Short Stories by J.R. MacLean

Kenneth, fondly known as Buster @560 words

Kenneth, fondly known as Buster
By J.R. MacLean

Ah, my love, it is you. I felt your sweet hand on that massive door. But someone trails you. A weight from before.
“Lands sakes, Karen, I don’t know how you can spend half your waking hours in here all these weeks. Just that awful antiseptic smell gives me the heebie-jeebies. Sets off my allergies too. But I suppose part of a mother’s duty is to make her child face reality.”
We flew last night, my love. Do you remember? I showed you the glaciers thundering from Greenland’s tip. Then we soared hand in hand back to Paris. We rustled with the oak leaves in the Jardin du Luxembourg. We hovered, giggling over our old lady’s crepe cart, became butterfly small and road the updrafts from the buttery heat of her griddle. Do you remember the scent of that raspberry jam?
“You know I cared for Kenneth, baby. We all did. He was a very sweet person. A bit—impractical, let’s say. I mean a Poet Handyman? Whoever heard of such a thing? And I said that motorcycle was a mistake from the very beginning. I just give thanks to the Lord every day that you weren’t on it with him.”
We rode the cold slipstream back, tumbling entwined, clinging to the moment while the darkening stars streaked overhead. We came to the mouth of the great river, the St. Lawrence I think, where it spills into the Atlantic. It was pulling me, pulling me towards that vast, gray horizon. You said, “Hey Buster, where do you think you’re going?”—the way you always do—and we put our hands behind our backs and we were warm again and rubbed our noses together. Yes, we floated in the sunshine over green and another color. Red. Red soil. A potato field in Prince Edward Island, that was it! We floated with our hands behind our backs and rubbed noses in the sunlight, over a carpet of potatoes hushed and cool in the red earth beneath us.
“That insurance policy was the one bright move he made. Thank goodness! But honey, you are going to burn it all up by keeping him going here. You’ve heard what the doctor keeps saying? And they need all these tubes and equipment for people who at least have a chance of getting well. Ah ah ah choo! Achoo!  Achoo! Achoo! There they go! Just like Old Faithful. Running like a tap. I’ll be out in the hallway blowing my nose if you need me.”
My love? My love? K—Karen. Karen. Isn’t that funny? For a moment there, I forgot your name. I was feeling you but now, maybe—ah, there you are.
“Mother! Mother! Come here. Quick! Quick!”
“What is it, my darling? Oh my baby, you’re crying. Is he gone? Did you--?”
“No! Come here. Feel his cheek. That’s it. Now feel his nose.”
“Land sakes! His cheek is like touching a corpse, but this, this is warmer than my fingers.”
“Yes! Isn’t it wonderful!”
“That’s just thrilling, honeybun. Achoo! Achoo! I’ll let the nurse know, in case there’s something wrong with the machine.”
Karen tenderly strokes the warm nose of her young husband and brings her lips very close to his cold left ear.
“Only when we’re ready, Buster,” she whispers. “Only when we’re ready.

The Serpent's Stones 
by J.R. MacLean

The flanks of the great snake were as the hard walls of canyons. They scraped trees flat and ground riverbanks so water spilled like blood from open wounds. From his soaring height, the sun warm on his feathers, Lokanika could see the serpent's vast, writhing form stretching to the horizon. Rending sounds and a pall of dust rose where the snake's great belly gouged the face of a distant desert. He felt a sudden burning in his entrails, as if he had been speared in the gut. He fell into darkness.

His eyes opened to the sight of charred sweet grass on the stone offering-place. The day's first sunlight highlighted the green grass beyond, dew-moistened and fuzzy with cobwebs. Birds sang; crows choired raucously behind him. The stench of his vomit was acrid under his nose, but Lokanika knew better than to raise his head. He must be still and allow Eagle to return his spirit to limbs and belly in its own time.

Eagle had shown only the snake, nothing about the impure killing of the buffalo. Frightened by strange thunder from a cloudless sky, the bull, separated from the herd, had come upon Lokanika as if the man were the hunted instead of the hunter. His lucky, panicky spear thrust through the great beast's heart was delivered in fear, without the proper shapes and sounds of gratitude within his chest. A desecration. Yet Eagle had shown nothing of it, only the snake.

The tribe had been effusive in praising him when he had brought home the kill. The bull was massive; its smoked meat would endure beyond a moon; its organs and horns would yield many useful things. Even old Yamas, Lokanika's mentor of many years, had tottered from his medicine tent and nodded approval. Yet the troubled feeling, like hot black stones in his chest, had driven Lokanika to seek Eagle that same night. Now, as he lay sprawled in the grassy morning dew, he understood.

The snake was the strange tribe he had watched crossing the plain just before the bull surprised him. Their tepees, like clouds, had moved with them on rolling rocks transformed by some unknown magic into the shape of full moons. Lokanika wondered for the first time if it was they who had made the thunder from nowhere. He groaned as he lifted his head. The stones within his chest had turned from black to fiery red. He knew his tribe must move, move to the setting sun.

Nestled in the grass, he spied a strawberry, fire red, the first of Spring. A sign. Possibly a gift from Eagle. Sparked by hope, Lokanika plucked it and engulfed it in his mouth. It was bitter, sick with worm. He spat it on the rock beside the charred sweet grass. It glistened there in the sun's first rays. An open wound. He lurched to his feet and turned them towards home. He had to speak with Yamas.