They said we would have a new normal. That all of this would eventually seem like just THE WAY THINGS WERE MEANT TO BE. And, to an extent, they were right. Staying locked in your home, staring at the outside world through half-closed blinds and a head full of suspicion. That is our new normal.
But what if things change? What if we get a NEW new normal and we start interacting again, as if some central authority has commanded us to once again spread both our love and our germs to the people around us? What then?
Rob Cely explores these ideas in today’s Covid Chronicles short story, The Scarlet Queen. Click on the Scarlet Queen below to read Rob’s story.
Did you miss part 1? Go back and read it here. If you can’t do that, listen to it here. If you can’t do that, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m sure you’ll figure something out.
*** *** *** *** ***
Jim Becker pulled into the basement floor of the parking garage at work an hour early the next morning. He wore a pair of dark sunglasses, and he had a headache the size of Montana.
“What happened last night?” he thought. “And why do I want fried chicken?”
He shook off the headache as best he could. “No
matter. Today, I turn over a new leaf. Today, I start new.”
Jim glanced at the picture of Emma he kept on his dashboard. The one from their trip to Cabo six months after they lost the baby. Emma was laughing and trying to hide behind a beer bottle. Blue Moon was her favorite. She’d thumb little pieces off the label. By the time she was done, the bottle was empty and the label was in tatters.
They were happy then. At least, that’s how it looked in the picture.
Later that night, after the photo, Emma made a comment about Jim’s choice of clothing: one of those old Bart Simpson t-shirts. “Eat My Shorts!” Bart said. That shirt always made Jim laugh.
“You’re not actually going to WEAR that, are you?”
“Why not?” Jim said.
And off they went. Two days into the vacation that was supposed to clear their minds and reset their marriage, and a simple wardrobe disagreement turned into Armageddon. By the time it was over, several dishes in their resort kitchenette were broken along with their naïve perceptions about how easily an expensive trip can solve anything but the resort management company’s desire for additional revenue.
Jim and Emma’s married life turned into a never-ending cycle of fights: long stretches of silence punctuated by a few days of intense, screaming matches. The roller coaster ride was exhausting, Jim thought, but at least those weeks of not talking to each other gave their vocal chords time to heal so they could scream even louder when things picked up again. Silver linings and all that.
Jim had taken to marking their fights by the things they broke. There was the serving tray fight, where Emma threw a large, glass tray they’d got as a wedding gift into the living room wall like a Frisbee. It shattered over the couch, bursting shards of glass into the cushions. They kept finding little pieces of glass in that couch for months afterward, despite having vacuumed it so many times, Jim was sure they’d sucked up more fabric through their vacuum cleaner’s lint guard than was left in the couch itself.
Then, there was the kitchen table fight where Jim once slammed his hand onto the table top, causing it to collapse on an already wobbly leg, breaking into three pieces. They had dinner on the floor the next night. After that, they took their dinners alone, in separate corners of the house. That’s how they ate from then on.
It was easier that way.
There were many others – the unnecessary skateboard fight, the battle of the flannel pajamas, the Jane Austen meltdown – and with each flare up, they grew further and further apart.
It was the silence that bothered Jim the most. Their little house grew so quiet you could hear clocks ticking from their neighbor’s living rooms if you listed hard enough. Jim and Emma went whole weeks without speaking. The mountain of unspoken words deafened the subtext of any conversations that, by some miracle, pass between them, killing any chance they had to truly reconcile.
Ships passing in the night; unaware anyone else is close by.
Six months later, Jim got a promotion, and
suddenly found the need to work late nights, even when no real need existed. On
many such nights, Emma would be out with friends or pursuing her own hobbies
when Jim got home, which he often misconstrued as a slight against him.
“Why should I come home early, if she doesn’t want to see me?” he thought, and would go to bed before she got home just to piss her off.
Despite all this, Jim still loved Emma, still made plans in his mind for their future together, still hoped to one day have kids. This was just a temporary darkness, Jim rationalized to himself. They’d pull through. Eventually.
That was somewhat true in its own right, and Jim and Emma Becker may have eventually worked things out.
If not for Samantha.
**** **** **** ****
Jim sighed and stepped out of his car.
“HELP!” A woman’s voice nearby. “SOMEBODY HELP
Jim ran across the nearly empty parking garage to find a large man in a pair of faded jeans and a black hoodie attacking a woman next to a minivan. Jim grabbed the guy’s shoulders from behind.
“Hey! Watch it, buddy,” Jim said.
The attacker grunted, pushed Jim away easily. He was a few inches taller at least, and had maybe fifty pounds on him; all of it pure muscle.
Jim threw what he thought was a jab at the man’s head, then followed with a cross aimed at his chest. The man dodged Jim’s punches easily and rushed him, grabbing Jim by the waist. He pushed forward, trying to shove Jim to the ground where, he imagined, the man would pummel him like an MMA fighter.
“I’m about to die!” Jim thought to himself. He crouched, then shoved his body upward, like he was trying to leap over a large set of boxes at the gym. His arms flailed as he twisted, catching the attacker’s chin with his left elbow. The man’s head flew back and the hood came off. Dazed, he stepped back, and let go of Jim’s waist.
They made eye contact. The man looked scared, almost surprised. He didn’t look angry; almost embarrassed to have been caught attacking the young woman next to the van.
He stumbled backward, tried to catch his balance, then tripped over a parking block next to an old Toyota. He fell, hit his head on the pavement with a loud CRACK, and stopped moving instantly.
Jim approached cautiously, afraid the fight would continue. But the man’s eyes stared off into the distance, focusing on something neither Jim nor anyone else this side of eternity could see. Blood began to pool around his head.
Jim looked to his right. The woman had apparently passed out in the commotion.
“Uh oh,” Jim said, and called 9-1-1.
When he hung up, he heard footsteps from behind.
Jim turned, and there he was. The man in white.
“Hello, Jim,” The Devil said. “That was your
first. You’ve got two more.”
Jim stared at him in disbelief. The morning birds began to sing in the trees next to the parking garage.
“Wow,” the man in white said. “That was unexpected. Most people usually scream something like ‘Holy crap!’ or ‘How the hell did you get here?’ Or sometimes just “AAAAAAH!’”
“What the hell?” Jim said.
“There we go.”
“You’re real? Last night was REAL?”
“The pathetic cry of a thousand college girls,” The Devil said, shaking his head sadly. “Of course I’m real. I’m real, you’re real, that blond next to the minivan is real, and all the blood that used to be in this dead guy’s head is DEFINITELY real. Real and staining my suit.”
The man in white lifted one of his feet in disgust.
“I can’t believe this!” Jim yelled.
“Neither can I! Do you know how hard it is to get blood stains out of a white suit?” The man in white spit into a rag and wiped at a spreading red spot on his pants. “I just had this dry cleaned!”
He futzed a bit more with his pants, grunted in frustration, then continued. “I just wanted to say congrats on doing a great job with number one, but look at this. My suit! This will never come out.”
“What do you mean two more? I didn’t kill anyone.”
“He looks pretty dead to me, Jim.”
“But Murder? I didn’t want…”
“Woah! Wait just a minute there, Jimmy. Murder? MURDER? You didn’t think I wanted you to murder anyone, did you?”
“Until a moment ago, I thought you were just a bad
dream. Now, I don’t know what to think. “
“Well, That’s not how it works.” The man in white sat down next to Jim on the hood of of the old Toyota. It dented beneath him.
“All these stories you’ve heard about me, with God as the good guy and me as this malevolent evil force? Those are nice kid stories, Jim. But that’s not the real world.”
“God and me? We’re on the same team! He gets all the good people singing hymns in church on Sunday, making casseroles and cakes for bake sales, and reading bad romance novels about women in bonnets clutching their pearls at anything that might get their engines running.”
“And me?” The man in white looked at the body again. “I handle the rougher crowd. Like Mr. Wanna-Be-Rapist here.”
“Which one am I?” Jim asked.
“You ain’t no Boy Scout, that’s for sure. No
bonnets and pearls for you. But you’re not a rapist like this guy. And you’re
definitely not a murderer.”
“Let’s call it a happy accident. I’ve been
watching you, Jim. You’ve had a rough go of things these last few years. I
figured I’d let you in on some of my work and, as a token of my thanks, you get
your heart’s deepest desire. Pretty good deal, isn’t it?”
“My heart’s deepest desire?” Jim asked. “What is
this, an after-school special?”
The devil laughed out loud. His voice echoed off the empty walls of the parking garage around them. “I knew I liked you, Jim. That’s why I chose you. You’ve got a certain je ne sais quoi.”
“I don’t know. I don’t like the idea of killing
people. Like ACTUALLY killing people.”
The Devil stood up from the dented Toyota and
stepped closer. “The world is a dark place,” he said. “You don’t see it like I
“What do you mean?”
“A man raping a woman in a suburban garage? That’s child’s play. I’ve seen murder, rape, and worse on a massive scale. I’ve seen grown men – some of them men of the cloth – abuse children in unspeakable ways and, when they were done, they turned around sold those children to the highest bidder, and move on to another. I’ve watched normal, everyday people turn a blind eye as their supposed authorities whisked their neighbors away under cover of darkness merely because of their race or religion, and then pretend that the putrid stench coming from the smokestacks nearby wasn’t what they thought it was; what everyone KNEW it was. I’ve seen people wipe out entire nations – millions and millions of innocent people – because a madman in a party hat told them his version of God said it was holy and just.”
The man in white stepped so close, Jim could smell his breath. Hot mustard gas and roses with a faint whiff of mint.
“I have seen evil face to face, Jim. I have tasted it; felt its incessant beat that drives into men’s brains, drawing them to it, let the tendrils of its smoke fill my nostrils, scintillating my taste buds. I know evil, Jim.”
“Some people learn evil from childhood because
that’s all they see in their world. Others get caught up in it due to
circumstance or because they lacked the strength to stand against it. But some
people, Jim. Some people ARE Evil. Evil to their core. They revel in it; take joy in it. They take
Evil to new heights of creativity even I cannot fathom.”
“God says everyone is redeemable, and maybe that’s
true for him. But down here, in the Real World, where large men in black
hoodies attack innocent women for no reason, those people run rampant. They
take advantage of good people like that poor woman over there. Like the people
you work with. Like you.”
“Those evil people need to be stopped, Jim. I
don’t call that murder. I call it Justice.”
Jim stared at the pool of blood. It just kept spreading. Jim wondered how far it could go, whether it would ever stop.
“I don’t know,” he said.
The Devil stepped back and smiled again. “It’s a
lot to take in. I know. But don’t worry. This will all make sense in the end.
Police sirens in the distance.
“Listen, I have to get going. Your next one is right around the corner, so be ready. And buck up, kiddo. You saved this woman’s life. You’re a hero! Enjoy it.”
It’s been an extremely long day here in Shawville, but I
finally made it here to share today’s story from Jamie Greening. Jamie’s been
working on some science-fiction short stories recently, and he’s knocking it
out of the park.
Which is nice, because there’s no baseball going on at the
moment. I’m just glad SOMEONE is knocking it out of the park.
Take a moment and check out Jamie’s latest FREE FREE TOTALLY ABSOLUTELY FREE WITH NO STRINGS ATTACHED short story, Academia.
The Covid Captivity Free Flash Fiction series continues today with Joseph Courtemanche’s new short Story, “The Wind Is Shifting Again.” What you may not know is, not only is Joe a celebrated author, he’s also a professional audio artist. And, lucky for you, he’s recorded an audio version of his new short story.
As Telly Savalas used to say: “Who loves ya, baby!”
Click on the firestorm below to read all about the new short story, and keep your eyes (and minds) open and flexible for tomorrow’s short story … which may or may not have an accompanying audio format.
Click on the fire to read and HEAR the story. When that’s finished, if you’d like to visit Joe’s Amazon Author Page or his Audio Page (and bask in the warmth of his dulcet tones) and support him by buying some of his stuff, he’d much appreciate it.
Rejoice, Friends! Week three of the Free Free Free Abosulutely Free Covid Chronicles Shorty Story Explode-A-Ganza is upon us! All of these stories are free to you with absolutely no obligation to purchase anything, sign up for a mailing list, or jump through a number of annoying hoops.
Just some fun fiction for your face. How d’you like that?
We’ve got an entirely new lineup for you, your faces, and you this week.
Jim Becker spent the final moments of the second-to-last day of his life on a stool at The Friendly Stop Bar & Grille. He was drunk, and he spoke loud to no one in particular.
“The last thing I need,” he said, “is another
Sean, The Friendly Stop’s bartender, had already
locked the door, wiped down the tables, and put up the chairs for the night. He
looked at Jim and checked his watch. With anyone else, he’d have gone to his You Don’t Have To Go Home, But You Can’t Stay
Here routine, but Jim was a regular, and you don’t do that to regulars.
That was rule #1 in Sean’s Universal Bartender’s Guide to Making Money and Staying Employed. Rule #2 was “Don’t sleep with your customers, or you’ll lose all that money you just made.” Having made these rules part of his personal religion, Sean built quite a successful career over the years following it’s commandments.
“How’s about we call it a night?” Sean said. “Maybe
pick up where we left off tomorrow?”
“Just one more?” Jim asked.
“Come on, Jim. I gotta get home at some point. Plus, with these curfews in place for this COVID thing, it’s not a good idea to be out socializing.”
“Just one. I promise.”
They stared at each other, two nearly middle aged
men with hints of grey peeking out at their temples. Neither wanted to budge.
Sean liked Jim. He never caused trouble, always
tipped well and, most importantly, had an infectious humor that helped spread his
proclivity for fiduciary friendliness to those around him.
Or anyway, he used to be that way until a few months ago when Jim’s wife, Emma, left him after ten years of a mostly-happy-but-sometimes-rocky marriage. Since then, Jim made a habit of telling everyone at The Friendly Stop how very happy he was to be single again. All that free time. No more rules.
“It’s the dream!” Jim would say with a wide smile.
But rule #3 in Sean’s book is “You see the truth in their eyes,” and Jim’s eyes told a different story. Jim’s eyes were anything but happy. In fact, by Sean’s estimation, Jim had spent nearly every night since the divorce right here on this stool, staring into his beer, hoping to forget, bit by bit, the woman who meant the world to him.
Sean lowered his head.
“Alright, Jim. One more. I have to go downstairs to get some more beer, anyway.” He tossed a dirty rag into the corner next to some boxes, put the last of the shot glasses into the disinfecting sink. “When I come back, it’s time to go. Got it?”
“Scout’s honor!” Jim made a three fingered Boy Scout salute, and affected a fake, cheesy smile. When Sean turned to leave, Jim’s smile faded. He tore at the edges of the label on his beer and closed his eyes.
**** **** **** ****
Jim Becker met Emma then-Ridenhour fifteen years ago on a random indie music night at The Friendly Stop. This was back when the previous owners still labored under the belief that theirs was an up and coming college spot, not just another random, suburban hole-in-the-wall.
A hippie chick with matted hair and an ancient acoustic guitar was halfway through a song about a girl named Rosie and her supposed True Love when Jim looked across the bar and saw a beautiful brunette dancing by herself: her eyes closed, arms raised to the sky, and a sundress that flowed with her hips like both were choreographed. She danced like she was the only one in the room.
The brunette opened her eyes, looked right at Jim and smiled. Jim walked over and was about to spout a one-liner his college roommate swore never failed (even though it had never worked for Jim) when she cut him off. “I don’t care. Just dance with me. Now.” From that moment on, Jim’s heart belonged only to her.
They danced without stopping for the next two hours. By then, they really were the only ones in the room. The hippie chick packed up to leave and they kept dancing. Sean turned up the chairs and wiped down the bar, and they kept dancing. They moved outside, alone together in the street, and kept dancing still.
Two months later, Jim proposed. Six months later, they were married.
Jim and Emma Becker danced with Rosie and Her True Love at their reception, on their honeymoon, and many early mornings before work that first year together. They danced in the kitchen while washing dishes, they danced on the thick carpet of the office room in the back of the apartment where Jim did most of his work, and they danced barefoot with Rosie on the hardwood floors of their first house, always making sure to mind the spot near the window where Emma once got a splinter in her big toe.
They danced with Rosie when the pregnancy test came back positive, when they found out the baby would be a girl, and after they spent far too much money on that first set of baby clothes, as many expecting parents do.
Rosie was with them every step of the way as they made their way into the happily ever after as the story should have gone. But stories don’t always match the fantasies we lay out for them.
the doctor said there was a malformation in the spine and their daughter likely
wouldn’t live long, they went home in shock. The rest of the pregnancy was
difficult, but they persevered in hope that their happily ever after could
still come true.
A few months later, only a few hours after their daughter was born, Jim and Emma Becker held little body close and cried. The cried for a long time.
They held a small service, for family only, and when they finally made it back home, Jim and Emma returned to a house full of silence, and a hole in their lives neither of them knew how to fill.
For a while, Jim believed things would be okay, that they could weather any storm so long as they had each other. But time passes; life changes, almost imperceptibly; and the music of our youth sounds strange to old ears.
Jim and Emma Becker had gone to a place where they couldn’t seem to hear music that once brought them together. They slowly grew apart as the years passed until, finally, they called it a day and signed the papers to codify what had already been the status of their relationship for quite some time.
Jim hadn’t thought of Rose and Her True Love for several years as he sat, staring into his beer at the Friendly Stop. He laughed, told stories, and spoke of the joy and the freedom he felt, now that his marriage was over. But his eyes told the truth for those willing to look. The Gospel of Sean spoke true, and we all say thank you, good night, and amen.
**** **** **** ****
Jim thumbed the label on his beer in silence.
The Friendly Stop’s door swung open, banged into the opposite wall, and knocked a framed picture of Ted Kluszewski to the floor. In stepped an older gentleman with a bushy grey beard and a slick, white suit. He looked like Colonel Sanders if Colonel Sanders sold pharmaceuticals instead of fried chicken.
“Anyone here know how to make a good mint julep?”
the man said. “I’d kill for one, but no one around here seems to know what they
“’Fraid you’re outta luck, friend” Jim said. “All
they got here is watered down beer.”
“The search continues,” the man said as he stepped
all the way inside. “Mind if I join you?”
“I think they’re about to close.” Jim glanced at the previously locked door.
“Closing time is my favorite time,” the man in white said. “It’s when you get all the best deals. Nothing warms my heart like discount liquor. That, and a good Mint Julep.”
“Don’t expect any freebies here,” Jim said,
returning to his beer. “Sean has a sixth sense about the value of things.
“Oh, I don’t know if he’s that good. He gave you
that one for free, didn’t he, Jim?”
Jim set his beer down, and looked at the man in the white suit. The stranger looked right back, not moving an inch. His eyes focused intently on Jim. Jim leaned back as the man white stepped closer. The stranger never stopped smiling.
“Do I know you?”
“Where are my manners?” The man stood up straight, and stuck out his left hand. “Pleased to meet you, Jim. Hope you guess my name.”
“Lucifer. The name’s Lucifer. Sometimes I go by
Beelzebub or ‘Old Scratch.’ But you might know me as Satan.” He paused. “The Devil?”
Jim was stone-faced. Then, he laughed out, loud and hard. Jim knew a good joke when he heard one. He couldn’t quite see the punchline yet, but he was sure it was out there in the ether somewhere, waiting for him. “Pleased to meet you, too” he said. “What can I do you for?”
“I’ve got a business proposition.”
“A business proposition, you say?” Jim put down his drink and gave the man his full, undivided, sarcastic, and inebriated attention. “Well you’re in luck. It just so happens I specialize in late night business propositions, especially those made during an international pandemic. Shoot.”
“I need you to kill someone. Three someones,
Jim stroked his chin and laughed again. “Go on.”
“I need it all to happen in the same day,
tomorrow, and I need you to be the one to do it.”
“Sounds reasonable to me. Do you want me to shoot
them or should I sneak up from behind and attack? Like a ninja!”
“Whatever works best for you,” The man in white said.
“As long as they’re dead.”
“And what did these people do to deserve your
wrath? Are they business associates of yours?”
The man in white laughed out loud. “Nice! Good one!”
He sat on the stool closest to Jim. “You’re a funny guy, Jim. I’ve been watching you for a while, and you never fail to catch me off guard.”
“Glad I can be of service,” Jim said as he downed the rest of his beer. He had forgotten to look for the punchline. The man in white still smiled.
“Do we have a deal?” the man in white asked.
“Hold on, now,” Jim Said. “We’re still
“Of course we are.”
“What about compensation for facilitating these
poor folks’ untimely demise? You don’t expect me to kill them for free, do you?
I have my standards.”
“That’s the best part! You, good sir, will get
none other than your heart’s deepest desire!”
Jim affected a serious tone. “I don’t know. I was
hoping for a Mustang. I’ve always wanted
a Mustang. And maybe some donuts. I like donuts, too.”
“If that’s your heart’s deepest desire, sure.”
“So it could be … anything?”
“How can you make that happen?”
“I’m the Devil,” the man in white said. “I have my
“Right,” Jim said. “I forgot.”
The steps to the basement started creaking. Sean
would be back soon.
Jim stared at the tattered label on his beer.
“Heart’s desire, huh?”
“You got it.”
“And how do I know what that is? How do I know
“You’ll have to get to the end to find out.” the
man said, still smiling. “So do we have a deal?”
“Absolutely.” The door to the basement opened.
Sean was back, carrying several cases of cheap beer. “Why don’t we drink to
seal the deal?”
“I’ve had enough. You go ahead.”
Jim turned, and was about to yell out for more drinks, when the man in white spoke again.
“This will be good for you, Jim,” he said “Emma
would be proud.”
“What did you say?!”
Jim turned, ready for a fight, but no one was there.