LEVELS Sneak Peek: “In the Plantation House”

cover-smallFinding the plantation house was a blessing from heaven. As the family wearily and silently hauled their wagon down the rutted road, they first saw its roof, a flat line of slate over the kudzu-covered trees, and quickened their plodding steps. When the full house came into view, it was all they could do to keep Little Bee from shouting out loud.

The colonnaded veranda was peeling, and the wooden steps down to what had once been a tended lawn were warped and crumbling, but the walls and the roof still held true. Kudzu covered the windows on the first floor, but hadn’t extended to the second or third. Pa motioned Ma to stay with the wagon, and Jacob to pull both of the rifles from the wagon and join him. Unbidden, Robbie followed them, holding his bow at the ready as a rearward. Ma set Eliza, Janice, Little Beatrice and herself each on one side of the wagon to keep watch and raise the alarm if anything moved that wasn’t a tree limb in the sluggish breeze.

Pa and Jacob advanced at the ready through the doorless entrance from the warped veranda. They kept their rifles aimed where their eyes tracked, and felt the floorboards cautiously as they stepped. There was furniture in the rooms, some still covered with age-spotted drop cloths, most naked and molested by vermin over the years, but the floor showed no sign of any human tread.

The stairs moaned in protest as they ascended to the second floor, but held solid even when Pa tested each with his whole weight on one foot. The second floor was less disturbed by flora and fauna than the first, and it too showed no sign of occupancy in decades at least. Pa motioned to Jacob and Robbie to check the third floor while he himself examined each of the rooms on the second. He found bed frames with no mattresses, old straight-backed and rocking chairs which held together by sheer Southern obstinacy, and fragments of silvered mirrors in frames warped and flaked by humidity, but no sign that anyone other than themselves was there, or had been, or would be.

Pa, Jacob and Robbie rejoined the womenfolk outside, and Pa gave Ma a long, slow hug. He spoke for the first time that day and said, “Let’s move our things in.”

***

While Robbie and Little Bee stood guard on opposite corners of the veranda, the rest hauled their possessions out of the wagon to the second floor. Then, while the womenfolk set to cleaning and arranging some rooms as their living space, Pa and Jacob gathered all of the chairs and slat furniture from all three stories. In a leanto out back Pa found a jar full of rusty nails to supplement his own meager supply, and he and Jacob nailed the wooden furniture into a mass of crosshatched timber and doweling. They threaded a rope through it, pounded a few nails into the ceiling above the second floor landing, and improvised a pulley from a caster off one of the old bed frames. When they were done, they had a light but effective barrier that they could lower into the stairwell, filling and blocking it to anything larger than a cat…

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This story and sixteen more are included in Levels: Fantastic and Macabre Stories, now available! Buy the ebook on Amazon or Smashwords, or the print edition on Amazon!

LEVELS Sneak Peek: “The Straightest Road in Maine”

cover-smallSo it’s night, black night, not even the moon is out, and we’re driving a road that cuts through the pines on either side and not a house anywhere. Every once in a while I see the light from a house far back in the trees, but I can’t tell for the life of me how you’d get to one of them because there hasn’t been a crossroads or a fork or even a driveway for miles and miles. Not that I want to turn, this is the road I want, but still, how do people get to their homes? Hell, why do they live here in the first place?

Mary is in the passenger seat and I hate to glance over to her because everything that’s wrong with her now is right in her profile. Nose is still cute, sure, but under her chin I can see all the stuff that wasn’t there before she had kids, and that always reminds me of what’s under her coat, hanging over her belt. After the kids were born I said, Better exercise and do something about that or it won’t stay empty, it’ll fill in with fat, but she didn’t appreciate me saying that and didn’t exercise and what do you know, what I said happened. I think she did it just to spite me or something, because honestly, who’d want to look that way? Sure, I got more pounds on me than I had when we got married but men carry it better.

And it doesn’t help things that Mindy is in the back seat, Mary’s kid sister, and she leans forward between the front bucket seats to see the road and talk to us when we talk. She’s got a perfect set of knockers, better than Mary’s ever were even before she started squeezing out babies and her boobs inflated and deflated and inflated and deflated until they look like old pillows, and when Mindy leans forward toward us the V-neck of her shirt lets you see all the way to Florida. I adjusted the rearview mirror so I could see better because, hey, just because you’ve bought a horse doesn’t mean you have to close your eyes when you pass a stable, right? And anyway, it’s not like there’s anything else to see out here, the road goes straight in front of the headlights and disappears into the dark and there’s nothing but night further on and to the sides and behind us. That’s why I’m okay with twisting the rearview mirror to check out Mindy because it’s not like there’s anything behind us, hasn’t been for probably an hour, and anyway that’s what side mirrors are for.

Mary says, Keep your eyes on the road, almost like she knows what I’m looking at, but she can’t because she’s just staring straight ahead, has been all the way up from New Hampshire. Mindy’s got a job in Maine at some resort that wants her there this early in the spring to help them get ready and she doesn’t have a car, so we’re driving her up to drop her off until October. Nothing good on the radio, and Mary doesn’t say anything except stuff like Keep your eyes on the road, and Mindy’s a hottie but she’s dumber than hell, so it’s been a long silent ride…

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This story and sixteen more are included in Levels: Fantastic and Macabre Stories, now available! Buy the ebook on Amazon or Smashwords, or the print edition on Amazon!

LEVELS Sneak Peek: “Story in a Bar”

cover-smallLarry leaned toward the fellow sitting on the barstool two down. “So,” he said, “how’d you lose the leg?”

The man swiveled slightly on his stool and looked at Larry, and Larry looked back. He knew he wasn’t much to look at—Cindy had told him so for years, first jokingly, then simply as a matter of thoughtless habit—but he knew that he fit in, here in The Drowned Out, with the other low-grade white collar types who were taking up space at the bar and in the booths. He belonged. This one-legged man, though, was a novelty. His hair was white with a few scattered black threads running through it where it fell into his eyes; his skin was wrinkled leather as if he had spent fifty years staring down the wind and the sun, and his chin was frosted with white stubble. He wore a pea jacket, clinching Larry’s assessment of the man as an “old salt,” though what an “old salt” was doing in Ohio he had no idea. And of course there was that missing leg, without a prosthesis or even a peg in its place; the right leg of the man’s corduroys were rolled and pinned where the thigh abruptly ended.

The man took a long pull at his beer as he looked back at Larry, then said, “You’re a friendly sort, at you?” His muttered voice was strong but quiet, with a cadence that made Larry think of rolling seas and creaking yardarms or whatever creaked on a boat. Larry had never been on the ocean. He also knew that he was moderately drunk.

“Well, you seem like a man with a story,” Larry said, waving to Chuck behind the bar for another of what he had just finished. “No point in ignoring it, right? The leg, I mean. Everyone’s always trying to pretend that nobody’s got a handicap—no offense—but hey, the leg’s not there, and it’s hard to ignore. And it’s probably a damned interesting story.”

“I’m sure everyone in here has his own story,” the man said—not brusquely, not in an effort to end the exchange, but conversational-like. Larry scooted his drink with him as he moved to the stool beside the man. Up close the old pea coat was patched but clean, and despite the stubble and shaggy hair, the man didn’t smell or anything.

“Everyone in here,” Larry said, “has the same story. Me too. Got a wife waiting at home who ain’t really waiting. No matter when I get there, she’ll be sitting up in bed with the mudpack on, watching whoever’s on late-nite now, and when I crawl into bed she’ll turn out the light and roll over and that’ll be it. As long as I’m not getting any tonight, I might as well be here at The Drowned Out, getting pleasantly plastered. And there aren’t any one-legged men at home. At least, I don’t think her tastes run that way. So? What’s your story?”

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This story and sixteen more are included in Levels: Fantastic and Macabre Stories, now available! Buy the ebook on Amazon or Smashwords, or the print edition on Amazon!

LEVELS Sneak Peek: “Other Duties”

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Note: This story was written specifically for the Monsters & Mormons anthology, which deals—as the title suggests—with monsters and Mormons. As such, it’s replete with LDS in-jokes. I apologize if non-Mormons don’t get them. Trust me, they’re funny.

The voice on the other end of the telephone line overflowed with nervousness and apology. “Hi— Bishop Evenson? This is, my name is Steve Roundy, from the West Point Fourteenth Ward. I’m really sorry to bother you so late, but I heard that you’re the agent bishop for stuff like this…”

“I am.” Norman Evenson rubbed the gummy stuff from the inside corners of his eyes with the thumb and forefinger of his other hand. He could see his wife Miriam up on one elbow, watching him. Beyond her, the digital clock read “1:32 AM” in glowing green. He gestured to her to go back to sleep and stood up, taking the phone with him as he walked out of the bedroom toward his home office.

“Tell me what the problem is,” Norman said as he flipped on the light and squinted.

***

It took a little over ten minutes for Norman to get from Brother Roundy the salient details. After he hung up, he put on the white shirt, tie and Dockers that he kept in his office so he could get dressed at odd hours without waking Miriam. He avoided his two-piece suits for matters like this; not only were they all dry-clean only, but their crotches tended to split out if things got active. When the tie was knotted, he called his first counselor, Brant DeSalle.

“Sorry to wake you, Brant,” Norman said, the phone cradled in his neck as he slipped on his shoes. “We’ve got a call to handle.”

“Oh. Mercy.” Norman could hear the lag as Brant’s sleepy brain caught up to his words. “I don’t need to shave, do I?”

“I’m not going to. Give Brother Wills a call and have him meet us… Wait, he’s still out of town, isn’t he?”

“Baby blessing up in Idaho, back Thursday,” Brant said.

“Right. Don’t worry about it, then. I’ll see you at the church in fifteen minutes.”

After he hung up and tied his shoes, Norman flipped back through his stake calendar. It was the first week of February; he had only been the agent bishop since the start of the year, and this was only their third real call. Maybe he could call the previous agent bishop to put together the needed quorum.

There was no answer at Bishop Stewart’s home number, so he called his cellphone. It took three rings for him to pick up.

“Bishop Stewart, this is Bishop Evenson. Sorry to call at this hour, but we got an emergency call and my second counselor is out of town. I wonder if you can help us out.”

“Yeah, I’m in Barbados on a cruise ship,” said Bishop Stewart.

“Oh. Sorry to bother you, then.”

“Best of luck, though.”

Norman ended the call and paged again through the directory. The next person in the ward who held priesthood keys was Kyle McMullin, who had come back from his mission in May, gotten married in November, and been called as the elders quorum president in December. Norman doubted that the high councilor had even given Kyle’s presidency any training yet on the full scope of the agent ward’s duties. But that was the way the line of authority ran…

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This story and sixteen more are included in Levels: Fantastic and Macabre Stories, now available! Buy the ebook on Amazon or Smashwords, or the print edition on Amazon!

LEVELS Sneak Peek: “The Flooding of River Home”

cover-smallThe homefathers and the exchangers avert their faces, and though they call me by my name WeSa to my face, behind my back when they think I cannot hear they call me “the Remnant of River Home.” My wife, I hear, they call “Lament of the Unmothered.” They do not shun us, of course, and most do not teach their own children to hate us, for no sin can be named to lay at my feet; I am incarnate the tragedy that befell River Home, but I am not its instigator, nor am I any more to blame than those swept away. The only one to revile me openly is my birthsister, forever named ErRu, and she shall have no children to teach her hatred to.

As grievous as this tragedy was, their whispered scorn would not be so great if I had not chosen as mate one who was already ill-omened in their eyes, she who was LuRa and had no birthbrother save the ungrown lump that was delivered with her. The tale passed down from the Forgotten Times is that those without a birthsibling were given to the River to avert bad fortune, but it is only a tale, and none can say if it was ever true. Still, the shadow of such legends lay heavy over her in her childhood, when she was LuRa and I was ErWe. And when I chose her to mate and to rename her WeRa to my WeSa—her, above all the pleading young women whose birthbrothers had been hale and hearty—then the whispers about her began anew on some lips, this time suggesting that the tragedy had been because of her after all, and by mating her I had invited the doom to linger and strike again, like a dark cloud wedged into the valley that brings no rain but only dry wind and lightning. But people say many things in anger and grief, to vent the ashes in their hearts.

When my first Longyear came, I was still an infant, clinging to my mother’s fur alongside ErRu. I must have seen the young men enter the River to ride out the Flooding, but no memory of it had stayed with me until my own Longyear. I was not the youngest of the young men in that spring awaiting the Flooding, but my father privately fretted of my chances for taking a mate. “He’s a small boy,” he said when he and my mother thought I was outside. “Thin, too. The water’ll wash him clean out of the valley, all the way down to the sea.”

“He’ll manage,” my mother said. “The River is merciful, and capricious. You were no hulking brute yourself, remember.”

“No, but I was older than ErWe,” he said. “And I was certainly enough man for you, wasn’t I?”

“You were, and are,” she said, warming to his hand on her shoulder. And their conversation quickly moved on to other matters…

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This story and sixteen more are included in Levels: Fantastic and Macabre Stories, now available! Buy the ebook on Amazon or Smashwords, or the print edition on Amazon!

LEVELS Sneak Peek: “On the Demise of Rory Calloran”

cover-smallJuly 9th, 1863

The good Father Kettrick has supplied me with this foolscap and pencil, and further agreed to forebear the redemption of my soul and instead to give me solitude for my final hour. I think that this evidence of my literacy has shocked the poor clergyman into acquiescence. I shall therefore attempt to explain for the benefit of those still baffled by the mystery leading to my conviction the circumstances, largely of my own doing, which lead me to this, the very shadow of the gallows. I shall present it in the form of a story, so that those who have not already heard my whispered and unbelievable claims will not be hopelessly confused at the outset.

Rory Calloran was born into a family of means, and discovered as he matured both the blessings of his station and the limits of material blessings. He was a quick and studious boy, but only a few years into his primary school education he discovered that his body was not the equal of his mind. By the time he was twelve years old, he was forced to walk with a cane. Prior to his matriculation into university, the cane had become two crutches. His diploma, with honors, was received when his strength had degenerated to the point where the crutches were at times supplanted by a wheeled chair in the hands of one of his household staff. His parents had used both money and influence to secure the advice and attentions of those in the top echelon of medical achievement, but this congenital wasting was not something they could halt or even concretely diagnose; it was, in the words of one practitioner, a “defect in the germ,” and as such could not be corrected without supplanting God Himself. He would never be a husband and father, nor would he ever inherit from his own father the management of the family estate and holdings. At most, young Rory could be made comfortable, and the household could anticipate the needs of his impending helplessness in all personal matters within the next decade.

But as I have said, Rory Calloran was studious and intellectual, perhaps more so owing to the imbalance between mind and body. He was aware from an early age that even as he enriched and expanded his brain, the fragile body from which it drew its sustenance would continually degenerate until he was left imprisoned in a withered husk. And thus it was also from an early age that he turned his greatest resource, his mind, to the solution of his overshadowing doom.

Owing to both the university library’s impressive holdings of antiquarian books and manuscripts and the Calloran family’s history of considerable financial support to said institution, Rory was allowed to explore the dusty stacks to his heart’s content, far beyond the liberty accorded to his fellow students. Accompanied by his Negro servants, who were entirely illiterate and thus could not report back any unease stemming from the nature of his self-directed studies, Rory made himself the master of the library’s holdings beyond the mastery of any of the librarians paid to maintain the collection. He plumbed storerooms in which the contents had been stored uncatalogued for years beyond counting, ostensibly waiting for a resource of expertise among the staff which such specialized curation would require, but in actuality neglected because those few of the staff who had ever known what those holdings included had shrunk from intimate contact with such questionable materials…

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This story and sixteen more are included in Levels: Fantastic and Macabre Stories, now available! Buy the ebook on Amazon or Smashwords, or the print edition on Amazon!

LEVELS Sneak Peek: “The Night Children”

cover-smallIt was like something from one of the stories Mother used to tell me at bedtime, but in reverse. My mother stayed alive; it was my father, a hunter and mushroom gatherer, who coughed until blood trickled down his chin. Not long after we buried him, Mother welcomed Mr. Perce to our home on the edge of the forest and to her bed. I did not blame her for marrying again, because a woman alone is a fragile thing; instead I blamed Mr. Perce for pressing his case so energetically in her time of weakness. He may have filled an emptiness in our life and our little house, but he filled it with a stinking cancer that smelled of dead fish.

My older sister Lydia had an escape; when she saw that Mr. Perce was a cruel serpent of a man, she half-corralled Jim Olandt into marrying her just so she could escape the shadow which now filled our home on the edge of the wood. I would have liked to escape with her, but the tiny new house Jim made for her had no room in it for me, and anyway, Mr. Perce wouldn’t have let me go. He liked having gotten a son old enough to do chores without waiting through the years of squalling infancy, even though I was barely big enough to wrestle the bucket back from the well. In that chore, as in all others, he waited for me to make any mistake he could punish me for; a slop of water just inside the doorjamb was enough for him to remove his belt with relish. After the first time, when Mother got her own black eye for getting in the way, she never tried to defend me again.

Mr. Perce was a fisherman. He left every morning before the sun rose and was back stinking of fish before supper, or sometimes of fish and liquor after supper. Every time I saw a dark cloud on the ocean horizon at daybreak, I prayed that this would be the one that swept him overboard and sent him to his darling fishes. At first I confessed the sin of such dark thoughts regularly, until I realized that I couldn’t repent to the priest of prayers I which made in all sincerity and which I had no intention of ceasing. So instead I stopped confessing them.

I had thought myself too old for bedtime stories until Father died, but afterward, with Mother and myself stuck alone in that home which now reeked of the invader, I longed for them. Of course, solely because they were a comfort to me, Mr. Perce forbade them. But sometimes, when he decided that the lure of strong drink was worth more than the lure of my mother’s bed until late at night, there was time for her to sit on the edge of my pallet and tell me tales as she had told years before. I never asked her to change the wicked stepmothers in the stories into stepfathers, but maybe she knew I was silently making that substitution…

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This story and sixteen more are included in Levels: Fantastic and Macabre Stories, now available! Buy the ebook on Amazon or Smashwords, or the print edition on Amazon!

LEVELS Sneak Peek: “Love Among the Kryil”

cover-smallAll right, then! Have all bellies been filled? Then let me turn my seat here, and you can all gather around. Yes, on the floor. Because I’m old, that’s why! You have to earn these comforts, you know.

Well. This is a sight. I’ve never had all of my children and grandchildren here at once. It is a blessing that both the cliffapples and the tubers were ready for harvest the same week, to bring you in from your scattered homes, and that Jondahl brought his whole family with him this year to deliver his summerpelts to market. I’ll warrant that there’s not a more favored man among all the Grondahr this night than I am!

Now, I’ve heard that some of you want to hear the story about how your grandmother and I came to be wed, with she a Kryil and all. I daresay that you have all heard the tale before, and most even from me on visits, but since you’ve never all heard it at once, I will repeat it once again.

Now remember, this was back before the Grondahr had broken the Kryil and they became the vanished and furtive savages they are today, hiding in distant caves or lurking under beds to snatch wicked children who won’t sleep when bidden. Ha ha! No, they were then a fierce and depraved people, and made war with the Grondahr continuously. All our young men back then had a duty to fight against the Kryil to keep them out of our lands and waters, to slay the men and redeem the women. They were, and are still, a devious and perverse lot. My own father taught me from the cradle never to trust a Kryil, and he afterward learned the lesson of his own words—he was captured on a raid, and to shame him the Kryil sent him back with his hands chopped off and his manhood split.

What’s that? Speak up, Dahnale. What does “redeem the women” mean? Ah, the fullblood Kryil are a dark-skinned and dark-blooded people, and beyond all honor and decency. But you see, the virtues of a Grondahr are in his blood and seed, and so our duty was to find the Kryil women when we could, after killing or luring away their men, and to force our seed upon them so that, by chance, some children would spring up among the Kryil with Grondahr blood in their veins.

So now, back to the story. No, I hadn’t forgotten. I’m old, but I’m not that old!

One summer’s day, in the full flower of my youth, I was out with a raiding party, with our flints and our ironwood, and we chanced upon a Kryil camp. They were, I think, for trade with other Kryil rather than battle with the Grondahr, but that was no concern. We fell upon them to do our duty. And coming from one of the skin tents, that’s when I first spied your grandmother. She had dark skin and straight black hair, like all of her kin, but her deep eyes sparkled and her red lips were parted in a gasp, and just the look of her shot a flint through my heart. Even among the fullblood Kryil, where no virtue or honor resided, there was still great beauty—I hadn’t known until that day how great…

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This story and sixteen more are included in Levels: Fantastic and Macabre Stories, now available! Buy the ebook on Amazon or Smashwords, or the print edition on Amazon!

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Levels by Nathan Shumate

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by Nathan Shumate

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