShip, and Acacia Moon Productions. You can visit their website or follow them on Twitter.

 

 

 

 


Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.

 

Episode 253: Single Parent by Sarah Gailey

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Single Parent

By Sarah Gailey

 

The monster in my son’s closet is so fucking scary.

Here’s what happened: Jack screamed in the middle of the night and I came running because I’m his dad and that’s what dads are for. He’s been doing that for a month — screaming like someone’s in his room murdering him with a screwdriver. And even though there’s never, not even once been anyone murdering him, I couldn’t just let him scream his little head off all night. If I didn’t come running, his mom would have risen from the grave just to come and slap me upside the head.

I know what you’re thinking, but the monster in the closet is not his mom. It is not my dead wife, come back to watch over him and protect him. This isn’t that kind of a story. It’s a fucking monster, okay?

Anyway, he screamed like he’s screamed every night since we watched Denise go into the ground. I came running like I’ve come running every night since we threw dirt at her coffin, which seems like it’s supposed to be important and respectful but really just felt like throwing dirt at my wife’s corpse. He was sitting up in bed, sweating and crying and smelling like little-kid-piss and I remember thinking that this was the last straw — that tonight I would be Tough Dad and tell him I wasn’t going to put up with the screaming anymore.

I didn’t end up doing that, though. I’ve never been a tough guy. Denise was always the tough guy, but she’s being tough on Abraham up in heaven somewhere and I’m down here sitting on my kid’s wet bedsheets.

Anyway, I burst into his room and put my arms around him. I kissed his sweaty head and told him that everything would be okay. I asked which nightmare had woken him up this time. Usually they’re nightmares about his mom coming back, which breaks my heart to hear, but the therapist said I have to listen. So I braced myself, and tried to be ready to hear him talk about how Denise’s face is melting off in his subconscious.

Only this time, he shook his head. Not a nightmare. A monster.

I am a bad father because I was relieved. That’s how you know you’re a bad father: your kid is trembling and terrified and you breathe a sigh of relief because it’s only his worst fear and not yours.

The thing is, I thought I knew how to handle the monster situation. From experience. For six months or so before Denise died, Jack had this thing about a monster in his closet. The therapist said that he was processing her sickness through a proxy – that he couldn’t quite understand what was coming, that he couldn’t know what “terminal” meant, so his little-boy brain just decided “there’s scary shit on the way” and invented a monster that was always getting ready to eat him. That’s how I felt for the entire time she was dying. And sure enough, once she died, he stopped having the thing about the monster.

So I did what I had done every other time that Jack had woken up screaming about the monster: I checked the closet. That’s what you do, right? Your kid says “oh god there’s something scary” and you say “I’ll go look at it for you” and then you look, and there’s nothing there, and you tell the kid that nothing is there, and everyone goes back to bed.

Except that’s not what happened.

Look, there’s never been a monster in there before. I can deal with a lot of stuff. I’m a bedtime champion and a dang master at after-school-talks about feelings. I can re-shingle a roof and I’m even okay at plumbing, if the water’s shut off right. I can handle myself, is what I’m saying. But a monster? I had no game plan for there actually being a monster. My game plan was oriented towards getting the kid back to sleep. It’s a fifteen-minute plan at the most. The point is, who prepares for the eventuality that a six-year-old is right about something at two in the morning?

Not me, I guess.

So I told Jack-o I would look in the closet, and I did. I opened the closet door, and then I shut it again very quickly, because guess what? There was a monster in there.

You’ll want to know what the monster looked like. I was too busy clenching to retain details, but here was my general impression: teeth, claws, tentacles. I didn’t know that tentacles could have claws, but apparently the limits of my imagination do not encompass the fullness of God’s creation, so what do you want? Also, eyes — so many eyes, like a spider with a lot of little spiders on top of it. All of them were looking at me.

It was without a doubt the scariest thing I have ever seen in my ever-loving life, and I’ve seen a doctor’s face when he’s about to say the phrase “six months left”, so I know from scary.

I opened the closet door again. The monster made a noise like a percolating coffee maker. I shut the door.

And now I’m sitting in my son’s bed, not minding the piss smell so much, and I’m trying to figure out how to tell him that the monster in the closet is real.

 


 

It’s not fair to Jack, is the thing. It’s not fair that he already had to find out that moms can die and dads can’t stop it – now monsters? In his closet? And I can’t spin this as maybe it’s a nice monster because it’s a monster and monsters are by definition not nice, and something with that many eyes eats little boys. It’s just a fact.

He’s looking at me and his little pink lip is quivering and he’s shaking like he runs on batteries, but he’s setting his jaw like his mom used to. Christ. He’s being brave.

He rubs the back of his head, foofing out his duckling hair, and I realize that it’s a motion he’s learned from me. I do that all the time. I’m doing it right now.

“Well, buddy. What are we gonna do about that thing?”

He shrugs in that little-kid way. When a teenager shrugs, it means “I don’t give a crap, what do you know? Leave me alone, I’ll never get old, I’ll always like this kind of music.” When a little kid shrugs, it’s so honest — a little-kid shrug just means “I got no goddamn idea, pops.” I love the hell out of him when he shrugs at me.

“When did the monster come out?”

The kiddo looks at me like I’m an idiot. “When I let my feet stick out from under the covers.” Of course. His feet are well and fully tucked in now. I lift the corner of one of the blankets just an inch, and sure enough, the doorknob on the closet starts turning. I put the corner of the blanket back down fast and the door stays shut.

“Well, we can’t have it coming out of there.” He agrees with me, nodding gravely. “‘Cause kiddo, I don’t know how to tell you this, but… I’m, like, one hundred and ten percent certain that it’ll eat us.” He nods again, Duh, Dad. Kid already knows this stuff, I don’t need to tell him. He doesn’t look so scared anymore, and I realize that it’s because I’m here. His work is done — he called in the big guns, and now, the situation in the closet will be resolved by someone who knows what to do about situations in closets.

He thinks I can fix it. He thinks I can fix anything. Even after I couldn’t fix the one thing that mattered most, he still thinks I know all the answers.

We sit on the bed, talking over our options. We could nail the door shut, but then he wouldn’t be able to get any of his shoes or his pants, and he needs those for school on Monday and all. Plus the monster can probably dissolve nails with acid or something. From our combined understanding of monsters, it’s probably allergic to something dumb like mustard or broccoli or spider-man band-aids, but we don’t have time to experiment. I don’t have a gun, because I live in a house with a six-year-old. I’m proud to say that the idea of a gun doesn’t even occur to him until I mention it. What a guy.

We sit in his rocketship bed, trying to figure out what to do about the monster. He doesn’t want to kill it, because he’s six and he’s the best person in the world. I want more than anything to kill it, but I’m pretty aware of my own limitations and frankly, I don’t think I could take that thing on. I take Jack out for ice cream if there’s a spider in the kitchen, okay? Denise was always the one who dealt with those, and I never saw her take out a spider the size of my kid’s closet. This thing — it’s big. And it’s a monster. And did I tell you about the tentacles already?

After a long time spent discussing the merits of just burning the house down – and let me tell  you, spend an hour trying to explain fire insurance to a six-year-old and you’ll feel eager to face a monster – we notice that it’s getting light out. When it’s definitely morning – birds are chirping, sun is shining, the whole magilla – we decide to see if the monster is still there. Maybe it’s only there at night, you know?

My son lifts up a corner of the bedsheets.

Nothing happens.

He pushes the bedsheets down until they’re just covering his feet to the ankles.

Nothing happens.

He takes a deep breath, my brave boy, and whips his feet out from under the covers like the he’s fastest gun in the West winning a shootout. We watch the closet door, eyes wide, hearts pounding.

Nothing.

He looks at me and I look at him and we both know that one of us has to look in the closet. He whispers, “Maybe it’s sleeping. Maybe it’s nocturnal.”

I squint at him. “When did you learn ‘nocturnal’?”

He rolls his eyes and I realize that someday this kid is going to be a teenager, and I look at the closet door, hoping the monster will come out and eat us both before that happens.

“Okay. Okay, buddy, here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna go shut yourself in Daddy’s bedroom, okay? You’re gonna lock the door-”

“I’m not supposed to lock the door.”

“I know, but just this once, you’re gonna lock the door and -”

“But I’m not supposed to lock the door because -”

I rest a hand on his head and deploy the Dad Stare, which is basically the only weapon in my arsenal. He’s polite enough to pretend it’s intimidating.

“You’re gonna lock the door. And then I’ll take a look and see if the monster is sleeping, and then we’ll figure out what to do, alright?”

He nods. His eyes are huge, but his jaw is still set in that Denise kind of way. I put my arms around him and I hug him, I hug my son so tight that I’m sure I’m hurting him, but he hugs me back anyway because he’s the best damned kid there ever was.

“If anything happens to me, you take my cell phone from my nightstand and you call Grandma Irene, okay?” His answer is muffled because I’m jamming his face into my chest. I pull back to let him breathe. His face looks like he has a lot of objections to this plan, but he just says “I love you, Dad,” and I don’t know if I can keep it together much longer so I push him out the door.

I sit on his rocket bed and listen to his little feet pad down the hallway. I hear him go into my bedroom with the one empty nightstand, and I hear him close the door, and God bless his six-year-old heart, I hear him turn the lock.

I don’t want to waste any time, because my son is probably terrified in there. He’s scared and alone, wondering if his dad is about to get eaten by a monster.

I have to open the closet door.

I can’t just sit here and wait – it’ll be the same thing in there no matter when I do it. I have to get up and walk across the room and open the door to my boy’s closet.

I wish Denise were here. I always wish she was here – that hasn’t stopped, not once since she died – but right now I really, really wish she was here, because she would be the one to look in the closet. She would get right up and march on over and yank the closet door open. She would grab the monster by one of those frilly things around its primary eyeballs and she’d drag it out to the front yard and make it feel ashamed of itself.

But I’m not Denise, and I’m just sitting on the rocket bed with my head in my hands because I can’t take on a monster. It’s too hard, and it’s not fair, and I don’t know how. I’m not her. Looking in the closet to confirm that there’s no monster is right in my wheelhouse, but dealing with the monster when it’s real — that’s Denise stuff.

Something tickles between my ears.

Denise stuff. This is a Denise job.

The tickle fades, but then returns again, brighter. Denise stuff. Denise stuff. Why does this feel so important?

And then I remember.

I was six. My ma came into my bedroom because I was screaming at the top of my lungs. She looked in my closet and then she said ‘oh no, no sir. This is Reggie Stuff,’ and then my pop came in and he looked in my closet, and then he sent me out of my own room. I remember I sat in my parent’s bedroom with my ma. We shut the door and put a chair in front of it and then she taught me how to play poker for a few hours.

Of course. Of course it was him.

I run down the hall to my bedroom. The door is shut – locked, of course, damn it, Jack locked it because I told him to. I’m about to pound on the door, about to yell for him to let me in, but then I think better of it. I tap on the door with the pad of my index finger.

“Hey buddy, can you let me in? It’s your dad.”

There’s a long pause, so long I almost tap again, before I he answers. I can barely hear him.

“How do I know you’re not the monster?”

Oh, Jesus, how do I answer that one?

“Kiddo, it’s really me. I… huh. How would you know if I was the monster?”

Another long pause. The sound of the lock clicking open. He eases the door open a crack, peeks out at me with one eyeball. I kneel down to look through the crack at him.

“Buddy, it’s me, I promise. But if you’re scared, you can just grab my phone from my nightstand and slide it through to me, okay? I have to make a really important phone call.”

The door shuts, locks again. Smart kid. A minute later, my phone slides under the door.

“Thanks, Jack-o. I promise I’m not mad at you for not letting me in, okay?”

No response. I tap on the door with with my pinky finger, soft as I can, wishing I could rest my hand on his fine blond hair; wishing I could give my frightened little boy a hug.

“I mean it. I’m not mad at you. You’re a smart guy, and you did the right thing. I love you.”

There’s a sniffle from the other side of the door. “I love you too, Dad.”

There’s a sniffle from my side of the door. I wipe my eyes on the sleeve of my t-shirt, and head back to the bedroom before he can hear me crying, because what’s scarier to a six-year-old boy than hearing his dad cry?

I make the phone call, and after that, it’s only ten minutes or so before Grandma Irene arrives.

I’m not supposed to call her Grandma Irene – I’m supposed to call her Irene, or Mrs. Hart if she’s mad at me about something. But to Jack, she’s Grandma Irene, so it’s in my head now. You know how that goes. She’s the only grandparent the kid has, what with my ma and pop dead and Denise’s dad having run off way back when. Jack loves her.

“So, what’s the big emergency?”

I don’t know how to tell her, so I just point upstairs. We go into Jack’s room. Her eyes fall on the empty rocket bed.

“Where’s Jack? Is he alright?” Her face is white and she’s gripping my arm with such incredible strength that I know I was right to call her.

“Jack’s fine, Irene. He’s in my bedroom. I – I need your help.”

She’s searching my face, and just like that, she knows. Her head swivels until she’s looking at the closet door. She definitely knows. But she asks me anyway.

“Why did you call me?”

I clear my throat. I’m embarrassed. Wouldn’t you be? Calling Grandma to come help out? Admitting that since your wife died there are some things you just don’t know how to do? Some things you just aren’t ready to take on yet, because you can’t accept that she’s not there to help with them anymore?

“There’s a monster.”

“What? Speak up, I can’t hear you.”

I clear my throat again. I try to make eye contact with her but I can’t, so I settle on looking at her chin.

“There’s a monster. In the closet.”

She ducks her head to look in my eyes, and the way she does it is so Denise that I well up.

She nods. “What kind of monster?”

I am at a loss. What kind? How should I know?

“Uh, tentacles? Teeth, claws, eyes. Frilly things.” I wiggle my fingers around my temples like that’ll clear up the meaning of ‘frilly things.’

Irene looks at the closet, and it looks like she’s doing math in her head. She nods again.

“That’s Irene stuff, alright. Take Jack to the park and play catch. Don’t just look at me with your mouth open, Donovan, do as I say. Go to the park with him and play catch and then come back.” She calls me Donovan instead of Donny and that’s how I know she means business. And I want to take Jack to the park. But even this I can’t do on my own.

“…He won’t come out of my room. He wants me to prove that I’m not the monster, and I – I don’t really know how to do that.”

She stares at me for a long moment, then smiles. “He’s such a smart boy.”

She strides down the hall to my bedroom, raps on the door, and calls to Jack. “Jack, you come out of here right this instant. It’s Grandma Irene. I’m taking care of the monster; you and your father are going to go play catch in your pajamas.” She sounds so much like Denise that I want to curl up on the floor and bite my knees. Her tone is one hundred percent Irene, and I feel a pang of sympathy for what the monster is about to go through. Jack comes out of my bedroom. His eyes are all puffy. Grandma Irene gives him a quick hug and then pushes him towards me.

We go to the park and we play catch. Actually, we’ve never played catch before, so it’s kind of weird – us in our bare feet in the dewy grass, me teaching my kid how to throw a baseball. He’s good at it. I’m good at teaching him.

When we get home a few hours later, there are three big garbage bags piled up on the curbside for pickup. I set Jack up in the kitchen with a bagel and some peanut butter, then head upstairs. Irene’s jacket is draped across the fin of Jack’s rocketship bed, and the water is running in the hall bathroom. I knock on the door.

“Irene? Is everything okay?”

She cracks the door and peers out at me, exactly the way that Jack did when he wanted me to prove I wasn’t the monster.

“Everything is fine, Donovan. I’m taking a shower. Would you be a dear and throw this out for me?” She passes out what remains of her smart pantsuit – it is a wad of pastel shreds, held together by green ooze. “And would you loan me something to wear?”

I haven’t thrown out any of Denise’s clothes yet, and in her side of the dresser I find a set of her pajamas that look like they’ll fit Irene. I pull them out, run a thumb over the penguins on the pajama bottoms. They’re surfing. The penguins, not the pajama bottoms.

How do I do any of this without her? How do I do it alone?

But then, I’m not alone, I guess. I’ve got Irene. And I’ve got Jack. And I know that eventually, I’ll learn to do the Denise stuff. When I’m done looking at the empty places where she should be. When the fact that they’re empty stops being something I need to stare at in order to understand the contours of my loss.

I hear the water in the hall bathroom turn off, and I know Irene’ll be needing these surfing penguins in a minute. I crack the door open just enough to slide the pajamas through, then close it again as quietly as I can.

I walk downstairs, bracing myself for the peanut butter explosion that inevitably awaits me in the breakfast nook – but when I get down there, there’s no peanut butter explosion. My boy has pulled his chair up to the sink, and he’s standing on it so he can reach to wash his own plate. Getting soap everywhere, but still. He’s trying to pull his weight.

What a guy.

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Episode 252: The Forty Gardens of Calliope Grey by Aimee Ogden


The Forty Gardens of Calliope Grey

By Aimee Ogden

 

In her fourth-floor apartment on Wrightwood Avenue, Calliope Grey kept forty gardens of varying size and composition. She had gardens in drawers, in old hat-boxes and mixing bowls. In the drawer that pulled out from beneath her stove, she had a desert garden of cactuses and sagebrush; in the plastic freezer box that was meant to store ice cubes, she grew bearberries and arctic moss.

Real gardens, in miniature, not models or mere toys. Calliope didn’t go out looking for them, but they’d found their way to her one by one. It had been some years since she’d discovered a new one, but she still harbored hopes every time she opened a cupboard or peered beneath the furniture. Once, she’d opened a box of cereal only to have a jumble of dirt and tangled roots go spilling into her bowl. Another time, she’d left a coffee cup out on the end table overnight and found it overflowing with a tiny raspberry bramble the next morning. It didn’t matter where they come from, only that they found their way to her. She had room in her heart for all of them, and plenty more to spare.

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Episode 251: Little Wonders 12 – The Unexpected

Show Notes

The Little Wonders theme “Neversus” is by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Why They’re Never About The Good Ones

By Evan Dicken

 

Once upon a time, in a valley in Lower Saxony just south of Meppen town, there lived an old woman and her two grandchildren.

Helene had been a weaver in her younger days, but over the years the damp of the fens had stolen into her joints, twisting her fingers until they grew as gnarled and useless as the roots of the scrubby trees that crowded the river bank.

Katarin and Klaus had come north with the Spring floods, refugees from the labor pains that accompanied the birth of French democracy. Their father had gone off to fight Napoleon, and their mother, always sickly and lovelorn, wasted away for want of him.

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