PseudoPod 743: Flash on the Borderlands LIV: Stage Three: The Bargain
“The Kid Learns” was first published in the New Orleans Times Picayune on May 31, 1925
“The Sputtering Wick of the Stars” was originally published in Halloween Forevermore in 2015
“If It Bit You” is a PseudoPod original
The Kid Learns
by William Faulkner
Competition is everywhere, competition makes the world go round. Not love, as some say. Who would want a woman nobody else wanted? Not me. And not you. And not Johnny. Same way about money. If nobody wanted the stuff, it wouldn’t be worth fighting for. But more than this is being good in your own line, whether it is selling aluminium or ladies’ underwear or running whiskey, or what. Be good, or die.
‘Listen,’ said Johnny, tilted back against the wall in his chair, ‘a man ain’t only good in our business because he’d get his otherwise, he’s good because he wants to be a little better than the best, see?’
‘Sure,’ said his friend Otto, sitting beside him not moving.
‘Anybody can keep from getting bumped off. All you gotta do is get took on a street gang or as a soda squirt. What counts is being as good as you can – being good as any of ’em. Getting yours or not getting yours just shows how good you are or how good you ought to of been.’
‘Sure,’ agreed his friend Otto, tilting forward his brief derby and spitting.
‘Listen, I ain’t got nothing against the Wop, see: but he sets hisself up as being good and I sets myself up as being good, and some day we got to prove between us which is the best.’
‘Yeh,’ said Otto, rolling a slender cigarette and flicking a match on his thumb nail, ‘but take your time You’re young, see; and he’s an old head at this. Take your time. Get some age onto you and I’m playing you on the nose at any odds. They wasn’t no one ever done a better job in town than the way you took that stuff away from him list week, but get some age onto you before you brace him see? I’m for you. You know damn well.’
‘Sure,’ said Johnny in his turn. ‘I ain’t no fool. Gimme five years though, and it’ll be Johnny Gray, with not even the bulls to remember the Wop. Five years, see?’
‘That’s the kid. They ain’t nothing to complain, the way we done lately. Let her ride as she lays, and when the time comes we’ll clean ’em all.’
‘And he’s right,’ thought Johnny, walking down the street. ‘Take time, and get yourself good. They ain’t nobody good from the jump: you got to learn to be good. I ain’t no fool, I got sense enough to lay off the Wop until the time comes. And when it does – goodnight.’
He looked up and his entrails became briefly cold – not with fear, but with the passionate knowledge of what was some day to be. Here was the Wop in an identical belted coat, and Johnny felt a sharp envy in spite of himself. They passed; Johnny nodded, but the other only jerked a casual, patronizing finger at him. Too proud to look back, he could see in his mind the swagger of the other’s revealed shoulders and the suggestion of a bulge over his hip. Some day! Johnny swore beneath his breath, and he ached for that day.
Then he saw her.
Down the street she came, swinging her flat young body with all the awkward grace of youth, swinging her thin young arms; beneath her hat he saw hair neither brown nor gold, and gray eyes. Clean as a colt she swung past him, and turning to follow her with his eyes and all the vague longing of his own youth, he saw the Wop step gracefully out and accost her.
Saw her recoil, and saw the Wop put his hand on her arm. And Johnny knew that that thing he had wanted to wait for until his goodness was better had already come. The Wop had prisoned both her arms when he thrust between them, but he released his grasp in sheer surprise on recognizing Johnny.
‘Beat it,’ commanded Johnny coldly.
‘Why, you poor fish, whatayou mean? You talking to me?’
‘Beat it, I said,’ Johnny repeated.
‘You little-‘ The older man’s eyes grew suddenly red, like a rat’s. ‘Don’t you know who l am?’ He thrust Johnny suddenly aside and again grasped the girl’s arm. The back of her hand was pressed against her mouth and she was immovable with fear. When he touched her she screamed. Johnny leaped and struck the Wop on his unguarded jaw, and she fled down the street, wailing. Johnny’s pistol was out and he stood over the felled man as Otto ran up.
‘My God! Otto shouted. You’ve done it now!’ He dragged a weighted bit of leather from his pocket. ‘I don’t dare croak him here. I’ll put him out good, and you beat it, get out of town, quick!’ He tapped the still groggy man lightly and ran. ‘Beat it quick, for God’s sake!’ he cried over his shoulder. But Johnny had already gone after the girl, and a policeman, running heavily, appeared.
Before a darkened alleyway he overtook her. She had stopped, leaning against the wall with her face in the crook of her arm, gasping and crying. When he touched her she screamed again, whirling and falling. He caught her and supported her.
‘It ain’t him, it’s me,’ he told her obscurely. ‘There, there; it’s all right. I laid him out.’
She clung to him, sobbing, and poor Johnny gazed about him, trapped, Cheest, what can you do with a weeping girl?
‘Now, now, baby,’ he repeated, patting her back awkwardly, as he would a dog’s, ‘it’s all right. He won’t bother you. Tell me where you live and I’ll take you home.’
‘O-o-o-h, he sc-scared me s-o,’ she wailed, clinging to him.
Poor kid, she didn’t know that he was the one to be scared, that his was the life that was about to take a dark and unknown corner, for better or worse, only the gods knew. There is still time to get out of town, though, caution told him, Otto is right; he knows best. Leave her and beat it, you fool! Leave her, and him back yonder? Youth replied. Not by your grandmother’s false teeth, I won’t.
He felt her pliant young body shudder with fear, felt her choked weeping.
‘There, there. kid,’ he repeated inanely. He didn’t know what to say to ’em, even. But he must get her away from here. The Wop would be about recovering now, and he’d be looking for him. He held her closer and her trembling gradually died away; and looking about him he almost shouted with relief. Here was old Ryan the cop’s house, that had known him boy and lad for fifteen years. The very place.
‘Mrs Ryan knows me, shall look after you until I come back for you.’
She clasped him sharply in her thin arms. ‘No, no, don’t leave me! I’m so scared!’
‘Why, just for a minute, honey,’ he reassured her, just until I find where he went, see? We don’t wanta stumble on him again.’
‘No, no, no, he’ll hurt you!’ Her wet salty face was against him. ‘You mustn’t. You mustn’t!’
‘Sure, just a while, baby. I won’t be no time.’ She moaned against Johnny’s face and he kissed her cold mouth, and it was as though dawn had come among the trees where the birds were singing. They looked at each other a moment.
‘Must you?’ she said in a changed voice, and she allowed herself to be led to the dark door; and they clung to each other until footsteps came along the passage within the house. She put her arms around Johnny’s neck again. ‘Hurry back,’ she whispered, ‘and oh, be careful. I’m so afraid!’
The door opened upon Mrs Ryan; there was a brief explanation, and with her damp kiss yet on his face, Johnny ducked quickly from the alleyway.
Here were flying remote stars above, but below were flashing lights and paved streets, and all the city smells that he loved. He could go away for a while and then come back, and things – lights and streets and smells – would be the same.
‘No!’ he swore. ‘I’ve got a girl now. I’d rather be bumped off than have her know I run.’ But, ah, if this could have been put off a while! How sweet she is! Is this love, I wonder? he thought, or is it being afraid makes me want to run back to her and risk letting things work themselves out instead of doing it myself? Anyway, I done it for her: I wasn’t double-crossing the boys. I had to do it: anyone can see that.
Well, I ain’t as good as I wanted, but I can be good as I can. He looked again at the lying stars, his pistol loose in his pocket, and smelled again the smells of food and gasoline that he loved; and one stepped quickly from out a doorway.
Why, say, here she was again beside him, with her young body all shining and her hair that wasn’t brown and wasn’t gold and her eyes the color of sleep; but she was somehow different at the same time.
‘Mary?’ said Johnny, tentatively.
‘Little sister Death,’ corrected the shining one, taking his hand.
The Sputtering Wick of the Stars
by Gordon B. White
It is the people in the small towns dotting the countryside who first notice the darkness in the evening skies. One by one, the stars are vanishing. Every night, more are snuffed out: hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of light years away. The encroaching blackness rolls across the horizon like a glacial wave.
As the patch of empty sky grows, eating away the constellations, the world cannot cope. First comes violence, then self-harm; local panic, then global paralysis. One by one the power grids go out, the communication lines fall silent. The darkness spreads across the earth, reflected in the pooling abyss above.
Here in Asheford, in the now-black village center, the remaining congregants gather in the chapel each night, waiting. From sunset to sunrise, the Reverend Mott hovers around the lectern, illuminated by a single large white candle. He rails against the sinners that have brought this plague of shadow, harrowing the sunken-eyed living and the long-since dead.
“Hell is real.” The reverend wrings his hands, casting claws of shadow across his flock as he paces between the candle and the silent mass. “This darkness is the void, the absence of the light of the Lord.”
He stops and crooks his finger at the room. “The Beast is coming for us. A cold, black wind from out of space. The very breath of the Devil is blowing out the stars like candles.”
The flame flickers, and a woman in the pews begins to weep.
But there is a different murmuring in the back of the nave. A man stands, pushing someone away, then strides up the aisle towards Reverend Mott.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you go on.” The man reaches the steps and climbs to Mott’s level. “This is all superstition. It’s lies.”
Reverend Mott crosses his arms and roots himself between the man and the fire. “What do you know? Hubris like yours has brought this ill wind.”
“First of all,” the man adjusts his glasses, “there’s no wind in space, ill or otherwise. There’s no air at all. The stars are not being blown out.”
“What, then, is causing the darkness? What is this, if not evil’s breath and the world’s end?”
“Let me tell you.” The man turns to the crowd. “I am a scientist. I know the truth.” He rolls up his sleeves, gesticulating as he speaks. “You see, I’ve studied the universe. I’ve seen it through telescopes in all its wonder and strangeness. I promise you, there is no magic wind; the Devil is not blowing out stars through the reaches of space.”
The man swings his hands in punctuation, forcing Mott to take a half step backwards to keep his balance. The crowd mutters.
“No, instead what it’s doing”—the man licks his thumb and index finger—“is more like this.”
He reaches past the Reverend Mott and pinches the candle’s wick, snuffing the flame instantly and unleashing darkness throughout the chapel.
“But you were right. The Beast is coming.”
If It Bit You
by Donyae Coles
“There’s something wrong with the baby,” Selah said to the doctor, a white woman with cinnamon brown hair that floated untamed around her head in contrast to the white of her doctor’s coat, the sterile everything in it’s place-ness of the office.
Selah didn’t know the woman’s name. She was the the seventh or eighth that she had seen in the thirty weeks of her pregnancy. Every visit to the office, the Woman’s Health Center, she saw a different doctor. And all the techs and nurses. She couldn’t keep them straight.
But she knew she told them, had been telling them since the first fluttering kicks that there was something wrong when she couldn’t ignore it anymore. When she finally forced herself to figure out how to juggle an appointment, work, and the kids. Something didn’t feel right.
Sometimes she thought if she had come earlier, things would have been different but she knew that was wrong. Knew it was always going to be what it was from the moment he smiled at her.
The woman with the wild hair smiled now, wide and soft. She placed her hand over Selah’s much darker one. “It’s your first baby. It’s alright to be nervous. Most new mom’s are. Everything looks good though. All your labs, the ultrasound. You and your baby are perfectly healthy.”
“I’m not a new mom. This is my third baby. I’m telling you something is wrong,” she fought her anger down, swallowed it up and pushed it to her center. She couldn’t let it loose, let it roll over this white woman. She wouldn’t listen if she did.
“Oh!” the doctor exclaimed, her fingers stumbling for the tablet that held Selah’s chart. The chart she had barely looked at. “You look so young! I shouldn’t have assumed,” she let the words trail off as she looked through the system, skimmed the notes. Her smiled dropped, a crease formed in her brow. “You’ve complained a lot but,” she looked up at Selah then, “There’s nothing at all wrong with you or the baby. We’ve told you before.”
The woman’s voice had changed. Gotten hard and Selah swallowed her sigh, forced herself to stay calm. She knew this dance too. “I know but maybe there’s something else that can be looked into? Now that I’m further along. It’s just, this baby, it doesn’t feel right. I don’t feel right.”
Concern again, the woman’s hand on her shoulder. “Every pregnancy is different. Are you getting enough rest? It must be hard with other children. Do you have help at home?”
She closed her eyes, let the sigh loose this time. “No. I haven’t been sleeping. I have these dreams, nightmares. They wake me up. I don’t live with anyone.”
“About the baby?” the woman asked.
“No. Yes. I don’t know. There’s fire and this strange sound that almost seems like singing. And so much pain.” She gripped the fabric of her leggings in her fists, overwhelmed with the memory of it. She didn’t know why she told the woman, she had to tell someone. She had to hope they would listen.
“Pain?” the doctor perked up, latching on to something she could understand, monitor. “Are you in pain?”
“No. It’s not that. In the nightmare I just know there’s pain.”
“So your baby and body feel fine?”
She considered laughing, forced it down to live with her anger. “No, not really. There’s something wrong. When it moves, it’s just wrong. Like there’s too much of it.”
“Women with gestational diabetes often have larger babies but we’ve been keeping on eye on them and-.”
“I don’t have diabetes. I’m telling you, there’s something off!” Selah looked away, dug her nails into her thighs. She shouldn’t have raised her voice, shouldn’t have snapped. The woman wouldn’t listen now. She had already lost.
“You’re tired. The stress of an unplanned pregnancy can be a lot to handle alone. I encourage you to reach out to family for help and let me just,” she looked back at the tablet, made a note. “Help you get connected with some mental health services. They’ll have a few numbers for you to contact at check out, alright? There’s nothing wrong with the baby.”
“It wasn’t unplanned. I didn’t plan it but something did,” she mumbled.
“What?” the doctor asked, hand on the door.
“Nothing, thank you,” she answered.
The woman was gone and the baby in her twisted and danced all wrong against the walls of her womb. She closed her eyes and saw fire and blood and pain and there was no baby for her to hold. She touched her belly and wondered if she had prayed more if it would have kept the devil away.
But she knew it wouldn’t have mattered. Knew he picked her because everyone thought her babies, born Black and fatherless, were damned already. No one would listen to her pleas that this one really was.
About the Authors
William Faulkner (1897–1962) was an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner wrote novels, short stories, screenplays, poetry, essays, and a play. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949 and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked his 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury sixth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century; as well as his As I Lay Dying (1930) and Light in August (1932). His short story “A Rose for Emily” was his first story published in a major magazine, the Forum, in 1930.
Gordon B. White
Gordon B. White has lived in North Carolina, New York, and the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the collection As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions (Trepidatio Publishing 2020). A graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, Gordon’s stories have appeared in dozens of venues, including the upcoming The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 12 and the Bram Stoker Award® winning anthology Borderlands 6. He regularly contributes reviews and interviews to outlets including Nightmare, Lightspeed, and The Outer Dark podcast. You can find him online at www.gordonbwhite.com.
Donyae Coles has had a number of works appear in various podcasts, magazines, and anthologies. She has recently sold her debut novel but a list of her short works can be found on her website, donyaecoles.com.
About the Narrators
Tonia Ransom is the creator and executive producer of NIGHTLIGHT, a horror podcast featuring creepy tales written and performed by Black creatives all over the world. Tonia has been scaring people since the second grade, when she wrote her first story based on Michael Myers. She’s pretty sure her teacher was concerned, but she thinks she turned out fine(ish). Tonia lives in Austin, Texas, though in the summer she dreams of living elsewhere.
Dave Robison is an avid Literary and Sonic Alchemist who pursues a wide range of creative explorations. A Brainstormer, Keeper of the Buttery Man-Voice (patent pending), Pattern Seeker, Dream Weaver, and Eternal Optimist, Dave’s efforts to boost the awesomeness of the world can be found at The Roundtable Podcast, the Vex Mosaic e-zine, and through his creative studio, Wonderthing Studios. Dave is the creator of ARCHIVOS, an online story development and presentation app, as well as the curator of the Palaethos Patreon feed where he explores a fantasy mega-city one street at a time.
Graeme Dunlop is a construct of his own mind and thus extremely hard to grasp. He has no discernible skills and often wonders how he became co-editor of a respected fantasy podcast, audio producer of a horror podcast, host and co-founder of a respected YA podcast, and IT Barbarian for a podcast company.
In alternate futures he is Muad’Dib, or a drunken bum living in a skip, or reincarnated as a dog, or living happily in the now.
He’s also a voice actor, with narrations for each of the Escape Artists podcasts.
He lives in Melbourne, Australia with his lovely wife Amanda. They have a crazy boy dog called Jake. Graeme has been involved with Escape Artists since 2008 and PseudoPod since 2011.