A Passover for Maxwell Bennett

Death rarely makes house calls. But, in the case of Maxwell Bennett, he made a happy exception. 

Maxwell Bennett had been on Death’s short list for several years, much longer than any of the other miraculous escapees. Most people cheat Death at least once or twice in their lives. That’s a given. You turn left when you were supposed to have turned right, and the horrific car crash you get T-boned by a logging truck or electrocuted by a downed transformer doesn’t happen. You and everyone else go about your days none the wiser, unaware how close you came to your end. 

But Death knows. 

Death can see the results of each non-choice played out to its conclusion. Maybe not the ENTIRE consequence of each non-choice – only God can do that – but for at least a few weeks or months, he sees what might have happened to you, and he knows how close the two of you were to finally meeting. 

There are a few charmed folks, the aforementioned miraculous escapees, who seem to have a preternatural understanding of Death’s plans for their final moments. They’ll get an odd feeling in the pit of their stomach or an itch in their skin, they zig when they were supposed to have zagged, and their grisly demise becomes a pleasant afternoon in the park. This has often perplexed Death, making him wonder whether these people have some deeper insight into the machinations of all things, or if they’re just lucky. 

They can’t last forever, though. No one can. They’ll skate by for a few weeks, maybe a year. Then, one day, when they’re not looking, a bus catches them with their foot off the curb, or they’re out celebrating a friend’s wedding and that nasty shellfish allergy they didn’t know they had finally catches up to them, and that’s that. Deaths books are in order once again, and all is right with the world. 

There are these people. And then there’s Maxwell Bennett. 

Death had been tracking Maxwell Bennett for a long time; most of his life, in fact. 

The first time Maxwell Bennett was supposed to have died, he was only a year and a half old. Little Maxwell had a nasty cough, and his mother, who hadn’t slept a wink in three whole days, gave him a dose of adult cough medicine to get him down. She left the unopened bottle next to his crib and, in the middle of the night, when Little Maxie woke up, he grabbed the cough medicine like it was his bottle and downed the whole thing in one gulp. 

That should have been enough to do him in, but his teeth had just broken through his gums, and as he laid down to go back to sleep, he soothed the pain in his mouth by gnawing on the wooden posts of his bed, dislodging several splinters into his mouth in the process. This new pain woke him up immediately, and the force of his screams did what no medically administered ipecac would have, ejecting the recently consumed bottle of cough syrup all over his bed, his room, and himself. 

Mrs Bennett, unaware of the tragedy that would have ensued – should have ensued – had it been any other child, was none too pleased at the prospect of cleaning up the vomitous expectoration in her son’s room in addition to yet another sleepless night. 

When he was eight, he rode his brand new BMX bicycle down a large, grass hill, through the remnants of a wire fence denoting the property line on a farm that had long since been abandoned. Maxwell was a small boy, and the chinstrap on his helmet hung low. As he passed through at breakneck speeds, a taught cord of low-hanging wire caught the chinstrap and knocked him off his bike. He suffered a bruised tailbone instead of the outright decapitation that would have been the case for normal boys with properly positioned protective gear.. 

At ten, as Maxwell Bennett prepared to take his turn at bat in a Little League baseball game, he walked right up next to the hitter on deck just as the hitter took his practice homerun swing. He would have caught a metal bat to the face had he not ducked at just the right moment to tie his shoes. As things stood, Maxwell’s teammate struck out, and Maxwell hit into an inning-ending double-play. 

Maxwell loved baseball, but baseball rarely loved him back. 

Shortly after Maxwell’s twelfth birthday, the neighbor’s rabid pit bull attacked when Maxwell was cutting the grass behind his house. But because the canine had dislodged most of his teeth fighting a rogue German Shepherd down the street the previous night, none of the bites broke the skin. Instead, the teeth fell out of the dog’s mouth at first bite, and all Maxwell got was loud barking, a few scratches, and enough drool to fill a very large bucket. The doctors who checked him out said he was extremely lucky. “It’s a miracle!” they said. 

But it wasn’t a miracle. It was just Maxwell Bennett. 

Death’s record followed Maxwell Bennett into adulthood, enough to fill several notebooks. A near tragedy involving a table saw in high school that should have cut into his jugular, a hidden chicken bone at a sports bar on a night out with friends in college that should have become lodged in his throat, a mass shooting at a mall in Kentucky where he would have been gunned down by a madman if only he hadn’t got pulled over for running a red light two blocks shy of the mall. 

“I’m sorry, officer,” Maxwell Bennett said. “To be honest, I was distracted by a text on my phone and I didn’t see the light.” 

“Be careful, son,” the officer said, as emergency vehicles sped past them on the way to the mall. “This could have been a tragedy.”

Death just stood by and watched in disbelief. What else could he do? For nearly forty two years, whatever Death threw at him, Maxwell Bennett seemed to dodge with ease. The final tally, according to the now voluminous series of notebooks in Death’s accounting, included 792 missed encounters with wild animals, 2,297 failed food-related accidents, 4,256 missed car accidents, 1,406 walking/hiking accidents, and an eight month relationship with 1 red head who had learned from her mother how to kill a man with a ball peen hammer and dispose of the body in lye. 

Unable to ply her trade with Maxwell Bennett, the red head moved on to an author of submarine fiction in Vermont, where she was much more successful. The lye pits near Manchester proved particularly useful. 

This night, however, would be different. Death would look Maxwell Bennet in the face. And when the night was over, he could finally put a close to the most troublesome accounting problem he’d had since the births of both Methuselah and Keith Richards. 

Death walked up to the door, and knocked three times. MAxwell Benett opened it. 

“Hello,” he said. “I’ve been expecting you.” 

“You have?” 

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I? Everyone says you’re inevitable, right? You and taxes?” 

Death sighed, put his hand on the door frame, pulled it away quickly, wiping off the sticky scumon his jeans. 

“The problem with all those quotes about Death is 99% of the people who say them are still alive.” 

“What do the 1% who are dead, say?” 

“Want to find out?” 

“We’ll see,” Maxwell Bennett said, smiling. “We’ll see. Come in. Sit down. Dinner’s almost ready.” He turned around, headed for the kitchen. The sound of pots and pans being moved about emanated from the doorway.  

“Dinner?” Death stepped into the apartment and looked around, as if expecting some sort of trap. When no immediate attack presented itself, he shrugged, stepped in further, and took a seat at the kitchen table. 

“So what brings you here?” Maxwell Bennett asked. 

“I’ve been following you since you were a boy. All the many ways you’ve cheated me over the years. Your name is first on my list, and I plan to collect.” 

Maxwell Bennett laughed from the kitchen. 

“Have you been practicing that line? If so, you need to keep working on it. You sound like McDonald’s employee asking me if I want fries with my meal.” A cabinet door slammed. “Put some growl into it, some menage. You know? Really put some stank on it.”

Maxwell stuck his head out of the kitchen doorway. “Can I get you a drink? Beer? Glass of wine? Orange Juice, maybe?”

“Water is fine, thanks.”

“Sure thing.” Maxell returned to rummaging in the kitchen.

Death stared at the space in the kitchen door where Maxwell’s head used to be.

“You know, most people try to bargain with me when they find out who I am. They offer me gifts, riches, keys to their tiny, little kingdoms. Most people are afraid. But you…”

Maxwell Bennett stepped back into the dining room with a large plate.

“You serve me dinner?”

“It would be rude of me not to,” Maxwell said. “Besides, this is a special dinner.”

Death took the plate from Maxwell Bennet and set it on the table. The bitter herbs, romaine lettuce, charoset, karpas, a roast egg, and a roasted lamb bone. .

“Is this what I think it is? Is this a Seder plate?”

“Of course! It’s Passover, is it not? Are you familiar with Passover?”

Death grunted. “Of course. I was there at the first one, remember? They were trying to avoid seeing me.”

“Ah, yes,” Maxwell said. “I forgot.”

“I don’t understand, though. You’re not even Jewish.”

“You don’t have to be Jewish to celebrate Passover. God loves everyone, even us Gentiles, and we can celebrate him.”

Death smiled. “I see your plan, now,” he said. “You think affecting these rituals will keep me at bay like it did for Moses back in Egypt. Well, it won’t work.”

“No. I just had some extra lamb bones and charoset lying around, and I thought: ‘Why not?’ I had this feeling you know?”

Death swiveled his head to the corners of the apartment. Each of the miraculous escapees had reported these feelings just before escaping Death’s various traps. He wondered what trickery was at play.

Maxwell Bennet smiled, and waited.

“Well, at least you could have let me know. I’d have brought some bread to share. In fact, if you’ll allow, I can step out for just a moment and get the finest of loaves one can find in the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean. Your mouth will water just from the smell. And the taste! Oh, you will spend the rest of our life searching and never find a bread with a taste such as this.”

Matthew picked up two brown, paper bags.

“I got this Matzo at WalMart. Manager’s special! It was on sale for $1.95 with a BOGO discount. Can you believe that? I think it will work for us just fine. Plus, we need more than just bread to live, don’t we? Isn’t that in the Bible somewhere?”

“It is,” Death said. “It is.”  Death took a sip from his water. He appeared lost in thought.

Maxwell sat up straight.

“Now that the sun has gone down and we have the elements in place, why don’t we begin?Mind if I do the honors?”

“Of course.”

“True,” Maxwell Bennett said, and began.

Maxwell bowed his head to pray. Death eyed him warily.

“The sixth day. And the heavens and the earth and all that filled them were complete. And on the seventh day God completed the labor He had performed, and He refrained on the seventh day from all the labor which He had performed. And God blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it, for He then refrained from all his labor – from the act of creation that God had performed.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His commandments, and hoped for us, and with love and intent invested us with His sacred Sabbath, as a memorial to the deed of Creation. It is the first among the holy festivals, commemorating the exodus from Egypt. For You chose us, and sanctified us, out of all nations, and with love and intent You invested us with Your Holy Sabbath.”

When Maxwell paused for breath, Death interrupted with a question.

“Tell me, Maxwell Bennett. How did you come to escape me all these years? Do you think God loves you more than everyone else?”

“No,” Maxwell Bennett said. “If that were true, the Cincinnati Bengals would have won the Super Bowl last year. I’ve been a Bengals fan since I was a kid. I love my family and friends and I help out in my community, but the one thing I’ve consistently prayed for my whole life was for the Bengals to win a Super Bowl. I figure if God loved me more than everyone else, he’d have made that happen by now.”

“But how can you tell? What if you are favored among men? Just imaging what you could do?”

“It’d be fun,” Maxwell said. “I bet I could finally get high average for my bowling league some season.”

“Here.” Death picked up a large carving knife and handed it to Maxwell. “Take this knife. Thrust it into your stomach. If God really does favor you, he will stop you from killing yourself. Then, you will know and will finally be able to celebrate.”

Maxwell laughed. “Can you imagine me showing up at the hospital with a carving knife sticking out of my gut? And when the doctors ask what happened, I tell them: ‘I was just checking to see if God loved me?’”

Maxwell took a long drink from his wine.

“Plus, whether God loves me a lot or just a little, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go testing him like that. I’ve seen a lot of televangelists go down that route, and that ain’t me.”

“What if it is?”

“Did you see Tammy Faye Baker’s tattooed mascara tears back in the day?” MAxwell asked, washing his hands. “Uh uh, Bubba. I don’t want nothing to do with the kind of thing that make people do that to themselves.”

Death laughed. Maxwell dipped vegetables into the charset and handed some to Death. Death declined. Maxwell shrugged and ate the vegetables anyway.

“You’re funny,” he said. “You’ve got a remarkable personality. Have you considered doing a podcast or TikTok or something?”

“There’s this friend of mine in Texas who does a podcast with his church. It’s called ‘Under The Water Tower.’ I thought about doing a response podcast to his podcast once. I’d call it ‘Water Tower Adjacent,’ and I’d spend my time making jokes at his expense.”

“That sounds promising. What if I could help you grow your podcast – or TikTok or YouTube Channel or whatever? What if you could get your words into every corner of the earth? Does that sound like something that would interest you? All you’d have to do is follow me.”

Maxwell Bennett was confused.

“Follow you? Like on Twitter?”

“No. Like follow my lead. Go where I tell you to go. Worship me.”

“Oh, absolutely not. My friends all tell me I’m a #nofilter kind of guy. I get myself a podcast and get the word out to the whole world, I’m liable to say something stupid. And what then? I’ve got a record of me making an ass of myself for everyone to see.”

“Don’t you already have a blog?” Death asked.

“Nobody reads blogs,” Mawell Bennet said. “And anyway. The way I figure it, worshipping God is what got me this far. I might as well keep at it now. No one’s better than him, right?”

“Right,” Death said, frustrated.

“We’re at the part where we recite the story of Exodus. Would you care to do the honors?” Maxwell asked.

“I think your passover tradition has already done its job,” Death said, standing up. He reached to shake Maxwell’s Hand. Maxwell reciprocated.

“It’s been a pleasure meeting you,” Maxwell said.

“Likewise,” Death said, and he left.

Maxwell shrugged, sat down.

“Now, I’ve got to do this all by myself,” he said as he thumbed through a well-worn Bible to the book of Exodus. Of all the weird things to happen in his life, this was by far the weirdest.

Maxwell was about to close his eyes to begin the prayers, when he noticed a slip of paper next to the chair where Death so recently sat. He opened it.

“Dear Maxwell. It truly was a pleasure meeting you this evening. You are a good man. Stay strong in the faith and God will see you through many struggles. Sincerely, Death.”

Maxwell Bennett flipped the page over, where the note continued.

“P.S. See you in six months.”

Maxwell Bennett smiled. “We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll see.”

The End of The Party

Folks, the end is here. The Covid Chronicles Free Flash Fiction Explode-A-Ganza is now finished. Which is a good thing, because I TOTALLY regret making it a thing for me to type “Explode-A-Ganza” each time I post one of these things. That got REAL old REAL fast.

It’s been a fun ride. We were originally supposed to do two weeks of flash fiction stories. That turned into THIRTEEN weeks and nearly 100 short stories from all the authors. We had a blast doing it, and we hope you did, too.

If you missed a story, just come back to any of our sites and float through the archives. They’ll be here for a long while, assuming we don’t have a cataclysmic technological breakdown. Which, given what’s happened this year, may actually happen. So watch out.

But if you’d prefer to have everything collected into one convenient source for all your Covid Chronicling needs, give us a few months. We’re compiling all the stories into a book, which we plan to sell at some point in the Fall. Should be an audio version as well, for those who like listening to stuff.

I’ll try to keep up with regular posting here, and might even post some stories now and again. Who knows?

For now … please visit Mr Joseph Courtemanche’s site for the last Free Flash Fiction short story, What About The Window? Just click on the window and go on in.

Thanks for visiting us! For even more exciting stories, please check out (and perhaps slide us some dollars at ) the sites of each of our somewhat-quarantined-and-still-slowly-going-more-insane-than-they-already-were authors: Joseph CourtemancheJamie GreeningKathy KexelDerek ElkinsRob Cely, and Dr. Paul J Bennett . Freedom’s just another word for “nothing left to lose” and nothing is all that we charged you for the Free Flash Fiction Explode-A-Ganza. We hope you had fun.

Light and Darkness – a Free Short Story by Derek Elkins

“The darkness is growing.”

“That is why we carry the light into the darkness.  So the darkness can recede.”

In a world full of wounded people with just a few drops of dream left, Derek Elkins provides a light in the darkness. Click on the light below to read his final Covid Story: Light and Darkness.

Thanks for visiting us! For even more exciting stories, please check out (and perhaps slide us some dollars at ) the sites of each of our somewhat-quarantined-and-still-slowly-going-more-insane-than-they-already-were authors: Joseph CourtemancheJamie GreeningKathy KexelDerek ElkinsRob Cely, and Dr. Paul J Bennett . Let your love light shine.

The Last Sermon of Daniel Ramone

“Reverend Daniel Ramone had a simple plan. He would open up the Church as he usually did on Sunday morning. He would set up the camera to stream live. He would preach that Sunday sermon, as best as he knew how. Then, he would go home and kill himself.”

If you’ve wondered whether we should pick up where we left off, or start over new, check out Rob Cely’s excellent story by clicking on the empty church below

Thanks for visiting us! For even more exciting stories, please check out (and perhaps slide us some dollars at ) the sites of each of our somewhat-quarantined-and-still-slowly-going-more-insane-than-they-already-were authors: Joseph CourtemancheJamie GreeningKathy KexelDerek ElkinsRob Cely, and Dr. Paul J Bennett . Sometimes a fresh start is all we need.

New Translation

Amara Jiskani first heard the voice of God as she stocked shelves in the bread aisle in the late shift at WalMart.

“Amara,” God said to her. “I need to ask something of you.”

At first, Amara thought her friend Jibreel, who also worked the late shift, was joking with her. Jibreel liked to play jokes. Sometimes, at school, he’d do impressions of popular cartoon characters. His impressions always made Amara laugh.

But it wasn’t Jibreel. It was God. God in the bread aisle.

“Am I crazy?” Amara asked?

“No,” God said. “You’re not crazy.”

“Are you sure? My best friend, Sara’s uncle Ted started hearing voices one time and HE got put into a hospital. He’s still there.”

“You’re not crazy,” God said again.

“What do you want?”

“I need you to share my scripture with the people. A modern translation from the dusty, old texts. I need you to create the most beautiful, modern Bible for the world to see.”

“Um,” Amara said. “I’m sixteen years old.”

“I know,” God said.

“I’m stocking bread at WalMart,” Amara said.

“I know,” God said.

“I’m also getting a D in English.”


“Isn’t there someone else?” Amara asked. “Someone more qualified?”

“There are lots of other people,” God said. “But I chose you.”

Amara thought for a moment.

“Are you sure I’m not going crazy?”

“Almost completely,” God said. Amara paused for a moment, and God spoke again.

“I was joking,” God said. “I am completely sure you are not going crazy.”

That night, Amara went home, and looked at the ancient books in her father’s library. The same ones she had looked at since she was a kid. She loved the leather bindings, the way the pages smelled, and way the letters all looked funny. Like tiny cartoon characters dancing across the page. She had no idea what the letters meant.

Amara frowned.

“I will never accomplish this,” she said. “I think you chose the wrong person, God.”

Amara Jiskani waited patiently for God to speak. But God said nothing.

*** *** *** ***

Ten years later, Amara and her husband Jibreel welcomed a baby boy into their family. Aaron, they called they called him. Aaron laughed and giggled more than any baby they had ever known. That made Amara and Jibreel laugh, too. The family was full of joy and laughter.

One night, after Aaron went to sleep, Jibreel stood in front of Amara. His face was sad.

“We cannot afford your schooling and the baby,” he said. “The margins at the store are thin and sales are down.” Amara and Jibreel owned a small grocery store downtown. Jibreel worked there day and night. Amara was with him as well, when she wasn’t studying comparative religions and ancient languages in school.

Amara kept a stack of Bible translations on the top shelf in her room. Pages and pages of written and rewritten manuscripts. Whenever Jibreel asked about it, she said it was “my special project from God.”

Jibreel did not understand, but what Jibreel understood about women was that somethings you will never understand. He did not press the issue.

“I need you with me,” Jibreel said.

They tried for a while to make it work. Amara cut her course load in half, took on more shifts at the store so they didn’t have to pay anyone. That helped. But raising kids is hard. Sleepless nights and never-ending days pile on top of each other. Eventually, Amara decided to focus on her family and the store.

“I will get back to school once the baby is older,” she told God. “I promise.” The pages on her shelf began to collect dust.

Amara waited a long time for God to speak, but God was silent.

*** *** *** *** *** *** ***

A few years later, Amara and Jibreel had started to make headway. Aaron was in first grade. The economy had turned around. Things were looking up.

Amara would sometimes pull her manuscript off the top shelf and look at the words. Some of them made sense. Most did not. But she could imagine. Once the translation was finished, she would design the pages in ornate calligraphy on thick, artisanal pages, leather-bound with many great illustrations.

Beautiful, just as God had asked.

Amara dreamed of returning to school, of finishing the great work God had asked of her. She shred her hopes with God and waited patiently for him to speak. But God did not speak.

Then, a pandemic came. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the world got sick. People in Amara’s community, her church, some of her friends.

Amara said to her husband, Jibreel, “Let’s take some of the food and medicine from the store to give to the people in the community who need it.” Jibreel was worried, but Amara said God would see them through.

So they did. They took ripe tomatoes, thick loaves of bread, bountiful fruits, and all the medicine they could carry to people all over their community. No one they knew went hungry.

Word got out. People came to their store, begging for help and Amara helped them. Everyone. Always.

When the sickness passed, Amara and Jibreel’s store was empty, as was their bank account.

Amara called out to God. “See? Do you see?! We’re broke now. I will have to work twice as hard to raise our son and pay the bills. Is THIS what you wanted?”

“I was not the right person for this,” Amara said to God.

Amara waited patiently for God to speak, but God was silent.

*** *** *** ***

Several years later, Amara and Jibreel’s son Aaron had gone off to college. He studied Biology. He wanted to be a doctor. He paid his own way by working shifts at the store and doing stand-up comedy at clubs around the city.

“I have been laughing my whole life,” he told his parents. “Might as well make everyone else laugh, too!”

Amara and JIbreel were very proud.

One night, while driving home from a comedy club, Aaron missed a stop sign. Red and blue lights. One cop car turned into three, turned into five. They pulled him out of the car, shouted strong words at him. Aaron was afraid. He laughed nervously.

That was enough. The gunshots rang out. Aaron was dead before he hit the ground.

Amara locked herself in her room and cried out to God in guttural wails. She wept until there were no tears left. Amara tore her manuscript to shreds. She did not wait for God to respond. She did not WANT God to respond.

The dashcam footage made it online. That spark ignited a flame that swept across the city, the country, and most of the world, burning cities, destroying communities, taking many lives.

Weeks later, when Amara and Jibreel returned to their store, it was a hollowed out, burnt shell. Which is just how Amara felt.

The police who killed Aaron were arrested and stood trial. Amara attended each. She wanted to see them face to face. She wanted them to hurt the way she hurt.

Many officers tried to justify their actions. “He went for a gun!” they said. “We feared for our lives!” they said. All lies.

One officer did not. He stood before the court and cameras with his head down. “We were wrong,” he said. “I was wrong. I am so sorry. I beg your firgiveneness.”

Amara stood in the courtroom. She remembered holding her son when he was a baby. She remembered his smile, his laughter. She remembered basketball games, and late night study sessions. She remembered the dreams she had for him, and how quickly and violently those dreams were taken away.

Amara wanted to bring the world down on this man. She wanted, she needed vengeance. But a small voice she had not heard in a long time held her back. Amara closed her eyes, lowered her head, and took a deep breath.

“You are forgiven,” she said.

*** *** *** ***

Many years later, Amara sat up in her bed. Her wrinkled hands wrote the finishing lines on the yellowed and cracking manuscript she had worked on for so long. It’s pages were stained with a lifetime of memories. It was not the kind of thing you would buy in a store.

“Is that for me?” God asked as he sat on the bed next to her.

“You know it is,” Amara said. “But I am ashamed.”

“Why are you ashamed?” God asked.

“You gave me my whole life to write a modern translation to share with the world, and this is all I could do.”

God took the manuscript, thumbed through some of the pages. He laughed in some parts. He cried in others.

“You have done a fine job, Amara. This is a good manuscript.”

God leaned in close and took her hand.

“But your first three translations – your family, your community, and your heart – those are some of the best I have ever seen. Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Amara smiled. Then she closed her eyes, and fell asleep.

Kathy Kexel Gets Biblical

It’s the last and final week of the Covid Chronicles Fre Flash Fiction Explode-A-Ganza, folks, and Kathy Kexel kicks it off with a great story about a storm and a prophesy. Click on the tree to check out “Summer Storm”

Thanks for visiting us! For even more exciting stories, please check out (and perhaps slide us some dollars at ) the sites of each of our somewhat-quarantined-and-still-slowly-going-more-insane-than-they-already-were authors: Joseph CourtemancheJamie GreeningKathy KexelDerek ElkinsRob Cely, and Dr. Paul J Bennett .

As it is in Heaven Part 2 – Paul Bennett

Dr Paul Bennett closes out Week 12 of the Covid Chronicles Free Flash Fiction Explode-A-Ganza with part 2 of his Story, AS it is in Heaven. Click on the baby car seat to read it.

Thanks for visiting us! For even more exciting stories, please check out (and perhaps slide us some dollars at ) the sites of each of our somewhat-quarantined-and-still-slowly-going-more-insane-than-they-already-were authors: Joseph CourtemancheJamie GreeningKathy KexelDerek ElkinsRob Cely, and Dr. Paul J Bennett . Things are looking up!

Dead Tree

Every year for Halloween, Dad dressed up the dead tree in our front yard.

The tree was dead when Mom and Dad bought the house in the ‘60s, had been for decades it seemed. The house behind it had been torn down, rebuilt, and torn down again several times before we even got there. But the dead tree remained.

The dead tree had a storied past, according to our neighbors. It held an air raid siren once. Then, a collection of decorative flags. For one family, it was one side of a clothesline. For another, it was a base for a series of tiny, artistic lights. It was the cornerstone of a makeshift, front yard greenhouse for a few years and, finally it became the base for a dilapidated basketball hoop.

This is how it was for my parents when they bought the place. Dad planned to teach all of us what he referred to as his “Naismith secrets.” He dreamed of watching us play in high school, maybe college on scholarship. But no one in our family had made it above five feet seven inches in all our long history. Those dreams never had room to grow.

It stayed a basketball hoop until the tornadoes of 1978 took the backboard. Rust took the hoop a year later. But the dead tree remained.

Dad found a particular glee in dressing it up every year. Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolfman, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. For a while, it seemed like his 1950s childhood nightmares would forever crawl out of his mind and onto that tree.

One year, he dressed it up as Walter Mondale. Mom didn’t like that much. We didn’t know why.

As we grew, Dad started dressing it up for other holidays and special events. A turkey at Thanksgiving. Santa Claus at Christmas. He affixed a crossbeam to it at Easter, wrapped it in patriotic bunting for the Fourth of July, and affixed a large picture of Uncle Sam to it on Labor day.

“Get a job, hippies,” said Uncle Sam to whoever passed. Mom didn’t say anything.

We tried helping. We begged to help. But dad would never let us. I tried nailing boards to it to start a tree house. Dad took them down and gave me stern looks. Daniel carved his name into it and Dad made him scratch his full Christian name into his left palm with a needle as punishment. When little Sally drew a picture of her cat and glued it to the tree, Dad tore her picture to shreds and told her if she did it again, he’d take her cat. Dad described in full, graphic detail what would happen to the cat. Sally went to her room in tears. Dad went around the house, grumbling and turning off lights, then went outside to re-decorate the tree.

Arbor Day this time. The holiest of holidays.

From then on, Dad took a particular interest in us. If we poured a glass of milk, he’d say “That’s enough. That’s enough. You have enough.” We could color pictures, but we could only use the cheap crayons and, even then, only two colors at a time. Bed time was at 8, no exceptions. Birthdays included a cake with no ice cream. Candy was straight out.

Dad frowned. Mom looked out the window for long stretches. Dad finished each day, planning his next project with the dead tree.

When friends came over, they’d say, “What’s up with your dad and that tree?”

“I don’t know,” I’d say, and they’d laugh. I didn’t laugh. In case he heard.

I went to college. Met a girl. We got married, moved into a house of our own, and had kids. We began to feel the first stirrings of parental frustration. I switched off many lights and debated the volume of milk. I grew worried. But my kids had candy. My kids stayed up late on occasion. And also: no dead tree.

When we were all gone, he took to creating weekly, artistic flights of fancy with his tree. He dressed it in old winter coats and snow boots during a severe cold snap in the winter, covered it in thousands of poppies for Armistice Day, and built the world’s largest pair of sunglasses – which he hung from the branches no less than fifteen feet from the ground – in the summer, accompanied by Beach Boys albums played on a continuous loop at a volume so loud he must have broken several local noise ordinances.

Mom died from Cancer, leaving Dad by himself to make sure all the lights were turned off. The dead tree remained. He dressed it like the grim reaper each day for six months. After that, he covered it in handwritten love poems he’d never gotten around to sending her.

We would come to visit and find artifacts of our youth affixed to the trunk and branches at odd angles. My baseball card collection. Sally’s Barbie dolls. Daniel’s high school letter jacket. Mom’s makeup kit.

When the quarantines started, he increased his output. He covered it in cotton balls so we could have Christmas in July. He painted the entire tree blue once, but it was water color so the rain washed it away a few days later. He etched text from the unsolvable Sanborn Kryptos cipher into the trunk, then drew a door around it in Sharpie with a sign that said, “The answer lies within.”

Each day was a new masterpiece. Each day the tragedy deepened.

We’d stop to check on him to find he had drawn pictures of us as kids and left them out there next to letters apologizing for past mistakes, parental errors both real and imagined. He surrounded the tree in hardened peanut butter sandwiches, then added a picture of himself looking down.

One evening, as the quarantines had lifted, just as things were starting to open again, he posted a large sign that read “I can’t.” Then, he went into the house, sat on his favorite old couch, and died just as Wheel of Fortune came on.

We sold the house to a family with three kids. They cut the dead tree out of the ground. City services came to haul it away.

**** **** **** ****

Thanks for visiting us! For even more exciting stories, please check out (and perhaps slide us some dollars at ) the sites of each of our somewhat-quarantined-and-still-slowly-going-more-insane-than-they-already-were authors: Joseph CourtemancheJamie GreeningKathy KexelDerek ElkinsRob Cely, and Dr. Paul J Bennett . Turn that frown upside down!

Hail Baseball! – A Free Short Story by Rob Cely

I miss Baseball. If you know me, you know that’s a massive understatement. If you don’t know me, you should probably know that’s a massive understatement. I miss Baseball.

So why is it that, after nearly three months of Covid Craziness and Free Flash Fiction-ing, did someone other than me write a Baseball story? I don’t know, bubba. Maybe some things in life are just too painful to look at. For you, that might be the social unrest, the unraveling of constitutional liberties, or the fact that some politicians like to pander to people online so much, you wonder if they are capable of original thought beyond “how can I manipulate this group to vote for ME! ME! ME!”

For me, though, it’s baseball.

Which makes today’s Free story from Rob Cely all that more sweet. It’s about baseball, and it makes me smile. Here’s “Hail Baseball!” by Rob Cely. Click on Joey Votto to read all about it.

Thanks for visiting us! For even more exciting stories, please check out (and perhaps slide us some dollars at ) the sites of each of our somewhat-quarantined-and-still-slowly-going-more-insane-than-they-already-were authors: Joseph CourtemancheJamie GreeningKathy KexelDerek ElkinsRob Cely, and Dr. Paul J Bennett . There may be no Joy in Mudville, but there is Joy here today. Where is YOUR joy coming from?

Joe Courtemanche Hates Your Expectations

There are people who subvert expectations, and then there are people who take your expectations, beat them to death with a 2×4, run them over with a cement truck, light them on fire, throw them off a cliff, and shoot them with a rocket launcher on the way down.

Joe Courtemanche is the latter.

Every time I read a story about Amish people, I expect bonnets, King James style vernacular, and a story so bland it makes you snore yourself awake before you finish reading it.

That was my expectation. Joe successfully subverted that. With a mule.

Check out “The Bishop’s Son, The Mule, and The Maiden – An Amish Story.”

Thanks for visiting us! For even more exciting stories, please check out (and perhaps slide us some dollars at ) the sites of each of our somewhat-quarantined-and-still-slowly-going-more-insane-than-they-already-were authors: Joseph CourtemancheJamie GreeningKathy KexelDerek ElkinsRob Cely, and Dr. Paul J Bennett . I miss Amish Cheeses. Do you miss Amish Cheeses? Because I miss Amish Cheeses. However! If I run into Puzzle the talking Mule, and Puzzle tells me I can find some Amish Cheeses if I just follow him … Man, I ain’t goin’.