New in the Storytime Jukebox–Land of the Voting Dead

Land of the Voting Dead

Miriam Showalter opened the heavy wooden double doors to the unseasonably warm November morning.  Sunlight streamed in, golden so early in the morning and so late in the year.  Miriam lodged the doors open with heavy wooden doorsteps that her husband Gene had carved thirty years ago to replace the ones that the previous twenty years had worn out.  Back then they’d been horses’ heads, like pieces on a chess board, and Gene had spent his days in the fields planting corn and beans.  Now all of the features, the delicate detail that Gene spent hours squinting at and refining, were worn smooth and Gene spent his days as a pile of ash in a brightly polished urn.

Miriam finished pinning the doors open and dabbed the sweat away from her brow with the tissue she kept tucked under her watch.  She could have taken off her cardigan, but she was no fool.  Just because she worked up a sweat, just because the sun was shining, just because they were having a late warm up didn’t mean that it wasn’t November.  Miriam wasn’t catching her death today.

From the front doors, Miriam walked across the dark wood floor, the insolated soles of her shoes barely making a sound in the open room, past the long table and single folding chair (with a many-times patched, pink cushion that she’d made about the same time Gene made the horse head doorstops) that she’d set up when she first got there, and down the back hallway where the sunshine couldn’t reach.  There was a storage room on the left, a bathroom on the right, a door at the end, and not a window in sight.  The light was still on in the storage room.  Miriam walked in, wrinkling her nose at the heavy musty smell and the lingering scent of something that just couldn’t be placed, but Miriam knew what it was.  She’d leave the doors open all day long.  That’d chase most of the smell out.  The place just wasn’t used enough to get rid of it entirely.

Another table and a stack of folding chairs sat against one wall.  There were several miscellaneous cardboard boxes along the wall opposite the door.  It seemed that there were more every year, but Miriam had no idea who brought the boxes or what was in any of them.  Shoved off to the side were two voting pedestals that stood like misshapen patio umbrellas, their dingy little screens separating six little cubicles, their little desks hitting Miriam just under her bust as she wheeled them out one by one into the main room, positioning them on opposite sides of the less than great hall and locking their wheels into place.

Miriam dabbed away the sweat from her face and replaced the tissue under her watchband.  She checked the time.  Russell Sims would be along any minute with the vote box.  That’s what Miriam called it.  It’s where the votes went after people were done filling in the circles with a special black pen.  That wasn’t the proper name for the thing, but Miriam didn’t care.  People gave stupid names to things anyway.  “Vote box” was accurate enough.  It wasn’t like anyone was ever going to quiz her on it.  They probably didn’t know the correct name for it either.

Russell showed up in his old truck that had the most ineffective muffler still attached to a vehicle and left it running as he wheeled in the black vote box and a cardboard box full of ballots on a dolly.

“You gonna be alright on your own, Miriam?” Russell asked as he positioned the box next to the table according to Miriam’s hand gestures.

“Yes, of course.  I’ve been dong this longer than you’ve been alive,” Miriam said.  “Just put the ballots on the table.”

“They’re supposed to be in a secure location.”

“They’ll be fine.”

Russell set the box on the end of the table.

“You got your voter book?” he asked.

“Picked it up this morning.”  Miriam opened the ballot box.

Russell looked around, unable to decide if he should put his hands in his pockets or not.  “Anything else you need while I’m on the get, Miriam?”

“No, no, Russell, I’m fine,” she said without looking up, dismissing him with a flutter of her hand.

“Good.  ‘Cause they’re on the move,” Russell said, hurrying toward the door.

“Of course they are,” Miriam said.  “They don’t like to be late.”

Russell said a hasty goodbye at the door and Miriam gave him another wave.  She listened to his truck roar off into the morning.

Miriam busied herself by testing all of the magic black pens as she placed them at the voting pedestals.  She opened up the voting book, took out a stack of ballots and a roll of “I Voted” stickers from the cardboard box, and retrieved her “voting stick” from the storage room.  Miriam sat down with a sigh, the cushion deflating beneath her, a delicate ache creeping up her legs and along her spine.  She waited.

The first voter of the day shambled in right at eight.  A trail of dirt followed him, falling from the cuffs of his pants and the pockets of his jacket.  Miriam grimaced at the sight.  She forgot to bring the broom out from the storage room.  Sighing, she got to her feet.  Miriam flipped the book to the correct page as he staggered to the table in a less than straight line, his eyes half-open, a faint scent of rot preceding him.  Miriam knew Douglas Kless when she saw him even if he had been dead six years, in part because embalming had improved over the years (Douglas had hardly moldered at all), but mostly because Miriam was always good with names and faces, even decomposed ones.

“Morning, Douglas,” she said, even though she knew he wouldn’t respond and honestly wasn’t sure if he heard her, but that was no different than when he was alive.  She liked to be polite.

With one hand, Miriam held out a pen for dead Douglas Kless, killed by a brain aneurysm on his way home from a movie, and with the other she pointed to the place in the book Douglas was supposed to sign.  Douglas took the pen with clumsy fingers and his hand dropped down to the book.  Somehow he formed something that looked like a “D” on his space.  He dropped the pen.

“Both sides, Douglas.”  Miriam flipped the ballot over and back before handing it to him.  She put a sticker on his lapel.

Douglas Kless stood there for a minute, blank and swaying.  Miriam picked up the “voting stick”, a stubby, faded blue broomstick, and prodded him with it.  Douglas started walking, feet dragging along the hardwood, to the voting pedestal.

The doorway darkened with the arrival of several more voters.

In Chicago, the dead voted in spirit.  Downstate, they voted in body.  At least in this town they did.  They voted until they were so rotted, so decayed that they couldn’t claw themselves out of their graves and shamble to the polling place.  It’s why Miriam’s husband Gene had himself cremated.  He had enough trouble deciding whom to vote for while his brains worked; God only knew the trouble he’d have once they stopped.

Miriam felt the same way.

***

Wanna read the rest? Head on over to the Storytime Jukebox and drop in some change.

It originally appeared in the anthology Zombidays: Festivities of the Flesheaters, which is currently out of print.

Writing–Short Story Long

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I started writing a story at the beginning of the month tentatively titled “Gone Missing”. I’d had the idea for a long time for a story that centered around a town where missing people end up, but didn’t really have anything more than that. A few weeks ago the missing piece crashed down from idea-space, smacked in the brain, and I quickly jotted down the whole plot idea before I forgot it. I decided to start writing it as quickly as possible thinking it might be a good project to work on while struggling with my personal essay (that’s another post for another day).

Little did I know what my brain had wrought.

When I get an idea for a short story, it’s typically just that. Short. In fact, it’s been known to happen that what I think will be a decent sized short story turns out to be a piece of flash fiction. I have a tendency toward being short-winded (which sometimes causes me problems making word count during NaNoWriMo, but I digress). It’s been known that I’ve had to go back and add to my short story word count to make the minimum word count for a submission (“Land of the Voting Dead” is a published example of this).

So, I didn’t think anything of it when I started writing “Gone Missing”. I thought it might be on the longer side, like the first few drafts of “At 3:36” that hit between 14 and 20 pages. It was when I passed the 20 page point and realized that I wasn’t even half-way done yet that I knew I had something other than a short story on my hands.

Once it hit forty pages without hitting the climax, I figured that I had something close to a novella on my hands.  It sure as heck wasn’t a short story anymore.

I’ve never written a novella before and really never had the urge to, so it seems fitting that I’d blunder into it on accident. When I begin the revisions of this short story gone long, I’m going to revise it with novella in mind. Just to see what a little intention can do for this long tale.

As it stands, I’m enjoying this pleasant surprise.

I love it when an idea that I think is good (and I think most of mine are) develops into something so much better.

Writing–Feeling That Magic

I always say that I’m a better rewriter than a writer, and for the most part that’s true. I’ve written about my love/hate relationship with first drafts and I try to get them done as quickly as possible so I can get on to the revision process, which I like and feel I’m better at.

However, I sometimes get it right the first time.

Hard to believe, I know, but it happens.

There are times when I get an idea for a short story, the idea comes so perfectly formed in my head that all I have to do is write it down. The only revising that happens are little tweaks and some polishing of grammar, word choice, and spelling and that’s it. Those are scary moments for me because I keep thinking I should be changing more, but I’m not seeing the problems. Eventually, after some worrying and mind-boggling, I give up and call the story done. I end up submitting it, thinking it’s a sure rejection.

Three stories that this has happened with have been accepted for publication.

“Land of the Voting Dead”, about a very unique polling place, came out in a rush and was in great shape when I finished it. It really did only need a few tweaks when I was done. Then I found an anthology I thought would be a perfect fit for it. Unfortunately, I was more than a few words short of the minimum word count. Surprisingly enough, after a few days thought, the scene I added to expand the work count came to me the same way the story did. It fit in perfectly with the rest of the story and the whole shebang got accepted.

“Sentries”, about plants used to deter unwanted visitors, was written with a specific anthology in mind. With the theme of the anthology in mind, I thought about what kind of story I could come up with that would fit it. There was no pressure; if I didn’t come up with a good idea, then I didn’t try to write anything for it. No big deal. Less than a week before the deadline, the idea came to me. I wrote it with the word count in mind, adding in a couple of scenes that weren’t in the original vision. Honestly, I didn’t know where I was going with them and thought for sure by the time I’d written the last word the whole thing was crap. I gave it a day and then read it again. Upon review, with a few small revisions, I found that it all worked and it ended up getting accepted to the anthology.

I almost got “Playing Chicken” right the first time. For the most part, the bulk of the story about a group of kids playing chicken with a ghost train and how it affected their lives, was right on. But there was one scene I just couldn’t get right. I knew how what I wanted it to, but I just wasn’t getting the job done. In the end, it took a couple of rewrites of that particular scene to get the clarity and effect I was going for. It paid off in the end, as the story got accepted to an anthology.

This phenomenon happened again last week. I got an idea for a flash-fiction story called “Someone To Hold” based on a superstition that if you leave a corpse’s eyes open, they’ll look for someone to take with them to the grave. I wrote the first draft of the story in a rush that I recognized. This story is mostly done. The revisions I’ll make will be superficial ones, polishing and tweaking to make it as perfect as I can get it. My hope is that I’ll be able to scrape up the entry fee money to submit it to a contest that I think it will do well in.

Then we’ll see if I really was feeling that first draft magic.