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altochoir.jpg
Art by Hillary Lyon © 2017

An Alto for the Choir

 

by Hillary Lyon

 

 

          Somebody forgot to top off the oil in the car. So on that long trek back to the family homestead, on that long, lonely stretch of highway on a cloudless August afternoon, the engine of a beautiful and otherwise perfectly preserved 1978 sapphire-blue Camaro seized, and died.

 

          Cathi got out of the muscle car and kicked the front tire. “Stupid car,” she muttered, as she dug through her purse for her phone. She scrolled through her contacts, looking for the 1-800 number for AAA roadside service. Nada.

 

          “Excuse me, miss,” said a voice from out of nowhere. “Need some help?”

 

 She turned to find a cowboy-hatted, toothpick-chewing officer standing by the car. He adjusted his mirrored sunglasses and crossed his tanned arms.

 

          “I, uh, yeah,” she answered. He was a deputy or something, so of course he would help her. Or so Cathi assumed.

 

          “What a beauty!” The officer said, not waiting for her to elaborate further. He obviously referred to the car, not her, because he lovingly looked the Camaro up and down. “This your machine? Don’t usually see a gal driving something of this caliber.”

 

          “Ah, no, it belongs to my husband.” Cathi then scoffed, and said, “Ex-husband, actually.”

 

          “Uh huh,” the deputy replied thoughtfully. “You sing? Soprano, maybe?”

 

          “What?” Cathi was taken aback by this odd question. “Sorta, I mean, I sang alto in my high school choir, but what does that have to do with anything?”

 

          The deputy arched his shoulder and spit out the toothpick. “Ma’am, you’re not the legal owner of this vehicle. It’s been reported stolen, and that means you’re in a heap of trouble. Grand theft auto, in fact. That’s a felony.”

 

          “What? No! Derick wouldn’t do that to me!” Her voice rose with her panic.

 

          “Well, he would, and he did. Gonna have to take you in.” The deputy casually tipped his hat back. Cathi couldn’t read his expression.

 

          It was only now that she looked for the deputy’s car. There wasn’t one. “Where did you come from? I mean, where’s your car?” Cathi asked.

 

          “Don’t need a car out here.” The deputy replied, pulling out a new toothpick from his shirt pocket. He jammed it in his mouth and smiled. “But you need to get in line.” He pointed to a spot over Cathi’s right shoulder. She turned to find a line of dirty, jumpsuited convicts toiling away in the middle of the road.

 

          “Where did they—” Cathi began. The deputy roughly shoved her toward the group, who parted to make a place for her.

 

          “There you go, missy, a perfect fit next to the tenors.” The convicts began humming, and in spite of herself, Cathi joined them.

 

          On that particular stretch of highway in the back country, the one that the old folks called the “singing highway,” a new voice joined the chorus. The superstitious will tell you the humming you hear when you drive on a moonless night is the mournful moaning of convicts who worked the road—worked until they died. Though the more pragmatic will say the hum results from the grooved pavement, made so rainwater easily sloughs away, and shake their heads impatiently at the absurd idea of a ghost choir.

 

 

 


misspearl.jpg
Art by Hillary Lyon © 2018

Miss Pearl

 

Hillary Lyon

 

 

For twenty-five years—more than half my life—I bowed to Duncan’s whims, gave in to his arguments, and gave up on trying to compromise on anything. He was stubborn—as his mother gleefully told me when we were newly engaged. No, I should’ve told her, he was a bully. Subtle in his methods; if he’d been a woman, folks would have called him manipulative. He was a master in the art of gas-lighting. I suspect he learned it at his mother’s knee.

 

Well, I’d had enough. He always promised me whatever he thought would shut me up—a ski trip this winter holiday, for sure! A visit to my aged aunt in the Midwest, just as soon as he finishes this project at work! A new car when we get our tax return! That gorgeous pearl ring for our tenth anniversary—the one in the MOMA catalog!

 

Fifteen anniversaries later, still no ring. But what he did give me was a trip to Vail. Well, he went to Colorado with his “business associate” Camellia. I got to stay home.

 

So when he returned, two weeks later, with a new found love of raw oysters, I asked if he’d found any pearls embedded in those slimy globs. You know, for my promised anniversary ring. He laughed, as much at my question as at my new hair-cut. Loves to make me cry. A real keeper, this guy.

 

Seeing my tears, he had an uncharacteristic moment of remorse. Or did he? He suggested we should go out to eat, to a nice place. Dress up and get an Uber. I know what he’s doing: Get me out in public and drop bad news in my lap—see, if we’re in a nice, crowded place, he knows I won’t make a scene. He’s done this before.

 

He even lets me choose the restaurant—this really bleeps my radar. I pick Chauncy’s, the most hoity-toity seafood restaurant here in this congested, cement-smothered city. I expected him to argue for some place cheaper and less posh, but he doesn’t. Now the needle of my internal alarm is in the red. I make a reservation for Friday night.

 

Date night comes and finds us seated at a table covered with an imported Irish linen cloth, little silver salt-and-pepper shakers, and a single flickering candle in a tasteful cut-crystal holder. Would have been romantic if we still loved each other.

 

He insisted on ordering oysters for our appetizer, smiling at me as he did so. It was either his “I know a secret smile,” or his “I’m going to educate you on the finer things in life you sad little lumpkin” smile. Actually, both smiles are the same smile.

 

Oysters came with a fresh basket of warm bread and chilled butter. Duncan dove into the platter of oysters, sucking them down one after the other. Did he even taste them? I took a crusty roll and a bit of butter. The butter knife had an ornate, weighted handle. I never understood why butter knives had such dull, rounded tips. Shouldn’t a knife have a sharp end?

 

Lost in this train of thought, I didn’t notice Duncan was in distress until he slammed his fist on the table, knocking over both his glass of Merlot and the burning candle. Jeeze, set the place on fire, why don’t ya? I slapped out the fire, which did burn the table cloth, as he fell over backwards in his antique Chippendale chair. I think I heard it crack as he hit the floor. Between the ruined table cloth and the broken chair, how much was this dinner going to cost us?

 

Dutiful wife that I am, I rushed to his side, waving the concerned waiter away. “He’s choking!” the white-coated teen exclaimed. “Yes, I know,” I said, feeling calmer than I’d ever felt in my life. I reached up to the table and grabbed what was handy—the butter knife. “We have to open his airway,” I said to the flailing waiter. “You go call for an ambulance, while I take care of him.” The server ran off in a blind panic.

 

Duncan looked into my eyes. He was terrified; for the first time in his life, he had no control over anything. “Not to worry, big guy. I’ll fix you right up.” I held his head back by the hair with one hand, and with the other wielding the butter knife, I dug into his throat. “Gotta get some air in there,” I said as he clutched at my arm. “Let go of me, that hurts and you’re going to leave a mark,” I hissed under my breath, so that the other diners couldn’t hear.

 

I shoved and twisted that dull butter knife—there was more resistance than you’d think, what with the skin and muscle and tendons and blood—all that blood. All over the restaurant’s plush carpet. It will cost a fortune to clean. I wonder if it would be more economically feasible to just re-carpet the dining room.

 

And there it is! The source of all this drama: A pearl, misshapen but beautiful. As big as your thumbnail, too. How could he ingest something that size, that solid, and not know it until he choked? But that’s Duncan: Always in such a thoughtless hurry. I held the blood-wet pearl up to Duncan’s unfocused eyes. “Looky here,” I whispered  close to his ear as his consciousness faded, “a pearl for my anniversary ring. At last!”

 

I put my napkin over his face to spare the other diners his expired gray countenance, grotesquely twisted in agony as it was. Death ain’t pretty. But my new ring sure is!





protection.jpg
Art by Hillary Lyon © 2019

Always Use Protection

 

Hillary Lyon

 

 

The rhythmic thumping was a distraction, and I hate driving while distracted. It’s dangerous. On the radio, I found a station doing their “70’s Sunday Rock Block,” now playing Heart’s Barracuda. I turned it up.

 

* * *

 

Earlier that evening, I’d pulled into a mega-chain gas station, found a free pump on the end farthest away from the mini-mart. Involved in pumping gas, I didn’t notice the youngish man come up behind me until he spoke.

“Hey, ah, excuse me miss,” he spoke shyly, massaged his hands in apparent anxiety. Big brown puppy dog eyes, brows knitted together in supplication. “Could you be so kind as to give me a lift to the next town over? My ma is sick in the hospital, it’s a real emergency, and I got no way of getting there—got no car, ya see.”

How could I say no? He looked so pathetic. “Sure.”

 

* * *

 

Miles down the highway, he put his calloused hand on my right thigh and squeezed. I moved my leg impatiently, hoped he’d get the message. He just squeezed harder, hard enough to leave a bruise. I hate bruises; they’re temporary tattoos of abuse. I don’t want them to disfigure my body.

The radio station was playing Rick Derringer’s Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo. I slapped his hand.

“Listen, slut,” he growled, sliding his offending hand up under my skirt, “there’s a scenic pull-off  a couple miles up the road. Pull in there.”

“And if I don’t—”

He grabbed my throat and squeezed. “You got no say in the matter, whore.”

I took the next exit, parked at the deserted scenic look-out.

 

* * *

 

“Turn the car off,” he muttered hoarsely, “and get in the back seat.”

“Can I at least leave the radio on?” The station was now playing Blue ÷yster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper. One of my all-time favorites.

He didn’t say no, so I left the ignition turned on to power the radio. As I opened my door, he grabbed my arm and made a show of patting his denim jacket pocket, insinuating he had a knife or gun there.

Now it was my turn to play pathetic. “At least let me get some protection, Okay?”

“Whatever,” he answered getting into the backseat. “Just get your skank ass back here.” I reached into the pocket of the driver’s side door and grabbed my little pearl-handled two-shot derringer. It was a gift from my grandmother, who’d given it to me when I left our little town for the big city. “A lady always needs to have protection,” she’d told me.

I opened the car’s back door and found he’d already taken his pants off and was stroking his sexual assault weapon. Are you kidding me? Whatever happened to romance. “Get in here, bitch,” he hissed.

I leaned into the back seat and gave him my most lascivious look, licked my lips, and—

Shot him in the gut.

 

* * *

 

I popped the trunk and retrieved my tool bag, another gift from my beloved granny. Pulled out my roll of duct tape, which has numerous practical uses, like silencing a crude mouth and binding invasive hands. And my wrench, just in case something needs to be turned.

The blood loss and impending shock made my passenger docile, so it was easy to tape his mouth shut, and his hands together. I then led him to the back of the car and ordered him into the trunk. He whimpered. “Don’t worry,” I reassured him, “the trunk is lined with plastic, so you won’t soil it with your blood. Now. Get. In.”

He resisted a bit, so I shoved my little pistol against his scruffy neck, right under his jaw. The little gun only held two bullets, and I’d already spent one a couple of weeks ago. But that’s a story for another time. Point is, he didn't know it was empty.

Still, he refused to get in, so I impatiently turned him towards the shadowed maw of trunk, and hit him in the back of the head with the wrench from my kit. After that, all I had to do was push him in. I slammed the trunk shut and got back in the driver’s seat.

 

* * *

 

I’d spent more summers than I could count at my grandmother’s little homestead, miles outside of the city. It was during those long, lazy summer days that she’d showed me how to butcher hogs, and any other miscellaneous, malevolent critter that crossed her path. “A gal’s got to be self-sufficient, and know how to protect herself.” Wise woman.

She’d said I was the most like her, much more so than my other siblings. When she passed, I inherited the little old farmhouse, and the small barn. A barn that, decades before, gran had converted to her workshop.

That’s where I was headed now, as the radio station finished playing Heart’s Barracuda, and next started Elton John’s All the Girls Love Alice.

 

* * *

 

I opened up the workshop, put on my gran’s leather apron, thick black rubber gloves, and plastic splatter-proof goggles. Safety first! as granny always said. Like any considerate host, I helped my guest out of the trunk. As he was confused, I gave him a shove in the right direction, and he stumbled into the glaring florescent light of the workshop.

Didn’t even have to tell him to lie down on the enameled metal table in the center of the room. Like a lamb to the slaughter, he just knew. Or he was so drained, he needed to rest. Probably the latter, seeing how much blood he’d lost.

There was a boom-box on the worktable behind me. I turned it on to that 70’s station, and Aerosmith’s Back in the Saddle boomed out into the otherwise silent night.

My sweet old grandmother taught me so many things that I still use in my everyday life. For instance, one of the more practical pieces of advice she gave me back in the day was—

My passenger groaned and attempted to sit up. He rolled his eyes, and with a thunk, his head fell back heavily onto the cold metal table.

—always start with the bone saw.






                                   

waituntiltheicemelts.jpg
Art by Hillary Lyon © 2019

Wait Until the Ice Melts

 

Hillary Lyon

 

 

The ice pack on Kaylene’s wrist slid off and landed on the kitchen’s dirty linoleum  floor with a sickening plop. The ice inside was mostly melted already, but she’d hardly noticed; she’d been too distracted thinking about her situation, and how to change it. Danny’d always had a temper, but his fuse was getting shorter and shorter—especially where she was concerned. Dinner’s not ready when he wants it? Shove. Pork roast too greasy? Plate hits the wall. Rolls are burned? Slap. Laundry’s not folded and put away? Punch in the ribs. Something had to give.

But this was the first time he’d hurt her where anyone else would notice. Oh, once when he said she wasn’t spending enough time with the kids, she countered that she had to work so they could to pay the rent—and as she walked away, he grabbed a fistful of her brassy red hair and yanked. He threw the bloody hank in her face and laughed. Not so pretty now, he’d hissed. She wore her hair up in a loose bun for months after that, until the spot healed and the hair grew back. But even then none of her co-workers had noticed her injury.

It’s not like she had friends she could confide in; he’d made sure of that, for years. Old high school gal pal Tina called when she was in town visiting family? Never got the message. Christmas card from her favorite cousin Miranda in Omaha? Card was shredded and shoved in the garbage before she saw it. Email invitation from Terri at the new mother’s group about a girl’s night out? Deleted before Kaylene had a chance to read it, as were many of her email messages.

When her daughters had grown up and left the home, Kaylene thought her relationship with Danny would renew itself. She hoped it would return to what it had been in high school: passionate, romantic, the two of them so in love there was no one else in the world. But what Kaylene had considered teenage passion matured into controlling, adult abuse.

Her baby sister had warned her; Danny had a reputation among the underclass girls for being sexually aggressive, and mean when he didn’t get what he wanted. When he was a junior, his then-girlfriend, a petite freshman named Juanita, showed her track coach bruises on her breast where Danny’d mashed her because she refused to go all the way. The coach took this information to the principal; Danny was confronted and kicked out. He spent his senior year attending a rival high school.

Kaylene met him their senior year at a dance held after the last football game of the season. He crashed the party, along with several of his new buddies, looking for trouble. With her natural red hair, she was easy to spot in a crowd; he made her his target, swooping in and doing his best to sweep her off her feet. He’d been kicked out of her high school for fighting, he bragged, when he was defending the reputation of a mentally-disabled student. When he graduated, he told her, he was going to enlist in the Marines, or maybe become a Navy SEAL team member, or an Army Ranger. He flexed his biceps. Kaylene was impressed by his fearless, macho posturing as only a naÔve teenage girl could be. He wanted to do her because she was a symbol for the school that unceremoniously dumped him. In his over-heated little brain, seducing and abandoning her would be the equivalent of fucking over the entire school. Best revenge. Ever.

And if she got knocked up? Not his problem. She should’ve been more careful.

But it did turn out to be his problem. For as much of a bastard as Danny was, his parents were basically good people. They badgered him into doing the right thing. Kaylene and Danny both graduated in May; they married in June.

He didn’t join the service; instead he worked as an assistant grease monkey at a neighborhood garage; a job his older brother finagled for him. Kaylene, with her parent’s help, went to secretarial school and got a decent position with a local insurance agency. After their first child, Ariel, was born, the second daughter, Jasmine, quickly followed. The ensuing years were a blur: work, kids’ school, work, short summer vacations, work, stressful holidays, work, kids’ school, work. And then all of a sudden, it was over; the girls were grown and moved out.

Yet now Danny was more angry than ever.

Tonight, Kaylene had suggested—had the audacity to suggest—that maybe they, the two of them, could dress up a bit and go out to dinner. Nothing fancy, just a happy hour and half-price appetizers down at Bergie’s Bar and Grill—where they’d had their wedding reception so many years ago. Danny never acknowledged their anniversary, so why, he demanded to know, start now? Why, he growled, getting in her face, celebrate something that aboso-fucking-lutely ruined his life? Kaylene teared up and turned away—and when she did, he grabbed her wrist and twisted, fracturing the bones. When she cried out, he shoved her against the fridge.

“Better put some ice on that,” Danny’d chortled as he walked out of the kitchen. She did, and while the ice numbed her pain, she came to a decision. Kaylene patiently waited until the ice melted in the zip-lock baggie, and then rose from her flimsy kitchen table to pull a carving knife from the solid wooden block on the cluttered counter. A wedding gift from her old bestie, Tina, who told her it would almost certainly come in handy someday. That “someday” was today.

Hiding the blade behind her back with her good hand, Kaylene found Danny into the bedroom. He was cleaning up, smoothing his graying blonde hair, splashing on cheap cologne, getting ready to go out—without her. His thin gold wedding ring was in his wooden change bowl on the dresser. Kaylene crept up behind him. Their eyes met in the mirror. Danny squinted and smirked.

“Oooo, wassa matter, poor widdle Kaylene has a boo-boo?” Danny snickered. “Kaylene wanna say sowwy to big hunky Danny for being such a goddamn worthless little piece of—”

Kaylene,” she interrupted without emotion, “today wants a present, and gets a present. One she picked out for herself.”

        The knife plunged. One, two three, four, five—and so on to nineteen. One deep jab for each year of their miserable marriage. When she was done, Kaylene sat on their bed and smiled; she’d worry about clean up later. Right now, she was going to dress up and then go down to Bergie’s—half price appetizers and discounted Mexican beer! After all these years, she finally had something to celebrate.


Hillary Lyon is an illustrator for horror/sci-fi and pulp fiction websites and magazines. She is also founder and senior editor for the independent poetry publisher, Subsynchronous Press. An SFPA Rhysling Award nominated poet, her poems have appeared in journals such as Eternal Haunted Summer, Jellyfish Whispers, Scfifaikuest, Illya’s Honey, and Red River Review, as well as numerous anthologies. Her short stories have appeared recently in Night to Dawn, Yellow Mama, Black Petals, Sirens Call, and Tales from the Moonlit Path, among others, as well as in numerous horror anthologies such as Night in New Orleans: Bizarre Beats from the Big EasyThuggish Itch: Viva Las Vegas, and White Noise & Ouija Boards. She appeared, briefly, as the uncredited "all-American Mom with baby" in Purple Cactus Media’s 2007 Arizona indie-film, "Vote for Zombie." Having lived in France, Brazil, Canada, and several states in the US, she now resides in southern Arizona.  https://hillarylyon.wordpress.com/

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