“Hot Water” by Richard Mark Glover (980 words)
This is a rather strange way to kick off the issue, with a story that stars a woman shaving in the shower and a man, perhaps her partner, checking the water. The story is a quick back and forth, a gunfight of inane conversation, both people sort of talking around each other while talking about murder and extinction and accomplishment. The conversation itself is a bit odd, a bit off, both people going through it as if it should mean something, as if it might be important, but the feeling I get from it is that the importance is an affectation. It’s a game they are playing, a way of delaying the real conversation they should be having. On one level, to me, the story is about climate change. About the ever-more pressing need to deal with it, to address it, so that the world doesn’t die out in a blaze of stupid. And it’s about how people approach that idea. The water of the shower isn’t hot, but it’s warm. They’re all just accepting these things instead of doing something about it, and more and more time passes as more water slips down the drain like sand in an hour glass. I like how the story captures this strange laziness that invades everything, the way that these people show no real signs of caring about anything even as they try to talk about how they should. How they should care and should do something but…just…don’t. It shows how so many people talk about climate change like talking about a book they read, or something they’ll just get around to, always expecting someone else to have the answer, always thinking the stakes are as low as the mild irritation of now being able to recall the name of an author. It’s definitely a strange piece, in part because the crime here is one of inaction, but it’s also a fascinating read!
“Baby Doll” by Alexis Henderson (2400 words)
This is another weird story and another one where the crime in question…isn’t exactly a crime. Or at least, probably isn’t. The story is steeped in a heavy uncertainty and unreliable narrator who seems to have cracked a bit with her sister giving birth to a fourth child while the main character cannot have a child. And okay, so I will admit that me and pregnancy stories are a little iffy for personal reasons. This story does a nice job of capturing the mind of someone who seems to be in a great deal of mental anguish and explores how she’s been fed this lie of what life is supposed to look like and told that any other sort of life is meaningless and hollow. The story shows just how much the main characters has to swallow the pain and is made to feel like everything is her fault, as if it is some moral failing of hers that she cannot have a child. And really this one aspect of herself, of her potential, comes to crowd out everything else. If she cannot be a mother, then she is worthless, at least to her own mind. It’s a startling look at desire and roles and how this woman is devastated by this aspect of her life. And it’s a weird, drowning sort of story, heavy with symbolism and difficult to parse at times. I’m not sure entirely what to feel about it, though there is a moving sadness and despair throughout. To me, it’s something of a portrait of pain, and an interesting one at that, though your mileage many vary. It’s certainly worth making up your own mind about.
“Boots on the Ground” by Dutch Valore (990 words)
This story is the first to feature very obvious crime and it does with a conversational air and something of the strange mood of the first story. Here, though, two men move through the night smashing windows of cars, talking about Doc Holliday. And the contrast between the conversation and what they’re doing is great, showing how they move about this business-like, without really considering the harm they’re doing. They’re soldiers, at least one of them an army veteran, and the story looks at what that means. Looks at what happens to people who have been poisoned, who have lived through trauma only to find that it has changed them. There is a sense throughout the piece that there’s so much more going on here than just two men breaking windows. In the distance there is something larger going on, a fire, and here these two are talking about Doc Holliday and how he wanted to die with his boots on. The tone here is decidedly bleak, but pointedly so. The piece seeks to navigate the minefield of war and being a soldier, not finding a safe path so much as pointing out just how dangerous this is, just how much unexploded death is lurking under everything. There’s a simplicity to the dialogue that conceals a great deal, that seems nearly wholesome until you pull back the layers. And for the main character, who is in training in many ways, he’s learning just how fucked up the world he’s living in is. And just how much he’s contributing to it, letting it continue. How much he’s participating in this cycle that he knows is wrong and yet he’s also enamored with it, with the romance of it, pretending that he’s a gunslinger when all he’s doing is smashing windows. It’s a story that manages to fit a lot into a small space and is a great read!
“Let the Serpent Judge” by Jean McKinney (2800 words)
This story takes an interesting look at crime and at sin with a look at a serpent revival and a pastor’s wife who’s not exactly in a great situation. I like how crime is complicated here, showing the different kinds of crimes, the different kinds of judgement and punishment and laws that are at work. On the one hand, crimes very much get committed. But what those crimes are depends on the person being asked here, as the story shows that crimes depend on the system at work. On the judge. For the main character, her world is a confluence of different systems of law. Because according the law of the land, she is a victim here, transgressed against. The criminal is the one who threatens her, who hurts her. And yet by a different law, the law of the snakes and the law of the god that her husband worships, she is also a criminal, guilty of, if not bodily cheating on her husband, then mentally doing so. Of being unfaithful, which to her husband is something that cannot be allowed. That must be punished. Only over and on top of the laws that her husband professes to uphold, the laws that her perverts for his own gain, there are other laws as well. Of the god that is at the root of her husband’s faith and yet assumed to be powerless in the face of a corrupt pastor. Only, as it turns out, that law might be the most important, as that law seems to recognize what has happened and sets about setting to right the miscarriage of justice. It’s an interesting story and a rather uncomfortable one, tense and full of growing dread (especially for me, who really doesn’t like snakes). it’s a gripping tale with a great building drama and a dark, satisfying ending. A fine story!
“Cops and Robbers” by Ken Brady (2700 words)
This story is, to me, about roles. About the idea of being a criminal, and the idea of being in law enforcement. That childhood game of cops and robbers. Here we meet two people who are playing the game scaled up so that it stretches across the country, across the highways and the truck stops. A game of crime and law and punishment. A game of sex and rape. It’s a rather strange setup, really, showing these two characters who play this sort of game, always moving, taking vague instructions as they go. They do commit crimes, and part of their pay seems to be that they get a rush from it. That they want to do it. That they want to be criminals but don’t know how. So they opt in to this running life where if they’re pulled over it’s sexual favors for police officers and if they make it to the next checkpoint it’s an escalating curve of what they’re asked to do. The risk increases, but they also seem to be addicted to it. The simplicity of it. It’s not pleasant and it’s not fun for them, really, but it offers them something very familiar. It offers them a very definite set of rules. And it’s the rules that seem to guide them. Even as they lose the game. Even if it seems that winning isn’t possible because in the game of Cops and Robbers the cops always win. To be a robber is to be a sacrifice, is to be a loser. The question is what will be lost, and what the alternative is. It’s another strange story, but that just fits with the issue as a whole. The characters are damaged and nearly broken, escaping into a fantasy that they want to be simple and want to be forever, when to me it seems like it always ends the same. It’s a fast-paced and bleak piece that still makes for an interesting read. A fine way to close out the issue!