Last Sip of Champagne

by John M. Carlson

Julia wondered if it was a good idea having a glass of champagne that night. One of her medicines had been making her feel a bit clumsy as it was, and alcohol might make that problem even worse. She didn’t want to be clumsy tonight.

But champagne was a tradition. Every fall, Julia and Stuart, her husband, visited California. They traveled about, visiting family and friends. They always ended up at a quaint inn located by a scenic lake. On their last evening at the inn, they sat by the lake at dusk, and enjoyed a bottle of champagne. Their champagne tradition hadn’t changed in twenty years, except they now were able to afford real French champagne, instead of André.

She didn’t want to break the champagne tradition. Not this year. Not since it would be her last year staying at this inn. Her oncologist made it very clear that she wouldn’t live much longer.

That night, Julia and Stuart sat in silence. They sipped champagne, and looked at the lake as the sun slowly set.

This was always the best part of these vacations, she thought. Stuart’s sister was always nasty. Then, there was so much rush-rush-rush visiting other people and places. But there was peace here at the lake. The lake was also a small chunk of paradise on earth. Discovering this place was the best thing that had happened during their marriage. There were times when she even thought it was the only good thing that had happened during their marriage.

“It’s sad to think that this will be the last time I’ll ever be here,” she said.

“You don’t know that!” Stuart’s voice had fake cheer in it. “The doctor could be wrong!”

“He hasn’t been wrong about anything up till now.” Julia sighed. “I’d once dreamed of moving here when you retire.”

“That would never happen. It’s nice visiting this place. I like it. But retire here? With taxes like they are in California? No lake is scenic enough for that!”

“Anyway, I want to make something clear. This place is special. Very special. And I don’t want you bringing some other woman here after I’m gone.”

“I won’t. I promise.”

“So you say now. But I know you. I’ll die in a few months. After a suitable period, you’ll go out and find someone new. You’ll haul her down here to meet your crazy sister. And, on the way home, you’ll probably stop by here to show her the lovely inn you learned about during your first marriage.”

“Trust me, that won’t happen,” Stuart said. “I won’t be getting married again. I learn from my mistakes.”

“I’m not only thinking about a new wife. This also includes girlfriends.” She pulled her gun out of her large purse.

“Are you crazy?” Stuart yelped. “Bringing your gun to California? You don’t have a license here!”

“What will they do if they catch me? Put me in prison for life? That wouldn’t be a very long sentence in my case.”

She stood, feeling a bit unsteady on her feet, thanks to the champagne and the doctor’s wonder drug. She snapped the gun’s safety off, and pointed the gun at Stuart.

“I’m going to make sure you never bring another woman here! Ever!”

“Julia! I promised you! Isn’t my word good enough? Haven’t I stayed with you, honoring my marriage vows?”

“Oh, you did an absolutely wonderful job honoring those vows. You think I don’t know about Kimberly? Or Carrie? Or Nancy? Or Stacy? Or Consuela? Why don’t you be honest? The only reason you stayed with me was because I come from a good family, and that helped you professionally. Face it, Stuart, there is no reason to believe you won’t forget any promise you make now. Or you’ll laugh about your promise when you bring some 21-year-old bimbo here. So I’m going to make sure you never, ever bring another woman to my lake. Goodbye, Stuart. I’ll see you on the other side of the grave, if there is an other side.”

“No!”

He said “no” like he was saying “no” to a dog threatening to vomit in the middle of the living room. You’d think he’d beg for mercy, she thought. No matter.

She pulled the trigger.

She was a good shot. And she hit her target perfectly now. Stuart slumped in his seat, dead.

She sat back down. She picked up her glass, and finished her last sip of champagne. Her last sip ever.

She put the gun into her mouth. Then, while staring at the lake she loved, Julia pulled the trigger.


John M. Carlson lives in the Seattle area. His stories have appeared in a variety of online publications. More of his work can be seen on his website.

Friend

by F.C. Malby

You used to listen to my questions, your mind racing faster than life itself. Your thoughts were sharp and fast. You asked questions: Thoughts about life, and God, and justice. You cared and you worked to help others. I used to look into your green eyes and wonder how we became friends; I, almost three years your junior, and far less cool and together; you, slim, sophisticated and ‘on point’ when it came to fashion. It was the eighties, then. I remember talking to you about school buses and timetables at the Girls’ Grammar. You wore a pale pink shirt pulled out over a slim belt, and a white, flowing skirt. Your lips were glossed and you sparkled. You were beautiful.

The years created a certain kind of cynicism in your mind. We talked about boys and future children, about passions and God. You became worn down with questions and I know you now have the answers. I go to pick up the phone when I want to talk to you or tell you something, a big event or a new child. I replace it and think back to what you might have said to me. I try to feel grateful for the time that we had, but life is cruel.

Then it came, the phone call – the first to tell me you had ten years. Those ten years were long. The second was unexpected. It was exactly ten years later but it was a surprise. They told me you were gone. I didn’t believe them, not when they called, not when I went to pick up the phone to call you, not when I stood and gave your eulogy in front of hundreds of people to tell then who you really were. I believed them, finally, as I walked up the hill towards your open grave. It was brutal, the shock, the tears, the feeling in my body that made my legs want to give way. I felt an arm around my neck and a voice telling me, “Take your time, it’s ok.” I broke at that point and hung back so as not to cause a scene. Emotions can do that, cause a scene that no one wants to witness.

I made it to the edge of the grave, sprinkled earth over your coffin, looked down and wondered when we would meet again. Life is cruel, it can be short, it can be a struggle. Yours was lived with grace, you handled pain and uncertainty with ease. You fought, but you also knew when it was time let go. I’m not sure that I ever have… let go, my friend. You are hard to replace.


F.C. Malby is a contributor to Unthology 8 and Hearing Voices: The Litro Anthology of New Fiction. Her debut short story collection, My Brother Was a Kangaroo includes award-winning stories, and her debut novel, Take Me to the Castle, won The People’s Book Awards. Her short fiction has been longlisted in The New Writer Magazine Annual Prose and Poetry Prizes by David Gaffney, and won the Litro Magazine Environmental Disaster fiction competition.
Find out more on her website and follow her on Twitter @fcmalby

The Last Unexplored Frontier

by John M. Carlson

Dad sometimes joked about how messy our garage was. “Our garage is the last unexplored frontier! We’ll have to explore it someday!”

Meanwhile, Mom thought that exploring was nice, but cleaning the hopeless chaos would be much better.

Dad died of cancer the spring I was 19. I knew that Mom would decide to clean the garage sooner or later. Most of the mess was Dad’s, and there was no need to keep it now that he was gone. So I was hardly surprised one July morning when Mom told me we’d start cleaning the garage that day.

After breakfast, we headed out to the detached garage, and started studying Dad’s last unexplored frontier.

Dad was a thrifty pack rat. He collected all sorts of things “that might be useful someday!” All those things had pretty much taken the garage over. There was barely—barely—enough space left to park the car.

Mom and I stood, looking at all the odds and ends that Dad had saved. There was a china cabinet, which he’d planned to fix up for Mom, who’d wanted a china cabinet to hold her good dishes. There was a pile of parts for his old truck. (He really should have let the guy who’d bought the truck have the parts. The truck was so unreliable it would be needing those parts sooner rather than later.) There was a mountain of parts for the family car. There was a big pile of scrap lumber. There was an old wood stove that Dad could install in the house if heating oil prices became totally unaffordable. There was a big shelf full of various chemical concoctions, like furniture stripper.

Almost all of this stuff was junk as far as Mom and I were concerned. It would take a natural tinkerer like Dad to make use of most of this stuff.

I thought of all the work it would take to clean up this overwhelming mess. We’d spend endless hours in this hot, stuffy garage. We’d make countless dump runs to get rid of stuff. We’d probably spend weeks trying to find people to take the more usable stuff, like car parts. All in all, this project would be a nightmare.

I briefly fantasized about cleaning up this mess using a gallon of gas and a lit match.

Finally, Mom sighed. “I really want this garage clean. I’m so tired of fighting to cram the car in. But I can’t face doing this! Especially with all the other stuff we need to get done this summer.”

And with that, we escaped from the garage.

The last unexplored frontier would remain unexplored. It could remain unexplored forever, at least as far as I was concerned.


John M. Carlson is a writer living in the Seattle area. You can find more of his work on his website.

Mercy

by Frank Linn

We did it because we wanted to help her. That’s all there is to it, but it wasn’t that simple to the police.

As if it was yesterday, not two years ago, I remember it, and more recently, the very public trial that has followed. I was on the couch when it started, my stomach churned after each of the cop’s questions. My sister was next to me then, just as she is now, but now we’re not on my mom’s couch. In this courtroom, the defendant’s chair is hardwood, it feels the same as the cotton stuffed corduroy cushion felt.

Two days ago, the officer who questioned us about our mother’s death told the jury what we told him then. He wasn’t lying, we were, well at that time we were.

Four years ago our mother was diagnosed with cancer, stage one, nothing we were too concerned about, so we were told. Our mom’s oncologist said it was treatable. My sister, the nurse, told us it was treatable. Treatable cancer that just continued to come back, grow, and spread. Each time it crept back and hit our mom a little harder. She was a strong woman, but that was maybe our biggest weakness in this battle. Each time she bounced back only to get knocked down harder. Eventually, the bounce backs were slower, and the knocks down were harder until she couldn’t get back up.

We admitted to killing our mother, not for the reasons the tabloids, pundits, and b-list attorneys made it seem, and not for the charges against us. We weren’t guilty of murder because we wanted money. But when the State Attorney got wind of how much money my sister and I would get from our mother’s estate they ordered an autopsy.

The state traced the painkillers our mom overdose on to my sister’s job. The cruel word – overdose. That word was thrown around in the trial that it seemed coined for us, that we were killers or drug dealers profiting from the addiction of victims. “Forcing their mother to overdose,” the prosecutor said.

No, all we did was end our mother’s suffering. She begged us, for months she did, and finally, when I started suggesting it to my sister, just starting to, she finished my sentence. We were in sync but still too ashamed to say it to the other.

We admitted our story, we announced to everyone we didn’t want to see her suffer. That wasn’t enough for the prosecutor. He only had a few days left before he could put his name in to run for governor. I’m sure the campaign posters started coming off the presses as soon as the jury went into deliberation. We were his ticket to higher office. The only price was our agony of reliving the worst days of our lives. A win against us, any sort of victory, even a day’s sentence would validate him.

We stood for the judge, he had just received a sheet of paper from the jury. It was the moment two years had been building to. He placed the paperback on his desk and leaned forward to the microphone and spoke.

Our attorney tried to sympathize us so the jury could see us as merciful daughters ending the suffering of our mother. That we took care of her just as she took care of us.

All I heard, “Guilty.” The strategy didn’t work.

The next day we returned for sentencing. The jury that seemed to view us as monsters was dismissed. Only the judge would decide our fate. The prosecution had pushed for the maximum; more for my sister since she “trafficked the drugs to commit a homicide.”

We only got time served.

The printers of the campaign posters must have halted. The prosecutor’s face became red.

It took us a while to figure out what had happened. Later that day our attorney called me, I was back on the corduroy couch. It was comfortable again, not as comfortable as it was before killer, and much too far from how it felt when my mom was on it beside me.

As it turned out, our attorney told us, the same thing happened to the judge. His mother had cancer in her bones. He watched her suffer. He took it as long as he could before he gave in to her wishes, the same wishes our mother had, for her daughters to bring her peace.


Frank Linn is a short story writer living in Miami, a good place for great inspiration. Follow him on Twitter @AuthorFrankLinn

Whispered Answers

by C. Joy

Dom knelt next to the broken body on the road. He wouldn’t need a medical examiner to tell him what he already knew. He had watched the blue mist of the guardian and light of the soul depart, one upward and the other not. There’s an advantage to knowing your guardian personally. His was named Arerial. As a hired contract killer, it was nice to know he still had one.

A small cry from the crumpled car startled Dom as he rose up from the pavement. Not possible. Intel had the target traveling alone. A quick shot to the driver’s forehead had been the plan. Quick, and clean. But the shot had gone low and wide, shattering the side mirror instead. Instantly, the target was aware. Dom had dropped from the tree he was in, when the car suddenly spun, losing control and bee-lined directly for the very spot he was in. Another quick shot found its mark and finished the job, but left him directly in the path of the out of control car. Escaping a direct hit, the bumper had caught his hip and flung him to the pavement.

He was too old for this…then he heard a whimper again. His knee cracked as he quickly strode over to the car, glanced inside and inhaled sharply. A small girl, luckily still in her seatbelt, which was the only reason she didn’t resemble the body on the road. None of his targets were innocent, but this job had been compromised. Quickly calculating multiple variables, Dom reached into the car. He had a decision to make.

Dom started walking, away from the body and the wrecked car, carrying the small, delicate form. As he walked the quarter of a mile to his car hidden among the trees, small twinges of pain broke through the fog of adrenaline. Dom looked down. His arm was broken and he had torn something around his knee. He also suspected he might have a broken rib or two based on the tightness in his chest, but he would deal with that later. Gently and gingerly, he laid the child on the seat next to him, started the car with his one good hand and began the drive toward town. His focus: find a hospital.

As he drove, he kept constant watch around him and on the little blond girl laying on the seat. This job had come with too many surprises and he couldn’t afford anymore. And he recalled the hesitancy in Arerial tonight. Curious, since Guardians weren’t supposed to use judgment on if to save their subject of protection, but only on how.

Dom was well known for his human mercenary abilities, but secretly favored his supernatural ability. To see the light emitted from souls, alive or otherwise definitely aided with his occupation. But recently, his senses picked up other possible entities. The little girl stirred and whimpered again. Dom pressed down on the gas pedal.

It had taken him awhile to understand what he was seeing. In his line of work, being observant was the difference between job security or involuntary early retirement. Over time, he had noticed more. Blue misted guardians protected, helped find lost keys, whispered answers and gave inspiration to their charges. Shadowy tormentors, well, they were the snide thoughts of insecurities, nightmares and vicious doubt and they seemed to be multiplying.

Years ago, as he was piloting a soon to crash twin prop fireball at 15,000 feet after a sniper targeted his fuselage, Dom had dejectedly muttered “think this rides over, thanks for the good run”. Expecting silence, Dom had nearly jumped out of the burning airplane when he heard a soft, controlled voice whisper.

“It’s not your time”.

It was the only time. But he often wondered what happened to Guardians when their human charges passed on. Did they retire, or were they reassigned to incoming charges? Were they reassigned by lineage or was it a random draw?

The bright orange blinking arrow pointed toward the Emergency Department. Dom followed the sign, parked the car, and tenderly carried the girl toward the entrance. He could sense that Arerial was close, and he was comforted by it. Which is why when another, sharper pain coursed through his chest and took his breath, he was unsettled. It quickly subsided and was forgotten when Dom was overtaken by nurses questioning about the child in his arms. Quickly, they whisked her away with a flurry of activity and hushed voices.

It was ironic, that in a hospital, Dom felt safe. Spiritually, it was Grand Central for both tormentors and guardians, as regrets, hope and sorrows were abundant. Humanly, he was safe from other snipers as they preferred a much more secluded location.

Dom signed some forms before taken to an exam room. On the way, he watched a blue mist followed by a lighted soul rise from a curtained area down the hall. An old soul. Not the girl. Relieved, Dom let out the breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding.

Mistaking it for pain, the nurse left Dom in the room in search of morphine.

“We have done good tonight.” Dom stretched his neck, and looked for Arerial. But something was off. He felt…alone.

It was as if he was missing…something.

The pain hit him again, stronger this time and dropped him to his knees. He struggled for a breath. A heart attack? This wasn’t the exit he had planned. His chest exploded in another wave of pain and darkness began to close over him when Dom heard a familiar soft, controlled voice whisper.

“It’s time.”

The little blonde girl lay on her side and watched a second bright light receded down in the hall. She wasn’t alone, even though she had heard the nurse whisper to the Doctor she was. But she wasn’t scared. She felt…safe.

“You’ll stay now?” she asked softly. A small blue mist had settled next to her.

Understanding, she whispered “Thanks, Arerial.”


A reading gypsy, C. Joy enjoys traveling and people watching, finding inspiration in both.