Robert Walton






Robert Walton is a retired teacher and a life-long rock-climber and mountaineer. He has made numerous ascents in the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite and Pinnacles National Park. Three of his short stories about climbing were published in the Sierra Club's Ascent. Another, "Three's a Crowd" was converted into a radio play and broadcast on NPR. 
He is an experienced writer with five published books to his credit. Many of his short stories have been published in journals and on literary websites. His Civil War novel Dawn Drums won both the 2014 New Mexico Book Awards Tony Hillerman Prize for best fiction and first place in the 2014 Arizona Authors competition. His story “Lulu Garlic, Contraband” was broadcast by Central California NPR affiliate KVPR. Most recently, his western story “La Loca” appeared in “Principia Ponderosa”, The Third Flatiron Anthology, Volume 18. Robert and his wife Phyllis have been married for forty-five years and make their home in King City, CA. Please visit Robert’s website to learn more about his writing:
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Robert Walton
Winner of Honorable Mention
2017 Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Award




My best friend Bernie should have been a politician. It’s not just his big mouth - though he’s in line for Guinness recognition, I’m sure - it’s his pure genius at being able to irritate ninety-nine percent of the people in any given room. This makes feeding polar bears by hand seem a sane activity compared to going drinking with him. But what the hell?

I was leaning on the end of O’Toole’s nicely polished bar enjoying the first sip of my second beer – always the best sip of the night – when Bernie flew over the jukebox, crashed on a table and slid to the floor. A big, bald-headed guy jumped on him in the blink of an eye. The big guy sat on his chest and squeezed his neck. I wasn’t slow getting down there, but Bernie’s face was already the color of a ripe plum. I grabbed a heavy bar stool with both hands, raised it and brought it down on the big guy’s head. It connected with a meaty thunk. Blood spurted out and flowed over his left ear. I hoped I hadn’t killed him.

The guy shook his head, scattering drops of blood across the already sticky bar floor. He turned, looked up at me and blinked.

Damn! This guy must have a head like an anvil, but not as pretty. At least he’d let go of Bernie’s neck. Staring at me, he rose from the floor – and rose, and rose - seven feet tall? No, but definitely north of six and a half. Red light flickered in his eyes.

“Easy, buddy. I just wanted to get you off Bernie. We can work this out.”

He growled deep in his cave of a chest and drew his right fist back.

“Maybe not.”

His fist, easily as big as an iron, hurtled in. I caught the punch with my left forearm. It was like catching the head of a well-swung sledgehammer. The pain was deep, hard and immediate. While pondering my dangling arm, a great left hook curled into my jaw. The stars came out.

I came around enough to realize that the big guy was now sitting on my chest, delivering short punches to my face. Left, right, left, right – he had a good rhythm going.

I died not long after it stopped hurting. I know this because suddenly I was looking down on the carnage being inflicted on my visage. My poor nose!

Several of the bar’s beefier patrons pulled the guy off my pummeled corpse – too late. The cops showed up and took the guy away. I suspected that not too much would happen to him since I had introduced myself with the barstool. Still, I felt wronged. It suddenly came to me that my spirit was not headed either up or down, that I was drifting beneath a lazy fan that was spreading smoke around the dingy bar’s dingy ceiling.

“Excuse me?”

I jumped straight through the filthy blades of the fan, proving incontrovertibly that I was nothing but a whiff of ectoplasm.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.”

I drifted back down to the speaker’s level and confronted a most familiar looking face surrounded by a halo of wispy, curly hair. “Say, aren’t you Gene Wilder?”

Wilder grinned a goofy Young Frankenstein grin. “I get that a lot, but no.”

“No?”

“Gene passed GO and went straight to heaven.”

“GO?”

“Never mind - you’re too young. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m your Death Orientation Host, here to apprise you of rules, regulations and procedures.”

“Well, what’s up?”

“Not you.”

“Yeah, I kind of gathered that. But not down, either, right?”

“Correct. You died unjustly while committing a selfless act for your friend. Cosmic scales must be adjusted. Cosmic balances must be - balanced.”

“Yeah, so what do I do?”

“Broadly speaking, you haunt your killer. You make him ponder his act, experience empathy and become a better person.”

“How do I do that?”

“Haven’t you seen ‘A Christmas Carol’?”

I shook my head. “I can’t stand George C. Scott.”

Faux Gene pursed his lips. “You could start by making a pest of yourself. That’s the usual plan.”

“This could be work.”

Faux-Gene nodded. “It usually is. You might learn something, too.”

“How do I know when I’m done?”

“You’ll hear a chime when the universe enters harmony around you.”

“Then up?”

“Possibly. Here.” He handed me a slender pamphlet.

I took it and riffled tattered, ectoplasmic pages. “What’s this?”

“Your ghosting instruction manual - dos, don’ts, capabilities, restrictions, etc.” I shook my head. “What if I make a mistake?”

“You’ll figure it out.” Faux-Gene twinkled at me. “Good luck.”

He disappeared like the Cheshire cat, his smile lingering until all else had faded. I looked at the book. A moan of pain from the innards of the shattered jukebox turned my head.

Bernie! He touched his bleeding scalp and moaned again most piteously. He hadn’t even picked up on the fact that I was dead. Anger swelled in my ghostly bosom. I wanted to haunt Bernie! He was the source of my grievance, but rules are rules. I knew I had to go with the big guy if I wanted to get out of this.

I picked him up outside the jail just after his attorney sprung him. I’d used the intervening hours to study my manual, so I eased up behind his right cauliflower ear and hissed, “What did you get, Chump?”

He whirled and stared blankly. “Who’s there?”

I was still getting this ghost gig down, so I had to concentrate on becoming visible. I knew I’d succeeded when Chumpster took two steps back. “Yeah, it’s me, the guy you pounded to paste.”

“Sorry about that. I’ve got a bad temper.”

“I noticed.”

“So what do you want?”

“Justice. I’m haunting you now until I get it.”

“This could be irritating.”

“It’s supposed to be.”

Chumpster turned and walked down the street. I floated after him. “What’s your name?”

“Go away.”

“Nope. I’m haunting you and I’ve got to call you something. You’d best tell me your name or I’ll make something up, something like bullet-head.”

The big guy grunted, “Herbert.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really - now go away.”

“Nope. After a year or so I might let you go to the bathroom by yourself.”

“Christ! Go away!”

“Christ won’t help. I’m Jewish.” He turned away from me and strode down the street. I allowed him a dozen steps in silence before I asked, “Where are we headed now?”

He stopped dead but did not turn. “We aren’t headed anywhere. I am going to see my girlfriend.”

“What’s her name?”

“None of your business.”

I waited a beat. “Funny name - so do you beat her?”

He turned on me and snarled, “No! I save beatings for schmucks like you.”

“Too late!” I spread my hands. “You already got me!”

My psychic alarms suddenly went off. I looked across the street at a young mother, dark-haired and waif-thin, pushing a stroller. A monster visible only to my eyes loomed behind her, rearing like a black wave about to break.

“Oh, no!”

Herbert turned. “What’s the matter?”

“There might be worse things than being dead.”

“What?”

“I’m looking at one now.” My mind whipped through the database that seemed to have been uploaded to my mind when I perused the instruction manual. “A soul-succubus?”

“A what?”

“A monster soul sucker! You’ve got to get out of here!”

Herbert pointed at the mother and child. “What about them?”

“They’re toast. The succubus will kill them and then suck their souls to hell. Look. Helpers.”

Four thugs materialized from behind a dumpster and encircled the mother and child. Metal gleamed in their hands.

“Those are just street punks.”

I nodded. “They are street punks, but they’ve been recruited by the monster.”

“Crap! I’ll take care of this.” Herbert strode across the street and waded in. He deflected the first thug’s knife thrust with his left forearm and crushed the guy’s nose with a his right fist. Swift, devastating kicks to the groins of two and three took them out. Four plunged his knife into the center of Herbert’s chest. Herbert ignored the knife and crushed the guy’s larynx with the flat of his left hand.

Suddenly Herbert was standing beside me. I looked at him. “Holy shit, you’re dead!”

“What happens now?”

“Beats me.” I pulled out my ghost iPhone.

“Apple has more apps than I thought.”

“You think?” I punched 911. “Hey, I need some help.”

Not-quite-Gene Wilder arrived with a pop like a giant soap bubble. “You called?” He rubbed his hands together and smiled when he saw Herbert. “A new customer?”

“Yeah, this is Herbert, the guy I was haunting.”

Faux-Gene frowned. “That complicates things.”

“Really?”

“You can’t haunt him anymore.”

“Obviously!” I looked up, perhaps optimistically.

Herbert pointed across the street. “Hey, that soul-succubus is going for the baby.”

Faux-Gene’s eyes went round. “What did you say?”

“My ghost data-base said that that thing across the street is a soul succubus.”

Faux-Gene followed Herbert’s finger and gasped. “Corractamente!”

“That’s what it is?”

“Yeah - and it can get us, too.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. I’m out of here.” There was the sound of a soap bubble imploding and Faux-Gene was gone.

Herbert nodded. “Let’s take care of this once and for all. You distract it. I’ll grab it from behind.”

“I don’t think that’s a great idea.”

“Why?”

“The database says that that thing can cause us eternal pain, grief and despair.”

“Wimp.”

“All right, all right.” I zipped across the street and began bobbing up and down in front of the creature’s scabrous face. Eyes like pits of slime focused on me. “You, plug-ugly, get out of here!” Succubus talons reached for me.

Herbert tore into the monster from behind with both hands, ripping gobs of grey goo from its body. A psychic scream like coyotes being castrated, or ten thousand fingernails clawing at the same blackboard, ripped the air. It whirled and swiped at Herbert. He ducked, but talons hooked left arm.

“I’m going to regret this.” I plunged my hand into the creature’s flabby back and pulled out a handful of greenish muck. It turned its horrid face toward me. Rather than taking this selflessly provided opportunity to disengage, Herbert leapt forward, gripped the succubus where its ears should have been and heaved. The creature howled like all those bereft coyotes as he tore its head from its body. The screaming stopped. Succubus shreds turned to mist and disappeared.

Herbert grinned at me. “Good work.”

“Yeah,” I grinned back, “it was.”

“Now what?”

“Good question. You’re dead. I’m dead. Let me check the user pamphlet.”

“User pamphlet?”

“You’ll get one when Faux-Gene shows up again, if he does. Let me see. Yeah, here it is.”

“What?”

“It says that we have to wait for the Big Chime.”

“The Big Chime?”

I nodded. “The signal to go up or down. It also says that we might speed things up by intervening in mortal lives for their good.”

“Like we did with this succubus thing?”

“Yeah.”

Herbert looked around the scruffy neighborhood. “There’s more of them?”

“That’s what it says here - and some even worse things, too.”

Herbert hitched up his ghostly jeans. “Let’s get to it.”

I looked at him. “Herbert, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

“Don’t push your luck.”
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