Story Excerpts

Art by Noah Bailey

Finite Jest

by Chris Muessig

Jake was dreaming about his father when something bit him hard. For an instant, the pain and the dream were one. Then he was awake and out of his seat, stomping at the agony inside his right boot.

Guffaws. “Took you long enough to feel that, Miller!”

The train jounced. He backpedaled off-balance, but his hobnails found no purchase, and so he fell on his ass to add to the general merriment.

“What’s happened?” said Boswell. Jake’s seatmate leaned owl-eyed into the aisle.

“Some damned fool just ruined my boot shine,” said Jake, pretending not to be enraged. He remained on his butt and inspected the scorched cowhide, not looking up at the faces of the complicit bastards surrounding him. A matchbook smoldered nearby on the floor, having separated from the gum wad stuck to his trench boot. It would take careful scraping and considerable polishing to get it back into shape for inspection.

Boswell got up and extended a hand. Jake waved his friend off, calculating that the skinny clerk would be pulled down instantly were he to accept his assistance. He made it back to his feet on his own rather than risk more galling hilarity.

From his full height and with a firm grip on the seatback, he deigned now to scan the faces of the soldiers in the nearest seats. Fruitless—any number of possible suspects was within easy reach. Besides gambling, playing practical jokes had become a leading pastime among the enlisted when not under the thumbs of the officers and noncoms. How men do waste their precious time and money, Jake thought, and resumed his seat.

“How’s the foot?” Boswell said.

“No worse than after a twenty-mile hike.”

“I suppose we should take turns sleeping.”

“You go ahead; I’m wide awake now.”

“This puts me in mind of when Hurley told me the best way to cure the ringworm was to step into a bucket of alcohol.”

“Surely you didn’t.”

“Alas, I believed him. He was part of the Veterinary Detachment after all, and he prepared the bucket for me himself.”

“Of course he did.”

“It felt like I’d stepped into a campfire. Hurley and friends were greatly amused. He said I shot out of the bucket like a Roman candle.”

“How’d the cure go?”

“Completely successful, yet I still felt bitter toward him.”

“You’d think a man would be more careful about offending the head clerk. Where has Hurley gone, by the way?”

“He’s still at Camp Greene, but somehow he got orders for the permanent work detail.”

“Some men would prefer that to going ‘over there.’”




Art by Maggie Ivy

Thick as Thieves

by Gigi Vernon

The Quality

Drenching rain meant the Quality were well wrapped in cloaks, and Betty had no chance to get at the valuables in their pockets. The only thing she had to show for a day tramping the cold wet streets was a single silver button that turned out to be pewter. Ned would be displeased with her, and worse, she had nothing to add to her own savings to get free of him.

She turned a corner and came upon a glut of carriages from which gentlemen and ladies descended to enter a town house lit up for a ball. Twigging the place might appease Ned. She was dressed in her most respectable toggery, so bold as you please she swept up the front steps. The footmen on duty allowed her to pass.

Inside, yards of black silk draped a drafty parlor. A funeral, it was, the mourners aglitter with pearls and gold.

The silk handkerchief of the dandy in front of her was ripe for the picking, but she feared he might reach for it if grief overcame him, and so she nabbed his more valuable pocket watch instead.

A great raucous press of the bereaved carried her to a velvet-lined coffin. The deceased looked a right old bastard, eyebrows bushy and white, lips thin, and heavy jowls that no amount of powder and rouge could improve. “Henry Salter, b. 1705–d. 1772” was etched on a brass plate. Fluttering her fan to shield herself from view, she leaned over as if to kiss him farewell and slipped a gold ring from his finger.

Straightening, Betty’s breath caught.

A young woman in black silk with a towering powdered wig topped by a miniature raven in a cage was watching Betty. She seemed too young to be the widow. Could she be the grieving daughter?

Expecting the woman to raise the alarm, Betty forced herself not to elbow her way through the crowd in a certain admission of guilt. Besides, the door was too far, the press too thick. She’d be caught, arrested, and transported to the colonies if she were lucky, hanged if she were not.

Brazen it out, she heard Ned say, and tried to espy, without seeming to do so, an opening through which she could slip away.

The woman approached and stopped directly in front of Betty. She was younger than Betty, as much girl as woman. Her cheeks were dimpled and her blue eyes were as fixed as a wax doll displaying the latest fashions in a shop window.

Brazen it out. “My condolences, Madame,” Betty said, faking a well-bred accent, and dropped into a curtsey.

“Forgive me, have we met? The weight of my cares since my husband’s passing . . .” She was a widow then, a very young, rich one and, judging by the dry eye she dabbed with a black handkerchief, not an overly distraught one.


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