A collection of 13 short stories and 1 Novelette ranging from the commonplace to the bizarre. This collection showcases a wide range of David Kubicek's storytelling including contemporary, science fiction, and horror. Following each story is the author’s commentary on how it came to be written.
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"David Kubicek deals with the most profound of emotions, betrayal in a small community, and does so wonderfully." - Lincoln Journal Star, 1988, reviewing "Ball of Fire."
"Ball of Fire:" Jill Tanner's UFO sighting makes her a laughingstock in this small farming community - until everyone starts having close encounters of the weird kind.
"What's Wrong With Being a Nurse?:" Many children want to be police officers, firefighters, doctors, or nurses when they grow up. Why does Chris's seven-year-old daughter Suzy want to be a human sacrifice?
"A Friend of the Family:" In a desolate future where doctors have been replaced by Healers who practice primitive treatments like bleeding, one medical man risks his freedom to help a member of a Healer's family.
"The Moaning Rocks:" Is the old legend about death coming to town just a story? George Winterholm is about to find out.
...and 10 other tales ranging from the commonplace to the bizarre. Following each story is the author's commentary on how it came to be written.
Sam sits on the edge of the bed. He cradles his infant daughter in his arms and gazes down at her face. Irene relaxes against the hospital-fresh pillows. She smiles up at father and daughter. The infant’s face crumples. She opens her mouth and wails, a steady, high-pitched wail that grows louder as Sam stares transfixed into the black hole of her mouth, expanding as if to swallow him, Irene, and the sterile room…
Sam jerked awake, cold sweat drying on his face. His stomach was heavy with the oatmeal he’d eaten for breakfast. A cup of cold coffee and cream with a light scum on top sat on the table beside him. He was in his recliner in the living room, and it was twenty-eight years later. Mary lived with her husband Phil and her daughter Sammi half a continent away. And Irene … Irene was gone.
But the steady, high-pitched wail continued, soon joined by two other sirens from different parts of town. The first had been the air-raid siren on top of city hall; the others were on the high school and the middle school. He snapped the footrest down and sat up. The newspaper slipped off his lap. He glanced down at the headline:
Mid-east talks break down—tempers flare
Cold fingers gripped his heart.
“Oh, no,” he said.
The kitchen sink croaked. The furnace blower came on, spewing lukewarm air that smelled of parched dust from the floor register behind his chair.
“No. It’s not possible.”
Sam pushed himself up, grunting at the sharp twinge in his lower back. He headed for the picture window, walking slightly stooped, working the stiffness out with each step. Prospect Street looked normal for a Monday morning. The sun flashed through the fall-colored leaves of the ash tree in Tremains’s back yard. Pruitt’s Siamese cat, Teddy, strolled purposefully across the street a few houses down. A tricycle lay on its side by the Hoffmans’s front walk.
Then doors opened, and Sam’s neighbors came out. They went down off their porches and stood in their driveways and on sidewalks and in the street and looked south toward the business district.
Sam took his blue denim jacket and gray cap from the hall closet and went out. The siren shrilling was all around them. The neighbors who were at home were out now—homemakers, the retired, second or third shift workers, and children who were home sick or who were too young for school. Even old man Haney, who lived in the three-story frame house with the wrap-around porch on the corner, was out. Some neighbors listened and stared toward downtown. Others talked in low whispers among themselves.
“Maybe it’s a tornado,” someone said.
“Can’t be. There’s not a cloud in the sky.”
“Besides, the signal for a tornado’s low and steady.”
“Of course. It happened back in ’98.”
“Maybe it’s a test.”
“They test it on Thursdays.”
A sudden wind swept a shower of golden-red leaves rattling down the street like many tiny footsteps. The air was cold and smelled of hickory wood smoke. The sun hung like a dull copper penny above the ash tree in Tremains’s back yard.
“I’m going to call Harold at work,” Mrs. Appleby said to Sam.
“I wouldn’t worry,” Sam said. “Somebody probably just touched the button by mistake.”
Mrs. Appleby twisted her apron. Flour filled in the cracked skin on her knuckles and smudged her forehead where she’d brushed a loose strand of hair out of her eyes.
“Harold will know what’s happening.”
“Did anyone turn on the TV?” Al Peters called from across the street.
“I was watching The Waltons,” Mrs. Lefler said, “but they didn’t interrupt to make an announcement.”
The wailing slowed, deepened, seemed to engulf the town. Then it faded away. Silence hung like a shroud over Carson Corners, Nebraska, population 5,385. Falling leaves ticked on the street and on the sidewalk and on the grass. An acorn plummeted through the crackling dry branches of a pin oak tree and bounced on the sidewalk.
“It’s stopped,” someone said.
“I’m going to call Harold at work,” Mrs. Appleby said.
She hurried up her sidewalk and into the house. Then, up and down the street, the sounds of rushing footsteps on cement and grass and the hollow sound of feet tromping up wooden porch steps, the banging of screen doors. Sam shivered. He looked up into the cold sky. High above, a bird circled, twittering. Prospect Street was like a desert—quiet, lifeless, waiting.
Sitting in his living room, his big leathery hands wrapped around a mug of Folger’s instant coffee, as if trying to draw its warmth into his body. He watched the CNN reporter on the big twenty-four inch RCA TV he’d bought shortly before Irene had died.
The reporter said that Iran and several other Islamic nations had demanded immediate withdraw of all western troops from the Middle East. When the U.S. ambassador had stated that their request was impossible at this time, they had walked out of the peace talks. After that, government sources had dried up, so CNN correspondents were able only to obtain sketchy information about what happened. Middle Eastern population centers appeared to be shifting, as though those nations were preparing for war—and some of them were suspected of having nuclear weapons.
Sam’s coffee grew cold as he listened and tried to make sense of what he heard.
At 10:20 a.m., the neighborhood came alive again. Cars buzzed down the street and turned into driveways, and men and women got out. Some pulled children along by their hands. They talked to one another and shouted and went into houses and slammed doors. Then the rest of the children came running home from school.
A bittersweet loneliness settled into Sam. He missed Mary, far away in California with her family, and he missed Irene and Danny, both long gone. He felt as though this was a dream. He would wake up, and everything would be the way it had been.
Sam drank down his cold coffee and went to make another cup.
At 10:55, he put on his jacket and cap and stepped out on the front porch. He watched his neighbors scurrying about, heaving their belongings into vans and cars and trucks. Books. Pots and Pans. Silverware. Cushions. Dishes. CD players. An old lamp. A guitar. A tricycle. Stacks of magazines. Computers. A box of pencil stubs that Mary Jane Welk had saved for thirty years in case they ever came in handy. All of these things went into cars and station wagons and vans and pickup trucks. A fourteen-foot U-Haul truck was backing into the Tremains’s driveway.
Leaves crackled under Sam’s shoes as he moved across the street to the Appleby house. Sweating, Harold Appleby tried to fit a box of dishes into the already tightly-packed Plymouth Voyager van.
“What’s going on, Hal?” Sam asked.”
“It’s war,” Appleby grunted, trying to force the box in. “Damn Muslims are trying to blow us all to hell.”
“Are they sure?” Sam said.
Appleby looked at Sam.
“Of course they’re sure. What kind of question is that? Wouldn’t put it on TV if they weren’t sure.”
The box slipped. Dishes spilled out and crashed to the ground.
“Shit.” Appleby kicked the dishes and scattered them. “Goddamn.”
Mrs. Appleby and her son, Ricky, came out with armloads of their possessions.
“I told you we don’t have room for that,” Appleby said.
He snatched his son’s skateboard and hurled it to the sidewalk. It scraped along the concrete onto the grass.
Ricky clenched his fists and glared at his father. Mrs. Appleby didn’t say anything. She looked scared.
“We’ve got to leave, Sam,” Appleby said. “You get what you need, and we’ll make room for you.”
“What?” Ricky said. “You throw my skateboard—”
Appleby cuffed him on the side of the head.
“You think this is a game? Go get another box. Move!”
Ricky tromped up the steps into the house and slammed the door.
“Where are you going?” Sam asked.
“North,” Appleby said. “Get as far away from Bellevue and any other airbase we can. We talked about it in the town meeting, remember?”
That had been so many years ago that Sam had almost forgotten. The Soviet Union had been the big threat then. Irene and Danny had been alive, and Mary had been home and still in school.
“You better get your things together, Sam, ‘cause we’re pulling out by one.”
Sam looked at his house. Ten years ago, a police officer had rung the doorbell at 2:00 a.m. and had told him and Irene that their son had been killed in motorcycle accident just west of Lincoln. Seven years ago, in that house, they’d held a wedding reception for Mary. And in that house nearly six years ago Irene had died. Only the night before, Irene and Sam had been reminiscing about how they’d met and how happy they’d been in Carson Corners, and they’d talked about how big of a hole Danny’s death had left in their lives. Irene had been very happy that night and looking forward to their trip to California at Christmas to see Mary and Phil. They’d drunk hot chocolate and stayed up talking until after 11:00 p.m. In the morning he couldn’t wake her.
“Sam, are you listening? Sam?”
Sam’s mouth was dry.
“I’m going inside for a while, Hal. I’m going to think.”
“Think? Who has time to think? We’ve got to go.”
“I’ll talk to you later, Hal.”
Sam drifted away toward his porch.
“Jesus H. Christ, Sam, c’mon. This is World War Three we’re talking about.”
Sam raised his hand without turning. He crossed the street and went up the steps, and his footsteps sounded hollow on the porch floor.
The house was warm and smelled of that familiar odor a house develops which is characteristic to it alone. The smell changed with the house’s occupants. At one time it had been a Sam and Irene and Danny and Mary smell. The kids’s bathing suits hanging in the bathroom had contributed to the smell. So had the toad the young Danny had kept in a pail of garden soil in his bedroom. The incense Mary had burned late into the night when she was a teenager. The bread Irene baked sometimes on Fridays, and the cinnamon rolls she baked for Christmas morning breakfast, the potpourri she put in their dresser drawers. The smell of this house had altered over the years as each of them had gone away. Now only the Sam smell remained—the new living room carpet put in three years ago, the wood dust from his workshop in the basement, the instant coffee in his cup with thin ribbons of steam curling toward the ceiling.
Sam hung up his jacket and cap. He closed his eyes and rubbed them. If he shut out the sounds from outdoors—the yelling back and forth, the running feet and slamming doors, and the cursing as his neighbors tried to force boxes of personal belongings into vehicles already packed full—it was easy to imagine that nothing had changed, that this was still the same house, the same quiet community, that it always had been.
Sam went into the kitchen and made himself a cup of coffee. It was his forth cup since waking up that morning. Irene had tried to persuade him to give up coffee or at least switch to decaf. He hadn’t seen much sense in drinking coffee at all if it didn’t have caffeine in it, but he had agreed to cut down. Then she had died, and cutting down hadn’t seemed important after that.
Sam turned on the television but could find only emergency information. The commentators repeated things Sam already had heard. It depressed him, so he turned it off.
His heart ached to hear Mary’s voice.
He left his coffee mug on the stand beside his recliner and went into the dining room. He sat down at the antique roll-top desk in the corner beside the wall phone. It had been so long since he’d called Mary that he had to look up her number in a yellow spiral-bound notebook in the desk. He wrote her occasionally, but his letters were short. He never could think of much to say in a letter. He was always thinking that he should call her, but he never got around to it. It was usually Mary who initiated the calls.
Funny, Sam thought, how you think you have all the time in the world to talk to your children then suddenly there is no more time.
Slowly, hesitantly, Sam dialed Mary’s number in Los Angeles. The phone trilled in his ear. After the fourth ring, there was a click, and the answering machine picked up. In a fairly good imitation of Peter Lorre as a mad scientist, Phil’s voice said:
“Good evening. Mary, Phil, and Sammi can’t come to the phone right now because they are all tied up”—a few beats of creepy laughter—“but if you leave your name, number, and perhaps a brief message, I’m sure they would be glad to return your call if….when they are able.”
The message ended with more creepy laughter followed by a beep.
“This is Papa,” Sam said. He waited, growing cold. “Are you there?” No one answered. “Call me as soon as you can.”
When he returned to the living room, his coffee was cold. He carried it to the kitchen and poured it down the drain.
For lunch Sam ate a can of sardines and a sweet roll and washed them down with a fresh cup of coffee. He tried listening to the radio but only emergency information was on, so he turned it off.
At 1:03 p.m., an engine cranked across the street. From his front window Sam watched the Hoffmans’s drive away. Their Jeep Cherokee scattered dry leaves and left a dissipating exhaust cloud behind it. He stared down the street long after the car had disappeared and the sound of its engine had faded. Then he put on his jacket and cap and went out.
Sam walked through the neighborhood saying good-bye to his neighbors. They were busy, but they all took a few minutes to talk to him as they crammed what possessions they could take with them into their vehicles.
“You ready to go, Sam?” Dick Winchester asked.
Sam shook his head.
“Thought I’d stay for a while.”
“Don’t wait too long,” Dick said. “Won’t be anyone left in town by three o’clock. How about riding with us?”
“Thanks, Dick, but—”
“We’ll be leaving in half an hour, so get some things together, and we’ll pick you up.”
“You go ahead, Dick. I’ll be fine.”
It was the same everywhere. He would shake the men’s hands and tousle the children’s hair. Some of the women would hug him. Then he would stand quietly on the walk and watch his neighbors prepare to leave.
As Sam was returning home, the Brittenham boys ran up.
“Guess what, Sam?” Billy said.
“Old man Haney’s croaked,” Todd said.
Billy shoved his brother.
“I was going to tell him. It’s my turn.”
“Ain’t neither. Next time is.”
Sam looked down the street to Haney’s big house on the corner. He realized that he hadn’t seen Mr. Haney since that morning when he’d come out on his front porch to listen to the sirens.
“How?” Sam asked. “How’d he die?”
“You be quiet,” Billy said to his brother. “I’ll tell him.”
“Both of you tell me,” Sam said. “Take turns.”
“Dad went to ask Old Man Haney if he had a ride…” Billy said.
“…but he didn’t answer the door…” Todd said.
“…but the door was open…” Billy said.
“…so Dad went in…” Todd said.
“…and found Old Man Haney dead…” Billy said.
“…hung himself with an extension cord …” Todd said.
Billy shoved his brother.
“That was the important part. I was ‘sposed to tell him that.”
“You both did a great job,” Sam said absently.
His knees felt like water. He remembered how Mr. Haney and his wife, Ethel, had brought Irene and himself some homemade cranberry muffins to welcome them to the neighborhood when they’d moved here thirty years ago. Mr. Haney and his wife had been middle-aged then. Ethel had been dead for twelve years, and their only son, Marvin, lived with his family in Connecticut. Mr. Haney was the only one of his current neighbors who had lived on Prospect Street when he and Irene had moved into the neighborhood.
With a trembling hand, Sam reached into his jacket pocket and brought out a few pieces of hard peppermint candy. He thought of how Mr. Haney would sit on the bench on his front porch, and the neighborhood children would stop by to sit beside him, and before they left he would dig deep into his trouser pockets and bring out pieces of candy. With a shock, Sam realized that he had now become the neighborhood elder.
He divided the candy between the boys.
“Both of you did fine,” he said, his chest hollow. “Thanks for telling me.”
The boys grinned.
“Are you going to ride with us?” Billy asked.
“We’re going to Montana,” Todd said.
“Farther,” Billy said. “Clean to the North Pole.”
Sam shook his head.
“Not this time, boys.”
“I’ll see you at the North Pole,” Sam said.
He watched the boys run away across October lawns to tell other neighbors about the death of a man who had lived on this block long before their parents were born.
Sam went inside, but he didn’t take off his jacket and cap. He rubbed his eyes. He was so tired he wanted to lie down, but he longed to hear his daughter’s voice once more. He wanted to see her again.
Sam went into the dining room and sat beside the phone. He tried calling Mary, but again he got the answering machine. He tried calling her cell phone, but her voice mail picked up immediately.
He opened the thin Carson Corners telephone directory and looked up the number for Foreman’s Travel Agency. He dialed the number, but no one answered. He turned to the travel agency listings in the yellow pages of the much larger Omaha directory, and he began dialing. None of them answered, either, so he called Eppley Airfield in Omaha and got a recorded message:
“We regret to inform you that the FAA has temporarily grounded all civilian air traffic.”
Sam was listening to a dial tone. He hung up.
He made a cup of coffee. By the time he had finished drinking it, his hands had stopped shaking. He looked out the front window. The neighborhood was almost deserted now. Boxes of dishes, linens, toys, and pieces of furniture lay forgotten in some of the yards and driveways.
Sam stepped out onto the front porch. Harold Appleby was changing a tire and swearing while his wife and son watched. Sam sat down in the wooden swing, suspended on chains from the ceiling. The swing creaked as he moved back and forth.
A distant trilling.
Sam opened his eyes. His eyelids were grainy like sandpaper, and his neck hurt. His mouth tasted like cotton. He’d dozed off, and his head had dropped forward. He lifted his chin off his chest and looked down the quiet street.
Again, the trilling.
He pushed himself up and went into the house, hurrying against the stiffness in his joints.
He snatched up the phone in the middle of its sixth ring.
“’Lo,” he said.
Suddenly weak, he sank into a chair.
“Are you okay?”
“Where are you?”
“At home. I got your message. That was just before our phone lines went down. I’m calling from my cell, but I don’t know how long the network will be up.”
“I want to see you.”
“I want to see you, too.”
“I tried to get a flight. There aren’t any.”
“What will you do?”
“We’re going to drive north.”
“Canada. It’s supposed to be safe there.” A pause. “That’s what we heard.”
If they start dropping atomic bombs, no place will be safe, he thought, remembering that movie On The Beach with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner and how the winds had carried radiation around the world, even down to Australia.
“I heard that, too,” he said.
“Come join us, Daddy.”
“Canada’s a big country.”
“We’ll wait for you in Vancouver. Can you find a ride?”
“I’ll try,” he said. “I’ll find you if I can.”
But he knew that would be nearly impossible if the wireless phone networks went down.
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, too, honey.”
Neither of them said any more, but neither did they hang up. The silence grew heavy between them. Then the connection snapped like a lamp being switched off, and Sam was alone again.
At 3:05 the doorbell rang. Ricky Appleby stood shifting from foot to foot.
“My Dad says you should come over now ‘cause we’re leavin’.”
“Thank your Dad for me, but I’m not quite ready to go.”
“He said to tell you we’re not waitin’.”
“That’s okay. I’ll hitch a ride with someone else.”
Ricky shrugged and turned away. Sam watching him trudge slump-shouldered across the street. Then he shut the door.
Five minutes later the Appleby van became the second vehicle to leave the neighborhood. Other engines soon turned over, and other cars, pickup trucks, and vans rolled through the quiet streets toward the highway. Some of the neighbors stopped by to see if Sam needed a ride or to say good-bye and others left without stopping.
At 3:35 Sam was heating water for coffee when the flame under the teapot fluttered and went out. The burner continued to hiss, but he was unable to light the pilot, and soon the hissing stopped.
Half an hour later, in a buzz of static, the TV screen winked off. He walked through the house flipping light switches, but none of the lights worked. He thought of all the people streaming north. He hoped that the power wasn’t out all over. Without power they’d be stranded. They’d be unable to pump fuel.
He sat for a long time and watched the dead TV screen.
At 6:00, Sam ate half a peanut butter sandwich and an apple. He couldn’t get any water out of the tap, so he drank part of a can of Coke. The Coke was still cool, although the refrigerator had not been on in more than two hours.
At 6:30 he put on his jacket and cap and went out and down off the porch. A chill had come into the air, and a light breeze blew out of the north. He stood in the middle of Prospect Street. The ruddy, bloated sun hung just above the fairgrounds two blocks away. Its light gave the empty houses and the deserted street a soft red tinge.
Somewhere a radio played, and Sam’s heart beat faster. Then he realized that it was battery operated, and the batteries soon would be dead.
Applebys’s screen door stood open. Moved by invisible fingers, it tapped lightly against the side of the house. Other doors had been left open, but a few had been shut. The only vehicle in sight was the Davis boy’s black and white Ford with which he was perpetually tinkering. It sat in the driveway, its hood up and an open tool box beside the driver’s front tire. A few tools lay around it on the ground.
The Wilsons’s mailbox flag was up. Sam looked down the street and saw a few other mailbox flags up.
Given life by a sudden gust of wind, a newspaper page scrabbled across the street. The wind set in motion an empty Budweiser bottle, which rolled diagonally across the concrete. The sudden chill bit into Sam, and he shivered.
A teddy bear with one eye lay on its back in the grass near the small evergreen tree beside Wysockis’s porch.
Wrappers and cups from Burger King and Arby’s littered the ground, making the neighborhood look like closing time at the County Fair.
A rake lay beside a leaf pile in Woodruffs’s front yard. Not far away lay a partly unrolled bundle of plastic garbage bags for hauling leaves back to the garden for mulch. Already the breeze had eroded the pile, scattering leaves across the driveway and the sidewalk.
The sun had slipped down behind the trees on the other side of the fairgrounds fence, sucking most of its crimson light from the neighborhood.
Sam started up the walk toward his house. Then he stopped. He stood for a moment staring at what had been his home for thirty years, its windows dark and uninviting, its paint peeling in spots. He stepped off the sidewalk and crossed the lawn and walked up the crushed rock driveway to the single-car garage. He twisted a key in the padlock, and it snapped open. He pulled open one of the double doors, its metal anchor scraping on the concrete slab in front of the door. Inside it was dark, the air dry and dusty. He ran his hand over the smooth cold fender of his Chevy Malibu. After Irene’s funeral he had parked it and had not driven it since. He was still fit enough to walk uptown, and the neighbors were always happy to give him a lift to buy groceries.
He found the car key on his key chain and turned it over and over in his hand as he stared at the vehicle. He didn’t know how much gas was in it or if it would still run. Probably not after sitting idle for six years. Even if it started, he would need to refuel at least once, maybe two or three times, before he reached Vancouver.
He’d never be able to find Mary and Phil. But would he be able to catch up to his neighbors?
And go where?
North, they’d said. They were going north. Clean to the north pole, Billy had said. He smiled wryly.
You should have gone with Applebys, he chided himself. Silly old fool.
Slowly the smile wilted as he realized that there was nothing for him up north. All he had, his whole life, was here on Prospect Street.
While he stood contemplating, the sun had dropped below the horizon. Dusk had settled over the neighborhood like a shroud. The darkness was eerie without the streetlights snapping on as the shadow of night passed over them. The pale first quarter moon hung in the southern sky, and Venus the evening star was a brightening beacon low in the west.
He shivered, not knowing what to think.
Had atomic bombs already fallen, destroying the power grid?
He hadn’t seen any flashes, hadn’t heard any explosions. He was sure he would have heard explosions if any bombs had fallen near enough to knock out the power. More likely, the people responsible for keeping things working were not able to do so any longer.
Maybe they had gone north.
Sam locked the garage and went inside. In the pantry cupboard he found the battery-operated lantern with the bundles of candles he and Irene had stockpiled in case of power outages. He went into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. He picked up the eight-by-ten-inch framed photograph of Irene. He kept it on the nightstand so he would see her first thing every morning when he rolled over to shut off the alarm clock. He touched the glass, half expecting to feel her soft cheek beneath his fingers. He looked toward the dresser where more family portraits stood upright in their frames. Danny, Mary, Mary with her family, a young Irene and Sam with their young children. On the wall above the dresser was an eleven-by-fourteen-inch photo of the entire family—Phil, Sammi, Phil’s parents and his brother included.
He looked down at the photo of Irene that he held in his hands.
“We did well,” he said, and it felt as if she was in the room with him. “Mary did well.”
There was a bittersweet ache in his heart as he thought of the thirty-six years they had been together, as he thought of Danny’s all too brief twenty years on this Earth.
He set the photo back on the nightstand, handling it gently as if it were the embodiment of Irene’s spirit. He stared at it for a long time.
Then, surrounded by his family, he undressed in the feeble lantern light. This tiny room seemed as though it were his entire universe, as though nothing else existed beyond these walls. It was early for bed, but tomorrow would be a busy day. He would have to take inventory of the canned goods in the house. He would have to carry sticks from the garage to keep the wood stove going through the coming cold nights. He would look for water, even if he had to boil it to make it pure.
He would watch the horizon, and he would watch the sky. He would regularly check the television to see if the power was back on and if anyone was broadcasting. In the evening he would read by the lantern light—and after all of his batteries were dead, by candle light—or he would sit on the porch swing and keep watch over the quiet neighborhood.
He slid between sheets which still had that fresh laundry scent.
For a long time he looked at the picture of the entire family above the dresser. His breath came slow and steady, and for the first time today he felt at peace. The sheets rustled as he reached over and clicked off the lantern.