Better

“What are you doing here, Paul?”

From within the glare of the headlights, a thick voice answered, “I’m gonna kick Matt’s ass.”

Stacy stood in the doorway of the bar, arms crossed. “And you really think that’ll make Annie want you back?”

Seated on the hood of his car, Paul answered, “No, I think it’ll make Matt regret being such a piece of shit.”

“Well you’re wasting your time. He’s not even here.”

Before Paul could retort, another voice said, “It’s fine.” Matt stepped outside into the headlights. “I’ll fight my own battles.”

Paul leapt from the hood and charged. “Damn right you will.” His punch knocked Matt flat on his ass. “Get up,” Paul growled, and Matt obliged. Another furious swing Stacy screamed, others poured out of the bar. Paul kept swinging, meeting no resistance from his opponent. “Come on, fight me,” he roared as Matt once more hauled himself to his feet. “What’s the matter with you, asshole?”

Matt’s lip was already swollen and split. He answered, “Annie.”

“Don’t talk about her,” Paul raged, once more knocking Matt to the ground.

“She would want me to be better,” Matt coughed. “She would want us both to be better.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox
Photo by Eugene Triguba on Unsplash

Steps

The AC in the building was out again, so I fled to the fire escape for some relief. That’s how I saw him.

Across the street, a knife of yellow light cut through the evening’s darkness, and he appeared at its edge. He looked left, then right. He looked uncertainly over his shoulder into the light. Then the door closed. The kid was alone in the sweltering darkness.

I don’t know why I thought of him as a kid. I couldn’t see his features. Perhaps it was his shuffling steps as he descended the stoop or the way he paused to stare up at the one lit window on the third floor of the building he had just left. He never once looked in my direction, just hung his head and walked away.

I descended the fire escape all the way to the street, and crossed to the stoop where I had first seen him appear. There was a panel of buzzers, handwritten names of strangers next to little silver buttons. I pushed one at random and to my surprise, I heard the door buzz and unlock. Not knowing why, I pulled open the door.

That’s how I found her.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Leaving

I watched him prepare to leave, feeling a strange emptiness a foreboding. Then my dad happened to stride past. “Dom, you’re not staying for dinner?” he boomed.

Dominic shook his head. “The number 23 stops running after seven.”

“The bus?”

“Yes, dad,” I said, unable to stifle my own attitude.

“Nah, come on,” he insisted, clapping Dominic on the back. “Stay for dinner, then I’ll give you a lift.”

Dominic’s face was still, as impossible to read as ever. All he said was, “My mother might worry, sir.”

Dad gave a sharp, approving nod. “Fair enough. We’ll take you back now.” Then he turned to me. “Whaddya say, Harry?”

“Dad, just be cool.”

But he wasn’t even listening for my answer. “Dom, where do you live?”

A quick glance in my direction. “Corner of Fifth and Washington.”

A pause.

“That’s . . . that’s on the East Side, right?”

Dominic’s jaw tightened. “That’s right sir.”

The jovial tone returned. “Oh, would ya stop calling me sir. Call me Bob.” Then he grabbed the keys and flung open the door. “Come on boys, the Cadillac’s out front.”

We rode all the way to Dominic’s house in silence. Somehow, I knew that everything had changed.

* * *

A story by Gregory M. Fox

Thanks

They closed the papers in the folder, smiling broadly. “This is great,” the husband said to me. “Thank you so much for all you’re doing.”

“You’re welcome,” I replied, scooping up the next folder.

“We just really appreciate it,” the wife added. “Thanks again.”

I looked back and forth between the smiling faces and nodded. “Well it’s all part of the job.” Holding out the next folder I said, “Now this is the other site we discussed.”

“Oh my goodness, thank you,” the husband said, taking it.

“Er, right,” I answered.

“You’ve done so much for us,” the wife added.

“Well let me actually tell you about this one,” I said, trying to open up the folder for them.

“All the time and effort you’ve gone to…” the husband began, and his wife continued, “…When we’re trying to make this important decision, it’s just…” she paused emphatically, and they said together, “Thank you.”

“What is this?” I asked. “What’s happening?”

“We’re just so appreciative–”

“What the hell is happening?”

The couple’s eyes flicked to each other. “Abort!” The pair crumpled to the floor in a heap, and a swarm of squirrels emerged, scampering around my heels and out the door.

Shadows

The shadows shifted in the corner of Cal’s eye. It was back.

It never left.

“Leave me alone,” Cal barked.

“You’re always alone,” a grating voice replied. Darkness emerged from the shadows, a hulking form, long twisted limbs, a featureless head. “Worthless,” it croaked.

“No.”

“Pathetic.”

“No more.”

“Unlovable.”

“Enough! I’m done letting you control my life.” The thing cocked its head, curious. But Cal was already moving, knife in his hand. “Now die!”

A half stifled moan of surprise. The blade sank deep into the being’s chest and it crumbled to the floor. Cal was shaking, panting, giddy and terrified and sick. He watched the thing’s skin turn grey and brittle as cracks spread from the knife wound.

“I did it,” he whispered. “I’m finally free.”

“You’re a fool,” the thing announced. It’s skin had gone grey and dry. The cracks spread to its mouth as it spoke, then the skin began to crumble. “You can’t kill me.” The figure began to rise, large chunks of it’s flesh flaking away. “You don’t even know what I am.”

Cal staggered back, his features twisted into an expression of horror as he saw those same features emerge from the crumbling shadows.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Appointment

“I’m leaving for my appointment now” Marta said, setting a disorderly stack of files on her boss’s desk. “Here are the files.

“You see my email?” he asked.

But Marta was already out the door. She made it all the way to the car before realizing her keys were missing. Not in her purse, not in her pocket;

Marta dashed into the office, heart racing. She grabbed her coat from the back of her chair, relieved to hear keys jingling in the pocket.

“Back already?” the boss called as she passed his office.

She didn’t stop.

Outside, across the parking lot, into her car. The engine roared to life.

Something was beeping.

Not now, Marta thought, scanning the dashboard. No alerts illuminated. Then the beeping stopped. Good enough. Marta sped out of the parking lot.

It wasn’t till she arrived at the clinic that she saw the missed call and voicemail.

<Hi, this is Julia calling from Dr. Mossadegh’s office. I know it’s last minute, but the doctor is going to have to cancel your appointment. He’s very sorry, but of course we’ll reschedule as soon as we can.>

She stared blankly at her reflection in the phone and sighed.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Trunk

“Can you take a look at something for me?” Maple asked.

Fir creaked out a flat response. “Do I have to?”

“Please?” Maple asked. “I think I’ve got something on my trunk.”

A sigh of falling needles. “Like what?” Fir asked.

Maple rustled their branches impatiently. “I don’t know; that’s why I want you to look at it.”

“Fine,” the evergreen said..

Maple leaned with the wind, branches parting to give a clear view. Fir leaned as well, bending closer to inspect the trunk.

They spotted the source of Maple’s concern immediately. The growth, or whatever it was, was impossible to miss. Broad, blunt branches ringed Maple’s trunk, there was a lot of discoloration, and several vines hung down from their lower branches. Then Fir spotted the infestation. They were used to this sort of vermin of course; but it was extremely unusual to see so many climbing in the branches of a tree all at once. The squat, hairy little things were all over Maple’s branches, letting out shrill squeals as they scurried about. Fir straightened up with a shudder of revulsion.

“Well?” Maple asked.

“Yeah, you might want to get that checked out.”

“What . . . what is it?”

Humans.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox
Photo by Aditi Gautam on Unsplash

Wish

Story by Gregory M. Fox
from A Breath of Fiction’s archives

Published 12/26/2010

* * *

The sudden flash in the heavy blackness caught her eye like a shooting star. 

She made a wish.  It was a sort of morbid tradition she had. 

Her father had been a smoker and a drinker.  She was six when he first burned her with a cigarette.  Sometimes she still saw that smouldering prick of fire and ash coming toward her face, and since then, the pain of her burns would return whenever she came anywhere near fire or smoke.

At sixteen, she had been driving at night for the first time.  Her father was in the passenger seat yelling about something.  She wanted him to stop—stop shouting, stop hurting her, stop making her miserable. 

Then—a flash of orange cinders

She had never seen a cigarette thrown from a car window before.  It flew at the windshield, and in a flash of sparks she smelled tobacco and burning flesh, and felt her scars ache. 

she tensed

hands jerked

her father shouted

and she was just wishing he would stop

and they were flying

spinning

Then all was still.  And quiet.  Just her breathing and … nothing else.

Now she wishes on cigarette butts.  Because of guilt.  And maybe hope.

Photo by Vasily Kozorez on Unsplash

Binding

Silence filled the space between the mage and his client. Alden knew his craft well, so it was very rare that he had repeat customers, and neither he nor Perin felt comfortable navigating the situation. He moved to the northeastern corner of the house, knelt at the base of the corner post and began carving the rune of binding in the freshly sawed boards.

“It’s a good house,” Alden offered over his shoulder. “Well built. The carpenters outdid themselves. I don’t know if you’ll even need magic to keep this house standing.” Receiving no response, Alden bent back over the rune to begin his spell.

“You said that last time,” Perin commented. It was true of course. Alden made that remark to most of the new homeowners who hired him. It usually made them smile. But Perin was frowning deeper than ever. “The old house is still standing,” he said. “The carpenters did their job well and so did you. I’m the one who ruined everything.”

Alden hesitated, “What’s broken can be mended. It’s not my magic, but maybe it’s yours.

Perin’s eyes shone, but he answered, “No. She deserves that house. Maybe now it can finally be a home.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Mess

Story by Gregory M. Fox
from A Breath of Fiction’s archives

* * *

Mack was sitting quietly on the couch, sipping a glass of ice water in which the ice had already become tiny boats skimming the surface.  The couch leather stuck to his legs as he shifted.

He heard footsteps in the next room halt.  Then a shriek.

“What did you do?” Denise burst in shouting.

“Nothing”

 “That mess in the kitchen is not nothing, Mackenzie Quigley.”

He sighed and rolled his eyes.  It was too hot to worry about something like this.  “It didn’t get on the carpet,” he said.

Denise was getting irritated.  She was a kettle on the stove getting ready to scream.  “That’s not the point.  It needs to be cleaned up.”

“I’ll do it later.”

“But how long’s it been there?”

“I don’t know … a couple hours maybe”

“And you just decided to leave it there?  Dripping and everything?”

He shrugged.  “I’ll clean it later.  I didn’t expect it to bother you this much.”

The kettle boiled.  “HOW COULD THIS NOT BOTHER ME?”

“Don’t worry.  I checked his pockets—found a fifty.  I figured dinner and a movie are on me.  Well, on him, I suppose.”

“Oh,” she said, suddenly becoming very calm.  “Where are we going?”

* * *

originally published December 23, 2010