Wednesday, December 21, 2005

On the job training at the Fulton County Morgue

He pulled at the crotch of his trousers with his one good hand and shuffled, past the fire place, between brown leather chairs and slumped into his seat. Avery sat with the heels of his feet against the chair, leaning forward, listening to the fire crackle. On either side of him were friends, almost his age, whispering among themselves in small groups of two and three. The parlor bathed of leather from the thick comfortable chairs and an overstuffed sofa. Big game trophies mounted on the wall eyed the gathering with undying interest.

At seventy two, he started to decline. He missed his teeth and hair and only one appendage on his right hand still worked half well, but not without a slight twitch. His hand wavered slightly as he raised the glass to his lips, filling his mouth with brandy, and forcing the muscles in his throat to swallow.

The liquor cleared his throat of phlegm. A droplet rolled down his chin and onto his lap. He waited for everyone to settle back into their chairs before he would begin. Tonight he would tell his small gathering a story that had remained untold for almost forty years.

His voice was somber and full as though to set the tone for his story. "I've never told anyone this story. Not a one. I dared not tell what happened to me that night," he said.

He paused and took another sip from the glass. Shadows from the fire danced above the men while they waited for Avery to continue. The room filled with each others thoughts of what story their friend would tell. They gathered around in a semi-circle, as they had for the better part of twenty years, and listened as Avery took them wherever his mind wandered. Many a night, they gasped at tales of hideous creatures, some living close by, and other horrors that most people never heard of before. Nine men waited patiently to learn where he would take them on this moon-filled night.

Avery straightened himself in the chair and stared at each of them in turn. His eyes seemed to pry into each soul in search of a story until he settled on Ben, his friend of better than thirty years and the closest to a son he ever had, and bemoaned a sigh of regret. As though, looking into their eyes, he found which tale would be told.

"There are times when I wonder where they came from," his voice barely carried above the crackle of the fire.

Avery settled back in the chair, the glass of brandy resting neatly on his knee, and he began to speak again. This time he wouldn’t stop until the story was finished.

To this very day I wonder if I haven’t dreamt it all. If not but for those few minutes, startled as I was, I’m almost sure it was all a very real dream. On nights such as this, when there is a restless moon and demons play with lost souls, I can recall a visit by two travelers.

These two weren't your ordinary bump in the night strangers. No, they were something to keep you awake all night if you happened to meet upon them the way I did. I can't recall when it started, but I suspect it had to do with all those bodies. They were a pitiful lot, they were. Most of them were burned to the bone. Oh, it was a sad day alright.

My first day on the job and here I was up to my elbows in work and frightened. Oh was I frightened to be sure, but I was mostly scared I'd make a mistake. In some ways I was also scared to be alone with them. Don't ask me why, I can't quite remember why, but I felt so alone and so helpless. I couldn't do anything but watch as their twisted remains were stacked along side the wall. I wanted to do something for them, those poor souls, the lot of them, but it was beyond my power to help.

My, was I something back then; full of lofty ambitions and false pride. I never lost my pride, even after they visited me that night, though I'm sure there were times when I had to swallow it.

Now only a few tidbits remain, and even if I could remember, I think my first day on the job really didn't happen. At least not the way I would like to remember. I was young, ambitious, and had foolishly thought I would be the best pathologist in the county or even the state someday.

Oh, I know, there are all those expectations of starting a new job, especially on the first day, but now I can't remember how I felt. I can only guess what it was like at that particular moment in time. That dreadful night had a hold of my memories and wouldn't let me forget for many years.

As I remember, it all started around four that afternoon when I was told about the plane crash. Nearly a hundred and ten bodies, young and old alike, were scattered over the old ballpark.

Volunteers from all over came to help. We had to try and identify what remained of as many people as possible from the wreckage. It was a sad, grim, task that we were asked to perform that day. There was little time to question why it happened. We were all very busy trying to piece together enough so they could be identified by their relatives. We didn’t have time to even think about why it happened. There would be time for that later.

The last arrivals of the evening were little more than charred mannequins, their arms wrapped around each other. I can't tell how it came about that I was left alone with those two. They probably never expected to share death when it happened. Heck, tell you the truth, I don't even remember if I ever found out who those two were or where they came from.

Two hours later I finished separating the couple from the death grip which held them together. I guess they were probably in their early thirties, but I'm not sure about that. They must have embraced each other as a last desperate act of love to face death. I can tell you this much, I was deeply moved by the sight. Their deaths brought a deep sorrow where earlier I had felt horror.

I had done as much for them as I could and placed them in the vault while I went to my desk to fill out their death certificates.

It wasn’t long before my stamina mistook the momentary tranquillity for a chance to put my head down on the desk and get a few minutes of sleep. The hour was late and by two-thirty I was drained of emotion and strength. The night crept away slowly. While the morning began waking all manner of creatures, I drifted aimlessly in slumber. My head was tucked into the corner of my arm.

Suddenly, I was awakened by a coldness touching my face. I had a scare coming to me, sure enough. Still I wasn't ready for it. My eyes snapped open and I confronted a child, blankly staring at me while he held onto a woman's hand.

Never before or since had I seen such a child as him. The lad, not more than seven or eight at best, was neatly dressed in a black suit with wide lapels. His shirt was the whitest I have ever seen, crisp and wrinkle free, as though he had only dressed moments earlier. I followed the boy's hand up to the woman, but my neck stiffened in that awkward position and made it difficult to look above the desk lamp. The soft lighting from the hallway filtered into the room and her outline emerged to fill the doorway.

She was hidden by shadows that floated in front of my face. She too was dressed in black, tall and slender; her hands were covered with pressed white gloves. I uttered what I thought was surprise, but only a faint whisper escaped me as trapped air leaked between teeth clenched in fear. I must admit my feeble attempt at courage was something quite incoherent to the human ear. I tried to push myself away from the desk so I could get a better look. I don't remember if fear ever knew a better person to pick on that evening, but I was a good choice. My heart pressed itself against the walls of my chest, insisting I flee the room.

"Shhh, it's only a dream," the boy whispered.

Nervously, I went around the desk, my confidence returning. My thoughts were more directed and cleared of the momentary fright I experienced by their sudden appearance.

"Can I help you with something?"

I realized that what I said sounded awful and tried another approach. "I'm sorry, but we don't allow visitors in here."

That sounded more official and manly like I was expected to say something important. Yet, they remained silent as though they were expecting me to show them a body like we do for members of the family.

The woman stepped closer and grabbed my shoulders. I struggled vainly to escape her grasp, but she held me by the strength of her weight on my shoulders. The more I tried, the harder she held me until I was resigned to stop and try a different approach. I tried not to look into her eyes for fear something waited for my soul behind those hollow sockets. In the dark recesses, I could see nothing but emptiness and sorrow. There was no pain or remorse in those eyes. Nothing. But a deep sadness crept into my soul nevertheless. I knew of her sorrow as though it was part of me.

“Who are you?” I demanded bravely. “What are you doing here at this hour of night?"

A murmur escaped her lips as she pushed me backwards on to the desk. I tried to protest, but her gaze entranced my spirit and I had no hope of escaping. My God, I begged her to release me from her grasp, but she held me firmly and nearly touched her lips upon mine.

The veil couldn't shield the fire swelling from her hollow eye-sockets. They blazed as though her soul spit forth through those portals. I tried to cast her spell from my heart, but she whispered into my ear and I couldn't stop her words. Her cold breath on the back of my neck chilled my soul.

“Help us.”

That’s all she said. But a power as I had never felt before or since swept over me. I squeezed my eyes shut. The weight on my shoulder was lifted and I fell to the floor, free of her. My head began to spin, clouded by haze and I returned to the sanctuary of dreams and fools.

I was awaken hours later by the hand lying on top of my head and jumped from the stool to escape. I stumbled away from the table that had supported my head and tipped the stool over.

The hollow ring of metal on the granite floor echoed throughout the room. Startled, I waited for her to reach out from behind and touch me. Instead, a faint memory of her plea, a waif misery; beckoned me to pursue a terrible thought.

What if?

No, it was impossible. How could anyone survive such a terrible crash? We had all the bodies. Everyone was counted. There couldn’t possibly be anyone left?

But how could I be sure?

I had to know for myself. I gathered my jacket and ran for the door. It was a short distance to the field where all those bodies laid just hours earlier. I didn’t have any problem finding a few remaining personal affects scattered around the infield. I covered my eyes for a moment and tried to visualize how those people must have felt as their plane screamed toward the earth. It broke me and I knelt down to the ground in despair. I had not experience such grief before. Their voices seemed to ring true as I swiped a tear away. Then I imagined a faint whisper and the thought stuck me.

What if someone had really survived?

I knew it wasn’t likely. But I scanned the field anyway, hoping someone would come out of the shadows. I searched the edge until my sight focused on the field across from the ballpark. At first, I hadn’t thought of the cemetery but it made so much sense.

The woman and child I saw in my dream were dressed in all black as if to attend a funeral. But who’s? I hadn’t heard of a recent death since the previous week and I knew they had already buried Martha two days ago.

I rose from the ground and made my way to the cemetery. The dew made it slippery and each step was an effort. But I found the entrance and turned toward the ballpark where it all began. I used what light remained from the failing, silver moon to search between each row for a sign of life. It must have seemed ironic to look for a living soul among the deceased. But I kept at it for awhile until I approached the last row.

Scattered on the ground was a small bushel of carnations. I stepped to the side and glanced at the marker of a man roughly my age when he died. When I returned my attention to the path, I noticed a shoe sticking out from a row or bushes.

Hidden in the underbrush was a body I dreaded finding. I pushed away the foliage and saw her for the second time that night. A three-inch piece of metal protruded from her breastplate.

She clung to a boy. A sliver of moonlight illuminated her face. A single tear was stuck in the corner of her eye as though she were both sad and happy of my discovery. I reached down to touch her and the boy sprang up on one knee.

Startled, I fell back a step. I reached for a branch and steadied myself.

He whispered: “Are you my daddy? Momma always told me you’d come back for us.”

I took a deep breath and shuddered. The boy glanced back at his mother. He touched her cheek and then turned to smile at me for some reason. I beckoned him with the only comfort I knew at the moment.

"Yes, son. It’s ok. There’s nothing to worry about, I’m here now."

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Old rejections

This post is for those who are planning to send something to
Amazing Stories in the near future. I just received a rejection :-(
from them with a note that they have all the stories planned and
purchased for the year and are not accepting unsolicited materials.

Now, this could be a slip rejection of a really bad story or
one that doesn't fit their needs or it could be sincere and they
are all booked for the year. I don't know which is the case, but
I hope it is the latter. I would hate to think my story was
terrible. Anyway, this brings up an interesting point.

I want to send the story to more than one editor, but I
tend to have patience and have waited for a reply before sending
it somewhere else. Because I have a half dozen short stories and
a near complete novel, this could take some time and I'm not getting
any younger (so I'm told). Should I send this story and others to
several different editors and let them know or should I continue
to submit to one editor at a time? Here is something else, I will
be finished with my novel by the end of June and want to send it
out right away. Yet, a part of me wants to wait until December
when I finish my second novel and send them out as a set or
individually to several publishers.

After December, I will be starting on my third novel and will
not have the time to track the previous two novels progress without
distracting my writing. At the pace I am writing, I will have a
novel completed and ready to go every six months and at some point,
I will have to stop and start marketing what I've written. So,
from one point of view, I am thinking of submitting directly to
book publishers, but on the other hand, I would like to have an
agent do the work for me. Either way I will have to stop and do
some marketing. As for the short stories I've kept to myself for
the past year or so, should I treat them any differently and send
them as a group or individually?

J.L. Campbell --- A troubling childhood is no excuse for entering

Originally posted May 9 1994, 10:36 am

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

What is in a name?

Here's a short story I wrote in 1991 and just now pulled it from the resting place I stored it for so many years. Now, I need to dust it off, and edit it once or twice and see if the story is of any interest to a magazine.

What is in a name. Evil by any other name is still evil. Case in
point. Brian, the name of our first born son, was what most people
thought of as the perfect child. Good, happy, easy to care for and
above all, loving. That word, loving, has a different meaning today
then it had five years ago. Back then it meant a son who loved his
family, and cared deeply for his sisters. It meant that I could spend
my time with him, holding him when he needed to be held, and just
loving him as I would all my children. I don't think of loving the
same today as I once did. I couldn't possibly, not after I found out
what it meant to him. How he embraced that word as if it was his own,
delivered to him from a dictionary of distorted and perverted words.
Where the meaning of nouns, adjectives, pronouns took shape from a
world of vocabulary vile and horrific descriptions.

The child, my only son, was conceived on Christmas day, 1985. As
if the act of loving conception was deliberately guided to that day
for a purpose, I, as human, could not understand or grasp. A child
of Christmas, the gift of gods, was born nine months later during
an eclipse of heaven and earth. Taking what light, soul, and love
existed that day away with the passing of the darkness. The first
scream of breath echoed a death of my wife, as her life was given
to provide a soul for one who was never born, but rather pushed
from the womb of a woman.

In time, I came to accept her death as my son's breath spilled out
into the night and I was lost to the time of his first years. Three
years passed since his, her shared births, and I had almost forgotten
the loving she had given. He had replaced that feeling with a want,
a need, to fill my hours caring for him. My other children came into
my life to feed my inspiration as I struggled to survive the loneliness
and coldness of my world as it had become. But even their love could
not survive long in a house that had become a temple for my son.

In time, as with age and eventual death, my other children became
a pawn of my son, turning their love for me into a hatred of all life
and withdrawing inward to serve a new life. I tried not to see what
had become of my family, as I tried, I lost touch of my own desires.

Another year had passed and my son had begun to develop a sense of
what life could offer, or rather what he could take away and began to
play with life. Corrupting my other children, he enjoyed the loving
that they gave him. Still, I had not seen what was happening. Not
until months later when I too became infected by his corruption. A
feeling of disgust swept through me as I lay on the bed, gasping for
breath as my wife had five years earlier, tempted to end the torment
that had i had been going through since her death. But it was not to
be, as if my son knew of my renewed strength, he straddled my attempt
to end the misery with his dictionary of perverted words that had new
meaning. Forcing me to listen as he spread his gospel through my mind
with his voice, quietly whispering his thoughts, repeating the same
sentences, never relenting until I was submissive to his needs.

He kept at it daily, feeding what was left of my mind and soul with
his thoughts, commanding me to obey, focusing on my weaknesses with
the skill of a preacher. Compelling me to listen by his voice, as I
heard the wail of a child masked behind the spirit and determination
of an adult.

I knew it would have to end. He was my son, and I still loved him,
but I couldn't take it any longer. A determination, a force of will
gave me strength as I plotted and planned on the eventual confrontation.
Not knowing the outcome, I only knew that it had to stop, that I had
to put an end to it once and for all. I decided I would wait for the
right moment and strike when he was distracted. Take control of my
destiny. Free myself of the power he had over me and my other children.

I spent the next several days waiting for my chance, but he must have
had sense my change, my unwillingness to give as easily. He had been
quiet, almost withdrawn, as I waited for the right moment. But I was
patient and waited, watching his every move with a keen sense of
parental suspicion, knowing that he would make a mistake and let his
guard down long enough for me to act. It might take a little longer
than I anticipated, but I knew it would happen soon. It always did.

The afternoon sun darkened as clouds laden with moisture passed
across the sky and filled the air with a sense of foreboding. Soon,
the first drops of rain patterned the dry surface of the cement from
our driveway with faces of imaginary creatures. Following the droplets
was the sound of thunder as it echoed off distant structures, vibrating
waves passing through the valley, touching the ears of children and
sending them indoors to escape the fury of gods. As the rumbling
crept across the house, I began to prepare knowing that my son would
be coming inside to parade his misfortune for everyone. Loud and
boisterous, he would announce his arrival expecting everyone to
stop and pay tribute. But he wouldn't expect a challenge to his
authority, and I would be waiting, watching for the right moment
when I would be there to strike.

Stepping into the hallway, I took the weapon and placed it behind
my back and drew a breath. Letting the air trap my accelerated
heartbeats in still time, I practiced the words I found in a dusty
book. Whispering them to myself and waiting. Seconds ticked away
and were replaced by minutes, still he had not exoduses from the
storm and I was becoming more worried almost forgetting what I was
waiting for. As I was about to leave my hiding place, I heard a
door slammed shut downstairs and released the trapped air from my

Loud noises followed by silence, and then more noises coming from
the kitchen. Still clutching my weapon, I waited for him to come
up stairs knowing that he would start voicing himself once he failed
to find what he was looking for in the kitchen. Following his normal
routine, he started to climb the stairs, feeding the spaces with
his voice. Loudly proclaiming his arrival to mankind, and expecting
his servants to usher from their rooms to service his needs. As he
continued to climb, his voice became more intolerable as I listened
from my hiding place. I could tell from the sound of his voice that
he was only a few steps away from the top, and I prepared myself to
confront him as soon as he stepped around the corner.

Another step brought him closer. My body began to tense as I waited
holding the weapon more tightly then before. I could feel the strain
of my task bearing on my feelings for my son, yet I was resolved to
end the torment, regardless of my inner fears. One more step to go.
A board in the flooring gave away his presence and I leaped out from
behind the corner, holding the knife in my hand, I prepared to strike
downward at the menacing form before me. As my hand clinched tightly
on the weapon I felt a sudden sharp pain come from my lower back and
gasped for a breath of air. The knife in my hand loosened slightly as I
staggered forward struggling to keep my balance. Another sharp pain,
this time in my side, and I could feel the knife blade piercing my
lungs. Tearing flesh as it was pushed further inside me until the
hilt of the blade rested against my side. Then I could feel hands
on my back as someone began to push me forward.

A rush of air escaped from my side as I tried to scream. Looking
about wildly, I turned to see my other children staring at me, smiling
as I fell forward against the wall. Then they started giggling while
holding their blood stained hands to their faces as if hiding the
laughter behind a blood shield. With the knife in my hand still, I
lurched at them falling face first onto the carpet. At the same time
I could feel the knife being pulled from my side.

Turning on my side, I could see my son holding the knife in his
hands as he studied the blood on the blade. Looking at his reflection
in the shiny blood stained blade, he began to smile broadly exposing
his missing front teeth. As he studied himself, I started to back crawl
away from him hoping to avoid death as long as possible. At least
until I could leave a message for the police to find knowing they
would have to eventually come to the house when I don't show up for
work on Monday. By then it might be to late for me, but at least I
could make sure that someone knows what I found out to late to prevent.

Licking my lips, I turned my head in time to see my daughters walk
away from their bedrooms mechanically advancing to where I lay on the
carpet. As I watched them step closer, I could feel a hand clasp my
ankle and kicked my leg instinctively trying to free myself from what
had taken hold of me. Not wanting to turn my attention away from my
approaching daughters, I kept kicking blindly with my feet until I
felt the knife penetrate my calf and I stopped and turned to see my
son holding the knife firmly in my leg with both hands. Enough air
remained in my punctured lungs for a scream to escape my throat as I
reached for the knife. Seeing my efforts to extract the knife, my
son let go momentarily allowing me to kick at him with the knife
still protruding from my calf, hitting him on the chin with the butt
of the handle and sending him backwards.

Pain shot up through my leg as I tried to stand. Crippled from
the injuries, I fell back on the carpet still kicking madly. My
second attempt to stand was more successful and I braced myself
against the wall holding my side as I did so. As if my daughters
sensed my death near. They both started to laugh loudly while clapping
their hands as if cheering for a winner in a television contest. Their
laughter distracted me from my son long enough for him to reach out
from where he lay and extract the knife from my leg. In doing so, he
let out a laugh that startled me as I felt the pang of fear mix with
the pain of my injuries and staggered backward. Holding my knife,
I swung it at my daughters as a diversion then turned with one
motion and ran at my son.

The suddenness of my attack had taken him by surprise as he stood
near the stairs staring blankly as I plunged the knife into his chest.
Looking down at the blade as it pierced his heart, he was pushed back
by the same force that drove the blade deep inside and he fell down
the stairs with a smile on his face. As he fell backwards down the
stairs, I slumped to my knees half expecting my daughters to push me
after my son. Instead, they both stopped laughing and a hushed
silence fell over the hallway as I watched my son roll down the stairs
in slow motion. Tumbling end-over-end, he continued to laugh until
he reached the bottom stair and I lost sight of him and the sound of
his laughter.

Staring down blankly, I imagined my son crawling back up the steps
holding the knife in his small hands, grinning as he crept up each
step until he was directly below me. As I continued to stare, lost
in my own thoughts, I had forgotten my two daughters behind me until
I felt a hand on my shoulder and jumped at the touch. Bracing for
the pain I knew was coming, I was surprised to hear my daughter
speak for the first time in days: "It's okay daddy, he's gone now!"
was all she said. Then blackness became my day, filling my mind
with an emptiness as I slumped against the wall.