Strike From the Gutter

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πŸ“… Published on July 11, 2019

"Strike From the Gutter"

The hearse told Ritchie everything he needed to know. There were a few other cars huddled up front in the lot outside the bowling alley, but the midnight-black funeral car stood alone.
Production by: Chilling Tales for Dark Nights (feat. Jason Hill)

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bell to turn on notifications the Hearst
told Ritchie everything he needed to
know there were a few other cars huddled
up front in the lot outside the bowling
but the midnight black funeral car stood
alone a patch a persistent wheel shadow
beneath the harsh glare of sickly orange
sodium vapor lights the count was here
jerking across the lawn favoring his
good knee Ritchie’s Birkenstock shot
feet avoided broken glass and slimy
puddles even as his eyes remained fixed
on the entrance it had been a long time
and a lot of miles
thousands of pins knocked down and
hundreds of alleys since Pittsburgh but
his result had not flagged part of him
had always known it would end like this
one way or another on the lanes he just
never figured it would end in New Jersey
the sliding glass door is left aside as
if by telekinetic command as Richie
Centauro entered the alley his natural
habitat like a gunfighter swaggering
into an Old West saloon he eyed the
large banner draped across the dusty
vending machines 2018 national solo
championship his grip tightened
reflexively on the bags handle as he
approached the counter the clattering of
pins a strike his expert ears deciphered
a graceful straight up the middle shot
echoed from somewhere near the back of
the vast fluorescent soaked chamber the
woman amount of flesh in a green muumuu
perched from the stool behind the cash
register leisurely looked up Reggie
watched from behind his tinted aviators
once affectation
now prescription as her sleepy focus
went from the name stenciled on his
shirt to his beard finishing at last
at his trademark straw fedora the
tiniest spark of interest flared
somewhere in the bloodshot eyes beneath
her blue gray wig you’re him she
whispered you’re the Slayer
he nodded the woman slitted eyes shifted
to the far end of the lanes he’s over
Phineas and Sundown Elaine please
Ritchie said he’s on 24 the smile spread
over her face like a rash
you may be one no near the front please
lane for he passed over some wrinkled
bills more than necessary she nodded
curiosity already fading as he turned
the aggress called hey you need shoes
Ritchie didn’t bother answer collapsing
onto the lane bench he unfastened his
sandals unzipped his bag eying the
familiar and furious congregation of
pins Ritchie began the routine changing
shoes donning his wrist protector
another crash rang out from the rear of
the alley another strike
Ritchie watched three teenage boys at
Lane eight goofing around more than
bowling he saw the janitor wheeling his
squeaky cart into the bathroom he could
also make out through his peripheral
vision a familiar figure tall and dark
standing imperiously on the Far Lane
iced back in the bag Ritchie unwrapped
his ball custom mother-of-pearl slick
and smooth as stillwater sixteen pounds
the chocolate brown iris surround an
inky pupil paintin below the finger
holes completed the icon an enormous
eyeball the eye of God
he stood and found the count suddenly
before him as if he had always been
there leaning casually against the ball
I thought perhaps you would not show the
counts accent was inexplicable Bond
villain by way of a stray cat cover band
he stood impossibly still not blinking
not breathing thin as a late-stage AIDS
patient in his usual black suit and cape
shoes so shiny they seemed to glow rich
he cradled his ball staring back with
all three eyes unafraid resigned a bets
event yes
the count ran to hand through his long
dark hair a bet is a bats and you are
fool they smiled points of his sharpened
eye teeth slightly stabbing his lower
limb his complexion was the sallow blue
of a recently drowned man but then again
and everybody looked undead beneath
alley lights teeth aside you had to look
him in the eye to really notice there
was something wrong
the counts eyes were too reflective
contained no life windows looking in on
an empty room why do you not fight me
like a man the count said your father
and grandfather at least they died as
men what kind of a man are you
the kind is going to beat you tomorrow
the count growled you insult me and
shame your ancestors why do you insist
in this you are old injured why keep
playing because I’m the best Ritchie
said because I know this is the only
thing that brings you any joy and I
prepare to die ruining it for you
in a blink the count crossed the
distance between them and stood nose to
nose with Ritchie he wreaked have
spoiled me and overripe fruit you
certainly will die he hissed go home
Slayer while he still can something warm
and sticky struck Ritchie’s back he saw
the counts grin widen and began to turn
just in time to be hit in the chest by
another cheese lathered french fry and
face the collective glare of the counts
wives the beguiling trio giggled
standing on the carpet just off the wood
of the lanes in stiletto heels and
leather tights they wore matching black
tank tops despite the chill of the AC
pale skin practically luminescent
beneath their garish red lips and lush
violet eye makeup moron said Lilith tall
and blond stabbing a third fry with one
long crimson nail secare said Pandora
live with short spiky hair closing her
lips around the stroll of a large soda
loser said Layla short and voluptuous
with long red hair tapping his cigarette
out of the pack
ladies Ritchie nodded bending to return
his ball to the bag it was no use he
knew they’d never let him focus tonight
the counts beloved mine games were
already in full swing
Ritchie felt the vampire looming over
him the predatory stare piercing his
back he did not hurry though rising at
and slowly strolling away as if he never
intended to do any bowling you do not
wish to practice the count left you are
so good already yes eyes again fixed on
the door Ritchie was followed outside by
the wife’s chorus of cackling as through
the alleys crackling sound system Eddie
Money bragged about his pair of tickets
to paradise
after for costly minibar beers and too
many hours of shrieking infomercials
Richie at last captured sleep just
before 3:00 in the morning he was roused
promptly at 6:00 by a wake-up call he
certainly did not request yeah your wife
did sir the clerk said she was quite
insistent tall blonde long red nails yes
thanks Richie hung up more psychological
warfare from the Primo psycho in his
life the count must really be scared
this time that was gratifying and also
very dangerous the end was in sight at
last but Richie had come this close
before and look what happened
thinking about Pittsburgh made all his
old wounds flare up knee grating in
Richie hefted himself from bed and
pursued breakfast diner is adjacent to
24/7 bowling alley serve anything on the
menu at any time of day it’s practically
a law still even the obviously salty pro
who took Richie’s order looked askance
when he ordered the supreme nacho
platter at 7:00 a.m. the Haggard woman
managed a slight genuine smile as she
watched him attacking mr. Santoro the
voice was clipped and professional
blasting through the fog of his feeding
frenzy like a well-thrown strike through
kindling wood what Pro is called the
wobbly ax stuff pins may I ask you a few
the woman was young and pretty wearing
dark pants and a denim shirt carrying a
notebook and a little voice recorder my
name is Leia I’m with the American
bowling Journal she slid into the booth
is it true this is your last tournament
through a mouth of mostly masticated
chips and cheese Richie said no comment
is it true you have some sort of secret
side bet going with the count Ritchie
white cheese from his beard with the
back of his hand is he a real vampire
Laius at with Penton poised little red
light on her recorder blazing up from
the table waiting for him to scoff
intended ice breaker failing to make it
den go ask him Ritchie reached for his
coffee he doesn’t do interviews his
managers those creepy ladies they won’t
let anyone near him Ritchie slurped
eyeing the girl being young and
attractive her ambition was still calmly
Ritchie knew the neighborhood that
particular life road led to tho hell he
lived there it would get ugly so would
she he’ll talk if he sees you just don’t
be alone with him anyone ever tell you
you’re too pretty to work for a bowling
magazine her narrowed eyes indicated
she’d heard and did not appreciate his
commentary though her smile and posture
remained professional Ritchie saw hunger
a royal beneath her composure knew a
predator when he saw one I am actually
just an intern Lea said but I want to be
a real sports reporter someday you could
really help me out you know just a few
thoughts Ritchie picked at his nachos
about what if you win tonight it’ll be
your fifth straight solo title that’s
historic how does it feel huh no comment
okay she swallowed glancing down at her
notes deciding something how about this
then why didn’t you quit the game after
your wife died staring into the abyss of
molten cheese Ritchie said why stop she
died in a car accident she fell asleep
at the wheel Lea said that’s what they
say she was exhausted driving you across
three states from one tournament to be
another the very next day
hmm they lie Ritchie said we were run
off the road why do you hate the count
I hate all my opponents you have to in
order to win is there a secret bet
between you two
yes what do you get if you win he quits
bowling forever and if you lose what
happens nothing
Ritchie stood liked his hands on his
pants that’s the problem back across the
highway in his beige cell of a room the
latest in a lifelong series of identical
temporary residences Ritchie took a long
hot shower to loosen his stiff muscles
and ease his joints hands moving slowly
over the puffy veins of scar tissues
spider webbing his flesh he forced
himself not to think about that night
she fell asleep at the wheel that’s what
they say
Ritchie turned his face up to the hot
spray is he a real vampire his mind
filled with fangs and pouty lips lips
redder than his own flushed skin beneath
the scalding downpour fangs whiter than
pins begging him to knock them down she
was exhausted driving you across three
states from one tournament to be at
another the very next day
Ritchie saw his grandfather his father
too both lying dead and lonely shabby
hotel rooms just like this one their
throats tore now
as he stepped dripping from the shower
into the misty sauna of the bathroom
Ricci also saw that somebody had drawn
on the condensation covered mirror just
one word a name with a line through it
why didn’t you quit the game after your
wife died sweet Jesus
Ricci thought when was the last time it
had felt like a game there are rules to
this like any sport the crucifix in
sunlight situation that’s true so is the
thing about running water they can’t
cross it the invitation myth is nonsense
as is the Garlic in the whole grave dirt
bit they cast no reflection that’s true
and blood they do drink it they’re very
fast and very strong but not immune to
harm if you get the drop on them or find
them in the daytime these are things all
young Slayers are taught as simple and
essential as ABC and one two three
Ritchie’s grandfather had been an
academic Slayer a professor of medicine
a learned man his father had been a man
of action
a leather a trench coat wearing
desperado with more weapons than wits
neither had been up to the task of
besting the count Ritchie recalled a
childhood of cheap motels and truck
stops dive bars and bowling alleys
always in the back seat as his father
and grandfather chased their favorite
monster tracking him body by body one
victim at a time not that he was hard to
find sooner or later the count always
turned up on the circuit and a
tournament or in a night league because
that’s the other thing
the legends got right they loved games
puzzles riddles gambling the need to
count and organize these are all
bone-deep instincts in the nos for Otto
and the count
loved bowling best of all the original
version of the game dates back to
ancient Egypt possibly earlier nobody
knows for sure but some variation has
been played by almost every society
around the world since maybe it reminded
the vampire of better days
Reggie thought it did him that was for
sure after years of killing time and
alleys while his grandfather and father
searched and spied while they tracked
their quarry from one nowhere burg to
the next Ricci had found he was pretty
damn good on the lanes in fact he was a
natural as he got older and the men felt
okay about leaving him alone with a
pocketful of cash to play while they
were hunting he got better
they won tournaments he hustled
eventually he went pro Ritchie had no
interest in being a slayer no desire to
protect anyone the world’s an ugly place
and he was content to make his own
humble way in it one frame at a time
he liked the bars and the girls snagged
sponsorships and won titles he lost
years of his life to a selfish hazy
fugue of strikes spares and one-night
his father was devastated they stopped
Ritchie saw the count occasionally the
circuits not so big they could avoid
each other forever
it didn’t matter though because that’s
the other rule all young Slayers are
taught the by standard clause the
non-combative progeny of a slayer is
off-limits there are no exceptions
he and the count circled each other like
mean dogs in a small yard for years
forced to tolerate one another’s
presence until Ritchie’s father was
killed he’d come to ask Ritchie for help
to beg him for help one last time after
Gramps had bought him
but Ritchie wanted no part of the family
business back in the day and he still
had not he cared nothing for most people
so why stick your neck out pun
absolutely intended for them but his
father just couldn’t let it go after no
matter how many times the count warned
him off it was only a matter of time
afterward Ritchie was wracked with guilt
thought of seeking revenge felt his
Slayer genes whispering but by then he
had more than just himself to think
about there was Hannah and she was
everything God how he’d loved her and I
was an artist she painted it was
especially good at the glow-in-the-dark
motifs that decorated so many Alley
walls cyber bowling they used to call it
Ritchie remembered rolling the ball
under black lights music blaring and
Hanna’s psychedelic designs leaping off
the walls back in better times she
painted hot rods and motorcycles Frank
Frazetta type van murals local theater
sense anything that paid she even
painted the hand of God for him there is
no bystandard clause protecting the wife
of a Slayer son he would not rest canna
becoming involved in his family’s curse
at crusade
so Ritchie had been forced to find
another way to avenge his old man he was
an athlete not a killer
so he’d formulated an athlete’s plan
Ritchie knew what it was to love the
game knew what it was for a man to take
refuge in something difficult done well
he approached the count with a wager
knowing full well no undead could resist
such a gamble the first two five
consecutive championships wins loser
forever then on the eve of his fifth
victory there was the car crash outside
Pittsburgh Hanna’s death it had been a
stupid thing to do playing a corporate
Tony so far away the night before the
title match but had been easy money and
they badly needed it Anna had offered to
drive so he could rest when Richie came
to the car was in a ditch his wife was
dead and the fading taillights of a
familiar hearse were disappearing into
the night two years of recovery had
followed rehab and frustration years
more spent watching the monster swagger
through the competition win one lose two
lose three win one Richie had struggled
to find his rhythm again to get back in
the groove of the game the temptation to
attack had been maddening the desire for
revenge like a fever scorching his brain
but Richard stayed focused knowing
always his ace in the hole his greatest
advantage remained intact the bystandard
claws the count once had four wives a
skinny brunette with mean green eyes had
disappeared shortly after the crash
Richie thought he had a pretty good idea
who is driving the hearse that night an
eager young wife hoping to please her
dark master looking to score a special
place in his heart perhaps was she
ignorant of the age-old rules or simply
willing to disregard them or maybe the
count made her doing a necessary
sacrifice for the chance to take out
what else might he be willing to do
Richie wondered if the count was that
desperate again because now finally
Richie was once more on the eve of
victory it’d come close many times
but not this close not since Pittsburgh
it had been a torturous road years have
lonely struggle with each wind seeming
nearly impossible but he done it but he
was not what he once was then rich he
knew he did not have five more in him it
was Now or Never all this he told Leia
in the alley bar as the Sun set outside
and he enacted his pre-tournament ritual
athletes are a superstitious lot before
a match
Ritchie always ate three hot dogs with
mustard and relish and drank exactly six
draught beers the girl knew a lot for an
intern had been waiting for him in the
bar with the first round ordered when he
told her the home story because what did
he have to lose at this point
she paid his bill and left a look of
concerned uncertainty on her face she
was clearly used to being lied to by men
in bars but his motive his endgame
confused her she didn’t want to miss a
story but she couldn’t afford to be fool
Ritchie found he didn’t care either way
it was a relief feeling the professional
side of his brain
stepping up taking over now was not the
time for feelings or doubt now is the
time to roll time to hit the lane and do
what he did best and let the pins
scatter as they may he hadn’t asked to
be born into this craziness but it was
too close to the end to be distracted by
a cute reporters disbelief once the
circuit had been full of cute girls big
money drugs and high times but things
were very different now fewer and fewer
alleys started the map money was scarce
and fewer people cared that was ok with
Ritchie though there was only one prize
he still desired a cold prickling on his
neck announced what the bar mirror did
not show
the counts fetid breath filled his ears
there is time yet to leave Slayer time
enough for a new life a new love go and
live while I still let you Ritchie
drained his beer wave the glass of the
bartender ready for number six it was
almost time in the adjacent alley the
collective murmur of the gathered crowd
grew louder they listened to it together
for a time man and monster both living
on well past their prime they’d known
much better crowds but perhaps never
higher stakes
the noise settled over them like the
dust of bygone glory days that lingered
in the corners of the alley residue of
better times when the count spoke again
his voice was edged with an incredible
weariness rich he’d never heard before I
played this game in the shadows of the
newborn Terra myths he said with living
gods and gladiators I played I have seen
nations rise and fall champions born and
die I have outlived stars Slayer Ritchie
slipped his final pre-match beer if you
played as well as you brag maybe I’d be
the one nervous right now
the counts grip tightened on his neck
cold as half a lifetime of lonesome
nights nervous I have killed thousands
Slayer do you hear me I fear nothing
bull Ritchie belched you’re a very old
man afraid of the future you’re afraid
of me afraid of change afraid of
everything that you can’t murder
frigid lips brushed Richie’s ear as the
count whispered
a woman died in the mud like a dog
your father wept like a child one punch
that’s all it would take one punch
Ritchie no good though it might feel and
he’d be fair game ancient privilege
revoked forever
he listened as through the speakers
above the bar tommy tutone sang about
loving a girl he’d never met Ritchie
winked at his seemingly lonely
reflection reached again for his glass
don’t worry he said I won’t diminished
though it was from days of yore the
heavily clustered crowd of the 2018
national solo championship could still
get loud cheers wails and thunderous
applause filled the alley as the players
worked through the initial matches on
the bracket there were a few true greats
on the lanes the best still in the game
had come to the Garden State for one
night to be someplace where things still
made sense but it was Ritchie in the
count who attracted the largest audience
it was them the people had come to see
the culmination of the what many said
was the sports all-time greatest rivalry
Ritchie rolled the eye of God straight
and true with easy grace the count
attacked the pins with his blood-red 25
pounder specially made and according to
the legends painted with the vital
fluids of his victims rivals bested
opponents vanquished it was ultimately
the Slayer Santoro and the count who met
on the center lane to play ten frames
that would decide it all even more so
than the crowd or judges new straight
strikes kept things even through the
seventh frame an agonizing stalemate as
the frothing spectators wrung their
hands and shrieked
with each new resounding crash of
falling pins Richie’s knee was by then
an insistent banshee every muscle in his
body threatening to give out sweat
followed from his flesh like beer at a
bachelor party soaked his shirt drenched
the crotch of his pants the count was
pristine as always he strutted and waved
to the crowd cavorted instruct lewd
poses with his wives for the jostling
photographers you know looking tired
slayer he said returning to the bench
after his latest strike words drowned
out by the riotous frenzy offend and
behind them do you suffer please spammy
no details Ritchie I’d the hissing trio
of black-clad sirens and tipped his hat
tell Lilith the next time she wanders in
while I’m in the shower
she’s free to join me I’ll show her what
a man with a pulse can do
I bet she’s forgotten the counts eyes
flashed like a switchblade under a
streetlamp he clenched his bony hands
into shaking fists Ritchie saw a gamble
paying off he bowled to the eighth with
perfect strikes outwardly he smiled and
waved but inside his nerves were afire
with raging pain his knee felt like the
cartilage had been replaced with broken
he saw the counts form was off as the
well-dressed ghoul step to the line in
the ninth frame he was too stiff feet
too far apart his follow-through was too
short his return
clipped what distracted him was anyone’s
guess but as he stalked back to the
bench his narrowed gaze did not leave
his tall blonde concubine had he not
known of her mirror message mission
as the ball struck just left of center
the clattering pins felt messily and the
number seven remained upright the count
snatched up a ball at random and threw
it not rolled not cast but hurled it
like a baseball to fell the Defiant pin
and snagged the spare the crowds joy was
deafening victory was in sight
Ritchie no but it would take nothing
less than his bowling a perfect game the
count would not falter again perfect
games are scarce er than people think
even among the pros rarely is there a
night in which you make absolutely no
mistakes on or off the lanes he bowled
again pain ripping through his body like
a razor wielding Tasmanian Devil as he
released the ball Ritchie collapsed to
one knee and the cheering of this his
luckiest of strikes shifted quickly to
sounds of confusion he struggled to his
feet waving off the approaching league
doctor and limped back to the bench the
match thus entered the final frame with
the count behind but Ritchie far from
confident grinning the count stood and
quickly bowled a strike he repeated the
action identically closing the points
gap further then with a grand wave to
the now hushed crowd he did it again
a strike louder and more decisive than
ever as if to blast away the memory of
his previous misstep but he could not
erase the score Ritchie forced his
bleary eyes to focus on the pins if he
could both three strikes now he could
win anything less would be utter defeat
no matter what the board showed he
bowled seeing nothing but the pins
thinking of nothing but simply feeling
the way his muscles moved the familiar
sensation of a good roll
the light shimmer damn a flawless ward
of the lane like heat rising from a noon
time highway 10 pins fell
cheers/applause the count salt on the
bench he bowled and the pain was like an
external force now something beside
himself and annoying distraction
Ritchie’s well-trained athlete brain
tuned down ten pins fell louder cheers
more vigorous applause the count grabbed
a nearby blue 12-pounder and squeezed
with both hands it cracked then exploded
shattering into pieces and dust the
crowd fell silent the lead official the
male version of the muumuu wearing hag
behind the counter wearing a Hawaiian
shirt came hustling over to sight the
count for unsportsmanlike behavior but
scurried away when faced with a
vampire’s glare was the chubby guy the
ogre sees brother Ritchie wondered her
husband his exhausted brain fumbled
stupidly with the thought could not
decide which scenario was more
horrifying time seemed to slow as
Ritchie massaged his knee held his hands
over the blasting air of the dryer
watched as the janitor quickly and
silently swept away the remains of the
destroyed ball
everything happens soundlessly like he
was underwater then the volume returned
as he finally stepped back to the line I
of God in hand the crowd roared the
counts wives called to Ritchie taunting
he paid them all no heed I’d the pins
his whole world reduced to length of the
lane he bowled the ball struck the
boards just right and practically
floated down the lane the pins fell away
like the years and miles of Ritchie’s
life and he was again a lonely boy
discovering this thing
his thing that made him feel so good the
pins clatter together falling away like
Richie’s regrets and his guilt he was
once again young and in love certain of
his place in the world no pins remain
Ritchie turned to face the cacophonous
crowd all cameras flashing and hands
waving and saw the count and his wives
were also gone as vanished as the fallen
pins as absent as if they had never been
there at all
beneath the harsh lights of the loading
dock behind the alley the count strode
forward like a living slice of blackness
it was chilly but his tone was even
colder why should I not disregard this
foolishness and carry on as I wish
Ritchie shrugged a bets a bet
the count laughed a strangely hearty
vibrant exultation that echoed in the
dark yes a bet is still a bet and you
are still a fool I am eternal you have
won nothing
Ritchie reached out and yanked the
blood-red ball from the counts skeletal
hands maybe but he bawled your last
frame the counts window eyes seemed to
shatter like they just kissed a will
thrown brick as he stared unbelieving at
his ball in Richie’s hands
it’s nothing he muttered just a game
a trifle silence hung long and heavy
between them the unquiet quiet shared
only by warriors in the wake of battle
it made me feel something the count said
I send the ball something I’ve forgotten
I think something like being alive I
know Richie heft at the ball into the
nearby dumpster that’s what love does
you know what it feels like to have it
taken away how I feel every day now you
get to live with it for as long as you
can the count flashed his fangs someday
so there when you are old and sick I
will come to you send over your bed
untouched by time when you have begged
me to end your suffering and I will
laugh in your face Richie said
tomorrow’s supposed to be beautiful why
don’t you stay up late with me and watch
it arrive the count roared the tormented
cry of all doomed things of caged
creatures the world over the howling
madness of eternity itself and
disappeared into the night with a flap
of his cave Richie reached down to the
bag between his feet picked up the eye
of God and threw it into the dumpster
inside the alley he heard an Wilson
singing about carnivorous fish and above
that the growing chant
Slayer Slayer Slayer he could go to them
rich he knew he could revel in their
glorification and wait out the dark he
could gather around the flickering fire
of a trophy in title with the last of
the faithful and squeeze a few more
precious moments out of this thing that
had once been his whole world instead he
limped away from the neon haven of the
lanes toward the shadowy uncertainty of
tomorrow he had not always been so wise
had cast his early roles sloppily seeing
only the pins and missing the point
but bowling like life is as much about
what you will do as it is what you have
done the next frame is just as important
as the last maybe even more so
Ricci thought he was working from a
pretty crucial strike after tonight and
intended not to waste his advantage mind
full of ghouls and girls and glory days
he went off to pick up the spare to face
the 710 split of his life however much
of it remained chilling tales for dark

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My name isn't really important...but for the sake of this story, let's just say I'm Ruby. Yeah, that works. In any case, I'm currently ...
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The Carpathian Carver

The Carpathian mountains cast a long shadow as the Sun set. I was in this God-forsaken place for my brother. He had left three ...
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Ghost Lights
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Ghost Lights

I grew up in a small town in the Midwest. Now when I say that it’s a small town, I mean other people from ...
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I Believe in the One
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I Believe in the One

Everyone is familiar with the idea of a soulmate, someone meant for you, your perfect match. The missing piece of you that exists out ...
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Eight Ball

Vincent Cox turned off the lights in his hardware store. He zipped up his black, fleece jacket and walked out into the cold, lonely ...
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