Second Place Photography: Liquid Blanket by Michael McKinney.
by J.E. Marshall
“Stay out of it, Sparky.” — A drunk at the Shade Hotel July 2014
Porter walked along the Redondo Beach Pier. He was headed towards the International Boardwalk to a little waterfront bar where his friend Edison was waiting for him. He kept his head down and his hands in his pockets. It was a cold, gray Christmas Eve and there was a nip in the air. Christmas lights twinkled on some of the boats nestled in their slips, but for the most part it was a ghost town. In fact, Porter was surprised Naja’s was still open.
A down-on-his-luck musician trembling from cold turkey sang “White Christmas” in front of The Fun Factory arcade, which like most of the shops and bars, had closed early for the holiday. Porter dropped some spare change into the boy’s open guitar case.
Dolphins By Michael McKinney
Naja’s was a beloved dive bar famous for its 777 beers, 77 of which were on tap. On hot summer nights it was packed with locals and tourists watching the sunsets and each other while bands gave the evenings a lively pulse. But this was a dreary night and a holiday where folks gathered in their homes and Porter wondered why Edison wanted to meet here.
Edison was seated with a pitcher of beer on the window sill that served as the primo people watching location of Naja’s. He looked as if he was well on his way through the 77 drafts.
The barkeep brought another glass without being asked. There was no one else in Naja’s.
Dolphin by Michael McKinney
“I saw Dewitt. When my shift was over I just came down here. All I could do was run. My car is still up there.” Edison worked as a security guard at the condos that overlooked King Harbor.
“Dewitt’s been dead a week now,” Porter said.
“He smells like it. He’s still dealing drugs. I think it’s Stickman,” Edison remarked, pouring another beer.
“I thought you didn’t believe in that stuff,” Porter leaned in.
“I didn’t, but what else could it be? Do you think it’s caused by DNA from aliens who crashed in the Malaga Cove canyons or could it be the by product of agricultural engineering gone wrong, human DNA mixed with corn creating one pissed off plant?” Edison speculated.
“I don’t know,” Porter felt a combination of relief and growing anxiety. It felt good that a friend confirmed that he wasn’t insane, but on the other hand, it felt pretty bad.
“How did he act when you saw him,” Edison asked.
“Like a crazy man. At first he came to my house at three o’clock in the morning saying he worked for the cable company and needed to come inside to show me the new channel lineup. The flesh was falling off his face. It wasn’t Dewitt,” Porter rubbed his forehead.
“DeWitt kept asking me to open the gate and let him in. He vanished at the end of my shift when Charlie showed up to replace me. I got the hell out of there. I didn’t dare go to my car because I figured DeWitt was decomposing in my back seat.” Edison was still badly shaken. All the color had drained from his face.
“It’s not DeWitt. It’s that creature that lives in the trees. It’s Stickman. He lives inside the trees and when he wants to torment people he sends roots into the grave and uses a dead body to drive his victims crazy. Last night he came to my house at the same time as always, 3 a.m., but this time in that dog we poisoned. I shot Sparky five times but he just stood there barking until the police arrived. Then he backed into the peppertree in my backyard and disappeared inside it.”
“You called the police! You have the weapon and two million dollars in your garage and you called the police!” Edison was shocked by Porter’s stupidity.
“I didn’t call the police. The neighbors called the police,” Porter didn’t realize how ridiculous he sounded.
“What does it matter who called them? What about all that flying under the radar you preached about? We have to leave town now!” Edison declared.
“We can’t. If we leave now, the drug cartel will know it was us. We have to wait. We have to wait.” Porter was beginning to look a bit wild eyed.
“Well, what did the police say? What happened? What did they say? For God’s sake, Porter!”
“I told them it wasn’t me. I told them I heard it too, but it wasn’t me,” Porter answered.
“Where did you put the gun?” Edison asked.
“I put it with the money,” Porter said.
“Oh, we have to move it now. We have to move it to that cave in the cliff that you can only reach by boat during high tide,” Edison insisted.
“That’s too dangerous. We’ll get bashed into the rocks.” Porter objected.
Edison stared at Porter as if he’d never seen him before.
“Ok, then, give me your credit card. Mine is maxed out. Give it to me,” Porter demanded.
“What? What for? You’re going to call that psychic? You gave her all your money and now you want to give her mine?” Edison protested.
“She knows everything. We have to find out what to do next. Give me the card.” Porter held his hand out.
“You didn’t tell her we are millionaires?” Edison gave Porter the credit card.
“I had to. You can’t get a real reading if you withhold the truth. I had to tell her Connie left me and I got fired and.” Porter began listing the recent events of his life.
“Oh man! You told me Connie left but you didn’t say you got fired. When did you get fired?” Edison couldn’t believe how fast things were falling apart.
“She left me because I got fired. All she cares about is money. If she only knew what she walked out on,”Porter said bitterly as he dialed the psychic’s number. He hunched over the phone like a mamma bear protecting her cub, mumbled in a low voice and then hung up.
“What did she say and what did it cost me? I noticed you did most of the talking,” Edison asked without hope in his voice.
“Gloriana said we are safe. We have nothing to fear,” Porter said with newfound confidence.
“Those were her exact words?” Edison asked.
“She said nothing can harm us until time stands still. Time never stands still. We are home free. She said Stickmen have no power at sea. When the tide comes in, we’ll move the money to the cave like you said. When it’s time to go to Mexico, we’ll go by sea so the Stickman creature cannot follow us,” Porter said.
“Why can’t she just speak in normal English? I don’t like riddles,” Edison complained.
“She was right about the money and my new position in life,” Porter answered.
“Are you referring to your new position as an unemployed person?” Edison said on his way to the bar to get another pitcher of draft beer.
“Very funny. Our focus now should be on how to deal with Stickman until it is time to go to Mexico,” Porter said with a serious edge to his voice.
“Maybe we will get lucky and never see him again,” Edison said from the bar.
“That would be nice, but DeWitt’s body is here now. He’s selling drugs to that musician by the Fun Factory,” Porter informed his friend.
“Mercy. Did Gloriana say why Stickmen torment people? Why do they do this? What do they want?” Edison was exasperated.
“She can tell us more, but it will cost a lot,” Porter replied.
“Of course it will. Let me guess. Say about $2 million., perhaps?” Edison suggested.
“Dewitt’s gone. He vanished. The musician is headed this way. Let’s offer him a beer and pump him for information,” Porter stared at the musician who was slowly approaching with an uneven gait.
The musician stopped at the bicycle stand in front of Naja’s and began attaching his guitar to a custom rack on the back of his bike. Porter and Edison stepped out and approached the young man.
“Would you join us for a beer? It’s a terrible night to be out and about,” Porter asked the young man.
“Yes, join us for a drink at Naja’s. It’s Christmas Eve after all,” Edison chimed in.
“I would, if Naja’s was open, but it’s not,” the young man continued to fiddle with the bike rack without turning around to face the men. His hands were green and pebbly like the skin of an avocado.
Porter and Edison spun around and sure enough, Naja’s was closed. There was no sign of the bartender inside. There were no glasses of beer on the counter where they had just left them. Porter and Edison spun around again and almost ran into the two huge poles of bamboo that were where the boy and his bike had been. They heard sickening laughter from above and looked up into face of Stickman towering over them. His eyes were like limes with olives embedded in them.
“Someone is in there! I saw movement!” Edison pointed next door at Lou-e-Luey’s. They rushed over and banged on the window.
“Help us! Let us in!” Porter cried. He picked up a garbage can and threw it through the window. He started to climb in but backed up when he saw that the movement was a dead man swinging back and forth. A flash of lightning revealed it to be DeWitt’s rotting corpse hanging from the rope. By chance Porter looked at his watch and saw it was 3 a.m.
Almost as if on cue, Dewitt’s dead dog Sparky came barreling down the stairs from the boardwalk and chased Porter and Edison along the waterfront, growling and barking loudly as he nipped at them.
“Stay out of it, Sparky!” Porter yelled at the dog.
The mad dog tried to herd Porter and Edison into the path of Stickman’s legs which were now like pillars of giant sequoias trying to stomp the men flat. The halyards on the boats joined the frenzy and began to clang wildly as bad weather turned worse. A dislocated Christmas wreath blew down the sidewalk like a tumbleweed.
They jumped the fence and broke into one of the sailboats. The barking immediately stopped but they took her out to sea just to be sure.
The lights of King Harbor grew smaller as they drifted out to sea in the stolen vessel. After a few hoursthe men finally spoke to each other again.
“This isout of control. Let’s just go to Mexico now. Forget the money. Just go and get a fresh start,” Edison said.
“I was afraid you would say that,” Porter pulled out a gun and shot his friend.
“I thought you said you left the gun with the money,” Edison said with his last breaths, “How will you manage the boat alone?”
“This is Dewitt’s gun. I’ll manage.Nothing can happen to me. Gloriana says I’m safe,” Porter said maniacally as he dragged Edison to the edge of the boat to push him into the sea.
“Have you looked at your watch lately, my friend?” Edison uttered his last words as he slipped into the dark sea.
Porter looked at his watch. The face was cracked. It was still 3 a.m.. It should be 5 a.m.
The gray sea growled and swallowed Porter whole. A 24 Hour Plumbing van pulled up at Porter’s house. The two million dollars vanished. B