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Christopher D. Ochs


For our Spring issue, our theme is "Topsy Turvy" and our &More authors have certainly given us some terrific examples of what happens when things don't work out as expected. We hope you enjoy these terrific stories: 

Correctional Cake by Lillian Duggan
Vocabulary Test by Mike Murphy
Imagine by Justin W. Price
The One by David Henson




Lillian Duggan
is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Everyday Fiction and The Huffington Post. She lives with her family in Westfield, New Jersey, but has an irrepressible obsession with Spain.
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Correctional Cake

Lillian Duggan

“This is an eff… I mean a… a birthday cake.”

Jake is showing me a pile of junk food smashed together on a paper plate.

I’m still stunned by the orange of his uniform. My son is in prison, my son is in prison, I said to myself on the drive here. Twenty years living two hours away and I never knew this place existed.

“Unbelievable, right?” he asks. “It even has a name. Correctional Cake. That’s what they call it. Prison is a weird freaking world.”

He shakes his head. Mine is immobile. I want to say how sorry I am for not bringing him a cake on his birthday, but the words are stuck.

“There’s an actual recipe for this crap, Ma.”


Jake is still talking about the so-called “cake.” I can tell he’s struggling to avoid cursing.

He goes on. “It’s mostly candy from the vending machines. This part here is smashed up Oreos—just the crunchy parts—mixed with water.”

Jake’s pointing at the crust. I smile a little. For the thousandth time, he’s telling me how something’s made.

“The white part, the filling, is like icing. A layer of peanut butter, some M&Ms on top. That’s a god da-… a Correctional Cake.”

I slant Jake a look. He says, “Sorry, Ma.”

Did he always talk like this, and I just didn’t notice? Or have two weeks in prison changed him already? I look at his face, my boy’s face, and I want to caress it. But I resist and ask him where they get the peanut butter. From the canteen, he says.

“And the other inmates, they made you this cake, even though they hardly know you?” I ask.

“No.”


Jake looks sad for the first time since we sat down on the plastic chairs.

He says, “It was someone else’s birthday last week. I saved this for me and you.”

I feel like he’s six again, not twenty-six, and we’re cozy and safe and planning another science experiment, convinced of a happy future.

“I’m really sorry I didn’t bring you a cake, sweetie,” I say.

For his thirteenth birthday, I bought him an ice-cream cake. Before we even opened the box he asked why it was cold. I explained what type of cake it was and he grabbed the knife and started screaming, “Mom! Ice cream is ice cream and cake is cake! Why the hell did you buy me this?”

Right. That’s when he started cursing. And when fear for his happiness and mine first flowered in my mind.


***

I realize I haven’t looked at the other visitors, so I sweep a glance around the room. For a second it feels like we’re all in church. Obligated, and desperate for a better situation. I stopped going after Jake’s arrest. Maybe these people did the same thing.

I say to Jake, “Honey, I was going to bring you a cake. A regular cake with frosting and candles. But they told me I can’t until you get to minimum security.”

“Ha!” Jake blurts. “Well, that’s gonna take a while.”

“What do you mean? Aren’t you taking your meds?”

“Uh, yeah. They make me take em. But they’re no guarantee.”

Panic takes over my mind and heart. The roller-coaster is moving again. Love, then fear, over and over.

“Ma, you need to stop worrying. I can’t really hurt anybody in here like I did out there.”

I remember the court photo of his boss’s knife wound.

“Jake, that’s not the point. I want you out of here.” I feel my face flush. More than anything anyone has ever desired, it seems, I long to put my son in my car and take him home and carry him upstairs to his room and put him to bed surrounded by his Einstein posters and scouting awards.


A guard walks by and studies Jake sharply. I want to tell him about my Mother’s Day breakfasts in bed.

“You sure, Ma?” he asks, squinting toward the columns of sunlight entering the barred window.

“Of course! You’re my son,” I say.

“But, Ma. After everything I put you through, you want me back?” He’s looking straight at me. I rest my chin in my hands and my eyes on the table.

Antisocial personality disorder. That’s what the psychiatrist called it. ASPD. His father had something similar, but mixed with alcohol.

“What do you mean, Jake? I love you. You’re my son. I know you don’t know what that means because you don’t have children, but believe me, you are my whole… my everything.”

“Yes, I know all that. But don’t you ever wonder if I’m better off now? In here? And maybe you are, too?”

I jerk my head back. My first thought is Hell, no! That’s impossible! But I stop myself from saying it. I don’t say it. There’s something else, another thought, trailing it at lightning speed as if it had been lined up in my mind and ready to introduce itself to my consciousness as soon as a path there was paved for it. And Jake, who suddenly seems impossibly wise, is sitting calmly, serenely, knowing he just created that path.

“Oh, Jake,” I say, and start to cry. “I want to go back and start over. Maybe if I did something … something different, you would be…” I stop myself, afraid of making him ashamed.


***

But he’s facing me looking as confident and comfortable as the Eagle Scout he never became.

“Ma, no. It’s not like that. I am Jake Jensen, crazy, sometimes violent, guy. Not what I want, but what I am. You are Catherine Jensen, single mom. Great mom. Someday I’ll get out of here, and who knows? Maybe by then I’ll be different, but maybe not. For now, here we are. You, me, and this crappy cake.”

He hands me a spork. The taste is sweet, and strange. I tell Jake it’s delicious.

He rolls his eyes and says, “Right, Ma.”


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Mike Murphy
 has had over 150 audio plays produced in the U.S. and overseas. He has won five Moondance International Film Festival awards in their TV pilot, audio play, short screenplay, and short story categories. 
His prose work has appeared in several magazines and anthologies. In 2015, his script “The Candy Man” was produced as a short film under the title "Dark Chocolate. " In 2013, he won the inaugural Marion Thauer Brown Audio Drama Scriptwriting competition.

Mike keeps a blog at audioauthor.blogspot.com.
 


Mike Murphy

Accompanied by the usual urgent-sounding music, the “Breaking News” banner flashed on the screen. The announcer’s deep voice intoned, “This is a breaking news update from USNN – the United States News Network.”

Anchor Theresa Williams appeared onscreen behind the large news desk. “Good afternoon,” she said. “We want to bring you up to date concerning the alien spaceship that arrived on Earth this morning and assumed a parking orbit over New York City. So far, all attempts to communicate with the vessel have failed, and the inhabitants of the ship have made no attempt to contact authorities. For the latest developments, we go to Harry Walters at State University.”

Harry appeared on the right side of the screen, while Theresa remained on the left. “Good afternoon, Theresa,” he said.

“I understand that you have word of the disappearance of a State University professor?”

“I do,” Harry went on. “Margaret Lansing, a noted English professor here at State U, is reported to have disappeared less than 30 minutes ago before the very eyes of her associate, Deborah Butler. Professor Butler had this to say to USNN.”


They cut to a plump, gray-haired woman sitting behind a large desk covered in papers. She was upset and choking back tears. “I. . . I still can’t believe what I saw!” she exclaimed. “Margaret and I were sitting in her office, having lunch and discussing Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ when she disappeared before my eyes. One moment she was there; the next – poof! She didn’t even have time to finish her turkey and Swiss sandwich.”

“What did her disappearance look like?” Walters asked.

“Like nothing,” Butler responded. “There was no sound, no blinking lights. One moment, she was making an interesting point about the poem. The next moment, she was gone.”

The screen was filled with animation of a yearbook opening. One image was brought forward. “Professor Lansing,” Harry continued, “seen here in a yearbook photograph, is a divorced, 51-year-old English literature professor who has been employed at State University for just over a decade. Federal authorities have yet to comment on this new development or whether they believe it is connected to the arrival of the alien ship.”

#

A tabby cat walked across the deck of the Sinlaxian ship’s control room, paying little attention to the alien life around her. “What do you call this creature, Professor?” Egrethor, her thin, tall, sparkling “host,” asked.

“A cat,” Lansing answered.

“No, that won’t do.”

“I beg your pardon?” The cat, having little interest in this meeting between human and alien, flicked her tail and padded away silently.


“From now on,” the alien told the professor, “that animal will be known as a dog.”

“But we already have an animal known as a dog.”

“Not any longer! What you once knew as a dog will now and forever be known by its Sinlaxian name – an oomphax.”

“Oomphax?”

“That is what a similar creature is known as in our language. You will not call either of those animals by its Earthly name ever again. Do you understand?” he asked.

“This is ridiculous.”

“Hardly. My people are here to take over your world, and we will now start molding it to our liking. We will begin by doing away with your language.”

“Why?”

“Language is important. It gives people a commonality, an understanding, a strength. That is why we will deny you humans yours. It pains me to have to use your tongue to communicate with you now.”

“Sorry,” Lansing said sarcastically.

“Do you remember the Sinlaxian words I taught you?” Egrethor inquired.

“I don’t see why –”

“Do you?” he asked again adamantly.

“Yes,” she answered.

“Good,” the alien continued, “because the survival of your race depends on it.”

#

Lansing was called into Egrethor’s presence the next morning. She answered his question: “An inopala.”

“Correct,” he said. “That will be all for today. You may return to your quarters.”

“Is that what you call the closet you’ve stuck me in?”

“It is adequate for a human. Go now.”

She started walking away, but then stopped and turned on her heel. “Why did you pick me for this?” she asked.

“No reason,” the alien told her. “It could have been anyone. The fact that you are an English professor learning Sinlaxian from me does make this ironic. Don’t you think so?”

“No.”

“You need to develop a sense of humor.”

“I find that difficult,” she said, “when you tell me that the fate of every man, woman, and child on Earth rests in my hands.”

“It has to rest with someone,” Egrethor told her. “Not to worry. I’m sure you’ll do just fine on the test tomorrow.”

“Test? What. . . What test?” she stammered.


“The vocabulary test. Tomorrow morning, I will quiz you on the Sinlaxian words you have been taught. Your performance will determine whether your race will be allowed to live as our – what would your archaic word be? – servants.”

“You mean ‘slaves,’” Lansing countered.

“That sounds so demeaning.”

“But that’s what we would be, right?”

“That will be decided in the morning,” her host said.

Lansing stumbled over her words. “I. . . I can’t do it.”

“What?”

“I can’t be responsible for this. I can’t. You’ll have to pick someone else.”

“You are as fitting a representative of your people as anyone,” the sparkling alien told her.

“But –”

“Without the test, your race has no hope, Professor, and only you will be allowed to take the test.”

“Is that the best we Earth people can hope for,” she asked, “to be your slaves?”

“There are worse alternatives.”

#

The oral test began: “Cat?” Egrethor asked.

“Dog,” his student answered.


“Dog?”

“Oomphax.”

“Sky?”

“Doleray.”

“Moon?”

Lansing had to think on that one briefly. “Gibron,” she quickly answered.

“That is all.”

“How’d I do?” Lansing asked anxiously.

“You answered every question correctly,” the alien replied.

“Good,” she said with a sigh.

“You have failed the test.”

“But –”

“Your score,” Egrethor explained, “proves that you and your fellow Earthlings are too dangerous to allow to survive.”

“What?”

He explained, “The idea was to get a low score – to demonstrate the limited mental abilities suitable for underlings.”

“But I didn’t –”

“In our past, intelligent servants have plotted against their Sinlaxian masters and caused unrest. We will not allow that to happen ever again. We will import servants to tend to our needs. You and yours will be done away with.” He called out to some of his crew, who were monitoring the walls of computers around him. “Ready the annihilation beam!”

Lansing heard the beeps of several buttons being pressed and then something warming up. “That’s not fair!” she exclaimed. “You didn’t tell me what you were looking for on the test.”

“Of course not! If you had known that information, you wouldn’t have given us a true accounting of your mental ability.”

“You can’t judge the entire human race based on me,” Lansing pleaded.

“Why not?”

“I’m a college professor,” she told him. “I spend a lot of time reading and studying. I’m paid to be intelligent.”

Egrethor seemed confused. “Are you saying that others would not be as intellectually dangerous as you?”

“Definitely. There are thousands. . . millions of people down on that planet who have never read a book in their lives! All they do is watch reality television, eat fast food, and go to NASCAR.”

“They would be suitable servant material?”

“Oh yes.”

Egrethor gave it some thought, but only briefly. “That would be so much trouble,” he told Lansing, “deciding who should live and who should die one by one. There are so many of you!”

“But –”

Three shrill beeps sounded. “Ah,” the alien said, “the annihilation beam is ready.”

“Please,” Lansing continued desperately, “you. . . you can’t do –”

“Do you want to press the button to destroy these inferior Earthlings, Professor,” the alien asked, “or shall I?”




Justin W. Price
released a poetry collection, "Digging to China," with Sweatshoppe Publications in 2013. He was nominated for the Gover Prize (short fiction) in 2014. His work is featured in Best New Writing (2014 edition) and has appeared in many publications, including the Rusty Nail, Burningword, The Whistling Fire, Literary Juice, Manawaker Studios Podcast, and Bloody Key Society Periodical. He recently moved from Portland, Oregon, to pursue new adventures in Juneau, Alaska. He lives with his wife, Andrea, and their two dogs: a labradoodle, Bella, and a Sh'Poo, Sauvee. He is currently working on a short story collection and a novel.
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Justin W. Price


It’s always best to extricate yourself from a stressful situation. If you can’t do this physically, do it mentally. Like chomping on ginger before eating one of your beloved sushi rolls, cleanse your mental palette.

Imagine, this morning, that you had not burned the toast.

Imagine rainbows and quiet babies and yapping puppies. Imagine yourself on a warm beach somewhere, your toes tunneling into hot white sand, eyes pasted to the skyline, the arc of the earth visible ahead, the clear blue skies, a pina-colada. 

Imagine a time, a time long ago, where your dad wakes you and your sisters up for a surprise trip to Disneyland, and the two-hour trek south, with animal style "In N Out Burgers" for lunch and saccharine soda pop slurped through a straw. Imagine being there, in the Magic Kingdom, seven-year-old you, all bespectacled and pigtailed, greeted by Goofy and Mickey. 

Imagine his plate with lightly browned toast the way he likes it. Imagine there is a smile on his face.

Imagine a time, this is years from now, your soon-to-be-born daughter as a grown woman, bringing her daughter over for lunch with grandma. You. Grandma you. She calls you “Mee-Maw,” or simply “Nana.” You haven’t imagined this yet. All you imagine now is her being over, pigtailed like you were at that age, eating peanut butter and jelly, and watching whatever cartoons are popular at that time. Playing board games and letting her win. 

Imagine your daughter picking her up and thanking you for watching her that morning and telling her that it’s no trouble and that you don’t need to be thanked for doing what grandmothers do. Imagine you being a grandmother.

Or, imagine maybe, that you hadn’t stormed out of the house that morning. Imagine that your husband hadn’t screamed at you for burning his toast or that he hadn’t thrown his plate of scorched toast at you, a woman pregnant with his child, and that it hadn’t hit you square in the right orbital, imagine that you hadn’t seen those white flashes. Imagine that you didn’t see those stars or decide, finally, that you had had enough and that you wouldn’t take this anymore.

Imagine if you’d only let yourself endure more of his punishment and that you hadn’t, instead, waddled to your car and flown down your street, away from him and towards who knows what. Imagine that your heart hadn’t raced and that you hadn’t lost your breath or felt the terror when you saw his car behind you, chasing you, advancing. Imagine if you’d only stayed home, if nothing else, for the kid, or if you had decided to call the police like your friends all said to do. Imagine that, as he gained on you and you struggled to sustain speed and consciousness. That the plate had not smacked against your orbital, the headache, the forehead streaked with blood.

Imagine yourself on a ski lift, high up in the mountain air. Just you. No plate-throwing husband, no high-speed chase through suburban streets, just you, bundled up and soaring down steep hills, slaloming like Lindsay Vonn. Imagine you escaping to this mountain nirvana, gulping at fresh air instead of gasping beneath your overturned car, blood coming from your abdomen, your arms, all of your orifices, your husband’s boot smashing your face.





David Henson
and his wife have lived in Belgium and Hong Kong over the years and now reside in Peoria, Illinois. His work has appeared in various journals, including Dime Show Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Fiction on the Web, The Fiction Pool, The Eunoia Review, Bewildering Stories, and Literally Stories. His website is 
writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8.
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David Henson

I thought I'd finally found the one. I was going through the express lane at GroceryMart and looked at her sheepishly as I put down my 13th item. I thought I was in for dagger eyes, but instead, with a smile sweeter than the box of cheery flakes I'd just bought, she said, “No problem, hon.”

I couldn't sleep that night for thinking about her. Her store badge said “Suzanette.” What a musical name. What a smile. And that voice. It could charm honeybees. “No problem, hon.” She called me “hon.” I couldn't think of a thing about her I didn't like.

I went back to the store the next day and bought a loaf of bread I didn't need. Sure enough, when she saw me, she unwrapped that smile again.

“I thought we would have a cup of coffee when you get off work,” I said.

Her smile disappeared so fast I could practically hear a sucking sound, and she shook her head without saying a word. She could have at least been courteous enough to make up some excuse. Sorry, I have to walk the dog. Sorry, I have a toothache. I stood there, my face red as a beefeater tomato, then paid and walked away.

On my way out I passed a badge that said "Steve — Assistant Manager." “Thank you for shopping with us, sir.”

I stopped. “You know, Steve, you should talk to that cashier in the express lane. She’s very unfriendly.”

We both looked toward Suzanette. She was staring right at me and must've known I was complaining about her because she looked none too happy.

Driving home from the store, I noticed a black SUV behind me. I made a couple of turns and the SUV did too. That's when I understood. Suzanette had contacted her boyfriend, and he was following me. Probably some burly guy named Fred. Probably going to follow me home and accost me. I knew I'd have to pull into the garage and shut the door immediately. Then I realized that wouldn't do. Fred would know where I live, wait till the wee hours, B&E my house and who knows what? I decided to drive to the police station. Fred must've caught on though because he quit trailing me before I got to there. I breathed a sigh of relief and went home.

I had no sooner gotten inside when the realization punched me in the gut: Suzanette’s boyfriend would be on the lookout for my white Toyota. The next morning I went to Big Bill’s Best Used Cars and traded for a blue Buick. Big Bill must have smelled the desperation on me cause I didn't get a very good deal.

I felt better after changing cars, but something about the whole situation still pecked at me. The next day I decided to do some reconnaissance. I put on a wig and fake beard I need to wear sometimes and went back to GroceryMart. I hovered nonchalantly around the express lane till I saw Suzanette being extra friendly with some guy. It had to be Fred.

I followed him out to the parking lot to a red Jeep. He must've traded like I did. Just a coincidence? Not likely. He traded so he could sneak up on me. He must think I'm stupid. I trailed him to a bungalow on the south side of town. Exactly the kind of place I knew he’d have. But now I had the advantage. I knew where he lived, but he didn't know where my house was. Or did he?

I suddenly felt my heart thumping in my feet. My tags. Fred would’ve made a note of my license plate when he was following me. Can you find out where somebody lives if you know their tags? Well you can for sure if your brother’s a cop. Suzanette's boyfriend’s brother’s a cop! Just my luck. Could it get any worse? I guess if Fred were a hit man for the mob, that would be worse. How do I know he isn't? I bet he is. Fred’s brother is a cop, and Fred himself is a hit man. I knew I didn’t stand a chance.

I stayed up all night sitting at the front window in the dark with a shotgun on my lap. I realized this couldn't go on. I had to do something bold. I had to kidnap Suzanette.

My plan was to snatch her, but not ask for ransom. Not money anyway. I was going to get word to Fred and his brother that I'd release Suzanette only if they pledged — in writing — to leave me alone. I knew where Fred lived, so I'd slip a note under his door. I was even going to write the pledge for them and put a big “X” where the killer and the cop needed to sign. I'd give them instructions to put the signed paper under my welcome mat. Why not? They already knew where I lived. By then, I'd have Suzanette at my house so she could sign too. Then I was going to let her go, and the nightmare would finally be over.

The next evening I went back to the store around closing time. I had on a wig and fake beard again. Different ones. I need to change them up sometimes. When Suzanette left, I followed to her car, eased a hammer out from under my sweater — and froze. How hard do you hit somebody on the head with a hammer to knock them out without hurting them? I had no idea. I should've Googled it. I needed a different plan.

That night sitting at the window with my shotgun; I came up with my new tactic. Later that night, I fell asleep, dropped the gun and almost shot my foot. Almost. I'm fine.

I went to GroceryMart mid-morning the next day when I knew Suzanette would be there and headed straight for the express lane. No disguise. I wanted her to know it was me. When it was my turn, I handed her a check for $500, my life savings. Actually I'd left $50 in my account, but she didn't know that.

“Here, take this. Please leave me alone. And tell your hit man boyfriend and his cop brother.”

Suzanette gasped and feigned confusion. “What are talking about? Get away from me.” Quite the actress.

The next guy in line took a harsh step toward me, his eyes mean as fists. “There a problem here?” He looked like an undercover police officer. Of course. It was Fred's brother, staking out the express lane.

“Just take the money and call off the dogs,” I whispered to Suzanette and hurried for the exit.

At the door, a woman looking at her phone almost barged right into me. “Oh, I'm sorry,” she smiled.

What a sweet voice. She seemed intelligent. Nice personality too. And those eyes! I expected bluebirds to fly out of them any second. I knew, right then and there, that she was the one.