Zoom Sex - By Brain Law 

“What are you wearing?” he asked. 

She shook her head, adjusted the computer a bit, and in a slightly exasperated tone answered, “We’re not on the phone, anymore, Roger! We’re on Zoom, for Christ’s sake. Just look at your computer, will ya!” 

“Oh, yeah, sorry. I just did that out of habit. So, what do we do next? This is kind of new to me,” Roger explained, a bit flummoxed . 

“Well, you could say that I look nice, or something like that.” 

“Sure. You look nice.” Just then he noticed some movement behind her. “Hey, what was that?” 

“Just my four year old. Not a problem. You look good, too, Roger,” she continued. 

“You have a four year old! I thought you were a struggling college student just using phone sex to make ends meet. Now you tell me you have a family? That’s kind of a passion killer, Louise, if that’s really your name,” he complained. 

“Okay, Roger, I’ll put her in her room and turn off the television. I’ll be right back and we can try to get this right,” she replied, moving away from the computer for a few moments. He could hear muffled sounds in the background and for the first time could see group photos with her and others on the table behind where she was sitting. 

“I’m back and we’re all alone, Roger. Do you want me to take off my blouse?” she purred seductively. 

He didn’t say anything for a moment as she repeated her question. Then, he asked accusingly, “Who’s the guy in the photos behind you, anyway? Husband, boyfriend, your baby’s daddy, what? This just isn’t the picture I was having of you when all we did was phone sex. This isn’t my fantasy anymore.” 

Just then he could hear her front door open and close and a male voice in the background yelled out, “Hey, who you got on the computer now?” 

She yelled back, “Oh, it’s just Roger, honey! We’ll be done in a jiff.” 

He could hear a loud guffaw from the male voice and what sounded like, “Tell him thanks for helping with the rent” or something like that. 

“So, Roger, where were we? Oh, yeah, my blouse. I’m unbuttoning it now, slowly, and you can see that I’m licking my lips, too, baby. You feeling in the mood, my big strong Roger?” she went on seductively. 

“Whoa! Wait, wait. This isn’t working anymore, Louise! You now have a kid and a man in the same house where we’re supposed to be getting intimate with each other. Not sexy, Louise, not sexy at all!” Roger went on. 

“Maybe you just need to see a little more of me to get you in the mood, Roger?” she added, peeling off her mini skirt. “Now, how’s that? Feeling in the mood, Roger?” As she waited for his answer, she adjusted her wig a bit. 

“Oh, no! You’re wearing a wig! Oh, my god, this is just ridiculous! How old are you really, Louise? Tell me right now or I’m gone for good. No more Roger baby to make a fool out of anymore, Louise. How old are you really?” he demanded. 

Reluctantly, Louise slowly removed her wig revealing a closely-cropped crown of grey hair. And at the same time, she removed her false eyelashes. “That better, Roger? Now you know the real me. Did I ever ask you how old you were, Roger? But, what the Hell, I’m pushing fifty-five, big boy. That was my granddaughter and my youngest son who you heard before.” 

“Fifty-five, Louise, really?” Roger said, his voice a bit more conciliatory. “You know, my mother is about that age.” 

Something clicked in Louise’s mind and she cautiously replied, “Now, Roger, why haven’t you found a nice girl to settle down with, hmmm?” 

Roger hung his head for a moment and then answered, “I’m trying, mother, I’m trying.” 

“Good boy, Roger,” Louise replied. “Now, move closer to the computer screen, Roger.” 

As he did, Louise moved her right breast close to the screen of her computer and in a low, soothing voice said, “Good boy, Roger, good boy. Momma loves her good boy.” 

End

Bit Part - By Brian Law 

"So, kid, what’s eating at you, anyway?” the old man asked. 

The kid sighed, shoved his hands deep into his overall pockets and said, “I don’t know, it’s just that I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere in my career. My part, it’s just so small. The whole production could go on without me and no one would even notice.” 

The old man smiled, patted the kid on the back, and reassured him, “We all felt that way at some point along the way, son. I remember when I first started out. My first three jobs were to get rid of stuff after the whole thing was over. Can you imagine how I felt as I dragged stuff to the burn pits?” He watched the kid for a moment and then continued, “But slowly, I got better parts, more important parts. Until now, look at me. I’m in charge.” 

“So, just because I’m the cleanup guy doesn’t mean I don’t have a future with the crew, is that what you're saying?” the kid asked. 

The old man shook free a cigarette from his pack, lit it, and responded, “That’s it exactly. I’ve got a spot for you in Wardrobe for our next job in Georgia. And if you do well there, well, there’s another job in Alabama after that needing a good Make-up assistant.” He inhaled, exhaled, and continued, “So you see, it’s just one step at a time up the ladder. By this time three years from now, you’ll be sitting here talking to some youngster, just like I’m talking to you now.” 

The kid was getting excited now. “Do you think I’ll ever get to do the dangerous stuff, like driving?” 

“Sure, why not. That takes a bit more training, but I think we can get you penciled-in for that this Winter,” the old man assured him. “And don’t forget Sound and Props. Those can be real important skills to have in your career. Why, I remember one job I had that relied completely on Sound and Props for its success. And I had the skills to pull it off and that’s where I got noticed by the money guys, you know, the ones behind all of these jobs were doing.” 

“Really, Sound and Props are that important sometimes, huh? Which job was that, anyway?” the kid wondered. 

The old man stubbed out his cigarette and took out another one before replying. A distant look came over him as he remembered the day, “Oh, it was a late November day in '63, down in Dallas. I was just a kid then, much like you. It was my job to be on this little grassy knoll and do my Sound and Prop thing. Pretty simple, but to tell you the truth, I was kind of nervous.” 

“You, nervous? Wow, hard to believe. Dallas, huh? Never been there myself. This job we’re doing here in Delaware is the farthest from home I’ve ever been.” Then, the kid smiled, and ended with, “But I’m feeling much better about my career now since we’ve had this talk. You’ve given me hope.” 

The old man smiled and jokingly pulled down on the brim of the kid’s red cap a bit. “You’re alright, kid. Just do your job today like you’ve been told and you will make out fine. Remember to burn everything, including the uniforms, the identification cards, and the phones. Everything! You got that!” 

“Burn everything, right!” the kid responded. “And then we’ll all meet back across the border next week. Thanks again for the pep talk.” 

“Sure, kid, hasta manana,” the old man said, smiling kindly, knowing full well that this was the last time he’d ever see the kid alive. Too bad, he thought, the kid seemed okay. 

End

The Children Who Ate Only Beans - By Brian Law 

The sun had decided to not come out today, so neither did they. They were both getting along in years, both in their eighties, and a walk in the cold and damp wasn’t a good idea. So they both remained inside the cottage where it was warm and dry. 

As he dozed in his easy chair near the fireplace, she got up slowly and went to the large cedar trunk in the corner. There was something in there that she knew would help them both pass the time, something neither of them had looked at for a while. She thought it might be interesting to recollect. 

“Dear, are you awake?” she asked. 

“Hmm,” came his response. 

“Well, I have that letter by Lillie from Duluth, written in, let’s see, oh yes, written in late 1983. Do you remember that far back, dear?” she went on, already knowing the answer. 

“Hmm, 1983, huh? That was a long time ago, dear,” he replied. 

“Well, let me read you Lillie’s letter, dear. Maybe it will spark a memory or two:” 

    ‘Dear Mr. Bromley, 

    I am a widow in my mid-twenties and for years I have    

     suffered from depression and anxiety, the causes of 

     which are many and varied. Anyway, I take meds                 

     every day and the result is that I can function, but I am 

     removed from my feelings, from my emotions, that is, 

     until I read your story about The Children. 

     From the very first word, my feelings came flooding back. 

     And with every rereading, I got the same result.       It is the 

     only thing that connects me to my emotions nowadays. I 

     can’t explain it and neither can my doctors, but it’s true. 

     Thank you so much for the story about The Children. God 

     bless you, Mr. Bromley, your story has made my life worth-           

     while even though I cry every time I read it. 

     Yours, 

     Lillie from Duluth’ 

“Now, wasn’t that nice of her to write that letter, dear? You do remember writing that story about The Children, don’t you?” she went on. 

He sat up a bit, cleared his throat and reached for his pipe. 

“I wish you wouldn’t smoke, dear,” she asked, disapprovingly. 

Putting down his pipe, he reflected, “Of course I remember writing it. The story about The Children and their diet of only green beans and how it turned their skin green, right? My grandfather from the east of England told me a similar story and I just adapted it to our time and place, that’s all. Really, just a fable, nothing more.” 

She smiled and reread Lillie’s letter again and then wondered, “But why do you suppose your story had that very unusual effect on Lillie from Duluth? I mean, she’s telling us that it put her in touch with her emotions, emotions that her medications had suppressed. Can you explain that dear?” 

He absent-mindedly reached for his pipe again, but at the last minute remembered his wife’s request. Sitting back again, he said, “No, I can’t explain that dear.”?” 

She nodded and took out a small packet of letters wrapped separately from the rest in a silk ribbon. “Well, as I recall, she wasn’t the only one the story had that effect upon. Weren’t there more letters in there with more or less the same message. I remember for that reason I kept them separated from the others. It seems like there were nine such letters from other women, either from Duluth or nearby, and all written in 1983.” 

He said nothing, hoping as always, she’d just drop it and move on to something else. 

“Dear, your sales route took you into and around Duluth back then, didn’t it?” she stated, knowing full well the truth of the matter. 

“Hmmm,” he muttered. 

“And you never wrote your stories here at home, only when you were on the road. So, maybe it was something about Duluth and what was going on there that urged you to write that story about The Children. I wonder if that was it?” she went on, a new tone to her voice. 

“Hmmm,” he replied. 

“And what’s odd is that I’ve read and reread that story many, many times, and it’s never had that effect on me. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good story, but it’s just a story,” she added. “So, I’ve always wondered if that’s really what these women were writing about, or was it something else? Any ideas, dear?” 

He sighed, closed his eyes, and replied, “It was a long time ago and it was just a story, dear. That’s all.” 

She smiled slightly and placed the tear-stained packet of letters wrapped in a silk ribbon back into the cedar trunk in the corner. As he watched her out of one eye, she returned to her chair, sat down, took up her knitting and without looking up, added, “Well, we’ll take another look at those letters again, maybe next year, dear.” She knitted away for a minute or so, and then said, “Maybe your memory will improve.” 

But he was already asleep, dreaming of all things about Duluth in 1983. 

End

Sometimes I Wonder - By Brian Law 

“Good Lord, George!” she exclaimed, “This time you’ve gone too far. I’m beginning to worry about you, dear.” 

“You mean you don’t believe me, right?” he shot back. “Well, I just saw it in my drink. The image of Jesus was right there in one of the ice cubes, clear as crystal.” He stood up, moved towards her, and raised his voice, “And the only reason you didn’t see it was that it had melted by the time you looked at my drink.” 

“George, maybe you should see someone. Maybe it’s the stress of the pandemic, or maybe old age, or maybe it’s something else. But you really should think about getting some help,” she pleaded. 

“But, Thelma, what about the hotel in Vegas? I pointed it out to you right there on the bed, remember?” he implored. 

“You mean the image of the Virgin Mary in the crumpled bed sheets, George? I looked and looked, but I never could see anything,” Thelma said, shrugging. 

George sat down hard on his recliner, his hands gripping the chair’s arms. He stared straight ahead, a distant look in his eyes, as he muttered, “Sometimes I wonder what God’s up to, Thelma.” 

Thelma chuckled as she sat down across the room on the sofa and replied, “My, George, for a hardcore unbeliever like you to invoke the name of God, there must be something going on with you, right?” 

George said nothing and continued to stare while Thelma suddenly had an idea which she thought might work. “George, how about a little truce, huh? I’ll stop harping at you about these ‘visions’ if you stop telling me every time you see some holy image in the mash potatoes, okay?” 

Reluctantly, George agreed as both of them sat back in their respective seats, George grabbing his evening paper and Thelma picking up her knitting. As he flipped on his table lamp and straightened out his newspaper, a shadow briefly appeared on the opposite wall. 

‘It’s the crucifixion of Christ,’ George thought, ‘right there on my living room wall! But I promised not to say anything to Thelma about things like this, so I won’t.’  And without looking at Thelma, or letting on that anything had happened, he went back to reading his newspaper, his heart pounding in his chest. 

Thelma saw it for just a split second, too, right before it disappeared. ‘No questions this time,’ she thought to herself, ‘it really was the crucifixion scene.’ She stole a quick look at George who had started to read his newspaper, and said to herself, ‘But I can’t say anything to George. He’ll just think I’m making fun of him and breaking our promise.’ 

She returned to her knitting, but her hands were shaking too hard to make any progress. 

End

The Coffin Polisher - By Brian Law 

He liked to work in dim light, so the fluorescent lights of the mortuary were switched off and just the table lamp was on in the corner. 

Humming to himself, he leaned down a bit and inspected the surface of the Mahogany Number 47 he was polishing. He knew that it was only when you looked at the surfaces at a certain angle and in a certain light that you could determine where the smudges were. Smiling to himself as he caught two spots that no one else would have noticed, he stood up straight and applied his cloth to the casket, rubbing the smudges out with one efficient swipe. 

“There you go, Mr. Wilson, all nice and clean and ready for your funeral today,” he whispered. “I’ll come back and get to work on your handles in just a second, okay?” 

‘Thank you, Benny. I appreciate your attention to detail. You are a lot like me when I was alive, a real stickler for the small stuff. We both sweat the small stuff, don’t we, Benny?’ 

“That’s right, Mr. Wilson,” Benny replied.  "Now, you just lie quiet there while I go into the next room for a bit. But I’ll be back real soon to get at those handles. Your casket is going to look just fine for the service today. Don’t you worry a bit, Mr. Wilson.” 

‘I used to worry a lot, Benny. That’s probably why I’m in this box at age 49. But old habits die hard, don’t they, Benny. I bet you hear that a lot in here.’ 

In the other room, Benny flushed the toilet, tucked his shirt into his pants and called out to Mr. Wilson, “Yep, Mr. Wilson, I do hear that one a lot. But I don’t mind you double-checking my work from inside your casket, I really don’t. It’s just part of the process you have to go through to make it to the other side. And you’re doing just fine, Mr. Wilson. My job is to help you make it all the way.” 

‘You’ve been talking to people like me for a long time, Benny? You seem to know what you’re doing.’ 

Calling out from the other room, Benny answered, “Since I was a kid, Mr. Wilson. My mom and dad died in a car wreck when I was four. That’s when I knew. They talked to me for weeks!” 

Just then, Benny heard a car drive up in the alley behind the mortuary. He bent down and whispered, “Mr. Wilson, I got to go silent for a while. Mr. Browning just arrived. So, don’t you fret, okay? I’m still here and we’ll have another nice chat before your service.” 

‘Thanks, Benny.’ 

As he did every morning, the owner of Browning Mortuary opened the back door, turned on the fluorescent lights and just stood there in the doorway as the large back room slowly lit up. From there he could see each casket, verify their individual condition, and determine whether his utility man, Benny, had done his chores during the night shift.  

With a heavy sigh he moved into the large room, closed the door behind him and called out, “Benny! It’s Browning. Get in here, now!” 

Browning could hear the broom closet door close in the next room and then Benny emerged, a broom in one hand and a dustpan in the other. “Yes, sir. Good morning, sir,” he said, a tentative smile on his face. 

“Benny, I see the handles on the Wilson’s Mahogany Number 27 haven’t been polished. Get on it, Benny! We’ve got the Wilson Funeral in four hours!” Browning growled. 

“Yes, sir, Mr. Browning. I’ll take care of that right away, sir,” Benny answered apologetically, putting down the broom and dustpan and grabbing a rag and some polishing compound. 

As Benny scurried about his chores, Browning watched him closely, shook his head and wondered how a man like that could have any pride in himself, always doing someone else’s bidding. It never ceased to puzzle Mr. Browning, never. 

End

Zog Survives an Election - By Brian Law 

The weather outside was miserable, but inside the cave it was warm and dry. Nevertheless, it had been a harrowing day for the entire tribe . . . they were electing a new leader and the first vote revealed that none of the candidates had received a majority of the pebbles. This had never happened before and the tribe was having difficulty figuring out how to proceed. But the old rule was clear. A majority of pebbles was required before a new leader could be elected, unless . . . . 

Hok stood next to the fire, his shadow looming large against the cave wall. He held his weapon in his hand but did not raise it. He had made that mistake too many times before and he had the broken bones to remind him. Instead of fighting, he proposed that the shaman be called in to settle the election. “Throw the bones, read the entrails, eat the mushrooms . . . I don’t care what she does to learn who should be our leader. But that’s my solution!” 

From the back of the sitting group, a small voice rose in answer. It was Ayak and he said, “But what if the election was tampered with, Hok? What if someone added or subtracted a pebble during the counting process? Shouldn’t we submit the pebble counters to the ‘fire ritual’ to get the truth before we ask the shaman to decide? What do you all say to that?” 

There was a clamor around the fire at the suggestion that the election might have been rigged. “Kill the pebble counters!” came a cry from the rear of the cave. “Cut off the pebble counter’s hands!” came another. Ugg shook his head in disgust as he stood. He was well respected and the best hunter in the group so all listened to what he was about to say. “Why don’t we just have another election, but with just the top two still in the running? And, we will have people watching the pebble counters this time!” 

Many yelled in agreement, but Ika asked, “How close will the watchers be allowed to the pebble counters? Will they really be able to see their hands and the pebbles? Or will they be too far away? And what if there is a tie?” 

“That’s why we should put the pebble counters to the ‘fire ritual’!” Ayak repeated. “Put great fear into them so that they won’t try any tricks! That’s my solution!” 

“Good luck getting any pebble counters for future elections if you do that,” Tara laughed. “My solution is that each member of the tribe be given several pebbles. Once they vote for one person for leader, they then go to another part of the cave and leave the same pebble there. If at the end of the voting, the stacks of pebbles are identical in each part of the cave, we will know we have an honest election and a new leader!” 

“But so few of us can count! Can we trust the counters who will be counting all the piles?” Amoukar asked. There was more rumbling, but the tribe knew Amoukar had a good point. 

After several moments, Ruwdhi stood and pronounced, “Our current leader did not receive enough pebbles to remain as leader. So, I suggest that because of the doubt we all have in the truth of the results of this election, we retain Zog as our leader going forward until we can again have faith in the election process!” 

“But for how long will Zog be our leader?” Mikr wondered. 

Ruwdhi just shrugged, his hands palms up, and replied, “Who knows?” 

End

The Thought Snatcher - By Brian Law 

It was another typical Sunday morning breakfast, him sipping coffee and her nibbling quietly away at her scrambled eggs. It was at these times that they often shared their innermost confidences, yet today he sensed that she was preoccupied, distant. Putting down his coffee cup and looking across at her, he carefully probed, “Is there something you want to tell me?” 

Her fork fell onto her plate with a sharp noise, her hands rushed to her face, and she started sobbing. He quickly rose from his chair and moved behind her, his hands rubbing her shoulders. “Go ahead, cry it out, whatever it is,” he said, trying to soothe her. But he was still in the dark about what had brought this on as she continued to snivel and tried to speak. 

“I . . . I was . . . I was on the phone with mother earlier. . . before you got up,” she sputtered. 

“That’s it, you’re doing fine,” he whispered into her ear. “Is there bad news about your mother? Is that it?” 

Wiping her nose and composing herself a bit, she continued haltingly, “She was talking about . . . about a television show she watched last night. Then, right in the middle of talking, she just stopped . . . Oh, God!” 

He knew her mother was having heart problems and now was concerned that she had suffered a stroke or something. “What happened? Is she alright?” he asked, truly concerned. 

She turned to look at him and answered, “She forgot what she was saying. Just like that, in the middle of her thought. It just went away and didn’t come back. She was so embarrassed and I just didn’t know what to say to her.” 

He sat down beside her, his arm around her shoulder, and tried to console her by saying, “It happens to all of us at some point, doesn’t it? It’s almost inevitable. She’s eighty-five. We had to expect something like this, didn’t we?” He paused and then added, “And they have medications today that can help. Why don’t you get her an appointment with her doctor soon, hmm?” 

She looked at him oddly, her cheeks still moist with tears. “You don’t understand! 'He' was there with her while I was on the phone! She told me 'he' had come. She felt his presence!” his wife announced with certainty. 

“Who’s 'he'?” he asked incredulously. “Just who in the hell is in your mother’s house early on a Sunday morning? Shouldn’t we be calling the police or something?” 

“No, no, she’s not in any real danger . . . yet. And you’re right. 'He' does come for most of us at some point,” she continued enigmatically. 

He said nothing. Instead, he got up, took his coffee cup, and went to the coffee maker. As he poured himself another cup and making sure she heard him, he asked in a low voice, “Is this more of that Pennsylvania Dutch stuff that your family still believes in? Is that it?” He waited, and then added, “Because if it is, I really think you’re on your own with this one. I don’t buy any of it.” 

She swiveled in her chair a bit to face him, the odd look on her face replaced by one of certainty. “Oh, you’ll believe it when 'he' comes for your thoughts! You’ll believe it, but then it’s too late!” 

He shook his head and replied, “There it is, again, the mysterious 'he'. Maybe you should fill me in. At least give me a chance to understand you and your mother and all that stuff your family believes in. Go ahead, give it a shot.” 

“Okay, okay, here goes,” she announced, standing up and staying  across the kitchen from him. “'He' visits all of our families, no exceptions. If your family believes in him, it makes it easier to accept him and what 'he' does. It even comes as sort of a relief . . . an end to the waiting. You see?” 

“So why are you having such a hard time if 'he', whoever 'he' is, has decided to make his visit now? Haven’t you been a believer in all this stuff since you were a kid?” he wondered. 

She lowered her head apologetically and uttered, “Because I stopped believing when I entered your world. But now, my belief is renewed just by talking about him. I think I’m going to be alright.” And then looking up, she added, “And mom’s going to be just fine, too. He’ll see to that.” 

He moved across the kitchen until he got very close. He held her chin lovingly in his hand, looked into her eyes and asked, “Does 'he' have a name? Can you tell me?” 

“We don’t say his name out loud. I’ve only seen it written down and in our language. So, no, I can’t tell you,” she said. 

He moved away from her and went to the sink with his coffee cup. “Well, like I said before, you’re on your own then, you and your mother. I’ll try to be supportive, but there’s only so much I can give you since I don’t believe in all that stuff. By the way, have you seen my glasses.” 

As she watched her husband wash his coffee cup, she noticed for the first time that he had his pajama bottoms on backwards and inside out, his slippers on the wrong feet, and his glasses sitting atop his head. 

She felt comforted somewhat by an odd presence in the small kitchen. It was too bad her husband didn't feel it, too. It would be so much easier for him if he did. 

End

It's in the Details - By Brian Law 

His secretary poked her head into his office and whispered, “He’s here, Boss. Do you want me to show him in?” 

The Boss nodded and quickly tried to put the papers on his desk into some semblance of order before she returned. He didn’t want to give this important visitor the wrong impression. As he managed to push the last clump of papers into one of his desk drawers, his office door opened and his secretary announced, “This is James Michaels, Boss. I’ll get you both some coffee.” 

The Boss stood, held out his hand, and chuckled, “My, my, James Michaels. It’s about time we met, isn’t it?” Michaels had been a contributing writer to TrickEndings.com for several years but no one at the company had ever met him and no picture of him existed. And now here he was in the Boss’s office. “You’re not quite what I expected, James,” the Boss added. 

“Neither are you, Boss. May I call you Boss?” Michaels retorted. 

“Touché, and sure, sure, everybody does,” the Boss continued.  “Have a seat, will ya? I know you’re probably pretty busy these days, but I’d like to ask you the question that everybody who reads your stories is asking. You don’t mind, do you?” 

Just then the secretary returned with a coffee serving, which she placed on the desk. As she poured out two cups, she stole a glance at Michaels and then shot a look at the Boss as if to say, ‘Not exactly what I expected, Boss!’ As she finished with the coffee, she served Michaels and then with a smile left the room. 

Michaels leaned forward, his arms on the desk and replied, “You want to know why my stories have such disquieting trick endings, don’t you, Boss? That’s really what your readership wants to know. Why are my trick endings so different from the run-of-the-mill trick endings that you typically traffic in, right?” 

The Boss nodded, took a sip of his coffee, and waited for Michaels to continue. “We’ve all seen the ‘Halloween’ series of movies and we all know that Michael is Death. And that everybody except the star is going to die gruesomely at his hands in each movie. But we want to see how each of them dies. Each one must suffer a separate and distinct fate. That’s what draws people back to each new sequel. You with me so far, Boss?” 

The Boss now leaned in himself and replied, “So, what you’re saying is that we all know what’s in store for each of us. It’s just that there might be a trick ending in it for each of us? Am I getting your drift here, James?” 

Michaels agreed, “That’s it. Life ends, but nobody knows how or what happens next. They are all looking for the answer. It’s the human condition.” 

The Boss leaned back and asked, “Okay, but I’m getting the idea that you think there’s something in your stories in particular that suggests to the readers that you may know the answer.” 

Michaels smiled cryptically and said, “Isn’t that what you think, too, Boss?” 

“Maybe,” the Boss added. He prided himself on not letting others know what he was thinking, but this Michaels fellow and his stories really intrigued him. “What about the ending in your story ‘Webster Finds His Calling’? That was the story that got the most responses. It was really overwhelming. The readers were fascinated by the specter you created around Webster’s last moments on Earth. Most said it left them feeling empty and hopeless. But regardless, everyone who read it had a strong opinion.” 

“And you, Boss, what did you think when you read it?” Michaels wondered. 

“Me?” the Boss replied. “Well, to tell you the truth, I called in my secretary, had her read it, and asked her what she thought of it. She’s sort of my ‘Guardian Angel’, James. So she told me and that’s when I reached out to you so we could have this little discussion.” 

Michaels shifted in his seat, looked over his shoulder at the slightly open office door, and uttered, “Guardian Angel, huh? Interesting.” 

“Yes, and after meeting with you, James, I’ve decided that it’s in the best interest of our readers that we discontinue publishing your stories. And I’m deleting all your stories that we have published so far. Am I getting through to you, Michaels?” the Boss declared, scowling. 

Michaels smiled, put his bony hands together in his lap, and replied, “I guess we have to go through this same charade each century, don’t we, Boss? I gain a toehold and you try desperately to crush it. So predictable. Well, I have other offers, so I guess our little discussion is over. See you online, Boss.” 

“Not if I can help it, Michaels,” the Boss shot back. "And by the way, nice try on the election. Close, but no cigar, Michaels," he added, but by that time his visitor had vanished. 

End

Cleansing - By Brian Law 

“Hi, Missy. This is Bob Watkins from Santa Rosa. You remember me. My wife and I are coming to the ‘Spa’  this weekend and we wanted to make reservations,” he said into his phone. 

“Oh, hi, Bob. Sure, let me just get my appointments calendar out here. Now, what are you two going to want as far as our services are concerned, “ Missy answered. 

“The usual. I want a mud bath and massage on Saturday, and so does my wife. And on Sunday we’d both like the hot rocks and a steam bath,” Bob requested. 

“No problem. I’ll book you Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon. As I recall, that’s sort of what you prefer,” she replied. 

“Sounds good, Missy. See you then,” Bob responded. But just before he hung up, Missy came back with, “We have something new this year, Bob. We’ve developed it especially for our older clientele. I think you and your wife might be interested. Want to hear some more about it?” Missy teased. 

“Sure, why not. We have the whole weekend, Missy.” 

“Well, it’s called a “Soul Cleansing” and it takes about two hours and we charge $125 per customer. It’s really wonderful and our clients rave about it, Bob,” she gushed. 

“Did I hear you correctly? A ‘Soul Cleansing'? You’d better explain that a bit more, Missy. But I’m interested. I mean at my age who wouldn’t?” Bob responded. 

“We have purchased a device that you sit in and it detects the condition of your soul. It rates your soul’s condition on a scale of 1 to 10. One being that you’re basically going to Hell, Bob. And 10 being you won’t need to pay the $125. But for anything in between, we put you through a series of processes that basically wash away many of the impurities on your soul. Then we put you back in the device and you can see the improvement in your soul’s condition. Interested, Bob?” Missy explained. 

There was a pause on his end of the line as he thought about what to say next. “Missy let’s say I get into the device and my number is 1. What is the typical improvement after the two hour treatment? “ Bob wondered. 

“That’s a great question, Bob, and I’ll tell you why. Since there’s no number lower than 1, we’ve discovered that your individual improvement depends upon how deeply depressed the condition of your soul really is. Some people who register 1 are just really shallow 1’s. But some are really degraded 1’s. So, how much you improve depends upon how bad a life you’ve lived.” She paused and then probed a bit, “Bob, what are we looking at here? Have you lived a really bad life?” 

Bob breathed deeply as he contemplated his answer. “Look, I wasn’t a monster or anything, okay? But I’m not proud of much of what I’ve done in my life, Missy. So, let’s just assume my soul is a middling 1. What kind of improvement might I achieve?” 

He could hear Missy talking to someone in the background before she came back on the line, “Bob, I just talked to the device operator and he thinks you might get to a 4 number. Still, that’s  a pretty good improvement for just $125.” 

“That’s good to know, Missy. Now, just two questions. First, if I do the process on Saturday and get to a 4, can I go back in on Sunday and do it again, hoping maybe to raise that to a 7? And second, if my wife also goes through the process and she gets a high number, say like an 8, will it change her personality? I mean will we still have the same relationship as before? She won’t, like, become saintly or anything, will she?” 

Missy laughed a bit on her end of the line and then answered Bob’s two questions. “You can do ‘back-to-backs’, Bob, and you will get a bump with the second process. As far as your wife, we make sure both husband and wife leave the ‘Spa’ with the same soul number. We’ve discovered that if we don’t do that, some marital problems creep in later on. So, we make sure everyone is simpatico on a soul level when they leave. So, what do you say, Bob? Have I convinced you to try our ‘Soul Cleansing’ process?” 

She’d had enough experience selling this process to know it wasn’t always a slam dunk. And she thought she probably knew what was going on in Bob’s mind as she waited for his response. So she took a chance and asked one last question, “Bob, are you concerned about your ability to sell cars after you leave the ‘Spa’? Is that what’s concerning you?” 

“Frankly, Missy, yes, that’s it precisely. I’m kinda torn between what’s going to happen after I die and how I’m going to make a living before that. Does that make sense to you?” Bob lamented. 

“It sure does, Bob. So here’s what I’m going to recommend. Why don’t you wait until you retire before getting the process? That way you can have the best of both worlds. You can still sell the hell out of cars and get into heaven when you die. Sound like a good solution to you, Bob?” Missy proposed. 

She could sense the relief in Bob’s voice as he answered, “Missy, you’re the best. I got a couple of years before I retire and I really want to make the most of those years. So, we’ll delay the process until then. But in the meantime, kiddo, if you’re ever in Santa Rosa, come on into Bob Watkins Chevrolet and Buick and I’ll give you a deal you won’t believe!” 

End

The Racoons Came Again Last Night - By Brian Law 

The violin music from his radio swept over him as he settled back into his recliner in the den. Everything was just about perfect, he thought, smug in his comfortable house. As Summer merged into Fall, he had done everything on his list to get ready for the change in season. His garden was flourishing, his lawn and trees were vibrant, his back deck newly restained, and his view towards the nearby forest cleared away. True, he couldn’t interact with others because of the virus, but still it was near perfect, except for the racoons. 

They came at night or early morning when he slept. They dug up his garden a bit, tipped over the garbage cans, slopped water from the watering cans all over, and left their paw prints on the deck and on his windows. It was a minor inconvenience to clean up after them, but that wasn’t what bothered him. What really got to him was their complete freedom from everything, their disdain for convention, and their apparent immunity from the virus. They just did whatever they wanted without reference to the human world around them. 

They had adapted perfectly to the situation and it bothered him deeply. They came and went with abandon and they even had their own little face masks provided to them by Mother Nature. They’d been like this for millennia, he mused, and would probably be here after Climate Change battered humanity into fleeing. 

A loneliness started to creep over him, a feeling he hadn’t experienced even though his situation certainly would have justified it before now. He looked around and inspected the room he was in. It was clean, neat, well-decorated and lonely, just like all the other rooms in his perfect little home. 

He checked his watch. It was close to one-thirty in the morning. He sat still, thought about things one more time, then got up and went to the sliding glass door that led to the deck. He pulled back the curtain just a bit and moved back about ten feet. 

He didn’t have to wait long. The motion activated deck light came on about ten minutes later and he could see five of them on the deck. They seemed unperturbed by the light and the big one slowly moved towards the sliding glass door and peered in. There was just enough light for it to see him standing there, ten feet away. For a moment, they stared at each other. Then, the big one got up on its hind legs and put its paws on the glass slider and just continued to look in. Some of the others gathered around him, also looking in. 

He didn’t know why at the time, but he took off his bathrobe and let it drop to the floor. Looking back on what he did next, he couldn’t really explain it very well. But he remembered going to the sliding door, opening it, and getting down on all fours next to the big one. The others gathered around him, made soothing sounds for a few moments, and then all of them trundled off together towards the forest. 

It wasn’t until his eyes got accustomed to the dark and he got up to the tree line that he saw the others who were waiting and watching, and who like him had decided to change their lifestyle. 

End

Heart