My long-awaited follow-up to Shot to Pieces is finally coming out! Available now on Kindle for pre-order. Get yours now, then email the confirmation and I’ll send you the Kindle version of my short novella, Not Buried Deep Enough, Free!
And now for some free material, no strings attached!
On Saturday, October 5th, I won first prize in the Long Island Literary Arts 2019 Prose Competition for my very short story, Grandma’s Garden. Contest rules dictate, you can only win once. But I entered all four categories and like them all. Here they are for your consideration. Tell me what you think.
My grandmother was a beautiful woman, if a bit peculiar. Men gathered about her like moths to a flame. She had a long line of suitors vying to win her favor. She seemed mostly indifferent. But every once in a while, she would take a shine to one and marry him soon after. By last count, she had accumulated six ex-husbands.
Within a year, each had run off, leaving Grandma with uncontested divorces and time to cultivate her garden, and bake brownies—she always seemed to be baking brownies. Having access to their assets, they never returned to claim what was now hers.
She kept an elaborate vegetable garden encompassing her entire backyard. No one was permitted to go back there—not even me. She alone tended to it, doing all the work. We benefitted, having fresh vegetables all season.
“Why are your vegetables so much better than the grocer’s?” I asked.
“Because I only use organic fertilizer for my soil. Nothing works better,” she said, looking askance.
I accepted her answer because I didn’t know what fertilizer was, or organic. I was only nine. That same year, I spent the summer with Grandma. A man in a rumpled suit and misshapen hat visited.
“Can I help you?” Grandma asked him.
“My name is Earl Morrison. I’m a private investigator. Does George Hodges live here?” he asked, extending his business card.
“That scoundrel ran off a year ago,” Grandma seethed. “He probably took up with some young trollop.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Morrison said. “His niece hired me to find him. Her last contact was a birthday card over a year ago. I’ll have to tell her the trail went cold.”
That was the only time I was aware of anyone asking about Grandma’s exes.
She passed away at ninety. As her only living relative, I became executor of her estate. Shocked at the amount of money in her savings account, it was in excess of five million dollars, I couldn’t imagine where the money came from. It had to be from her exes, but none of them seemed to be wealthy.
Having found the important documents in the house, it was time to explore her forbidden garden. I meandered through the lush vegetation until I came to the hidden center. There was a sixty by thirty foot rectangle of marijuana plants, ready to be harvested. This, I thought, might explain the money, and why she was always baking brownies. But where was she drying and packaging the weed? It could only be the garage.
As I turned to head there, I tripped over something sticking out of the ground. It was a human skull. I looked around and noticed six burial mounds, with various sun-bleached bones sticking out of them. This explained the six ex-husbands. What I couldn’t understand was how such a gifted gardener could be so inept at burying bodies.
Calixto Boudreaux was the deadliest man Sherriff Raimundo Gautier ever encountered. This was an achievement, considering Ray had been the Sherriff of Lafourche Parrish since before the war, only briefly interrupted while he fought the Nazis in WW II. He returned to Thibodaux (the parish seat), to find Bayou Lafourche drowning in blood. Calixto Boudreaux was the reason.
A fierce and brooding loner of mixed Cajun and Creole descent, he seemed to harbor the worst qualities of what should have been a heady and healthy mixture. He combined all the fierceness of Cajun individualism with the dark mysticism of Creole voodoo. He made a life in the swamps poaching gator and making war on people trespassing on what he considered his patch.
What that really meant was, he killed everyone he saw. He didn’t understand the concepts of neighbors or common waterways. The body count had surpassed forty-five before the other bayou denizens beseeched the Sherriff to do something about it.
It was an easy case for Sherriff Gautier. He simply crept up on Calixto’s camp while he was out poaching. Strung from the trees and carved out like gator carcasses were seven of Calixto’s neighbors. Recently killed, there was evidence of voodoo rituals involving their organs and a large kettle with human limbs simmering in the gumbo. Ray just had to hide and wait for Calixto to eat and pass out from drinking his homemade sour mash. Then it was just a matter of cuffing him up and dragging him out of the bayou.
“This a’ mah land back heah. Don’ like nobody be messing wit it,” Calixto said by way of explanation.
“What’s with the Gumbo?” Ray asked.
“I eats what I kills,”
Tried and convicted of the seven murders, Boudreaux was sentenced to ride the lightning in Gruesome Gertie, the famed Louisiana state electric chair. Back then, it was transported from parish jail to parish jail like a traveling road show.
On Friday, October 31, 1946, she was in Thibodaux Parish with the express purpose of killing Calixto Boudreaux. Things were proceeding on schedule. A storm was just descending on the parish jail when the warden asked Boudreaux, strapped into the chair, if he had any last words.
“Ya’ll cain’t kill moi,” Calixto laughed, lightning and thunder building in the background to a crescendo. “I have all the dark power of voodoo in me. I am pure evil. I die when I decides to. Today ain’t that day. I will see you all again, and I have a powerful hunger for gumbo.”
At that, there was a blinding strike of lightning and a deafening crash of thunder. The lights blinked out. When they came on again, the warden and two jail guards were dead on the floor, their hearts ripped from their chests. Gruesome Gertie was empty, and Boudreaux nowhere to be found.
Do You Believe in Magic?
Captain Jack Fitzgibbons was a practical man. He believed only in what he could see and get his hands around. He had been relying on himself and his abilities all his life.
It was an eventful one. He was born fighting in East New York. At 17, he was stabbed in the liver. Not expected to survive, he did—out of sheer force of will. The doctor described it as a miracle.
“Miracles are religious hooey,” he said. “Magic by another name, and I don’t believe in magic.”
In 1967, the Navy made him an aviator. His testing and hand-eye coordination were off the charts.
“It’s as if God created you for flying,” his C.O. observed.
“God is nothing more than magic. I don’t believe in magic.”
A year later, he was shot down over Southeast Asia. Spending a month running through the jungles to evade capture, the squad of Marines who rescued him thought his survival miraculous.
“God was sitting on your shoulder, Fitz,” Gunny Hartwick observed.
“Nonsense, my cunning and will to survive that saved my ass—not magic.”
After the war, Fitz went to work flying commercial aircraft. He had his share of heart-stopping moments. Bad weather, hurricane winds, even engine failure were no match for his cool, professional skill, until the harrowing morning of October 31, 1998.
After taking off from LaGuardia, bound for Chicago, Fitz’ instrument panel shorted. The electronics of the Boing 707 with 174 people aboard had fried. They were losing altitude. The controls in his hands barely responded. Without electrical power, it felt like trying to control a team of runaway horses. They were dropping from the sky as they approached lower Manhattan.
As the altimeter plummeted, Fitz could see the shining towers of the World Trade Center rapidly approaching. There seemed no way he could maneuver to miss them. He resigned them to their inevitable death when he was struck with an idea, and a ray of hope.
Enlisting his crew to put hands on the plane’s yokes, Fitz ordered, “Full port, hard!”
The six airmen, straining to pull the yokes to the right, were able to turn the plane to its side just in time to slide between the two buildings.
“Release!” Fitz ordered, and the attitude of the jet returned to upright.
Commanding his crew to prepare the passengers and themselves for an emergency water landing, he cut the power to the aircraft and guided it down into New York Harbor, at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Completing the rescue, lauded as a hero, Fitz waved the accolades off.
After his debriefing, he went home. Still shaken, he removed an old metal crucifix from his pants pocket. He had carried it since he was a boy, the shine worn from years of nervously caressing it with his thumb. He kissed it and looked to the heavens, finally accepting the intervention of a power greater than his own.
“I believe,” he whispered.
Lou could still smell the burnt rubber, insulation, and pulverized gypsum, as if he were standing on the rubble eighteen years ago. The acrid smoke from the gas-pocket fires burned the inside of his nostrils, as if he were breathing in their hot, fetid vapors today. But he wasn’t. He was lying in his living room, on a hospital bed—provided by the Detective’s Endowment Association. Surrounded by family, his closest friends, and a hospice team, he was waiting for his cancer to kill him.
It wouldn’t be long. He had survived sixty-eight rounds of chemotherapy to arrive at this point. Once a sturdy two hundred pounds, he had withered to half that. Gaunt, jaundiced, and in excruciating pain, he was grateful to have lived long enough to lobby congress on behalf of his fellow first-responders. He understood he was a frightening sight to behold. This was the point. The face of suffering is not supposed to look pretty. It should convey all of the sickness and pain that has become the lot of those brave men and women who ventured without a second thought into the gaping wound in the earth that had once been the World Trade Center. The new bill was written and before both houses. Sure to pass, Lou viewed his work on this plain as done.
His friend, Eric was at his bedside. Originally planning to go on the job with Lou, Eric instead chose a career in finance. On September 11th, he had to be evacuated from lower Manhattan, unlike Lou, who returned every day for the next year and a half to dig in the rubble for fallen comrades. Eric didn’t have to breathe that toxic cocktail of cancerous particles. He admired Lou’s devotion, but he didn’t understand it.
“The air is so bad. You’re making yourself sick.”
Lou was already suffering a persistent cough, blood shot eyes, and a constant runny nose.
“The EPA tested the air. They said it’s safe. That’s good enough for me.”
“Why do you keep going down there?” Eric asked. “It’s been three weeks. No one is left to save.”
“Not save, it’s a recovery. Would you want your family left in that ground?”
“They’re not your family, Lou.”
“Yes they are,” he said, ending the argument.
Now, at the end of all that sacrifice, Eric still couldn’t get his mind around it.
“Do you have any regrets?”
Lou thought about it. A wave of painful emotion coursed through his emaciated body, remembering the horror, hurting him a second time. He gathered himself, resolute.
“If you’re asking me,” Lou said. “knowing what I know now, would I still have gone in, and kept going back? The answer is yes. I wouldn’t have wanted cancer—no one would ever want that—but, I had to go. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I hadn’t. So, no, no regrets.”
“But, why did it have to be you?” Eric asked.
“If not us, then who?”