Sunday, March 25, 2012

Issue Thirteen, Volume Three

From the Desk of the an Editor;
Welcome to the thirteenth issue of Larks Fiction, Volume Three! In this issue we are celebrating those dark times when science, culture, and the individual clash to create something new. That’s right—it’s science fiction week.

Regular Larks writer Kevin Ridgeway was recently published over at the Drunk Monkeys—check out his poem and if you are looking for more great Larks Fiction check out our Monthly Reveiw on

I hope you enjoy this issue and that you will join us again next week.

Jessica Rowse
LFM Editor

The Chronos Effect
by John Quentin Pongratz

“Ding! Dong!”
Bill wasn't expecting anyone. Looking through the window, he saw a man walking away from the house toward an unmarked delivery van. Cautiously, he opened the door to a package sitting on the porch.
It was wrapped in brown paper and had his name neatly typed on the top. There was no return address and no delivery address, just Bill's name.
He slowly picked up the package. It was surprisingly light for its size. He gently shook it and it didn't rattle. He decided it was probably safe to open but noticed that there was no tape and no seams in the paper.
“Odd,” he said. “How does it open?”
As soon as he finished, the paper unfolded itself from around the package. He dropped it on the coffee table when it started unwrapping. When it finished, there was a silver colored case on the table. There was a small box on top of the case with a label that read, “Push here,” and an arrow pointing to a round spot on the top.
Bill pressed the spot and the box started speaking, “Hi, Bill.  Don't panic and don't ask questions. This is just a recording.  I am sending this from the future. My name is Jacob and you are my great, great, great grandfather.  Well, maybe a few more greats, but that doesn't matter. What matters is you need money soon to pay your loans and I need money passed down to me for my research. We are going to accomplish this in a few ways.  Mostly legal, but some, not so much.  But I figure you don't have a problem with that since you are dealing with loan sharks.
I will go over the Legal ways first.  They won't help you right away, but they are legal.  First, I will send you a list of companies to invest in that will grow over the years.  They may have ups and downs, but they are steady.  Second, in a few years, Marvel Comics will introduce some new super heroes.  I want you to buy five copies of the first ten issues of each one and put them in a box that I will send you.  I know, comic books don't seem like much, but collectors in my time will pay a mint for them.  Lastly, record collectors in my time are paying for certain first issues albums and forty-fives.  I will send you titles and release dates of the most collectible ones as they get closer.
Now, for the not so legal. You are going to rob some banks. I can imagine what you must be thinking, but I can assure you that, if you follow my instructions, you will not get caught or even suspected. In fact, no one will even know how the banks were robbed.”
Bill continued to listen to the recording from the future and decided he had nothing to lose. Jacob gave him instructions for the next day. He told Bill what bank to go to, what time, and what to do.
The next day, Bill dressed in his best business attire. He opened the silver case and removed a metallic ball that was roughly the size of a baseball, but much lighter. He put the ball in his pocket and drove downtown. It was almost noon and the bank was crowded as he walked in.
He walked to the table in the lobby where the deposit slips were located and pulled out the ball.
“Arm,” he said and a soft beep sounded from inside the ball.
He held the ball at his waist and pressed the button on the top.  Two seconds later, there was no one in the bank except for Bill.  He ran behind the counter and opened each teller drawer.  He pulled out a paper grocery bag and put every bill of twenty dollars or greater into his bag.
Dropping the bag off in his car, he  returned to the place he was when he pushed the button and exactly five minutes after he started, the people reappeared as if nothing had happened.  Bill didn't understand what had happened, but it was exactly what Jacob had told him would happen.
The tellers were the first to notice the missing money.  The head teller alerted the guard to lock the doors and called the police.
“This is Susan Bell at the Greentree Bank and Trust on Main Street.  Send someone out.  We've just been robbed.”
After a few minutes, the police arrived.  They questioned everyone and searched every purse and briefcase, but found nothing.  Bill had neither, so he left after telling the police that he didn't see anything.
As he got home he noticed there was a familiar figure on his porch.  Taking some of the money from the bag he put it into his pocket.  He walked to the house and as he got close, he said, “Jimmy!  I'm glad to see you!”
Jimmy was Jimmy “The Nose” Albertson.  People called him “The Nose” because his nose had been broken so many times in his short boxing career that it was permanently bent in three different places.
“You know why I'm here, Bill?” asked Jimmy.
“Of course.  I owe you money and you want to collect it now,” Bill replied.  He put his hand in his pocket and Jimmy tensed and reached for his gun.
“Calm down, Jimmy.  I'm not packing.  I've got your money.”
Bill pulled a wad of one hundred dollar bills out of his pocket and handed it to Jimmy.  The shark counted it and smiled.
 “Where did you come up with this much cash?” asked Jimmy.
 “You wouldn't believe me, even if I told you,” Bill replied.  “Are we even now?”
“Yeah, sure.  I just wish I knew how you got it.”
“I know, Jimmy,” said Bill as he went into the house.
That evening, there was a knock on the door.  When Bill opened the door, there was another package on the porch.  He brought it inside and said, “Open.”
When the package opened, there was another recording.  Bill pushed the button to start it and Jacob's voice came out again, saying, “By now, you have paid off your loan shark.  I trust that you didn't tell him how you got the money.  He wouldn't believe you even if you did tell him.  Now that you are safe, you need to do something with the rest of the money.  You can keep up to half of it to live on.  The rest, you will invest.  You will find a list of stocks to buy in this package.  In a few weeks, you will get another package with instructions for the next bank withdrawal.
I know you must be wondering about today's withdrawal.  Wondering what happened to the people in the bank.  Actually, nothing happened to them.  The device you used is a Chronos charge.  When it was activated, it took you outside the time stream, allowing you to move about freely in the instant between seconds, so, to the people in the bank, the money disappeared in the blink of an eye.
There hasn't been any long term testing of the devices, so I don't know if there are any side effects of repeated exposure.”
Over the course of the next year, Bill received over a dozen packages from Jacob.  He made a bank withdrawal after each package came.  He made careful investments, not investing too much at a time, so he wouldn't attract any unwanted attention.  After the year was done, he didn't receive any more packages from Jacob, except for the occasional note on what record or comic book to buy.
A couple of years later, he met a woman and fell in love.  They got married and started a family.  Bill continued to invest as Jacob had told him and kept most of his money in a trust fund set up for his descendants.  His son, John, graduated high school at the top of his class and went to college on an academic scholarship.
A few years after John graduated college and 30 years after he had received his first package from Jacob, Bill started getting spells where he phased out of the time stream for a few seconds.
So far, no one else noticed, but he didn't know what would happen.  Jacob did say that he didn't know the dangers.  Bill realized that he was experiencing side effects from his exposure to the Chronos devices.  He decided that he needed to tell his wife everything about it--just in case something happened.
Bill sat her down and told her the whole story.  About how he made his money and about what had started happening now.  She just sat there looking at him.
“Well?” asked Bill.
“I love you, Bill and don't want to lose you, but we don't know what the future has in store.  If you get lost in this time stream thing there is nothing I can do about it, but by the same token, if you die in your sleep, there is nothing I can do about it.  I don't want anything to happen to you, but if something happens, we have had many happy years and I love you.”
“I love you, too.” said Bill as he leaned in to kiss her.  She leaned toward him and he wasn't there.  She wrote a note about his disappearance and put it in the box Bill had told her about with the comic books and records.  The next day, there was a knock on the door.  When she got to the door, there was a package like Bill had described to her.  She took it inside and said, “Open.”
The package opened and there was a recording like the ones Bill had told her about.
She started the recording and Bill's voice came out, “My darling, for you, it has just been overnight, but for me it has been years.  I am with our great great great grandson, Jacob.  He has been able to reverse the Chronos Effect, as he calls it.  I wish I could be with you still, but it is not possible.  Know that I love you and want you to be happy.  You will be well taken care of with the family trust.  Jacob is going to try to figure out how to get us together, but if he doesn't, know that you are always in my heart.  I love you.”
She went to sleep that night with the recording in her hands.  She was awakened the next morning by the doorbell ringing.  She put on her robe and went to the door.  When she opened the door, she was greeted by another package.  She brought it inside and opened it and inside, there was a silver case, which she opened.  In the case were a dozen metallic balls, about the size of a baseball.  A handwritten note from Bill was included.  It read, “Use these like I told you.  When you get back to the regular time stream, use another until they are all used.  Jacob says that they are strong enough to cause the Chronos Effect rather quickly and he already knows how to reverse it in his time.”
She did as she was instructed and used the Chronos charges one after another until they were all gone.  In her mind, it lasted about an hour, but to an outside observer, it took less than a minute.
When she had finished all that was left behind was a note.
Dear John,
Your father and I are together.  Don't try to find us.  We love you.


About the Author
John Quentin Pongratz is an alien in this world... his true home is Heaven.

Pink X
By Jessica Rowse

Outstanding Matters
By Benjamin Kensey

On the Thursday, it rained. The low pressure system that had stalled stubbornly in the Bay of Biscay and soaked Aquitaine to the bone trudged its way northwards over the Channel and Hendon had seen fourteen hours of incessant precipitation, covering all varieties from spit-on-the-wind up to beating downpour that appeared to come as much from the ground as from the gloom above.
The lawns in front of the Cherry Tree View building mopped up the water greedily, a grassy sponge six inches high with a sodden rot of early autumn leaves on top. Max Headley, returning for lunch on his last day at Statham Securities and Insurance, viewed the scene with disdain.
The front garden was the public face of Cherry Tree View, the twenty square yards that said something important to the rest of Hendon, even if Hendon had increasingly not been listening. The usual baize of lawn told of organization, clipped neatly around the flower bed edges and kept to a strict two and a quarter inches. The two broad splashes of colour provided by irises, violets, crocuses and sage, to the left and to the right, represented, for Max, the variety present in the twelve one-bed flats. They even had an Indian at Cherry Tree View. And the single gnome, poised at the top of a slide, small fishpond awaiting him should he ever decide to push off, told the others in the very ordinary Cavendish Road that those at Cherry Tree View were as open to whimsy as the next block of flats.
Max stood under his umbrella, which twitched every now and again in the squalls. In seven years as chair of the Cherry Tree View Residents’ Committee, he’d never seen the gardens in such a state. He watched the water dripping off Nigel the Gnome’s nose and run in random rivulets down the slide and into the pond where their two goldfish, Gully and Slip, nosed the surface, as much covered with the mulch of autumn leaves as the lawn was.
“Well, this is just not acceptable, is it?” he said, twirling his brolly a couple of times to shake drops from it and walking with purpose towards the entrance doors. “Not acceptable at all.”
Max took the lift to his fourth-floor flat. There was a mirror just inside his door and, as was his habit, he stood there looking at himself for a minute while he lay his brolly in the corner on a folded newspaper and hung up his coat. There, under a fast receding white hair line, Max could still see faint echoes of the handsome man he had once been. He still had the Hollywood chiseled jawline, the blue eyes. There was something still there.
He walked over to his answering machine and lightly tapped the number zero that was burnt into the display, unblinking, immovable. He picked up the receiver, then laid it down again.
“Mozart, what have you been up to?” he said turning. “Been working on that novel of yours, hmm?”
Max moved his cat from her favorite perch atop the typewriter and prepared a notice for the cork board in the lobby.
“There will be a meeting of the residents’ committee tomorrow, Friday, for discussion of several very important issues, not least the disgraceful state of the garden and the consequent urgent need to fill the gardener’s position forthwith. Please come to the old caretaker’s office at 7PM sharp.”
 After going back downstairs and pinning the notice to the wall, Max took out a large silver key and opened the door to the right. Inside, the room was as they’d left it a week ago. Three tables had been pushed together to form a long table around which a dozen or so chairs were placed. The only evidence that this used to be the caretaker’s room was a board with twelve hooks on, empty now of the keys they had held for years.
Max locked the door behind him and found Cynthia Loseley reading the notice.
“I hope there will be maximum attendance tomorrow, Max. There are some outstanding matters that need our urgent attention.”
“I think this is a good opportunity to really focus some energy on those very issues you mention, Cynthia.”
Cynthia nodded at Max, a gesture that spoke more of her hope than her belief, and then headed for the stairs. In her late-fifties, Cynthia had given up her post in the payroll department of a middle-sized haulage company in Finchley at the start of the month.
So often left marooned by the ebbing tides of fortune, Cynthia’s years in and out of institutions had left her with an estranged grown-up daughter in the States and few friends outside Cherry Tree View. Now she lived for her Dachshund, Stubbs, and her role as secretary on the residents’ committee.
Max read over his announcement once more, checking for the fourth time that, today of all days, each apostrophe was in its correct place. Satisfied, he walked into the waiting lift and pressed the number four. As the doors closed and Max checked the alignment of his cardigan’s V-neck in the mirror, the lobby of the Cherry Tree View was left once again in silence, save the sweet metallic trickle of water in the drainpipe outside.
Cherry Tree View, Max liked to think, was a rung or two above most blocks of flats in Hendon or any other wet London suburb on that grey Thursday afternoon. Though it had suffered broken windows and burglaries in recent troubled times, it had patched itself up to the best of its abilities and looked essentially how it had for most of the last twelve years since the committee was formed.
The committee had not cancelled the building’s direct debit with the local electricity board and those that would read Max’s punctuation-perfect notice today would do so by the light of a single hundred-watt bulb that burned guilt-free above their heads. Though the post office had now stopped residential deliveries, the rack of polished oak mailboxes was a testament to the hard work of divorcé Kevin Howells on the third floor, a dab hand with a new duster and a can of lemon oil. His own apartment was a homage to what could be done with a dead tree and some nails and glue.
   Cherry Tree View was trying, in short, to put a normal face on a difficult time for all.
Max arrived at the caretaker’s office at ten to seven the following evening. Waiting outside were Cynthia Loseley and Barry Marsh. At thirty-two, Barry was the fledgling of the building and being only four years younger than Jane Hoare, a divorcée from the third floor with a voracious relationship with make-up, he was used to being the butt of innuendo and whisper.
“Evening Barry, Cynthia. I think Jane’s coming down, Barry. I saw her this afternoon.”
Barry inspected his shoes, having learnt that silence and lack of engagement was the best course of action. He needed as few reminders as possible of his clumsy-pawed advance on Jane in the lift eighteen months ago, an event nobody else in the building knew of. Even that blushing grapple, brought about by a misconstrued touch on the arm, had only ever been about Barry refuting his parents’ assumptions about him.
Max unlocked the door and the three filed into the room, Max putting himself at the head of the table. While Max was shuffling through his papers, Nitin Bhasin walked in and sat next to Barry.
“Evening, Yul,” said Barry to the gloriously bald Nitin.
Nitin, whose presence prompted Max to exalt the ethnic diversity at Cherry Tree at every opportunity, lived with his girlfriend Samantha in flat 6A, the only couple in a six-floor collection of either wouldn’t ever marry or wouldn’t ever marry again. Samantha had refused to attend committee meetings and thought them absurd, “especially now”. Nitin, having only been in Hendon for a mere thirty-eight years, was keen to avoid accusations of being an outsider, so attended for both of them. He would sit next to Barry and spend the time grinding his molars.
Nitin disliked everything about Cherry Tree View, but he had nothing on Samantha, who would often work herself into a froth of rage one day, hysterics the next talking about the “gross disfunctionality” of the building, as she would call it.
“It’s just an ordinary place, Samantha, in an ordinary part of town.”
As a member of the planning committee in the local council’s department of social services, Nitin was the last of the building’s residents to stop working. Today had been his last day.
The clock moved around to seven and two others walked in and mumbled greetings to the four already seated. Kevin Howells, of wood polishing fame, wore a fabulous yellow cardigan that Barry couldn’t take his eyes off. Kevin had left his job at the local school last week. Were it his choice, he would’ve continued teaching his humourless brand of geography and social studies to empty classrooms, but the government decree of the 16th, which had covered education, health and housing, had brought the shutters down at Leewood Comprehensive and Kevin had retreated to his wood-filled flat 3B to enjoy quiet, dull hours of daytime TV and the odd damp smell he’d never managed to eradicate since his wife had fled with his savings and a French teacher.
With Kevin was Colin Baxter, a widower in his fifties whose daily routine comprised hours looking through photo albums bursting with sunny photos of Rhyl, Yarmouth and Minehead. His wife had died last year and he’d comforted himself in recent weeks with the knowledge that she was ‘some place better’.
“In times like this,” he’d said to Max earlier that day, “you realise she went first for a reason. She never would have coped with all of this.”
Colin went everywhere, summer or winter, wearing a light anorak in army green, the perfect shade to flaunt the impressive variety of dandruff, hair and scabby flakes that fell from his scalp.
Max checked his watch.
“Jane not coming?” he said, looking at Barry, who simply shrugged his shoulders. “Well, six is about par for recently, isn’t it? Shall we get started?”
Cynthia sat with pen poised, a fresh sheet of cream letter-headed note paper waiting.
“The first issue on the agenda is the garden. I’m sure you all noticed how, well, tatty it’s been looking recently, especially with all this rain that we’ve had and the fallen leaves and whatnot. Now, clearly we’d like to be able to persuade Norman to come back for the final week, but I fear that’s a forlorn hope. He’s with his wife in Ealing and isn’t returning my calls, so I want to suggest this evening that we put all our energies into tracking down a new gardener, obviously on a temporary basis. I really want to get that garden, especially the flower beds, looking dapper.”
“Oh yes,” said Cynthia, oozing support.
“So, if any of you know of someone who would be suitable, just let me know. I rang up the Gazette to put an ad in for tomorrow’s edition and they told me there wasn’t going to be one!”
“That’s a crying shame!” said Cynthia.
“Well,” continued Max, “we’ll have to find some solution. That grass out there is looking like the bloody Amazon.”
A hand near the end of the table was raised. It was Nitin.
“Max, while I recognise getting the front garden looking trim is of utmost importance, I think perhaps tonight we should also discuss the vacant flats.”
Cynthia rolled her eyes, a tutting caricature.
“Is that alright with you, Cynthia?”
“Well, yes, Nitin, but that’s not how we do things - ”
“It’s fine, Cynthia,” said Max, “We can talk about the vacant properties. Nitin?”
“Well, when I mentioned it to you last week, there was only the flat up on the first floor empty, but now Carol’s gone off to be with her ex in Glasgow, 5B is empty too.”
“Alistair’s gone from my floor too,” said Barry. “Told me he was off to join some commune up on Salisbury Plain for the fireworks.”
“What do you expect us to do with these empty flats, Nitin?” Max asked in a single, long exasperated breath.
“We’ve all seen on the TV the problems there are, in Hendon included. There are hundreds of people right in this borough without a roof over their heads. So many buildings have been destroyed in the riots. I think we should throw open our doors and invite those less fortunate than ourselves to have somewhere to lay their heads.”
There was silence in the committee room. Outside, it was now dark and rain had again began to patter against the pane behind Max.
“Nitin,” Max said. “We all know that’s not possible. We don’t have the authority to be opening up other people’s properties to allow any Tom, Dick or Harry in here. And even if we could, well, I don’t think it would be the wisest idea.”
Cynthia sat shaking her head mouthing “No, no, no” even as Max was finishing his sentence.
“I know it’s Carol’s flat, Max,” Nitin said, “but let’s be honest here. She’s not coming back, is she? She told us herself she’d prefer to be up in Scotland. And if Alistair’s up on Stonehenge, really, what harm would it do?”
“Nitin, please! Moving on, I would like to discuss the Cherry Tree View Residents’ Committee final newsletter. Barry, thanks for the work you did on your word processor, but I wanted to talk about apostrophes this evening.”
Nitin got up and pushed back his chair perhaps a little more brusquely than he intended. He grabbed it before it tipped over and put it under the table.
“I just need to see to something while you discuss apostrophes.”
He closed the door as gently as possible behind him, the eyes of the others heavy on his shoulders.
“We’ve given that lad every opportunity,” said Colin in his green anorak. “Am I right or am I right? Cynthia?”
“You’re dead right, Colin. Dead right.”
Max shrugged his shoulders and turned a page in the sheaf he held in front of him.
“Barry, as I was saying. Sterling effort on the first draft of the newsletter and the minutes from Cynthia, perfect as usual, but right at the top of the thing, you’ve got the name of the committee with a glaring error. I wonder if you know what it is. Now, look at this.”
He took a marker pen from his breast pocket and turned to the small whiteboard behind him. On it, in pregnant green letters, he wrote residents’ or resident’s and capped off the line with two question marks, one of which he thought better of and erased with his sleeve.
“Now, Barry. Treat the apostrophe as your friend. The important thing we must ask ourselves: are we talking about a committee for one resident or more than one resident?”
Barry glanced up at the clock.
It was nearly eight thirty by the time the door to the committee room opened and the five residents of Cherry Tree View spilt out.
“One final thing, before I forget,” Max said, Cynthia faithfully at his side. Barry, Colin and Kevin, almost to the lift doors, stopped.
“I want to have a final committee meeting on Sunday evening.”
Barry groaned.
“I’m sorry Barry. If you have something better to do...”
Max knew Barry had nothing better to do.
“We just need to round off a few things, cross the T’s, dot the I’s as our American cousins might say.” Cynthia liked that. “I’ll put up a notice in the morning – I want full attendance if at all possible. Oh, and one other thing. I’m taking Nigel in and leaving him in there.” Max indicated the room they’d just left.
“Nigel?” said Barry, his face a map of confused contours.
“Our friendly gnome,” said Cynthia, a yellow-toothed smile on her face.
“Yes, precisely,” said Max. “I’m a little worried, what with some of the people around here getting boisterous, that our Nigel might end up in the drink with Gully and Slip. I’ll get him in tonight.”
The three got into the lift. Cynthia offered to help Max with the gnome, which he politely refused, and she took the stairs up to her first-floor flat.
The rain had stopped when Max went outside.
“Well, that’s a result. Might be a dry night.”
He pushed off from the warmth and light of the porch out into the sea of dark grass. Nigel had been secured to the top of the slide with a couple of cable ties and Max slipped a pair of scissors out of his jacket, carried there since before the meeting for this purpose. He leant over the mesh fence, snipped twice and lifted Nigel into his arms.
“No more travels for you, my little friend.”
Nigel was very well travelled though his destinations had undoubtedly not been of his choosing. The gnome had twice been fished out of the brook that ran down the side of Sainsbury’s and had once been found hanging from a pedestrian bridge over the A41.
“You’ll be safe in the committee room, Nige,” Max said to him as he hopped awkwardly back across the soggy leaves to the safety of cement.
As he neared the entrance doors of the grand Cherry Tree View, Max turned and looked south, towards the centre of London. He hoped things would be quieter tonight, but there again, was the orange glow that had been a permanent horizon feature for a week or more.
“What are we going to do with them, Nigel?”
They both watched the scene for another minute, Max wiping a tear with his free hand, Nigel seemingly unaffected by it all. A playful gust of wind danced around Max’s legs, first wrapping tight his trousers, then darting up his cold legs. He could feel a few drops of rain in the air.
“Let’s get you inside, eh?”
Max was busy on Saturday. He prepared a notice announcing the final meeting of the Cherry Tree View Residents’ Committee for seven o’clock the following day. After a few phone calls, he managed to convince an old friend from the British Legion to pop around and rake the leaves and cut the grass.
“Brendan, the lawn’s like a bloody sponge, but we just want it looking, well – decent! I know you understand. Anytime around three this afternoon will be fine.”
He fed his cat and listened to the weather forecast, which promised brighter skies.
“You hear that, Mozart? We might get you some sunshine yet!”
He took the lift down to the lobby with his single sheet of A4, every comma justified and in place, every apostrophe located with military, nay, editor’s precision.
“The last one,” he said as he pinned it up.
The lift doors opened as he admired his handiwork and Jane Hoare, notable absentee from the previous evening’s meeting, stepped out, small tartan-pattern travel bag in her right hand.
They looked at each other for a few seconds, Max’s mouth curving imperceptibly into the usual sneer he reserved for her.
“Mr. Chairman,” she said, her voice deep and mocking.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your punctuation workshop last night. Barry told me it was fascinating. Was there cake and cherry pop?” Her smile threatened to become a laugh.
“Going somewhere, are we?”
Jane laid her left hand up on Max’s shoulder, her face losing its jovial glow.
“Listen Max, I’m going to one of those clinics. I have the money and, well, I have the money. There’s no other reason.”
Max had known Jane for six years. He knew she didn’t care anything for Cherry Tree View.
“I was hoping you’d come tomorrow. We’ve got the final meeting. I understand it’s not really your thing, not your scene, but I know Barry would appreciate seeing you there.”
“I’ve said my goodbyes to Barry, Max. I’ve said my goodbyes to everyone. I even rang my father last night, first time in two years.”
“We all have problems with families, Jane. It’s what they’re for.” He cracked a smile. “Come to the meeting, Jane. Come tomorrow evening and we’ll all say goodbye properly.”
Jane leant in and gave Max a kiss on his left side, just to the side of his eye. It was a tender gesture, the icing on what had been a difficult association.
“Oh Max, Max, Max.”
Jane left her gloved hand on his cheek, lingering and stroking it a little with her thumb. She let it drop to her side.
“Max, I hope tomorrow’s everything you want it to be. I’ll think of all of you tonight.”
She walked confidently to the doors and pushed through, the door swinging wildly against a pillar in the porch.
Max strode to the doors as they were still swinging, a look of horror on his face.
    “If she’s marked that door...”
On Sunday morning, only four residents were in the Cherry View: Max, Cynthia, Barry and Colin. Nitin had left during the night with Samantha, speaking only to Barry. Nobody knew where Kevin was. He wasn’t answering his door.
“This is why I should have all the keys,” said Max, standing on the third floor landing outside Kevin’s door, feeling impotent. He looked like a telephone waiting to be answered in an empty house. “It’s exactly for situations like this.”
“He’ll have taken one of those packs, those DIY things,” suggested Cynthia. Barry nodded but said nothing.
“Well, that’s one less for the meeting, isn’t it?” said Max. “I’ve prepared everything for five and now there’ll be one fewer. It’s just that little bit of consideration I ask of you all. It’s not a lot.”
The four spent the rest of the day at home. A few phone calls were made and Barry received a visitor in the early afternoon. They went walking for an hour and when Barry returned, alone, he found Max sitting on the single brick step by the pavement outside Cherry Tree View.
“Family?” Max said as Barry sat down beside him.
“Erm, no. Old work colleague. Found out he was in Hendon yesterday. Here with his mum and dad.”
“Are we mad, Barry? Are we mad for staying here?
“Where else are you going to go? You three don’t have close family. I don’t even have that excuse, do I?”
“Well, the main thing is that you’re at peace, isn’t it? I won’t ask about your family, Barry. I’m not one to pry. You seen the grass, eh?”
They both turned around the admire the even green stubble, not a leaf or twig in sight.
“Your old army mate, was it?”
“Yes, Brendan Matthews came by with his mower yesterday.”
It was starting to get dark and the sound of the sirens came over the rooftops.
“Seems silly, doesn’t it? Trying to get everyone tucked up in bed. Bloody fools. Shall we go and see if everyone’s ready. Might as well start early if we’re all here.”
Max pushed two of the redundant tables into the far corner of the room, leaving only one, around which the four sat. It was just before seven, the only time a committee meeting had begun early.
On the carpeted floor, pocked with thirty years of blackened chewing gum, Nigel sat, dressed still in a red hooded top and bright blue trousers. His yellow shoes ended in a toe-curling flourish.
Barry was dressed in a t-shirt and boxer shorts, his eyes red and bleary. Colin had shocked them all by shedding his anorak of dandruff and choosing to go out in style in a navy blue suit, shoulders brushed and spotless. Cynthia, weeping and blowing great gales into a huge handkerchief, wore a cream suit that was half a size too tight. She’d laid off the éclairs from the Baker’s Oven for a full two weeks in order to even get the buttons done up.
“I’m sorry, everyone,” Cynthia said. “I got a call from the States this evening. I’ve come over all silly, I know.”
The three men all took hold of Cynthia’s right arm, which she held out towards the centre of the table. Max cleared his throat after a few seconds.
“Well, as you all know, this is the last meeting and I wanted to thank you all for making this committee such a joy to chair. I have the final budget figures, which I know you’re keen to hear.”
Max picked up a sheet of paper from the chair he’d put to his right.
“The final utility bill direct debits went through last Wednesday and that leaves the balance of the account at eighty six pounds and a couple of pence. You’ll have seen the garden is looking absolutely splendid today, thanks to an old friend of mine. I tried to give him twenty pounds, but he was having none of it, so I think that should be taken into account when considering how good these end-of-month figures look.”
From outside the window behind Max, there were discordant, angry yells in the street, a woman screaming. Cynthia, Barry and Colin looked past Max and saw only their own reflections, sitting around a table in a harshly-lit room.
“I’m proud of the way we’ve kept the likes of that,” Max said, jerking a thumb back over his shoulder towards the window, “out of the Cherry Tree. We’ve all been vigilant to keep the front doors closed and locked at all times.”
“It was the least we could do,” said Colin. “I’m not ending my time here like a bloody savage.” He gave his speck-free right shoulder a needless brush of his hand.
“Before I forget - Gully and Slip. I flushed them down the loo half an hour ago. I just thought it was the fairest thing to do. They were a bugger to catch, I can tell you!”
“The dustbins, Max,” prompted Cynthia.
“Oh, of course. Thank you, Cynthia. I would have forgotten. As you’ll have all no doubt noticed, the wood has been stripped away from the fence that encircled the dustbins out front. Lord knows what they needed it for, to throw at each other one imagines. Anyway, that’s not our concern. I’ve moved the two dustbins around to the side alley and put a new bolt on the gate, so they’ll be safe there.”
“I remember when all that rubbish was strewn across the lawns,” said Cynthia, shaking her head.
“Well, precisely,” said Max. “The last thing was the newsletter. I managed to get it into everyone’s mailbox last night. Barry did some wonderful work on the layout. I’m sorry the last one was a bit thin on news. I think that’s to be expected, given the present circumstances. Excellent minutes, Cynthia.”
Cynthia, handkerchief still hovering with intent, smiled up at Max.
Silence fell upon the room. A few over-revved engines wheezed outside in the street before passing.
Max held out his hands in a gesture of finality and began to stand. It was quarter past seven.
“What’s everyone doing? Are you going back to your rooms?” Barry asked.
“I think I will, if you all don’t mind,” said Cynthia.
“I think so, yes. I’ll head up in a little while,” said Colin.
Max nodded that he wasn’t going to argue with what people wanted and Barry reached down into the bag he’d carried into the room.
“Before we all head upstairs, I just wanted to share a toast.”
He laid the bottle on the table in the middle of them. Sainsbury’s Lambrusco. The taste of Italy, bottled right here in England.
“Only drink that was left when I passed by there today with my mate. Fussy buggers, leaving the three quid plonk.”
He reached back into the bag and pulled out a small tube of plastic cups.
“Went a bit overboard on the cups. Sorry.”
He poured out an inch or two of the ruby froth and they all touched cups together.
The other three looked at Barry, waiting.
“Oh, right. Here’s to the Cherry Tree View. It’s been my home in more ways than one and I know that goes for most of us here. Cheers, everyone. May yours be a good one.”
After they’d shared a cup and then another, they walked out of the room, Colin’s gaze on his watch.
“Let’s use the stairs,” Barry said. “Exercise lengthens life, it’s a scientific fact.”
Colin laughed and slapped Barry on the back.
“You three go ahead,” said Max. “I’m just going to check it’s all locked up down here.”
Colin waved his watch at Max, who nodded. The three filed up the stairs and Max walked to the glass doors. It was dark and quiet outside. The light from the lobby lit up the porch outside and he grimaced as he caught sight of the black mark where Jane had slammed the door into a white post.
“She should have paid for that,” he mumbled.
He flicked the switch on the wall and the lobby joined the rest of Hendon in darkness. A few lights were on in the next street but the service had been disintegrating for days.
There was, however, enough light for Max to take a final admiring view of the Cherry Tree’s precious lawn. He couldn’t quite make out the flower beds, though, but he’d drunk them in all he could that afternoon.
And then the sky glowed orange, then flashed white and Max turned his head quickly to the left. Under this odd cosmic torchlight, the flower beds, a little torn up over this last weekend but impressive nevertheless, leapt into view. The yellow crocuses stood out most, little flames of flower among the others, whose colours seemed drained, sucked into the moonish light.
“Best bulbs I ever bought,” he said, just in time, before the blast wave knocked Cherry Tree View from its tidily-mown perch.
The End
About the Author;
Benjamin is a 40-year old Londoner who lives in the south of England with his dogs and his books in a house nearly as old as him. He took up fiction writing recently and is busy making up for lost time. You will find his stories in the Dreams & DualityAnthology, the Lowestoft Chronicle, Big Pulp, the 100 Lightnings anthology, Alfa Eridiani, and Hyperpulp.

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Issue Twelve, Volume Three

From the Desk of the an Editor;
Hello and welcome to another issue of Larks Fiction Magazine. In this issue we bring you the best from authors known and unknown with work of fantastical modern fiction.
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Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy this issue of Larks.
Jessica Rowse
LFM Editor

Secret of the Maple
By Tom Sheehan

It all began as a hum, not deep, not sharp, but a hum. Locker thought it was turnpike traffic at first, the way semis at times gather in huge road collections that sound like storms at sea, rolling over the land to where he stood. He could picture the parade of huge Kenworth and Reo and International rigs pounding down the road. Oftentimes the weather changed the sound, a kick in the wind, a sudden rise or drop in temperature, a horn or nearby generator making its own waves, or a scream at twilight.
On each occasion he found himself in the cemetery, standing among hundreds of grave stones, paying attention, he thought, to all the territory around him. His father was three years here under grass, under the stone, under the tree, which, as a sapling, he had dug out of the earth at the edge of the swamp and planted its roots beside his father’s grave. He knew the reach of the roots and it did not disturb him, believing the changes in the corpse started after a year’s interment, the embalming lasting only so long before a new kind of life exerted its power down below. If he let it, that new microbic power, it would make him shiver, knock him off his feet, get him closer to the old man who had said, “If you don’t hurry after me, listen for me.”
He never knew where or when to listen, but assumed the cemetery was the best place to start. Maybe later, at home, or in the cabin up on the lake, Vermont steep as ladders beside him, he’d find instructions saying otherwise, his father’s voice in plea, prayer or promise.
The first leaf he picked up carried a scent with it that was not maple, but known to Locker, though he had trouble identifying the original source of the aroma. It was not maple. It was not sugary. It was not tree.
He smelled it, then he studied it, and for some unknown reason that he spent hours and days and weeks trying to reconstruct that initial demand, he placed the leaf against his ear. As faint as dawn, as faint as a light mist on the lake in Vermont when the sun first filters through it, as faint as a hummingbird off the end of the porch in the late sunlight cruising at an angle, he heard the word, a single word but with two syllables … “Ever.”
For an hour he listened to the word. “Ever” did not fade, do a fall-away, or disappear from the auditory possibilities of sound. ”Ever” it said, a constant though whispered word.
Other leaves began to fall. “No,” he said aloud, as if to condemn any thought that was rising in him. “No,” he said again, shaking his head, not daring to believe what he dared to believe, hoped for. But he picked up another leaf and went through the same ritual as the first leaf had gone through. He drew a strong breath into his nose. Then held the leaf against one eye so he could study the filaments of the veins that coursed through it, then, as the final resort, the stretch for believability, he placed the second leaf against his ear.
No doubt existed now, for plain as it could be said, “Fortune” came to him, still with the same thinness of voice, the slow and subtle whisper; the word came on his ear.
Another leaf fell, a bright golden-yellow-red leaf wearing some of the sun and carried another word for hearing. He placed the three leaves in his pocket, the third one carrying his name, the way his father called him into the house at darkness when he was a boy.
“George,” the leaf said, plain as any measure, any sound, his own name. “George,” it had said, in his father’s insistent voice, though faint, subtle, whispered.
George Locker looked around, the nearest tree over 40 yards away, in the next section of the cemetery, but not a maple. He was not sure what kind of a tree it was, but it was not a maple. Then he looked at the ground, as more leaves fell around him. He scurried to grasp them and placed them in his car.
He raced around and around and knew he was losing the game, so he made a desperate decision. Jumping into his car, he drove a half mile to his house, retrieved two rakes from his garage and a large drop cloth, then went back to the cemetery.
He started raking leaves, raking words, raking the book of them, his father’s words that fell upon the ground, that rose out of the ground as roots leaped up.
It was just past 8 AM and visitors and cemetery workers were on the scene and watched as George Locker raked up piles of leaves onto the drop cloth and emptied each load into his car. He begged others to help, and soon, with some kind of contagion he had ignited, the visitors and the cemetery workers began to help him. Some even shook the lower limbs of the tree to shake loose the clinging leaves.
From a distant place, an unknown place, the wind gathered a hush and a rush into itself and slapped the tree from top to bottom limb. More leaves fell, more words gathered, more messages were deposited in his car.
There was an exultant joy when the last leaf was cornered from a little whirl of wind, a tiny geyser of wind. A cemetery worker handed that last leaf to George Locker, content to know he would not have to rake any more leaves from this tree as part of the perpetual care of the gravesites.
When he handed the leaf to Locker, Locker placed it against his ear and heard, “Amen.”
All winter George Locker wrote the book he heard his father read to him.

About the Author;
Tom Sheehan served in Korea, 1951. Books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; A Collection of Friends; From the Quickening.  He has 18 Pushcart nominations, in Dzanc Best of the Web 2009, and 260 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. His newest book, from Milspeak Publishers, is Korean Echoes, 2011. Work in Ocean Magazine, Nervous Breakdown, Canary, Subtle Tea, Red Dirt Review, Nontrue, Danse Macabre, and Qarrtsiluni.

by Fred Hilary

Everyone at our school was afraid of Ratcatcher. She was some kind of caretaker or prefect - I never found out if she had some other function, for her only activity seemed to consist of corralling children who had strayed into the forbidden parts of the school. Even her voice was a terrifying instrument. Her banshee scream of "Boys!" or "Girls!" was like a warrior cry of "Invaders!"
I never learned what her real name was. I don’t think it mattered: her actual name could only have been accident or convenience, and never expressed her true nature like the nickname did. She was old, and I imagined that she existed only in the school grounds. It was impossible that this old fury might be married, or have children, or sit at home with her feet up. I couldn't picture her decorating a fireplace, surrounded by photographs and memories and other such human flotsam. It would be like picturing the Lernaean Hydra relaxing in an armchair with a cup of tea.
Those who she had almost caught spoke about her with a giggling nervousness. Those who had been captured, however, were more sober in their admonishments. Do not stray too far, they said, into the covert and forbidden parts of the school. Not to any corridor that did not lie on one's way; not to the stairs in the tower unless one had proof positive (or unless a teacher could bear witness) that one had been summoned.
The most enticing and yet forbidden place of all was the arches. The arches were the destination of the brave. They were on the bottom tier of the school, abandoned and paint-flaking, where only the boldest rebels and punks and lovers congregated, always in fear that Ratcatcher would spy them. There the equal temper of heroic hearts met and snatched some thrill from the jaws of discovery, before fleeing again in delirious and triumphant flight. They had not been caught, they whistled and hooted, and they settled into their lesson seats like soldiers returned from the frontlines. But they did not all return. And those who were caught were changed, and had the spark of rebellion doused at once. And some never returned, for the same day they faced expulsion, and passed into school legend.
Never once did I even think about going to the arches. I was by disposition the anti-rebel, the quiet apparent conformist who sees such acts of rebellion as a kind of superficial flirtation with disobedience. The heroic grease-slicked boys who ran down into the arches' shadows would grow up to lead dull and mundane lives. I was the sensitive sort. I rebelled in mind and spirit only, and read all the time.
There was a ritual for new boys at the school called ducking (the girls, doubtless, had their own manner of initiation ceremony). New arrivals at the school were snatched by veteran boys and prefects and led forcibly to the toilets. There, they were manhandled into a cubicle, held down with their head thrust into the bowl, and the water flushed over them, the chlorine stinging their eyes and the marble cold against their cheek. Some vomited. That first day at the school, I lived in mortal fear of being ducked. The whole morning after assembly, in the run up to the first lesson, was one big cat and mouse game. I ran for a while, terrified and trembling, but before long my spirit sagged, and I gave myself up to my pursuers, and allowed myself to be led willingly towards my doom. There, at the edge of the toilet bowl, I dutifully dropped to my knees and lowered my head into the ceremonial place. I stopped short of pulling the flush chain myself, but it didn't matter. Word of my cowardice spread around like wildfire, and the story dogged me all through my school years.
So I was not one to venture into the forbidden parts of the school. Nor would I ever have done so, had it not happened. But for all my weak spirit, for all my dogged self-preservation, I still viewed myself as the hero in a great drama, whose spirit would someday rise above the entrapments of circumstance and the mundane flotsam of the everyday. She spurred me on. She led me into the arches one winter afternoon, when the light was already dying; she awoke the dream in me of brave deeds and the ideal of a refined soul. It was by a mere glance that I went.
Red, they called her. She wore a red coat, the most striking red coat, over the dull brown of her uniform, like an emblem of passion and romance. I had never spoken to her, not once, but wordlessly I followed her, or longed for a glimpse of her, for a chance sighting as she passed on her way to classes. The days were marked and deemed noteworthy by sightings of her. And in the evenings, when I returned to the familiar home comforts, I would run over each brief encounter again and again, inflating it in my imagination. She seemed conscious of my attention, though she never once looked towards me or smiled. The air, whenever she was near, was thick with significance, for there was always the possibility that a word or a gesture could arise out of it that could be endlessly interpreted in the solace of my private world. Her soul and mine were enlarged.
That afternoon, she had had her coat snatched in the playground. One of the older boys took it, over some argument I didn't catch, and hurled it over the railings. It fluttered down to the bottom tier and landed by the entrance to the arches. Before its fall ended, the bell rang, and amidst the great press and shove of bodies in the schoolyard I saw Red being carried towards the open doors and fighting against the swell. But then, just as she appeared to be breaking loose of them, Mr. Goldsworth, the boys' teacher in games, appeared from out of the shadow of the doors and called the pupils forth to the changing rooms. He ushered Red inside and she was gone, with a last forlorn glance back.
I was amongst the last trickle of children to leave the yard. I recognized the usual compatriots around me. Had the bell been for any other lesson, there would not have been the great push towards the doors, and greater numbers would have tarried to enjoy these last moments of freedom. But we who now remained were the weak ones, the ones who loathed sports. Some drifted away altogether, to some shadowy part of the school, rather risking discovery by Ratcatcher than enduring the cruelty of the playing fields. I was among the last few to move, as always.
Then I thought about the coat. About Red, whose honor and been tarnished, who had been wronged by those not worthy of her. Her last glance back, and the sorrow in it, clinched it. I went over to the railings and peered over. The coat wasn't in the arches themselves, and the yard without was deserted. It would be a simple matter to pluck it up and take it to the cloakroom, where she would find it eventually, perhaps before returning home. I could not simply put it into her hands, though I longed to do so. The mere thought of unmasking myself as her knight was crushingly embarrassing.
I made my way to the steps leading to the bottom tier, and there, poised at the edge, remembered Ratcatcher. Now that the bell was gone, she would be patrolling the yards and the corridors for errant children. She usually scanned the main playground first, and then widened the arc of her patrol, but she was not there today. It meant that she could be anywhere, including down in the arches. I felt my blood run cold and my courage shrink back. Never once had she confronted me, but as an onlooker I had seen her wrath and lived in fear of it.
She was old, with a lean, hawk-like face. Her hair, wiry and grey, grew close about her head. Her eyes, whenever she caught sight of her prey, lit up with a kind of lurid delight. She gave one the impression of perpetual hunger, and then, in my vague inklings, and later with hindsight, I wondered how a person could be so consumed by a vocation that seemed so animal and low.
I weighed the consequence in my mind. It would be worse, surely, to be caught idling? To be one of the strays who perpetually dodged her steps. My own purpose was higher: I was going to retrieve a coat that had been wrongfully snatched and hurled down into that place. Should she catch me, I would explain, I would tell her the plain truth of what I was doing, which after all was the decent thing.
Galvanized by this new thought, that there was some rule of honorable conduct higher even than Ratchatcher, to which she must pay obedience, I descended the steps and crossed the short space of yard to the arches. The coat was only a few steps away, lying under the shadow of one of the pillars. I moved to retrieve it, then froze with shock, because I saw the two lamp-like eyes staring out at me from the darkness.
No voice came. No scream of capture, as in the upper tiers, which for all its ferociousness still conformed to some semblance of law and civilization. The eyes simply looked at me, like a cat's eyes, like a feline devil staring out of the darkness. The coat was almost within reach, yet I could not move a muscle. I waited, and the eyes waited also, looking at me.
I lost my sense of time. I don't know how long I was held there, under the terrible gaze of those eyes. The worst thing of all is that she did not speak. I could see only the eyes burning in shadow, and the vaguest impression of a face, yet not a word came forth to chastise me.
Then, at last, after I broke out in a sweat, when all the weight of guilt and terror became too much for my mind to bear, I blurted out a stammering confession. I was doing the right thing, as I saw it, I told her. Some cruel, childish boy had taken the coat for a joke and had flung it down here. I was getting it back, because I thought it was the right thing to do, because people should behave decently to one another. I was going right back, straight up to the school, and would explain the whole thing to Mr. Goldsworth.
In the end my words dried up. The eyes and the shadowy face had not moved, had done nothing to register any of my confession. The watcher did not come forward from the shadows, either to chastise me or to forgive me. She just went on watching me, and then, whether because my sight became better adjusted to the gloom of the arches, or because I was struck by some sudden realization, I saw that the eyes were mocking me. The mouth was curled into a smile of perverse delight. The face held a terrible knowledge, what knowledge I did not then know, but I shuddered from its impression. I had confessed the nobleness of my act, as I saw it, and the face that now regarded me saw not an ounce of worth in any of it. Rather, it seemed to find it all perversely funny.
I felt a sob rising to my lips but held it back. My hand, hovering over the coat, became stone. Then I had a last impression. I thought, as I peered through the thickness of the gloom, that there was no ordinary woman standing there watching me. There was instead a monster. The hair, which was woven into silver curls in the shadow light, became snakes, writhing in twisted mockery of tresses. The thin body became itself a python in shape, arched back and ready to spring. And the eyes, above all else, held a petrifying, mocking knowledge, that crushed my every noble impulse, and sent me scuttling back up the steps towards the upper playgrounds. I left the coat where it fell, and never again ventured into the lower tier. And never again did I entertain heroic notions, or speak as much as a word to Red, or consider myself worthy of her.
I spied Ratcatcher each day, circling the playgrounds, but she did not acknowledge my stares, and gave no indication she had revealed herself to me. She was just the caretaker, to be feared, charged with rounding up boys, but no more than that.
I thought about the monster I had seen, and thought about those who had met her and remained silent, and knew that we all bore the same terrible knowledge, and so I elected to remain silent with the rest.

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