Thursday, May 23, 2013

Vote now! Help choose the title of my next short story collection.

Once we settle on the cover art, my good friends at Crossroad Press will be publishing the second volume of my collected short stories, a year after they brought out the first, SINCE THE SKY BLEW OFF.

And I'd like your help in choosing the title. Here are your choices:


Each is also the name of a story that will be included in the collection. Please cast your vote on my Facebook page, or send me an email.

It's not necessary to read either story to vote, nor even to know the genres -- in fact, I am hoping for your immediate, instinctive response. Which rings better to your ear: Vapors or Nothing There?

For the record, these are horror, mystery and sci-fi stories, like those in SKY.

If you would like to read "Vapors," however, follow this link.

And if you'd like to read "Nothing There," originally published in the late David Silva's legendary 1980s and '90s magazine The Horror Show, scroll down past the original art that appeared with the story. Illustration © copyright 1987 Chris Pelletiere.

Nothing There
© copyright 1987 and 2013 G. Wayne Miller

He drove north from Chicago in a rented Honda. The Saturday afternoon traffic was thick and sluggish, like blood through diseased arteries. How polite these drivers seemed. Back in Boston, you couldn't go a block without some idiot trying to nail you. Here, folks signaled when passing. They stayed close to the speed limit. No one tailgated. He supposed it was part of their Midwestern nature to be so courteous. He wondered momentarily what kind of world it would be if everyone were like them.

Before long, the factories and tenements had thinned and then disappeared. The jets in and out of O'Hare had shrunk to distant specks. He passed an amusement park, closed for the season. He saw transmission lines coming down from Canada. It was suburbia now, 7-11 stores and neat little lawns fronting neat little houses. Soon they, too, had faded. Farmhouses took their place. Cornfields and dairy cattle. Silos, rigid and tall, guardians of this rich black soil. He crossed the line and he was in Wisconsin. From here, she'd said, it was only another half hour.

The traffic was weaker now. The November day was, too. High, thin clouds spread across the measureless sky. Another hour, and the sun would be swallowed by the fields. At kitchen tables, dinner would be served. He imagined seeing aproned housewives, their hair done up in curlers and kerchiefs, bending over ovens where hamburger casseroles simmered. He imagined hearing the children, giddy with the thought of Saturday night, and the tired husbands, ready for their evening of rest.

Overhead, the sign said County K, one mile. What a funny name for a road, he thought. County K, like some new brand of cereal. He looked down at the directions he'd scribbled on hotel stationery. Yes, this was it. He eased over into the travel lane, slowed and left Interstate 94. There was the 76 truck stop, just as she'd said. A combination restaurant, gift shop and Greyhound bus stop. A parking lot full of full-sized Fords and Chryslers, with hardly a Toyota in sight. The heartland.

He'd called her after lunch from his hotel room. The first few minutes had been awkward for them both. He could hear the sounds of kids in the background. He told her about his convention. She talked about the weather, unseasonably mild, and unlikely to last, considering Thanksgiving was just around the corner.

``Where are you staying?'' she'd asked.

``The Palmer House.''

``Very fancy.''

``It's OK.''

``No, it's fancy,'' she insisted. ``I've been there. Window- shopping in that big lobby.''

``They have some nice shops.''

``You've done all right for yourself, John,'' she said, trying to mask her bitterness. A trace still showed. ``You always did.''

He didn't answer. Didn't know what he could have said if he'd tried.

``So how'd you find me?'' she asked after shouting at the children to be quiet, Mommy's got a very special call.

``The alumni office.'' They'd been the same class, the class of '96. He'd gone back east after graduation. She'd gone home to Wisconsin, never expecting to hear from him again.

``It's funny.''


``That you tracked me down. I tried to find you, you know.''

He didn't. But it didn't surprise him. There was a time he'd actually dreaded her call, but that had passed. During the period he was married, he'd almost forgotten her. It wasn't until after his divorce that he'd thought much about her again.

``I tried several times, as a matter of fact,'' she continued. ``I wrote letters. They kept coming back.''

``I've moved a lot,'' he said. ``The company.''

``It doesn't matter now.''

There was another pause. The words weren't coming easily from either of them.
``I'm divorced, you know,'' she said after a bit.

``I know. I am, too.''

``I've got two children. That's who you hear running around. A boy and a girl.''

``I know,'' he repeated dumbly.

``You seem to have done your homework,'' she said, and he couldn't tell if she was mad or not.

``It's all on record at the alumni office,'' he explained. ``Anyone can get it by calling.''

``Did they tell you they were both adopted?'' she asked.


``After Bryce, I couldn't have children. Of my own.''

Bryce, he thought. So that's what she called him. Why did she even bother to name him? What could it matter?

``I'm sorry,'' he said. He wished he had a glass of water to get rid of the dryness in his mouth.

``I am, too.'' He was surprised at how cold her voice had turned. How suddenly. He didn't remember her like that. He remembered her as soft, pretty, the youngest-looking girl sitting at the back of Economics 101 the morning he first set eyes on her.

``I'm really sorry.''


There was silence again. It was a bad cell, and he could hear static through the phone.

The child had been stillborn. That much he'd heard years ago from a friend of a friend of a friend. There had been whispers of some horrible deformity, but he'd never been able to confirm that, never bothered to try. What would have been the gain? What was done was done. All he knew for sure was that Sheryl had carried the baby to term, and he'd come out blue and unbreathing. There was a question of medical malpractice. As far as he knew, it had never come to a suit. That wouldn't have been like her. This had all happened that September, three months after he'd said goodbye.

``So why'd you call, John?'' she asked, breaking the silence.

He'd been ready for this one, but he still didn't have a good answer. Just some private feelings he couldn't share because he wasn't sure what they meant, if they meant anything at all.

``I just thought I should,'' he said. ``I've been thinking about it for a long time.''

``Do you want to see him?'' she asked. ``I think you should see him. Just once. It wouldn't have to be for long.''

He had no idea what she was talking about.


``Bryce. His grave, I mean.''

What a strange idea, he thought. Perverse. Again, the pause was long, uncomfortable. He wished desperately that the call was over, but he saw no way of ending it. It was up to her now.

``I could tell you how to get there. It's not even two hours from Chicago.''


``I think you should, John,'' she said sternly. ``I think you owe him at least that. Him and me. Respect for the memory. Respect for the past.''

``Yes,'' he finally said. ``I'd like to.''

She gave him directions. He was reading them again now after stopping at the restaurant to use the men's room. County K six miles west to an intersection. Right on Rowe's Lane about a mile to a seed farm. The cemetery would be just over the next knoll. You can't miss it, she'd said. It's on the highest land around.

He rolled the window down and put the car in gear.

Night wasn't far off, but it seemed to have warmed up since leaving Chicago. The air on his face felt refreshing, like a shower after a bad night's sleep. For some reason, he'd been getting increasingly anxious the last few miles. Strung out. He could feel the excess nervous energy running up and down his body. It was like having too many cups of coffee. His palms were actually sweaty. For the first time since talking to her, he wondered what exactly he'd gotten himself into, and why. He didn't have the answers. That bothered him more than anything. He'd gotten where he had in business by coming up with answers.

County K, a two-lane blacktop, wound off toward the setting sun. There was almost no traffic, only an occasional tractor or pickup truck or stainless-steel tanker carrying milk destined to become butter or cheese. The only buildings were farmhouses and barns. It seemed everyone was flying an American flag. In the Ivy-League East, patriotism smacked too much of Tea Party politics to be worn on the sleeve. Here, it fit.

He found the cemetery without any trouble. From this knoll, you could see for miles and miles over the rolling countryside. It reminded him of a Grandma Moses painting, the fields and outbuildings arranged like patchwork.

He got out of the car and paused a moment, surveying the cemetery.

It was unexpectedly tiny, a postage stamp of graveyards. The only smaller one he recalled ever seeing was one near Concord, Mass., where a handful of Revolutionary War heroes were buried together under white headstones whose inscriptions had worn off over the years. He counted, unconsciously using his finger as a measure. There couldn't be more than a dozen families buried here. One of them was hers, the Andersens. He remembered her telling the story of how the family had come over from Sweden during the great wave of Scandinavian immigration a century ago. They'd been carpenters and masons, these Andersens, and they'd done all right for themselves in the New Land.

The wind had picked up since the truck stop and it was insistent now, brisk but not harsh. In a few short weeks it would deliver the sleet and the snow, but today, on the cusp of fall, it brought only a final reminder of summer. In great sheets, it came whipping across the flat landscape, fragrant with a sweet agricultural odor he did not recognize. He stood, letting the wind caress him. He looked out over the stones, the torn veterans' flags, potted geraniums wilted by the autumn's first frost. The cemetery was surrounded by fields. They were brown, their life gone silently underground to await a more encouraging season.

The heartland. He'd probably eaten food grown around here, maybe from one of these very fields.

Carrying the green bag he'd picked up in the Palmer House lobby, he opened the rusted iron gate and walked uncertainly into the cemetery. That shaky feeling had returned. His lips were dry. He felt suddenly alone, inexplicably embarrassed, like the man in the dream who finds himself in public without any clothes. Let's get it over with and get out of here, he thought. He went directly to the Andersen plot, past the Birds, the Bergmans, the Mondales, the Thompsons. The featured Andersen stone was a towering obelisk, at least twice his height, cut from what appeared to be gray marble, polished and mirror-smooth. The shadow from a leafless tree fell across it in an abstract pattern. Somebody had paid a small fortune for this display, he could tell that. He remembered her father, Ambrose Andersen, a tall, stern man he'd met once. Andersen had made a small fortune in construction, and like many newly wealthy people, he enjoyed spending. He'd probably footed the bill.

Laid out in front of the obelisk were perhaps 25 flat stones, each roughly the size of a hardcover dictionary. All that had been inscribed on any of them were names and the two most important years in anyone's existence. ``Mother, 1845-1912.'' ``Father, 1840-1905.'' ``Henry, 1884-1944,'' and so forth. On the extreme left-hand perimeter of the Andersen territory, almost into the Birds', was the stone he was looking for. 

``Baby Bryce,'' it read, ``1996-1996.''

He opened the green bag and laid what was in it, a single white rose, atop the stone. His fingers were clumsy, his breath more labored than it should have been. He didn't have any of the thoughts he had expected would be haunting him right now; maybe they would come on the return trip to Chicago, or the plane home tomorrow to Boston. Nothing about what might have been, how he might have been playing Little League baseball, what he might have looked like, what his favorite subject in school might have been. None of that. Only a nagging sensation of having done wrong, and never being able to make contrition, even if he wanted to.

He didn't hear the pickup. Didn't see her approach from the field.

When he looked up, she was there, barely 20 feet away.

He looked at her, startled initially. Time had gotten to her. It had to him, too, he couldn't kid himself. She looked unkempt, haggard, as if she never got enough sleep any more. Her clothes looked freshly laundered but worn, as if she'd had them too long. For an instant, their eyes locked. It was impossible to say what was exchanged between them in that moment. Recognition, but more. Loneliness. A glimmer of what might have been, perhaps. A rush of memories, none well defined. Then it was gone. Her eyes went as cold as the gathering evening. There was nothing to say.

She came closer. He didn't move. He hadn't expected it to play out like this.

They embraced. For his part, it was instinctive. Reflexive. There was no more thought to it than drawing a breath. She was warm, her breath intoxicating. Through her coat, he could feel the swell of her breasts. Suddenly, the memories had taken on sharp definition. Now he remembered them making love the first time, the way he'd eased inside her, the softly building passion that had finally exploded one Saturday evening when his roommate was away. 

He didn't see her knife.

She plunged it into the back of his neck.

The first blood fell in perfect splatters on Baby Bryce's stone, like drops of wax from a flaming red candle. It was only a surface wound, calculated and deliberate. Alone, it might have stopped bleeding. He wasn't even sure at first that he'd been stabbed. He thought maybe she'd dug her fingernails into him. The tenderness he'd started to feel escaped him like steam. He was tempted to slap her. He'd never wanted to hit a woman before. He did now. Self-defense. But he didn't. He turned, headed for the car. A trickle of warmth ran down the inside of his shirt. The crazy fucker.

She roared toward him, her cutting arm a scythe of blurred motion. This time he saw the blade. It was a pocket knife, the kind young punks smuggle into school. The blade couldn't have been four inches long. In that instant of confused terror, he remembered something his mother had told him as a kid. It wasn't about knives. It was about drowning. You can drown anywhere there's water, she'd said. Even in your own bathtub, even in an inch of water.

This time, she connected only once, a long, violent gash that sliced through his coat sleeve into his forearm. The fabric was quickly moist from the inside out. The pain was immense. She meant to kill him. It was like being kicked in the stomach, realizing that, but he knew it was true. He was suddenly breathless, fevered. With his good arm, he grabbed his wounded one, holding it fiercely, as if that would stop the bleeding. She came at him again. For a second, he saw her eyes. There was nothing there but emptiness. He ducked to one side, and she charged past him, almost falling.

He hesitated. For a second, he thought of fighting back. He was bigger than she, stronger. And she was out of her mind, a crazed psychotic with a knife. He looked wildly around, but there was nothing he could use as a weapon, no branch or loose rock. The best bet was to get the hell away. The bleeding wasn't bad, but he'd have to see a doctor. Then he would go to the police and have the crazy fucker arrested. That's what he was going to do, goddamn it. Have her put behind bars for good.

He took a step, a step that brought his foot into contact with Baby Bryce's stone.

He felt something lock around his ankle. Tiny, vice-like.

He looked down. There was nothing there, of course, only grass and that flat polished marble stone, blending into the shadows of approaching evening. He could taste bile as his panic rose.

He tried to move. 

He was locked in place.

``What the--''

She was back, blade whistling. Her aim was more precise than before. He saw the knife, heard it, tried to roll out of its trajectory, but his foot was stuck. He did the best he could, twisting and squirming to one side. It was not enough.

She made contact, again and again. His shoulder. His side. His thigh. His right hand. He felt each cut. None was deeper than tendon level. It was more like being pricked with a needle or stung by hornets than being stabbed. After each cut, the warm moisture. Death by a thousand cuts.

His ankle.

He grabbed at it, like a mink caught in a leg hold trap. There was nothing there, of course. With his other hand, he tried frantically to fend her off. She was nimble. She seemed able to anticipate him, dodging when he lashed out, closing back in when he tried unsuccessfully to get to his feet.

Maybe he could crawl. In his panic, that new thought was delightful. It was like being born again. He was on his belly and maybe he could crawl. Maybe he'd broken his ankle, that was all, and he could slither away from her. 

But he couldn't crawl, not more than a few inches. His foot was frozen.

She was in no hurry. There was still plenty of daylight remaining, 15 minutes or more until blackness settled over them. She was nicking him. Little flicks of cuts, counting toward a thousand. It was uncanny how she kept missing all the major arteries and organs, the ones that would have ended it quickly. She seemed to know anatomy, seemed to have studied it until she was sure what to hit, what to avoid. He was bleeding everywhere but gushing nowhere. His central nervous system only gradually was shifting into shock.

The pain was building. Soon it was too big for screaming. He began to moan. A mortally wounded animal sound, back through the millennia to when ancestors walked on all fours. Hunter and prey. Victor and vanquished.

His vision blurred.

As consciousness drained away to nothingness, he thought he saw her.

Smiling, her face inches from his.

He thought he heard a new sound.

The sound of a newborn crying.

The sound of birth.

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