Open for short story submissions. Send to devolution_dacairns@hotmail.com Read the full submission guidelines , or watch the guidelines video.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Army Brat

This is the first of three short flash fiction pieces by Mitchell Grabois.

Army Brat
by
Mitchell Grabois


When I was an army brat, we used food stamps to get by. Whether my father was with us or gone, my mother felt the weight on her shoulders.

He was in an M-48 Patton tank when it was blown up, fulfilling its fate. The only objects left intact were him and a Bible. He sat in the dirt among twisted wreckage and reached for the Bible, but couldn’t extend his arm that far. He thought he’d be frozen in that reaching position forever, that he had left Temporary Hell for the Permanent One.

There were many ways to interpret this event. Most soldiers probably would have decided that God had saved him for a purpose--to serve Him, that once he left the Army, he should be a minister or a missionary. My father became a gambler. We never had to use food stamps again. His luck held for a long time.

He felt like he was ten feet tall. My mother was shrinking. Anxiety made her hair and teeth fall out. She was clearly approaching death. Have you made a pact with the Devil, I asked my father. He laughed at me. He lifted my mother onto his shoulders and rode her around the back yard, as if she were a disabled Girl Scout in uniform or a wax saint on a narrow street in Spain, or Queen for the Day.

He knocked over the barbeque grill. The coals glowed red. Before I asked him about the Devil, he was about to grill fish with their heads on and their eyes wide, like his were after that tank blew up. There in the backyard, he was barefoot. He was fooling around, trying to make my mother think that he was going to flip her off his shoulders, or just drop her. She shrieked in his ear.

I felt a whiff of melancholy. I wanted to punch someone in the face. I stood, deathly tired. My mother bit his ear, as if she were a chimpanzee. She would have torn his face off if it weren’t so tightly attached. He walked across the hot coals that spread out from the toppled barbeque. He didn’t plan it, he was just wheeling around like a crazy man. The barbeque was old and rusty and a wheel had fallen off. He was the first man in the modern West to walk across hot coals. I saw astonishment on his face--not pain, or not enough to concern him.


I grew up, became hyper-individualistic, detached, a person who takes his boots off and trims his toenails with a Leatherman when he gets nervous. My father couldn’t get blown up in a tank, couldn’t be burned by hot coals. No wonder he didn’t become a missionary. No wonder he felt more powerful than God, felt it more than thought it. God kept trying to screw him over, but he kept coming through everything unscathed. I would not be that lucky.

Bio

Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over twelve-hundred of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for numerous prizes.  His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition. To see more of his work, google Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois. He lives in Denver.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Break Even Stan

 This is a very old story which I submitted only a couple of times without success. I never though much of it. It's a bit of a 'so what' story, but I thought I'd share it with you because reading it made me aware of how far I've come as a writer, and how I have changed. What do you think?


Break Even Stan
by
D.A. Cairns




Stan Ledlin stood staring in disbelief at the monitor.  The race was over.  Running a large hand through his thick brown hair, he trudged out the door of the Kirrawee TAB.  He tore up the tickets and threw them into a garbage bin.
   
‘Hey Stan!’
   
He stopped and turned, lifting his hand to greet his friend Theo.
   
‘Did you blow much mate?’
   
The two men shook hands and Stan looked at Theo’s face briefly before settling his gaze over his shoulder.
‘You win some, you lose some,’ said Stan with a shrug.  ‘I come out even in the end.’        Theo nodded and gave Stan a good natured punch on the arm.  ‘You always break even Stan.  I gotta go.  See you later.’
  
‘Yeah, see you,’ replied Stan with a smile.  He did usually break even and that was
good enough.  It was a bit of fun.  Something for a single man to do in his spare time.  Beat the hell out of staying home and watching the walls.  Eating alone.  Drinking alone.
   
His girlfriend Jean came over a few nights a week to cook for him but she never stayed the night, although he wished she would.
   
Stan tugged at his belt to lift his sagging trousers and made a feeble attempt to tuck his shirt in.  Then he shuffled across the quiet street and entered the take-away shop where he bought a hamburger.  Jean nagged him about his love for  junk food and the effect it was having on his waistline but he ate it anyway.  It was convenient and tasty. Years of bachelorhood had made Stan a competent cook but he could not be bothered.
   
He was aware of his spare tyre belly and he grew a bushy beard to hide his second chin but generally Stan was unconcerned about his appearance.
   
Sitting down at the bus stop outside the shop, Stan munched on his hamburger and contemplated  life.  A persistent restlessness plagued him.  He didn’t know why after so many years of happily rolling along with his simple life, he should begin to feel dissatisfied.  Stan was in a rut.  His comfortable routines were suffocating him.
After wiping barbecue sauce off his mouth and brushing crumbs out of his beard, Stan stood up and made his way to the train station.  His mates would be expecting him at the Gymea Hotel.



Early in the afternoon the pub had only a handful of patrons.  Stan saw John Miles standing at the bar so he strode over and offered to shout the next round.
    
John was mildly surprised.  ‘Did you have a win this arvo?’
   
‘No,’ replied Stan. ‘I came out even.’
   
‘I thought you must’ve hit the big time.  You never offer to pay.’
   
Stan was happy to pay his share but he always waited his turn and if his turn never came that was okay by him.  Whenever he stood in the TAB, tickets in hand and heart in mouth, he imagined how good it would be to win big and shout not only his mates but everyone else in the pub.  The man who chases fantasies lacks judgment. Which wise man smart arse said that? Bloody horses were always spoiling his dreams.
   
‘Even Stan!’ yelled one of the blokes at the table, ‘What’s wrong?  Not like you to be so quiet.’
   
His mate John could read him like a book, unfortunately. ‘Nothing,’ he lied before taking another mouthful of beer from his half empty schooner.
‘Seen Jean lately Stan?’ John asked.
   
‘Yeah she was over last night.’
   
‘When you gonna marry her?’ asked another bloke.
   
‘Pull your head in Chris,’ said John as Stan retreated to his now near empty glass.
   
‘Your shout Chris,’ ordered Stan while giving Chris a mind-your-own-business look.                       If there was a good reason for Stan not asking Jean to marry him he wished someone would tell him.  She would definitely say yes.  He did love her.  They had been together for three years and everyone said they were right for each other.  At forty two years of age maybe he was afraid. His head hurt when he thought of how much his life would change if he married her.  He didn’t really understand what Jean saw in a stubborn slob like himself.  And he was worried that living together would ruin their relationship.  Was there a chance though, of losing her if he didn’t propose?  Possibly.
   
As the minutes passed the picture became clearer.  Stan downed his beer in one go then said goodbye to his mates and left.
   
Exhilarated by the prospect of breaking out of his shell and taking a chance, Stan went to the payphone outside the hotel and called Jean.  He asked her to come over that night because he had something important to say.

 Feeling like his luck was about to change, Stan called in to the TAB on his way home for one last bet.  An omen bet.  A nag called My Bonnie Bride was running in the last at long odds.  Stan laid his money down and waited for the starters gun.

Jean was very pleased with the wonderful dinner Stan had prepared for her and completely overwhelmed when he popped the question.  Naturally she said yes and when they finished kissing and hugging, Stan announced that he would have two pieces of good news for the boys tomorrow.
   
‘What’s the other one?’ asked Jean.
   

‘I backed a horse called My Bonnie Bride.  She came in first at 50 to 1.  I won ten thousand dollars!’

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Sympathetic Interlocutor

A Sympathetic Interlocutor

by

D.A. Cairns


Decorated was the word that first came to mind when he noticed her cheeks. Breaking eye contact only very briefly because he wanted to hold her gaze as long as possible, the strange patterns on her cheeks caught his attention. They might have been scars, burn scars or, had they been located somewhere else on her body, the kind of scars left after a surgical attempt to remove tattoos. The thought intrigued him for a moment and suspended the moment of greeting in time.

Suddenly aware of her soft hand inside his, he let go and stepped back gesturing for her to take a seat. When he had settled himself opposite her, he saw that she was watching him and he instinctively stiffened. Her eyes were huge, round and dark chocolate. Adorned with lid liner and shadow, her lashes were spruced and unnaturally thick, and she would have elicited a comment in his mind about her being overdone had she been someone else. Had they been somewhere else. Everything seemed different. He felt different. She shifted her weight slightly and tilted her head to the right, apparently waiting for him to speak.

Embarrassed, he cleared his throat and summoned sufficient strength to concentrate on what he was supposed to be doing. But even as he spoke, those funny marks on her cheeks wrestled for his attention. They could have been freckles, although they were lightly coloured in contrast to her olive complexion, but not single freckles gathered together in clumps. More like thousands of them packed into adjacent rooms for all night dance parties. This thought amused him, and his accidental smile was returned warmly and sincerely. This woman was breathtaking. Not classically beautiful because of her cheeks and the way her thick black hair was held away from her face in a clumsy ponytail -she looked like she had spent all her preparation time on her face and not left enough to do her hair properly. She was indisputably stunning nevertheless.

‘Why are you here?’ he asked her. ‘Why have you come here today?’

‘Well,’ she began slowly, finally looking away and thus releasing him from the spell she was casting over him. ‘I think I need to improve my reading and writing.”
A perfectly constructed sentence delivered in a languid Middle Eastern accent. Improve, he thought, how could you improve on perfection?
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Is not being able to read and write as well as you would like to stopping you from doing something you want to do. Like further study, for example?’

She thought for a moment, averting her eyes and thus giving him the chance to study her more closely. From her full lips dressed in red, over her chin and down her slender neck, his eyes stopped when they reached a golden angel sitting astride her cleavage. The line of the thin chain which suspended the angel matched the low vee cut of her white dress.

‘I would like to go back to work now that my children are older.’

He loved the way information was revealed slowly during these interviews, morsel by juicy morsel, peeling away the layers of protection, the walls people built around their personal lives. Those walls invariably crashed to the floor as the interview progressed. Whether verbally, in their speech or their writing, or non verbally in their body language, they communicated their lives to him, their hearts and minds and he was an avid reader.

‘How old are your children?’

‘I have three. Thirteen, eleven, and nine. All girls.’

It was impossible not to stare as the enchantment grew, filling the room like fog. He had thought she was probably aged in her early thirties. It was hard to tell sometimes, especially with women who were able to hide their age so much more efficiently than men. However with children that age she was more likely to be in her late thirties, even early fortes though that was scarcely believable. Desperately curious to confirm his suspicions that she was older than she looked, he selected a piece of paper from the pile on the desk which filled the space between them and placed it in front of her.

‘Please fill in this form.’

Date of birth was the fourth question so he watched eagerly as she wrote, his eyes glancing occasionally past her hands with jewelled fingers, to her breasts which seemed to have risen higher, threatening to spill out of her dress. Maybe it was the way she was sitting, leaning forward with her arms pressed tight into her sides.

She wrote 11/9/64. He wanted to tell her how surprised he was that she was forty three and how beautiful she looked but he couldn’t. How could one compliment a woman without her thinking that you were a pervert at worst, or a sleaze at best? The words would always be construed as flattery with intent, no matter how politely you phrased them. How could one be sure in himself that the words were merely a genuine compliment and not expressions of desire, or worse: lust? How could he be sure? There was a place, an inside world where he could be alone with his thoughts and feelings, where he could sift through memories and adjust them as necessary and use them however he wished. A place to fantasize and twist reality to feed his insatiable lust.  It was a place of both refuge and repression. A haven and a hell.

The interview proceeded normally; she answered questions, did the tasks, the reading, the writing and the mathematics while he filled in forms, ticked boxes, interpreted and analysed both her and her work, made her laugh, made her blush, made himself blush with his boldness, noticed the delicate chain around her ankle and her painted toenails, and averted his eyes when she needed to adjust her clothing to recover what was being gradually, conspiratorially revealed. All the while he wondered whether the chemistry he felt between them was real or imagined, and whether the way she tilted her head and played with her hair was flirtatious or merely absent minded. He even went so far as to suggest they could go on talking for the rest of the day, and she had agreed, and although the exchange was light hearted he felt the words expressed genuine sentiment. He really did enjoy her company. This admission was followed by a fist of guilt jabbing him in the ribs a few times. He was married and so was she.

‘The interview is finished now. You can go and have a nice cup of coffee. Thanks for your time and good luck,’ he said, slowly standing up.

She smiled as he took her soft hand in his and he wished her well a second time.

They stood behind the door in the small interview room savouring a ridiculously long good-bye. The truth was he did not want her to go and she was in no hurry to leave. In the pregnant silence, he began to feel dizzy and was still holding her hand when he opened his mouth to speak. Nothing but air escaped his nervously dry lips, and soon he felt as though he was drowning, like he had fallen into the deep, deep pools of her eyes and they had magically stolen his ability to swim. Seconds passed recklessly into what felt like long minutes as they stood there. Still, no words were spoken and the door to the outside world remained firmly shut.

Finally he released her hand, more from the carelessness of drowsy enchantment than deliberate action, and she looked away. The moment was over. The spell, shattered.

‘Goodbye,’ she said quietly as she opened the door. ‘Thank you.’

He swallowed and managed a very faint, ‘You’re welcome. Good luck.’

Then she left the room and walked away down the corridor. Away from him, away from the mysterious connection they had just undoubtedly shared. He smiled. She was now a new resident in his inside world. A traveller who had landed on his planet and not been allowed to leave, despite wanting to. A fellow prisoner, though not consciously aware of the fact, or even vaguely impacted by the reality of her incarceration.

‘Liliane,’ he breathed wistfully. ‘Goodbye Liliane.’


He sat down, and when he had completed the paperwork and written in his comments and recommendations, he collected all her papers and placed them neatly together inside a red manila folder. He closed the folder and read her name one last time.  

Saturday, September 17, 2016

New story: Racing the Train

Racing the Train

by 

Bob Carlton


It was 3:15 am when I got to the main highway. Running ghostly in the night, a freight train sped down the tracks that ran parallel to the road on the other side. I took a right and was soon keeping pace with the train, both of us southbound doing fifty. At this point I realized that in four and a half miles I would have to take a left and then wait at the crossing for the train to pass. No telling how long it was, or whether or not it would be stopped at the crossing, inching back and forth as cars coupled and uncoupled in some freight yard I couldn't even see. I might end up sitting there for quite a while. Then I noticed the engines were only a few car lengths ahead of me. If both of us hit that intersection at the same time, that could be a long wait indeed. Only one way around that.

Almost as soon as I decided to race the train I hit a red light. It changed quickly, and I was faced with a decision: drive at a leisurely pace and face an inevitable albeit shorter wait at the crossing, or try and get ahead of it and risk not only a longer delay if I don't get there in time, but also the very real possibility of getting pulled over for speeding on this deserted highway in the middle of the night. I floored it.

Just as I was catching back up to the locomotives, the highway took a slight curve westward, while the train continued in a straight line to the southeast. During daylight hours, the highway's alteration in course was almost imperceptible, and one could debate whether it was really the road itself which swung away from the tracks to such a degree, or if the tracks themselves did not veer off at a rather sharp angle at this point. I don't suppose it really matters. The fact was that the train was on a more direct course to our future point of intersection. As our paths diverged, the train shot off behind a line of trees in the distance. I was soon alone on the road, with no sense of either progress or regression. Until I turned left in two miles, when the railroad crossing would be one block away and directly in front of me, I could not gauge my position in relation to my opponent.



When I finally made that turn, no train was in sight. As I crossed the tracks I looked left and saw a headlight, though I could not really judge the distance. I was pleased with myself, though not nearly as much as I was three seconds later, when I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw the flashing red lights and descending barrier arms announcing imminent arrival. I grinned widely, filled with a solitary and satisfying sense of triumph. It had been that close.


Two minutes later I pulled into the parking lot, right on time for a job I hate.

Bob Carlton lives and works in Leander, Texas.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Wombat Juice

Wombat Juice was written in 2005, and published twice: 2009 in Delivered, and again in 2012 in Glassfire. Presented here for your enjoyment.

Wombat Juice
by
D.A. Cairns

            ‘I can’t tell you what’s in it. It’s a secret recipe,’ said Hartley Gregg to an appreciative and curious customer. ‘Why do you think people come here? The exotic and mysterious food we make, that’s why.’
            The customer slowly shook his head, disappointed but understanding, and returned his attention to the Chef’s special of the day, Boomerang Stew.
            ‘Enjoy,’ said Hartley smiling and bowing slightly before moving away to pander to his other customers.
            All his competitors used digital waitresses to take orders and automatons to deliver the meals to the tables because it was the most cost effective method, but Hartley liked to give people a choice. So from the three dimensional interactive menu displayed above the table at eye level, they could chose a real waitperson to come and serve them or just place their order electronically. Despite these necessary concessions to the modern restaurant business, Hartley ran an old fashioned establishment where the people who served contributed as much to the ambience of the restaurant as those who were served.  He liked to get around to the tables himself too whenever possible, to talk to people and make sure they were enjoying their dining experience at Sanctuary.
            At the bar, Hartley ordered a Wombat Juice for table three and smiled as he watched the barman prepare it. When he finished he placed the glass in Hartley’s hand and said, ‘First one, eh Boss?’
            ‘Yep.’
            ‘How do you think it will go down?’
            ‘We’ll soon find out.’
            As part of his drive and determination to be on the cutting edge of Australian cuisine, Hartley was always experimenting with new recipes. His father from whom he inherited the business would not have approved at all of all his son’s innovation. He was a traditionalist. A straight up and down, meat and three vegetables, football loving, beer swilling Aussie bloke who reckoned he knew what people wanted and that’s exactly what he gave them. That attitude might have worked in his father’s time but now the competition was so fierce that to be successful one had to have an edge. Hartley’s was food that one could not find anywhere else.
            When the Red Centre opened up to major development, including the construction and establishment of three entirely self contained satellite cities surrounding Alice Springs, many entrepreneurs were excited by the possibilities offered by a twenty first century gold rush. Hartley Gregg was one of these, but he came to his fortune via an unexpected route.
            Long a fan of kangaroo meat, especially barbecued steaks, Hartley had an idea that perhaps some of Australia’s other native animals would also make exotic and sumptuous fare. The problem was, all but the kangaroo, which was considered a pest throughout most of the nation particularly to farmers, were protected by conservation laws. They could not be captured or hurt let alone killed and eaten by hungry or curious humans.
            In the southernmost of these new satellite cities, the imaginatively titled Sandtown, was a native wildlife sanctuary maintained by private sponsorships and grants. Befriending the chief zoologist there, Hartley learned of the development of a new drug designed to improve the breeding success of endangered native species. The engineers of this pill, had in mind the repopulation of large sections of Australia with native animals. Hartley, however saw another use for a possible excess production of native animals.
            ‘What do you think of that?’ said Hartley as he placed the tall glass of Wombat Juice on the table in front of a wide businessman who sat straining at the seams of his dark suit.
            ‘It looks like fruit juice.’
            ‘What did you expect? A frothy brown liquid with hair in it?’
            An equally rotund lady sitting opposite the man snorted her disapproval. ‘Mr Gregg, please, I’m trying to eat.’
            The fat man dismissed his partner with a wave of his fat hand and laughed heartily. ‘You kill me Hartley,’ he said.
                ‘Go on and try it.’
            He lifted the glass slowly to his lips and sniffed at it as though it were fine wine then sipped and swallowed some. A look of bewildered satisfaction came over his fat face and he smiled and said, ‘Damn that’s a peculiar flavor.’ He lifted the glass to eye level and stared at its contents. ‘I’ve never tasted anything like it.’
            ‘Do you like it?’
            ‘I do, Hartley, I do,’ said the man. Pointing his glass at his partner, he added, ‘Better get another one over here for my lady.’
            Hartley nodded, smiling then turned and walked away.
            Success! Winning the approval of the fat man, whom he had hoped would be the first to sample his new creation, was a coup for Hartley. The man was not simply another valued regular customer, he was the Chief Magistrate for the satellite cities. His opinion counted and those he favored, were truly favored. His patronage had helped Hartley establish The Sanctuary Restaurant in the first place, and thereafter forge for himself the reputation of being the finest restauranter in the country.
            Winking to the barman as he passed on his way to the kitchen, Hartley congratulated himself. The initial results of the trials of the new breeding drug were very positive and so, ignoring possoms and koalas due to their cute and cuddly factor, he started to talk up the likelihood of a plague of hairy-nosed wombats. Although the wonder breeding drug eventually failed on all species, Hartley wanted to do something with wombats. So before the results of the trial of the breeding drug were announced, he fabricated a story and released it through his media contacts.
The spin was that for some completely bemusing reason the breeding program had been hyper productive with wombats and now the tubby native beasts, verging  extinction at the beginning of the twenty first century, were proliferating like rabbits. The problem was how to use the surplus of wombats. Zoos all over the world wanted them, intending to populate their own nations with these distinctive Australian citizens, and there was significant interest in them for scientific testing and research but still there were too many. Having to cull a creature once so close to extinction was a bizarre twist of fate.
            What about serving them up on the dinner tables of The Sanctuary’s patrons. Hartley cleverly ruled that out on the grounds that it was theoretically good but highly problematic. Wombat meat was tough, foul smelling and very high in fat. Good for pet food maybe, but not for people. These facts avoided the reality of not having any wombats. Still the idea persisted that some product may be attained and marketed, as being made from wombats.
            Wombat Juice was his brainchild and now its inevitable popularity would ensure he stayed on top, and that was exactly where Hartley Gregg wanted to be.
            The next night everyone demanded Wombat Juice. Hartley was stuck behind the bar helping to prepare the hottest new drink on the menu when a film crew arrived at Sanctuary wanting to do a story for the evening news. Hartley quickly ordered his security automatons to refuse them entry.
Despite the obvious success of word of mouth, Hartley did want to get the word out about Wombat Juice to as many people in as short a time as possible, so he consented to an interview with a journalist he knew personally. She and her photographer were instructed to remain seated at the table during the interview and asked to keep it brief.
Passing table four on his way back to the bar, Hartley took another order for Wombat Juice which he delivered to the overworked barman.
‘Boss, I need a hand here.’
‘Right,’ said Hartley graciously, ‘I’ll do this one myself, no problem.’  To the empty drink shaker he added sliced mango and pineapple, then a teaspoon of salt, and a cup of fresh strawberries followed by one shot of white rum and another of vodka.
‘Don’t forget the Wombat, Boss.’
Hartley smiled at his cheeky barman as he reached under the bar for a bottle of thick brown liquid labeled Wombat. He popped the lid and poured it in. ‘Milo milk and Vegemite. Ridgey didge, my friend,’ he said as he switched on the blender and watched his secret concoction evolve before his eyes. ‘Truly Australian product.’
‘How long do you reckon it will take someone to figure it out?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Hartley, ‘but we’ll make a packet of money and have some fun while we’re waiting, won’t we?’
‘Yeah. Hey what about all the real wombats?’
Hartley smiled. ‘So you believed the story about the hairy-nosed wombat population explosion did you?’
The barman shook his head and laughed. ‘You got me there Boss. You got me there.’
           

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The First Six Months

Some six months after the launch of Square Pegs e-zine, I have to report on its sadly underwhelming performance. The anticipated flood of submissions has been less than a trickle, and I have resorted to publishing some of my own stories to keep the site active.

Duotrope has contacted me about my weekly publishing schedule which hasn't eventuated, and as usual I am left scratching my head as to why my endeavours do not flourish. As far as I know I am the only editor who has video submissions guidelines, and that alone should have attracted more attention. Nevertheless, I persist, as I have done for many years.

I'm reminded of God's chat with Joan Baxter in the diner scene from Evan Almighty as she struggles to cope with the what's happening to her husband, and her life. "Let me ask you something,' says God in the guise of a waiter. "If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient?"



Square Pegs is open and I am here, ready to receive and read your submissions. Publishing will be on an irregular basis depending on the quality and quantity of the stories, and my time.