“Bracken MacLeod writes dark, human stories of horror and modern noir. Absolutely one of the brightest stars of the next generation!”
Christopher Golden, New York Times bestselling author of Snowblind and Ararat
From the author of Mountain Home and Stranded, comes Bracken MacLeod’s first collection of short stories.
These stories inhabit the dark places where pain and resignation intersect, and the fear of a quiet moment alone is as terrifying as the unseen thing watching from behind the treeline. In the titular story, a young woman waits for her father to come home from the place where no one goes intending to return. A single word is the push that may break a man and save a life. The members of a winemaking community celebrate the old time religion found flowing in the blood of the vine. A desperate man seeking a miracle cure gets more than a peek behind the curtain of Dr. Morningstar’s Psychic Surgery. A child who dreams of escaping on leather wings finds rescue in dark water instead. Looking back over a life, a homeless veteran must decide to live in the present if he wants to save his future. In a Halloween Hell house, a youth pastor must face the judgment of a man committed to doing the Lord’s work. Fiery death heralds the beginning of a new life. A man who has been carrying pain with him his entire life gives up his last piece of darkness. And a still day beneath the sun illuminates the quiet sorrow of the last feather to fall.
Bracken MacLeod is the author of Mountain Home, White Knight, and, most recently, Stranded, which has been optioned by Warner Horizon Television. He lives in New England with his wife and son.
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About the Author
BRACKEN MACLEOD is the author of MOUNTAIN HOME, WHITE KNIGHT, and most recently, STRANDED, which has been optioned by Warner Horizon Television. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and magazines including, Shock Totem, LampLight, ThugLit, and Splatterpunk. He has worked as a trial attorney, philosophy instructor, and as a martial arts teacher. He lives in New England with his wife and son, where he is at work on his next novel.
Read an Excerpt
STILL DAY: AN ENDING
The morning breeze passed between the blanched, lifeless trees rising like fractured bones jutting from the forgotten marsh. The only sign of its passing, a light and silent ripple on the surface of the shallow water. The clear sky reflected brightly, blue above and blue below. The facets of the wind on water sparkled like diamonds in the light. A lone blue heron sailed from its nest, searching for something to eat, unconcerned with the line of traffic creeping by a hundred yards away. Drivers sat in their cars with the windows up and radios tuned to the recap of last night's game at Fenway or NPR or empty morning talk, paying no attention to the wetlands beside them, staring ahead, squinting against the rising sun as they ate, shaved, checked e-mail, made calls, and put on makeup. All focused on the road ahead, the day ahead, the growing anxiety of sitting still with so much to be done. Not a single one looked toward the trees or the water. They were blind to the calm and elegant wood that had once been living trees growing up over a hundred years. Before they were born, before the road was built, there was the fen and the trees and the water and sun above shining on it all.
The heron flew back to its nest unnoticed.
The woman lay in the water, unseen.
She rested on the far side of the fen, as bright as the day and silent as the water. As beautiful and broken as the trees. A gentle halo of algae that would eventually overtake the entire surface danced around her bare shoulders and thighs. It caught in her golden hair and the deep red cuts rent in her flesh. It gently painted her pale skin green. The sun warmed her and kissed her with quiet light. Her body accepted the gifts it was able to receive.
Traffic inched forward. A radio announcer explained that an accident on a different road, miles away, was causing a delay getting into the city, but made no mention of the delay on Route Two. The voice described the weather, but made no mention of the great blue heron preening its feathers in a nest built in the bare branches of a tree high above the body of a dead woman. It made no mention of a human life ending in a scream of terror and pain and longing for another chance for a different outcome.
The radio voices moved on to other subjects and traffic crept forward and she lay still in the water as life all around her thrived. The algae in the water grew. The bacteria in her gut started the process of breaking down her organs. Insects waking to the growing heat of the day lazily crawled over her skin searching for a dark, fertile place to lay eggs and give life to new generations that would need what the woman offered to thrive. A fish slipped through the water near her, catching the sharp eye of the heron above keeping watch. And the people in their cars breathed warmed air and ate cooling food out of paper bags never thinking that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow again might never come for them. That a truck might crush their bodies, a sudden disease could lay them low, that another one of them might open their skin and veins to the air and let life leak out onto a lonely mattress in a dark room, unseen and secret. No one woke up thinking that all there ever would be in their lives was behind them — not unless they had already been dying for a long time. The day and the city and the drive home that night and the next commute to work the morning after were always ahead. The sun was always in their eyes.
A small snake slipped past her, gliding into the water mirroring a line of ink in her skin. The blurred gray design arced into a once graceful feather curving along the small of her back as if the last of her wings had fallen away leaving only the hint of the light being she had once been. A woman who flew in her imagination, dreaming of a life above the clouds, living in the stars shining brightly, sparkling for the people below gazing at her beauty and radiance. But the once crisp and delicate lines had fattened with age and her airy feather became a leaden reminder of the years.
The day grew long and the sun moved above her before falling behind. The heron ate and rested and then worked its nest. The snake swam and slithered and warmed itself on a rock. The algae spread, bacteria fed, and the insects made a home for their children in and all around her.
And she lay waiting for that one set of eyes to glance toward the teeming life all around and see her.
All her life waiting to be seen.
And still invisible.CHAPTER 2
SOMETHING I SAID?
It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dim light inside the bar. This wasn't a gastropub where people would bring their kids for lunch and sit near the front to people-watch while they sipped particularly resiny double IPA. The windows were painted black a generation ago and the smoked mirrors installed above the booths in the 1970s were beginning to distort with gravity. Walker's Pub was a place for townies to come after work to down a few before they went home to face whatever it was that made them want to stop off at a bar in the first place. And I served them drinks five nights a week. Not tonight, though. It was my night off.
When I could finally make out more than the familiar shapes and shadows within, I looked around to find who I'd come looking for. He was sitting on a stool near the register chatting up Valerie.
I am not a tough guy. I never have been. I maxed out at five foot eight in middle school and am a soft hundred and sixty pounds in middle age. I like food and sex and watching TV, and I get a lot of both food and television since my wife left me for another man nine months ago. Scott, on the other hand, was ten years younger than me and built like an action figure with acne. We sometimes joked behind his back about him forgetting the steroid hypo still sticking out of his ass.
I wasn't sure how I'd get his attention if he was sitting at a table in the middle of the room or, worse, in a booth, but it was a safe bet he'd be at the bar. From my experience serving him, Scott was the kind of customer who liked to talk to his bartender. It's not that he was all that friendly or wanted a confessor — the opposite on both accounts, actually — he was one of those skinflints who thought if he made friends, at some point in the evening his new pal would start comping him drinks.
No one ever did. Jerry, the owner and grandson of the original Walker, would unceremoniously shitcan anybody he found giving away alcohol. It was one thing to pour free Cokes for the rarefied DD, but booze? Never! Hell, he almost fired me for selling a customer an empty thirty-year-old cognac bottle he thought gave the place class, even though the guy paid enough for it to buy half a case of the stuff. Still, having never scored a free drink in the past didn't keep Scott from trying. That Valerie was serving him tonight was icing. She had all the qualities men like Scott desired. Except the ability to say "Yes." Again, that sweetened the deal for him. He was one of those "pick-up artist" assholes. Even had a blog offering a "coaching" service for it. He saw flirting as a competition against a hostile adversary. Sex was the spoils of being an effective combatant, not something another person agreed to because it was enjoyable for them.
He'd start out "negging" a target, wrapping an insult in a slight compliment meant to undermine a woman's confidence and drop her defenses. If the target recognized what he was doing, he'd move on to gaslighting or some other petty torture he thought was master-level hypnosis but was really just exploiting people's insecurities. At his core, he was a predator. And while he claimed to get more pussy than a veterinarian, I never saw him hook up. Not at Walker's anyway. His routine definitely wasn't impressing Val. She didn't give half a shit what his opinion of her tattoos or Madonna piercing was. But then, to put it in his parlance, she wasn't "about the D." That was not an obstacle in his world.
She set a Red Devil — what people in the rest of the country called a vodka cran — in front of him and swept his exact change off the bar top. Scott, in addition to his other flaws — and they were many — was also not a tipper. I'd listened to him hold forth one night with another customer cribbing almost the entirety of Mr. Brown's soliloquy from Reservoir Dogs on the subject. Unlike in the movie, his barstool buddy didn't argue the point, but grunted and nodded as he slurped a 'Gansett out of the can, trying not to fall off the steady seat beneath him. Tonight, he sat alone. Even better.
Val tried to busy herself at the other end of the bar drying glasses from the shelf drainer. He knew she'd be back as soon as someone else put in an order. She had to work the till. And when she did, he'd work her. I took a seat three stools down from him. Not so close he'd accuse me of being a fag, but close enough he could hear if I said something. Val nodded at me, smiled, and set to mixing a dry Manhattan. She set the cocktail in front of me, poured herself a shot of shitty cinnamon whiskey, clinked my glass and threw back the fire. "Hey, Abel. It's your night off," she said. "Admit it. You just can't get enough of me, can you?" She slapped a hand on her skinny ass and flipped her purple bangs away from her forehead.
"I don't know how you can drink that sugary shit."
"My sweet tooth is a demon that demands sacrifice."
"If that sacrifice is your stomach lining, it ought to be happy enough." She poured herself another hit and threw it back while I sipped my drink, enjoying it. Although the selection of spirits at Walker's was curated with the intent of offering an affordable, quick buzz to people less interested in taste than effect, she made an excellent cocktail using what we stored below the bar — a personal collection paid for with our own money, without Jerry's approval — so we wouldn't have to suffer. Val should have been working in one of the upscale waterfront bars in the city. Instead, she was up here in the industrial Revere hinterlands. She claimed to like it better in townie bars. No one tried to make her feel like shit for "only" being a bartender, or treated her like the help. I suspected she preferred to work off the books more than she liked the atmosphere. Whatever her reasons, working with her was like a master class in being a badass behind a Boston shaker.
"So, for real. What's up?"
I shrugged. "Just thought I'd drop in and say hi. Since Katie left, I'm bored on Thursday nights."
"God, I hope I never get that bored." She didn't acknowledge the departure of my ex-wife. She was a good friend, protective and loyal. She'd been my best man at our wedding. Thinking of Katie made her angrier than it made me sad. Her jaw flexed as she gritted her teeth. She let out a long breath and patted the back of my hand, giving me the kind-eye invitation to stay as long as I wanted.
A guy I'd never seen come in before took a seat at the far end of the bar, and she put the candy rotgut away before sashaying over to serve him. He didn't know she was queer, and she knew how to earn her tips. She left her glass sitting in front of me. Val was meticulous about her bar; it meant she was coming back. I secretly wished she'd left the bottle behind along with it. I could have used a little more liquid fire in my belly than was left in my own glass. I took a big swallow of the Manhattan and tried to settle my nerves. It didn't work. My blood thundered in my ears as my pounding heart tried to kickstart my legs to get me to stand up and walk out the door. Even my Dutch courage was weak. I sat where I was and pulled my phone from my jacket pocket. I checked the time: quarter to ten. Late enough.
Scott was scanning the place for other marks, not having made the kind of headway he'd hoped with Val. I took a quick look around and saw there wasn't a single unaccompanied woman in the place. That meant Rhonda had come in with her husband. Time was short before Scott killed what he had in front of him and decided to take it on the heels looking for prey in the city.
"What was that?" Scott said, turning to look at me.
I held up my phone and said, "Someone sent me a link to this guy's blog. It's called 'Female Sexual Motive' or some shit."
"And what did you say about him?" He stood up from his chair and cocked his head at me like I was hard to see under the yellowed lightshades. Maybe I was. Or maybe he was just trying to figure out why I looked familiar. Since I wasn't behind the bar wearing an apron, he seemed to be having some contextual confusion. I hoped he was lubricated enough to want to fight, but not so drunk he couldn't put his back into it.
"Who? My friend?"
"No. The author."
The author. I almost laughed. In hindsight it might have sped things up if I did. I shrugged again and went back to looking at my phone, dismissing him.
Scott took a step toward me. "I said, did you call me a cunt?"
I shook my head and pointed at my phone. "No. This guy. But I take it back. Calling him that implies he'd be worth a fuck. Reading this dogshit, my bet is he isn't deep enough to hold a tampon —"
He came at me like he'd heard the bell before the hammer even bounced. His haymaker took me in the side of the face and a blossom of heat spread across my cheek. My head whipped around and I staggered off my stool, tripping over another trying to keep my feet beneath me. The tall chair I'd been sitting on clattered to the floor while my phone slipped out of my hands, skipping once like a flat stone on a lake before disappearing behind the bar. He punched me in the kidney, making the muscles in the left side of my back cramp and my spine twist. He shouted something I couldn't hear over the ringing in my ears from his first hit. I did hear his voice crack at the end, making him sound as hysterical as he claimed all women were right under the surface: emotionally driven and borderline hysterical at all times.
I turned and tried lifting my fists to put up a guard. He hit me again in the gut right between my elbows. I dropped my arms to protect my midsection and he whipped around with another bent arm hook into the other side of my face, hitting me in the jaw this time. I spun and staggered away from the bar, both sides of my face numbing and growing tight with swelling. I stumbled into the middle of the bar and stood, trying to shake the haze out of my head. It wouldn't do any good to get knocked out too fast.
Blood dribbled out of my mouth and I stuck a finger in to assess the damage to my aching back teeth. Touching my molars caused pain unlike anything I'd felt before. They weren't loose. They were gone. He'd broken off at least two that I could feel. I tried to blow a kiss at him, but my mouth hurt so bad all I could manage was to let it hang open while blood and saliva drizzled down my chin.
Once upon a time I took karate, or something the instructor called karate. He'd made up his own style and named it after some piece of kanji he found in a book, the way teenagers pick their first tattoo. He told us it meant something poetic like "lunar eclipse," and waxed esoteric about appearances versus reality and what real warriors did and didn't do. I found out later he'd never bothered to ask someone who could actually read the language, and the symbol he'd named his art after was Japanese for "restaurant." Admittedly, it's a tough language. But he never double checked. Anyway, that was the guy who taught me how to fight. Against guys who'd also learned how to fight from him, I was good. In the Way of The Restaurant, I was Jim Kelly cool. Against a guy who spent all of his free time in a gym lifting and doing MMA, I was a punching bag; I just couldn't hit back.
Most of the time, I skirted around conflict with humor and a fast-talking reason that calmed even the most hotheaded guys down enough to not pummel me. But I really thought I might be able to block at least one of this dick's hits. Just one, so I felt like I was a participant in the fight. Scott, however, was fast and motivated. I had nothing in my repertoire of three-step slo-mo techniques and pseudo-religious platitudes about honor to counter a whip-fast hook or a rabbit punch. Learning that hurt worse than any of his punches.
It was hard to breathe. My stomach was cramping. Another slam in the guts and I crumpled. The floor was where I wanted to be, actually. Lying there, I felt none of the uncertainty of being rocked on my feet. Lying on the floor, I knew which way was up, which was down, and where I was. Definitely down, on my side, smearing my blood in the tracked-in dirt and road salt from the previous winter. The other thing being on the floor told me was he would have to change it up from fists to feet.
"Was ... it something I ... said?"
He kicked me in the back. Scott wasn't wearing work boots, but they weren't fluffy bunny slippers on his feet either. It didn't matter. Legally, almost any "shod foot" is considered a dangerous weapon. I felt the pointed toe of his Rockport against my ribs and heard the snap of bone echo in the shocked silence of the bar. The only other noises I heard were my ragged breathing, his cursing, and Val in the background shouting for him to stop. Bless you, Val, I thought. But let him go. I knew she'd already called the cops.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "13 Views of the Suicide Woods"
Copyright © 2019 Bracken MacLeod.
Excerpted by permission of ChiZine Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Still Day: An Ending,
Something I Said?,
Pure Blood and Evergreen,
Ciudad de los Niños,
The Blood and the Body,
The Boy Who Dreamt He Was a Bat,
Blood Makes the Grass Grow,
Some Other Time,
Morgenstern's Last Act,
All Dreams Die in the Morning,
Mine, Not Yours,
Thirteen Views of the Suicide Woods,
The Texas Chainsaw Breakfast Club or I Don't Like Mondays,
In the Bones,
Blood of the Vine,
Looking for the Death Trick,
This Last Little Piece of Darkness,