Short Fictions & Curiosities are monthly offerings: a sample of short stories, wonders, terrors, and experiments in speculative fiction: small slivers of darkness, horror, and wonders from the vault for your enjoyment.
I began this experiment partially for the love of the fantastic, and partially because I wanted to take mini-vacations from the novel I’ve been toiling over for the last year. I look at Short Fictions & Curiosities as a collection of oddities that didn’t quite want to fit anywhere else: misfit creatures that occasionally poked their heads out of the murky places where I’d hidden them.
As bizarre as they were, I still wanted to give them a home. And here we are.
When he spun out into the street and the curb seemed to catch his heel as if it didn’t want him wandering too far from the bar, there was a moment when the stars seemed to fall all at once. The pavement caught him when he crashed into it, the bleat of a French horn a bark of laughter at his back. In that second before the whiskey caught him up, Louis thought he saw the man for the first time:
There and gone -- a lit ember from a thin cigar split into twin dots, like eyes in the darkness — but that was only the drink making things appear doubled, Louis reckoned. At the time, it hadn’t registered that he’d spent his week’s earnings at the bar; a whopping forty-three dollars. His tab had been a hundred and forty-two, and the band had only begun their warmup.
Then his horn sailed over and beyond his scraped palms. It sparked as it hit the ground, coming to rest in the middle of the alley with a shriek of brass on concrete.
Curved into the street, collecting gravel in the places where he could hardly grow a beard. His lip felt hot, his mouth too full -- like he’d gotten hit, only he wasn’t sure. That was the whiskey’s fault. Spit smeared and tasting only a little blood, he raised himself an inch and gave up.
The world heaved beneath him, conspiring to toss him off when he closed his eyes against the sound of the band inside the bar warming up.
“You want to play, son, you mind yourself.” The warning, delivered with lazy surety, echoed against the flat exteriors of the nearby Creole cottages. They slouched against each other, conspiring like drunks. “‘Sides you can barely make that horn fart, much less sing.”
The waterline leftover from Katrina was a brown smudge that no one could afford to paint over. He used it as a measure as the world tipped over, a boot beneath his ribs flipping him onto his back. The stars spiralled overhead like someone had reached into the sky and swirled them with their fingers.
“But mind me.” A puff of hot breath that smelled like sourdough clouded his vision. “If you so much as toot in my direction -- if I get a whiff of your stink in these parts again -- it’ll be a lot more than a kick in the ass you’d wish I’d left you with. You’re too young to be causing such a fuss this early in the game, but you ain’t too young to get a lesson beaten into you.”
Carl leaned in, and though Louis batted at the bar’s owner, his hands dragged against Carl’s ham hock arms. Meaty fists bulged from the ends. Sausage fingers that were still quicker than lightening and left you just as debilitated when they struck.
“Got no patience for thieves. Y’ ought to have paid for them drinks.”
“I can pay by playing.” His mouth made the words thick, an uncooperative tongue forking into his teeth.
“You can’t play worth shit, and no one steals from me, kid.”
The scent of clove and tobacco lingered like a pall in the alley; something mixed in with the rainwater that belonged to this part of town at half past midnight less than he did.
The waddle of Carl’s underarm flapped as he drew his fist back behind his ear to end things with one final percussive lesson.
The first notes of the steam piano off the Natchez sounded from the canal, buffered by the breeze but not entirely smothering the carnival undertones of the calliope. Carl looked up, and his head struck the ground as the moosey let him go.
Darkness was swift and absolute — not longer than a blink, but when he opened his eyes, the first wash of daylight greyed the sky.
By the time he drew himself up to his elbows, the street was empty. Carl was gone. The bar closed. Vanished like smoke — but by then, that was all that there was: a ring of clove and spice veiling the man. In the distance, Louis thought he heard the first threads of a band warming up with “I’ll fly away.” It didn’t make any sense to him, but he wasn’t thinking of where the time had gone or how long he’d lain in the street.
Louis didn’t ask how he'd been spared, but he looked around himself, and he looked for his horn.
The man, clad in a white linen suit untouched by wrinkles, brushed the dirt from the instrument’s bruised patina. A deep dent cut into its side; the sort that maybe gave a good player some character, but ruined the blowhards who couldn’t afford the repair. Blowhards like Louis.
Blowhards with debt who couldn’t get a gig to save them from getting booted out of their shitty apartment in the projects banking Basin Street — the ones that overlooked the cemetery. The neighbours never complained when he practiced.
“Strategic,” he mumbled into his chest.
The tips of two polished wingtips swam before him.
“Boy, you’re skunked.”
The man crouched, his features a blurry smear beneath the brim of his hat. A fedora. Louis liked the look of it, and he reached, trying to ensure that the gentleman before him wasn’t a spectre. No one ever wore white like that in these parts; a suit like that belonged to a bygone age.
“This yours, son?” the man asked of the horn. “That old fella near ruined it. A boy like you ought to take better care of his tools.”
“Where’s Carl?” Louis managed, craning. “He kicked me out before I could play.”
When the man smiled, a glint of gold twinkled off a canine.
“I took care of that blowfly.”
Louis’ brain couldn’t cobble together the pieces quickly enough. The most he managed was a warbled, “Thanks?”
“You’re a musician,” the man observed. “Looking a bit thin, though. Doesn’t look like it’s keeping you fed.”
“Not hardly, sir.” Louis’ response slipped out without the consonants. "Pray for better times ahead."
The man hauled him to his feet, and Louis slouched into the extra support. His head pounded with the heaving swell of disorientation; the feeling that all the blood you could bottle pooled in the brain and made the eyes splotch over with stars. It’d find his stomach next.
"Prayer's no fix for a lack of options. Sometimes, a boy just ought to be afforded the chance to prove himself. You just haven't been offered the right opportunity, son."
Just as surely, the headache followed: it drummed at his temples with the regularity of a second line parade.
“We’re gonna get caught up in it, we don’t skedaddle,” said the man, and Louis swung round with a twirl and stumble.
There was indeed a parade coming up the street: a bustle of black-suited folks, umbrellas high. Dancing children. A woman wailed out the words in a high soprano: her soul flying home. In their midst, they hoisted a coffin.
The band behind grew louder the closer it got.
“Jazz funeral,” said the man. He didn’t raise his voice, but Louis heard him easily. “They only carry the dead out like that when they’re great — the musicians. The Big Brass. But I’m sure you know that.”
Louis took his damaged horn back when the man pressed it into his chest.
“It’s the honour of the thing, son: to be waked like that. Means you done something important.”
Louis knew. He knew what it meant. His heart burned with it.
He also knew that’s the reason they were playing at such an ungodly hour of the day. It must have been half ten. Who’d died in the night? He didn’t know. The last jazz funeral he recalled had been Lionel Baptiste's, and the entirety of the lower ninth had mourned him. Hell, the whole of the Quarter even.
For the old fellas, they played a dirge to the cemetery.
The body in the coffin, to have earned music meant for the wake, had to have been mighty young. They made the parade a celebration of life, no matter how short. The crowd was enormous too, and as it engulfed them, Louis thought he heard the man ask:
“You want that, boy?”
And Louis said, “More than life itself.”
As the coffin approached, its bearers dipped and lowered it from their shoulders — a plexiglass window showed off the bouquet in a young man’s hands inside. Something glinted in the sunlight amidst the lilies. Brass. Shining.
It wasn’t that the coffin was opened to see its owner, it’s just that they put the body on display. It was just a little thing: a small viewing window for folks to say goodbye through without popping the lid. But it was enough to encourage Louis to press on through the crowd -- he needed to see who it was.
“Who is that?” he hollered, turning to the spot where the man had stood as the throng engulfed him, but the man in the white linen suit and fedora was gone.
The crowd swelled, the music loud, making Louis' blood pound. His feet itched like he wanted to get caught up in the swell, start high-kicking along with them. He edged along with the crowd, wanting to ask someone who the kid in the coffin was, but knowing he wouldn’t be a heard.
The kid had a horn underneath all those flowers.
His headache drumming spots behind his eyes, Louis edged closer, moving along with the dancers, wanting to know to whom those long fingers belonged. Who once owned that beautiful horn, so unlike his — that thing of beauty; polished and as bright as the sun at noon on a hot day.
The tempo changed, the rhythm becoming frenetic as they switched songs. Before the crowd jostled him out of the way, Louis caught a glimpse into the coffin that stopped his pounding heart in his chest:
Eyes closed, lips sewn shut to keep the mouth from falling open: a boy lay as if sleeping, nestled in the cream satin of his death pillow. Black hair trimmed neat and close to the scalp. High cheekbones. Full lips.
For a moment, Louis thought it was his reflection in the glass, but then the sun overtook the window, and he couldn’t know for sure at all, really —
But for a moment, that boy in the coffin looked exactly like him.
He stood in the street, stock and solid though his knees didn’t have the stiffness to hold him. He waited until the second line passed, and he was alone and sweating the cold into his teeshirt in the hot sun.
Then Louis walked home.
Past Rampart and Basin, past Saint Louis One and the boys that hung out on the corner, he took the emergency staircase up the back of the building to sneak past his landlord, and ignored the eviction announcement scotch-taped to the jamb. Someone had shoved his mail under the door, red letters making plain statements of the final notices.
He didn’t notice any of that, though.
Beneath them all was a manilla envelope — it's contents heavy. He pulled it apart with stiff fingers, extracting a stack of paper as big of his thumb on letterhead that had the heft of something more important still. The scent of vinyl and the offer of more zeroes than he’d ever seen following the first two digits of a recording offer. A contract, though he couldn’t understand the legalities as such, the gist was clear:
Kira Butler writes speculative fiction for adults, new adults, and young adult readers. She especially appreciates dark urban fantasy and low key horror, and likes to write about everything in between. She lives in Montreal, where she is working towards the completion of her first young adult horror novel.