The Magazine of the Bethlehem Writers Group
Issue No. 54, Autumn, 2018
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Editor's Note: This autumn, we are very happy to bring you our Second- and Third-place winners of our 2018 Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Award as our Featured
Authors. Our theme was Tales of the Paranormal, and these talented writers have created very different takes on the theme. 

The 2018 First-place winner, "The Sisters in the Museum" by Christine Eskilson, joins our 2017 winner ("Casting Off" by Suzanne Purvis) and twenty-five other stories in our latest anthology: UNTETHERED: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Tales of the Paranormal. It is a collection of stories of the unexplained and is out this October--in time for Halloween. It's available online or through your favorite bookseller (ISBN: 978-0989265041 for paperback;  978-0989265058 for ebook).   

Running our Short Story Award contest is one of the highlights of our publishing year. We look forward to reading the work of established and emerging writers and seeing how they interpret our theme in 2000 words or fewer--and then bringing the best of them to you through our anthologies or here in Bethlehem Writers Roundtable. Our 2019 contest opens on January 1, with the theme "animal tales." All of our themes are broadly interpreted. As long as an animal (real or imagined) is an important element in the story, you can give us any genre that sparks your imagination. And we are fortunate this year to have John Grogan, the author of MARLEY & ME, as our guest judge. It ought to be a terrific year.

Also in this issue, we have a bittersweet poem from Felicia Mitchell, and stories from Nancy Christie, W. C. Clinton, Fiona Margaret Jones, and Katie Winkler. Our own Diane Sismour brings us an interview with Dee Davis, the current president of Romance Writers of America.  And, as ever, we have writing tips from around the web from Betty Wryte-Goode. We hope you enjoy this issue, the lovely autumn season, and the best of the holidays.
~Carol L. Wright, Executive Editor

Our Featured Authors
https://twitter.com/intent/tweet?text=Chris+S.+Burns+and+Cecily+Nabors+are+our+featured+authors+in+the+current+issue+of+Bethlehem+Writers+Roundtable+at%3A&url=http%3A%2F%2Fbit.ly%2FuvQALJ&via=bethlehemwriter+%23TheBWG+%23amwriting


2018 Second-Place Winner  



Chris S. Burns is a writer and librarian living in San Francisco. He’s currently completing an MFA in Fiction at Mills College in Oakland, CA. Chris’s writing has appeared in Lady in the Lake, Transfer Magazine, and The Laurel Review. You can contact him at chris_s_burns@yahoo.com
chris-s-burns.blogspot.com, or @chris_s_burns





The Psychic and the Foodie: A Love Story 


Look, two things: first, I have no idea why I’m psychic, and second, you need to understand that it’s not awesome being psychic. Everyone thinks it would be, like it’s some kinda superpower. I know everyone thinks it would be. But trust me, all those things you imagine or maybe see in movies – how it makes it easy to get laid or win at poker – none of that works. I mean, by the time you read the mind of someone you’re hitting on to see what they want you to say, they’ve already swiped left or right in their brain. You can see what a poker player’s holding but when you win too easily and they decide you’re cheating, it gets ugly. Even if you’re a detective or judge and can tell who did it, what good does it do? You can’t prove it.

Every once in a while I’ll get a ping that I should approach a person or I’ll know when someone’s lying, but mostly it’s listening to people debate the most efficient way to cross the street. “I could cross here and wait for the light on that side, or I could go straight here and maybe no cars will come and I can get across in the middle . . .” It’s like that, except with everyone, all the time.

Being psychic, it kinda sucks.

It’s why I like places where people are habitual. Starbucks is the best. Starbucks, for all its sugar and caffeine, is extremely peaceful. It's all muscle memory and no free will. People queue up, put their brains on silent, and wait their turn. They get that first cup of coffee, or a Frappuccino on a hot day, or fill their face-holes with one of those breakfast sandwiches that should be disgusting but they’re super addicting, but whatever they’re doing, they’re not thinking too hard about it. Occasionally someone’s way too excited for a cake pop, but the volume in the room is still way down. Starbucks might not be designed for it, but it’s a psychic sensory deprivation chamber.

So I get coffee here every day, along with most of these people. I’ve seen Nice Suit Guy. Updo Braids Girl gives me a nod of recognition. Teenager Perpetually Studying is all names and dates and never looks past her screen. My favorite barista, Abby, is here, and because I can read her mind I know she has a crush on me, which is awesome and not as creepy as it sounds since I literary can’t control this and also she’s kinda loud about it in her head. And yes, knowing that could be the benefit of being psychic, but I also know she doesn’t date customers and doesn’t want anything more than flirting, so . . . what good does knowing it do?

But some guy I don’t recognize is in line behind me, and he is seriously wrecking my day. He's getting a latte. He's good there. But he also wants something sweet, a pastry or cookie or brownie. That’s fine, except somewhere between his drink and his snack he's become one of those “choices are the hardest part” people. You know the type. He’s one of those “I just can’t decide!” people.

I’m standing right next to him and he’s thinking, “What do I want? I don’t know!!!” He’s thinking, “I should go with my usual. But maybe I should go with something different? Maybe there’s something I’ve never had!” (It’s Starbucks, man. There isn’t something you’ve never had.).

I’m trying to block him out. I fiddle with the wrapper on some expensive sea salt chocolate square from the Dominican Republic. I listen to the music. I recognize the song but don’t know it. It’s poppy and processed and probably a cover or something from a soundtrack. I mean, this song’s so dull a kitten wouldn’t play with it. Abby’s singing along in her head and even she doesn’t know what it is or care. I really try focusing on the lyrics. I crinkle the edge of the wrapper but I’m not even a little distracted.

Being in a place designed from the ground up to be pleasant works for me, but for this guy it doesn’t work at all. It’s in places like this, filled with natural greens and browns, rounded edges, all the signs focus-grouped to reach their most non-threatening potential, where he really gets hung up. He hasn't noticed the song. He’s all internal exclamation points. I have no idea what he’ll get but he’s so loud in my head I want to choke the shit out of him either way. He’s thinking, “I should get something different!” He’s thinking, “Goethe said ‘Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aide.’” (Goethe never said that. Some other guy did.)

I’m guessing here because I can’t rip information out of brains, I just go with what people are thinking to themselves, but nothing gives this guy an existential crisis like picking off a menu. He’s probably totally fine making critical decisions at home or work. This guy could be an ER doctor. He could probably be trusted with nuclear launch codes. But here, Crisis Guy’s anxiety is through the roof. If he were saying out loud the stuff that’s going through his head, someone would call 911.

All I can hear is “I should just get the same cookie I always get. What’s wrong with a cookie? But that banana nut bread looks amazing! Fuck. Fuck! What’s wrong with me?” (Lots of things, Crisis Guy, but it’s okay. You’ll get through this. We’ll get through this together.)

The line steps forward and I set down the chocolate and pick up a tin canister of mints that somehow claim to be fair trade and I shake it gently, the rat-a-tat not blocking this guy out. I kinda want to just leave, but I’m not giving ground. I was here first. Teenager Perpetually Studying is packing up so it’ll be that much quieter. I hate every moment of this, but goddamn it I’m staying the course!

The line steps forward again.

I mean, it’s been like three minutes, but I’ve been with Crisis Guy through the whole thing. I don’t care about it, but I’m starting to want to know how it ends. It’s like if you walk into a room and someone is watching the finale of a reality dating show you’ve never seen – you might hate reality TV, but you stay to see who wins.

This is the part where there’s just two finalists facing the star of the show. The music builds and a camera pans down from above and the producers make them pause an unrealistic amount of time and stare at each other, two randos facing some garbage person they're pretending to love, or have convinced themselves they love, I can't tell in the recording. I've always wanted to be on set to find out what they're really thinking. If the benefit of being psychic is that you want to be on set for the taping of a reality show, then, well, it’s a shitty super power is all I’m saying.

God, it’s crippling though, hearing all this play out. He’s exhausting himself. If brains could sweat, his would need a shower. The future might have been bright and shiny when he woke up this morning, but now it’s bleak. He’s looking at this problem like it’s forever but the line’s moving.

I’m starting to feel for him. Despite the fact that I want to beat this guy into the shape of a paper coffee cup and throw him into the compost bin, I’m totally curious. I need to know what he’ll decide. He’s going crazy and I’m thinking What’s it going to be, Crisis Guy? A chocolate croissant? A brownie? A cake pop? What’s the decision? HOW WILL YOU END THIS?!

“The smart thing to do,” he’s thinking, and he’s actually sweating now, and knows it, and can't stop anything about this situation, “is to realize that I’m not going to be happy either way, so I should just get the latte.” But this guy, he’s not doing himself any favors. He didn’t wait in line behind me and Updo Braids and five others to make the smart decision. With the amount of calories and fat in the average Starbucks item, no one comes here to make the smart decision.

I’ve ordered. Abby doesn’t like my shirt but she says she does and we talk for a second. I tip big.

Crisis Guy’s coming to the end. I hope he orders whatever’s big enough to gag on. But that’s not fair. I hope he orders what he likes. He doesn’t deserve any of this. This is just too dumb to be deserved. It’s not worth it. He just needs some breathing exercises.

I linger by the espresso machine, right at the edge of the counter, eavesdropping on his solo conversation. The anticipation is maxing out.

Crisis Guy’s at the front of the line. He’s about to explode. His brain has gone from dogs barking idiotically at the moon to alarm bells ringing to an air raid siren. Abby’s coasting. She’s moved on from me and my shirt. She looks him square in the eye. There’s a new song on and she doesn’t even know she’s singing it in her head. She’s all ear-to-ear smile and the practiced routine of customer service pleasantness when she says, “Hi!” and asks, “What can I get for you?”

He hesitates as his anxiety crescendos. His brain gone full Wagnerian opera. His head is loud like a howler monkey hate-fucking the Transformers franchise, but the scream dies abruptly. He squares his shoulders and levels his eyes at Abby. His brains turns way down.

He's made his decision.

He orders.

“A grande latte and a chocolate chip cookie, please.”

And with that, I take a long, gentle breath of relief, I take a sip of my Frappuccino, and I prepare myself for the chaos outside the door.










  

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2018 Third-Place Winner
Cecily 
Nabors lives in Maryland, though her family’s roots are in Kentucky. She’s a retired software manager who has sold short stories and articles to many different publications, ranging from Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine to BirdWatching to The Washington Post. She’s published many travel articles based on trips with her long-time partner, who says he likes her nature articles even better. Her website, www.CecilyNabors.com, includes her blog, an introduction to her memoir A Reader’s Journey, and excerpts from two novels written for middle-schoolers. 



Lainey and the Monsters


“Lainey? Lainey!” Granny’s screech rose above the thumping of her cane against the wall. “Get up and make the fire!”

Lainey pushed back her mama’s patchwork quilt. It wasn’t good daylight yet, so the monster snakes under her bed would be waiting, as they had all her six years. One mistake and the slithery coils would snatch her. From her bed, she made a standing jump to the floorboard that had the knot like a toad’s head. The monsters couldn’t reach past that.

In two shakes, she was in the front room, pulling open the stove door and shoving in kindling. The weather wasn’t yet so cold that she could see her breath inside, but still she was glad when the sticks caught fire. Fire was friendly, like the barely remembered hug her mama gave her before she went away.

Lainey skinned out of her night-things, danced her naked self by the stove to warm, and pulled on her day dress. By the time Granny appeared, Lainey had water heating for coffee.

“After breakfast, fetch more water and wood,” Granny said, tying her apron over her long brown dress. She poured buttermilk into two bowls and crumbled leftover cornbread into it. “Old Rabson Wade’s hankering after Frank Hunt’s girl Reba. He’s coming today for ginseng and one of my special spells and devisings.”

Why would Granny fix things for old Mr. Wade but not for Lainey? She’d begged Granny to witch away the monster snakes under her bed. Granny always snapped, “Ain’t no need for a God-fearing child to worry none.”

Lainey did fear God, but she feared the monsters more, and Granny most of all.

When she ran out to pump the water, Whistle, the mongrel that Granny kept to warn her of approaching visitors, frolicked out from under the cabin. Fog ghosted the autumn trees and lay among the folded hills. No surprise to Lainey that Miss Darleen Cooper had stared around her when she first visited the cabin. Some folks called the ridge lonely as a mountain cat’s scream, but to Lainey it was a sightly place, and home.

While Lainey toted water and baskets of stovewood, she hugged the knowing that Miss Darleen Cooper would be coming tomorrow. Soft as she looked, there wasn’t much give to her. She’d stood up to Granny, all right.

Granny’s wide straight mouth had clamped tight as the well cover and her eyes had blazed, but Miss Darleen Cooper didn’t back off. “I hope you’ll change your mind, Mrs. Menifee,” she’d said, so polite. “Elaine would benefit greatly from starting school.”

Lainey wished she could give Miss Cooper a pretty just for saying her name. Her fingers and toes curled with wanting school, but she dassent speak against Granny.

“She’s too young,” Granny snapped. “I’m raisin’ up a child alone. Don’t need notions of schooling and town in her head. Town lured her mama like flowers draw bees. Then she came back here to bear a shame child and soon enough lit off again. Ridge folks belong on the ridge.” Granny turned away.

“I’ll be back,” said Miss Cooper. And she did come back, every week.

Lainey took the pan of breakfast scraps out to Whistle. She crawled under the cabin to watch him wolf the food. Curled up in his dog-smelling nest of rags, she looked out at the world from between the cabin’s stone pillars.

Granny’s screech found her. “Lainey! Feed the chickens!”

Lainey scattered feed to the six Hampshire Red hens. Her fingers sifted through the straw of their roosts for eggs. Oh! Something soft and warm! It was a nest of baby mice, with tiny blind faces and delicate paws. Lainey’s finger gentled them as she put them into the egg basket. Lordy, wasn’t it lucky Miss Darleen Cooper was coming! Maybe she would like one to raise up.

When Granny saw what was in the egg basket, she opened the stove door and flung the baby mice into the flames. “Don’t want no mice eating our feed.”

“They were for Miss Darleen Cooper,” Lainey sobbed. “A pretty.”

“Nosey somebodies don’t need a pretty. Outsiders got no call telling ridge folks how to do for their own. Now go get me some eggs—I need one in this potion. And fetch that rabbit.”

Head drooping, Lainey shuffled out. Trouble piled on trouble. Yesterday she’d let that dear little rabbit go.

Could she fool Granny? She went to the rabbit’s pen and pulled one edge of wire loose. Sucking a punctured finger, she went back to Granny. “It’s got away,” she said. “Must’ve pushed out.” She kept her eyes lowered—no one dast look at Granny and tell her a lie.

Granny grabbed her wrist and pulled her out to the pen. “No fur’s caught in that wire.” She hauled Lainey over to the woodpile and gave her a licking with a stick of stovewood. Then she smacked the tearful child ahead of her into the cabin. “Make that finger drip into the potion. No time to catch another rabbit. Virgin’s blood will have to do.”

Lainey’s stomach curdled to think of Rabson Wade drinking her blood, but she let three red drops fall into Granny’s brew.

“Now reach me down that big kettle,” Granny ordered.

That meant going to the loft. Lainey shivered. No telling what all lived up there in the dark. “Can’t you use ary other kettle?”

“No. Now fetch that ladder ‘fore I give you something else to cry about.”

Lainey dragged the ladder into her bedroom. Sunlight brightened the room, keeping the snakes quiet and harmless. Sun and fire were clean and pure, magic against dark and monsters. She dried her eyes on her mama’s quilt and hugged it for a sweet minute.

“Move, girl,” Granny snapped. She steadied the ladder as Lainey pulled herself up, step by slow step. Lainey’s trembling hand pushed against the loft’s wooden cover. It thumped sideways.

Blackness hovered in the loft.

Lainey clung to the ladder. She stared into the dark and the dark stared back. Blacker than bats’ wings, blacker than coal, the dark stirred itself and flowed toward her. Lainey gasped. The dark growled like long low thunder. Lainey screamed and flung herself down the ladder.

Granny caught her arm. “What ails you, child?”

“There’s a monster in the loft, worse than snakes! Big as the night! It growled at me.”

“Nonsense. Now get me that kettle.”

Lainey squeezed her eyes shut and crept back up the ladder. She flailed her hand around, found the edge of the big kettle, and slid it down to Granny. Whimpering, she tugged the lid back across the opening, trapping the dark inside. “Granny, can’t you witch the monster away?”

“If you ain’t the foolishest,” Granny scoffed. “I’ll not waste my spells and devisings on fanciful monsters.”

Now Lainey knew what she had to do. She hurried outside to make a spell and devising of her own. She found an acorn, a sharp stick for a body, and another one for arms, and bound them together with threads from a feed sack. The reddish-brown feathers that littered the chicken house were almost the color of Granny’s long dress. She pulled more threads from the feed sack and tied the feathers around her doll under the stick arms. A square torn from the sack became an apron to bind the doll’s waist. With a rock, she marked black eyes and a wide straight mouth on the acorn face.

“Be Granny. Be Granny. Be Granny.” Spells were always in threes.

Keeping the doll close to her body so Granny wouldn’t see it if she looked out, Lainey walked three times around the cabin. “Use your powers to witch away the monsters,” she whispered. “Witch away the monsters. Witch away the monsters.”

But how to set the spell?

“Lainey? Lainey!” Granny stumped down the cabin steps. She headed for the henhouse, grumbling, “Child’s always out of pocket.”

Quick as thought, Lainey flew up the steps, hauled open the stove door, and threw the doll-Granny inside. “Fire, fire, clean and pure, set the spell as sure as sure.”

She was almost certain those were the right words. Flames licked greedily at the dry sticks. Feathers sizzled and stank. She closed the stove and hightailed it out to the porch. She’d done the best she knew how. Now it was up to the magic.

Old Rabson Wade brought a mess of quail to pay for his wooing potion, and Granny fried them for supper. Afterward, Lainey sat on the cabin steps. A dry-leaf tang hung in the air and a fat yellow moon was rising. Whistle leaned against her as she played with his soft ears.

Granny called, “Lainey, come put the kettle back in the loft.”

Lainey’s heart quivered in her throat. “But I’m most mortally feared of the loft.”

Granny’s voice was hard as iron. “Now.”

Lainey carried the kerosene lamp from the front room to her bedroom. Keeping as far from the bed as she could, she set the lamp on the table. Maybe the snakes weren’t good awake yet.

Granny held a candle up, and Lainey felt better. Maybe the loft-monster, made of the dark, feared the light. Maybe it would squinch back into a corner and leave her be.

Her legs shook as she climbed the ladder and pushed the cover of the loft aside. Granny handed up the kettle. Aching with fear, Lainey raised the heavy kettle to the edge and looked into the loft.

The dark loomed out at her. In the candlelight, huge shiny eyes gleamed, wild and fierce as a mountain cat’s eyes. The dark-monster growled. Lainey shrieked. The heavy kettle dropped from her shaking fingers. Lainey huddled on the ladder, her hands over her eyes. Behind her she heard a loud thump. The candle went out.

“Granny, run!” she cried. “It’ll devour us both.” She stumbled down the ladder, snatched up the lamp, and fled. She looked back only once. Slithery snakes waved their coils from under her bed all the way to the toad’s head knot. The dark, growling and slavering, was flowing down the ladder.

Granny must be outside already. Shadows leaped around Lainey’s lamp as she ran across the front room and out into the night. “Granny! Where are you?”

Granny wasn’t anywhere. Lainey crouched under a tree at the edge of the clearing. Whistle licked tears from her face. “The monsters have eat Granny clean up,” she quavered.

She and Whistle were alone against the monsters. The moon, riding high and white, penned the dark-monster inside the cabin for now. But in the blackness before sunrise, would the dark flow down the cabin steps toward Lainey?

No. She knew for sure and for sure what she had to do. “You stay here, Whistle,” she commanded. The dog settled down with his nose on his paws.

Carrying the lamp, Lainey crawled under the cabin, shuddering with the blackness of it and the horrors overhead. The cabin squatted above her on its stone pillars like a bloated spider. When she reached Whistle’s rag nest, she held a rag in the lamp’s flame until it blazed, then stuffed it into a chink of the cabin floor. Above her, something moved and moaned. She whimpered with fear, but she kept lighting rags and stuffing chinks as she backed out. Her heart hammered as she dashed across the clearing to Whistle’s warmth.

Eerie shadows moved in the cabin’s flames. Sparks flew from the dry wood. Suddenly a wild shriek rang out, like nothing Lainey had ever heard. She knew it was the sound of a monster in mortal pain.

When the cabin was but a collection of small fires and smoking timbers, Lainey put her head down on Whistle’s neck. “Miss Darleen Cooper will be here soon,” she told him.

It was a pure pleasure to her that all the monsters were dead.