Monday, 8 August 2022

An Encounter at a Motorway Service Station by Janet Howson, a cup of cold coffee

 Okay, so when your head is drooping towards the steering wheel and there is that constant grating noise that occurs when your wheels stray over the centre lines on the road, it is definitely time to take a break from driving. I studied the various large information signs as I drove past them to see how far the nearest service station was.  Ten miles was the first and it apparently housed a restaurant, a Costa, an M&S and a petrol station. Ideal, I thought, I could do with some more fuel. I grimaced at the thought of how much the petrol would cost me.

  I was on my biannual trip to the North. It was back to my roots, so to speak, to catch up with school friends and cousins, visit the road I lived in, the schools I went to and generally immerse myself in sentimentality for a long weekend. My Rochdale cousins never seem to be able to get the wherewithall to motor down to the Southern Basin, so here I am again doing all the driving.

  Talking of which here is the exit for the Service Station. I can get my petrol first as I can see the pumps ahead of me, then park up for the various eateries, toilets (very important) and a few other shops etc.

  I waited until a bay became empty with the pump on the correct side for my petrol cap. I had ended up on a previous occasion with it the wrong side and had to queue up and start again. I filled up the car and went into the shop to pay.

  I studied the fridge full of sandwiches, baguettes, wraps, pasta pots, fruit, cakes and crisps. I hadn’t brought any lunch with me and it would be cheaper to buy a sandwich in a shop than in the restaurant or coffee shop. I picked out a plant based wrap, a packet of baked crisps and a plastic container of grapes. I was quite hungry after my morning’s drive.  I queued to pay and left the shop to re park the car to go to the main building of the service station where the toilets (imminent now) and a coffee shop to buy a hot drink would be.

   So far so good. The toilets were spotlessly clean and the queue for a drink at Costa’s wasn’t too horrendous compared with previous experiences. Then I walked around, finally finding a small table that wasn’t piled sky high with discarded sandwich boxes, soiled plates and cardboard cups left half full of cold coffee.

  I had extricated the wrap which was an ordeal of its own. Did the manufacturers not want us to eat their product? It was a test of endurance and technical skill to complete the task which I finally did and was just about to take my first bite, when there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned round to see a lady in uniform with her sleeves rolled up and a cap from under which her mop of auburn hair  was flying free of its tethers. She was wearing a badge that said, ‘Monica. I am here to help.’

“You can only eat food purchased in the restaurant at these tables, there are people who have queued up for ages for hot food that need somewhere to sit.”

“But I bought my food in your petrol station shop, doesn’t that give me permission to eat at one of your tables”

“If you bought it at the BP petrol station, that has nothing to do with us, I suggest you eat it in your car.” At this she turned round to usher a young couple sporting trays to my table. They looked suitably embarrassed but not enough to stop them towering over me, waiting for the free table.

  Okay, I thought, so I hadn’t bought anything from the restaurant but I had bought coffee from Costa, surely I could find a table there. So picking up my tray with my wrap and coffee that was going cold, I set off to Costa, unaware that I was being shadowed by the service station’s secret police in the guise of ‘Monica I am here to help.’

  As I approached Costa I could see an elderly lady was making moves to leave her table. She had put the remains of her lunch with the napkins and drink carton back onto the tray and was pulling on her coat. I waited until she had taken a couple of steps away from the table and I put down my own tray at lightening pace, sitting down at the same time to make sure no one nipped in ahead of me or removed a chair to put at another table. This had happened to me before and is very annoying. A table but no chair is of no use. I sighed with relief. Now I could eat my lunch in peace. I might even get a couple of chapters read of my Book Club choice that I needed to have finished by the end of the week.

  “Excuse me the same rule applies here. Only food purchased at Costa can be eaten on these tables. You will either have to sit outside near the Car Park or, as I said earlier, you could take it back to your car.” ‘Monica. I Am Here To Help’ looked positively victorious as she peered down at me.

  I raised my head slowly and peered at her as I drew in a deep breath. “Let’s get this straight. All the customers who have just bought drinks but no food are allowed to have a table but although I also have bought a drink, I am not allowed to sit here because I have got a sandwich bought elsewhere. Does that not strike you as nonsensical?”

  She considered this for a moment. “Rules are rules and you are breaking one of them.” She folded her arms, her walkie talkie pinned to her jacket crackled. “I will have to take this call and I expect you to have moved out of this chair and out of the service station by the time I have finished.”

  She turned away as if her conversation was highly important and confidential. I knew I had a pad of sticky notes in my bags along with a pen so I fished these out and quickly wrote on one of the notes.

Monica. I Am Here To Hassle and Embarrass you.

I stuck it on her back and marched off with my tray. 

About the author

 Janet Howson taught English and Drama for thirty five years and didn't take up writing until she retired. She has had two novellas published, 'Charitable Thoughts' and 'Dramatic Episodes' as well as having short stories published in anthologies, including 'Best of CafeLit 8,9 and 10, 'Nativity' and 'Mulling it Over'. 
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Sunday, 7 August 2022


The death was announced of Corporal H Egg on
active duty.

The full details will be available only after the
inquiry but his parents have been informed by
the army that his was an accidental death and it
is believed caused by a fall.

He had been scaling a wall and fell over 60ft. 

He was immediately supported by members of his
regiment but was proclaimed dead after arrival
at the local field camp.

Our condolences go out to his family.


It was a sad day at St Cuthbert Church this
last weekend. The Bells tolled to mark the
sad event of the Church cat; firstly being
lost and then being found dead at the
bottom of the well.

The vicar has assured all that netting is
now placed over the well in the graveyard
to prevent any further occurrences.   

The Jackson Twins are once again in the news.
These children have always been known to be

Sunday last they were attempting to to irrigate
the garden of their neighbour Miss Muffet
(unable to do it herself after a fall sustained
whilst having her breakfast). Finding the church
well netted over (see above) they attempted to
climb to the pond at the top of the hill.

Sadly the boy fell and hit his head; his sister
trying to aid him, followed suit. Not badly hurt
they were able to return to Miss Muffet’s garden
where she administered first aid.

Let us hope this is the last of the misfortune to
happen to this kindly-disposed pair.


A local farmer having been unable to sell his fleeces
because of the glut in the market. He has resorted to
giving away this by-product of his lamb production.
The three recipients of these gifts are Mistress S.
Dame T and the child the end of his lane.


Survey has identified that the bridge on
London Road will be closed on the 24th to 27th
of this month for structural repairs


The Macdonald Farm is hoping to diversify to
include a Petting Area close the main A88 road.
Hoping to attract visitors to our area and help all
residents to gain from increased throughput to
shops, restaurants and cafes in the area.
Guests will be encouraged to imitate the sound of
the farm in a unique way to aid children (and
adults) from local towns identify the various
‘country sounds’ . This will include simulated
noises from farm equipment, weather and
importantly animals.


Local schools have been encouraged to participate. 


Attempts are being made to repair the Town
Hall clock which is always expected to chime
on the hour.

Recently chimes could not be heard at one
o’clock. Investigation has taken place and it
was found the mechanism behind the chimes
had had been hampered by a mouse.

We have been assured that all will be in order
by the 24th of this month.

About the author 

Chris Darrock is an active member of Bury U3A. She wrote these snippets of news when her creative writing group, that meets on the second and fourth Thursday of the month, were invited to turn well-known stories or nursery rhymes into news items.    

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Saturday, 6 August 2022

The Hole Thing by James Kowalczyk, "coffee light and sweet" (a la Brooklyn old school)

 At first the hole was the diameter of a toothpick. I’d been clearing some books from the end table next to my bed when I noticed it. What caught my attention was the exactness of the circle- completely symmetrical, as if something from the other side had poked through somehow. After decelerating the gears of my imagination, I decided to “keep an eye on it” as my father would say after jerry-rigging a repair around the house. Three weeks later, the hole was bigger, about the size of a dime, asymmetrical with plaster dust spilled on the end table, clearly indicating something had been pushed through. I was a bit freaked out for a second but after calming down, I retrieved a small penlight from the drawer of the end table and looked inside the hole. Nothing. I’m not sure what I expected. I called my sister that night to get her take on the situation.

            “ Are you sure it wasn’t there all along and you’re just imagining that it’s grown?”

            “Thank you for invalidating my concerns. “


            “From the inside. Something appears to have been carving out the hole.”

“Something? Have you looked inside?”

“Come over and look for yourself.”

“I’ll be right over.”

            I poured myself a glass of wine to calm my nerves while I waited on my sister. She didn’t live too far away and at the time she was completing work on her doctorate in evolutionary biology so should there be any weird speciation goings on, she’d have an angle on it. This was my imagination in high gear again. I tried to talk myself back from the edge and then the doorbell rang.

            My sister was stumped although she did concede that there was something to my worry. Little consolation, but it did motivate me to buy some steel wool and spackle from the hardware store the next day and cover up the hole. I’d touch up the paint when I had a chance, just to seal the deal and be done with the mystery.  I figure, out of sight, out of mind.  Silly me. The next day the hole was even bigger.

            I had left work early that day. I knew there was something wrong before I even entered my apartment. The stench punched me in the face as soon as I got off the elevator. It was a cross between roasted garbage and rotten eggs that knotted at the back of the throat, expanded, and threatened to cut off  the air supply. I had to retreat back into the elevator to catch my breath. Once I did, I covered my mouth and nose with my jacket. With reconstituted resolve, I made my way out of the elevator and moved toward my apartment door.

            I made my way through the living room. The stench seemed to hang in the air and cling to the walls and was so bad I couldn’t think.  Then it hit me- the hole!  That was where the malodor seemed to be emanating from. My blood ran cold. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and texted 911 to my sister. She responded immediately.

            “What’s going on? Are you alright?”

            “Yes, just get over here fast. The stench…”

            “You’re sounding muffled, is your phone…”

            “I’m covering my mouth and nose,” I quickly yelled.

            “I’ll be right there.”

            In the meantime, I opened another window and checked the kitchen. Nothing. I retrieved a scarf from the closet to give to my sister for the smell. Then the doorbell rang.

            “Oh my goodness,” she managed to say while coughing.

            “Here, take this,” I said, handing her the scarf. She wrapped it around her face and I gestured for her to follow me to the bedroom. At the threshold, I scanned for the spackled-over hole near my end table.  My stomach dropped. The hole was now a jagged-edged gaping wound in my wall about three feet wide As we got closer, I could see what appeared to be hair hanging out of it. There wasn’t that  much of it but as I got closer I could see it resembled human hair. My sister frowned and walked into the living room. She had her cell phone out.

            “I’m calling 911,” she said in the living room. And then she went into the hallway. I followed.

            “And tell them what? There’s a mysterious hole in my wall and a stifling stench emanating from it?”

            “Keep your voice down. It’s ringing,” she said as she pulled her jacket across her face because of the smell. I could tell she was scared because she always crosses her arms when she is scared.

“Hang up,” I said, “I have a better idea. We’ll go down to the firehouse around the corner and get some help. I don’t know what I’ll say, but it’s better than talking to some dispatcher sitting at a desk.”

            “Alright,” she said, and hung up. With that I told her to wait for me in the lobby and that I had to get my jacket and my keys and I’d be right there.

            The last thing I recall is looking for my keys in my apartment and a shadow behind me interrupting the light. I froze. My blood ran cold. I waited a second and then forced myself to turn around. Nothing. I made my way into the living room. What I saw there, I will never forget.

            Seated on the sofa was a person,  with the head and arms of a praying mantis, eating something. The torso and legs were definitely human. It looked up at me, as I slumped against the threshold.

“It seems I’ve developed an appetite for plaster,” it said, rising off the sofa. Suddenly, I was in the uncanny valley. Its mandibles were still working on the plaster, antennae moving in sync with every chew. I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out.

“I want to thank you so much for hosting my metamorphosis.”

About the author

James Kowalczyk was born and raised in Brooklyn but now lives in Northern California with his wife, two daughters, five fish, and four cats. He teaches English at the high school and college levels. His flash fiction and poetry has appeared in online as well as print publications. 

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Friday, 5 August 2022

August by Jim Bates, Arnie Palmer

Let me tell you, August in the Northwoods in not the most fun time to be there. First off, it’s hot. Which is fine. Especially if you live near a lake like we do. Just run down the dirt road behind our cabin to Lake Moraine and jump in and cool off. Right? Sure, go ahead. We tried it once, me and Allie and Andy. We lasted about ten minutes. The water was great, nice and cool and refreshing. There was light wave action and the lake was pretty was sparkling. Overhead the sky was a deep blue with a few puffy clouds. Perfect, right?

Not quite. To that lovely scene we must factor in the bugs: the mosquitoes, the gnats (black flies) and deer flies and horse flies! Oh, and I forgot to mention the hundreds of varieties of ticks (at least). Man, the blood sucking never ends.

I once read story entitled Eaten Alive about a guy who had nearly lost his mind when he got lost in a dense Northwoods forest and the aforementioned insects attacked him mercilessly and nearly did what the title implied: ate him alive.

And they were bad on that day we went swimming, that was for sure, swarming all over us, getting in our mouths and noses and ears, chewing and biting our arms and legs and shoulders and back. In a word - pure hell. Well, two words, but you get my drift. It was bad. And during the season in August, they’re the worst.

            So why we decided to go pick blueberries in August is beyond me, but we did.

            “Come on with us,” Meg said, loading Andy and Allie into the Honda Fit. “It’ll be fun.”

            I pointed down to the lake. “Don’t you remember that time I took the kids swimming? We were almost…”

            “Yeah, yeah, I know. You were almost eaten alive. I know,” she said, chiding me. Like I’ve said before. I’m not really what you’d consider a woodsman by any stretch of the imagination. Don’t get me wrong, I like being up north, especially in the security of our small town, but when it comes to living actually ‘in the woods’ I’ll leave that to those better suited for it. Like Jack and Linn and Arnie and Amber. And, now, apparently, my wife. She poked me in the side with her elbow. “Come on, Lee.” She turned to the kids. “What you guys think? Should Daddy go with us?”

            Their chorus of resounding “yeses” sealed the deal. I went.

            From our cabin, we drove to Arnie and Amber’s place on a dirt road for five miles through jack pine forests and bogs, kicking up a plume of dust the entire way. It had been a dry year which knocked back the mosquitoes a little bit, but no matter. The black flies and deer flies and horse flies happily filled the void.

            Arnie was with Jack half an hour west cutting wood in the Superior Forest so it was just me and Meg, Amber and Linn and the kids, Andy, Allie, Sam and Willow.

            As we drove up, Amber came out to greet us, brushing away gnats (black flies) as she approached. We got out of the car and she hugged Meg. “Glad you could make it.” She waved at me over the roof of the car. “Nice to see you, too, Lee.” She grinned and tossed me a can of Northwoods Off insect repellant. “Meg said the bugs like you a lot. That’s too bad. It must be something in your blood.”

Was she kidding around? Was I genetically predisposed to be an attractive meal to every single flying, buzzing and biting insect known to man? “Really?” I asked, buying immediately into her theory. It made sense in a strange, weird way.

She smiled, showing me her white teeth. Into her second month of being pregnant, she looked happy with herself and with life. “Naw. I’m just kidding.” She smacked at a particular bothersome horsefly. “They like everyone.”


“Don’t worry about it. Spray yourself down with that Off and you’ll be good to go.”

So, I did. Liberally. I also sprayed Andy and Allie who covered their eyes and giggled and would barely hold still. They were pretty excited to go berry picking with Aunt Amber which was their new name for her ever since they were told last month she was going to have a baby. Why they chose to call her that I have no idea.

With the kids sprayed, Amber said, “Okay, let’s get going.”

“Where are we off to?” I asked, brushing away some gnats. The spray worked to keep them off me, like the name implied, but they seemed to hover at a point just outside the range of effectiveness of the spray, about a foot. I guess I’d have to learn to live with them and that bothersome fact. At least they weren’t landing in mass and feeding on me like a human smorgasbord.

Meg was just grinning at my discomfort. “Come on, Lee. Man up. It’ll be fun. A whole new experience.”

Meg was taking to Northwoods life in a big way. Not only was she happily running our home daycare for Andy and Allie and Sam and Willow, she was also forever taking them on field trips out in the woods and fields near us identifying birds, trees and wildflowers. She had happily assisted me in cutting firewood over the winter, taking over for a few weeks when I’d injured myself with the ax, and Amber was teaching her the basics of home caning. Hence the trip to the woods to collect blueberries. Meg and Amber and Linnwere going to make blueberry preserves and blueberry pie. My mouth watered just thinking about eating both of them. So, I was all in, as far the picking went. Hopefully the spray would help make keep the swarming hordes at bay.

Amber drove her rusted out, dust covered pickup. What it lacked in looks it made up for in serviceability. It ran like a top. (Amber was just as good a mechanic as Arnie, maybe better.) Meg and I and Linn crammed into the front on the bench seat while the kids rode in the open back with the admonishment from Amer to ‘keep your butts on the floor’. Which they did.

We drove deep into the jack pine forest, turning right and left at various intersections until I had no idea where we were. Amber and Meg and Linn chatted away about the kids, her pregnancy and canning preserves while I looked out the window. There was nothing but pine trees as far as I could see. Not a building in sight, either. We were on state land so it was just going to be us and the forest and the insects. And, hopefully, blueberries.

After about fifteen-minutes, Amber leaned over and asked me, “Lee, have you ever picked blueberries?”

I shook my head. “No.”

She grinned. “You’re in for a treat.”

I nodded in agreement. “I hope so.” In fact, the further we drove into the forest, the more worried I became. “What about bears?” I asked her. “Don’t we have to worry about them? And cougars, I added. I heard someone saw cougar tracks last week.”

Amber smiled at me. “Lee, this is their forest. We’re the interlopers here. We’ll go in, do our thing, pick our berries and get out. As quick as we can, okay? It should be fine.”

Good advice, but why was it the only word that stuck in my mind was ‘should’?

“You’re the boss,” I said, trying to lighten the moment.

She grinned. “I am. Stick with me.” She pointed to Meg. “Like you wife says, it’ll be fun.”

Meg looked at me and smiled. “See?”

A few minutes later Amber pulled the truck off the side of the road. “Okay, everybody out.” We did as we were told. We were in a clearing in the forest. The ground cover looked to be nothing remarkable, just low growing grass and fragrant wintergreen, a plant common in the area.

“This is it?” I asked skeptically.

“Yep,” Amber said. “Look closely.”

I squatted down so I was close to the ground and did as I was told. After a minute my eyes adjusted to what I was seeing. “Oh, wow,” I exclaimed. “Incredible.” I’d never seen anything like it. We were standing in a blueberry patch that stretched through the clearing as far as I could see. I stood up. “Amber, this is amazing.”

She grinned and put on a wide brimmed straw hat. “It is, isn’t it? I’ve been picking here since I was a girl. Back then, I’d come with my mom and grandmother. It was my great grandmother who’d discovered it, maybe a hundred years ago.”

“Wow,” was all I could say.

Next to me Meg said, “Um, Lee? You might want to close your mouth. The bugs, you know.”


“Let’s get going,” Amber said. She handed out gallon buckets to each of us, kids included. Then she directed us. “We’ll just work through the clearing.” She looked at the kids. “Pick, don’t eat.” They nodded solemnly. “And stay together.” She looked at Meg and me and Linn. “Everyone.”

“Okay,” we all said.

Then we got to work.

I have to say, it was fun being in the forest with no one around but us. After the wildlife got used to us we heard birds singing, woodpeckers tapping on trees and squirrels chattering nearby scolding us. I especially liked hearing the wind blowing through the pines like a loud whisper.

The berries were on low growing bushes about a foot off the ground. The kids made their way easily through the huge patch, but us adults had to bend over. It was hard work and sweaty work, but Amber kept us entertained with stories of her youth growing up on the Turtle River Reservation. She had a horse named Quicksilver that she rode every day and even entered barrel riding competitions in local rodeos. “I don’t ride anymore,” she told us when we asked her about it. Not enough time these days. Maybe when the kids are older.”

Meg and I glanced at each other. Amber was a good, kind and caring person, and we were both thinking the same thing: that we hoped that dream could eventually come true.

We’d been the clearing for about an hour and each of our buckets had been emptied once into a larger container. We’d moved away from the road deeper into the pines, staying together and working hard. Now that we had been picking for a time, the rhythm of the task was Zen-like. And, like I’d been told earlier by Amber, it was pretty fun.

But then the bear showed up. Yeah, a bear. A black bear with a cub. It was Willow who saw it first.


“What, honey?” Willow glanced at her daughter.

Willow pointed. “Look.”

Amber stood up and followed where her daughter was pointing. “Oh, my god.”

Meg and I stood up. “Shit,” I said.

“Shush,” Amber admonished me. “She doesn’t see us. Their eyesight isn’t the best. Plus,” she tested the breeze with a finger, “the wind is blowing away from her towards us, so she’ll have a hard time smelling us.”

Meg grabbed my arm and whispered. “Just do what Amber says, okay?”

Which was good advice, because my mind had gone blank for a moment. Meg knew me well enough to know that when it came back, all I would think of doing was grabbing the kids and running for the truck.

Cooler heads prevailed. Amber took over and whispered to the kids. “Andy, Allie, Sam and Willow, listen up. Walk very slowly to me.” Which they did. While they were doing that, Amber turned to us adults and said, “When the kids get here, we will all walk as quickly and as quietly as we can to the truck. Okay?”

“Okay,” we whispered.

“The key is not to startle her. Okay?”

“Yes,” we whispered again.

And that’s what we did. We held out kids’ hands and hurried through the woods. I had Andy and Meg had Allie and we all still held onto our buckets, which was pretty amazing when you thought about it.

I glanced over my shoulder once. The momma bear, as Amber called her, and her cub were methodically working their way through the berry patch moving away from us. If they’d seen us, they’d ignored us. Incredible as it may seem, the entire experience, which could have ended horrifically, ended quite well.

Later, back at Amber’s we were sitting around her kitchen table having coffee. The kids were outside looking at the two goats Amber kept for making cheese.

Amber took a sip from her mug, “Well, that was the last thing I expected. I mean there are bears out there for sure, but usually they stay away if they sense humans in the area.”

“I’m just glad no one was hurt,” I said.

Amber took a bite of her cookie and chewed thoughtfully. “You know, we haven’t had much rain. Maybe the momma and the little cub were chowing down on those berries for a little extra moisture or something.”

“Do you see many bears?” Meg asked.

“Not really. Like I said, they’re around, but they really do stick to themselves.” She paused. “As long as they have enough food.”

I looked at the gallon buckets of berries lined up on the kitchen counter. And the big container bulging with berries on the floor next to it. “Well, I’m glad we did it. Picked the berries, I mean. It was fun to be in the woods and it was cool to see the bear and her cub.”

Amber winked at Meg and said, “We’ll make a woodsman out you yet.”

They both laughed. I kind of got it, I think.

Oh, and those blueberry preserves and that blueberry pie? They were the best I’d ever tasted. Meg told me she thought seeing the bear and the cub might have had something to do with it. You know what? I think she might be right.


About the author

Jim lives in a small town in Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in nearly four hundred online and print publications. His collection of short stories “Resilience” was published in early 2021 by Bridge House Publishing. Additional stories can be found on his blog:  


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Thursday, 4 August 2022

The Day Before the Wedding by Adam Strassberg, Doppio

 The day before the wedding, Alice admitted to Frank in a whisper, “I never imagined that I could fall so madly in love with someone I find so physically unattractive.” She stared directly into his small brown eyes, lovingly, deeply, but, and Frank clearly must have noticed, never longingly.

It was a good marriage. Or at least good enough. Sometimes, with the lights off, and if they did it from behind, Alice could even orgasm. She would close her eyes and forget her husband’s short fat figure. In her mind, she cycled through a line up of the various real men she remembered. Six foot five, tan, muscles, broad shoulders, small waists, long arms and legs, large hands and feet. She would point a finger at her choice for the night and he would come forwards to ravish her. This wasn’t cheating - was it?

Everything worked until it didn’t. After two children, two decades and two times twenty equals forty pounds, she despised her body now almost as much as Frank’s. With the kids out of the house, he wanted to fuck every day, but she lacked sufficient imagination. Besides, the changes were coming. She was dry down there and it mostly just chaffed.

So she bought a large dog to fill their empty nest and allowed it to sleep in their bed. Frank got a new laptop and had their son show him how to use google incognito search. He began sleeping on the couch downstairs, then the bed in the basement. But she loved him and made sure his internet connection was the highest speed.

It was a strong marriage. Or at least stronger than most and still going strong.  He was devoted to her and she loved him. She had never lied to him, or lied with him - at least not not in any way that mattered, technically.

About the author 


Adam Strassberg is a retired psychiatrist living in Portland, Oregon. His work uses the intersection of psychology, religion, mythology and magical realism to explore the human condition. When he's not writing or napping, he often can be found updating his website at 


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