Child of the Cabbage (Ep. 4)

He watched her from the safety of a window inside as Gracelyn poked at the worn strip of earth below the swing with the tip of a shoe. She slowly swayed in the cool air of the playground, oblivious. Her thoughts were listless, yet on fire. She gazed into the emptiness around her and then bit into a hard apple she had plucked from a tree near the schoolyard. It tasted too sour in her mouth, and she threw it.

Astron Puffin turned away from the window and went to stand before the corkboard in the art classroom where he admired Gracelyn’s crayon drawing of her pastoral life. His eyes slowly scanned every sloppy detail — the clear-blue sky that was too blue, the camel hump green hills that lacked realistic detail, the crooked house in the middle of a field, the lake that was unnaturally circular, the red lighthouse she left structurally unsound.

He smiled and laughed to himself. Then he reached out, tugged the drawing away from its place beneath the pin, folded it, and stuffed it into his pants pocket before going outside.

He walked boldly to the playground, her back turned to him as she floated in the air atop the swing. He said nothing when his hands grabbed the chains and drew her back like an arrow on a bow. She screamed when the hands released her, and she shot forward. When she swung back, the hands pushed against her lower back, and she swung forward again. She struggled to twist around to see who it was. Then again, the hands pushed against her back with more force than before.

“Stop!” she cried out. And again, the hands pushed against her when she swung back, but this time, Gracelyn jumped off before going too high.

“What are you doing!?” she screamed out, tangled up in a cloud of dust on the ground.

Astron Puffin was startled by her reaction. “I was just giving you a push. You looked sad. I thought that you might like to go high on the swing.”

“You scared me half to death!”

“I’m sorry.”

“You shouldn’t sneak up on somebody like that… It’s unsettling.”

“I’m sorry,” Astron repeated. “I didn’t mean to unsettle you. I thought we could be friends… It’s such a lonely place, don’t you think?”

Gracelyn huffed in frustration as she got up and brushed the dirt away. “Why are you still here?” she wanted to know, stern in her tone. “Why do you keep following me? Can’t you just leave me alone!?”

Astron froze for a moment. He didn’t answer her. He couldn’t answer her — no thought that made sense came to his mind quick enough.

“Well!?” Gracelyn demanded.

He turned away from her and ran off.

“Wait!” Gracelyn called after him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.” Then she watched him get smaller on the horizon until his body completely vanished beyond the edge of the dark woods.


Gracelyn meandered as she rode her bike back home from school. She looked up at the sky. The sunlight was dying earlier every day now. Summer was over for good, and the Earth was moving toward autumn. “At least in this part of what’s left of the world,” Gracelyn reminded herself. She slowly shook her head. “I’m getting very bad at talking to myself. I should find myself a doctor of the mind.” She laughed at the absurdity of that thought.

When she got back to the big white farmhouse she called home, she lazily dropped her bike in the yard, scrambled up the steps and went inside. She immediately locked the door behind her and went around the house lighting a cathedral’s worth of candles. Moses came out of his hiding place, twisted around her legs, and demanded to be fed by means of loud, repetitive meows.

“All right, all right. At least let me catch my breath and get situated,” she said to him. Then something caught the attention of her mind, like an invisible tapping on the shoulder, and she slowly walked around the house to investigate the feeling. Gracelyn carried an LED lantern that swung on hooks attached to a handle to light her way. She didn’t like the lantern as much as she did the candles. The light of the lantern was too harsh, too bright, too cold, but it was the best way to crawl through the darkness that fell upon the house in the deep of night.

She poked her head in all the rooms on the first floor — the living room with the old furniture, musty drapes, and cabinet TV; the front parlor with its large bay windows; the study with its shelves full of books now dismantled by technology — before going up the stairs to where the bedrooms and a bathroom were. She stood in a long hallway and held the lantern out in front of her. All the doors to the rooms were closed despite the fact she always left them open. She went to the door of her bedroom and pressed the side of her head against it and listened. Once she was satisfied there were no sounds inside, she reached for the doorknob, turned it, and went in.

Gracelyn was startled to see that the doors to her closet had been thrown open and now all the clothes she had inside it were piled on her bed. “Robbers searching for something,” she breathed. “Or lunatics.” The air in her room felt cold and she looked and saw that her bedroom window was open. She went to the sill and peered out, but the gathering darkness provided no clues as to who or what had entered the house. “Someone is trying to trick me,” she said to herself. “Or at least scare me.”

She sighed, uneasy. Gracelyn reached up and pulled the window down tight and locked it.

When she returned to the kitchen, she cranked a can opener around the top of a can of cat food and plopped the factory churned seafood delight into a bowl. Moses didn’t wait for her to set the bowl on the floor but instead jumped up on the counter and ate right there. Gracelyn stroked his fur as he gobbled up the food.

She let Moses be and went out the back door that was off the kitchen and walked into the backyard. A screen door with a spring that croaked like a frog when it was stretched slammed behind her. Tall trees fenced in the yard on three sides. An opening to the left led to an old barn and the fields and wilds beyond. Gracelyn went to the firepit she had constructed out of stones, added a few new sticks and small logs, then lit some crumpled-up paper beneath the wood with a Bic lighter until it caught and spread. Once she had a lively fire going, she stood there for a moment, mesmerized by the orange light and the soft crackling of sticks and the sizzle of sap.

Dusk was retreating and full night was coming on and with it the first few lights in the heavens flickered to life. She looked up, hoping to find something she could wish upon. But she gave up quickly because the heaviness of the world came upon her again like it so frequently did. She looked back at the house and the gently shaking soft orange glows of the candles in the windows. She saw a silhouette of Moses, licking a paw and washing his face just beyond the screen door. She tried to smile but found it hard. The thought that someone had possibly been inside the house frightened her. Then she realized she had forgotten to look in the basement. It was too dark for that now, she decided.

She looked up again at space. “I can’t stay here forever,” she said to the sheet of stars unfurled across the night. “I need to find a way to get out. I’m afraid.”

TO BE CONTINUED


CHECK OUT PREVIOUS EPISODES OF THIS STORY AT cerealaftersex.com.

Child of the Cabbage (Ep. 3)

Gracelyn spun around and pressed her back to the counter. Her heart started thumping inside her chest, lit up with fear. “Who said that? Who’s there?” she called out.

The door to the stall slowly opened with the squeak of a metallic mouse. A small man, husky, and with a very round face emerged. There was some gray in his hair that was creeping out from beneath a crooked pointed winter knit cap that sat upon his head. The salt and pepper scruff on his face was uneven, choppy like a soured sea, as if he had used a dull butcher knife to shave. He had a lot of wrinkles around his cold blue eyes, the skin like rivulets streaming in from somewhere beyond his temples. He looked tired, Gracelyn thought, but not overly threatening. “Who are you?” she asked.

“The name’s Astron Puffin,” he said, and he spoke with an accent, like from the Old Country on the other side of the planet.

As he grew closer, Gracelyn saw that his skin had an almost pale-green hue to it, like he had been washed in over diluted watercolor paint. “Are you sick?” she wanted to know.

“No. I’m not sick at all. I swear it. Would I even be here if I was?”

“Right. Here. Then why is it you’re in the girls’ bathroom? I’ve never seen you around school before.”

The man looked around at all the pipes and pink and porcelain, confused, as if he had just discovered where he was. “I don’t know. I just figured it might be the safest place to be at the moment.”

He stepped forward and Gracelyn shifted away from him. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he assured her. “I just wanted to wash my hands.” He was not much taller than she was, but definitely wider. “I’ve never hurt anyone in my whole life. Yet here I am, left to suffer alone in a world such as this.”

“You said you thought my speech was wonderful. How did you hear my speech?”

“I was hiding outside an open window, near your classroom,” he said, shaking water from his hands and then rubbing them against his clothes to dry them. “And even the softest voices carry far in this weight of silence.”

“Have you been watching me? Following me?” Gracelyn demanded to know.

Astron Puffin turned his moon-like and pale-green face away from her. “You’re the first person I have seen in a very long time,” he shyly said. “Please don’t be upset. I was just trying to make sure you weren’t evil. I suppose I’ve decided you aren’t.”

“You’re right. I’m the farthest thing from evil, most of the time,” Gracelyn pointed out. “But where did you come from?”

“I had my own cabbage farm, far over the hills to the west. The nights grew to be too long and lonely and much too dark. I set off to see if I could find someone else. To keep madness at bay… And that’s how I came upon you.”

Gracelyn hesitated for a moment and then moved toward the door. She quickly turned to look back at him there. She was scared yet felt pity for him. “It was nice meeting you, however strange of a meeting it was, but I really should get to my next class before I’m late,” she said.

Astron looked hurt. “Oh. All right, then. I shouldn’t keep you from your lessons.”

“Maybe I’ll see you around again, somewhere,” Gracelyn added, in an effort to give him a small bit of hope for whatever future he had.

Astron attempted a smile. “Yes, perhaps. I’d like that. Good luck with your schoolwork… What was your name?”

The girl hesitated for a moment. “Gracelyn,” she said, and she went out of the bathroom and into the dead hallway that glistened with lonely solar energy falling across the plains of the universe.


Gracelyn sat alone in her art classroom. She reached into a box of crayons and retrieved a periwinkle blue. She held it under her nose and smelled it deeply. “I just love the scent of a fresh crayon,” she said to the quiet air. Then she applied the tip of the crayon to a blank sheet of drawing paper and moved her right hand back and forth until a sky appeared.

She then retrieved from the box two shades of green, a burnt umber, and an earthy yellow to draw the hills, forests, and fields that surrounded her home. She mixed white, and gray, and black to construct the house. She grabbed a darker shade of blue to color in the lake and used the gray and black again to create a stone pier. Finally, she grabbed brick red to create a lighthouse that sat tall at the tip of the pier, and silver to add a shiny light that looked out all around the world.

When she was done, she held the drawing in front of her and looked at it. She cocked her head to the left and studied it more intently. Once she was satisfied with it, she signed her name at the bottom in bright orange — Gracelyn Polk, sixth grade, 413 years old. She then got up and walked her drawing to the front of the classroom, turned to face the empty desks, and held it up for no one to see.

“This is my drawing of where I live,” Gracelyn began — speaking much more confidently than she did in her history class earlier — and then she pointed with a finger. “This is my beautiful house. I live in the country, surrounded by lovely green hills and trees and golden-brown fields. It’s all very pastoral — that means being peaceful in the lands beyond the broken cities. Further off, you can see the great lake, and there’s the lighthouse with its bright beacon guiding safe passage for all… Thank you.”

Gracelyn turned and stuck her drawing to a corkboard with a push pin. She went back to her desk, put the crayons back in their box, and put the box back into a wine-colored cubby hole in the cubby-hole cabinet near the front of the room. She looked up and saw the big poster that showed the map of the entire world. Her eyes scanned it for a moment. There were so many red Xs drawn over so many countries. She sighed with faint hope, faint promise. She pulled the classroom door open, walked the somber corridors alone, and went to the playground for another desolate recess.

TO BE CONTINUED


Bucky the Horse and the Gods of Radiation (6)

Linnifrid darted to him and wrapped her arms around his large neck. “Oh, Bucky. I was so worried about you. Wherever did you go?”

“I’ve been to a very magical place, beyond the veil of the forest’s edge. It’s a wonderful place full of wonderful things. I know you’ll love it.”

“What forever do you mean, my dear horse?”

“I’m going to take you there and we can live together, forever and ever and ever. Won’t you like that?”

“No. No, Bucky. I’m going to take you home.”

“But that is my home now. It’s where I belong. I have value and purpose there,” Bucky asserted.

“No. You belong on the farm with me. I think you are confused. Maybe you are dehydrated. We’ll make a torch and I’ll lead you to the water.”

Bucky grew stern. “You can lead me to water, but you cannot make me drink. Now climb on and I will take you to the special place.”

Linnifrid backed away from him slowly. “There’s something different about you, Bucky. You’ve never been a mean horse, or a pushy horse, not ever in your whole life. You seem so jittery. What happened to you out here?”

Bucky scraped at the ground with a hoof. “I’ve found a new way for me, a better way.”

“I don’t understand what you are talking about. What’s this about a new way? There’s been some rather large thoughts going through that head of yours, hasn’t there? Hmm. And behind my back, too.”  

“Come with me and you’ll find out. If you don’t like it, you can go back home. I swear to you on a big bucket of oats.”

“I can’t come with you, Bucky. It’s Papa. He’s passed. I have to go back for a proper burial. I have to!”

Bucky paused in the dim light and the girl could feel his warm breath lightly glance her face. “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” Bucky said. “He was a nice enough man, I suppose, but he will turn to dust one way or another. Your life must go on. Come with me.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say, and I’m not coming with you. I’m going home!”

It was when Linnifrid turned to gather her things that the shrunken and deformed people came out of the darkness and formed a ring around her in the firelight. They pressed the tips of their walking sticks firmly into the ground and gazed at her with psychotic purpose. There were about ten of them, dressed in rags, burned by fire, beaten down by a world of greed and war. Some were bald, or half bald, and others were full of wild hair, but they were all dirty and grumbly, and somewhat cold of heart. They studied the girl with great interest as she fell silent and afraid before them.

One of them stepped forward and grunted. “Is this the one? Is this the girl you were talking about?”

“It is her,” Bucky answered. “I’m afraid she is refusing to come with us. You’ll have to… Persuade her.”

The one that came forward moved closer to the girl, looked her up and down, and sniffed. “You haven’t bathed recently, have you?” he wanted to know.

Linnifrid looked at his grossness and made a face. “And I wonder if you even know what a bath is.”

The turnip-like little man made a commanding gesture in the air, and Linnifrid cried out as they came at her — all of them, sticks hoisted high and then down hard upon her. The girl struggled. She did her best to shield their blows. But it was too much, too furious, too violent of an attack, and so the girl fell into a deep and dark unconsciousness that lasted for a seemingly long time.


When Linnifrid awoke, she was on her back and looking up at fresh splashes of morning sunlight soaking a green forest. There was rope tied around her hands and ankles and she was being dragged along the floor of the woods in something like a tarp. She was sore and dirty, and her dress was torn and her once perfectly beautiful hair of raven black was now caked with wet dirt and leaves. The girl tried to cry out, but she was too sore. She craned her neck and saw that the little people were the ones hauling her along like a pack of sled dogs; Bucky was out front and leading the way. She tried again to speak, and the words came out scraggly. “Hey! What are you doing to me!?”

The ten small people stopped, all were men she thought, but there might have been a woman or two, it was hard to tell because they were all so caked over with grime and burns. “Where are you taking me?” Linnifrid demanded to know. They said nothing to her but simply grumbled and turned to Bucky for an answer. The horse turned around and came back to where she was lying on the ground. He put his long face close to her and butted at her shoulder with his nose. He sniffed at her. “We’re taking you to sanctuary,” Bucky said. “The world is no longer a safe place for you to live as you once did. It’s over. Your old life is over, and you must come with us now. There is no alternative.”

Linnifrid looked up at him and licked at her dry lips. “But must you tie me up and drag me along the ground like an animal? I’ve done nothing wrong and yet you treat me like this. I don’t understand.”

“You’re an animal just like me.”

“Yes, but …”

“Will you walk peacefully?” Bucky suddenly sympathized.

“Yes.”

“If you try to run away, I will tell them to kill you. Do you know that? I have no problem with doing it.”

“I understand… But at the same time, I don’t. Bucky? Did you join a cult?”

The horse looked at her and was hesitant to answer the question. Then he ignored it all together and ordered some of the small people to untie her and help her to her feet.

“Are you cold?” the horse asked her.

“Yes… But…”

“Bring her a cover,” Bucky ordered, and one of the small people came over and gave her a smelly blanket and patted her arms. Linnifrid was convinced it was a female. She had a sweet look beyond the scared gray eyes, and she may have even been a mother to someone in the past. “Thank you,” Linnifrid said softly.

Bucky moved to the front of the line again and everyone started marching along once more. Linnifrid was glad to be up off the ground and walking by her own will. The horse had ordered two of the small people to walk closely behind her, to watch her and make sure she didn’t try to get away.

They made their way through the long and endless forest at a steady pace. Linnifrid was tired and thirsty. She wanted to stop and rest but they would not let her.

“Almost there,” one of the tubby ones grumbled. “Almost there, and you will be free at last.”

TO BE CONTINUED


Bucky the Horse and the Gods of Radiation (5)

Linnifrid walked, arms outstretched, teetering as if she were on a thin high wire. She was whistling something sweet when something came out of the brush, sat there, and just stared with big eyes. The girl stopped and looked at the cat; it seemed to be voraciously studying her. “Hello there, Mr. cat,” the girl said. “Are you lost?”

The cat moved toward her and started circling her legs and purring. “Now that I’ve found you, how could I ever be lost,” the cat said, looking up at her with a big grin that pushed its whiskers straight out to the side.

“What a strange day it’s been. First a talking tree, and now a talking cat. What’s your name?”

“I’m Fred.”

“Fred the cat?”

“That’s what I said. Right, right. My name is Fred. What are you doing around here? Not many people come around here anymore. I like it that way. People are pigs, but not you. You seem different somehow.”

“You’re being silly. I’m just a simple farm girl living in a police state. I’ve lost my horse and now I’m trying to find him. Have you seen a horse around here anywhere?”

The cat wound around her again, slobbering and pushing its head against her calves. “Indeed, I have seen a horse today. In fact, we shared a few pints and became friends.”

“Bucky’s been drinking?”

“Like a horse,” the cat chuckled.

“Well, what happened? Where did he go?”

The cat stopped and scratched behind one ragged ear. “I don’t know where he went. Last time I saw him he was trying to talk to a tree. Hey. Wait a minute… Didn’t you just say you talked to a tree today?”

“Indeed I did,” Linnifrid said. “He wasn’t the nicest tree in the world, though.”

Fred put a paw to the side of his face and played with his whiskers. “Hmmm, I didn’t believe him, and now I feel like a complete ass,” the cat said.

“So you have no idea where he went?”

“No, I don’t. But I would be honored to help you look for him.”

“Thank you, Fred. You’re a very nice cat. “I usually don’t like cats. I think they smell bad.”

“Thanks.”

“Oh, no offense to you. I was speaking in general terms.”

“I feel a whole lot better. So, do you want to continue walking along the lake or should we make for the forest?”

“The lake. I think Bucky would go to water.”


The two walked together along the oddly twisting shore of the lake. Fred scuttled ahead so that he could stop and smell everything. Linnifrid’s heart grew doubtful as the day wore on. The sky was growing chilled, and the light was beginning to fade. The girl stopped and was worried. “I don’t have any supplies for the night,” she told the cat. “I’m afraid in my rush to go after Bucky, I left unprepared.”

“It’s okay,” the cat smiled. “I’ll keep you safe and warm,” and then he winked at her in a very creepy cat way.

Linnifrid ignored the boorish gesture and looked around. “I think we should build a shelter.”

She pointed. “There. That’s a perfect spot between those trees over there.”

Fred looked but he really didn’t care. “I don’t think I’ll be much help.”

“You can help me look for wood.”

Fred snickered, but kept his naughty thoughts to himself.

“I can look for it, but I can’t carry it. Unless you want to strap the wood to my back, but then again I’m afraid I’d only be good for a bundle of twigs.”

Linnifrid took a moment to bend down and pet the cat’s head. “Don’t worry about it, Fred. I’m a big strong woman. I think I can handle it.”

The girl and the cat moved away from the shoreline and closer to the edge of the forest that began like a wall atop a short golden and green bluff. Fred scavenged ahead and when he found a few good sticks and logs he called out to the girl and she would come running.

Linnifrid carried the wood in her arms and piled it at the campsite. The cat ran up behind her and pushed himself between her ankles and just stayed there. “How are you going to make a fire?” Fred asked.

The girl frowned and wondered. “I think maybe I need to rub two sticks together, really hard and fast. I saw it on the television. It makes a spark on something really, really dry and then you have to blow on it real gentle until there’s a flame, and then you feed the flame into the wood.”

“Sounds too complicated.” Fred complained. “Don’t you have any matches?”

“No. Of course not. I have no reason to burn anything.”

“I say we forget the fire. We can just cuddle.”

“Oh, Fred. Stop being so fresh, and foolish. I’m a young woman and you’re a cat. I have no romantic interest in you at all.”

“Whaaat? I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m a cat and I happen to like warm places. If you know what I mean.”

“There it is again, Fred!”

“What?”

“Those… Those sexual innuendos you keep dropping. It makes me uncomfortable and I wish you would stop!”

“All right, all right,” Fred said softly. “I’m sorry. It’s just me being me. I talk like that with everyone. You know. I’m a fun cat.”

Linnifrid crossed her arms and looked down at him. “I think you should sleep outside the shelter tonight. Better yet, why don’t you just run off and hunt or whatever cats do in the middle of the night.”

Fred looked down at the ground and somehow he felt very hurt inside. “Oh. I understand. You just want to be alone, or maybe you have a human boyfriend.”

“It isn’t that, Fred. You just kind of creep me out… When you talk like that. I don’t like it all.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

“What’s that?”

“Are you still a virgin?”

Linnifrid grew angry and her face flushed to the color of an apple. “That’s none of your business! How dare you ask me such a question.”

“I’m just curious. I thought you might be experienced and could tell me some things, very detailed things.”

“That’s it! I don’t want to be friends with you anymore. You’re a vile creature I must say. Simply vile! Now get out of here before I throw a rock at you.”

Linnifrid reached down, palmed a stone, and then threatened him with it. “Leave me alone!” She threw the stone and it landed with a thump, barely missing the cat’s head. Fred jumped, his ears went back, and his fur unfurled, making him look more like a porcupine than a simple, dirty-minded feral cat of the wild lands.

“Go!” Linnifrid yelled. “Go or I swear I might cook you for supper!”

Fred calmed and looked at her. “Fine. I’ll go. Good luck finding your stupid horse, and of course, be safe tonight. Lots of things happen in the night.”


The cat turned and walked away, and it didn’t take long for him to disappear like a ghost among the grasses and the dips of the land.

Linnifrid was glad to be rid of him, she thought as she laid out the last of the boughs across the top of her shelter. She sat down on the ground near the fire she managed to make. Seems she was so mad at Fred the cat that she was able to muster up enough friction between those two sticks to birth a spark. Now she felt safer as the dark grew deeper. She’s seen many a night skies, but the one that night was darker than any other dark she could ever remember.

She held her arms close to her body and gently rocked back and forth on the ground. The orange flames were clean and crisp and somewhat see-through. She thought about her Papa and how that it was his great wish for when he passed that he be turned to ash and scattered somewhere out on the farm. He had always said to her that the wind would steer his next boat.

Linnifrid was hungry, but she had nothing to eat. Her stomach grumbled. “I would give anything for a steaming pot pie right now,” she moaned aloud to the flames and the darkness. “I can just imagine the flaky crust, the creamy gravy, the crisp garden-fresh vegetables.”

Then she heard something move in the grass. A twig snapped. Then there was a voice. “I think you’ve lost your mind,” someone said through the air.

Linnifrid jumped to her feet. “Who’s there? Who’s out there!?”

“Why it’s me. Your beloved horse, Bucky.”

“Bucky!” Linnifrid yelled. “Is that really you?”

The horse stepped into the glow of the fire and smiled at her. “It is indeed me. I’m so glad I found you.”

TO BE CONTINUED


Bucky the Horse and the Gods of Radiation (4)

The girl and the man waded through rumpled meadows as they headed toward the lake. The sky was full of sun and a blue-white light. Papa began to sweat, and he wiped at his brow with his forearm and stopped.

Linnifrid looked at him, concerned. “Papa? Are you feeling all right?”

The man who was too old for his age was panting like a bear in Death Valley. “Just let me rest for a minute. I have to catch my breath.”

Linnifrid helped him to the ground where he slumped in the grass. “Papa,” Linnifrid began as she nuzzled up close to him there. “You’re not acting right. Are you sure you’re okay?”

It was then the man winced and clutched at his arm. The sweat was pouring down his face and dripping into his pained-looking mouth. “I can’t breathe very well,” he mumbled, and then another jolt of pain shot through his arm and chest and he laid down flat.

Linnifrid screamed, “Papa!” She rested her head on his chest and there was no beating heart in there. She put her ear to his mouth and felt for breath but there was none there. The girl touched his clammy face and it had already begun to turn cold. She tried to hold his hand up but it just slumped back down to his side.

Now Linnifrid cried as she kneeled there beside her dead father. She cried and cried and cried for a long time and then the sky was grayed over, and the clouds up above began to softly rumble. She looked down at the man and didn’t know what to do. A girl her size could never lift such a large man. Maybe she could drag him to the church and set him down on the stairs and leave a note attached to him while she left to look for Bucky. The rain started to fall lightly and so she went to work covering her father’s body with long grass and tree boughs until he could no longer be seen. “I’ll be back for your body, Papa. I promise. Then we can have a proper burial for you.”

The girl took one last look at him and then walked away in the direction they had been heading. Even the cool rain wouldn’t keep her from getting to the pub by the lake in hopes of finding Bucky. She was a very determined young lady. Determined yes, but she was still afraid of things — most especially the far distant laughter rolling on the waves of the air all around her head. She stopped and strained her ears to listen. There was nothing but the sound of the wind, the gentle patter of the rain, and some far off unattended drilling. She whipped her head around and saw that the same wind was blowing the coverings from her father’s body and scattering them all about. She sighed and turned away, and then kept on walking.


Linnifrid reached the crest of the hill that overlooked the long shimmering lake and the pub that sat near its far shore near a shaded cove. The red metal roof glistened, now that the sun made another appearance. The girl saw the car sitting out front, the car with the dead man she was presently so unaware of.  She glanced over the edge and then leapt down. When she landed, she slipped and flew down the side of the hill on her backside. She came to an abrupt stop and twirled when her legs met the gravel of the road.

Linnifrid looked around to see if there were any people who may have seen her circus act. But of course, she was being foolish; there were no other people around. There were never any other people around. She got to her feet and brushed off her cornflower blue dress and wiped away the pebbles from her knees and the backs of her calves. There was some blood, and she wet a finger and ran it across one of the scrapes and then stuck it in her mouth. “Everyone likes the taste of their own blood,” she softly said to herself. She pushed her raven flying hair back and looked straight up the road. The girl began walking with purpose, but then the heat blossomed once more, and she began to drag. She wiped at the forehead beaded with sweat. And then someone said something.

“Hey you. What are you doing around here? Shouldn’t you be home playing with dolls?”

Linnifrid startled, whipping her head around in all directions to see who it may be. “Who’s there!?” she cried out. “Please don’t scare me. I’m just a young woman all alone looking for her horse.”

“A horse, you say?” the voice came again. “Why, I was just talking to a horse earlier today.”

It was then that Linnifrid saw the great tree just ahead and off the road a bit. She moved toward it carefully and wondered. “Was it you that just said something?”

“Yes, it was,” the tree answered, and Linnifrid was shocked. “I don’t believe it. How can you talk? You’re just a tree.”

“Believe me, I hear that all the time,” the tree grumbled. “I don’t understand why you mammals think you’re so superior. Your species is so egotistical.”

“I don’t care about that,” Linnifrid snipped. “Did you see my horse today?”

“Well, I did see a horse. But I don’t know if it was your horse.”

“What did he look like?”

The tree thought about it hard. He was an old tree and his memory wasn’t as sharp as it used to be.

Linnifrid grew impatient. “Well?”

“He was a big horse, I know that.”

“What color was he?”

The tree scratched at the bark above his eyes. “I’m pretty sure he was brown. Yes, he was brown.”

“That sounds like Bucky. Where did he go?”

“He went to the pub,” the tree said, and he pointed with a twig at the end of one of his branches.

“Thank you,” Linnifrid said, and she began to trot away.

“Wait!” the tree called out. “Just so you know… There’s a dead guy in that car over there.”

Linnifrid scrunched her face. “Eww. Why would you tell me something so horrible?”

“I thought you might want to take a look.”

“No I don’t want to look. I’m trying to find my horse. I don’t have time to look at dead bodies!”

Linnifrid shook her head and huffed before turning and continuing on to the pub. The door was open, and she went in. The place smelled like booze, she thought, and then she stepped in something sticky. “Bucky,” she called out through an opening that led into a long room with a pool table; not a green one, but a red one. “Bucky?” There was no answer and Linnifrid was disheartened, and she walked back out into the sunlight and didn’t know where to go next. Maybe, she thought, he went to the lake for a drink of water. She decided that was her next best move — walking along the shoreline of the lake. The beach was narrow and rocky and when she touched the water it felt cold and somewhat greasy. She looked deep down the shoreline to scan for Bucky. He would surely stand out against the background of the world, she thought. He was a horse, and a horse would be easy to spot.

TO BE CONTINUED


Bucky the Horse and the Gods of Radiation (3)

The air was dead still and full of natural carnage. Papa shielded his eyes from the strange bright light with a worn hand. He moved his head against the horizon and surveyed the landscape — everything was wiped clean. He turned and yelled down the cellar.

“The barn is gone, and all my new fencing, too.”

“Can I come up?” Linnifrid called out from beyond a veil of invisibility.

“Yes.”

The girl poked her head up into the light. “Oh my, such destruction. Do you think Bucky is all right?”

He answered her without looking at her, his eyes still glued to the land. “Oh yeah. He’s all right. Animals have a sense about these things. Though… I can’t say he’s anywhere near now. I’m afraid you’ll just have to let nature takes its course.”

Linnifrid stepped completely out of the cellar entrance and stood toe-to-toe with her Pa and looked up into his steel-colored eyes. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying? You expect me to just let him go like that?”

“Be realistic, girl. That horse is probably miles from here now. And look at this place. I’m afraid there’s too much work to be done around here and I need your help. He may find his way back.”

“Sometimes you can be a cruel man,” Linnifrid steamed.

“Watch that now, girl. You’re not too old for a whipping.”

“Go ahead and whip me then. But it will have to wait until I get back from looking for Bucky!”

Linnifrid stomped off in the direction of an unrecognizable horizon and Papa called after her. “Now what do you think you’re doing, young lady?”

She turned and pouted. “I’m going to look for my horse.”

The man who felt old sighed. “Hold on. I won’t let you go alone. But we’re not going to spend all day doing this.”

Linnifrid brightened. “Thank you, Papa. Where do you think we should look first?”

The man scratched at his head and looked off into the distance. “We may be right to try down at the pub by the lake first. You know how that horse likes to drink.”

“That’s a good idea, Papa, but which way?”

Papa scanned the horizon, looked back at the house, and then his eyes moved to the never ever lands again. He pointed a shaky finger out into the air. “That way,” he said.


Bucky saw that the pub inside was dim and quiet as he nudged the door open and stepped inside. “Hello? Is anyone here?”

There was nothing at first, but then a cat jumped up onto the bar with a screech, startling Bucky a bit. “Hello there, Mr. cat,” Bucky said as he drew closer. “What are you doing in here?”

The cat’s eyes glowed wide as it studied the looming animal before him. “What do you want?” the cat hissed.

“To tell you the truth, I could really use a drink. Do you think you could pour me a beer or two or sixteen?”

The cat grinned. “Well, I’m no bartender, but I suppose I could try.” The cat got up on its back two legs and pulled down a mug from a rack above him. “This big enough?” the cat asked.

Bucky shook his head in approval.

“What kind of ale do you want?” The cat asked him.

“What kind do you have?”

The cat scanned the bar. “I don’t know. I can’t read. But there’s a white one, a blue one, and a red one.

Bucky thought about it for a moment. “Red,” he squarely said. “I’ll have the red one.”

“Ok,” the cat grinned, and it strategically worked a paw to pull on the red handle. Out came the beer, missing the glass and running onto the floor. “Damn it,” the cat said. “I’m just not coordinated enough to get it in the glass.”

Bucky leaned his head over the bar and looked around. “I have an idea,” he said. “Yank the tap handles and let the beer spill all over the floor. I’ll just lap it up.”

“That’s pretty smart, horse,” the cat said, grinning some more, and then he pulled the handles and the beer began to flow like a river all over the back of the bar. Bucky smiled, came around the corner and started drinking at the growing pool of ale.

“I’m getting in on that action,” the cat purred, and then it jumped down into the beer pond and began to move its tongue furiously until its fur began to swell.

After the horse and the cat got nice and drunk, they went outside and rested in a field of grass. The yellow of the sky was somewhat fading and there were now growing patches of pale blue. The cat looked up, and then over at Bucky. “Hey, horse. Are you married?”

Bucky sighed. “Don’t be ridiculous. How can a horse get married? Are you married?”

“Well, no. I’m not married. I just thought that with you being such a fine looking horse you’d surely have a wife.”

“I don’t have a wife. But I have met up with a lot of female horses, and well, provided services, if you know what I mean.”

“Huh? You mean you have a lot of girlfriends?”

“Yes. Something like that,” Bucky boasted.

The cat scratched at its head with a wet paw. “Then you’re sort of like a polygamist.”

“A poly –ga-what?”

“A polygamist.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Bucky wanted to know.

“You know, those guys who take on a handful of wives. They live in the desert, I think.”

Bucky scrunched his face and blinked in the emerging sunlight. “I’ve never heard of such a thing. It sounds illegal.”

“I’m just saying. Your life is sort of like that.”

“It isn’t anything like that. Maybe you should just stop talking for a while.” Then Bucky tried to change the subject. “Did you know that tree over there is stuffed full of money?”

The cat’s eyes widened. “Really? How do you know?”

“The tree told me. He can talk.”

The cat eyed the horse suspiciously. “You’re drunk and full of shit. Trees can’t talk, even I know that.”

“Well, he talked to me. Just before I went into the pub.”

“Oh yeah? Then prove it.”

“All right, foolish cat. It’s right over there.”

The two got up from their spots on the grass, crossed a wide gravel road to the other side, and went down along the very edge of the wooded wild lands until they reached the tree.

“Well,” Bucky beamed. “There it is.”

The cat went to the base of the tree and sniffed. It slowly circled the tree and looked it up and down. “It’s just a tree, you damn fool.”

“No, no. He can talk. He can really talk!”

Bucky moved closer and butted his nose against the spot on the trunk where the face used to be. “Hello?” he mumbled. “Mr. Tree. Are you in there?”

The cat shook his head at him as if he were a complete fool. “Have you ever had brain surgery?”

Bucky turned to him. “No. My brain is perfectly fine. Perhaps it’s the wrong tree.”

The horse carefully examined the tree all the way around. Then he saw all the carvings and was relieved to know that he wasn’t that crazy. “Ah hah,” Bucky said. “See these? These are the exact same carvings the tree had me take a look at. The exact same ones! See, I was right.”

“But the tree still isn’t talking,” the cat said with a shifty snark.

“Maybe he’s sleeping. He’s an old tree, he’s probably tired.”

“And where’s all this money?” the cat asked.

Bucky moved his eyes up through the wayward branches, but no matter how hard he looked he could not see the opening that used to be there, the opening where all that money was. “It was here. I swear it was here.”

The cat seemed disappointed and started to walk away. Bucky called after him. “Wait. Where are you going?”

“I’m going to suck up some more suds from the floor of that dirty pub. I have a great life. See you around, horse.”

Bucky watched as the cat wandered off and then it disappeared beyond the door of the bar. He felt sad and puzzled and somewhat tricked. He worked to try to make his mind make some sense of it, but no matter how hard he tried, his head was all fuzzy.

“I’m getting old,” Bucky said to himself and the empty space around him. “There’s no more use for a horse like me in this world anymore.” He looked straight into the wind and wiggled his ears. Then he walked off and went through the curtain leading to the wild woodlands and vanished.

TO BE CONTINUED


Bucky the Horse and the Gods of Radiation (2)

Bucky carefully stepped out of a low hollow in a meadow and looked around. His glossy brown eyes surveyed the land, and he was crushed to see all the damage. He sniffed the air and it smelled like old metal in dampness. With everything so flattened, his sense of direction was out of whack — then he remembered the old pub by the lake, and he started out in that direction, as best as he could guess, hoping the place was still in one piece.

He trotted on slowly and carefully and the world seemed entirely vacant. There was a subtle settling of dirt and dust in the air and it made the horse sneeze a few times. Bucky saw no other signs of life except for a few wayward birds with no real understanding of what happened below. He was hoping for some sort of neon miracle on the horizon, and it was a long time before he came to a narrow crest and looked down upon the lake — a haphazard shape of utter confusion and jaggedness.

The pub was still there at the southern end and so Bucky picked up the gravel road below and followed it. Everything was eerily still and the air was the color of diluted pollution. As the horse drew nearer to the pub, he noticed there was a dirty beat-up old car resting out front. He went up from behind to see if he could detect a body inside behind the wheel. Someone was in there, but because the light was so askew Bucky couldn’t make out much except that it seemed to be a man. He carefully stepped to the front of the car and peered in through the cracked windshield. Whoever it was sitting there in the car, they weren’t alive, Bucky could tell that much.

The horse looked around and then poked the tip of his nose inside the driver-side window and sniffed at the figure. He nudged the man but of course there was no movement. Bucky looked over the rest of the car and noticed there was a lot of trash — mostly fast-food bags and beer bottles. The ashtray in the dash was overflowing with cigarette butts and there was a pile of dirty clothes in the passenger seat. Bucky pulled his head out because the smell was just getting to be too much.

“Gross,” Bucky said aloud, and then some birds above him in a tree squawked in agreement. “People can be so disgusting at times,” the horse said to an old tree standing in the hay beside the road.

“They sure as hell are,” the tree replied with a sarcastic sneer. “You’re lucky though, you can at least walk away if they start getting on your nerves. I’m stuck right here, forever, and I got to listen to all their bullshit talk all the time. Especially on Saturday nights when they come pouring out of the pub right there all drunk and obnoxious. Hey, horse. Come around here and look at my backside.”

“What?” Bucky said, puzzled as puzzled as a horse can be. “You want me to look at your… ass?”

“I don’t mind tree huggers, but I draw the line at ass lookers… No, you dumb horse, take a gander at how much I’ve gotten carved up over the years. I imagine there are a ton of goofy love hearts and chick’s names back there, but I can’t really see so you have to tell me.”

Bucky went around to the rear of the tree and looked at the bark. It was covered as high as a human could reach down to the base with symbols of foolish love. “Does it hurt when they carve on you?”

“No, it feels great! What do you think?”

Bucky swept his eyes over the carvings one more time. “I suppose it’s something like getting tattooed, right?”

“How the hell would I know,” the tree whined.

“You’re not a very nice tree. In fact I think you are quite crabby. You wouldn’t happen to be a crabapple tree, would you?”

“A crabapple tree? That’s ridiculous and I am somewhat offended by that. I happen to be an Amur corktree.”

“I never heard of that kind of tree. It sounds made up,” Bucky said.

“Well,” the tree stammered. “What do you know? You’re just a horse. How could you possibly know anything about trees? If I was a bucket of oats perhaps, then maybe you’d be able to offer some intelligence to this conversation.”

Bucky turned his head and looked over at the pub. “I’m going for a beer,” he said to the tree. “I’ll try not to bother you on my way out.”

“Wait!” the tree demanded. “Aren’t you a bit curious about the dead man in the car?”

Bucky had started walking but then stopped. His ears pricked up and he turned his head. “What do you know about him?” the horse asked. “Did you do something to this poor old soul?”

“No! Of course not. How could I possibly kill a human being? I’m a tree for crying out loud. I can’t even walk. Can’t you see I’m attached to the ground, permanently?”

Bucky found his argument to be logical and so he scratched him off the list of possible suspects that he had started in his brain. “I suppose you’re right about that. Well, then it must have been one of the bar patrons. Maybe there was a fight inside? They came out and the fight continued and one of the fellows pulled a bowie knife and stabbed the other in the guts. Am I right?”

“No, you are not right. In fact you’re way off. It wasn’t an act of animalistic violence. Did you see any wounds on the body of the deceased?”

Bucky thought about it. “No. I didn’t see anything but his lousy gray face.”

“And what makes you so sure he didn’t just die of natural causes? Why do you mammals always assume death is caused by violence? There are many, many other ways a mammal could die.”

Bucky bowed his head and scraped at the ground, feeling somewhat embarrassed by his inability to keep up with the tree’s powerful wisdom. “I didn’t think of that,” the horse grumbled. “But what makes you so special that you think you know everything?”


The tree’s branches creaked as he spread them out like arms in a manner of instruction. “Mr. Horse, how long do you expect to live?”

“What?”

“How long do you expect to live?”

“I… I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it.”

“Then I’ll tell you… You’re going to only live about thirty years.”

Bucky’s cocoa bar colored eyes widened at the sound of that. “What? Only thirty years? Well… That’s terrible and I think you are wrong. You’re making it all up to frighten me.”

The tree folded his branches in front of his trunk and sneered at the dumb horse. “I’m afraid I am very correct, my dear horse friend. Don’t get too excited about the future because you won’t have much of one. On the other hand, I can expect to live up to 100 years, that’s a century.”

Bucky squinted his eyes and squished his brain as he thought up something clever to say. “At least during my lifetime I can walk around and go different places. I can see the whole damn world if I want to. You’re just stuck in the same place, day after day after day. You can’t go anywhere, and you have to look at the same damn scenery every day. I tell you what; if I was a tree I’d shoot myself in the face.”

“Be careful what you wish for, dear horse. A bullet may be the end of you yet.”

“Oh what the hell do you know? You’re just a crazy old tree. You’ve been sitting in the same spot for so long that you’ve lost your mind.”

The tree twirled his twig tips against each other and grinned. “Maybe I’m a bit insane that is true, but at least I don’t have to worry about dying at thirty years of age.”

“Shut up!” Bucky snorted. “I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

“But wait! I still haven’t told you what happened to the dead man.”

Bucky huffed and glanced back at the tree again. “So hurry up and tell me. What happened to him?”

“I bored him to death.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He came to get a drink here at the pub, just like you, but he never made it inside. I kept talking and talking to him and I just wouldn’t allow him to depart. Oh yes he tried, but seeing that most mammals have a hard time saying no, he felt obligated to stick around and listen to me. He eventually grew tired and sat down in his car but I managed to draw his attention for several more hours, well into the evening and even to the crack of dawn. When the morning fog lifted a bit, I could see he was slumped over and not moving at all.”

Bucky motor-boated his mouth. “You’re being ridiculous. He probably had a heart attack. And why would you even admit, and even seem proud, that you bored someone to death? Don’t you have any self-esteem?”

The tree stroked at his face bark with his twig tips and felt stumped. (Do you get it? Stumped. You know, because he’s a tree). “I have plenty of time to build my self-esteem,” he gloated.

Bucky drew as close to the tree as he could and spoke into his face. “But what if someone comes and cuts you down? I suspect you’re a non-native species, and you know what that means, right?”

“What!? What does it mean?”

“It means they’re going to try to… Eradicate you.”

“No! They can’t do that! I’m a very important and beautiful tree!”

“I bet whoever does do the deed will use a nasty old chainsaw … Bzzzzz … Right through your guts.”

“Stop it, horse! I demand you stop speaking to me like this!”

Bucky shook his head at the tree and grinned before turning away and walking down the path toward the front door of the pub.

“Hold on now, horse!” the tree yelled out. “How do you expect to get a beer if there’s no bartender?”

Bucky turned to look at the dead man in the car.

“That’s right, horse. There isn’t anyone to pour a drink for you,” the tree teased. “You have hooves. You’re screwed!”

“I also have a brain. I’m sure I’ll be able to figure something out.”

“Oh really?” the tree sneered. “I’ll bet you one million dollars that you can’t pour your own ale.”

“And where in the world would you get one million dollars?”

“Can I tell you a secret?”

“Yes?”

“Come closer. That’s good. So the secret is… Many, many years ago, a farmer who lived just up over that hill, well, he came right to me and he climbed up a ways on me, and you know what he did?”

“What?”

“Well, see that opening a bit of a ways up my trunk?”

Bucky looked and he saw a wide crack in the tree that looked like a sideways mouth worn by time. “Yes.”

“The farmer put a sack of money in there, and over the years he came every so often and put more and more money in there. One day he just stopped coming. He hasn’t been here in a very long time and no one else ever went up there to retrieve the money. It’s still there. Lots of it.”

Bucky scrunched his face in disbelief. “I have no need for money, tree. Just forget about your stupid bet.”

“You think I’m lying?”

“Of course you are. Everyone is a liar. Everyone is a back-stabbing liar!”

“Fine, suit yourself. Go fetch your beer and leave me alone. I have no need for a grumbling horse in my life.”

TO BE CONTINUED


ENTER YOUR EMAIL BELOW TO FOLLOW CEREAL AFTER SEX AND RECEIVE UPDATES. THANKS FOR SUPPORTING INDEPENDENT WRITERS.