Hero for Hire," by Milo James Fowler in A Fly in Amber
"Hero for Hire" does not belong in the fantasy or science fiction genres. It's set firmly in the present world as we know it. But it addresses fantasy in a comical way and suggests what might happen if someone tries to turn their fantasy into reality. Darrell, the protagonist, is what most people would call a loser. He's twenty-seven, lives in a cottage in his parent's backyard, works the graveyard shift at Target, and still relies on his mother to do his laundry, which he also neglects to retrieve in a timely manner. His most prized possession is a samurai sword that he bought on eBay. He routinely dresses in a gi purchased at Party City and acts out mock battles with imaginary Ninjas in his living room. He always prevails. Not a bad way to get some physical exercise, but he decides that mock battles or attacking watermelons and pumpkins are becoming boring. He needs some real enemies. He needs to use his skills for good. So far, his only nemeses are a cat that leaves dead birds on his doorstep and his angry mother, who nags him about his laundry. He puts an add in the paper: "Hero for Hire" along with his phone number. For two weeks, nothing much happens. He gets some prank calls, but then, someone requests a hero. An old lady claims that someone has stolen her laptop. Darrell accepts the job. I won't spoil it by recording what happens. It's funny and sad with some interesting twists. No one gets hurt, except for Darrell's ego, which takes a beating, and his feet, which are scorched on the hot sidewalk. Fowler handles his subject matter with wit and compassion. We feel sympathy for Darrell even as we laugh at him. "Hero for Hire" reminds me of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," only in Fowler's story, the protagonist attempts to turn his fantasies into reality.
"The Lych Owl's Cry," by Terrie Schultz in Golden Visions Magazine print edition (October-November-December 2010)
The word lych is a Saxon word for corpse used in modern English as an adjective in phrases or names associated with death or burial, such as the lychgate at the entrance to traditional English churchyards. Lych owl is another name for the barn owl, whose cry, according to folklore, portends death. Schultz's story begins and ends with the lych owl's shriek. The protagonist is Jessa, a healer in a village, who hears a lych owl one night and with resignation, waits to be summoned to some neighbor's deathbed. The dead are a young wife and her newborn baby. Jessa tells the husband that there is nothing she can do but he begs her to cross the Veil and bring them back, something remembered in tales but never done by Jessa, her mother, or her grandmother. The tales told of healers coming back haunted or never at all. Jessa relents and agrees to try. She finds the recipe for a salve in an ancient tome that she hides under a stone in her cottage. The salve works and she rises from her body in a ghostly form and follows a path through the churchyard to a hedge of hawthorn and rowan at the edge of the village where she crosses the Veil into a misty, barren place, a sort of purgatory. She had feared that she would meet demons. Instead, the meets her recently deceased neighbors and family and learns why so many characters from the old tales never came back. Schultz builds her haunting story with sharp details and flowing prose. While many such stories might focus on the terror of death, the operative emotion in Shultz's tale is love and the grief that comes with loss and saying no.