Matthew Penwell

The June Selected Writer is Matthew Penwell

Please feel free to email Matthew at: matthew.penwell@yahoo.com


by Matthew Penwell

They were coming, and Ruby Shaw was going to be the first to welcome them. The dreams started as fantasy; outlandish visions of men and women with red skin. They spoke to her, but she didn’t understand the gibberish. The dreams became a constant weekly occurrence. They didn’t scare her. There was nothing to suggest any ill thoughts. Most nights she went to bed waiting for them.

It took a while for the realization to set in: they were reality. There was a sort of continuality to them. Each dream was like an episode in a series. The settings shifted between what Ruby thought to be the interior of a house, the actual town with gleaming towers of metal and glass that glowed like heaven itself, and some sort of factory.

Most of the dreams took place here, lost in the hum of machines. The red man sat on a stool, hunched over with a stick in his hand. The tip sparked as it struck a small metal ball. Ball after ball, the stick sparked. Ball after ball went into a bin. Ball after ball was carted away.


After Devon’s death, life pounded her, one hurtful punch to the gut after the other. She kept the dreams from Mike. They didn’t matter to him anyway. Nilly took enough of his time. He didn’t need to know about his ex-wife’s business. It wasn’t his to worry about.

A week after July Fourth, Ruby pulled into the parking lot of Charlie’s for the final time. It wasn’t worth the time she could be sleeping. The red people were trying to tell her something; show her something, but what, she didn’t know. The more she slept, the more time she’d have to figure it out. Maybe, just maybe, they were letting her in on the secret of life.

She wanted to know.

She stripped off her jacket as she walked behind the counter. She passed through the doors, into the kitchen.

Preston jetted around, pulling shredded potatoes and cartons of eggs from the cooler. He smiled at her as he turned the knobs to heat the griddle. “How are you?”

“I’m here. How are you?”

“I’m here.”

Ruby breathed icy breaths. She opened a box and pulled out three of the cardboard trays of frozen biscuits. “What me to leave them out or stick them in the cooler.”

“Cooler would be cool.”

Smart ass. Ruby thought. She couldn’t wait to quit.

The same people came every day. Old men in flannels and old women with puffy curls of hair and smelled as if they’d bathed in perfume. They ate slowly, hands shaking. When they left, they always mentioned that they just loved everything. And then the place would become a ghost town until school let out.

The girl who came in was pretty. A teenager; seventeen-eighteen. She looked like trouble from the moment Ruby took their order. She spoke with an entitled tone. Ruby guessed she was Daddy’s little girl and got whatever she wanted. Her friends were near clones of her. Straight haired, skinny, nails painted a vibrant color.

“I wanted diet,” the queen said, looking as if her entire world had just ended.

“This is diet,” one of the clones said. She pushed the glass towards the queen.

“I don’t want that. Your lips have been on it.”

The girl took the straw out. “Happy?”

The queen turned her annoyed gaze on Ruby. “Can I have another? Her germs are in the cup. There’s no telling what she has. Joking. Joking. Ha.”

Ruby took the queen’s glass to the back, waited a few moments, and took the same glass back to her. The queen smiled.

“You ready to order?”

“Yeah,” the four said in unison.

Ruby handed Preston the ticket and whispered, “Bet ten dollars one of them will send it back. If not all of them.”

Preston looked through the circular window in the kitchen door. He spotted the group of girls. “No go. Odds aren’t in my favor. Make it two out of four, and I’ll take you on for five.”

They shook hands.

The queen sent hers back before it even hit the table. “I didn’t know it came with bacon. I don’t eat anything with four legs. I’m vegetarian.”

“Is everything else all right?”

No one else had a problem.

“One out of two,” Hank said as Ruby entered the kitchen.

Ruby delivered the second salad bacon free. “Is everything okay now? I’m sorry for the mix up.”

“Everything looks okay. I mean, how hard is it to mess up a salad?”

“You didn’t me you didn’t want bacon.”

“I did tell you,” the queen lied. “I could have been allergic.”

Ruby rounded on the girl. “You know, I wish you were allergic. That means you would die and not reproduce. I feel horrible for the man you marry. I’m sorry that your parents have to put up with you.” Ruby scanned the eyes of the clones. They all said the same thing: Tell her what we can’t. Tell her how much of a bitch she is. We’re her friends, and even we don’t like her.

The queen’s face crumbled into disgust. “I want to speak to your manager. Right now. I will not be spoken to—”

“Shut the fuck up. You walk in here like you own the fucking joint, expecting me to bend down and kiss your golden ass. But I won’t do it. I don’t make enough money to put up with snobby little bitches like you.”

The girl pushed herself back from the table. “I want to speak to your fucking manager.”

Ruby craned her head towards the kitchen. “Get Mr. Garrison.”

Every eye in the building was on her. The kitchen door flew open. Mr. Garrison looked as if he had eaten a hot pepper. His face was flushed the color of fresh roses. Beads of sweat rolled down his face. His eyes were wide. “Ruby, what in the world?”

Ruby looked at him with misted eyes. “I quit. Thank you for the opportunity. Mail me my check.”

“Time to go.” Mr. Garrison had her by the shoulder, pushing her towards the kitchen. “Give them their meals for free. Dessert, if they want it,” he said to Preston.

Everything was still in the kitchen. Ruby caught Mr. Garrison slammed his door shut.

“Ruby…” He offered a lame smile. “Want me to walk you to your car?”

“Did she deserve it, at least?”

“A thousand times over.”

Mr. Garrison smiled. “Have a good one, Ruby. Come see us sometime.”

“I will.”

She never did.


It was an airfield. A flat, dusty land with towers made with a black polished metal that gleamed in the hazy yellow sun. She saw the towers in her sleep.

There were more of them then she could count. Millions. Maybe. They were on the airfield, stuffed like sardines behind a clear wall. A female’s voice came over the loudspeaker. The mutter of the crowd died off at once.

Through the many dreams, Ruby picked up a handful of their words. Out of the long drone of chatter, the only word Ruby was able to make out was “here” and “I”.

But whatever the voice said sent the crowd into a frenzy. They surged closer to the wall, the people in front pressed up against it, their wide eyes second guessing their decision.

In the distance, six white figures moved against the brown landscape. The crowd exploded. The people in the front were pressed harder against the wall. Under the white suites, the red people strode to the tower. The sound of the pulsing crowd was almost unbearable. Before entering the tower, each of the figures waved an arm and gave a quick flick of the wrist wave.

Ruby scanned the landscape. Her eyes stopped on the black globe atop the tower. A band of yellow lights played tagged with each other around the middle of the globe. The crowd began to chant in unison. A countdown. Ruby did her best to mimic their voices.

The yellow lights turned to white, then blue, then green. The globe rose slightly from the tower. It hung in the air, as if held by an invisible hand. A bang shattered the sky. A plumb of dust rose from the ground. When the dust cleared, the globe was gone, leaving the six behind.

They were no longer in the white suits, but the fabric pants and fuzzy coats. Four of them were male, two females. They were looking at a map of sparkling dots. One of the females pointed, spoke. The others shook their heads in agreement.

Ruby couldn’t read the star diagram, but their presence was growing. It bored into her, a constant feeling of being watched. Often, she found herself looking over her shoulders, expecting a red skinned person to be there. Her heart fell when she discovered an empty room.

Jupiter was a giant red eye peering in at them from the darkness. She stared out the window, unable to process any other thought than: I’m the closest any human has come to touching ground on another planet.


Ruby jerked out of sleep. She sat up in the darkness. Birds called from outside. It’s day. She stumbled out of her room, bathing in a dim light. It’s morning. She sat at the kitchen table for a long time, letting the light warm her.

They’re coming to get you. Was that it? Is that what they’d been wanting to show her?

The thought of sleep sickened her. She had to be awake when they came. She couldn’t miss them. Ruby removed the heavy sheets and garbage bags from her bedroom window. The minutes turned into hours. Nightfall came. She fell into a light doze, long enough for a vision to come through.

Mike always kept a ladder in the small shed in the backyard. The combination hadn’t been changed in years. 0963. Her birthday. She found the ladder against the wall and dragged it out. Hurry. She looked to the sky. Dark clouds covered the moon. She cursed the sky. But they would still see her. They’d been able to locate her. She of all people. She leaned the ladder against the house. Ruby made her way up. The shingles dug into her knees. “I’m here.” She said to them. “Take me away!”

And there they were. The globe was no bigger than a loveseat. The lights lit up the world in neon. She reached for it. It jerked away from her. She lunged, losing her footing. She slid down the roof, clawing, trying to find anything to slow her. She didn’t. Her scream snubbed out as her head struck the patio.


“All you gotta do is go knock on the door,” a boy said to another.

“And I’m in the gang?”

“You’re in.”

The boy looking to join the gang looked at the house. The windows were boarded up. The porch was cluttered with junk. He’d heard stories about the house. Ten years ago, a woman went crazy after her son died and her husband left her. Locked herself in the house for months until one night she decided to jump off her roof. Not a long fall, but it had been enough to kill her.

“I’ll do it.”

The others waited, watching the boy walk up the cracked sidewalk, up the dusty steps.

“He’s not gonna do it.” one said.

“Bet.” another said.

“You really gon’ let him in? He’s a dweeb.”

There was no response. The leader watched as he knocked on the door. The boy had guts. He gave him that. The leader wouldn’t have touched the house for a thousand dollars. It was haunted.

Matthew Penwell lives in the mountains of Tennessee with his girlfriend and dog, El. He cites the likes of Bradbury, Stine, and Faulkner as influences.He has some other stories published elsewhere.