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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 writer John Marek invites you to visit in his collection The Bug Jar and Other Stories.
Paperback, 110 pages, signed by author
John's short story Bandito won the 2016 ACWC Award for Best Short Fiction. It is available for purchase as part of his collection, The Bug Jar & Other Stories, or enjoy reading this free version.
Josh eyed the dog warily, impatiently shifting his fifty 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 it’s 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 from his parents on his eighth birthday four months earlier. Two-seventeen. He clutched the 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 - his dad's favorite - for dinner, but when she had opened the can of mushroom soup, she saw that it had gone bad. That called for a quick trip to the store, but Maggie had just drifted off to sleep... and so Josh had earned his big chance.
He wasn’t sure how long the train had been lumbering through the crossing, but he had been waiting almost fifteen minutes and the line of cars stretching back from the gate was up to seven now. As he counted them off, a big, new blue sedan - a rare sight in these 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 draw much scrutiny 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 he crossed the roadway and waited expectantly as the gate opened. Sprinting across the tracks, he 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 quarter after, maybe a little later 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 at threethirty; there was still time, but just barely.
Josh knew Krynock's pretty well from the frequent trips there with his mother, so he had no trouble finding the soup aisle. His mom had told him to buy a couple of cans, just in case, and he quickly picked two from the shelf and cradled them under his arm. Turning to head back toward the register, something caught his eye. On a shelf across from the soups, snuggled in amongst the crackers, and cookies and potato chips was a foot-tall cardboard cutout of the Frito Bandidto. Josh thought the Frito Bandito was just about the coolest thing in the world. He loved to sing along with the television commercial and it always left him laughing on the floor.
Ay, yi, yi, yi
I am the Frito Bandito
I like Fritos corn chips
I like them, I do
I want Fritos corn chips
I'll get them from you
A closer look at the printing on the cutout showed that for a limited time, every six pack of lunch-size Fritos came with a free Frito Bandito pencil eraser. How cool was that! School would be starting back up in just a couple of weeks and he imagined showing up for the first day of third grade with a Frito Bandito eraser. Josh quickly added the price on the soup cans to the price on the package of corn chips, and although he was no math whiz, he easily deduced that the bills in his pocket were not enough for all three items. He deliberated for all of ten seconds before placing one of the cans of soup back on the shelf and hurried to the checkout.
The Bandito conundrum had cost him valuable minutes, and he headed home at a half-trot, the best he could do while holding the grocery bag. He was barely paying attention to where he was going, his mind taken up with various scenarios explaining the unrequested Fritos and the missing second can of soup, and scarcely noticed that the once- beagle had moved from the parking lot to the shade of some trees closer to the tracks.
He doubted his mother would be ANGRY, angry. She rarely got that way. But he could foresee a stern lecture on the value of a dollar and that look of exasperation and disappointment on her face that always cut him deeply. He had decided to go with something vaguely approximating the truth... he saw the Fritos and knew that dad liked them in his lunch box, so why not get them AND the eraser. It was a LIMITED TIME offer, who knew if it would still be good tomorrow? With that little speech tongue-ready, Josh pushed open the back door of his house and climbed the trio of worn steps into the kitchen. He expected to see his mother in front of the stove intently watching over a steaming pot of noodles and annoyedly waiting for the mushroom soup. But she was not there, and there were no pots or pans in sight, steaming or otherwise.
"Mom," he shouted forcefully, "I got the soup." He waited a moment, and when there was no reply he again shouted, this time with just the teensiest bit of anxiety, "Mom, I'm home." He placed the grocery bag on the table and walked through the small dining room into the living room. No one. He climbed the stairs to the second floor and checked first in Maggie's nursery. The six-month-old slept peacefully in her bassinet, a light pink blanket tucked carefully around her tiny form. He checked the master bedroom - unoccupied and undisturbed - and even his own room, although his mother made a point of not going in there unless absolutely necessary.
Again he yelled, "mom," this time in a thin voice that betrayed the panic uncoiling in him like those black snake novelties dad would sometimes light on the Fourth of July. He went back downstairs, rechecking each room, even the bathroom and the coat closet. He supposed she might have run over to one of the neighbors for a minute, but she would never have left Maggie alone in the house, sleeping or not, for more than the time it would take to borrow a cup of whatever and high-tail it back across the fence. And there was no sign of supper, even though she was pulling the big pot down from the cupboard when he had left the house almost an HOUR ago.
There was one last place he needed to look, but he dreaded the idea. He had always been afraid of the basement; the darkness, the musty crypt-like smell, the nooks and crannies where anyone or anything could hide. He retreated back down the kitchen steps and looked toward the narrow stairwell that led down to the basement door.
When he was five, he had fallen down those steps, laying on the bottom one for a full ten minutes, dazed, while blood poured from a deep gash in his chin that required four stitches to close. That had been the worst moment of his life, until now.
He negotiated each step carefully. There were ten of them and when he reached the last he pushed the heavy door open, again pleading, "mom?" but now in a raspy whisper and without much conviction. There was no central light switch, just a chain rigged to a string that could be pulled to light the first in a series of hanging bulbs his dad has haphazardly and inexpertly installed. Unfortunately, Josh wasn't quite tall enough to reach the string. Weak light from small, dirty, high-set windows cast a dim grayish pall on the basement's contents; an old refrigerator where his dad kept beer and fishing bait wheezed asthmatically as the dampness turned its once brilliant porcelain white skin to mottled tan and rust, a washer and dryer on their way to the same fate, his dad's "workbench" - really just a busted up old desk salvaged from the town dump and decaying under long forgotten cans of paint and random piles of hand tools. And boxes. Boxes piled here and there and everywhere with no particular rhyme or reason, the ones on the bottom sporting watermarks a half-foot high from when the basement flooded during the Forth of July storm. Josh took a cautious step in and then another. "Mom, you down here?" This time a little stronger, but a little more plaintive. Something skittered in a dark corner and he hastily retreated to the bottom step and quickly closed the door behind him. From above, he heard the distinctive crunch of the tires of his dad's work car on the black cinder driveway. He collapsed pliantly onto the bottom step and started crying. It would be a very long time before he stopped.