Accountability: A Short Story

In 1997, while attending Illinois State University, I decided I wanted to be a business major. This shocked no one more than me because I’d spent a lifetime (up to that point) cutting every corner I could in my math classes. Numbers were like the afterlife, I believed in them, but they didn’t make a whole lot of sense. You know what did make sense? Cents. And dollars. And big amounts of those two things combined. Sure, literature always proved to be my specialty, but who ever got rich off of books?

So, there I was, a newly minted business major struggling through my first semester, and sitting in Accounting 101. Class occurred in a large lecture hall that could seat around 200 people. I opted to sit in the fourth row from the front. I was all-in on this business thing. I wanted to look like a good, conscientious student without also seeming like a kiss-up. I don’t know why, but the fourth row struck me as the sweet spot I sought.

The professor—I can’t remember his name. It had something to do with an animal. Dr. Katz? Dr. Byrd? Dr. Gil! That was it. Anyway, on the first day of class, Dr. Gil alerted us to the fact that we each had a number on the front of our table. (Mine was D9.) He made it very clear that he would call upon us by those numbers since there were too many names to learn. We were to memorize our numbers for when that day arrived. Foreshadowing, anyone?

About halfway through the semester, I found myself dead in Gil’s waters. For the first time in my life, I had a “D” average and simply could not grasp accounting’s fundamentals. I’ll admit that I didn’t go out of my way to help myself. Maybe I could have found a tutor? Perhaps I could have studied on a nightly basis? I don’t know—who knows? Hindsight is 20/20, right?

So when Dr. Gil would pose a question to the class and ask us to work on it for a few minutes before he called on someone to answer, I would often stare off into space without even trying. I knew this business dream would not reach fruition. I already envisioned the next semester surrounded by my fellow English bookworms who had no aspirations of wealth, much less a reasonable income.

“D9.”

Huh?

“D9.”

I shot to attention and found Dr. Gil’s eyes staring straight at me. I pointed to my chest and said, “Me?”

“Yes, you,” Dr. Gil grumbled. “D9. Tell us your solution.”

“To …?”

Dr. Gil squinted before saying, “To the equation.”

I looked to the students on either side of me. I didn’t know the girl at all. The guy lived on my floor and we sort of knew each other, but he suddenly needed to study his table’s surface. Neither of them would even glance in my direction. I was alone.

“I don’t have a solution.”

Dr. Gil said, “A wrong solution is better than no solution. Tell us what you have.”

“I don’t have anything.”

“You didn’t even try, D9?”

“I mean, that’s not my name. My name is—”

“Inconsequential. You have nothing. You attempted nothing. You’re doing nothing. Is this correct?”

I could feel the sweat forming on my brow as Dr. Gil and 199 other people gawked at me in disbelief. “Um … yeah. I guess that’s correct,” I said. “I don’t have anything.”

Dr. Gil folded his arms, looked down his nose at me, and barked, “From now on … shape up, D9!”

“That’s not my name,” I mumbled. Of course, because I sat so close, he heard me.

“I don’t care what your name is!” Dr. Gil shouted. “You are wasting my time! You are wasting a seat! From now on, you will attempt to participate in this class, or you will leave!”

At that point, I set my chin, glared into his watery eyes, and said, “You can’t talk to me like that.”

The whole lecture hall gasped.

Dr. Gil seethed, “What did you say?”

“You heard me,” I replied. My voice remained steady. I had complete control over my emotions. But I needed to let this man know that he had no control over me. “You may be the professor, but that doesn’t mean you can talk to me like that.”

Dr. Gil unfolded his arms before methodically stretching one of them out and pointing at me. He hissed, “Leave.”

“No.”

“Leave … now!”

“You can’t make me leave.”

Dr. Gil truly lost it. He shrieked, “Leave or I will call security!”

I stood, folded my arms just as he had done, and lectured, “I’m a student paying tuition. I’m essentially your customer. Yes, I’m here to gain knowledge from you, but you’re not my boss, my supervisor, my manager, my superior, or my parent. You have no authority over me other than to assess my comprehension of your material. You can fail me if you want, but that is where your power ends, pal.”

At that point, Dr. Gil fell over and we could no longer see him behind his podium. Imagine my shock when seconds passed and not a single person moved from their seats. Since I was already the star of the show, I raced to the end of my row, flew down the steps, and found Dr. Gil on the floor. High school health instantly popped into my mind allowing me to realize that Dr. Gil suffered a heart attack.

I ordered, “Somebody find a phone and call 911!” (Remember, this was 1997.) I then dropped to my knees and initiated CPR. I don’t want to brag, but after they arrived, the EMTs credited me with saving Dr. Gil’s life.

He obviously couldn’t finish the semester, so the school decided to excuse us from the course while awarding all of us A’s. Even though I didn’t learn jack squat, I still managed to score an A in accounting!

I visited Dr. Gil regularly in the hospital and, against all odds, we actually became friends. After I graduated with an English degree, he pulled a few strings and helped me find work in the corporate communications department of a large accounting firm.

What a great story, right?

Of course, that’s all it is.

A story.

I wish that was how things had happened.

The truth is, he told me to shape up after he caught me daydreaming. I turned red as an apple, muttered, “Yes, sir,” and then, from that moment forth, only showed up to class on test days. I failed, ruined my overall GPA, and promptly switched majors at semester’s end.

I learned a lot about myself that day.

I’m still thinking about it all these years later.

_______________________________________________

Copyright © 2022 by Scott William Foley

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.

Assembly by Natasha Brown – A Book Review

I often pick up thin books in the “new” section at my library simply to try out authors I haven’t read before or for the experience of a quick read. I knew nothing about Assembly other than that I liked its cover and it only had about 100 pages.

Within the first ten pages of Assembly, author Natasha Brown captured my attention and never let it go.

Assembly is told from the perspective of a Black woman living in England. She’s successful in the corporate world of finance, yet that success comes with a price. No, this is not the stuff of fantasy or thrillers. This is the stuff of stifling your personality, putting up with loads of reprehensible behavior, ignoring your own desires to honor the sacrifices made on your behalf, and grinding day in and day out to finally achieve what you long ago earned.

And yet …

Our narrator can’t help but acknowledge the ridiculousness of it all, especially as she visits her “old money” boyfriend’s mansion. His ancestors’ wealth was predicated upon her ancestors’ suffering, and even if a direct line of connection cannot be made, that connection remains even if tangentially so. He does nothing as his wealth grows day by day; she must make her wealth grow day by day.

There’s also the issue of her health. She’s young, ascending, and destined for great things as long as she keeps grinding, so of course she has every reason in the world to preserve her health.

Or so you would assume.

Short, potent, and brutally blunt, Assembly is a little bit novella, a little bit poem, a little bit indescribable, but very well written with a powerful voice.

If you’re looking for a book that actually says something, try Assembly by Natasha Brown.

All the Horses Of Iceland by Sarah Tolmie – A Book Review

I chose this book at my local library because it was so slim. I wasn’t familiar with the author, Sarah Tolmie, at all, nor did I have a particular interest in the horses of Iceland. However, it was touted as fantasy and published in association with Tor, so I figured it was worth a shot.

In the end, I didn’t love All the Horses Of Iceland, but I didn’t dislike it either. The premise of the novella seeks to explain how Iceland gained its horses. Great travels ensue, as does magic, ghosts, trading, and tribal warfare. Yet, even with that being said, All the Horses Of Iceland is an intimate book that doesn’t delve too deeply into any of those things. It touches the surface, offers just enough to propel the story forward, and then keeps racing to the end.

I’m not sorry I read All the Horses Of Iceland. I’m always excited to experience a new (to me) author, but I can’t necessarily say I’d recommend it, either. I believe there is an audience for this book, it’s simply not me.

News Of the World by Paulette Jiles – A Book Review

I’ll be honest, I grabbed this book from my local library’s shelf because I recognized the cover from HBO Max and it looked like a fast read. I have not seen the movie adaptation starring Tom Hanks, nor did I particularly want to. You see, from the trailers I watched, the story did not seem all that appealing. A man riding from town to town reading newspapers? No thanks.

Little did I know, however, that News Of the World is actually about so much more.

The novel begins around 1870 as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a man in his early seventies and veteran of multiple wars, is hired to return a ten-year-old girl to her relatives near San Antonio. This isn’t just any girl, however. This is a girl who has lived with the Kiowa for four years after they killed her family and took her captive. She has fully immersed herself in the Kiowa ways–she seems to have no recollection at all of her previous life. Kidd is headed towards San Antonio anyway, and so he agrees to take her with him.

Though Kidd does indeed read the news of the world to those isolated in Texas, the story is really about the bond he forms with the girl–Johanna–as they must evade danger at every turn and even, at times, face it head on. A patient–though very tough–man with children and grandchildren of his own, Johanna is more than just a passenger to Captain Kidd–she’s perhaps his last chance to do something meaningful in this world.

Paulette Jiles has written a story that is genius in its apparent simplicity. I could easily recount to you the major beats of the entire book. Make no mistake, though, Jiles sprinkles in such nuanced detail that you feel as though you are riding right along with Captain Kidd and Johanna in that covered wagon of theirs. The landscape, the clothing, the politics–Jiles deftly describes all of it with brief, potent, easy to envision passages.

Best of all? The book ended exactly how I wanted it to. I’m not going to spoil anything for you, but Jiles’ writing style reminds me quite a bit of Proulx and McCarthy, and so I naturally had great concern for Kidd and Johanna. In this case, at least, Jiles decided both had already been through enough trauma, which I greatly appreciated. I am definitely excited to read more by Jiles. Plus, you know what? I think I will indeed watch the film adaptation now.

Later by Stephen King – A Book Review

I erroneously declared years ago that Stephen King’s best fiction writing days were behind him. As with Elevation, he continues to prove me wrong.

I thoroughly enjoyed Later for a few very simple reasons. First, it’s a short, concise, fast read. Second, it sticks to a main plot and does not deviate at all. Third, it’s a flat-out good story.

When you first start reading Later, you’ll be a little concerned that you’ve already experienced this story. It’s about a child who sees dead people. Of course, nobody has their finger on pop culture’s pulse more so than Stephen King and he references The Sixth Sense very quickly in Later. He is fully aware this premise has already been explored. However, because this book is part of the Hard Case Crime imprint, it tries to focus mostly on a crime element.

The main character is a young boy named Jamie who is recruited by his mom’s cop-friend, Liz, to help stop a mad bomber from killing hundreds. Why bring in the boy, you ask? Because the mad bomber is dead but the bomb is still set to go off. At that point, Stephen King can’t help himself and the already supernatural premise becomes more about seeing dead people than crime, but that’s okay. He could have published this book separate from the Hard Case Crime imprint, it’s not necessarily reliant on a crime or a hard-boiled mystery, but it works just fine as it is. I’m certainly not complaining!

Well, on that note, I do have one small complaint. It’s briefly mentioned early on that Jamie doesn’t know who is father is–it was something of a throw-away line. King’s only narrative detour arrives when he tosses in a monkey-wrench at the very end regarding that father. For me, it proved really distracting and detracted from the overall story. I would have left it out and leave well enough alone, but I’m obviously not King’s editor.

Overall, though, I truly loved reading this book. Short fiction Stephen King is a powerhouse–all that imagination packed into a tiny container. It’s honestly so much fun. If you’re a King fan, Later is top-notch King. If you’ve never read King (which is unlikely, I know), Later would be a wonderful first experience. The narrative voice is on point, the story is interesting, the pace is perfect, and it’s just creepy enough without scaring the pudding out of you.

The Annual Migration Of Clouds by Premee Mohamed – A Book Review

I picked up The Annual Migration Of Clouds by Premee Mohamed while browsing my local library. I’m currently interested in reading novellas, so this slim work caught my eye.

The story takes place in a future where the climate fully turned against humanity. Pockets of civilization exist without any of the comforts or interconnectedness that we presently enjoy. Reid belongs to a small community that, as far as they know, could be among the last left in the world. However, she’s very smart, and when a letter arrives inviting her to a school far, far away, she wants to leave her world behind in order to take a chance on this new life. The only problem is, no one who has left for this school has ever actually returned, nor is there any real proof that it even exists.

Of course, at that point of the book I figured we would join Reid on her journey to this new world, but the story instead zigs and chooses to focus on a pig hunt, one that, if successful, could provide Reid’s mother with plenty of food and bartering power for after Reid leaves. You see, she suffers deep guilt for even thinking about leaving her mother behind to fend for herself, especially since her father left them long ago. Unfortunately, Reid has never hunted before, not on such a huge scale, and isn’t quite prepared for the endeavor. Furthermore, she suffers from a common disease called Cad, which is a parasite that will literally do whatever it takes to keep its host alive until it decides otherwise. Cad is a hereditary condition, one that will one day kill Reid’s mother and one that will ultimately kill Reid as well.

As you can see, there are a lot of big ideas in The Annual Migration Of Clouds. It explores the nuances of an interwoven (albeit small} community, the complicated bonds of family, where our climate crisis could actually lead, the hope for a brighter future, the power of remaining in place for comfort’s sake, and the horrifying evolution of viruses and fungi.

That being said, I appreciated that Mohamed didn’t spend too much time on any of these things. She drops the reader into this world, provides just enough context to familiarize the reader, and then allows the characters to get on with their lives. She seems to value the “less is more” approach, an outlook that I believe serves the book well.

Unfortunately, this technique also leaves a great deal of questions for the reader, perhaps too many questions for some. The pig hunt is resolved and serves as the primary physical conflict in the book, but many, many other aspects of the plot are left unfinished. Perhaps Mohamed plans to one day further investigate these unresolved issues–perhaps she does not. Personally, I’m fine with it either way.

At just 155 pages, The Annual Migration Of Clouds is a brisk, well-paced book written in an unexpected, interesting way. Those seeking a tidy ending may find it dissatisfying, while those interested in experiencing complex ideas delivered briskly and without much explanation may find it exhilarating. Again, because it’s so short, The Annual Migration Of Clouds is an easy book to take a chance on.

Keeping Up With Claus: A Short Story

James Huff stands amidst a throng of people in just another chain department store trying to make a decision. He’s surrounded not only by people, but also by Christmas wreaths and gaudily decorated trees. Holiday music plays over the store’s speakers, but coupled with the procession of marching footsteps as well as the din of hundreds of chattering voices creates a sonic abomination.

As evident, Christmas shopping is not James’ favorite activity. However, he is on an important mission, one he cannot mishandle.

A salesperson waits before him—a conservatively garbed matron probably around his mother’s age. He is thankful for such a minor miracle. He needs an experienced woman for this endeavor, a woman who’s attained both worldliness and wisdom.

“They are both lovely,” Carol, the sales representative, says matter-of-factly. Though he has never met Carol, her nametag makes all the necessary introductions.

“Yes, they are,” James agrees. He studies the two bracelets and appreciates that Carol is not attempting to sell him on the more expensive one. She must sense he’s an easy mark, a surefire sale just waiting to happen. He appreciates that she’s not the gluttonous sort.

“Any woman would be glad to receive either of them,” Carol says.

“I agree. I personally like the more expensive of the two, and I think she will, too. Unfortunately, it’s beyond my budget. I hate to cheap out when I know she’d like the other one better.”

“If I may say so, sir,” Carol begins, “I wouldn’t describe the less expensive one as ‘cheap.’ It costs a significant amount of money.”

“You’re right, of course. And she’s not the materialistic type, so it’s really not about the money.” James holds the finer bracelet up to his face and studies it. “It’s just, I know her tastes, and this is it. She’ll kill me if she ever finds out how much it costs, but long ago I learned a valuable lesson in choosing the right gifts. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

***

During a past Christmas, everyone had a good idea what lay under the Huff Christmas tree. James’ life consisted of He-Man, Ghostbusters, and comic books. His older brother, Ted, lived for the Chicago Bears and the Super Bowl game he knew they were fated to win. Their dad, Anthony, had a passionate interest in building model muscle cars in his downstairs shop when he wasn’t busy with work, which wasn’t very often.

So for the men of the family, the various packages of all shapes and sizes could only hide a limited number of delightful possibilities.

As for their mom, Debbie, well, the boys didn’t really know what interested her—besides them, of course—but the boys trusted their father to take care of her gifts.

James had an unflinching confidence in the infallibility of Santa Claus, but he also understood that Santa only brought gifts for children. Adults simply had to rely upon each other to make sure their Christmas wishes came true.

And judging from the multitude of geometrically diverse objects labeled “Mom” or “Debbie” beneath the tree, his dad did well that year.

Oh, if only Debbie, Ted, and James knew what the immediate future held for them.

Ted decreed himself all-time gift sorter, and once he yet again accomplished the task with an efficiency that increased every year, Debbie settled in on the couch while eyeing an assortment of effects whose innards were unfathomable. Anthony kicked out the footrest of his favorite recliner. Ted, beaming at yet another job well done, sat upon the ledge before the fireplace, warming his backside with a preternatural tolerance to the flames. James sat smack-dab next to the Christmas tree so that he could use it as an adventurous gateway to the heavens for the new toys with which he would soon be playing.

Per tradition, James, being the youngest and most impatient, got to open a gift first. Imagine his elation when he unwrapped the He-Man toy known as Buzz-Off, a strange hybrid of man and bee. Hopefully Buzz-Off had not grown too comfortable in his plastic and cardboard home, for it took all of two seconds to emancipate him.

Ted went next, and he pumped his fist in the air when he opened a pair of official Jim McMahon sunglasses. He would wear those sunglasses every Bears game until McMahon went to San Diego.

Though Debbie was technically the next in line in terms of youth, she insisted Anthony go ahead. He opened a year’s supply of top-of-the-line model glue. Ted and James failed to see the allure of such a gift, but the smile on their father’s face told them he felt ecstatic.

While the men were captivated with their newly acquired baubles, Debbie, her curiosity piqued most intensely by the largest of the packages, suppressed her urgings in order to enjoy the suspense and instead opened the smallest of the gifts.

It wasn’t unusual in the Huff household to open the biggest gifts last. History proved those were usually the most excellent. None wanted to start with the best only to end on a low note.

Imagine her surprise when she found Anthony bought her, on behalf of the boys, a new scrub brush. She glanced up to see Anthony studying the ingredients of his model glue, Ted wearing sunglasses and throwing imaginary touchdowns, and James flying Buzz-Off as high as his short arms would allow.

Ever the master of etiquette, she thanked them for the gift, listened as they mumbled a reply, and then she laid it aside and contemplated.

If only Anthony’s present to her turned out to be an aberration, a one-time error in judgment that could be dismissed as soon as she opened the next package, but such good fortune would not occur that Christmas.

James next opened a t-shirt with the famous Ghostbusters logo upon it. It went on over his Batman pajama top without hesitation. Ted opened a pair of official Chicago Bears sweatbands and put them on with a grin from ear to ear. Anthony opened a collection of one hundred miniature bottles of model paint, and he began to feel a stone growing ever denser in the pit of his stomach as he watched Debbie pick up a box that anyone would naturally assume housed a piece of clothing.

And Debbie did make such an assumption. She presumed the slightly oversized box might contain a house robe, or perhaps the little black dress she had wanted for so long in order to wear to work parties. Because the boys finally took notice and gave her their full attention as she pulled out a welcome mat, she fought back the tears and refused to acknowledge her husband.

Palpable tension filled the room, and even David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s duet playing on the radio in the background did nothing to bring about peace in the Huff home.

With trepidation, James opened a box of brand-new comic books, but the expression upon his mother’s face soured his mood. Ted seemed equally afflicted, for his Bears sweatshirt did little to lift his spirits. Even Anthony, finally realizing he committed a grievous mistake, barely noticed his new set of paintbrushes … he knew what lay ahead as Debbie reached for her third gift.

Though it appeared taller than the objects surrounding her, it did not take up much space. She hoped against hope that it could perhaps be that new television or stereo she wanted for her sewing room. A glimmer of positive thinking convinced her this would all end well. Anthony must have come close to overshooting the budget on the television or stereo, and so he bought those little, undesirable things to simply give her something to open. That way she wouldn’t feel left out. They would all be laughing about it soon enough.

The tall item she started to unwrap could only be a plastic garbage can.

And so it was.

She didn’t bother unwrapping it all the way.

Ted slid down the ledge of the fireplace, suffering chilliness as he put distance between he and the heat he so loved, and leaned into James’ ear.

“This is not good,” he said. Ah, so important the years were that separated James and Ted. The older brother was not yet completely versed in the complicated diplomacy necessary for men and women to coexist, but he knew enough to understand his father risked all-out war.

Because of James’ age, he couldn’t formulate any complicated thoughts to interpret his instincts, but those instincts also warned him that his father had blundered far into the danger zone.

His mother broke the silence—discounting the cheery background music—and said, “Open your gift, James.” She tried so hard to sound warm and loving, but, as she discovered in high school, Debbie was a terrible actor. She could not hide the melancholy in her voice.

The Huffs went through several more rounds of unwrapping, but as each circuit completed, the ambiance darkened. Such change in atmosphere could not be avoided as Debbie found herself worthy of receiving a laundry basket, a low-grade cutlery set, a dictionary, and a collapsible shovel.

At last, the final chapter arrived. James and Ted didn’t remove their eyes from Debbie’s biggest gift as it awaited her shaking hands. Debbie glanced at it as well, wondering, like Caesar, if it would be the last knife in her back. A sheen of moisture escaped the pores upon Anthony’s forehead, and rightly so.

Anxious for the crescendo, James tore through the paper that exposed the mammoth Castle Grayskull, and then motioned for his brother to hurry up. Ted shred apart a box divulging a Walter Payton jersey, then jutted his jaw out and stared at his father. Anthony took his time, as though he attempted to stay an execution, and finally could stall no longer once an incredible model replicating a 1970 Ford Mustang Mach I engine shined at him.

Heart fluttering as no one said a word, Debbie slowly ripped apart snowmen and reindeer, yearning to see the brand names RCA or Zenith. Instead, she saw a wet/dry vacuum cleaner.

The last thing Debbie wanted was to make a scene in front of her boys. However, she also thought they needed to see a woman assert herself when necessary. She fought to keep her voice calm and steady when she asked, “Anthony, I appreciate the fact you went Christmas shopping for me. I do. But what—exactly—are you trying to tell me with these gifts?”

Ted leaned over again and whispered to James, “Mom and Dad are getting divorced. You just wait.”

“What’s that mean?” James asked with eyes moistening. His instincts again worked overtime.

“What?” Anthony asked his wife. “I thought you’d be happy I noticed all the things you needed around the house!”

“No, Anthony. You got me things we needed around the house.”

“What’s the difference?” Anthony asked. “I spent a lot of money on that stuff!”

“It’s not the money, Anthony,” Debbie mumbled. “It’s just … Oh, I sound like such a brat. I’m thankful you got me gifts, really. But who in his right mind buys his wife a wet/dry vac?”

“I’ll have you know that wet/dry vac cost a bundle!”

Before anyone knew what happened, Ted gathered up all his presents in his arms and hauled them to his mother. He dropped them into his mother’s lap and said, “Here, Mom. You can have my stuff.”

James lifted the gigantic Castle Grayskull box as best he could, and he stumbled with it to his mother as well. “If you don’t mind, I’ll keep the little stuff, Mom. But you can have the best one. You deserve it.”

Anthony looked stunned.

Touched by her boys’ selflessness, Debbie dropped her head into her hands and fought back tears. Then, realizing her sons still watched, she lifted her chin and smiled at them. She set aside the gifts they bestowed upon her. After that, she stood up and said, “Thank you, boys. I truly appreciate the gesture.” She then took refuge in the only bathroom.

Once she left the room, Anthony asked, “What’s the big idea, boys? You’re making me look bad!”

“Mom’s gifts stink, Dad!” Ted cried out.

“Yeah, Dad,” James agreed. “I sure am glad Santa brings my presents! If you’d been in charge, I probably would have gotten a toilet plunger or something!”

Ted and Anthony exchanged knowing glances.

Then Ted scowled and said to his father, “What if Mom gave you the kind of presents that you gave her? How would that make you feel?”

***

“I’ll take that one,” James says to the salesclerk while pointing to the bracelet he prefers.

“You’re sure?” Carol questions. “If you don’t mind me saying so, Christmas isn’t supposed to be about the money. I’m sure whomever would love either of them.”

“Absolutely. But I have to make sure it’s perfect. And my gut tells me she’ll like this bracelet the best. So, I’m sure,” he says with a grin. “Very sure.”

Carol senses this gift has far more importance than she can comprehend, so she simply offers James a smile and begins wrapping the exquisite bracelet. Once finished, James thanks her for the assistance and makes his way out. He leaves the threshold of the department store and enters the tumultuous halls of the mall. 

While navigating his way through the multitudes of bundled-up people, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone. Using only his thumb, he dials a number.

After waiting a few moments, the other end finally picks up and offers heartfelt salutations.

“Hi,” James returns. He lifts his other hand, shopping bag and all, to his ear in an effort to dull the ruckus encircling him. He asks, “How’s the knee?”

Once the medical update comes to a close, James replies, “Good, glad to hear you’re staying off of it. Listen, I picked up the robe, the scarf, the gloves, the perfume, and the Picoult book, but I had to go a little over budget on the bracelet. I saw a different one I thought she’d like better. I hope you don’t mind.”

James weaves his way through the Christmas shoppers while listening to the recipient of his call, and then finally corroborates, “No, I agree; she is worth any amount. I thought you’d feel that way. I never would have spent so much of your money otherwise.”

While leaving the mall and trying to avoid salty puddles, James chuckles as a familiar Christmas story issues forth from his conversationalist. Finally, he says, “I think Mom forgave you for that a long time ago, Dad. You couldn’t have done any better these last twenty years if you were Santa himself.”

_______________________________________________________

Copyright © 2007 by Scott William Foley

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This story first appeared in the December 2007 issue of Town and City Magazine.

All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.

Shady Characters: A Short Story

“Look—over there!”

“Where?”

Donnie pointed out his window and said, “There, in that field. See that bunch of trees?”

Sammy took his foot off of the accelerator while peering through the windshield. “Yeah. What’s a patch of trees like that doing in the middle of a corn field?”

“Who cares?” Donne asked. “It could be just what we’re looking for. Let’s check it out!”

With a simple nod, Sammy cranked up Guns N’ Roses’ “Sympathy For the Devil” and then veered off the country road onto a dirt path leading down the middle of an empty field. He hit the gas and roared with laughter as his 1981 black and gold Firebird fishtailed on the loose dirt.

Donnie screamed over Axle Rose’s shrieks: “Punch it, Chewie!”

Both boys beamed as the spring air whipped through the open T-tops and their hair.

Once Sammy reached the dense circle of trees, he slowed down and found an opening. After easing the Trans Am into the thicket, he cut the engine.

They found themselves within a clearing, an open space the size of a baseball infield.

“Oh, my god, dude!” Donnie cheered while pumping his fist like Arsenio Hall. “This is perfect!”

Both boys opened their car doors before exiting the vehicle. They looked at the canvas of leaves above them. With each gust of wind, small pockets of sunlight peeked through the organic canopy.

Sammy ran over to Donnie and punched him on the arm while bellowing, “This is the place—most definitely!”

“For real,” Donnie continued. “You drive out here at night, cut the lights, and no one will ever know! No houses around to see you—just make sure no one else is on the road before pulling off, right?”

“I can’t believe our luck,” Sammy said before clapping his hands together. “We’ve been looking for a spot like this all day! Finally!”

“And dude,” Donnie added, “once summer’s here, you won’t even have to worry about her getting cold!”

“Yeah,” Sammy said with a smirk as his thoughts became obvious. That devious grin suddenly turned sheepish, though, when he said, “I guess I better find a ‘her’ first, huh?”

“Hey, you’ve got your license and a cool car now—the chicks are going to line up for you!”

Sammy laughed a little, then mumbled, “If you say so.”

Donnie said, “You got the wheels. You got the spot. Now you just need the girl. You got me beat! I don’t get my license until August.”

“Yeah, but you’ve already got a girl,” Sammy said.

Donnie smiled smugly. “Yes. That I do.”

Sammy shook his head while taking in their surroundings. Something near the center of the clearing caught his attention. “What the hell?” he muttered.

“What’s up?” Donnie asked.

Sammy pointed at three tombstones in the middle of the space.

Donnie squinted. He then whispered, “Those look like … Are those graves?”

While craning his neck forward, Sammy asked, “Does that one in the middle say ‘Fido?’” 

A thunderous barking suddenly erupted, causing both boys to jump. Moments later, a black dog sprinted into the area with its tail wagging furiously. It leapt up onto Donnie, knocked him over, then dashed toward Sammy. Crouching down, Sammy rubbed the dog between the ears while looking at Donnie. He said, “You should have seen your face, man! You looked like you saw a ghost or something!”

Donnie stood up. He brushed the pine needles and leaves from his jeans. “Ha, ha. Real funny. Ghosts don’t come out in the daytime, dummy.”

“Well, that ain’t entirely true,” something said from beyond.

Sammy shot to his feet while he and Donnie followed the direction of the voice. They saw a man emerging from a dark patch in the trees. His clothing looked decidedly… old. Very old. 

The dog began turning in circles while incessantly barking.

“Yep. They can come out whenever the hell they want,” a new voice crooned.

Sammy and Donnie’s eyes darted to the tombstones, and there, atop the one on the right, sat a woman. Her clothing appeared antiquated as well, though, unlike the man, she wore a dress instead of trousers.

The man pointed at Sammy while demanding, “You—what year is it?”

“What?” Sammy replied in a quivering voice. 

“He asked you the year,” the woman clarified.

“You guys dope fiends or something?” Donnie asked while feigning bravery. “It’s 1994.”

The man’s eyebrows lifted nearly up to the brim of his cowboy hat. “1994? You don’t say? Let’s see here, then. Whoo-whee. That makes it about thirty years since our last visitor and there about … 140 years since the fire. Ain’t that right, darling?”

The woman rolled her eyes at the man as she said, “Sounds about right.”

Donnie said, “Yo, I don’t think you should sit on that stone, lady. It’s disrespectful.”

The woman burst out laughing. Moments passed before said, “Not if it’s mine, sugar.” 

Sammy’s eyes fell upon the tombstone the woman perched upon. “Nettie Norman,” he read.

Donnie looked at the other stone and read, “Guy Silas.”

“That’s us,” Guy said with a sneer. He approached the boys and hissed, “What are your names, fellas?”

As they backed up, Sammy answered, “I’m Sammy—Samuel. This is my friend, Donnie.”

“Dude!” Donnie yelped while slapping at Sammy’s arm. “Don’t tell them our names!”

“Hey, Nettie,” Guy said. “This boy, Donnie, he looks as though he might be black like you. Two black people in Cass County. Who’d have thought?”

Sammy glanced at Donnie and asked, “Are you related to her?”

Donnie shoved his friend away and yelled, “Am I related to a ghost? Did you see her tombstone? She died over a hundred years ago! No, we’re not related!”

“I thought maybe she was like a great-great-grandma or something. And they’re not ghosts.”

Nettie noticed Guy getting agitated. She chuckled as she said, “Sammy, make no mistake, we’re definitely ghosts. Donnie: relax; we’re not related. Guy and I never had any kids, and besides, I wasn’t from around here anyway. This was Guy’s home.” 

“Yep. Thought we’d be safe up here,” Guy said. “Brought Nettie back so we could be left alone. But we wasn’t, was we, Nettie?” Guy walked up to Sammy. He leaned down while staring hard with his hazel eyes into the boy’s face. “In fact, you look a lot like the guy under that white hood. Remember when I yanked it clean off, Nettie? They had you all tied up. I was fighting hard.” He then paused a minute before muttering, “Not hard enough, though.”

“We’re still together, Guy,” Nettie said. “That’s all that matters.”

Guy then screamed into Sammy’s face, “Tell me your family’s name, boy, or I’m gonna skin you alive!” At the conclusion of his eruption, the skin upon Guy’s face melted off, first revealing muscle and veins before giving way to patches of smoking, ivory bone. 

Both boys screamed in terror, turned, and raced to the Firebird. Donnie dove headfirst through the T-top opening. Sammy had the car started and in reverse before even being fully seated.

As the car sped away, the dog continued to bark without end while prancing from foot to foot.

Nettie slipped off the stone, approached Guy, then wrapped her arms around him. “Why are you so mean to visitors? We don’t get them very often.”

Guy looked down at her, his face fully restored. “Can’t have them coming back,” he replied. “They’ll stay quiet if they’re scared. I don’t want people out here moving us.”

“Even if they did, they’d keep us together,” Nettie said. “Heck, the Klan had the decency to bury us all together. Still can’t believe they gave the dog a stone.”

“Yeah,” Guy seethed. “Real Christian of them after burning us alive … including the dog.”

Both Nettie and Guy looked over at the third tombstone. The dog wedged between their knees as they remained in an embrace. 

“Maybe we could move on,” Nettie said quietly after releasing Guy. She bent down, kissed the dog on the nose, then stroked his back. “We could meet in the hereafter or Heaven or … whatever.”

“Maybe,” Guy agreed. He too leaned over and patted the dog’s rump. “But what about Fido here? You think they’d move him, too? You think dogs are allowed past the Pearly Gates?” 

Fido began to whine.

Nettie took Fido up in her arms. She sauntered over to the middle tombstone before sitting with her back against it. Fido remained in her arms. Guy followed, took his place next to Nettie, put his arm around her, and then leaned his head against hers. 

All three of them remained silent in the copse of trees. 

“You know,” Nettie said after thinking for a few moments. “This place isn’t so bad. Plenty of shade. I think we should all just stay right here.”

At the conclusion of her statement, Fido barked in joy.

______________________________________________________

Copyright © 2021 by Scott William Foley

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw – A Book Review

I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I absolutely grabbed Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw off of the shelf at my local library because its cover jumped out at me. Also, it’s very thin–just 124 pages–and I’ve been on a novella kick of late.

In my opinion, even for such a short book, Nothing But Blackened Teeth is overwritten with flat characters and incessant redundancies.

The book is told from Cat’s perspective. She, Phillip, Faiz, Talia, and Lin are spending the night in an abandoned mansion in Japan. They are a group of friends who love ghosts–the mansion is supposedly haunted–and Phillip became ordained specifically so that he could marry Faiz and Talia. Everyone has history with everyone, the mansion is indeed haunted, they bicker through most of the book, and then the mansion exacts its will upon them … thankfully.

From start to finish, Phillip is the rich, good-looking one. Every single time he’s mentioned, there’s an accompanying bit describing his handsomeness. Cat, the narrator, is sad, has dated two-thirds of the men in the group, and does not get along with Talia at all–the tropes are strong. Lin shows up late and doesn’t seem to like any of them but Cat. Faiz is just glad Talia is willing to marry him. There’s zero chemistry between these characters, and I honestly found them the epitome of “one-note.”

Which leads to my other criticism of the book–there’s far too much unnecessary description. People, objects, emotions–they are described more or less in the same way, just with different words, throughout the piece. The constant descriptions struck me as “filler” while nothing in particular happened until the very end.

Though I finished it, I can’t particularly say I embraced Nothing But Blackened Teeth. It clearly wasn’t for me. However, I still love that cover.

Hunger Pangs: A Short Story

“Pfwahh. Errh Brohtt ahhr ummk.”

“Gwaack, Hurmph! Rrerrm ibb fwapt.”

Oh. I’m sorry. How rude. You don’t speak Zombie, of course. I’ll just have to narrate this little tale for you, then. My name is obviously Brohtt. You’re not stupid—you gathered that much.

You caught me talking with my dear friend, Hurmph. Perhaps “dear friend” is something of an embellishment. We haven’t spoken since we bumped into each other in the Seventh Circle while celebrating the New England Patriots initial Super Bowl victory. Hurmph has always been a delight—so full of mischief, that one.

In fact, Hurmph has been such a consistent pleasure that I feel terrible having interrupted his meal. However, just as I’m about to take my leave, he asks me a question. Because you’re almost certainly an American and speak only English, I’ll translate for you.

“Brohtt, join me, old friend. This one has such a lovely flavor, and there’s ample brain to spare.”

“Thank you, Hurmph, but I must decline.”

Hurmph asks, “Have you eaten since our arrival?”

“Alas, no,” I respond.

“But why? It’s been an hour. These vessels are made all the weaker by our possession. You must gain sustenance if you wish to persist!”

Ah, Hurmph. Such a caring soul. Well, metaphorically speaking.

I pause a moment to bask in the glory of our surroundings. Everywhere I look, fresh humans are being gorged upon by my brethren. Magnificent Mile—indeed! What a serendipitous location for our revelation from the deep. The sounds of flesh ripping, explosions, bones crunching, fires blazing, screaming, and general death throes are a symphonic tempest forcing me to smile.

Whoops. Tooth just fell out.

Bother. Hurmph is right. These earthly bodies don’t last long even under the best of circumstances. Without nourishment after their death, they wither away to dust in no time at all. Speaking of which, Hurmph still awaits my response.

“Hurmph,” I say, “You must understand. I can’t simply ingest just anyone. I am in search of the perfect victim. The first eaten is always the most special—the one always remembered. I need someone who makes my heart flutter, my eyes brighten, my—” 

“But you don’t have eyes or a heart,” Hurmph interrupts.

“Well, no, not literally, not of my own, but, confound it! I’m using magniloquence, Hurmph. Please try to keep up.”

Hurmph squints at me which, unfortunately, loosens one of his body’s eyeballs and it plops out. Oh, look at that. It’s still attached. It’s like an ocular tetherball—wondrous!

“Hurmph, you’re familiar with Tom Brady?” I ask.

Hurmph appears offended while saying, “Of course.”

You must understand that we all love the Patriots—every last one of us. We see kindred spirits in them. Which clearly makes Tom Brady our MVP. It didn’t even hurt that much when he joined the Bucs. We have many, many Buc fans in Hell as well because, well, you know … Florida.

You’re confused by the mention of Hell again, aren’t you? As you have assuredly ascertained, I’m more of a humanities sort of fellow, but I’ll do my best to explain the science of it all.

Most of you think that Zombies are the result of some kind of virus. Ha! If only that were true. I’ve seen your track record with vaccines. I’ll never figure out how you all managed to survive thousands upon thousands of years. Not to worry—my friends and I will end that dynasty.

Speaking of dynasties, isn’t Bill Belichick the best? Oh, he makes my heart swoon. I’d eat him with no hesitation whatsoever. Drat! I’ve lost my train of thought yet again. Anyway, Zombies—we’re not a virus. We’re people!

Sort of.

To be more precise, we’re tiny little demons spawned in Hell. We just love it when we’re set loose upon the mortal world. As spirits, we burrow into the human brain where the soul resides and then we take hold. Yet, when we do so, we suck up that body’s soul, which is a problem because the soul is what keeps these corporal humans ticking. Thus, the rapid deterioration begins, and so we must find more and more souls to eat, along with their gray, mushy little containers, if we are to keep one leg moving in front of the other—or shuffling. You comprehend the gist.

We can body hop, you understand, or we can stay put. Coincidentally, when we dine upon a new human soul but choose to remain in place, that tasty snack becomes a Zombie as well, just one without a handsome little demon like myself manning the stick. Before you know it, we create a dirty rotting gang of rotten scoundrels birthed by our actions, all of whom are rather thoughtless. Honestly, it’s very much like Bill Belichick’s coaching tree.

Dash it all! I’ve once again become lost in my oral wilderness. I must make amends for offending Hurmph.

“Yes, of course you know Tom Brady—how foolish of me. As you know, Tom won’t play with just anyone. He’s very selective about who he allows into his circle. I, too, must remain ever vigilant in order to maintain the sanctity of my essence.

Hurmph hurmphed, then said, “You’re kind of an ass.”

His low-brow insult missed its target, for at that very moment, I spotted her—the one! Oh, she is perfection personified—she’s even wearing a Patriots jersey! I must have her! To feel her soft, warm brain matter sliding down my body’s throat—ecstasy!

As I saunter towards her with my body’s arms outstretched, ready to embrace my very own Rob Gronkowski, she begins screaming, “No! No! Stay away!”

I do love it when they play hard to get.

I’m so close I can smell her sweet scent even over the putrid guts and bile tainting the street we dance upon, and that’s when she aims a crossbow at me.

A crossbow?

Really?

Who in the Nine Circles of Hell carries a crossbow?

She howls, “No means ‘no,’ mother ******!”

My, that’s some saucy language.

D’oh. She got me right between my body’s eyes. I can feel the tip of her arrow jammed in far too deep, right into my body’s brain. The clichés are true—a brain blow is the only way to expire a Zombie.

Ah, well. At least I can say I never lowered my standards. Tom and Bill would be proud—I’ll see them one day, you know. Alas, better to have loved and lost than to—

__________________________________________

Copyright © 2021 by Scott William Foley

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.