Short Story Collection

Prose Fiction by Bekah Ferguson

 

HOWARD REED’S BRAIN

(Sci-fi)

 

MOTHER’S ANGEL

(Coming of Age, Historical)

I’d been wanting to write another ghost story for some time and when an idea finally took form, I suddenly realized it’d be ten times better in a pioneer setting. So I spent a good hour or more researching Canadian pioneer history and living for every scene written.

 

I SEE YOU

(Sci-fi)

For this short story, I wanted to write a “Black Mirror” style sci-fi based on a news article I’d read about a real doll on the market that was recalled for collecting private intel on the children who interacted with it. The idea quickly morphed into a creepy allegory about smartphone addiction.

 

GARRIN

(Paranormal)

Years ago I watched a movie called, “The Others” starring Nicole Kidman: a mother and her small children are being haunted by ghosts in a large old house. But there’s a twist at the end. We discover that it’s the mother and her children who are the ghosts, and the so-called ghosts are actually a living family being haunted by THEM. So with that movie in mind, I was inspired to write this short story, with a different twist of my own. (By the way, the name Garrin is German for “guardian.”)

 

THE VIKING

(Fantasy)

With this short story, I wanted to tell a Beauty & the Beast kind of tale but didn’t want the meaning to be obvious. One of my favorite quotes/mantras is by Emily Dickinson (“Tell all the truth but tell it slant … The truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind”), so I cloaked my characters in the past, in the Viking age and Norse mythology, with a Christ-type hero.

 

THE JAGUAR

(Fable)

For more than a decade I researched the plight of LGBTQ Christians in the church; perusing countless testimonies, the efficacy stats of several decades’ worth of reparative therapy, and the Biblical texts known as “clobber passages.” One verse kept coming to mind again and again: “Can a leopard change his spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23a)

While visiting the zoo one year, I noticed that if the sun hits a panther just right, you can see the faint outline of hidden spots beneath its black coat. So, I did some research on panthers, leopards, and jaguars and made a fascinating discovery: panthers are melanistic leopards and jaguars. Therefore, a panther can give birth to both black and spotted cubs. With this information, the idea for a fable quickly took shape . . .

 

For SHORTER short stories (flash fiction), check out my other Short Story Collection 🙂

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No Man’s Land

I’ve been thinking about allegiances and how labels though necessary, are restricting. They can also be unintentionally dishonest. For example, when it comes to my novels, I’ve been told by two different agents that my work falls into the territory of “no man’s land.” i.e. Too Christian for mainstream readers and too racy or such for Christian readers. Sure, I could conform and censor myself neatly into one land or the other, but then I’d be a dishonest writer, and what good is that? I have to write from my heart in a way that I feel is realistic and believable yet inclusive of my faith; even if the result is that my work dwells among tumbleweeds. So the past couple of years I’ve focused on short stories instead, serendipitously discovering in allegorical fiction a niche in which I can appeal to both markets without being disingenuous.

Another example. Back in January, after many years of indecision, I decided to make the switch to a plant based diet. I quickly found myself in no man’s land yet again. You see, I’m technically disqualified from being called a vegan because I still eat local honey, as well as eggs from my parents’ backyard hens, and I also don’t worry about obscure ingredients. If I’m eating in public, I’ll make concessions if I feel it’s necessary (e.g. I don’t ask restaurants what’s in the bread/buns, I might have a muffin at Tim Hortons, and when visiting others, I might have some mashed potatoes.) But I still avoid all overt dairy, cheese, and factory farm egg products, so that also disqualifies me from being called a vegetarian. Now of course, if you asked the vegans, they would say, she’s a vegetarian. But if I called myself a vegetarian, everyone would offer me milk, eggs and cheese – things like egg salad, lasagna, Mac n’ Cheese, and ice cream. Now, I could certainly join the 100% vegan club or the vegetarian club, but neither would be fully honest: qualifiers are always going to be needed. I’m currently going with “flexible vegan” since “plant-based” seems too vague, but the vegan tribe doesn’t accept that; many even despise it. Think No True Scotsman. I find myself once again in that in-between: no man’s land.

Another example. I’m a Christian who supports gay marriage. To the majority of evangelicals, this means I am no longer a “true Christian” as the position is seen as antithetical. But neither am I a fully liberal Christian. I’m pro-life and I believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ. Basically I’m somewhere in the middle between liberal and conservative (perhaps progressive is a fitting term but it’s often seen as a synonym for liberal). I’m not conservative enough to be called conservative, and not liberal enough to be called liberal. To fit in I could indeed feign to be fully one or the other, but it just wouldn’t be the truth. To join the liberal club I would have to hide my conservative beliefs, and to join the conservative club, I would have to hide my liberal beliefs. Again, qualifiers are needed for every label.

I’m a Christian fiction writer but… I’m vegan but… I’m progressive but

All that to say, if my beliefs are so nuanced, surely yours are too. It’s easy to put people in compartments based on their various labels, but chances are we’re sorting one another in ways that are misleading, incorrect, or at the very least, inaccurate.

The only way to really get to know someone is to first avoid making assumptions and then second, converse, ask questions, and look for nuance. Nuance is found in the in-between, in no man’s land. Let’s go there and get to know one another.

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Howard Reed’s Brain

A short story by Bekah Ferguson.

Howard Reed submitted the signed paperwork promising he’d donate his brain to science, and died six years later.

At the hospital where he passed away late one night, a Brain Bank employee arrived to collect and transport the organ to a nearby laboratory. But unbeknownst to family, it never arrived there; instead, during transit, his brain was deliberately swapped with a John Doe’s. Thus, as far as everyone was concerned, Reed’s brain had gone just where it was supposed to go and where it would be sliced in half: one side to be frozen, and the other to be set in formaline for the purpose of autopsy. The identity of the donor would forever remain anonymous to the researchers who would only receive such tissue after their protocols were first approved by a Research Ethics Board. But Reed’s brain was not to be divided after all; nor was it anonymous. At least, not to the two scientists who bided their time awaiting his death, and had deliberately stolen it.

Inside their undercover laboratory—housed in the back corner of a private, sequestered hanger—they set to work. The equipment had long been prepped for the expected arrival and after a few switches were flipped here and a few keys punched there, machines and pumps were roused from their slumber. Industrial lighting flooded the corner area with artificial sunlight, above which black tarps had been draped to the floor in a tent-like fashion; blotting out the light. Any rare vehicle that might happen to drive by on the dirt road out front would see only the moonlit sketching of an abandoned building.

Cradled by latex-gloved hands, the brain was removed from its temperature-controlled traveling case and set down within a round glass container, not unlike an astronaut’s helmet. The body of the man had indeed perished but his brain was still very much alive. Micro-circulation was restored to the blood vessels with absolute precision from bags of artificial blood, and electrodes were inserted all over the organ. Attached tubing trailed away from both the brain and the container: down over the side of the lab counter, straight across the floor, and up into the sides of a tubular liquid-filled vat.

Through the oval windows of the vat a two hundred and eighty pound Sus domesticus pig floated in the greenish water; a myriad of internal cables gathering together where they’d been attached around the sides of the animal’s skull, connecting to the memory center of its brain. More measures were taken, a lid sealed into place encapsulating the human brain in its preservation chamber, and levels were checked on the various computer screens. Then the meticulously-planned upload commenced.

And so it came to be that the deceased Howard Reed awoke to find himself fully conscious inside the mind and body of a piglet.

As disoriented as he was, he quickly deduced two inexplicable things about himself. One, that he still retained all his own thoughts, perceptions, and memories, and two, that he’d also subsumed the mind and sensations of the piglet within whom he now resided. They shared, as it were, one mind. At least, on his end. The pig, lacking the frontal cortex of a Homo sapien, probably lacked the ability to share in this joint consciousness too; Howard could only assume that this symbiotic mind was known to him yet unknown to the pig.

He pondered his situation intensely for a only a few minutes, however, standing stalk still in a trance as other piglets fumbled around him, before he could no longer ignore the hollow burning in his throat—er, the piglet’s throat. Hunger. So he looked around for the first time, blinking, and immediately deduced his location.

The creep area of a farrowing crate.

Something else was burning too however, almost to the point of eclipsing his hunger. Both his behind and his crotch. Ooh. He need only glance around at the other piglets to know. They all had one-inch red-tipped stumps not yet healed from tail-dockings. And between his legs . . . Oh again. Castration. He remembered now. Remembered? Why these must be the piglet’s memories then. A shudder rippled through his body at the recollection: the slice of the scalpel, the tugging, pulling, cutting, all without anesthetic.

As the piglet’s eyelids drooped, Howard’s ability to concentrate faded, like a creeping vertigo. A sibling bumped into him and he fell over. Another walked over him, the pressure of one little trotter squeezing the air from his lungs for a half second. He struggled to get his footing again, and stood up. Refocusing, Howard found himself looking around for his—er, the piglet’s—mother.

There she was, lying on her side close by, separated from the piglets by bars. They could reach her udder through the gaps but would never be able to cuddle her. Surprised to find his desires so at one with the piglet’s, Howard fought for a place to nurse and drank with great gulps until full; vaguely aware in his periphery of a couple of detached, shivering runts. When he finished nursing, his instinct was to explore the enclosure and spend more time contemplating his peculiar situation. Instead he succumbed to sleepiness, drifting off into a milk-induced slumber.

When he awoke, he woke as one might do from a bad dream. With a sense of relief. Not as from a nightmare per se, but certainly from a dream perturbing in nature. Unpleasant, but not horrific. Yet as his vision came into focus, a sense of dread welled up within him, for all about were mounds of pink: to be precise, little pink bodies with frizzy fur. He was still a piglet.

The sow was standing up now, eating from a machine-fed trough. It released a specific portion of food and water for her daily. Howard knew this because Howard was a hog farmer. A third generation hog farmer. He also knew that the sow had just enough room to stand and lie down; turning around was impossible. Chewing on the bars was about the only thing she could do. And she would live her entire life this way, a truncated four or five years. He trotted over and peered up at her. She looked like a giant. His whole life he’d been looking down at pigs—this was the first time he’d ever been dwarfed by one. On her shoulder was an ulcer, one that appeared to be partially-healed in some areas and fresh in others. A chronic wound, no doubt. She likely had one on the other side too. He’d seen it many times throughout his career. A difficult problem to avoid in farrowing crates, but he’d learned to keep it out of mind.

But how could he be here, inside a piglet’s brain? His last memory was of being deathly ill in a hospital bed. Had he died and been reincarnated? No, that’s not how it worked; at least, he didn’t think that’s how it worked. Could it simply be a dream within a dream? He sure hoped for the latter, though what would he awake to if it was? The grim faces of his middle-aged son and daughter-in-law sitting next to his death bed? And then what. Ah yes, he remembered now. He’d signed papers promising the donation of his brain to science. He’d also bequeathed the farm to his eldest son only—not because of favoritism or birthright, but because his younger son was dead, and wouldn’t have wanted it anyway.

A couple of hazy weeks or so went by and Howard revisited these thoughts again and again throughout the days, in-between nursing and sleeping. Each time he awoke it was with a sense of long-suffering, calmly waiting for the dream within a dream to end. For despite the passage of time, he figured it was quite possible that he—the man—had only been asleep for a few hours. The mind was funny that way. But he had to admit that each time he awoke to the same plight he grew a little more discouraged, and a little more frightened.

The two shivering runts continued to starve until one day a farmhand came and lifted them both out of the creep area by their hind legs. They were too weak to give much of a protest, not even a squeal. Howard and the piglet watched the man lumber off with them down the walkway flanked by endless farrowing crates, until he was no longer in sight. The piglet looked away, but Howard could still see the rest in his mind’s eye. In some back room of the building the piglet skulls would be dashed upon a concrete floor or wall—twice, even thrice, if the first time wasn’t enough. Or perhaps alternatively they’d be dropped into a sealed bucket of carbon dioxide where they’d asphyxiate. He’d used both methods himself.

And his youngest boy, Melvin, had despised him for it. Howard’s theory at the time had been that a young boy would grow desensitized to such things with enough exposure; simply get used to it. Just as he had and his grandfather and great-grandfather had, and every farmhand fresh out of high school had. His eldest son, Toby, too. But not Melvin.

The child just stood there near the open door of the soiled room, body rigid; blood spots dribbling down his rubber boots from the spray. His ten year old face looked anemic with shock, pupils dilated with strong emotion. It was if Howard had killed a puppy.

After that, Melvin became withdrawn—a shadow version of himself. Though he remained deferential to his father, where once his eyes had danced at the invitation to spend time together, he now made less than subtle efforts to get out of it. This pained Howard deeply, though he did hope in time that the boy would develop an understanding, and get over it. So he kept him busy with benign duties around the farm, despite the feeling like he was coddling the boy; and wondering all the while if he should have kept bringing him back to that room until the child could finally see the thing as normal and acceptable. But he couldn’t bring himself to repeat the scenario, couldn’t bear to see his son looking at him like that again. Besides, there were plenty of other farmhands who didn’t mind doing it, and there was Toby of course. Toby who at times even seemed to enjoy it.

Another week in the creep area passed by quickly—quickly because the piglet spent most of his time snoozing—and the time came to be transported to another building. Two farmhands lifted the piglets out of the creep area by their hind legs and dropped them into a wooden box on wheels. The screeching and pandemonium of all his siblings frightened the piglet—and with Howard along for the ride, pushed its way to the back of the enclosure, tiny heart palpitating.

Though Howard was as cognizant of his surroundings and circumstances as he had been as a man, while feeling everything viscerally and emotionally that the piglet felt as well, he lacked motor control of any sort. Where the piglet went, he went, and he did whatever the piglet wanted to do. But being mentally in-sync with the piglet’s body, he was very much in agreement with the animal’s choices; eager to eat when hungry and to sleep when tired. It had been a drowsy handful of weeks, which greatly limited his capacity to meditate on his perplexing situation. And this was the first time that he, rather, the piglet, had felt distinct fear.

It was scared. It didn’t know where it was going.

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The Sin of Certainty

“The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor. 3:6)

I was raised right-wing, conservative, Baptist. And one thing I remember in particular from those days was the complete sense of doctrinal certainty that went with the territory. Not just Baptist territory, but in any overly conservative denomination. We had the in with God and were safely headed for heaven – why? Because we had the correct theology. We thought we had all the answers and knew exactly how to interpret the Bible: with a “plain reading of scripture.” We never wrestled with difficult questions or felt insecure, for that would require admitting doubts and fears, which would be a sign of weakness or even rebellion. If we ever experienced the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we knew to suppress it and dissociate. Doubt was the Enemy and the Seducer. Any questions or red flags regarding doctrine were viewed as traps to be avoided. If our heart or our ability to reason led us to a conclusion that didn’t square with fundamentalism, we were to see that as the Devil successfully having deceived us (especially if we were women – “Eve.”). So not only did I learn to distrust my own opinions, I also learned that I was even more likely to be deceived due to my gender.

Religious gaslighting.

I tell you, the fear and anxiety these mind games cause… The lack of self-confidence. The inferiority complex as a female. I actually felt guilty to use my own brain and form my own opinions. The only safe thing to do in those days was to block conclusions contrary to the evangelical view (read: dissociate) and go back to regurgitating conservative beliefs. Thinking for yourself is just not allowed. And this is precisely how the masses are indeed controlled: fill ’em up with spiritual pride (accolades aplenty for “correct” thinking), and with fear (timidity that breeds diffidence), and then tell ’em what to do. Obedience is the only acceptable response. If you deviate from the path marked out for you by the church, you’ll be punished with shaming and the threat of lost Salvation (which means hellfire in the next life). It’s quite the lasso.

On the face this sounds malicious, as though such controlling manipulation were deliberate; but the truth is much sadder.

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Madonna vs. Whore

Having been raised in a conservative Christian family, I’ve observed sexism and the objectification of women from two different vantage points; a photograph and its negative.

In much of conservative Christianity, it is taught that women are to “remain silent” in the church. They are not allowed leadership positions, most certainly can not be ordained as pastors, and are to “submit” to their husbands, who are “the head of the family.” Men are discouraged from being alone with other women in professional settings, which means having their wives along for any meetings, and this mindset puts women in a perpetual state of sexual objectification. (Try to imagine the reverse, where a woman brings her husband along to a professional meeting with a man.) This is necessary, they say, because men are viewed as unable to control themselves with women (either she will seduce him or he will seduce her). There is no professionalism—even in an office setting she is still first and foremost, a sex object (rather than a person and a colleague).

In marriage, she is expected to always keep her figure and be as physically attractive to her husband as possible. She is discouraged from withholding sex, as this would be seen as a “weapon” or a “punishment” to him during times of marital strain, making him vulnerable to the temptation of adultery or porn (read: if he cheats, it’s her fault for holding out). But when do these marriage books and speakers and seminars ever instruct the husband to remain physically attractive and to not withhold sex during conflict? Instead, the burden of healthy sexual relations in a marriage is placed squarely on the wife’s shoulders, first and foremost.

This leaves wives in an interminable state of anxiety about their physiques and libido. Any imperfections in her body, any weight gain she can’t shake, too many nights without intimacy, and she fears he will eventually have an affair with a more attractive woman. Doesn’t matter how imperfect he is, or how much weight he might have put on, that “more attractive” woman is still going to be waiting in the wings somewhere. But when do we ever hear about women leaving their husbands for “more attractive” men or a “younger model”? Now, that’s not to say they don’t, only that it’s seldom mentioned—by anyone.

A woman’s primary role in marriage, therefore, is as a sex object. Everything revolves around the marriage bed. She is a sex provider who is to be in constant submission to her husband, who is her “authority” and “head.” In the church she is also to be in submission to the male leadership, with the understanding that she will always be considered a potential seductress to them, so be wary. And if she dresses in an arbitrarily-deemed immodest way, she is to blame for his lust and lack of self control.

Contrast this to the secular, liberal world where we find the obverse:

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Mother’s Angel

A short story by Bekah Ferguson

“Ghosts are the superstitious nonsense of heathens, son,” Pa used to say, but I’d been haunted by one in the forest behind our homestead through much of my childhood.

I was about five years old the first time I saw it. A white entity moving deep within the trees at dusk. Then again one grey afternoon a couple of years later when I was mucking out the stable, and heard a crackle of movement on dead leaves. Gripping my shovel in front of me like a protective spear, I peered into the nearby treeline from whence the sound had come.

We lived in a forest in Upper Canada, trees furrowed and thick, undergrowth prolific and tangled. In some directions you could trailblaze for days without encountering a single trading post or homestead. Yet there it was some fifty feet within and as tall as a man: a flash of white appearing for a second between tree trunks, disappearing behind others, and reappearing again as it seemed to float along. However, though I strained to see its contours, I could not piece together its form; and as soon as it was there, it was gone.

These apparitions occurred only once or twice a year and always in the same manner: at dusk or predawn, and only when I was working quietly by myself. The times when I helped my father chop wood and gather kindle from the forest, I always kept an eye out for it, but whether due to the reverberating splitting sounds, or the trampling of twigs beneath our boots, it never showed itself when I was with him.

One harvest when I was around twelve years old and unable to contain my growing paranoia any longer, I confessed it all to my father, barely able to lift my eyes to his face. I’d been right to fear his response. He scolded me for my fright and told me not to indulge in such nonsensical fantasies again. My face grew hot and I tugged down on my cap in a futile attempt to hide the blushing.

“Don’t want you soft in the head like your mother,” he grumbled, securing a harness to our two horses, and fastening the wagon behind them as he talked. “She’s giving you ideas, I reckon, with those angel stories of hers. Claiming there’s an angel out there what wears a white cloak, and has big white wings on its back.” A sharp laugh and the scowl deepened on his scruffy face.

“The heathens believe in ghosts,” he went on, “and the Christians, well they believe in angels, that’s how it goes. Now here’s what I say. I say, where were the angels when Ma and Pa traveled here from America to build this here homestead, only to have a falling tree crush my mother’s skull? And where is her ghost, having left my father to raise what remained of our humble family all by his lonesome? If she could’ve stuck around to make sure we was all making it okay, surely she would have done.”

He lifted a sack of threshed wheat into the back of the wagon and reached for the next one in the pile. “Why a spirit would wander around out there in the woods anyhow I should like to know. What’d be the purpose?” He slapped my shoulder and I stumbled forward. “Nah, your imagination’s fooling you, that’s all there is to it. Now get yourself back to work, you know your mother’s busy with the baby. And son,”—he met my eyes with a stern look—“no more silly talk, understand?”

I nodded and he continued loading the cart for what would be a half days’ journey along corduroy roads to the village where the closest gristmill was located. There he would spend the night in an inn and return the next day. We’d nearly run out of last year’s store by this time and were eager to increase our bread consumption again. In the meantime we still had plenty of small game and root vegetables to keep us going, fruit preserves, and milk and cheese thanks to the cow.

Father was right, my mother did sometimes speak in a reverent, hushed tone about an angel she thought she’d seen in the trees; but apart from the first time when I was five and ran fearfully to her for comfort, I kept subsequent sightings to myself. First, because I didn’t think it was an angel: To me angels were in the same class as fairies and trolls. But ghosts on the other hand, being human spirits of the deceased, did seem like a metaphysical possibility. And since I could think of no logical explanation for an opaque mist weaving its way through the woods—whiter than any fog I’d yet seen—I feared it was indeed some sort of phantom.

Second, though I loved my mother very much, she was a woman after all, and I had gradually learned while tending the farm and field with my father, that he viewed women as simple and gullible, even hysterical at times. Gentle and warm to embrace when comfort was desired, but not to be trusted with matters of higher reasoning. Therefore, especially as I grew older, I did not join her in soliditary. Instead, by fearing my father’s withering disapproval—that way he had of shrinking me with nothing but a curled lip—and wanting to please him, I nurtured and feigned an outward toughness I did not feel in my heart.

In those days there was no schoolhouse close enough for me and my younger sister to attend, so mother taught us at home while caring for the baby, milking the cow, tending the vegetable garden, sewing and washing our clothes, and preparing all our meals and preserves as well. There were days when she was up before dawn and still working after dark, though her burdens did ease somewhat as my sister grew older and shared in most of her work. Particularly during planting and growing seasons, I spent my days outdoors with father working the crop field where we grew wheat and oats; only returning to the cabin to eat and sleep. But whenever and wherever she could, mostly within the heart of winter when we had a lot more time at our disposal, Mother taught us from her crate of books while the snowdrifts climbed the outside walls of our cabin and the fields slept till spring.

My paternal grandparents had brought along a collection of textbooks and storybooks with them when they crossed the Niagara border, as well as some Alphabet cards, slate, and slate pens. From these precious commodities, along with a collection of her own, Ma taught us to read and write, along with a decent amount of geography, history, and basic arithemetic. Yet it wasn’t until my adolescent years that I took notice of the difference between her speaking ability and Pa’s. You see my father was illiterate and nowhere near as eloquent. Though my grandmother had journeyed here fully equipped to teach her children, her untimely death resulted in the school supplies remaining nailed up in a crate for twenty years, until my father married.

I’d also come to realize that far from being simple and gullible, my mother, who came from a clergyman’s family and had been taught at home as well, was quite knowledgeable—in fact, far more so than was typical for her sex—and to a degree my father could never attain due to his lack of education. His skill was in farming and mother hadn’t had much choice in eligible suitors. If not for her, I too would have been an illiterate farmer: the first schoolhouse within walking distance was not to be built until the baby was seven years old, and two more had passed through the cradle.

While my father approved of the schooling, picking up moderate amounts of knowledge himself whenever he happened to listen in, he did not seem aware that by making extra jars of preserves and medicinal herbs each year (among other things), my mother was building a small enough income to occasionally order books from the general store where we did our trading. Books that were brought in from both America and Great Britain.

Our collection grew and receiving a new book was a magical experience for my sister and me. We’d run our fingers over the cover, turning the book over slowly in our hands, inhaling the scent of the pages; and savoring every single word again and again. Sometimes I even felt a sense of sadness for my father, aware that these glorious, world-expanding words would never be anything but black marks on a page to him. Ma read to him, to all of us, of course, which he greatly enjoyed, but though she offered to teach him to read as well, he refused: not wanting to be taught by a woman “like some common child.”

Another memorable sighting of the specter took place during a harvest when the moon was full and honeyed, hanging low in the sky, and my sister had come along with a lantern to let me know that dinner was ready. I was about fourteen then if I recall, and she eleven, with a braid coiled at the nape of her neck and an apron over her dress. Father had gone inside the barn with the last sledge of stooks to be stored, and she intercepted me on the path leading away from the field. I’d no sooner spoken a word of greeting when her eyes widened and she gasped, pointing behind me.

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I See You

A short story by Bekah Ferguson.

The morning after Maggie and Evan moved into their clapboard home in the woods, they unpackaged a new 55 inch flatscreen TV and set it up on the stand in the livingroom. The house, formerly a rental, had been sitting on the market empty for ten years. Some kind of misfortune took place, the real estate agent said, a missing child or such, and no one wanted to live there, least of all the bereaved mother. But Maggie didn’t believe in ghosts and thus hadn’t minded. Instead, she and her husband jumped on the chance to buy their first home for a fraction of its worth.

After successfully connecting the TV to the Internet through a device she’d bought online, a little black box, Maggie went about unpacking books and figurines while Evan went upstairs to work; the occasional sound of his footsteps shuffling above reminding her of his presence. A faint blue light blinked in and out on the device—Bluetooth she supposed—though she hadn’t connected it to anything besides the TV.

After a few minutes a screensaver switched on, presumably from the device, and an image filled the screen, drawing her attention: A grainy photograph of a girl doll sitting in a green wheelbarrow, a cluster of wildflowers at its side, and overgrown shrubs in the background.

How quaint, she thought. And sucky quality too.

Retrieving the remote, Maggie fiddled around until she found the screensaver settings and picked out something else—a crisp, high quality mountain scene. She shut off the TV.

But seeing a wheelbarrow had reminded her of something.

“Evan,” she called up to her husband from the base of the staircase. “I forgot to ask, did the lawyer give you a key for the back shed?”

“No,” he called down, “didn’t have one. We’re going to have to break the lock.”

Later on that evening, after a busy day of unpacking, Maggie and Evan watched a couple of TV shows together before heading to bed. At one point they paused to make a snack and when they returned to the room, the screensaver was on. But it wasn’t the mountains anymore. The doll scene was back.

“What kind of crap picture is that?” Evan said with a laugh. “It’s blurry, like a phone picture blown up too big.”

“Yeah, odd, eh? Wasn’t me.” She picked up the remote and changed the picture back to the mountainscape. “It lets me change the picture no problem, but I can’t find the actual file to delete it. Must be some kind of manufacturer’s default setting . . . ”

“But if default, why such low resolution?”

She shrugged and put their show back on.

The next morning she turned the TV on to view her favorite cooking program while preparing a grocery list, and forgot to turn it off when she went to the store. Evan had gone to work and wouldn’t be back until dinner. An overcast day, it was drizzling by the time she got home and the house seemed unusually dark for a summer afternoon. It took a few trips to unload the car but she soon had all the grocery bags piled together on the old-fashioned hardwood flooring in the sun room. Kicking off her sandals, she carried the first load inside and stopped in the hallway. Through the opening to her left, the TV screen illumed the shadowy living room like a muted lamp might do.

Maggie set down the bags and approached it.

The wheelbarrow scene again.

Up until now she’d barely focused on the image, not caring enough to take in the specific details. This time she examined it intently, feeling a tad uneasy. She’d seen that type of doll before, come to think of it, years ago. Bangs, curly platinum hair, gray irises, dusty rose lips. What had its name been again? She couldn’t remember.

Returning to the sun room, she retrieved her phone from her purse, and asked it a question.

“What was the name of the popular child’s doll that was recalled several years ago?”

“The doll’s name was Lola,” came a slightly robotic, female vocal response.

“Tell me more.”

“Lola was the Bluetooth-enabled doll directly implicated when four children went missing in the city of its initial distribution.” The city and manufacturer’s name were then mentioned. “The doll was believed to have been hacked and used for espionage by an unknown child abductor,” the robotic voice continued. “Neither the children nor the abductor were ever found. The doll was permanently recalled and its production halted indefinitely.”

Maggie walked back to the living room and stared at the TV.

She gave her address to the phone. “Is there a news story regarding a child who lived in this house a decade ago?”

“Yes. A six year old girl named Penelope Murphy was reported missing by her mother. The parents were ruled out as suspects and the child was later determined to be the first of the kidnapping victims. She is believed to be dead.”

Snatching up the remote from the coffee table, Maggie switched the screensaver back to the mountainscape, turned off the TV, and finished unpacking the groceries with a feverish pitch. More than once she glanced out the rain-spattered kitchen window where only the corner of the locked shed was visible in the backyard. She shuddered. No, the police would have scoured the entire property—a locked shed no deterrant.

By late afternoon the rain had let up, though it remained cloudy and cool. When Evan came home at suppertime, she told him what had happened to the previous tenants, and about the screensaver resetting itself.

“You’re reading way too much into it, hun—it’s just a coincidence, a default setting.”

“Can you find your bolt cutter tonight though, please? I know I know, it’s silly, but that shed is really creeping me out.”

Agreeing to help, if only to set her mind at ease, Evan finished eating and spent a half hour in the garage rummaging through unpacked boxes until he finally found the tool. She followed him out into the dank backyard, smacking or waving away each mosquito that honed in on her, and stood with arms crossed watching.

The windowless shed was somewhat secluded, backdropped by leafy trees and thorny undergrowth. Weeds and uncut grass grew up the wooden sides, and the shingled roof was curling in places.

“Probably empty,” Evan said with a grunt as he cut through the metal lock.

“Then why locked?”

The dismembered lock fell to the grass in two pieces.

He straightened up and opened the creaky door, peering into the dark interior.

“Well?”

“Nothing but a wheelbarrow,” he said.

“What!” She hurried to the opening as Evan stepped aside.

“It’s green,” she said, “like the picture.”

An overturned wheelbarrow was propped up against the wall in the right hand corner. A clump of something hung from a nail on the wall next to it and as her eyes adjusted, she realized it was a tied bouquet of dried flowers. The rest of the shed was indeed empty, including a single shelf.

By now the mosquitos were swarming and pricking but she no longer noticed. Taking the wheelbarrow by the handles, she stepped back and pulled it outside.

In the now revealed corner of the shed sat a Lola doll coated in cobwebs, eyes closed.

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Flash Fiction Collection

SHORT Short Stories by Bekah Ferguson

 

AN OPEN CASKET

It seemed to me death was much like traveling to the moon…

My red-brick elementary school sat nestled against a forest on the edge of town, with a road in front and a soccer field on either side. Though we had swing sets and jungle gyms, many of the kids preferred playing in the woods, and we were allowed to do so as long as we kept the schoolyard in sight. But last Thursday night an accident took place on school property when no adults were around, and one of the students had gotten killed. Read More…

 

Y2K 

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard about him (I took it for granted that the Antichrist was male) and thus pictured him as I always did: A tall sinister figure wearing a black cape or robe, facial features blurry (though his eyes were glaring) and distinctly human. Basically a mash-up of all the Disney villains I’d absorbed over the years. And because they always referred to him as “the rise of,” I tended to picture him a little hunched down and then rising up to full height. I knew it meant something about gaining power over the world but I didn’t know much about government systems yet and still tended to imagine ruling powers as being kings and queens and knights. As for the Beast, well he was to rise out of “the sea” specifically, so naturally that’s exactly what I pictured. A monstrous gorilla-like thing slowly coming up out of the ocean as if standing on a platform, beads of water rolling down his coarse fur, head tilted back and ready to roar. I knew this wasn’t correct though as the Beast was supposed to have several heads (a lion, an eagle, a man), hair like a woman, the tail of a scorpion, and the arms and claws of a bear. Or was it the Antichrist who looked like that? Read more…

 

SHE HADN’T EXPECTED THIS

An excerpt from the novel, “A White Rose,” by Bekah Ferguson.

Dakota Reilly hadn’t really noticed Ryan Hill when he first started showing up for her father’s poker games, but one night she’d bumped into him in the kitchen when she went to grab a soda.

Most of her dad’s friends were older, middle age, but this guy was much younger; like one of those hotties from Beverly Hills, 90210. She’d seen him from a distance before; he lived down the road in an old farmhouse.

Having thus seen him up close for the first time, she was star-eyed. From then on, she made a point of going to the kitchen for a glass of water or soda whenever she saw him head in that direction. She also stopped wearing shorts to bed with her over-sized T-shirt. She didn’t really know what she was doing, but she’d seen this in movies before and understood that long bare legs were sexy.

After one month of obsessing over him, daydreaming about him constantly and writing his name on every page of her diary, he asked her how old she was. For a moment she panicked, fearing he would think her a stupid kid, and blurted out that she was seventeen. His pleased grin indicated that he actually believed her and she almost giggled with excitement when he nicked her chin with his knuckle and gave her a wink. Read more…

 

THE APPENDAGE 

(Fantasy)

An excerpt from “The Attic” by Bekah Ferguson & Rachel Xu.

The lower jaw of the inky eel jutted out beneath him in a grotesque underbite with dozens of needle-thin teeth.

Attempting to toss Ian aside, the slick body thrashed to and fro, sending waves of swamp water in every direction.

Ian dropped down and wrapped his legs around the throat. He pulled a knife from his belt and thrust it into the gills. The eel let out a screech as yellow blood oozed from the wound.

Hissing, it dove under the water and took him with it. With no chance to grab a breath of air, he got a mouthful of rancid water instead and lost his grip. He tried in vain to grab hold again as he slid down the eel’s back and slipped off the end of the doll-face tail. Read more…

 

I WAS A STRANGER 

(Christmas)

A blindsided young man can suddenly see the Other.

On impulse he grabbed his phone, donned his outdoor gear, and pushed into the snowfall. Tears froze on his cheekbones and he ducked his face down against the chill. He didn’t yet know where he was going but he walked with determination, boots crunching on the lamp-lit sidewalk.

After a few minutes he stopped at the end of a driveway and turned to face the shadowy bungalow. A faint inner light suffused one window, the rest of the house dark. His anger fading with a newfound resolve, he went to the front door and knocked, hoping his eyes weren’t red. It took awhile but eventually came the sound of shuffling footsteps, the thump of a cane, and the sound of a latch turning.

The door creaked open. Read more…

 

For LONGER stories (prose), check out my other SHORT STORY COLLECTION. 🙂

#scifi #paranormal #fantasy #historical #comingofage

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The Vanity of Enlightenment

Life’s a journey, as the cliché goes. Some of us remain on the same pathway our entire lives, while others reach a fork or tow in the road and change course. That was me.

The first fork I encountered as an evangelical Christian led me down a trail from regular conservatism (Baptist) to ultra-conservatism (a legalistic, Vineyard-like denomination). In other words, from stoic to charismatic, with much stricter rules. After a couple of bewildering years in this church I extricated myself and returned sober to mainstream Christianity; only to realize that what I’d experienced in that cult was merely evangelicalism on steroids. The problematic base doctrines were still the same: no women in leadership, male headship (the husband has the final say), “eternal conscious torment hell” for the unsaved, and the exclusion of LGBTQ Christians.

A couple more years of church-hopping followed and my husband and I unwittingly landed in a conservative denomination that allows (and affirms!) the ordaining of women as pastors. Scandalous, I know. 😉 This was a second fork in the road for me, challenging and changing my beliefs regarding gender roles; and we’ve been attending this church for more than a decade now. Labels don’t leave much room for nuance, but you might call me progressive, or a left-leaning conservative.

So with that background aside, what I want to talk about here specifically is something I’ve observed again and again throughout these experiences:

Every denomination (Catholic and Protestant alike) believes they are the only ones with the fullest truth, the fullest enlightenment.

Why is this a problem?
Continue reading The Vanity of Enlightenment

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An Open Casket

It seemed to me death was much like traveling to the moon…

A Short Story by Bekah Ferguson.

My red-brick elementary school sat nestled against a forest on the edge of town, with a road in front and a soccer field on either side. Though we had swing sets and jungle gyms, many of the kids preferred playing in the woods, and we were allowed to do so as long as we kept the schoolyard in sight. But last Thursday night an accident took place on school property when no adults were around, and one of the students had gotten killed.

I don’t know how he died, the teachers were tight-lipped about it the next morning; I only knew it had happened in the woods. I overheard various theories from my classmates throughout the day, but I wasn’t sure which was the true one, if any. All I knew for sure was that he was there with a group of friends in the evening, took a risky dare, and now, somehow, was dead.

Mark Wilson was his name. I didn’t know him very well being two years older than me, but he was in my cousin, Kasey’s, grade eight class and I often saw him at recess too. One of those boys always tearing through the playground hollering and laughing and carrying on.

On Saturday evening my mom and aunt took me and Kasey to the funeral home for visitation, but we didn’t attend the funeral. I’d never been to a funeral home before. When I was five I went to my great-grandmother’s funeral at a church—a closed casket at the front—but I only remember fidgeting in my seat and wanting to run off and play. I didn’t feel any sadness or even understand what the casket was for until years afterward looking back on the memory. So, this was the first time I’d seen an open casket too. The room had dim lighting, thick carpet, and smelled of flowers. Lots of people were there, including many of the teachers from school, and a handful of schoolmates as well. The grown-ups were in little groups, speaking in hushed tones, and looking solemn. I held onto my mom’s hand and we went up to the casket once the area opened up.

It was really weird to see Mark like that. I guess I’d been expecting him to look like he was asleep, but instead he just looked like someone else, like a different person. I only glanced at his face for a few seconds however before looking away and fixating on his clasped hands instead. His fingers were rubbery like a doll’s.

“Mom,” I whispered on our way out to the parking lot, “why were his hands so strange looking, so white?”

We climbed into the car. “It’s because there’s no longer any blood flowing through them,” she said, starting the car. She’d been unusually quiet that day. I buckled my seatbelt and stared down at my own clasped hands, noticing how pink they were.

At school Monday morning Kasey found me at recess and we went to the woods where already a group of kids had gathered chattering, scurrying about, pointing, as they’d done on Friday as well. I stared at the ground, knowing it was the spot where they said his body had laid. It was just a bed of pine needles now but some of the kids were still searching for clues, any trace of what might have happened; looking delighted as though it were some great adventure.

I felt sick to my stomach and wandered away from the area, goosebumps rising on my arms as a cool breeze weaved in and out between tree trunks. Kasey followed me to a quieter area nearby and we sat down together on a log. One of the swing sets was still visible through the trees ahead of us; the blue sky peeking down through the canopy above. Children’s laughter lifted now and again, the occasional happy scream from a game of tag.

“I keep staring at his empty desk,” Kasey said, slowly tearing apart a green maple leaf, cropped brown hair hanging over her cheeks as she leaned forward. Her lips curled down in the corner as she snatched another leaf from a sapling.

“Mom says he’s in heaven now,” I offered, forcing a smile.

“Well I don’t believe in heaven.”

“How come?”

“Dad says it’s just a fantasy, something parents tell their kids to comfort them, and there’s no proof of it. No more proof than made up stories about alien abductions. Do you believe in aliens?”

I pictured little green creatures with skinny bodies, oversized heads, and bulging black eyes. “No.”

“There you go.”

I felt tension in my nose and realized it was all scrunched up. I wasn’t upset though, just uneasy.

“He says when you die, that’s it, gone forever. Worm food.”

“He said that to you!” I reached for a leaf and started tearing at it too, thinking of my uncle with great surprise.

“No, he didn’t say it to me, he said it to Mom. To me he just said ‘take comfort in the memory of Mark, even though he’s gone, he can still live on in your memories.’ Then he patted my shoulder and left the room. I think he’s really sad though. But you ever think about that, April?”

“About what?”

“About dying.” A sidelong glance.“Everyone you love will one day die and just like that,”—she snapped her fingers—“you’ll never, ever see them again. Can you talk to a memory? Or hug it? No. It’s only your imagination—one sided. Of course you can guess what they might say to you in a conversation, pretend to talk to them and stuff, but it’s all just guessing. And even if you guess right what they’d probably say to you, it’s still not real.”

We fell into a gloomy silence then as Kasey scowled at the ground. I didn’t know what to say since I believed in heaven and felt certain Mark’s spirit was still alive somewhere; wherever heaven was. Only his body had been left behind.

Kasey reached down and fished for a rock amongst grassy forget-me-nots, finding one and whipping it against a tree trunk. It bounced off and disappeared from sight on the forest bed. “You can’t look into a person’s eyes in a memory either,” she said, “I’ve tried it. All you can see is them smiling in the past, like watching a home video, or them smiling at you like a puppet ‘cause you imagined them smiling. But they’re not smiling at you for real.” She picked one of the blue wildflowers, and it came up from the ground roots and all.

We made eye contact then, hers hazel and flashing; mine unblinking.

“One day I’ll be dead too,” she said, “and all the memories of the dead people in my head will also die with me. I don’t remember my great-great grandparents, do you?” A pointed look.

I shook my head and focused on a leaf in my own hand; twirling the stem between my thumb and index. Of course I didn’t remember them, they died before I was born. But I did hope to meet them someday. To me they lived in both the past and the future, at the same time somehow. In the past so far as photographs went, their clothing and hairstyles so strange in comparison to how people currently looked; and in the future as I imagined encountering them in the next life, being introduced, and getting to know them like I would any new person.

“Mom and Dad thought I was sleeping,” Kasey continued. “They didn’t know I was watching them through the stair railings, in the dark. You know that one spot I showed you, where you can see part of the living room and the TV, but they can’t see you? Yeah, there. That’s where I was when I heard Dad say the worm food thing. And then he started talking about the sun!”

I tossed the leaf away. “The sun? But what does the sun have to do with it?”

“He said one day a million years from now the sun’s gonna ‘burn out’ and the earth will be destroyed, and not a single trace of anything will be left. Then he said, oh yeah we comfort ourselves thinking we’re gonna ‘live on’ in memory, especially famous people like presidents, artists, and singers—and we’ve got museums with special things saved from the past, like art and mummies and Egyptians and arrowheads and stuff—but when the earth goes kaput, that’s it, done and done. Everything we ever worked for or cared about, all for nothing. He said, ‘some comfort.’ ”

“What did your mom say?”

“She said, ‘oh well, at least we’ll be dead and oblivious.’ ”

The school bell rang, signaling recess was over. We stood up and tramped through the woods back into the playground, the hot June sun tingling my arms as we stepped out of the tree cover. The sensation made me glance down at my right forearm. Fine blond hairs glinted around a scabby scrape that was halfway finished healing. Kasey called out to a friend crossing our path and ran off with her, leaving me alone.

I flicked my gaze upward at the sky as I walked and imagined being able to see through the blue expanse with x-ray vision to the place hiding behind it where only rockets could reach: where everything suddenly became jet black for infinity. Jet black but not empty. Full of the unknown, the unseen. I slowed my step, watching my fellow students stream into the open doors of the school ahead where they disappeared inside.

My mind hovered over the moon, which I could see vividly from many angles thanks to all the pictures and video clips I’d seen of the moon landings. It was as though I’d actually been there myself. I considered then how we’d only traveled to the moon so far, and rovers a little farther, like mars. Mars I could picture just as well as the moon, though I knew no humans had yet set foot on it. I also knew that there were other galaxies out there too. And suns even bigger than our own.

I reached the tarmac and waited for the line up at the door to diminish. It didn’t seem to me that this little planet could possibly be all there was to existence, holding no greater meaning or value. It seemed to me that death was much like traveling to the moon: it was as far as us humans had yet gone in our bodies. The rest of the galaxy and beyond was still a mystery. Not an unsolvable mystery though, but an infinite one, just like the universe. Those who potentially traveled to some world beyond after death simply weren’t able to return to tell us what they’d seen.

A robin landed on the ground a meter ahead of me and hopped about, nipping at invisible worms. I met its beady black eye for a half second. Then it flew away.

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