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WRITERS OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION
Trade paperback / 7 x 10 / 264 pages / Publication date / Feb 2019
A tribute from authors and friends to the wondrous and magical Bookfellows Bookshop a.k.a. The Mystery and Imagination Bookshop of Glendale, California 1988-2016. Malcolm & Christine Bell, Proprietors. Bookfellows was a gathering place for the writer's community of Southern California…esteemed authors such as Ray Bradbury, George Clayton Johnson, Dennis Etchison and many, many others. This collection features stories chosen by the contributing authors, along with their own personal remembrances and tributes to Malcolm & Christine and the late, great Bookfellows Bookshop.
The Writers of Mystery and Imagination are - Peter Atkins, T. C. Bennett, Jason V Brock, Sunni K Brock, Tracy L. Carbone, Kelly Dunn, Dennis Etchison, Glen Hirshberg, Pedro Iniguez, George Clayton Johnson, Joe R. Lansdale, Jodi Lester, Mike Lester, Ben Loory, Shirley Moore, Lisa Morton, William F. Nolan, John Palisano, L.H. Rosenblum, Stephen Woodworth.
HERE'S A PREVIEW FROM WRITERS OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION
THE SATURDAY GROUP
“It’s strange how we all ended up here, together. All of us from different backgrounds, from all over the country. I mean, there’s gotta be something to that, don’t you think?” David took a bite of his Cuban sandwich, gingerly, as his aging teeth were not long for this world and he had to take pains to preserve what he had left. A handful of members from his newly formed workshop absorbed his words.
Carly had come the farthest, had moved from Massachusetts, and always found their meetings surreal. One minute she was wading in ankle deep snow and popping vitamin D supplements to offset the lack of sunshine in her hometown. The next she was enrolled in a writing workshop given by a famous author, surrounded by people who, on the surface, would not have been friends or sought each other out otherwise. Week after week they’d attend the class, the lessons in which paled to the ones learned after, from each other, from David, from discussing their lives over pastries and sandwiches. The class varied in size from fifteen to twenty-five people but it was the after group, the ones who sat outside the bakery until their meters ran out, that had the special connection. There was always a warm breeze as if God created climate control in their little part of the world.
Carly and her boyfriend Ryan, who was not a writer but a voracious reader, ordered the same meal week after week. It seems everyone did. On days like this, Carly often wondered if this was merely a recurring dream. The immediate bond between them all, the lulling white noise of the passersby and the continual whoosh of city traffic…it didn’t feel real.
Marcus, the hipster Ken Doll of the group spoke about a religion, or philosophy, Carly didn’t catch exactly what he said. The essence was that indeed there were connections through time and space. “You’re with the same people every time you come around the bend. That’s what I believe at least. I’m willing to bet this group has been my group for a long, long time.” Marcus had a day job, and dabbled in spiritualism, and acting when he could get it. He was psychic he said, used a Tarot deck…He looked to be about thirty but said things that made him seem older. “I was born with a caul,” he revealed in an early conversation. That was certainly something.
Julius approached the table then, always popping in and out from the table scene. He’d crouch down, lean in, and pick up wherever they’d all left off. Carly had never seen him eat or drink. The young man, maybe the youngest, wore a red leather Michael Jackson type jacket and spoke rapidly and with seemingly endless amounts of knowledge about Hollywood trivia, science, and drugs. Long brilliant passages quoted verbatim from textbooks, peppered with slang and street talk. He was an anomaly but interesting as hell. His words revealed a slight accent, maybe something Latin, though it could just be a California accent, Carly conceded.
He plopped down next to David. “Hey bro,” he said. “And time don’t mean nothin’ anyway. Out of this reality you got goin’ on,” he swirled his arm around them like a magic wand, “you could have infinite dimensions and eras. Don’t think out there that clocks and calendars matter because they don’t matter two shits.”
Ryan rolled his eyes to Carly. She kicked him under the table.
“It’s cuz of the DMT,” he continued. “In your brain, you know. Makes this world seem like it’s what it’s not. We’re all connected for sure.”
“What’s DMT?” Holly asked.
Carly knew what it was. She’d watched a documentary about the hallucinogen. “It’s the drug that’s in your body right? Like when you sleep? But in plants too?”
“Yeah, yeah that’s it,” Julius said. “Dimethyltryptamine. Psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. Like serotonin and melatonin. I’ve done it a lot. Everyone should. Brings you closer to what’s real, you know? The truth you don’t want to face, the one you need to face. Like you lose yourself, your body, all of it and get down to your soul. I used to do it in the tanks. Don’t anymore because now my brain chemistry changed.”
They all stared at him, not quite understanding.
“When you have a near death experience it changes your brain chemistry permanently. Can be from that, or like monks chanting and shit, or certain psychedelics. I don’t have to do DMT anymore. I’m changed. Up here.” He tapped the side of his head and Carly noticed a skull earring on his lobe. “Any of you ever do the tanks?”
Carly looked around and saw the others were as confused as she. He continued. “Sensory Deprivation Tanks. They have them in Burbank and Los Angeles. Maybe other places. You take the DMT and you lay there and it’s dark and there’s no smell, and you’re floating so you can’t feel anything in your body once you get used to it. I saw little gray men when I did it once but usually only light beings show up.”
“Gray men and light beings,” David scoffed. “Aliens?”
“Maybe so, bro. Or maybe they’re always there and we can’t see. With these eyes, you know?” He pointed to his dark eyes, hidden under a fluff of midnight hair.
Ryan didn’t talk much. He was a listener. Carly would squeeze his hand now and then when anyone said something crazy. More often than not, he squeezed first. Carly was more open minded. In this case, Ryan squeezed her hand hard.
“But DMT is in everybody,” Julius went on, animated. He stood and moved around their table, careful to avoid the people walking by on the sidewalk. “When you’re dreaming, it’s flooding through you and some people have more than others; and certain foods.”
Carly watched Holly’s reaction to Julius. She seemed intrigued, enough so that she set down her forkful of carrot cake so she could focus. When Carly first met Holly she wondered if she was even out of high school. Then she assessed her at maybe twenty. That first day when it was all about statistical information, David asked her outright. All she said was that she “way older,” than she looked, and no one would believe how much older. “I’m a vampire.” They laughed but Carly did wonder about her agelessness. Holly closely resembled a doll Carly had a child. Perfect features, glossy hair the color of a bowl filled with old and new pennies. Same porcelain flawless skin as the doll, without a single line or blemish.
“I have dreams,” Holly said quietly. “Sometimes I wake up and hear people talking, shouting, but I can’t see them—” Her eyes filled with tears and she took a minute to collect herself. “I’m so afraid of them and what they’re saying but I can’t quite make it out. Then I wake up again and realize it was a dream, but then I can’t move. I’m trapped there and can’t move and sometimes the voices come back.”
“Night terrors,” Julius said knowingly. “Then you wake up and don’t know if that’s real either right?”
Holly nodded. Julius polled the others. “Who else has night terrors?”
Marcus jumped in. “I have. It was my own fault though. I was playing with a Ouija board alone and invited—”
A helicopter roared above them, breaking the conversation. It hovered above their part of the city block, then moved up and down the street, shining a searchlight down on the road, on the pedestrians and cars.
“What is that?” David asked, shielding his eyes.
The helicopter emitted a high pitched siren that sounded like a smoke alarm beep.
“I’ve never heard anything like that before,” Carly said. “Is that a California thing?”
Holly and Marcus shook their heads in unison.
“Damn,” Julius said. “This is the DMT for sure. It’s our reality splitting.” He had to shout above the noise. “Any minute now we’re gonna see a rip in the sky, like it’s made of paper and reality is just behind it. The other reality.”
Shortly after that they left because the bright lights were painful and everyone’s ears hurt. And of course they assumed then that the Ghetto Birds, as David called them, were likely searching for a criminal and it would be safer to flee.
“I did DMT once,” Marcus admitted a week later when were all together, post workshop, eating potato balls and Cuban sandwiches.
“Because you thought you were gonna die, right bro?” Julius asked.
“You almost died?” Carly asked.
David and Holly leaned forward toward him. Ryan set down his plantain chip. As the white noise traffic pulsed in the background, and warm breeze enveloped them, he told his story. Ulcerative colitis, Marcus explained in the laissez-fair manner someone might announce they had a mole removed. “They removed my whole long intestine. I underwent chemo and lost a ton of weight. But I’m good now.”
To see him now, Carly thought, it was hard to believe. He was the picture of health and possessed stunning good looks and huge muscles. It had been her experience that when someone cheated death, their body showed it. They looked forever close to death until they finally succumbed.
“So…I did DMT once, because I thought I was going to die and wanted to make sure there was something else, wanted to have a preview of how the other side would be.”
“Was it like Julius says?” David asked.
“Yeah,” Marcus said. “I saw the rip too. Like a tear in a movie screen. I was afraid to go to the other side though. I thought if I did, then that would be it. I’d die then, and not later back in my real life from my disease. I guess I wasn’t quite ready to go. Sometimes though I rethink it. Life has been really hard since then and I feel like I’m just passing time, waiting. If I had it to do over, I might have walked into the hole, and taken my chances that it was where I was supposed to be.”
“There’s always another chance, bro,” Julius said. “And who says you die when you walk through it? I didn’t. You just let it wash over you like a big wave. You only drown if you fight it.”
“I don’t want to take drugs again,” Marcus said.
“That’s cool, bro. No pressure. You all hear what he said though? Rip in the sky. It’s all the same. Everybody has the same experience, just like us all here. We’re all having the same experience now,” Julius said, very excited as if we’d all proven his theory.
Carly squeezed Ryan’s hand. He squeezed back which meant, Yes, Julius has taken too many psychedelics in his lifetime.
While they all grasped that, Ryan said, “I almost died.”
Carly was surprised he would relay his story to strangers but these people really weren’t strangers were they? That was clear from the get go. “I hit a tree head on with my truck. In the rain. No seatbelts. Half flew out of the car and then it rolled a couple of times.”
“Jesus, bro,” Julius said. Carly noticed everyone studied Ryan’s face now, the faded but deep scars that ran down both sides as if he’d had the whole of his face removed and replaced, sewn back on along the edges. He brushed his gray hair self-consciously over the scars the best he could. “You see anything when you were dead? Were you dead?”
Ryan shook his head. “I never lost consciousness. I saw a man at the end of my hospital bed a couple of times. A man who wasn’t there.”
The group grew silent.
“I had a head on collision on the highway, no seatbelts. Hit two cars,” Carly said. The attention shifted to her. “But I only chipped these two front teeth. I was really lucky.”
“So you didn’t die then either huh,” Julius asked?
“No. When I was three of four I almost died twice. Real close together. The first time I got electrocuted. I touched the oven and fridge at the same time…it was bad. I screamed and couldn’t stop it and couldn’t let go. My uncle slammed into me and knocked me away. Then shortly after, weeks maybe hard to say, my mom gave me a piece of hard candy, from a metal tin. It lodged in my throat and my uncle, same uncle, hit me in the back and it shot out.”
“You sure you didn’t die?” Julius asked, grinning. “Maybe you did and you can’t accept it so you keep inventing new ways you almost died till one fits.”
She shook her head. “Pretty sure. I mean, I’m here right?” Carly smiled but his words struck her.
“That’s a lot of close calls, but you never had a true NDE, near death experience, right? Bright lights and all that?”
“No. Well, not really.” She chewed her lip, unsure if she should say more.
“What is it?” Marcus asked. “What were you going to say?”
Holly held her forkful of weekly carrot cake very still.
“When I was about seven years old I had a nightmare. I still remember like it was yesterday.”
“Go ahead,” David said. “Go ahead and tell us. Maybe one of us can use it in a story one day.”
She smiled at their kind leader, the one who had brought them together. “I had a dream I was going on a trip. My mom wasn’t there but I had my doll.” She paused. “I had this doll that sort of looked like you, Holly. I’d forgotten she was part of that dream.”
“Weird. Totally weird,” Julius said.
“Anyway, the pilot announced we should look out the windows on the right and we could see the Rocky Mountains. I saw them but just as quick I felt the plane drop. It went down so fast it was hard to comprehend what was going on. And then we crashed.”
She looked up, hoping they took her seriously. They did. “And the next thing I was lifted up so fast, propelled backward from the earth, watching it get smaller and smaller. And then down again, closer than we ever see. Into the petal of flower and closer and closer and my cells and the cells of everything merged and there was peace. Perfection and the feeling that I understood everything, all the answers, what was beyond all of it…”
“Cool,” Marcus said.
“Yeah but then I was a ghost, back to being me, and standing next to my mom, trying to get her attention but she couldn’t see me. I strained and used all my energy to make myself visible, even a little. I was there but see through. I was shouting to her that I knew what happened when you die. The second you pass you start to forget everything in your life and you want to hold on because you liked this life, this family. I was sad and didn’t want to miss growing into an adult. I wanted to grow up and get married and have my own children but I was drawn to this amazing feeling of eternity and peace. It was so emotional that the feelings and memories are always right here.” She pointed to her chest. “Right in my heart all the time. Crazy. It was just a dream but it stuck with me and changed how I thought after that. About the afterlife and the here.”
“You had a near death experience, for sure,” Julius said.
“I didn’t. It was just a dream and I woke up.”
“Did you?” Julius asked. Carly didn’t reply so he continued. “Fine, you probably didn’t die that time but the DMT in your dream state, it showed you how it is. Same shit I see on my trips.”
“When I was twenty-six, I fell off a Ferris wheel,” David said. He sipped his coffee. “I’d just published my first book a week before and I was over the moon. I took my girlfriend—sweet girl, knew her since high school—to a carnival and got really drunk to celebrate. Plastered. We got stuck at the top of the ride for a few minutes while they reloaded people. I got it in my head to get down on one knee to propose to her but the bar restricted me. I couldn’t maneuver the way I wanted. So I lifted the bar to stand up and pop the question, the traditional way. On one knee. I owed her that, I thought. But the ride started up and I lost my footing and…And I fell out.”
“What happened?” Marcus asked.
“She died and I didn’t.”
“That’s horrible,” Carly said, knowing the guilt must’ve haunted him all these years.
“I didn’t even get blamed. I was in a coma for a week and by the time I woke up my dad had hired a lawyer, threatened to sue the carnival. First thing I saw when I opened my eyes was his stubby fingers holding a settlement check. Everyone assumed the latch broke on the ride car, not that I’d be stupid enough to open it myself. I was off kilter for a while there and by the time I was okay again, between my injuries and Sarah’s funeral and the grief… I never told the truth. I didn’t give the check back. I bought my first house with it. People wonder how a short story writer could have a house like that up in the Hills. Well, there you have it. Bought it almost fifty years ago with money I didn’t deserve.”
No one commented. Or spoke. Not even Julius.
“You get old and look back on your life and it all comes to a head. All the good, all the bad. It rushes in on you. Your body ages and people look at you differently. Young girls in grocery stores offer to carry your bread to the car. I’m not an old man. Not on the inside. Inside, I’m a twenty-six year old kid that killed the love of his life and never repented. I never got past it. And the older I get, the more important it seems. Maybe that’s why I’m telling all of you now. My life went by so damn fast and I’m an old codger now and the biggest event in my life is my biggest secret. I can’t hold it in anymore. I wish I’d died instead of her. It wasn’t fair. Neither of us should have but if I could pick, she’d be the old one telling a story.
“Holly, tell us your near death story,” David said. “We all shared. It’s your turn.” He dug into his pocket and retrieved a nip of Jack Daniel’s. “I’m going to soothe my nerves. You have a go at baring your soul.” He poured the liquor into his coffee cup and drank half of it in one gulp. “Everyone’s had a brush with death. What was yours?”
“I don’t really have one,” she said. But her mannerisms showed otherwise. She hunched her thin shoulders forward and curled her knees up toward her slightly. “I’ve been lucky.”
“No one’s that lucky,” Julius said. “Everyone is always one misstep away from death. You trip on a shoelace and land in front of a speeding car, or fall on the ice and bang your head. Choke on a piece of candy.” He looked at Carly. “It might not be as dramatic as David’s story, Holly, but trust me, everyone has been close. Have you ever been one stumble away from death?”
She didn’t answer at first. Her silence demanded their attention.
“I took a bottle of pills when I was in high school.” She clenched a paper napkin in her small thin fingers. “My boyfriend broke up with me.”
“And?” Julius prodded.
“And I walked out of the house and toward school, and half way there I threw up. I got it on my shoes and my blouse.”
“And?” Julius said.
“I didn’t want to go home so I went into the laundromat and fell asleep between two dryers in the back hoping I wouldn’t wake up. Ever. As the hum and warmth of the dryer surrounded me though, I knew it was mistake. It would have hurt my mother and my big sister so much. I was always getting in trouble with teachers and cops and I thought they’d be better off without me, but as I fell asleep I knew it was a mistake and I wanted to say sorry and to tell them I loved them and if I could take it back I would. It was just the three of us. My dad was long gone. If I died too—but anyway I didn’t. I woke up a couple of hours later. No one had seen me. I went home and never told anyone. After that, I was a good daughter and sister. I never took anything for granted again.”
The helicopter came back. Loud, and so close this time that it stirred up the air below. The screeching beepbeepbeep of the siren led them to say their goodbyes once again.