Safe

Ashley slipped the only picture she had of her little brother—taken in better times when their father was still alive—into the white Walmart bag on top of a couple changes of clothes, and tied it closed. Then, she turned out the light, and fully clothed, stretched out on her bed. And waited.

He had said to meet him at midnight. One more hour to go.

As the minutes ticked by, her resolve began to weaken. Was she doing the right thing? She had only known John Smith for two weeks, after all. How did she know he wasn’t an ax murderer, or worse? He looked okay in his profile picture, and in all the messages they had exchanged, nothing came off as weird. But you never could tell.

Maybe she shouldn’t go. Maybe if she talked to her mom again, when she wasn’t drinking, this time her mom would believe her, and—

The doorknob jiggled. Ashley sucked in a startled breath and sat up. Again, rattle-rattle-rattle. She grabbed Fuzzy Wuzzy and clutched the teddy bear to her chest.

“Ash…come on, unlock the door,” Jack said, his voice slurred from alcohol, drugs, or both. “Let your old daddy in.”

He wasn’t her daddy! Her daddy was dead.

“Please…” More rattling. “You know, I could…could knock the damn thing down. If I was…a mind to.”

Ashley screamed, the sound muffled against Fuzzy Wuzzy’s belly.

Something, most likely Jack’s fist, banged once against the door. Then silence.

Ashley held her breath, ears fine tuned to the hallway outside her door. She heard the faint sound of footsteps fade away. She was safe. For tonight.

But what about tomorrow night? Would her mom’s boyfriend decide then that a locked door wasn’t going to stop him? If something didn’t happen, she’d lose her virginity to the creep before her thirteenth birthday got here next month.

She had no choice. She had to leave.

Ashley picked up her cell phone and read the time—11:45–then dropped it on the bed beside Fuzzy Wuzzy, snagged the Walmart bag, and padded across the floor to the window. One leg over the sill, she paused. He said not to bring my phone, but he didn’t say anything about…

She rushed back to the bed, picked up the teddy bear, and tucked him under her arm. Then it was out the window.

Her eyes already accustomed to darkness, Ashley jogged across the dew-damp grass and through the back gate listing half-open on rusty hinges. She turned left, following the tree-shaded alley that ran behind the houses on her street.

She hadn’t told a soul about John Smith, even Emily, her best friend. He had told her not to, that people wouldn’t understand. She didn’t even understand herself, but was grateful that John Smith had wanted to help when she told him about Jack.

Ashley saw the dark shape of a man standing at the end of the alley. Right where he said he’d be. She slowed, a niggle of unease rippling along her spine. Then stopped.

He moved toward her. Come, young one, she heard him say. Time is short.

Clutching her bag and Fuzzy Wuzzy, Ashley watched him approach, wanting to turn and run, but her feet were rooted to the spot. What have I done? “Mama…” she croaked. “Daddy…”

The man stopped in front of her, and she recognized John Smith from his picture. But there was something more to him that shone beneath the surface of his skin and moved in his dark eyes. Something…something…

He smiled, and all the fear drained from her body. He held out his hand and Ashley took it.

In the night sky behind John Smith, a light winked into existence. Ashley tracked its lightening-fast approach, and in seconds, the landscape was bathed in its silver light. She looked up into its glowing heart. I’m safe.

Dogs barked. Car alarms jangled. Lights blinked. TV sets turned off and on.

Ashley McKinnon’s feet left the ground, and with one hand in John Smith’s, the other clutching Fuzzy Wuzzy, she flowed upward into the light. On the ground where she had dropped it, the Walmart bag bounced once, twice, and followed.

A Raccoon Problem

“It’s the goddamn ‘coons,” Maynard Threlkeld said. “That’s what’s getting in your trash.”

Jeffery Kopek smoothed back his thick, dark hair with a nervous hand. “How can you tell?” He eyed the slimy salad greens, moldy tofu, and assorted takeout containers scattered around his overturned garbage can.

“Shot plenty of the rascals back home for making a mess like this.” Maynard waved a hairy, muscled arm toward the scattered trash. “Took a while, but they got the message.”

“But how do you know it wasn’t a dog?” Jeffery asked. “Or even a cat?”

“Cat ain’t stout enough to get the lid off. And as far as a dog goes—you seen any dogs around here, hoss?”

Jeffery shook his head.

“That old Mexican down the street…what’s his name?”

“Mr. Ortiz?”

“Yeah, him,” Maynard said. “He told Kara that ‘coons got into his koi pond last week, ate pretnear every one of ‘em. He restocked it and covered it with some screen wire, but it didn’t do no good. Mangy critters shoved it to one side and had themselves a fish supper.” He shook his head, scratched blond whiskers. “Saw a science show on TV the other night about raccoons coming into towns and causing all kinds of mischief. Said they ain’t got nowhere else to go ‘cause people are taking away their habitats and such.” He nudged an empty soup can with the toe of his boot. “Hate to, but if this keeps up, I might have to break out my pistol.”

Jeffery was horrified. He could just see it now, the authorities showing up at his door, wondering where the shots had come from, wondering if he was involved. They might send him back…there. “The p—police might come? Arrest someone?”
Continue reading “A Raccoon Problem”

The War

Damned ants! Now they’re in my mailbox of all places.

I’ve been fighting them little buggers for ten years now. Looks like they would have a little mercy, seeing as how I’d turned ninety a few months back—no spring chicken no more, not by a long shot.

I reckon I ought to feel lucky I’d come home from rehab none the worse for wear except for the pins holding my bones together and the cane I used to steady myself. That was what John Lee’d told me a’fore he up and died on me last month. But he weren’t the one that had tripped over the mound of hard dirt those dad-blasted ants has pushed up on the sidewalk and got his hip busted.

But I didn’t feel lucky, not with ants traipsing all over my back porch, (The blonde-haired woman with black roots what had sold us the place called it a “patio.”) and bunches of ‘em weighing down the trumpet vines I’d planted when John Lee and me had moved in.

There hadn’t been no ants—not like the numbers here, leastways—on our little place down by Henshaw Creek. But John Lee and me had been getting too old to keep firewood cut and take care of the cows and garden, and our kids were grown and gone, nowhere around to help out.

“Sell the place and move into town, Mama,” Elizabeth had said on the phone, her voice traveling halfway across the country to reach me.

“You and Daddy get a little place close to town,” Jimmy had said, his voice coming from somewhere in Belgium—can’t remember the name of the town offhand. “That way you’ll be closer to the hospital if one of you gets sick.”

So when John Lee’s heart had gotten so weak he couldn’t help me take care of the cows no more, we finally did what our kids wanted and moved to town. Took a while for us to get used to it, houses jammed together side by side like sardines in a can, cars passing by all hours of the day and night. Why I couldn’t even go out in the yard in just my gown no more. No telling who might get a gander of me. Not that I was anything to look at ‘cause everything had gone south on me more years back than I cared to remember.

But we got used to no privacy. It was the ants I couldn’t abide.

“Just leave ‘em alone, Emmy,” John Lee had told me more times than I had fingers and toes. “Ain’t none coming in the house. They stay outside minding their own business.”

But I couldn’t.

They pushed heaps of dirt up through the cracks in the driveway and around the cement porch. Why I couldn’t even leave a bowl of food out for our old tabby without them nasty critters crawling in it.

When I’d seen the first little mounds of soil a bit after me and John Lee had moved in, I’d stirred it with a stick, and the ants had come swarming out like Satan himself was hot on their heels. So I bought a spray can of ant killer at Walmart and let ‘em have it.

And that was the beginning of the war.

Along with more cans, I bought bug killer by the gallon and poured it in them pump applicators and I wet down all the dirt they’d pushed up. I killed ‘em out—or so I’d thought. Yep, every fall I figured I was done with the lot of ‘em, but every spring, they came back, more than the year before.

#

Earlier in the evening when I’d limped out to the mailbox and opened it, the white envelopes had been peppered with ants. After snatching the mail out and shaking it, I’d peeked inside and seen it was swarming with them little devils. They’d upped the ante.

I went back in the house and rested a bit. Then, just as night was settling in, I got a new can of bug killer from the case in the garage and eased out the side door. Didn’t want ‘em to know I was coming.

It took me a while, but I finally made it around front and out to the street. Leaning my cane against my belly, I slowly opened the mailbox. I was gonna fix their little red wagon but good. They’d never know…what…hit…

Something was tickling my feet. I looked down, and by the glow of the streetlight, saw my feet and ankles covered in black. And more tiny dark bodies raced along the ground toward me from every direction.

I think I might’ve yelled then, might’ve even taken the Lord’s name in vain. For the first time since me and the ants had gone to war, I was skeert. My cane clattered to the concrete and down I went.

#

My eyes opened to pitch-black dark. And quiet, lord was it ever quiet. No…a little noise—faint humming.

Where was I? Not in my bed, that was for sure. Too hard to be on a mattress.

I tried to sit up. My forehead smacked something solid, and bits of what-I-didn’t-know sprinkled my face. I couldn’t move my legs. My arms neither. I could move my hands a tad, so I clawed around with my fingers and felt something mushing up under my nails. Was it..?

Then I felt them. All over me. Thousands of little feet. Thousands of little nips on my skin. And I knew.

The heathen bastards had dragged me underground into their colony. More than likely, right up under the concrete slab of my own house. I laughed, but all that came out was a choking sound. Scratchy feet were marching over my tongue, up my nose, and down my throat. My house? Hell, it was their house.

They had won the war.

©️2019 KT Workman