Short Stories Short Stories

Short stories: Alone, as always Alone, as always

By Jennifer Gardner

A moving story of altered realities, erotic desires and betrayal...

Friday morning, the day of...

He sleeps beside me, his arm draped loosely over me like the dustjacket of a book. I feel the hair on his arm grazing the bare skin of my stomach which rises with each laboured breath I take. A hundred times this has happened exactly this way; I awaken before him, feeling his hot breath billowing against the back of my neck. He is so close to me, so physically close.
Yet, I'm alone; as always.

The sense of isolation does strange things to my mind and though I know this, I still succumb to my own madness. Danny, especially at these moments of unreality in the mornings, doesn't seem to exist. If he does, he’s a mere ghost of his former self—a holographic sliver of the man I fell in love with. Always, a hundred times at least, I lie in bed, beneath the weight of Danny's possessing arm. I lie in bed and think such betraying thoughts, as if to validate my grim reality and justify my future actions.

But this morning something's different. I can feel the other body in the room. She's a forceful presence, as forceful as I wish I could be. Gazing at me, she knows I'm not asleep, though my eyes are tightly shut. When I open them she is closer, standing near me, staring at me with that way she has of tilting her head back and sizing me up. As if her gaze could confirm my reality; the proof I need to know that I exist.

She bends down to whisper something in my ear, oblivious to my nudity. The backs of her fingernails brush my chin and I'm strangely aroused.
"We need to do it now..."
Her breath is warm like her faint touch. Her words are tiny breezes on the arm draped across me. Can he feel her too? Before the echoes of her voice have died in my head, she's gone.
Danny shifts beside me. "Honey," he says, rubbing his eyes. "What time is it?"
"It's dawn," I tell him but I can't be sure myself.
"Shit," he says. He rolls off his side of the bed, stretches his arms and yawns. I lie still, staring hard at the empty doorway where she had stood, willing her to reappear. "You getting up?" asks Danny, running his fingers through his hair. He doesn't wait for my answer. He walks around to my side of the bed and leans down to kiss me on the cheek. Pausing slightly, with a look of pity in his eyes, he adds, "Make me breakfast, baby." And with a slap of my thigh he turns and walks toward the shower.

Sunday morning, five days before...

I was in the garden when she drove up in a white convertible, wearing sunglasses that matched her long, dark hair. "Excuse me," she called but I knew she was the type who never needed excusing. "Is this Hickory Street?"
I shook the dirt from my hands. "No," there was a slight quiver in my voice, like a child who is called in front of the classroom to answer a question. "This is Maple Lane. You want the next street over." I pointed with a dirty finger.
"Next street?"
My lips said "Yes," but my heart pleaded, Please don't go.
She didn’t listen. Within moments, she was gone.
As if she was never there at all.

Monday afternoon, four days before...

It was a cold autumn night and I was curled under a blanket in my favourite chair with a book when I heard the doorbell ring. Instantly my heart dropped. The doorbell wouldn't normally evoke such a feeling of unease but I was alone as Danny was away on business. I crept to the door and put my eye to the peephole.
"Who is it?" I asked but didn't need to. I recognised her instantly.
Her voice rang out. I recognised that as well. "We met yesterday. You gave me directions. Remember?"
How could I forget? I opened the door, but only a little. "I remember..." I said, my words slipping shyly out of me as I peeked out from behind the door. "Are you lost again?" I asked, regretting the stupidity of the question even as the words passed my lips.
"Always." She smiled at me and laughed a little. "Actually I just wanted to thank you. I was running late yesterday and rushed off without thanking you."
"It's easy to get lost around here. I'm just happy I could help. I'm Vicki, by the way." I reached out, almost hungrily, as she held out a slim, manicured hand to me.
"Stella." Our fingers fumbled in the partially open doorway and then pulled away much too soon. "Well, I should be going. Have to be in Chicago by morning."
She was such a mystery. Who or what was waiting for her on Hickory Street yesterday and in Chicago tomorrow morning?
"Are you sure? Why don’t you come in and have some coffee?" I asked. "You'll need the caffeine—you'll be driving all night."
I opened the door to her but really I was opening a lot more. She smiled as she crossed the threshold and stepped into my life.
"You have a beautiful place." She said it like a burglar might. I pointed to the couch and headed for the kitchen. When I came back, carrying two cups of coffee, she was sitting comfortably, her long, tanned legs separated just enough for me to notice. "I interrupted your reading," she said when she saw my blanket and book near the fireplace.

"Oh no. I was reading the same page over and over anyway." Our hands touched briefly as I handed her the coffee, the cold of our skin contrasting with the warm mugs. "Cream or sugar, Stella?" It was the first time I'd said her name and I saw her smile when it rolled off my tongue. She shook her head and I sat down next to her.
"Do you live alone, Vicki?" She said my name as if she were repaying the favour.
"No. With my husband Danny—he's—away...on business."
She looked at me, as if she knew my words meant more than they said.
I was suddenly aware of the danger of allowing a stranger into my home and telling them I was alone. But oddly I did not fear Stella, though she did make me uncomfortable. She touched the hand that held my coffee. "You don't wear a ring..." She gazed deep into my eyes, not with distrust, but in curiosity. Her dark eyes seemed to penetrate my soul and I worried that she could see into my thoughts and read everything I was thinking of letting her do to me.

"I don't wear it at night," I told her, which was true. My wedding ring was on the table near my bed, in my empty bedroom. "I started taking it off at night when Danny wanted to pretend he was with another woman."
Stella rolled her eyes. "Does he wear his?"
I tried to think of Danny. Where was he now? Really on business? Or in a hotel room wearing nothing but his wedding ring, beside a woman wearing even less?
My silence was answer enough. An awkward pause followed, during which we nervously fondled our coffee mugs.
"May I use your bathroom?" she finally asked.
"Of course. End of the hall."
She stood up and languidly walked out of my sight, my eyes following her every move.

I have to be crazy, I tell myself, for thinking what I was about her. I have to be severely out of my mind. But I went on thinking it anyway.

Several moments passed and she didn't return. I was beginning to doubt her existence. Did I dream her up? I waited until I couldn't wait any longer and finally went to look for her. On my way to the bathroom I passed my open bedroom door. I always kept it closed but Danny must have left it open. Leaning in and reaching for the doorknob, I noticed Stella standing near my bed, gazing at a photograph on my night table. I cleared my throat to announce my presence. Something fell from her hands and clanged on the floor. Embarrassed, she struggled with an apology as I walked up behind her. "I'm sorry. Your door was open and I... I was being nosy."
I didn't respond, not quite sure if I felt violated or seduced.
"Is this uh..." she inclined her head towards the framed picture by the bed.
"Danny, yes."
Her fingertips traced the image of his face. "He's handsome," she said, and turned her attention to me. "And lucky."

Both flattered and disconcerted by her compliment, I looked around for something to break our gaze. The glint of my wedding ring caught my attention from beneath the nightstand. I bent down to pick it up, but couldn't quite reach far enough under the table.
"Here, let me," Stella said, sinking to her knees as her slender fingers danced over the dusty floor. When she handed me the ring, our fingers touched, but longer this time.
"Thank you," I said, looking directly at her. She didn't let go of the ring right away, as if to prolong our closeness.
"You're welcome," she said softly. With those words and the gaze of her dark brown eyes that accompanied them, I was lost to her.
Lost willingly in those eyes and that smile.
Our heads had nowhere else to go and leaned into each other. Our lips followed them.

Tuesday morning, three days before...

He slept beside me, his arm draped across me. The hair on his arm tickled my naked stomach as it rose with each laboured breath I took. But it was different this time. His arm seemed lighter. Softer. As my eyes began to adjust to the morning sun shining through the window, they caught the glimmer of something gold on my night table. Slowly I recognised it as my wedding ring.
The body beside me rolled over, awake enough to ask, "What time is it?"
"Dawn," I said but couldn't be sure.
"And this isn't Chicago," she mumbled back. It wasn't Danny.
She crawled out from beneath my sheets, completely naked and asked to use my shower. At first I thought I was dreaming. It had to be one of those dreams you have about waking up while you're still fast asleep. So I tried waking up all over again, this time for real, to the sound of water running in the bathroom.

Danny wasn't home and when I plucked up the courage to look I found a naked woman in my shower. A naked woman who, the last I remembered, had picked my wedding ring up off the bedroom floor. Memories are funny things. I remember some things very well, like yesterday's grocery bill: $43.38. As if that had some special significance. And yet I couldn't remember spending the night with the beautiful woman in my shower. I couldn't remember how we got from the floor to my bed. The water stopped and if I listened hard enough I could hear her dressing. The quiet rustle of smooth fabric brushing her soft skin, the clip of her bra closing. As my memory slowly returned to me I vaguely remembered helping her out of those clothes the night before. But I couldn't be sure that I wasn't making it all up. That's all there was—vague, truncated bits of memories; like the fragments of a dream that comes to you periodically throughout the day; neither entirely real nor logical and always just out of reach.

"I don't mean to run," she said, stepping quickly back into the room, "But I have to go." Her white blouse was unbuttoned, seductively exposing the tan bra that covered her small breasts. She moved across the room, grabbing shoes and a purse as if it were her room and she knew by instinct where everything was. "I left my number on your night table." But before I could look, she kissed me fleetingly on the lips and ran for the door.
As quickly as she'd come, she was gone.
All that was left was the taste of her upon my lips.

Friday PM, the night of...

After I cooked Danny breakfast this morning—bacon and eggs and three strong cups of black coffee—I sat quietly and watched him eat. I shouldn't have been watching him but I couldn't bear to do much else. I was supposed to be getting the gun out of the bathroom but I couldn't, so I didn't. I saw him off to work and then I was alone. Alone, again, with my thoughts. Not that I can remember any of them. Hours passed. The whole day, almost. Before I knew it, it was evening and he was coming home. I heard his car pull into the driveway shortly after six. Suddenly, as if this was my last chance, I hurried into the bathroom and leaned against the washbasin. Catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror I am shocked at how awful I look. I barely recognise myself. There's something familiar about the injuries I see, but they seem worse now. My lips are bruised and puffy, my right eye almost swollen shut. The monster staring back at me reminded me of my mission. I leaned down and pulled open the drawer. There, inside, is the metallic gleam of a gun. I don't know whose gun it is but I don't care. It feels like it fits my hand as I pick it up and that's more than enough reason to go on holding it. My actions seem somehow familiar, as if I've practised them a hundred times, although I don't remember it. The urge I feel inside me is also strangely familiar. It's hammering loudly in my heart and head, daring me. I want to put my finger on the trigger.

The woman in the mirror is watching me. She also has a gun, shiny, like mine. She puts her finger on the trigger, so I do too. And when I do, we both smile. What is it about holding a loaded gun that makes you feel so powerful? Loaded? I check and it is. Of course it is. You can't kill someone with an unloaded gun, can you?
The front door opened and closed. "Vicki," Danny's voice rang out. "You home?"
Silently, I count his steps to the bedroom. I know his entire routine without even seeing him. I know he's thrown his briefcase on the bed and is loosening his tie. He's taking off his watch as he steps into the bathroom. My finger is still on the trigger.

Tuesday, three days before...

There was football on the TV. Danny wanted another beer and sent me to get one. The phone rang just as I opened the refrigerator.
"It's me," she said as soon as she heard my voice. "I wanna come over."
"Not tonight," I whispered even though I desperately wanted to see her again.
"Tomorrow night then. Will he be home?"
"He'll be gone."
"Where's he now?"
"Watching football."
"I want to be with you tonight," she said, louder now.
"I already said—"
"Touch yourself for me."
I was both shocked and aroused by her forwardness. "Stella—"
"Please. Pretend it's me."
I slid down from the counter and spread my legs.
"Are you?"
"Yes..." I answered, flustered and embarrassed. The fingers of my free hand found the insides of my upper thigh. They began a circular motion, first outside my panties and then inside, caressing the wetness gathering between my thighs.

"I need to see you."
"Tomorrow night. Late," I said, between hurried breaths.
"Faster," she whispered and I obeyed, moving my hand back and forth in an almost chaotic way, feeling the tension tighten my stomach as I pictured her lips following my fingers. I slid down onto the floor and tugged my panties off, moaning to the sound of her voice.
"Baby, what the hell are you doing?"
I dropped the phone. Danny walked into the darkened kitchen, a sly smile on his face as he caught sight of my panties on the floor and the hand which was still pressed to my crotch. When he saw the phone, his smile vanished abruptly.
"What the hell?" Angrily he picked up the receiver and pressed it to his ear. "Hello? Hello, is anybody there?" He slammed it down and turned accusingly to me. "Who the hell was that?"
I didn't answer him. I couldn't.
"Who was on the goddam phone, Vicki?"
I stopped remembering the moment before his fist hit my face.

Wednesday, two days before...

I didn't see Danny off the next day. He left, for Wisconsin this time, around mid afternoon and I busied myself with gardening and housework. Before I knew it, the sun had set and night had fallen. I routinely looked at the clock, not because I couldn't wait for Stella, but because with each passing minute I was relieved she hadn't yet arrived. It wasn't as if I didn't want to see her, but that I didn't want her to see me—not like this.

The bedroom was almost completely dark and silent except for the ticking of the clock beside the bed. The sheets were pulled up to my chin and beneath them I was fully clothed. I knew I was sending mixed messages but I didn't care.
A car pulled into the driveway. I could hear the low hum of her engine. Then the shutting of the car door and quiet footsteps coming up the hall. They stopped and although I could barely see her, I knew she was standing in the doorway. She reached to turn on the light.
"Leave it off," I said urgently.
Her hand dropped and she walked in and sat on the edge of the bed beside me.
"What's wrong?" she asked as I pulled the sheets a little closer to my chin. "You seem angry." She touched my cheek the way a mother might. "Or scared."
"Confused. About what happened between us."
"What's confusing about it?" Her voice was short and a little hurt.
"I don't know. I just... I can't remember any of it."
This was only partly true. Since she had arrived I remembered, little by little, making love to her, but my memories seemed fabricated. And when I was alone, I remembered nothing.
"You can't remember or you won't remember?"
I couldn't explain it to her. I could barely explain it to myself. I seemed to exist in two separate realities. When Stella wasn't there, I doubted everything. When she was there, I doubted nothing. It was as if my mind could not accept what my body knew was real.

"I'm sorry..." I said eventually. She seemed rejected, with a faraway look in her eyes, eyes I now remembered kissing as her fingers had floated down my naked body the night before last. "It's like you're not real. It's like I'm dreaming," I said, but I knew I wasn't. She pulled the covers down to my waist and saw that I was dressed.
"I'm real," she said, starting to unbutton my blouse. "I'm more than real."
I remembered more this time. The feel of her clothes, the touch of her skin seemed briefly familiar underneath my hands. She kissed more with her lips than she did with her tongue which were soft and wet. She took off my bra and panties, whispering little commands in my ear, as if it was my first time with her. "Lie back. Relax. Open your legs. Don't be scared." All the while, I was scared. I was scared I was dreaming. I was scared I was crazy. I did what she asked me, completely trusting her; utterly seduced. I was like a ragdoll in her arms and beneath her probing hands. The light touch of her fingers were especially pleasing, teasing the inside of my thighs before they plunged into the dark wetness between them.

Thursday morning, the day before...

When I awoke she was facing me at the foot of the bed, her deep brown eyes wide open and staring. I smiled and leaned in to kiss her but she pulled away.
"When were you going to tell me?" she asked coldly.
"Tell you what?"
She paused and looked away. "What he did." I didn’t understand. My confusion must have shown on my face for her voice softened and a tender smile parted her lips. "What he did to your face," she said quietly.
I suddenly realised what she was talking about. I'd completely forgotten that Danny had hit me and why I didn't want the lights on the night before. "It really isn't that bad," I told her as she reached out and touched my cheek. "I'm surprised you even noticed."
Something in my words angered her, because she immediately rose from the bed and pulled me up with her. After dragging me into the bathroom, she pushed me hard against the washbasin. I stood there, limply, in front of the mirror.

The first thing I noticed was that we were both naked, but that wasn't what Stella intended me to see. She put her hand underneath my chin and lifting it roughly, made me look at myself. My jaw was swollen, my lip was fat and my right eye was a seductive shade of purple. Had I not known better I would have thought I'd put on too much eye shadow and been stung by a bee on the cheek. I did remember that Danny had hit me, yes, but I didn't remember the damage he'd caused. It was like I was looking at someone else in the mirror. Someone weak and broken. Instinctively I reached up to touch my face, almost surprised at the tenderness of my own flesh. Yes, it was me. I winced as my fingers encountered broken skin.

"I'm gonna kill the fucker," said Stella, but I was hardly aware of her presence. I was too busy trying to remember how it happened, how my husband had beaten my face to a bruised pulp without my remembering it. I was barely aware of her hands on my shoulders, moving slowly down around my stomach while my own hands explored my face, tracing my injuries as if they were a roadmap to my memories. Stella was peering at my reflection in the mirror. What was she looking at; my injuries—my naked body? I couldn't tell. She held me from behind, the tendrils of her dark hair stabbing the eyes that peered at me so intently. This time she whispered it. "We're gonna kill the fucker."

Friday afternoon, the day of...

"Whoa, Vic. What are you doing with that?"
He doesn't seem to take me very seriously, even though I'm holding this gun. So I point it at him and watch the fear spill into his eyes. He takes a slow step backwards. "Put that down, baby. It could go off."
"That's what I'm counting on," I said in a voice I barely recognised as my own. I stepped towards him as he stepped back, as if we're dancing.
"What are you doing?"
My voice is calm and cool. "I'm gonna kill you for what you did." I rub the trigger of the gun under my fingertip, lightly, as if to tease it.
"What'd I do?"
"Are you blind, Danny, or just stupid?" I start waving the gun now, like it's a wand and I'm a magician who's about to make her husband disappear.
"You mean your face? You think I did that?" Danny was really frightened now. I've backed him all the way against the bed and he's nearly sitting on his briefcase. "Vicki," he gasped, almost stammering. It's amazing how a loaded weapon makes him choke on his words. "V-Vicki, you fell in the bathroom two nights ago. Don't you remember? You hit your head on the washbasin."

"Don't lie to me, Danny."
"Baby, I got home from Minnesota and you were unconscious on the floor. The sink was all bloody. Don't you remember?"
The gun is shaking in my hand. "Stop it, Danny. I didn't fall. You did this, after you caught me on the phone with her."
"Who?"
"Stella."
"Who's Stella?"
"The woman who's gonna bury you," and again I didn't recognise my own voice.
"Vicki, you're off your head, baby. I don't know anyone named Stella."
I scream at him. "She was on the phone, Danny! The other night in the kitchen. She's...I've been sleeping with her."
He laughed but closed his mouth with a snap when I inched the gun closer to his head.
"Vicki, honey, are you trying to leave me for another woman?" I can hear the meanness in his tone. The way he said 'woman' made my blood boil.

"No honey, I'm killing you for another woman."
He has nowhere to go. He can only swallow hard, trying to speak as he realises I'm serious. I'm deadly serious.
"Wait Vic. Listen to me. There is no other woman. There was no one on the phone the other night. You haven't been having an affair with anyone. You hit your head on the sink and now you don't know what you're saying. You need to see a doctor."
"You need to see an undertaker," I replied. But what he said troubled me. His words circled around in my mind, buzzing against one another in the most annoying way. I know they aren't true. In a desperate attempt to save his life, Danny's doing what anyone would. He's sitting there feeding me lies.
"Why would I lie to you, Vicki? Because you're holding a gun? Put the gun down and I'll tell you the exact same thing. I'm not lying to you."
"Bullshit, Danny. Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit," I say it because it's the only word in my head that makes sense. And each time I repeat it, my finger tickles the trigger like a lover. He reaches out his hand.
"Baby, don't you know that I love you?"

I pull the trigger and a bullet rips into his chest. I fire again and his body flips backwards against the wall. There is no sound. No bang from the gun, no scream from his mouth. I fire a third time and watch the light leave his eyes and his torso thump heavily against the wall with a muffled thud. I don't remember how many more times I fired. I only remember that the gun eventually ran out of bullets. There is blood everywhere. Mostly on the bed and splattered against the wall, but much of it is on me too. I've managed to cover myself quite well, in fact. I'm a walking advertisement for bloody murder.

In the bathroom, the full stream of cold water wakes my ears to the sounds of the outside world. No longer are my own thoughts so piercing. I run my hands and forearms under the water and wash my husband's dead blood from my skin. I study myself in the mirror. My swelling has gone down and my eye seems to look closer to its normal self. I almost recognise myself again. "It's over," I say aloud to the room, to no one in particular. Moments later, she's standing beside me, washing the arms that buried him in the garden, drying the fingers that moved his trash bag body into the freshly dug hole and covered it with dirt. "Fill out a missing person's report in three or four days," she tells me while splashing cold water on her face and wiping away smudges of dirt. "When they ask why you didn't report it sooner, tell them he's done this before. They'll think he's found another woman and probably won't even bother to investigate." She grabs the bloody towel from beside the washbasin as I stand behind her with my arms around her waist.

"You know what he told me... before I shot him? He said you weren't real."
She shuffles the towel from one hand to the other, furiously scrubbing the evidence from her body. "Did you believe him?"
"I didn't know what to believe. For all I know, I made him up."
"Now you're thinking. He never truly existed, except when you thought he did."
I look down at my arms and notice a patch of black dirt. "Stella, did I help you bury him?" I honestly can't remember.

"You said you couldn't," she replied. I rub at my dirty arm but the colour won't come off. Seeing me, she takes my arms in her hands and shows me it isn't dirt I'm trying to rub away, but bruises. Dark and patchy bruises extending up my forearms that I haven't noticed before. They're positioned where gripping fingers once grabbed me. She doesn't have to say anything. I know I've been held like this before and not by her. I knew the guilty fingers were now planted in my garden. Was he real? Is she? Am I? Overwhelmed with confusion I impulsively kiss her, desperate to confirm my own reality to her. My body presses hers back against the washbasin. I can see the dirt beneath her fingernails as she encircles my neck with her hands and pulls my mouth further into hers. Almost unconsciously, my fingers work their way beneath her top and crawl around her breasts like the insects that are invading Danny's mouth in the garden.

She eases me onto the floor, just beneath the washbasin as her hands work their way down my body. Pushing up my blouse, still stained with Danny's blood, she passes her hands up and down the length of my neck while licking a trail to my stomach, the ends of her dark hair tickling my skin. My back arches. I moan. Almost instinctively my body lifts itself up and begins to rise and fall in time to her caresses, bucking wildly each time I feel her enter me more deeply until her whole body is almost inside me, as if we're one person. The rush of orgasm flutters through my body and she holds me there until it’s spent, until I fall back on the tiled floor, exhausted and breathing heavily. My eyes close.

It's the light I notice first, the bright light on the bathroom ceiling. I'm lying on my back on the cold hard floor, the washbasin almost directly above me. On it I see a dark line, possibly dried blood that had dripped down and out of sight. I reach up to touch it but I don't have to. I know it's mine. Not fresh. But still mine. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I pull myself off the coldness of the floor into the brightness of the room. It's me, all right. Nothing's changed. The sex doesn't show; the betrayal doesn't show—not even the murder shows. Murder? It feels like a dream, pulling that trigger. Danny's blood had splashed just like it does in the movies. The bedroom is dark and quiet, but not empty. Even in its stillness I can vaguely make out the shape of the body in the bed. It's a body I know well, with curves and angles my own body has memorised. If I don't breathe, I can almost hear the faint airy whispers of her breath as it passes her immobile lips. Stella is asleep in my bed.

I draw near to her and let my clothes drop to the floor. Then I slide under the covers, hugging the sheets around me. As my eyes close my mind immediately starts to drift. Barely aware of the arm across my waist, suspended between the waking world and sleep, I begin to dream. In this dream, someone’s standing in the doorway, mouthing words to me. At first I think it's Danny, saying, "We have to do it now," with furtive glances to the female arm across my stomach. I blink awake and he's gone. Stella stands there instead, half-dressed. Somehow I know she's leaving. She leans down to me and whispers in my ear. Then she kisses the side of my mouth and tenderly touches my cheek. My eyes close again. When I open them, she's gone. Like she was never there at all. My fingers touch my mouth, where I can still feel her soft lips.
"Now you're free...free..." her whispered words still echo inside my mind in the empty room.
I barely recognise my own voice when I say; "Now I'm alone."
As always.

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Story © 2005 Jennifer Gardner. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Picture, design & construction © utterpants.co.uk / 071205

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