After Ever After, by Bruce Golden

SFReader 2015 Story Contest
Third Place Winner

Novelist, journalist, satirist, Bruce Golden’s short stories have been published more than a hundred times across 20 countries and a score of anthologies. Asimov’s Science Fiction described his second novel, “If Mickey Spillane had collaborated with both Frederik Pohl and Philip K. Dick, he might have produced Bruce Golden’s Better Than Chocolate”–and about his novel Evergreen, “If you can imagine Ursula Le Guin channeling H. Rider Haggard, you’ll have the barest conception of this stirring book, which centers around a mysterious artifact and the people in its thrall.” You can read more of Golden’s stories in his new collection Tales of My Ancestors.

 

Once upon a time there was a young woman and a young man who were madly, passionately in love. Then they got married.

They lived in a second-hand mobile home set on a patch of sparsely wooded bottom-land, surrounded by piles of refuse and the back seat of a ’63 Bonneville. Life was good . . . for the first few weeks. But the years that followed did not unfold true to their fairy-tale expectations. Soon their love was rusting away, much like their trailer.

“When are you gonna get off your ass and start making some money — some real money.”

She kicked the bean bag chair for emphasis, and her husband, who’d been dreaming about a monster truck with naked-girl-silhouette mudflaps, jerked awake.

“Dammit, Red, what did you go and do that for? What’s wrong now?”

“What’s wrong now?” she mocked. “What’s wrong now? Three blind mice could see what’s wrong. It’s the same thing that’s been wrong since we got married, Harley Hunter. We’ve got nothing — Bnothing but this beat-up old trailer and a yard full of scrap metal.”

“That’s all gonna be worth something someday.” He struggled up out of the chartreuse vinyl bean bag and said, “What’s got into you anyway?”

“Well it sure ain’t been you,” she said, hands on her hips, “at least not lately.”

Not that she missed his clumsy groping and poking. She’d given up her schoolgirl Prince Charming fantasy years ago, along with her dreams of a big two-story house with plenty of closet space and all the fancy designer-name clothes she wanted.

Instead of a prince, she’d ended up with a toad. All she wanted now was a new air conditioning unit so she didn’t have to sweat like a hog all day long.

“Well you’re not exactly little Red Riding Hood anymore, are you?”

You!

She grabbed a beer can off the counter, disappointed to find it nearly empty, but hurled at him anyway. He ducked and it glanced off his arm, splattering him with room-temperature suds.

“Dammit, Red! I was just joking. Now look at this mess. I’m gonna have to change my shirt.”

“That’ll be a first, won’t it?” she said, still steamed.

“You’re one to talk,” he said, pulling off his shirt and using it to mop his armpits. “Look at this place. It’s a sty. Why don’t you spend more time cleaning, and less time bitching.”

“Maybe if you’d ever get some work, I could buy some cleaning products, and maybe even a new vacuum cleaner that did more than blow the dust around.”

“You know the landscaping business has been slow lately.”

“Really? I thought it was just you that was slow.”

He found a shirt in a pile by the bed. “You won’t talk like that when I win the big Super Powerball lotto. I bet you’ll be real sweet then. I’m gonna win it. You watch and see.”

“Oh yeah? It sounds like to me you’ve been smoking some of Jack’s beanstalk again.”

She grabbed his jacket off the antler hook and started rummaging through his pockets.

“Hey, what are you doing there? I need that. I’m going to work.”

“I thought you didn’t have any work?”

“Well that’s how much you know. I got me a job to do today.”

“Good for you,” she said, finding something in one of the pockets. “I need ten dollars to buy cigarettes and some more cherry-orange wildfire Fruit Roll-ups.” She pulled out a scrap of paper. “What’s this?”

“That’s the address for my job,” he said, hurrying over to retrieve it.

“One-oh-seven Dwarf Drive,” she read out loud, wondering why it sounded familiar. “Isn’t that where Snow lives?”

“Yeah, so what? She wants her lawn mowed.”

“I bet she does,” said Red, her voice dripping sarcasm. She didn’t care. The carpet was already stained.

He grabbed his jacket, but she held onto the scrawled note, glaring at him.

“It’s just work,” insisted Harley. “That’s all. You want me to work don’t you?”

She held out the paper scrap. “If it’s just work, then what’s this little love heart here around the initials SW?”

“It doesn’t mean nothing,” he said, grabbing it from her. “You know how Snow is.”

“Yeah, I know. I know every dwarf, troll, leprechaun, and hobbit in these parts has heigh-hoed that brunette coochie of hers.”

“There’s no call to be talking like that.”

“It’s the truth and you know it.”

“I gotta go to work.”

As quick as the door slammed behind him, Red’s anger turned to apprehension. For a fleeting instant she was overcome by the notion he wouldn’t be coming back–ever. She hurried to the window, pushed aside the strands of gold tinsel, and saw Harley kick one of the empties that littered their front yard. The can ricocheted off the old car seat. Wistfully she remembered how they used to sit outside together on that seat. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d done that.

The sound of his battered pickup brought her back to reality.

She retreated from the window, more angry than maudlin now, as Harley drove away. In front of her mirror she turned side-to-side. Sure she’d put on a few pounds, but she wasn’t all that unattractive was she? It wasn’t as if Harley was some prize bull either.

She thought about cooking herself up a gingerbread man, but remembered how unsatisfying that could be. Last time the dough boy had crumbled before she’d even gotten warm.

She waded through the clutter to reach the sink, looked at the dishes piled there, and began stacking them until she found one that was acceptable. She filled it with Lucky Charms and then wished she hadn’t thrown that beer at Harley. She picked up another can, wondering if it was half-full or half-empty, shrugged, and poured it over her cereal.

She sat down to watch her favorite soap, and wasn’t yet to the first commercial when there came a knock at the door. She opened it to find a pair of fellows dressed alike in black pants, white shirts, and plain ties. One wore a sheepskin jacket over his shirt, and they were both carrying these fat brochures.

Though she wasn’t one to make fun of disfigured folk, she couldn’t help but wonder if these weren’t the two ugliest fellas she’d ever seen.

“Can I help you?”

“We wondered if you might have a few minutes to talk about the Lord,” said the one with the jacket.

“Have you been saved, sister?” asked the other.

“I’m kind of busy right now.”

“We won’t take but a few minutes of your time.”

“I don’t know, that looks like quite a big pamphlet you have there.”

“The better to inform you with, my child,” said the one in the jacket. She decided he was even uglier than the other one.

“I hate to be rude,” said Red, “but those are some awfully big ears you have there.”

“The better to hear God’s word, my dear,” he replied.

“And your feet, they’re not exactly tiny either.

“The better to walk over God’s green earth and spread the word.”

“Well, could you get your foot out of my doorway so I can close it?” Before he could respond she noticed something. “You know, you look awfully familiar.”

“Grab her, Larry!”

“I’m not going to grab her, Harry. You grab her.”

The one in the sheepskin snorted in disgust at his companion. Taking hold of Red, he forced his way in.

“What are doing?” cried Red. “Who are you? What’s the . . . you’re wolves!”

“That’s right, sister,” snarled the uglier one. “We’re wolves. You know about wolves, don’t you?”

She shook off his grip, but there was nowhere to run. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“No? Think back–back several years. Think back to when you and your granny and that man of yours ganged up on a kindly, spindly old wolf and killed him. You remember now?”

“That wasn’t my husband, that was his father, Old Man Hunter. I was just a little girl. And that wolf tried to eat me!

“Well we’re sorry about that, miss,” said the second wolf. “And we’re sorry to barge in like this. But, see, that wolf was our father.”

“That’s right, that’s right,” said the other. “We’ve been doing time in the joint. But I promised my brother Larry we were going to break out and get our revenge someday. Well today’s the day.”

“We’re sorry for the inconvenience,” said Larry, “but we’re going to have to eat you and your husband.”

“Yeah,” growled Harry, “just like we did with that motor-mouth little chicken we ran across on the way here.”

“I think that bird was on something, Harry,” said Larry. “My stomach’s starting to hurt. I’m sure that little chicken was tripping. The whole time she kept shouting, ‘The sky is falling! The sky is falling!’ Whatever she was taking is not sitting well with my tummy.”

“Forget about it, Larry. You’ll be okay.”

“I think she gave me gas.” Larry covered his mouth and belched. “Excuse me.”

“Don’t be excusing yourself to her,” snapped Harry.

“I was only being polite,” countered Larry. To Red he said, “Sorry, my brother is a tad anti-social. By the way, I like what you’ve done with your hair. But why do they call you ‘Red’ if you’re a blonde? Is it because it’s kind of a red-blonde, because you know I–”

“Shut up, Larry.”

“You shut up.”

“No, you shut up

“Now you did it,” said Larry. “Now my ulcer’s acting up. I think I’m getting a headache too.”

“You’re weak,” grumbled Harry. “You’ve always been weak. Pop spoiled you. He always did like you better. He should have named you Mary.”

“Yeah, well I don’t think Pop would have liked what we’re doing, Harry. It’s wrong.”

“Listen to your brother,” said Red, “he’s making sense.”

“Shut up, bitch!” Harry was about to slap her across the mouth when there was a knock at the door. He grabbed her, covered her mouth with his paw, and said to his brother, “I’ll take her in the other room. Get rid of whoever it is.”

Red struggled, but the wolf was too strong for her. She felt his hot, fetid, fowl-breath on the back of her neck as they waited in the bedroom.

They heard the door close and nothing else, so he eased her back out, still muffling her voice.

“Hold it right there, wolf.”

Three pigs wearing badges and armed with shotguns had gotten the drop on Larry. Harry raised his hands in surrender, and Red scooted away, spitting hair.

“Homeland Security, ma’am.” said one of the pigs. “Are you all right?”

She nodded.

“We’ve been tracking these two terrorists since they broke out of lockup. We’ve got a score to settle with them.”

“That’s r…r…right,” said the second pig.

“We’re not terrorists,” claimed Larry, “we’re grift–”

An elbow to the ribs from Harry silenced him.

“What do you mean, a ‘score to settle’?” asked Red.

“One of these mean bastards huffed and puffed and blew down my brothers’ houses,” said the first pig. “If they hadn’t been arrested for hijacking sheep we would have hunted them down long ago. We’re still looking for the third member of their cell.”

“You’ll never take Jerry alive,” taunted Harry.

“We’ll see about that, dog boy.”

Red sighed. “I appreciate your help, but if you could just–”

“What was that?” shrieked the third pig. “I heard a noise outside.”

“It’s okay. There’s nothing out there,” said the first pig. He shot a malicious look at Harry and Larry. “See what you did to them? You scared them so bad, one stutters and the other’s paranoid.”

“I do…do…do not stutter.”

“I never huffed and puffed nobody’s house,” claimed Harry. “It was Larry here that pulled that caper.”

“I did not,” said Larry indignantly. “I can’t even blow out birthday candles without my inhaler. It was Harry who did it.”

“We’ll take them both back to the zoo and sort it out there,” said the first pig.

“Yeah, back to the zoo with them.”

“Bah…bah….back to the zoo.”

There was another knock on the door.

“See? See?” declared the third pig. “I told you something was out there.”

His shotgun ready, the first pig cautiously opened the door. Three brown bears of varying size stood there.

“Go ahead, Papa,” urged the middle-sized bear with a thick Slavic accent. “Go ahead already, ask.”

The biggest of the three bears shuffled his feet as if he didn’t want to be there. Reluctantly, he inquired, “Is here where Goldilocks lives?”

The pig moved aside as Red stepped up.

“There’s no one named Goldilocks here,” she said.

The middle bear eyed her suspiciously. “You look like her.”

“Mama, she said here there’s no Goldilocks. Home we go now, yes?”

“Home we’re not going, Papa–not until we find Goldilocks,” said Mama, eyeing Red up and down. “We’ve got bone to pick with that home wrecker, isn’t that so, Baby?”

The third bear, who didn’t look at all like a baby, sighed, stared at the sky and responded, “Whatever.”

“Look,” said Red, “I don’t have time for this. You can see I’m already dealing with three pigs and a pair of wolves here.” Then she got an idea. “Goldilocks lives down at one-oh-seven Dwarf Drive. Oh, and by the way, she’s dyed her hair and changed her name, so don’t let that fool you.”

“Okay, Papa, let’s go.”

“Can’t we just go home, Mama?”

“Yeah,” said Baby, “I want to go home and download some tunes.”

“Not ’til the Goldilocks pays for damages–one way or other.”

Baby sighed. Papa shrugged and shuffled his feet, but before he could move a burst of multi-colored sparks lit up the room, followed by a swirl of pink and puce smoke.

“What’s that?” cried the third pig.

“Take it easy,” said Red, “it’s just my fairy godmother.”

Before the words were even out of her mouth, a stocky middle-aged hermaphrodite in sequined tights and a frayed lace cape materialized.

“Damn, homegirl,” said the androgyne, “what’s this, a costume party?”

“Well, well,” replied Red, making no attempt to conceal her disdain. “If it isn’t the old F.G. What’s it been, an elf’s age since you last made an appearance?”

“Yeah, my bad, Red. I ain’t been able to boogie on out of the castle in a while. That damned Cinderella is such a little princess. I’ve never worked with a girl so needy.”

“Like she’s got problems,” complained Red.

“Well, F.G.’s in the house now. What can I hook you up with?”

Red held out her arms and looked around as if to say Duh.

“All right, everybody get to steppin’. Let’s go, let’s go. Head ’em up and mooove ’em out!”

“I beg your pardon, madam . . . uh . . . er, sir, but we’re–”

“Talk to the wand, pork chop. Come on, everybody out.”

When they were gone the F.G. rolled up its Lycra sleeves and asked, “You want me to get to cleanin’ now?”

“Later,” said Red, plopping down on the couch and motioning for the F.G. to do the same. “First I want to hear the latest gossip from the castle.”

“Well,” said the F.G., looking around conspiratorially, “I’ve got the four-one-one on Sleeping Beauty. You won’t believe it, but evidently there never was an evil queen. It was all just a hustle.”

“No,” uttered Red in disbelief.

“Yes, it’s true. Word is she’s got a touch of the narcolepsy. Now I hear tell the little ho is sleeping around again. And wait until you hear why old King Cole is always so merry….”

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