A young boy running an errand for his harried mother, a desperate office worker having a drink after work, a father-daughter outing in the woods, an innocent meet-cute at the gym, and a volunteer fire department practice burn. These are the mundane, yet subtly dark tableaus award-winning writer John B. Marek invites you to visit in this collection of short fiction. The stories in this collection were written over the twenty years between 1995 and 2015. The oldest, “Bandito,” was originally the first chapter of a supernatural suspense novel. It won the 2016 Anson County Writers Club prize for Best Adult Fiction, John’s first literary award. The most recent piece in the collection is an essay that provides some interesting background about John’s family and working-class life in small-town America in the 1970s.
Josh eyed the dog warily, impatiently shifting his 50 pounds from one red and white Keds sneaker to the other. It seemed to be asleep, laying quietly on its side in the dirt and crushed stone parking lot of the Four Horsemen Tavern, the hot afternoon sun antagonizing the squadron of flies that raided the open sores on its head and ears. It had been a beagle once, an amiable puppy with a quick tail and bright eyes that dreamed of nothing more than rawhide treats and a game of fetch with a big red ball, but years of uncertain feeding, thirsty summer afternoons, shivering winter nights, and the derisive kicks, slaps and curses of an uncaring master had turned him into something else... something dark and festering and mean. From a hundred yards down the tracks, the train whistle blew, and the once-beagle jerked its head violently toward the sound, fixing Josh in its malevolent gaze. Josh stiffened and braced to run, but the dog merely shook its head, dislodging a cloud of flies, chuffed scornfully, and collapsed back into the dust.
Convinced that the dog was no longer a threat, Josh turned his attention to his other pressing problem, the train lumbering through the crossing and the twin blinking red lights and rhythmic CLANG, CLANG, CLANG of the crossing gate. It was a long train, and it was moving glacially. Josh glanced at his silver Timex watch, his most cherished possession, a gift on his eighth birthday four months earlier. Two-seventeen. He clutched the three dollar bills in his pocket and cursed his bad luck. This was the first trip to the neighborhood grocery his mother had let him run by himself, and he was sure he was up to it, but this train was ruining everything. His mother was making tuna noodle casserole–Dad's favorite–for dinner, but when she had opened the can of mushroom soup, she saw that it had gone bad. It called for a quick trip to the store, but Maggie had just drifted off to sleep, and so Josh earned his big chance.
He wasn't sure how long the train had been there, but he had been waiting for almost ten minutes, and the line of cars was up to seven now. As he counted them off, a big, new blue sedan—a rare sight in those parts—cozied up to the end of the line, paused momentarily, backed off slightly and executed a compact turn, heading back in the direction from which it came. Josh noted absently that the driver was wearing a suit jacket and a brown fedora, a minor detail that would get much attention in the coming days.
Finally, a green Penn Central caboose rolled into view from between the trees to his far right. Josh watched impatiently as the last rail car cleared, then crossed the roadway and waited expectantly as the gate opened. He sprinted across the tracks and hit the front door of Krynock's Grocery at a dead run, ringing the door-mounted bell as he passed through. His Timex now read two forty-five. His Dad's shift at the mill ended at three, and he was usually home by three-twenty, three-thirty if he stopped to shoot the bull with Muddy Tomkins or one of his other work buddies. Either way, he expected dinner on the table shortly thereafter; there was still time, but just barely.
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