Black Petals Issue #101 Autumn, 2022

Editor's Page
Mars-News, Views and Commentary
BP Artists and Illustrators
Dig Deep, the Therapist Said: Fiction by Hillary Lyon
Dinner Club: Fiction by Mark Jabaut
God of the Winds: Fiction by Scáth Beorh
Head Pot: Fiction by Spencer Harrington
His Deadly Muse: Fiction by Roy Dorman
Patrick Hatrick: Fiction by Bruce Costello
Squawking Chimes: Fiction by Robert Pettus
The Courier: Fiction by Billie Owens
The Midnight Sonata: Fiction by David Hopewell
The Wolves are Coming: Fiction by Mauri Orr Stone
Abduction: Flash Fiction by Laura Nettles
I'm Your Garlic:Flash Fiction by Ron Capshaw
Ho/Ma:i - (Ho-maaa-ee): Flash Fiction by Rani Jayakumar
Mona Wants to Die, but She Lets the Weather Decide:Flash Fiction by Riham Adly
The Cookie Crumbles: Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
The Right Knife: Flash Fiction by David Barber
A Devilish Matter of Disinvitation: Poem by Carl E. Reed
Abhor the Light!: Poem by Carl E. Reed
Shadow House-A Writer's Retreat: Poem by Carl E. Reed
Accursed Personae: Three excerpted Poems by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler
Remember When We Watched "Kill Bill" Together: Poem by C. Renee Kiser
I Die, You Die: Poem by Joseph V. Danoski
Northbound Train: Poem by Joseph V. Danoski
The Haunted Liquor Cabinet: Poem by Joseph V. Danoski
The Candlelight Killer: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Wooden Soldiers: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
The Curse of Verse: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
When a Star Dies: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker

Robert Pettus: Squawking Chimes

Art by Hillary Lyon © 2022

Squawking Chimes

Robert Pettus


I framed Grandma’s picture after she died. It was only a small photo, nestled cleanly in a wooden frame I found lying in my parent’s house, back in Abry. It was an old photo; it was taken back in the forties. She was youthful back then – smiling, in her twenties. Grandma had seen everything – the Great Depression, World War II, the Kennedy’s… Trump… COVID – all of it. She even contracted the virus – at 95 years old – and kicked it to the curb with only minimal symptoms. She was a tough lady. She had a good sense of humor, probably because she knew most people were totally crazy; she’d had too much first-hand experience with that shit, throughout the course of her century.

I tightened my black Nike running shoes and removed my wedding ring. I didn’t like going on a run wearing it; I had this paranoid fear that it would get trapped on my swollen finger, cutting off the circulation. My finger would turn blue and then rot away, or something like that. I just hadn’t worn it enough, is all, hadn’t become completely accustomed to it – I’d only been married for a couple months. Plus, I had a crazed, anxious imagination – that was undeniable.

I heard the ghostly, hollow-gong of the clanging wind-chimes outside the storm-door. They had been given to me as a gift, after Grandma’s passing. There was no breeze coming in, but I wasn’t superstitious. I was paranoid and imaginative, but somehow not superstitious in the slightest. There was a light breeze, a breeze which blew the chimes. I was sure of that – sure of it. Following their brief composition, they returned to silence.

A Tufted-Titmouse landed on the empty, swinging birdfeeder. The birds were upset. I had been lazy about getting them more food. It hopped curiously around the edges of the square-shaped feeding-station, searching in disappointment for a bite to eat. It looked up, glaring at me with its vanta-black, haunted eyes. Finally discovering a remnant seed, it flew away, past the chimes, to a tree branch, where it began immediately bashing the seed against the wood to open it up. As if recognizing their friend, the chimes again rang out as the darting bird passed.

I opened the door. The wiggling doorknob slid around, only partially screwed into its circular home. We decided to change the locks after we had bought the house, but I never realized how difficult screwing things into place can be when you have absolutely zero visibility. I had given up on that lock, in frustration. It was good enough. It worked.

The day was hot. It was only April, but it felt like summer – eighty-two degrees, and muggy. I galloped down the cracked wooden stairs of the back deck, around the corner to the driveway, and out into the street. Our quiet, Northern Kentucky road led out to busy Dixie Highway. As I trotted down the street, trying to convince myself I actually wanted to exercise, St. Henry’s towering, narrow Mediterranean-styled bell tower crossed the sunny, blurred horizon into my field of vision, flanked on either side by the capitalistic swamp of a formerly prosperous society – an instant oil-change on one side, a Family-Dollar on the other. Both looked like shit. Neither were new, or thriving. I picked up the pace.

The neighbor’s dog – always ready – darted from the front porch and rumbled angrily toward me, its ageing, overweight-body not quick enough to keep pace with even a modest jog. He snapped and growled, his neck caught by the end of the length of rope perpetuating his enslavement. I didn’t like that dog, but I felt bad for him. He was an asshole, though.

I made the turn onto Dixie, through the parking lot of the Family Dollar. I always ran right past the automatic doors, which – if they were open – would ding and slide ajar. They remained closed. That Family Dollar had weird hours. Since the pandemic, they had sort of opened and closed shop at their own leisure. That was why I ran past every day – to check. I hated it when I would later walk down the street for a carton of eggs, or a sixer of beer, only to find the place closed.

Finally accelerating to more than a lazy trot, I turned out of the Family Dollar parking lot, out onto Dixie proper. The street was always busy – cars whizzing by, nearly crashing; people rolling down their windows to instigate fights. People hated each other, on that road. It made me nervous, from time to time, but I still continued my daily runs. They kept me sane.

I passed Kim’s Korean Martial Arts, an old, two-car garage which had been converted into a Taekwondo gym. It was closed down – out of business. The remnant, yellow sign depicted a smiling child kicking high into the air.

          The Rahma African grocery was also closed. Little Caesar’s was still kicking. So was Frisch’s Big Boy.

          I made the turn off Dixie, into the parking lot of an apartment complex: Erlanger Lakes. I darted through the place, ignoring the No Trespassing signs, out to the lakes themselves. They weren’t lakes – not really. They were ponds, and not even very big ones. One of them featured a dock leading out to its middle, with a gazebo sitting silently in its center. I liked to go there for a mid-run break, to put my hands on my knees and breathe heavily – to recuperate before the jog back.

          The unstable wooden planks of the dock wiggled and shook as I stormed across them toward the gazebo. I was zoning out; I was tired – breathing heavy. I ran nearly every day, but I still wasn’t in the best shape. I wasn’t trying to break any records, or anything like that – I mostly just did it to relieve stress. The music from my air-pods swarmed my sound-space. I was listening to Jigsaw Falling into Place, by Radiohead:

The walls are bending shape;
They've got a Cheshire Cat grin;
All blurring into one;
This place is on a mission;
Before the night owl…
Before the animal noises…


Before I made it to the gazebo, I abruptly -- for seemingly no reason – looked up. There was an old man limping toward me, wielding a twisted wooden cane in his left hand. He had a scraggly white beard. He was smiling – his bulging, wide-eyed grin missing more than a few teeth. He was wearing a black leather jacket and ripped, dirty jeans. He was wearing flip-flops, his lengthy toenails dirty and untrimmed. Both of his arms were exposed, but an unnatural bump revealed that there was something inside his jacket. I became nervous.

          I removed my air-pods. A set of wind-chimes hung from the gazebo; they sang like a Peruvian whistle. The man glared at me. He smiled again. I stopped completely, shaking the wobbly dock unnaturally, back and forth into the gazebo, like a battering-ram.

          “Hey there, son!” said the old man, “You look like you need something; look like you’re searching for something! Am I right? Searching for answers! That’s what!”

          The dock was still shaking. I spread my arms slightly, as if to balance myself. Though I was having trouble standing, the old man had no such problem – he waved back and forth with the shifting old wood like a seasoned pirate.

          “Hey!” he said, gesturing to the gazebo, “You need to talk to my friend here!”

          He turned and walked back into the gazebo, making it to the bench at the back of the circular structure before turning and sitting. Unnerved, I followed him, though I didn’t sit down. I stood shifting back and forth uncomfortably, my dancing weight causing the former chaotic swell of the pond to shift into more of a metronomic, rhythmic, hypnotic current. The old man began unzipping his jacket. For some reason, I shielded my eyes.

          “Look!” he said, “You can look! This here is my friend! My bud! He’s an ancient being – been living for over a thousand years! A prophet! A timeless sage!”

          Removing my protective forearm, I unblocked my vision. The old man had opened his bulging jacket. Inside sat an elderly, sober-looking turkey-vulture. It opened its mouth soundlessly. It looked to the ground, as if embarrassed. It seemed injured, or maybe sick. It was clearly unhappy.

          “This creature here – this ancient, ancestral spirit – will tell everything you need to know about your current situation! It will help you make the right decision!”

          I began backing away. I needed to get the hell out of there.

          “Wait!” said the old man, “Just wait! Listen to the wisdom of my friend here!”

          I stayed: “What’s its name?”

          “He’s gone by many names, over the centuries – I surely don’t know them all! I call him Buzz. He seems to like that name; he responds to it well!”

          The man looked at the pink, wrinkly face of the putrid bird.

          “Buzz!” he said.

          The vulture, at first looking to the ground, glanced up at the old man, in seemingly clear recognition.

          “See!” said the old man, “This is one smart bird! Hell, it’s not even a bird – not really! This thing is a mythical creature – like a phoenix, or some shit! Now, like I said, tell Buzz your troubles. Ask him your burning questions! I know you have them! You look like an indecisive fellow – as if you have trouble following the natural direction of your spine!”

          I looked at the bird. He didn’t look at me. He was still staring, stone-faced, at the old man.

          “Oh!” said the old man, “He wants a treat! He expects a treat whenever I say his name.”

          The old man stood and began reaching into the back-pocket of his jeans. He pulled out a chicken wing and tossed it to the floor of the gazebo. Buzz, instantly excited, hopped out from within the jacket and began devouring the rancid poultry.

          “Ask him!” said the old man, “Ask him your question!”

I looked down to the large bird. His beak clicked as he chewed around the bone – fried breading and grease covered his already filthy face. I was afraid. I needed to get out of there, I knew. I decided that the best way to leave without conflict was simply to entertain the old man – to ask the bird a question. I looked at the buzzard:

          “What’s the purpose of everything?” I said, “Why are we here, and where do we go? Why does anyone have to die?”

          The bird didn’t respond. He kept eating. There wasn’t any meat left on the bone, but he kept poking and digging – scavenging for every last bit.

          “Woah, woah!” said the old man, “That’s too many! You can ask it one question only – don’t overload the old bastard! One at a time!”

          I looked at him in frustration:

          “Okay,” I said, “Why does anyone have to die?”

          The bird’s beak ceased its continuous clicking. He looked at me and paused for an uncomfortable length of time. I could, somehow, feel the bird looking deep into my being. His vanta-black eyes rolled back into his head. He spread his wings, unleashing a shrieking squawk. He squawked again and again, flapping his petulant appendages perpetually. The sky grew dark. The old man began laughing – at first a giggle, it evolved rapidly into a booming, belly-cackle. His eyes widened; his remnant teeth flashing with excitement.

          Abruptly, the gazebo began spinning in counter-clockwise fashion. It lifted from the surface of the pond – or maybe not lifted; it detached itself. Reality – at least the environmental reality of Dixie Highway – was somehow removed from its presence. Blackness engulfed me. Spinning darkness – the only object visible the twirling interior of the gazebo, the only entity the squawking, flapping vulture. This rotating purgatory stank like stagnant garbage – the smell of death permeated the place.

          I fell to the bench and looked beyond the gazebo, into the nothingness, for that’s what it was – nothing. Stinking, decaying emptiness.

          Light returned. A cosmos of innumerable galaxies. The old man reappeared. He was still laughing. He spoke:

          “I told you this little fella was special! He’s an ancient creature! He’s not from this plane of existence!”

          I didn’t know how to respond. Sanity had left me; logic no longer existed. The bird looked at me, before flapping its wings one last time – as if to stretch – and climbed back into the old man’s jacket. He quickly zipped it up.

          “I’m the bird’s keeper!” said the old man, “That’s my lot in life! Taking care of him!”

          My head was still spinning. I was back in the pond, near the highway. I was very nauseous. I leaned over the railing of the gazebo and vomited into the pond. The pond was clearly well-stocked. Bluegill and crappie swam up almost immediately and began nibbling at my floating puke. Semi-liquid spittle dripping from my mouth, I looked back to the old man:

          “He didn’t answer my question,” I said.

          “What?” said the old man, “Of course he did! What did you ask, again?”

          “I asked why anyone had to die.”

          “Oh! Well, of course he answered it! That’s an easy one! Maybe you didn’t catch the answer – that could be the issue. It’s not easy to understand his language – not for us, anyway. He doesn’t speak what you might call regular old English. Maybe this will add some clarity to your query.”

          The old man gestured to the wind-chimes hanging from the gazebo. He grinned. They began clanging chaotically. They shook and quivered, as if in the midst of an earthquake. Then they stopped briefly before shifting into a more melodic, familiar tune. It was You Can Close Your Eyes, by James Taylor, a song my grandmother used to sing to me before putting me to bed, when I was a child. I wept instantly – tears watering down the vomit on my face.

          “There you go!” said the old man, “So now you get it! So now you understand. I’m glad we could help you – my ancient friend and me!”

          The old man walked off, down the dock, back toward the road. I fell back into the bench of the gazebo, exhausted. I looked to the sky; the sun was bright. It heated my damp, sweating face. From behind, the Wind Chimes gave their song, this time less intentionally musical, but the tune – if you listened closely – was still there. I felt comfort.


Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia. He was most recently accepted for publication at Allegory Magazine, The Horror Tree, JAKE magazine, Soft Star, The Night Shift podcast, Libretto publications, Faerie Fire Publications, White Cat Publications, Culture Cult, Savage Planet,, White-Enso podcast, Tall Tale TV podcast, The Corner Bar, A Thin Line of Anxiety, Schlock!, Black Petals, Inscape Literary Journal of Morehead State University, Yellow Mama, Apocalypse-Confidential, Mystery Tribune, Blood Moon Rising, and The Green Shoes Sanctuary. Squawking Chimes is one of the stories he recently wrote.

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