Thursday, November 16, 2017


The Hour Comes

 

Synopsis

A local Indian prophet has predicted a coming earthquake. Cassie fears the earthquake but perhaps she fears change even more.

 

 

December 15, 1811, New Madrid, Missouri Territory

It was a small ripple, over before Cassie’s bare feet on the log cabin floor sent the message to her aching head. She gripped the slatted back of a chair, waited for the earth to shift again. It was happening. Just like that Shawnee, Tenskawata, had sworn it would. Many in New Madrid, including her husband, Lionel, had outspokenly doubted the prophet’s predicted earthquake. They forgot the man had also foreseen the comet that had burned the night sky for months. Tecumseh’s Comet, named for Tenskawata’s brother.

“Earthquakes don’t happen along the Mississippi,” Lionel had said.

Cassie believed. Some nights she couldn’t sleep for worrying about the earth swallowing her up. She shivered at the idea of being buried alive, taken somewhere she didn’t know.

The floor stayed steady so she took the roast chicken from the fireplace and placed it on a platter. Meat or fowl was a rarity, but Lionel had won it in a card game. Cassie then took sizzling hot cornbread from the little oven on the side of the fireplace and placed it on the trestle table.

            She went to the door and yelled for Lionel to come for supper. He was chopping wood in the December air. Watching him she thought him the handsomest man in all Missouri territory. Also possibly the meanest. She still suffered from the backhanding he’d given her jaw that morning.

He laid down the axe and came toward her. She backed away as he entered the cabin. He laid his huge hand on her shoulder. “Easy now. I’m not gonna hurt you none. You shouldn’t make me angry. You know I hate nagging.”

            Cassie doubted the blow he’d given had been about her reminding him the ladder to the loft needed fixing. What angered Lionel was her waking up that morning with blood on the muslin sheet beneath her. That was how it always started. First blood. Then pain. Then the end of Lionel’s hope for a son. He hated disappointment.

She’d cried hard the first couple times she miscarried, but today she’d reached deep inside herself for feelings of grief and found none. Even when the spasms started just after their mid-day meal, she’d gone to bed, lay on her side, and waited for her body to push out the little soul that hardly looked human. She’d wrapped it in a quilt square and hidden it. Later she would sneak to the church yard and secretly bury it in hallowed ground. It was all she could do for it.

Lionel wouldn’t like her performing the ritual. He’d given up on religion, but he needn’t know. There was also something else she’d been up to that he hadn’t a clue about. Nathan. Best kept that way too until she made a final decision.

            She realized Lionel was staring down at her. He raised his hand. She flinched, but he only traced the swelling on her right cheek. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. It won’t happen again.”

            Cassie had learned his apologies meant nothing. Something always set him off.

            They sat at the table in silence until she asked him if he’d too felt the tremor.

            “Pshaw. Didn’t feel nothing.” He grabbed a second piece of cornbread and spread molasses on it. “Ain’t no earthquakes here.”

            She bowed her head, tucked her chin. “But that prophet said it was coming. He said it was gonna be bad.”

            “That redskin don’t know jack squat.” He chewed some more. “If he was so goldarned smart why didn’t he get his people out of Prophetstown before General Harrison rode in there and burned all them buildings and tore up them cornfields?. Naw, you forget that fool nonsense. Ain’t no such thing as prophecy. That Injun and his brother, Tecumseh, are finished. Best action they could take would be to go on out west. Leave this land to us white folk.”

            She let him drone on, also eat most of the chicken. She wasn’t hungry anyway.

            At the gloaming, Lionel went out to stable the horses. Cassie cleared the table and thought about Nathan. If only she’d married him when she’d had the chance. Lionel’s good looks and small holding had swayed her mind. It hadn’t taken long for her to regret that decision. Six months ago she’d found out her former beau still loved her and had turned to him for comfort. If Lionel found out she’d been seeing Nathan on the sly, he would kill both of them.

Nathan had been begging her to run off with him to New Orleans. Cassie was sorely tempted even if it would make her a fallen woman. Still, she feared the flames of Hell.

           

            When night fell, Lionel banked the fire. In bed he turned his back to her and fell asleep. Cassie lay awake. There’d been no more tremors, but she couldn’t turn off her imagination.

At 2 AM a deafening roar came out of the darkness. It catapulted them out of bed as the ground beneath the cabin pitched and rolled like a ship at sea. Cassie huddled on the floor, wrapped up in her own arms as the log walls groaned.

            Lionel grabbed a lantern. He ran like a blur in the darkness toward the door. Cassie followed him into the night. The ground had quit shaking but the tall poplar tree had uprooted itself and fallen across the stable roof. Inside the horses kicked and bellowed in their stalls.

            She felt close to collapse. Her body ached. Not once did Lionel look her way so intent was he on seeing to the horses. At last she understood her place here, now that she was about to leave.

            Another shock shook the ground. Cassie’s flannel nightgown billowed around her. Her fear shifted, adjusted, turned to strength. She stood her ground, imagined every wave was taking her away from her husband, separating them as surely as if she was on a boat bound for New Orleans.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


 

The Uncivilized Ones
By Nora Cook Smith
 

The Igahi are an unattractive people. Think of a cross between a Tasmanian Devil and a cockroach and you might get the picture. Throw in a Venus flytrap for a personality description, and you’ve nailed it. The only reason I agreed to a medical rotation on their backwater planet was the knowledge I would work only with their young. A young Igahi, before metamorphosis, is small, round, and doesn’t have the stench of freshly killed meat on its breath. They did pull on my long blond braids when anxious, which was often, and with good reason.

            My tour of duty was almost over that morning I entered the natal tent. Dr. Cole greeted me, as did LiciBo, who did not use the doctor honorific. She was from the Zidon system where every citizen was a genius. Competition was foreign to them. I was glad to be working with LiciBo, but I wished Darius Cole had drawn another shift. An Earthie, like me, his contempt for the Igahi extended to their young. He was professional, but dismissive, even to the little ones who had been harmed by their parents. That happened a lot. We only saw survivors. Many an Igahi youngster disappeared before their maturing. Apparently, they were a delicacy and hard to resist.

            Cole raised his bushy brows. “Dr. Gladstone, I hear you’re retiring.”

            I looked up from scanning my patients’ charts. “Thinking about it.”

            “You should while you’re young enough to enjoy all that credit you’ve obviously built up.”

            I blinked. I hadn’t known he’d followed my career. Like all traveling physicians I’d gone from planet to planet. Unlike most, I’d taken the tough ones. Hardship pay was generous, but I’d done it for adventure. This planet was different. I longed to be free of it.

            Cole slammed down a little pink body. It whimpered. He ignored it. “What’s the point of us bringing healing to monsters? I say let them all die in their rush to kill each other and any other species they find.”

            I looked around at the innocents in their cribs, some of which wouldn’t be innocent much longer.

            “You hear about those tourist kids last night?” Cole’s tone was angry.

I hadn’t watched news vids that morning and told him so.

“They were murdered by Igahi. Not even dead before they ate them.” He shuddered.

            I felt sick. It had been months without an incident. Long enough to become complacent.

“People don’t learn,” Cole shouted. “There’s a damn good reason tourism to this hellhole is discouraged.”

“You said they were kids,” I reminded him. “The ruins here, they fascinate people.”

“Yes ruins, Liza. Remains of sentient beings murdered by the Igahi.”

I huffed. “That’s not been proven.”

“Of course it’s true. And people like you and me are here, saving the Igahi when what they need is annihilating.”

I stepped back, shocked. “You don’t mean that.”

“The hell I don’t. Three of those murdered were earth kids. Barely old enough to leave home by themselves.” He stalked away, muttering something about the Igahi being uncivilized and why didn’t someone just kill them all?

LiciBo had tears in her eyes. I gave her a solemn stare. “Pay no attention to him.”

“Sometimes I think he’s right.”

Not her too! “He’s not. They have the right to live.”

She turned away. “Help me get the maturing ones packed up. I don’t like the way they’re eyeing each other. Or me for instance. We’ll move them to a separate tent.”

I grabbed a transportation cart. “You’re imagining things. They don’t begin exhibiting undesirable behavior until after they emerge.”

She shrugged. “So you say.”

Before we closed the lids I noticed several of the young were already spinning cocoons. They would be taken from the medical tents to a nearby forest. It was guaranteed safety. Adult Igahi ignore cocooning youngsters. They find the process distasteful.

I sat down and had a cup of tea with one pack of sugar. My single indulgence. Denying myself small pleasures kept me honed and focused on these difficult assignments. Never get used to the environment. Never let down your guard.

 
I called my mother that evening on a secure vid. She was vacationing on a nearby moon. The lag time was almost non-existent but enough that I saw her distraught expression before she spoke. “Oh darling, one of the children killed yesterday was the Morelands’ son. He was just 18.”

My heart stopped. Not Ronnie Moreland. I’d babysat him before I went off world. Little dark haired, dark eyed, Ronnie. Now nothing more than a meal for a savage species. I must have expressed my sorrow. Must have tried to comfort my mother. All I really remember is falling across my bed, weeping inconsolably. I know the evening involved whiskey. There was an empty bottle beside my bed the next morning.
 

Interplanetary police surrounded the natal tent when I arrived late for my next shift. I showed my badge, and tried to ask what was happening, but they glared at me. My coworkers were inside, huddled in a corner. LiciBo gave me a wave as did Cole, and several others. I started toward them, then the inner flap opened as an officer exited. In that brief second I saw pooled blood. I pushed the flap fully open. Little round bodies everywhere. Not one moved.

I turned my frightened eyes to my friends. “The Igahi? They dared come here?”

Cole stepped forward. “No. They don’t leave bodies behind. I do believe they think it was one of us.”

I examined each face. Closed. Impassive. Even LiciBo’s.

“We must be as one,” Cole said, incorporating each of us in his dark glare. “We must not let them find out which one of us did this.”

I felt feverish, looking at all those tiny bodies. Then Ronnie’s face swam into memory, and I steeled myself against my inner horror. I let the inner flap fall like a gauntlet. Cole was right. Civilized people stick together.

 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017


An Infinite Deal of Nothing

                                                 
            I lie on the stockroom floor between rows of bridal gowns. The concrete beneath me should be cold. It’s not. I feel nothing. I think I’m dead.

I arrived early at the salon this morning. Being manager, I usually do. The salesgirls, Mellie and Tiffany, start later. My boyfriend, Phillip, who’s also the owner, is chronically late.        I remember walking through the gowns, daydreaming about Phillip leaving his wife for me. He’s promised it will be soon.

            I sensed someone behind me, then something squeezed my throat like a vise. Burning pain cut off my breath, I woke to whatever state this is.

I stare at the moose antlers on the wall. They were there when Phillip bought the store. He pretends he shot the animal. What a crock. He’s no hunter. I am. I pursued him for three years before catching him.
 
The door opens. Mellie screams. Phillip’s face swims into view. He drops to his knees. “Denise!”

Tiffany yells, “Don’t touch her! I’m calling the police.” She sounds strangely in charge. Meek, quiet Tiffany is never in charge.

 

The officers surround me. One they refer to as Detective Murray shakes his head. “Damn shame. Beautiful woman.” He turns to another cop. “What’s that?”

            The officer holds a veil in his gloved hands. “Found it under the rack.”

            Murray grimaces. “That’s what the killer used to strangle her. There’s lace marks on her throat.” He turns to Phillip. “No sign of forced entry. Who has keys?”

            “Mellie. Me. And of course the victim.”  Phillip says.

            I feel anguish at Phillip referring to me as “victim”, but know he’s using caution. We’ve kept our affair secret.

            Mellie produces her key.

            “Mine are on my desk.” Phillip walks away.

            I rise upward and follow him. Sort of. Even without a body, I have substance, but my movements are clumsy, like I’m learning to walk again. Phillip grabs his keychain, looks confused. “Here’s my keys.” He holds them out to Murray who has tailed him, as have the others. “But the store one’s missing.”

            Murray’s eyebrows rise. “When did you last see it?”

            Phillip shrugs. “I don’t know. I rarely use it. Denise opens the salon. Mellie on occasion.”

Mellie frowns. “Denise opened this morning. The door was unlocked when I arrived.”

“Plus you found her,” Tiffany adds.

I recall my last terrifying moments. Who hated me so? Cop shows always cite motive and opportunity. Did Mellie murder me? I did hire her on a hunch even though she had a murky past. But we get along. She’s an excellent employee.

 

They carry out my body. I stay. I must find out who killed me.

Murray takes statements.

“Traffic was bad,” Phillip says. “I came in just as Mellie screamed.”

“I overslept, so I was late.” Tiffany gives Phillip a nervous glance which he appears to ignore.

Mellie rubs her forehead. “I arrived on time, but familiarized myself with today’s appointments before coming to the stockroom.”

When the police leave, Phillip closes up shop. I need answers. I follow him home. I love him so, but his embrace with his wife stuns me. He tells her about my murder. Next thing I know I hear them upstairs having hot sex. I float into their room. Phillip lies on his back while she cuddles into him. Bastard. I wish I knew how to haunt them or if that’s even possible. I linger near while they have post-coitus chatter. Damn him.

Later, Phillip goes golfing, and his wife and her friend sit together drinking bourbon.

“It’s terrible about Denise,” his wife says. “But that means Phillip’s latest fling is over.”

We were so careful. How did she know? Did she take Phillip’s key? Hide in the stockroom? She could have. Who would suspect? The security camera is broken. I hate her.

I will myself back to the stockroom. If I could cry, I would. It’s just me and the antlers for the night. I pace. It’s odd. I’ve regained my body’s outline, Eileen Fisher dress and all, although I’m transparent. That’s when I realize I’m missing the garnet ring Phillip bought me. Where did it go?

 

Murray returns often, trying to catch someone out. Mellie is red-eyed all the time. Is that for me or has her boyfriend left again? She keeps the place going. Phillip does zilch. I flatter myself he’s missing me, then I remember that bedroom scene. He jumps every time Murray catches him unawares. There’s an odd smile on the detective’s face. He reminds me of a cat stalking a bird. I spend time in the stockroom. Often Murray comes in. We search for clues together. I wonder if he feels my presence. I wish he did. I am so alone.

Phillip gives Mellie my job. She leaves her shared office with Tiffany, moves into mine. I ponder this. Is it good business sense or something else? I can’t figure it out.

The fourth day I go into Tiffany’s office. She unlocks a drawer. Why? None of us lock drawers. Intrigued, I lean in. The drawer slides open, and there are Phillip’s missing key and my ring. I’m stunned. Murray’s in the stockroom. If only I could summon him, but then there he is, in the doorway. He calmly asks her to explain.

“I never saw those before,” she shouts. Murray stares, and she breaks down. “Okay. I killed her."

Phillip and Mellie come to the door, and Tiffany points at Phillip. “It’s his fault. He said he’d leave his wife for me. Then he fell for that bitch, Denise.” She cries as Murray reads her rights.

I give Phillip one last glance. He looks neither guilty nor surprised. His expression is neutral. I realize it doesn’t matter anymore. I have to get out of there but instead of going back to the stockroom, I drift out into the beautiful summer day. I don’t know where I’m headed. I only know I’m free to go.