Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll occasionally be posting previews from the 17 stories in my new short story collection, Before and Afterlives. If you like what you read, take a hop over to your favorite online bookseller and purchase either the print book or the e-book, and leave a review when you’re finished reading. It helps other people figure out if they’d like to read the book (and strokes my ego, at least when they’re good reviews). 😉
The first preview is from a short story called “Dead Letters” that was originally published in Realms of Fantasy in 2006. I can’t say much about the story without spoiling the “reveal” it hinges upon, but I’ll say it’s the sort of story where the real and the imagined, the earthly and the supernatural, are difficult to tell apart. At least at first.
I have heard of your great misfortune to have gone and died so suddenly. Now I find myself writing after so many years have passed between us in the hopes that perhaps this news is not true. For a long time I believed I was dead too. Then one day someone called my name (“Alice. Do you remember her? Alice Likely. How she loved that girl.”) and I opened my eyes in a dark place, like a fairy tale princess trapped in a coffin. Light appeared suddenly, a flash so sharp and blinding, it pricked my eyes and made them water. Anyone passing by might have thought I was crying. I must have looked so sad.
And someone did stop beside me. I was still trapped in that dark place, my body bagged in a sack of unbeing, but the flash of light had ripped a hole in the darkness. Through that opening, two hands reached in and gripped both sides of the fissure. The hands pulled the gap wider and wider until daylight surrounded me, and trees sprang up, row after row of them. Birds called out. Their notes pierced my eardrums like needles. I heard water, and then there it was too–a stone fountain next to the bench I lay upon, and the birds perched upon the fountain’s ledge staring at me, their eyes black and serious.
Whoever freed me disappeared before I could pull myself together. A newspaper lay open across my chest, and another on my legs. I sat up and the paper on my legs slid to the ground, rattling. I held on to the section covering my chest and looked at it for a moment, only to see your name glaring up at me, as if your name had a life of its own, had your eyes and the looks you could give with them, and so your name glared at me in such a way that I could not help but notice it. It said you were dead. Twenty-eight years old. A promising local artist. Survived by her mother and father. Their names were listed as well, but it hurt to look at them. Particularly your mother’s. She never liked me and I still don’t know why. What did I ever do to her?
I am writing in the hopes that there may still be a chance for us to reconcile, to come together, to answer some of the questions that have burned inside me since you said goodbye. Why did you betray me? Whatever happened to our promise? And where have I been for so long, asleep and waiting for someone to wake me? Why didn’t you do that? I don’t even recognize my own body. My legs are long and my feet are large. When I peered into the fountain water, a face looked back that belonged to a stranger. Then the fountain turned on again, displacing the water, and the face broke apart into ripples.
Now I am writing this to you. Will you please talk to me? Can we forgive one another?
I am writing in a notebook stolen from Rexall’s drugstore, the sort of book Sarah and I used in school years ago, for doodling and note-taking. The cover of it looks like the black and white static on a dead television channel. “Snow,” Sarah’s father used to call that. “Nothing but snow here,” he’d say, flipping the channel until something lively and entertaining appeared. He favored shows about policemen and vigilantes who saved the lives of people who could not save themselves from danger. He instructed the vigilantes and policemen on how to go about all of this saving-of-lives business, spouting advice from his reclining chair, waving the remote control like a scepter. Sometimes the vigilantes listened to him, sometimes they didn’t. But they always saved the helpless victims in the end.
The pharmacist and his wife didn’t recognize me. But I didn’t recognize them at first either. They are old and gray now. Mrs. Hopkinsey’s face sags. Her teeth are not her teeth any longer. I know this because I remember they were yellow and crooked and now they are white and bright and not so narrow; they line up in her mouth like good soldiers. She smiled at me. “Can I help you, dear?”
Such a nice woman, just as I remember. I told her I was browsing, and she nodded and turned back to shuffling cigarette packs into the storage bin over the checkout counter.
I walked the aisles slowly, touching candy bars, tubes of lipstick, barrettes in the shape of butterflies. I spun the comic book rack and paged through magazines, but the women inside were strange and alien, their faces harsh, skin like plastic or velvet. Too smooth. Their outlines blurred into the backgrounds. I found that a familiar feeling, though, and felt a stab of pity for the cover girl’s blurry faces.
The greeting cards stood on the same shelves that they always had; I picked through them. One said, “I feel so lonely with you not here.” On the cover was a picture of a little girl looking up at the moon, holding a doll at her side. Inside it read, “But we’ll always be friends, no matter what the distance.” I found myself crying, and stuffed the card under the waistband of my pants, covering it up with my sweater. I looked to see if anyone had seen me take it, but Mrs. Hopkinsey still restocked cigarettes and Mr. Hopkinsey stood behind the medicine counter, measuring out pills for a customer.
If Sarah had been there, she would have been the one to take the card. I would have been the lookout. Those had been our positions when we were children. I felt a little guilty changing places with her, like borrowing a friend’s sweater and not returning it, even though you know how they love it so.
I found the notebook in the next aisle over. I hadn’t known I was going to take it either. I needed things without knowing what I needed, so I let my hands think for me. They reached out and took things: the greeting card, several envelopes, the notebook, pens, a bar of chocolate, a ten dollar bill crumpled up on the black and white checkered floor. I used the money to buy a soda and a bag of potato chips, so as not to be suspicious. Mrs. Hopkinsey rang me up with her new smile still flashing, and when she handed me my change, I thought, I am home.