Cougars. That’s what they call us these days. Older women who date younger men, insinuating women like me prowl the streets hunting for fresh meat. But hunting anything was the farthest thing from my mind then or at any time afterward.
Orchard Town was a typical New England beach town, busy with tourists in the summer and slow as molasses after the ‘leaf peepers’ abandoned the place at the end of October. It came complete with the requisite Cape Cod and Victorian, Federal and Farmhouse style homes in clean, sweet white amongst the ever present foliage. I’d been there three weeks, staying at my sister’s house a few blocks up from the beach where the town proper sat, with its tiny downtown comprised mostly of boutique and souvenir shops that catered to the tourists and maintained the townspeople through the long hard winters.
My sister grudgingly allowed me to stay at her house once I’d been released from the hospital providing quiet and serenity and someplace to regroup. A New England town is a small place and everybody knows everybody else from before they’re born and anyone who didn’t arrive on the Mayflower is ‘from away’ and rarely let into the family fold. From the day I arrived, the town split into two camps: those who ‘accepted’ me and those who didn’t. Pretty much all of them ignored me.
I’d kept my promise to myself and awakened early planning a morning jog along the beach. I headed toward the boardwalk and the tiny ‘business’ district, in reality one narrow street. The spring sky hung grey and misty and threatened to morph into full-on rain at any given moment. For some ill-fated reason I stopped in at the flower shop across the street from the boardwalk. Tiny tinkling of chimes rattled out as I opened the door. I moved slowly, browsing the card and stationery aisles until I ended up at the fresh cut flowers. I leaned down and buried my face into a bunch of Sweet Peas, tied together with raffia.
I ignored the voice, sweet as it was, and inhaled the flowers’ perfume. Nobody here would be talking to me.
“Um, excuse me. Would you help me please?”
I looked up and then around to see who he was addressing. It couldn’t possibly be me—I always gave off loony vibes—I might be nuts but no angels had ever spoken to me personally.
He looked directly into my eyes and smiled like the sun breaking through storm clouds.
“Which do you think?” He thrust two armfuls of flowers at me.
I hoped my blank expression didn’t look too stupid.
“Uh, those. The daffodils.” I pointed at the bouquet in his left hand.
Good Gosh, where did you get those eyes, I wanted to scream at him, but managed to clamp my mouth shut. Besides, I knew exactly where he’d gotten them—heaven.
“Yes,” I continued insanely. “I’m a spring baby and they’re the harbingers of spring. Very cheerful.”
“Alright, thank you.” He smiled once again and turned toward the cash register.
It didn’t matter. He wasn’t the first person I’d terrified by answering like the mental escapee I was. I watched him for a moment; some irrational resentment rising up in my chest. I’d come off an eight-year relationship that ended in a very public meltdown and unleashed my latent mental illnesses forcing a long stay in a ‘rehab’ hospital. Part of that meltdown, I felt sure, was due to the fact that in eight long painful years, I’d never received one blossom, let alone an entire bouquet. During those years I guess I figured if you were desperate enough for affection and attention, you could let a lot pass. Eight years without a flower from the man, not even on my birthday, was a lot.
I walked out the other door of the shop, pulling up my collar, and headed down toward the beach. The mist had changed to drizzle and by the time I reached the sand and rocks, raindrops formed and dumped themselves over the top of my hair flattening it. I kicked small pebbles out of my way, one for each of those eight awful years. I reached a small pile of rocks and began to climb onto them to look out over the horizon that split into two colors: light grey for the sky, darker grey for the sea.
Again I ignored the call, crouching upon the largest, most comfortable boulder. I could hear someone breathing hard and finally turned around when the breaths touched me. It was him.
“Here!” he pressed the bunch of daffodils into my hands. “For you,”
I couldn’t find my voice, no matter how I tried. It just wasn’t there.
What could I say? Gee nobody’s ever given me flowers except my mom? What the hell do you want? Are you in some sick way attracted to crazy women?
“You said you preferred them,” He said as I hesitated. He looked unsure of himself, gazing at me with sad puppy dog eyes.
“I—I am just …surprised. I don’t know what to say…thank you.” I looked down at the yellow flowers, too bright in the dismal day. Again the cloud breaking smile appeared.
“I just thought you’d like them.”
“You looked so…sad. Forlorn, really,”
“I did?” I narrowed my eyes at him. What could he possibly want from me? I’d learned some hard lessons about trusting in the last few years. He was by far the most beautiful man I’d ever seen, eclipsing even the love of my life. He squinted up into the rain where tiny drops landed on his lashes and then looked back at me.
“Would you like to get some coffee?”
Now I shrugged. I figured I had nothing to lose.
We walked up the beach to the street, making small talk and ignoring anyone and everyone passing us by. In the tiny gourmet coffee shop, another trend that cropped up and died agonizingly slow in the last decade, we located a table in the corner, half-hidden and cozily comfortable. He bought coffees for us and returned to the table.
“Do you live here?” He asked, handing me a packet of sugar substitute.
“Well, sort of. “ I ripped open the pink packet and dumped the white crystals into my cup. Then I scooped up a handful liquid creamer cups and began dumping those into my cup. “I’m staying at my sister’s house a mile or two up from the beach. I’m kind of…in transition… at the moment.”
“Um,” He nodded, waiting for the spoon I was using.
"What about you? Do you live here?" I highly doubted it, handing him the spoon.
"Well, believe it or not, I'm in the same situation as you." He smiled. I doubted that too but said nothing.
"What do you do?" I asked like an idiot.
"I'm a musician."
"And you?" he asked.
"I'm a director. Film director, that is. At least, I was." I paused after he gave me a blank look. "You're probably too young to be familiar with anything I've done." I gave him a weak smile. "And I'm probably too old to know any of your music." It hurt like hell to say that.
"Doesn't matter," He shrugged once more. "We know each other now." He laughed. "I'm trying to stay in the present."
"Sounds like a good philosophy."
"It's not a philosophy it's therapy."
"I understand that."
He laughed again shaking his head.
"No, really," I insisted. "I understand more than you know, unfortunately."
He still smiled as if he knew some special secret I could never comprehend. Then he glanced around the café with curiosity as if he might discover additional new friends besides me. It was such a youthful movement, so innocent and non-offensive; a sort of wide eyed interest in everything around him and I needed to look away for a moment. I made a decision when I looked back at him. I decided to lay my cards on the table.
"Look," I said. "I'm going to be honest with you. I’m nuts…crazy. I mean it, I'm not being funny. In fact I've just been released from an extended stay, to put it politely, in a mental hospital."
I watched him empty a packet of sugar into his coffee and stir it. He neither replied nor looked up. I continued.
"So, what I'm telling you is this is your chance to escape. You can just get up and walk away. I won't feel hurt, I'll completely understand. It wouldn't be the first time."
Again, no response. He stirred the coffee with deliberation.
"My best friends have walked away. I never blamed them. This is your chance. You can leave right now."
"And you don't even have to acknowledge me on the street. Again, it wouldn't be the first time."
Silence. The spoon stopped spinning and he met my eyes.
"Welcome to the club."
"What did you think I was doing in this speck of a town?" He paused. "The same thing as you."
"My girlfriend. I should say my girlfriend's suicide happened." He frowned, cupping his hands about the mug.
"Surely that wasn't your fault," I said.
"When I told her I wasn't going to marry her, she killed herself. And my child along with her. She never even told me she was pregnant." His voice, low and emotional barely missed cracking.
I sat nonplussed. Here I'd been whining about my misfortunes and he'd been smashed to pieces.
"When the grief and depression set in everyone figured I'd be suicidal too so I agreed to go to Bellevue. They released me four weeks ago after a year of "therapy". My manager has a Cape here and suggested I come and stay for a bit. I must have arrived about the same time as you." He gave me a sad smile and my heart launched itself into my throat.
"I'm so sorry for you," it was all I could think to say. "I was being selfish."
He smiled wider and placed his hand over mine. It was strong and gentle at the same time.
"Selfish? It was her that was selfish. If you want to kill yourself that's one thing but killing an innocent child? That's damned selfish."
"So, now you're just angry?"
"Yes." His smile grew grim. "I checked myself out early. I guess I didn't stay for the part dealing with forgiveness."
I knew it was wrong. I knew I was making a mistake. I knew my sister, the last living relative that could stand dealing with me, would chuck me out on my ear immediately after the townsfolk gleefully informed her of what went on at her beloved Victorian. She liked her privacy and she worked hard to get to this place she treasured. Once again I managed to destroy the people who loved me—what was left of them. I just didn't figure on total annihilation of everyone involved.
I even tried to resist, to list every reason it shouldn't happen, couldn't happen but I found no way to argue with those eyes, no way to debate myself out of the affair, no way to escape. So I gave in and it began.
Flowers every day. Sometimes twice a day. As was the lovemaking. Too bad I never realized that heaven on earth was merely a catchphrase and that the other side of the coin of heaven was hell itself.
"Who were you talking to?" He frowned at me as I hung up the phone.
"Political poll for something or other," I shrugged.
"How did they know you were here?"
"They didn't. It was probably a random call."
"Did they ask for you specifically?"
"I don't know. I don't remember who they asked for, if they did." I shrugged again and frowned myself, thinking it a ridiculous line of questioning.
“Um.” He didn’t look happy so I plopped myself down on the sofa next to him. I brushed away a strand of hair from his eyes. “I don’t like you getting calls from people that you don’t know. I don’t want anyone to know you’re alone here. I worry about you.” He remained frowning. A secret thrill ran through me. He was worried about me?
“Tell them to put you on the ‘no call’ list,” He added.
“I will.” I said when he gave me a look that said he meant it. I planted a kiss on his lips and grasped his hand to lead him into the bed room.
Five days later he snatched the phone receiver out of my hand when I mouthed the words,
“Don’t call here again.” He lowered his voice into a growl.
“It was just a wrong number,” I spat. “What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is if they hear my voice, they’ll think you have a man in the house.”
“But it was just a mistake. They probably don’t even know what number they dialed.”
“Just do what I tell you.” He tugged on his jacket and walked to the door. I bit my lip. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize this relationship. I was already in too deep.
“So, when will I see you again?”
“Later.” He promised, looking into my eyes and giving me a quick peck on the lips.
My heart jerked up into my chest again as I shut the door behind him. What if he didn’t come back? I wasted the rest of the afternoon, doing unnecessary house cleaning, and laundry, anything to pass time and stop worrying. It didn't work. He came back as promised but not in the mood to be disobeyed.
“Did I do something wrong?” I asked following him to the door after a particularly rough round of sex. He said nothing, just put his hand around the back of my neck and kissed me hard then turned and walked down the porch stairs. I struggled not to cry. I was forever asking that question. I took my usual fistful of medicines early that night, washed down with a forbidden shot of my sister’s bottle of Tanqueray and after a woozy five minutes I managed to climb the stairs and fall back into the still unmade bed.
I found myself completely entangled in the bedclothes when the pounding started on the front door sometime near 3 a.m. I scrambled out of the bed, keeping the blankets and sheets still twisted around me, the New England spring still wet and cold and yet to emerge into warmth. I stumbled down the stairs, tripping slightly over the trailing material wrapped around my feet.
He stood unsmiling in the dark; wide awake. I blinked several times.
“What are you doing here? Is something wrong?”
He pushed past me into the house but said nothing. I turned around to follow him, dragging the blankets with me. I watched him survey the living room, dining room and the formal sitting room in the Victorian. He walked about as if seeking something. He spoke without looking at me.
“I thought I told you to get on the do not call list.”
“I—I forgot. Besides, how would you know that?”
He gave me a look.
“I’ll do it now.” I stomped to the phone that sat on an antique table and picked up the receiver facing him frowning and angry myself. There was no dial tone. “What the fu—“I held the receiver out so he could hear the deadness. “Well, now nobody can call me. You should be happy about that.”
“I am.” He picked up the line that led to the wall. It didn’t. It was severed in one perfectly smooth cut. “I’m very happy.” He smiled. I shook my head and plopped down on the elaborately carved sofa, blankets and all. He remained standing where he was.
“Look, I’m tired and I have a headache. What did you want?”
In one instant the phone line wrapped around my throat twice, effectively cutting off air. I struggled on two fronts; being strangled and being entwined in the bedclothes, neither of which I could escape at the moment. After another instant, fear gave way to anger and I reached up and behind me, clawing at anything that felt vulnerable. I gouged something squishy and the phone line eased enough for me to suck in one desperate gulp of air and flail about ridding myself of the sheet and quilt.
He moved forward again but I’d freed myself from the phone cord and leapt away from the couch, turning to face him enraged.
“What is the matter with you? Are you drunk?” I shouted. His only response was an animal growl and I jumped back another two feet out of reach. “Are you crazy?” The word catalyzed him and he actually leaped over the couch back and landed in front of me. The look in those beautiful eyes told me that he was crazy—completely crazy—crazier than I could ever be, even at my worst, most psychotic moment. I squealed in real fright when he reached for me again and sprinted toward the sitting room, concentrating only on getting away. He cornered me at the bay window and I blindly reached out for anything to defend myself. Unfortunately for my sister, it was her beloved Tiffany lamp. I threw it at him and it landed against his cheekbone, slashing his face but stopping him only a second. I didn’t stop to congratulate myself on my great aim; I was too busy screaming in terror. I backtracked to the living room glancing out the windows, praying a neighbor to hear my shrieks and either come to my rescue or at least phone the police. No such luck. My sister’s historical house sat at least two acres away from all neighboring homes and no lights flickered on at my calls for help. I looked back at my one time lover: he’d suddenly assumed an unnatural calm, not quite smiling, but benign in an insane way. I knew in that moment that it was him or me, no compromise possible; no reminiscing about our romantic interlude. Even if I’d tried, I knew also that it would not distract him. He was single minded now, his only thought to destroy me entirely and I guessed in the most gruesome way possible. I half circled the living room moving backward so I could see him at all times. I edged closer to the kitchen, picturing the wooden block that held the butcher knives and my hand reaching out to grab one. He got there first as if he’d seen into my mind and now he half-smiled, the benign expression spreading. It reminded me of a school teacher encouraging a wayward child; informing me that I should have known I couldn’t win. I turned fully away from him, thinking to reach the front door, telling myself if I could just get out I’d make it. But that was before the full on tackle, knocking me face down and exposing my back to the knife. He brought the blade down full force and I screamed louder than I’d ever done in my life more from the pain than from fear of death. Luck suddenly appeared and spared me another moment to save myself by tangling his feet up in the blankets I dropped at the first attack. He’d stood up and lifted me by one shoulder, the bleeding one, with his free hand but I surprised him by leaning into his grasp. He tripped on the material and went down to his knees and in those few precious seconds I found the one thing that might possibly save me from certain murder.
He started to rise from his kneeling position and we stared at one other for a long moment, each breathing hard from the exertion. I raised my arms and beat him to the punch.
“Look at this place. It’s like a Gosh damned slaughterhouse. You wanna’ change your statement now?”
I looked up at the tall thin cop from where I sat on the wet and stained sofa, the walls blood spattered and dripping. My sister stood outside her house, crying and screaming in horror alternately and I knew I’d never speak to her again.
“I told you,” I said, gazing at the body of my once paramour covered with a bright yellow tarp, his beautiful eyes no longer following me in life or death. “It was him or me. I had no choice.”
“You said he was your boyfriend.”
“Yes, in a manner of speaking.”
The cop shook his head.
“Why the hell would he try to kill you? For what reason?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t really have time to ask him.”
“So he just suddenly, with no provocation, attacked you?”
“I don’t know! How many times do I have to tell you?”
Again he shook his head and walked outside, standing on the top stair of the pristine white wraparound porch and talking non-stop to my sister and another cop, one with more authority from his manner and stance. My sister gestured wildly but refused to look at the disaster that was her house; she’d never set foot in it again. I glanced at the long blade they’d taken from my hand, the one that nearly separated his head from his body, lying on the floor, the handle wrapped carefully to prevent contamination. That’s what they said. Blood was drying on it, dark and hard. It was just one more insult to my sister’s peaceful, happy life, the blade of the sword, antique and authenticated; a nearly priceless piece of a coat of arms that hung low enough over the fireplace for my easy reach. The blood spatter covered the glassed case that held the letters of authenticity and the original historical documents that were to her, now worthless. I wondered vaguely if they’d increase or decrease in value now that they were part of a grotesque murder scene, if the press would see to that.
It didn’t matter. I told the truth and that would suffice. After all, I wasn’t in the habit of cutting men’s heads off, regardless my relationship with them. The cop with authority walked up the stairs and stopped in front of me.
“Stand up.” He said without emotion. I stood up.
He pulled out his cuffs and put them on my wrists and started reeling off my Miranda rights before I could fully understand what was happening.
“But why are you doing this?” I asked truly perplexed. “I told you what happened. It wasn’t my fault. I had to defend myself.”
He shook his head as if he’d heard this story a billion times before and pushed me down the porch stairs in front of him. People milled around and distantly I heard bits and pieces of conversation floating around me in the early morning moist air.
“…escaped? How is that possible?”
“…had a history of violence…”
“…did the same thing to her last boyfriend…”
I glanced at my sister, expecting her to look away but she didn’t. She stared at me with an expression I couldn’t identify, staring at me as if she'd never seen me before. I tried to stop but the cop shoved me forward toward a patrol car parked on the two lane road at the mailbox on a wooden post. Flowers were beginning to bud and bloom and in a few days would color the post in rainbows of blossoms if the weather warmed a few degrees. I looked at them as I passed, time slowing down as I thought of how much I loved flowers. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Especially the daffodils.
"Previously published in Suspense Magazine"
Cougars. That’s what they call us these days. Older women who date younger men, insinuating women like me prowl the streets hunting for fresh meat. But hunting anything was the farthest thing from my mind then or at any time afterward.
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