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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-five THE BURNED CLUMPS OF KEW GARDENS HILLS



hey’d slept some funky places. No problems yet. They eased down the declivity. They made through the tall reeds that were brittle and gold. Each reed had a golf-ball-sized globe in its middle. The girl touched one. It was dry, seemed dead, but the globe was furry, like a house for something small. Or maybe the reeds were pregnant? The girl thumped one to see what happened. Onward she and the boy forged.

They found a small clearing near the lake and set up the tent. They smoked a few cigarettes by the water. The boy picked up a plastic milk jug he found there and lit it. They delighted in the screaming drip sounds the burning plastic made. The flaming drops fell—screaming, real screaming, screams made of air and fire, the little screams cooling, gelling in the dirt into black clumps of burn. They climbed into the tent. They slept.

When the girl woke, it was dark. The boy was not in the tent. “Mark?” she said, loud enough to where if he were nearby he would have heard. She felt around for her lighter and cigarettes, found them and lit one. No note. That meant he could not be far. That was the rule. They’d agreed upon it before setting out on their cross-country adventure from Eugene. The girl had saved all of Mark’s notes. He always signed off with a razor-toothed face with horns. It was a charming face despite the teeth.

“Mark?” she said, louder. A thick crunch sound came from the reeds like, maybe a drunk person had heard her voice and started moving because of it. It wasn’t Mark. Mark stepped light in the world, was graceful with a soft beard and softer brown eyes. Mark could never have stumbled through the reeds that way, even drunk. He was a poet, a lover of waterfalls, rockslides, birds of prey.

“Mark,” the girl said. She unzipped the tent and peered out at the peaceful lake in the moonlight, its silver surface pretty in its basin, the silhouetted housing projects in the distance. It was hard to believe, but they were here, in Queens, close enough to Manhattan to hug it! The lake and buildings proved it. The sights and sounds, the smell of pollution. In the morning, when she and Mark felt rested, the real adventure would begin. They might find a commune or hook up with some interesting street people. What a lovely world. In the light of the stars, the lake looked inviting enough to swim in. “Mark,” the girl called out.

Her voice actuated the sound she’d heard before of the reeds getting crushed. It came from behind the tent. She crawled out fast and stood. When she turned her face to see what it was, a huge black, gnarled ball rolled onto the tent, causing it to collapse. The thing looked burned, made of tangled roots and some kind of tarry substance, but in places there was hair. A hole in it opened, and she saw teeth. The thing somersaulted her way. She ran, crashing through the reeds barefoot. The sharp reeds cut her dress and slashed at her legs. She ran until the reeds dropped her onto the muddy bank of the lake. The black thing was rolling through the reeds behind her. She almost cried for Mark again, but the crushing of the reeds stopped.

Half in the water, half out, her heart calmed, and she eased the rest of her body into the warm lake and floated outward. Quietly she dog-paddled to the middle, thinking Mark must have heard something outside the tent, just as she had. That’s why Mark left no note. When he went to investigate, he saw the ugly black thing and ran. That was the best case scenario. Either that or he’d up and left her. He’d said over and over during the trip to please, just please stop talking about what people wear. It bothered him to see her degrade herself that way. Fashion was poison, he said, a thing for morons, but she’d talked about it anyway: handbags, shoes, jewelry, driving him to his wits’ end.

“Oh Mark,” the girl whimpered, and looked back at the shore, where the black misshapen thing on the bank awaited her. Come to think of it, it looked a lot like the little clump of burned plastic Mark had been making before they’d climbed into the tent and gone to sleep, just larger is all, all huge and come to life.

The warm water soothed her cuts, and she felt protected here, but ashamed suddenly. She felt slimy, so paddled to the other side of the lake where a small beach cut a swatch out of the dark. She crawled up the muddy bank wishing she could rewind time, that she could take back the stupid things she said to Mark during the trip, such as “Sequins are not for Thursdays.” All she’d meant was that if a girl wore sequins on a Thursday night, she was likely to come off as foolish and arrogant. “What the fuck difference does it make what night?” Mark had said.

In the future she’d be more careful not to push Mark’s buttons.

The girl looked back for the black thing on the other side of the lake, but it was gone. She panicked. What if the burned thing was coming to get her? She didn’t know what to do, but what a relief to see a chain link fence at the top of the incline. Beyond the fence, the lights of the city twinkled. All she had to do was cut up through the reeds and climb over it, and she’d be free.

She entered the reeds with care. She slipped through them toward the fence. The reeds were much lighter here, but still cut sharply against her skin, and stung. When she arrived at the fence, she began to climb, sticking her toes and fingers into the spaces and pulling herself up. With great difficulty, she reached the top and then saw in the distance the towers of the old world fair. Mark, while they’d smoked cigarettes on the bank of the lake, had said that the conclusion to the stupidest movie ever made, Men in Black, was filmed there. Mark said that a giant cockroach had planned to blast into space from the top of those towers.

Now all she had to do was swing her other leg over the top of the fence and drop to the ground. She would go find Mark, and all would be as it was. She tried that, but her thigh caught one of the steel ends of the linkage. The barb cut into her leg, and she was yanked upside down against the fence. When the barb let go, she fell to the sidewalk, screaming. She landed on her head on the concrete and was knocked out.

The girl woke in the daylight, in the early morning smog. Cars and trucks and buses rushed one way and the other. For a moment she didn’t move, just listened to the cars. One eye was crusted shut with dried blood, but now it opened and joined the other in its seeing of the rushing of the cars.

The girl noticed her clothes then. Her blouse was ripped open in front, and her skirt was in ribbons. The girl wiggled her arms down through her sleeves and twisted the shirt backwards and got back into it, a ridiculous style, but at least she did not look so naked this way and like a girl out of a zombie movie. She was about to go find Mark, but something absolutely weird caught her attention. A pink string was tied around her ankle. It was the pink string Mark kept on a spool in the front pocket of his utility shirt. He was always cutting off small pieces to use for this and that, to repair the tent or mend their backpacks. Once, he used the pink string to lasso a big lizard. That was up in the mountains when they passed through the Indian reservation in North Carolina. He was very clever, Mark, but why did he wrap the string around her ankle? The girl’s eyes followed the string up the chain link fence and down to the other side, where it disappeared into those weird reeds with globes in their middles. Each reed reminded the girl of a snake with a frog stuck in its belly.

The girl pulled the string, and eventually its end emerged from the reeds. There was something tied to it! As it got closer, and then rose along the chain link fence, the girl saw that it was the clump of burned plastic, about the size of a golf ball, Mark had been making before they’d crawled into the tent and gone to sleep. The pink string went straight into the middle of the clump of burn.

The girl tried to bite the string in half with her teeth, but it was too much trouble. She threw the burned clump away from her, and stood, and walked delicate, dragging the string and its weird clump of burned plastic behind her. The roads were heating up and beginning to steam. She and Mark had traveled all this way, hitchhiking. If life was a journey, a quest, all roads leading to discovery, what did she come here to find?

At the intersection, the girl crossed the avenue, and made through the grass toward the park, which was where she’d wanted to raise the tent in the first place—but no, Mark always had to have his way. What a prince! Mark looked good in flannel and silk and looked great in anything. Sometimes she really felt like pushing Mark in front of oncoming traffic.

The girl knew she ought to go straight back to the tent, but each time she thought of doing that, she pictured herself seeing Mark’s backpack gone. Go to the tent, she told herself, but walked by some ducks that appeared not to see her. When she reached the first bench she came to, she sat in it and watched a man with a dark beard and skullcap fill the engine of his little plane. The man wore dark pants and a white shirt, and white tassels hung from his waist. The girl understood that the man was Jewish, and thought it to be a decent fashion. She watched the man flip the propeller of the plane. The man swung the plane out on the end of a string, and the plane flew around in circles. The girl remembered the pink string tied to her ankle. She crossed her foot over her knee and began working at the knot.




John Oliver Hodges lives in New Jersey, where he works as a teacher. Quizzleboon, his first novel, was released this year from the horror publisher, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. You can find out more about John here: http://olivebowl.wixsite.com/johnoliverhodges.

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