in this afternoon
as river fog creeps
dragging it's thickness
licking us in heavy air
in this time
that is not time
we amenities shall speak
of what went unspoken
shall see and place
the invisible signs
. . . . . .
afternoon: the whistle summoned
its great silence
the omnipresent shroud of grief
the sewers cheered its sound
rustled its rusted soul
giving up its secret sins
to a slow drying
of an incipient wind
children in unholy air
beyond hope in despair
lie in promise inhaling artificial prayer
in manufactured immortality
young gods in destruction
serving enchanted eyes
from dreams awakened
and came to an end
light within light
light without light
in an eternal horizon
the exquisite perfection of a void;
flying, promising, expiring
the Intercourse of troubled air
and smoke in waning light
the infinite of incense and white wine
in this moment
in this time
from the vaulted silences
climb the stairs to
exchange the word
descend, give sermon
and climb again
at the given hour appointed, consumed
as we lie in plastic passion
our synthetic love shared
touch my lips and feel my words
and hold my soul to breathe them
made gods by by our union
of multifoliate frailty
perhaps once we were vestal
pure and coveted
touching the undefinable
as we began to explore
devoured or deflowered
both an ending
satiated in the void
of the light: artificial
Joseph A Farina is a retired lawyer and award winning poet, in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. His poems have appeared in Philadelphia Poets, Tower Poetry, The Windsor Review, and Tamaracks: Canadian Poetry for the 21st Century. He has two books of poetry published ,The Cancer Chronicles and The Ghosts of Water Street.
Rory J. Ribert, Sales Manager of Dial-N-Smile Inc., looked out on the empty sales rep cubicles that could be seen in a wide angle from his corner office. The late afternoon shift would begin in about an hour. Though an atheist, he said a prayer of thanks for the blissful peace created by this lovely absence of jabbering telemarketers.
Sliding open the low-slung console behind him, concealing a monitor linked to cameras hidden above the sales floor, Rory could watch the staff jerking and bobbing about like hyperactive monkeys during their marketing calls. This system also allowed him to monitor their conversations ensuring that they were sticking to business not chatting with their lovers – or drug dealers.
Rory was supposed to be updating profit-loss spread sheets but today he was feeling like a low-performing slacker himself, preferring to just stare at his computer, too morose to even waste his time fiddling around on social media. Frustrated, he considered the absurdity of his current workplace situation. John Jeffy, the owner, had invested big money in all this high-tech gear, yet with salaries and other miscellaneous overhead the company was barely breaking even. Moreover, the quality of the available telemarketer had hit rock bottom: ex-whores, drunks, crack addicts. It was a sad day when management had to listen into routine sales calls, not for quality, but for criminal activity.
Not that it mattered: as any blind fool could see this so-called “business” was in steady decline. When he had come into the telemarketing profession ten years ago there were actually a few hiring standards. His first company had even had an HR rep that screened applicants for bad references – or an unsavory past. Now it fell upon him, the irritated, unwilling Rory J. Ribert, to go through the motions of “vetting” the dregs of society and other barbarians who flooded Dial-N-Smile with their resumes. Nevertheless, Rory never screened any applicant for a criminal record. Results were all that counted. It was a don’t ask, don’t tell policy – even if they were ax murderers, he did not want to know.
Indeed, he often suspected that John Jeffy considered a felonious past a valuable skill for a successful telemarketer – something about the mercenary, unrestrained style of a criminal made such a person especially effective in the telemarketing business.
The office intercom buzzed. Jane Chowders, the foyer receptionist – who doubled as the accountant – spoke in her usual whiny, quasi- nasty voice. “Rory your 2pm applicant appointment, the one referred by Mr. Jeffy, is here.”
Last night he had had to fire an employee for failing to meet his sales quotas so today, as much as he hated it, he had to interview again. Jeffy had promised to network among his old industry contacts for an applicant with some sales experience. Good thing too, as the earlier 1:45 appointment had been a disaster. Rory had shown the applicant – completely unsuitable as a salesman – the door after a two-minute interview.
The portly Jeffy himself, much to Rory’s surprise, waddled into the office with the 2pm appointment – a spectacled, very pale, slender man in his fifties. Protruding from his dirty collar, a scrawny neck from which bulged a massive Adam’s apple like a grotesque pink tumor. Lost in this cheap baggy polyester suit, the applicant, almost skeletal with a gaunt, cadaverous face, appeared to be timid, shy, and reclusive – the very qualities an aggressive sales firm was not looking for. He also reeked powerfully of mothballs and stale smoke as if he had been living in a closet or cheap room. This odor alone would drive away other reps before Dial -N-Smile’s drooling, sadistic floor monitors did. These words instantly came to Rory’s mind: Do not hire this loser.
Immediately the weirdo excused himself to use the men’s room. Winking at Rory, Jeffy then cracked a smug smile and said cheerfully, “I know what you’re thinking. What rubbish bin did I drag that dog’s breath out of?”
“Good question John. You’re becoming a mind reader in your old age,” replied Rory, “Who – what – is he – and why is he here?”
“His name is Simon Sorter and he is going to be our new top biller – believe it or not,” smirked Mr. Jeffy, like a naughty boy with a secret.
“I rather not believe it,” scowled Rory, shaking his head. (Hell’s bell’s was the old fool losing his marbles?).
“Trust me,” assured Jeffy, his fragile face beaming softly like a prematurely aging child, “I used to work with Simon and the guy has some amazing talents.”
“From his looks and smell, hygiene and high fashion are not among his best skills”, noted Rory.
Mr. Jeffy opened his mouth to say something but Simon Sorter reappeared wiping his hands on his frayed trousers.
“I was just telling Rory here about our glory days when we did Fortune 500 account management together,” lied Mr. Jeffy.
Simon Sorter cocked his head sidewise as if he were a puppet on a broken string. Rory, wincing, saw a nasty, crooked scar running the length of the odd man’s head and neck.
Then without a word, Simon marched to an empty work station, logged on to the system, slipped a Dial-N-Smile magazine product list from his shabby jacket, and began to call the phone numbers randomly generated by the computer. He did not use a script – nor did he smile.
Mr. Jeffy nudged Rory and said, “Watch this and be amazed. Simon is going to take our sales numbers through the roof and save our bottom line.”
Immediately, the death-warmed-over pallor of Simon’s face flushed bright red like a giant drop of blood. From one call to the next, his voice changed drastically – depending on which magazine he was hustling. During the next hour a flabbergasted Rory, with a grinning Mr. Jeffy by his side, watched in awe as Simon Sorter’s Multiple Personality Disorder became an incredible marketing tool.
When selling the magazine Retirement World, he became “Pappy Smith”, his voice aged and frail. Marketing Big Wheels, the timid, anemic-looking Simon Sorter seemed to sprout into a fearsome psycho Hell’s Angel-type – code-named “Rod Piston” – his sales spiel threatening and gruff. These performances were followed by others just as remarkable: Gun News made Simon into “Tommy Guns” who wowed his customers with his Southern drawl and defense of the Right to Bear Arms; Computer Time transformed this normally mumbling clod into a very articulate, brisk personality – “Simon Server” – tossing off techno-babble with the greatest of ease. In fact, in front of Rory’s eyes Simon Sorter must have assumed – and shed – at least twenty different personalities, voices, and names.
His sales tally sheet boggled Rory’s mind; the disheveled eccentric had exceeded the firm’s top rep’s billings by 50%.
“Now pal. you know why we used to call him Morphing Man”, happily purred Mr. Jeffy.
“Yeah, I must admit that it is damn incredible. How did he get like that?”
Mr. Jeffy motioned Rory away from Simon’s workstation and spoke in a hushed tone. “You saw that scar? He was in a horrible accident when he was about forty. Split his head and neck open. A few years later, he started having multiple personalities. Underwent treatment but later got into sales with me. Sometimes, it takes a weird person to do good marketing.”
“Yeah, maybe being a bit nuts is ok – but not a psycho……”
From Simon’s workstation came a fresh confusion of voices as he plowed anew into the computer-generated customer list. Mr. Jeffy asked Rory to wait in the office. A few minutes later Jeffy and Simon Sorter, both stone-faced, entered, closed the door, and stared at Rory without speaking. Cold sweat trickled down his nose. The atmosphere was funereal, and he felt like the corpse on display. Or considering Simon’s zombie-like gaze, maybe it was more the dead inspecting the living….
A deep unearthly voice suddenly boomed from Simon’s throat. “You Rory Ribert are no longer required as sales manager of Dial-N-Smile.!” Rory literally jumped from his seat: so this was it, he was being fired – dead meat. Jeffy, the sorry bastard, had some gall, replacing Rory with a cruddy weirdo who smelled like he slept in a used clothes bin at the Salvation Army.
“Well, don’t forget that my contract gives me a severance package. So I don’t give a damn about this hole in the wall!” laughed Rory wildly, suddenly relieved at the thought of never having to interview any more useless applicants like his earlier appointment: a little mumbling man, with a weak, shifting gaze, referred by the unemployment office jobs bank for a telemarketing position requiring at least fair communication skills.
“That is something we need to talk about,” coldly replied Jeffy, peeping out of the shadows.
“Better not try to screw me you cheap bastard,” yelled Rory, “otherwise I’ll be seeing you in court.”
He then bolted for the door, but Simon, showing amazing strength and quickness, grabbed his shoulder. Again, Simon’s voice changed, this time into a very good imitation of Mr. Jeffy singsong cheerfulness. “Looks like we’ll have to part ways partner…”
From the same pocket that had contained the magazine product list, Simon whipped out a knife-cum-paper opener: the “Mr. Jeffy voice” again, but this time slurred and vicious. “The good news is I can save you from going to court and paying a lawyer. The bad news is that you won’t be ‘seeing’ – or calling – anybody any more. You are useless phone time now Rory, wasted cubicle space, dead air…” As if somebody had pulled a plug in Simon’s brain, the John Jeffy persona abruptly stopped. His face now seemed to be undergoing serial plastic surgery at the speed of light. Simon Sorter’s features morphed into every twisted, ghastly facial appearance and expression known to humanity: gnashing feral teeth, wild, yellow eyes, a snarling, pulpy mouth, black, rotting gums, squirming scars. Then a museum of interactive, evil masks: his face melted into Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Saddam Hussein’s, Ted Bundy’s, Pol Pot’s. Still powerfully griping Rory’s arm, Simon Sorter raised the knife-cum-paper opener to the ex- sales manager’s quivering throat.
Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.
“Not even the fragrant musk was as intoxicating as this story.”
The storyteller told sitting on a swollen root of an aged tree on the edge of a forest. He addressed a gathering of enthralled people.
One dreary afternoon, under the opaque clouds, when the mists had curtained much of the peninsula’s profile, a tea boy made tea. He had a stall near the same place where the storyteller was also telling his stories. It was the boy’s job to make tea as long as the storytelling lasted. He made it in an iron cast kettle over a makeshift stove kindled by dry wood and brown leaves. The kettle steam was a beacon that fueled the desire of many to travel thus far. The brew carried a distinctive aroma.
The storyteller had a large following. They gathered here not just to listen to the story but also to indulge in the hot tea served from the stall. This storytelling helped the boy’s business to flourish. The boy poured the tea in small pottery bowls and handed them over to the rapt listeners. The more they drank, the more they listened.
This tea boy was an orphan. He was fifteen. He lived with the storyteller who had adopted the child when he lost his parents in the last great flood. They had lived on the sea line of a rugged peninsula. This place didn’t have much to offer apart from a school, a spice bazaar, and a few odd dry-fish shops.
Deeper into the woods on the same peninsula, the storyteller now lived with the boy. They lived in a hut near a shaded pond. Tall poplars and their verdant saplings rendered much of this shade. In the evening, when they lit a lantern in the hut, a glow would illuminate a darkly spot outside and light up a pond’s pod corner. The jungle’s wild animals transformed in the full moon, especially the musk deer. This sparked the storyteller’s imaginations.
Neither the jungle nor the deer knew what treasure it possessed, not at least until the musk pods were wrenched out of the deer bodies. The deer didn’t know how crazy earthlings was for its musk. It couldn’t smell its own. The others could. The sensuous properties drove humans to madness, wild with gluttony where fantasy fed reality.
Where would they stop, though? How far would they go to get it? Not even the formidable amazon could stop them. And it was not just the musk but insatiable human greed … said the storyteller and stooped to pick up an object loosely stuck on the bottom of the tree trunk. His breathing intensified. Inch by inch they stole the natural providence. They ate away like bite-sized like termitesinto the planet without replenishing: poaching animals, cutting trees, mining gemstones: red rubies, green sapphires, blue lapis lazuli, the sparkling diamonds. His audience listened mesmerized as he told them this old story retold, and the tea boy to sell innumerable kava clay bowls. His coffers filling up soon with silver coins and gold jewels.
No matter, this storytelling was free. No one ever paid to listen. But drinking tea was essential, said the storyteller. Because the delightful tea glued those stories together. Even on a hot day, it had to be served. People tread miles to come here to listen, but more so for the thirst of the tea. No other could make it like this boy, magic in the brew, the word rang true.
One day it happened. The storyteller stopped and looked closer at the object he held in the tip of the index finger. It was a cast-away gold ring that also had a story to it.
“What happened?” the listeners gasped.
Sitting on the ground, they looked at him hooked to the hot tea. Today, the mist of the day and the tea vapour played a twister in the sky.
“The tea boy became sick,” said the storyteller. “He couldn’t make tea anymore. The boy lay cold on the ground of his hut groaning in agony.”
“Oh no!” the listeners gasped.
There was no afternoon tea. People fidgeted and looked at the empty stall. But the tea never came.
“It was not the story, you see?” the storyteller told. “But it was his tea which brought them here.”
Where was the boy anyway? His listeners wanted to know. They demanded to see him. He grimaced and pouted his mouth in hesitation. But they were adamant. They stood up, held hands, and formed a niche circle fomenting unrest. They protested in a slogan, “no tea, no story” and walked in the circle. In the beating heart, this addiction baffled the storyteller who then realised that he had failed to stir them. He morosely nodded his sage white head as he relented and asked them to follow him to the hut. By then, the night had fallen a full moon lit up a yellow pathway.
It was a menacing jungle. But people didn’t mind. They walked over sodden leaves, shed snakeskins, dry blood, fallen horns and ivory, torn human clothing, hanging bats, and swinging monkeys. They must find the boy. They paced up and they reached the hut beyond the poplar pond. The bare bone sat unadorned on earth’s blue bowl. Not stark as Mars, Earth’s fowl-play tarred and scarred.
The storyteller asked them to wait outside as he went in to find the boy. But people were restless. They couldn’t wait it out. The mob forced themselves into the hut and looked in a frenzy for the prized fugitive. However, when they searched the small hut, they didn’t find him, at all. What they found though, was the last thing they had dreamed of. They found a white-bellied musk deer instead. He was the same small size as the tea boy, lying lengthwise across the space without a musk pod.
Mehreen Ahmed is widely published and critically acclaimed by Midwest Book Review, DD Magazine, The Wild Atlantic Book Club to name a few. Her short stories are a winner in The Waterloo Short Story Competition, Shortlisted in Cogito Literary Journal Contest, a Finalist in the Fourth Adelaide Literary Award Contest, winner in The Cabinet of Heed stream-of-consciousness challenge. Her works are three-time nominated for The Best of the Net Awards, nominated for the Pushcart Prize Award. Her book is an announced Drunken Druid’s Editor’s Choice.
The pale girl with the gold earrings like the crescent moon rubbed a hand through her hair and looked out of the window. Even with the creaking radiator turned all the way up she was surprised she couldn’t see her breath fog the air. Kata was beginning to forget what it had been like when the kitchen table groaned with food, drink, light, and laughter. She sighed and watched snowflakes beat uselessly against the glass. Past them, in the street, people were scurrying about like ants desperate to get back into the warm.
“Something’s got them excited.”
Keys rattled in the lock before a crash heralded her boyfriend’s return. Kata rolled her eyes. Twenty-eight years old, a grown man, and still Hannibal couldn’t open a door properly. No doubt the six-foot giant unfolding in the hallway had left a new imprint in the wall for the landlady to moan about.
“Any luck? You’ve been gone a while.”
“Same old story,” said her sweetheart as he strode into the room shaking snow from his favourite denims, the ones that looked they were held together by band patches. “But there might be something in this.”
He shoved his phone forward so Kata could read the screen.
“Maintenance? You’re a roadie. You push speakers about. Don’t tell me you know how to look after a building.”
“How hard can it be?” Hannibal shrugged. “Besides there’s nothing going on anymore. State says all performances cancelled for the crisis’ duration.”
Kata glared at him.
“The crisis? Is that what they’re calling it now?”
But Hannibal put his finger to his lips.
“Careful honey. You don’t know who might be listening, even here.” He glanced at the flat’s propaganda screen and the security camera bulging from its top. “We should go. They say it’s better in the sticks, and there’s something else.”
“It’s back in our old manor. Should be easy to get on our feet again.”
Kata’s skin prickled. It had been a hard struggle to escape that trap before it ground them into submission, but she knew what he meant. The city was a black hole where the only work left was for the privileged with connections high up. She watched as the ants at the end of the street formed a line. A soup kitchen had opened its doors.
“I suppose it can’t be any worse than here.”
Two weeks later Hannibal and Kata were getting off a bus. As the big man retrieved their bags she shivered and examined the station with its smashed windows and weeds growing through the cracks.
“Home sweet home lover. How long since we left now d’you think?”
“Ten years.” Hannibal glanced up and fixed his eyes on her. “We got out when we still had a chance.”
“Remind me why we’re here again then?”
“Because it’s better than a slow death in the city.”
Kata looked at the rest of the buildings off the wide square, high, and institutional, they looked in equally bad shape.
“Hope you’re sure about that.”
But she kept her voice to a whisper. It wouldn’t be long before the city was the same, and with way more desperate people. They just had to hope the rumours they’d heard were right and the hicks were siphoning off the countryside’s food supplies for themselves.
“Wonder if there’s any of the old crowd left?”
“I doubt it,” said Hannibal swinging their bags over his shoulder. “Not the way they were carrying on before we got out.”
When Kata had met Hannibal he’d still been living with his aunt, and her own parents had disappeared not long after as if they felt the job of child rearing was done now their daughter had found a man. Kata had cried a little at first, but as far as she’d been concerned life without the constant fighting and drunken declarations of love had been a relief even if she’d temporarily lost the roof over her head. Hannibal and her hadn’t stayed in town much longer after that.
“The clerk on the phone said report to the school for work and they’ll show us the house we’ve been allocated,” said her boyfriend as he reached her side.
“Looks even worse than I remember it.”
“Yeah… I’d forgotten. Where do you think everyone is?”
Kata was opening her mouth to reply when a scarecrow dressed in a ragged trench coat emerged from a nearby alley and blocked their path.
“The kids have come back.” A huge unkempt beard thrust itself in their direction. “No, not kids anymore. All grown up.”
There were eyes in there too, black, and beady, and filled with a feverish light.
“You remember me? Jim Devereux? Nah, you wouldn’t, too young, I expect.”
Hannibal and Kata examined the figure in front of them doing their best to strip away the dirt. It was Kata who figured it out first.
“I know you.” She shook her head and slowly a smile travelled across her face. “You were a copper. What happened to you?”
Devereux tapped a finger against his nose and gave them a wink.
“I’m undercover. This place is rotten, but I’m gonna clean it up. You’ll see. Drag each and every one of them to jail and throw away the key.” He backed away still staring at them with that bright light in his eyes. “Got to go now. People to see. Places to be. You know how it is.”
“I remember him chasing us all over town.” Hannibal watched the man shuffle up the street. “Doesn’t look like much now.”
“Yeah, but what’s replaced him?”
They’d been back a month before Kata began to suspect something was wrong, a month of checking who was alive and who was dead amongst their old friends. A month of calm reassurances that they’d made the right decision. Residential Sector Twelve was safe, dull, but safe.
The only problem was she was tired with the sort of bone aching weariness that had her dragging herself out of bed like an old woman, and Hannibal was worse. Kata stared at the pitted ceiling over her head. She should get up and start preparing the evening meal, but after a day spent with one of the sector’s volunteer militias lethargy sat in her bones like lead.
“At least we’re alive.”
That was no small thing since the fighting started. She frowned as the doorbell disturbed her thoughts.
“Yes? Who is it?” Her voice was barely a croak as she activated the grimy vidscreen and grabbed a clear plastic bladder from the pack that arrived on their doorstep every morning along with instructions for the day. As she squeezed the water down her throat the stamp of the company that ran the town caught her eye. Another quirk that kept the area secure was the presence of so much decaying heavy industry that the groundwater had long since been contaminated.
“Jesca I… what’s wrong?”
The woman on the video screen was Hannibal’s supervisor and her eyes were darting from side to side as she leaned closer to the speaker.
“Let me in Kata, please.”
Kata had never seen the teacher in such a state. Normally Jesca’s smile was a permanent feature and she brightened up a room just by being in it, but now she looked like a hunted animal. As Kata watched she pulled her daughter into view.
“Please Kata, for my kid’s sake. I don’t have long.”
There was no one in the street outside when Kata looked but she double bolted the door just to be on the safe side as soon as she’d let them in. There was something about seeing the only person in town who’d seemed to have a pulse in such a state that was a little unnerving.
“Shouldn’t you be at the school? Has something happened? Is Hannibal Ok?”
“I don’t know. I ran.”
“What do you mean you ran?”
Jesca gripped Kata’s hands so hard her nails dug into the flesh and stared into her eyes.
“Believe me I’d have gone elsewhere, but you’re still new. You’re not hooked.”
“Hooked on what?”
Jesca pointed at the water.
“Riot control honey. The answer to the civil war. What made you think coming to a pharma town was a good idea? This place is one big laboratory.”
“You should see the city. Besides, I was born in this sector. Nothing ever happens here.”
“Nothing happens for a reason. They’ve been feeding the population sedatives for years, constantly upping the dose to see what they can get away with and still have a productive labour force. But they’ve gone too far now. They want to start on the kids.”
Kata fought to think clearly through the lethargy filling her mind.
“How come you don’t seem affected? What makes you so special?”
Jesca looked down.
“I oversee distribution. I’m trusted.”
“Not by me. Her maybe, but not me.”
Kata pointed at where Jesca’s daughter had wandered into the living room. She was already slipping a pair of rubber nodes onto her temples so she could glue herself into her screen.
“You’re missing the point Kata. It doesn’t matter if you trust me or not. They’ll know I’ve come here. You can’t avoid the surveillance. I just need you to get my daughter out. Take her anywhere you like. I’ll give you money. Just take her far away from here.”
“Why don’t you do it?”
For the first time since the woman had started her story Kata felt a twinge of pity. The look Jesca was giving her was the same as a convict who’d been locked up all their life.
“They’ll never let me go. Not with what I know. Your parents were the same. Look where trying to fight the town’s board got them.”
“You knew my parents?”
“We were friends a long time ago before they were designated high risk and gotten rid of.”
Kata’s head suddenly felt as though a storm was blowing through it. She wasn’t sure whether to tear the teacher’s eyes out or start crying.
“No, I had nothing to do with it. I told you. I’m distribution, but not anymore. If they want to turn the kids into drones too, I’m out. My daughter deserves a chance at a decent life.”
“Is still at the school,” once again Jesca was finding it hard to meet Kata’s eyes. “You don’t understand. They’d never let me leave and I wasn’t sure you’d agree to help me. They’ve only just made the decision, but it won’t be long till they put this place into lockdown in case there’s any trouble from the parents.”
Kata felt her stomach lurch.
“What is it? What have you done Jesca?”
“You’re not the only ones with connections in the movement. I left certain things where they’ll find them in case you said no. But there’s still time to do something about it. I’ll tell you where they are if you agree to help… please.”
The crack as Kata’s hand met Jesca’s cheek and snapped her head round sounded loud in the narrow corridor.
Kata glared at the teacher.
“Alright, then I better go get him.”
The school was a huge concrete block at the town’s centre. Once someone had tried painting colourful murals along it, but generations of kids had covered them with graffiti until only the odd splash of colour remained where even the oldest couldn’t reach. As Kata drew nearer she saw the lights were out. She pulled out her phone and tried another call listening to the ringtone before it was replaced by the flat whine of a disconnected service.
“You better be in there Hannibal.”
The wind howling down the street stole the words from her mouth with ease and she glanced at the lowering snow laden clouds gathering overhead. If they were going to make a run for it tonight they’d have a storm to cover their tracks.
“If we make a run for it tonight.”
Kata headed up the stairs. The entrance was open, but crossing its threshold felt like stepping into an abyss, and some deep primal part of her was screaming to get out before it was too late.
Kata’s voice bounced through the gloomy building. There were lights on she realised just not the main ones. Instead, only the cabinets and their ranks of cheap trophies shone in the dark.
Kata’s foot met a bucket and water sloshed onto the floor. With her next step she found the mop, and something went cold and hard inside her.
Hannibal was hanging from a knotted cord tied to the railing of a balcony. It looked like he was trying to see something on his shoes.
As she tried to hoist him free Kata’s feet slid on the photos scattered on the floor like the leaves of a tree in autumn. She knew what they’d be without even looking and as she finally gave up and began to cry with her face buried against his legs the grainy images of a much younger Hannibal with even longer hair stared back from under a banner with the revolutions slogan. Once upon a time the movement had played a large part in both their lives; although she doubted their lack of activity recently would matter. The association was enough, and the town’s runaway had been caught and punished at last for his escape. Hannibal would have known what was waiting for him in one of the crumbling state-run gulags. Politicals rarely made it to old age.
When Devereux found her she was curled in a ball staring at the love of her life’s fingers, the ones that would never touch her again, never caress her face.
“Come on get up.”
She felt herself being dragged to her feet.
“You can’t stay here. They’ll be coming before dawn to clear away the body. Probably already know you’ve found it.”
“The board’s servants; they’ve plenty of those in this town.”
“Jesca,” hissed Kata, the name spitting from her tongue like an insult. “She’s at my house.”
“With her child Kata. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have done the same yourself. That kid stays here she’ll be a drone just like everyone else.”
“You’re not like them. Everyone else… their eyes. They look like you could walk right up and shoot them, and they wouldn’t care.”
“Trust me it’s been done. They’re the perfect docile population. All the board wants now is to see if it can get the same result with the kids.”
“So, what’s your secret? Why aren’t you like them?”
Glass clinked in the man’s pocket as he pulled something free.
“I don’t drink the water sweetheart… prost.”
Devereux replaced the bottle.
“Come on now let’s get you out of here. You gonna take the kid?”
Kata’s heart felt crushed and sour, and she could feel the tracks of tears freeze on her cheeks as they stepped into the rising storm, but she knew she had no choice.
“Yes… but the mother.”
Devereux stared back at her and she was surprised at the kindness hidden in the look.
“Thought you might feel like that.”
When they got back the house was empty except for Jesca’s daughter and no amount of raging from Kata could change it. The note that Jesca had left almost stayed unread, but if it wasn’t Kata that killed the woman for what she’d done her superiors surely would. Kata unfolded the paper and thought of the thousand things she’d like to do to the person who’d written it.
She thrust it in Devereux’s direction. One word had been enough.
“I can’t read this. Tell me what she’s got to say… briefly.”
The ex-policeman hunched over the paper as thunder rumbled in the distance.
“She says to leave now. She says they’ll be busy with her and what she’s going to do to their hardware round here. She says you won’t see her again, neither of you.”
“She’s lucky then,” hissed Kata. But as she looked at where Jesca’s daughter was still sat her jaw softened and some of the wildness left her face. She realised she didn’t even know the kid’s name.
“What are you going to do Devereux?”
The man took a long drink from his bottle and grinned. “They might not pay me anymore but I’ve a responsibility to this town. Well, what’s left of it. The people here were my friends.”
“Won’t you be in trouble for helping me?”
“Probably, but I think they like having me around. It reminds them of how untouchable they are. But I have this.”
Devereux pulled his coat aside and Kata saw the pistol slung around his hip.
“If I ever see one of the board I’m going to let rip. But they’re careful and they don’t like to get too close to the herd. Normally they just send their servants to do their work for them. This time though I’m not sure. This thing with the kids is a big deal for them. It’s the culmination of their program; the final hurdle. Afterwards, if it works, they’ll start rolling their product out to the cities.”
Kata stared into the night pressing against the window. She felt empty, used up, and it had nothing to do with what they were putting into the water. She’d no idea where she would go, just that it had to be away from here.
“Then I’ll say goodbye.”
“Goodbye Kata. I’m sorry about Hannibal. He was a good kid.”
Just for a moment Kata thought she might cry, but she was damned if she’d let him see her weakness.
“Come on,” she called instead as she went into the next room. “We have to get going.”
“Where’s my Mum?”
The girl stared up at her with wide blue eyes. She was a lot younger than Kata had been when her own parents had disappeared, but she still knew something was wrong.
“Your Mummy’s told me to look after you until she can join us.” Kata stretched a smile across her face she didn’t feel and took the kid’s hand. “Let’s get you wrapped up warm. We’re going for a walk.”
The storm had died down a little by the time they made their move, and the moon was visible sailing through the ragged clouds.
“At least we can see where we’re going.”
Fresh snow lay everywhere un-marked and un-disturbed and for a moment the town at the heart of Sector Twelve almost looked beautiful. Kata and the girl hurried through the streets crossing the open spaces at a run. Kata pretended it was a game and she was glad of the weather because it made it too cold to talk much. It was only when they reached the suburbs pressing up against the forest that she allowed herself to breathe a little easier.
“Mummy’s in there. In the forest. Shall we go see her?”
“No. It’s cold. I want to go home.”
“Listen,” Kata crouched until she was level with the girl’s face. “What’s your name?”
“Listen Adele, we’re going on an adventure. That’s how you have to think of this. Don’t you want to see if there’s elves in the woods? I bet there are.”
Adele squinted suspiciously at the dark looming trees.
“What sort of elves?”
“Good ones, with tons of candy, and warm fires. That’s who your Mum’s with.”
Kata was hoping that the part about warm fires was true at least. She knew she was storing up trouble for later, but she’d do anything to put a million miles between her and Sector Twelve right then.
They were halfway to the nearest trees when the first figure stepped from between their trunks.
Kata veered through the drifts. She couldn’t tell if the man had seen them. Maybe they’d been lucky. Her hope died a miserable death when the next black clad figure emerged, and the next, and the next.
Soon there was almost as many people as trees spread in a semicircle around them.
“Who are they?” said Adele.
“Nobody we want to know.”
Kata began to step backwards dragging the child with her. They’d gotten about twenty paces before the crowd appeared from between the buildings. All that was missing were torches thought Kata with a bitter smile.
“Run kid. Your mother’s waiting for you.”
A narrow rapidly closing path led to the nearest clump of woodland on her left and Kata shoved the kid in that direction.
Adele’s face crumpled and Kata waited for her to burst into tears. But the kid was tough. When she gave her another, harder, shove she didn’t fall to the ground or lose control. She just stared back at Kata with a puzzled frown.
“Move, these people are killers. They’ll eat you up and chew on your bones and they’re coming now.”
Kata thought fast.
“Move, you’re a horrible little stray I wish I’d never met.”
She glanced at the forest hoping the kid can’t tell she’s faking it.
“I think I see your mother now. I wish she was dead too.”
At least the last part is true and with a sound midway between a sob and a gasp the little figure was running through the thickening snow. Kata had no idea how far it was to the nearest settlement. No idea if she’d live, but as her back disappeared between the trees and the crowd drew in she was glad the kid had a chance.
“Never come back sweetheart. It’s true what they say. Going back will be the death of you.”
Kata turned to face the nearest grey faced figures with their deadly blank eyes. They were drawing knives.
Kilmo writes. He brought it from squatting in Bristol to a van in a pub car park, to “Dark Fire Magazine,” “CC&D Magazine,” “Feed Your Monster Magazine,” “Blood Moon Rising,” “Aphelion,” “The Wyrd,” “One Hundred Voices,” and now here.
Disturbing the bones of the dead
Remembering the torment best forgotten
Creating your narrative of persecution and innocence
Wearing a halo of flies
You natter about your village in exaggerated anger
You put chains on the slaves you maternalistically call a tribe
Tonguing the wounds you open
Skinning the corpse and wearing the skin
Bearing the gift of maggots
You return in the night to make subtle agony
You come to take her by infecting me
You are the living disease
You enter the blood through a parasite in the ear
Your eyes twinkle with malevolence
Your eyes narrow with underhanded intent
You yourself are the illness
You wear your scars inside still raw and pink
You break the bone and suck the marrow from a smile
Disturbing the bones of the dead
Feeding on those who live
You yourself are dead
You kill the sun
The floor slick with sadness you create
Snarling with your bloody teeth
Drunk on bigotry and madness
Creating a false family of zombies frightened of noise and shadows
Frightened of you who casts the largest shadow
But you are the mistress of this darkness
You ascend from the steps of hell
Emerging from your sepulcher like a spider
Cascading up and down the wall
Such loveless fangs
Such a cold embrace
You bring your fog of evaporated tears
You bring your pestilence like rotting meat on a rusty hook
You attempt to give every day to the dead
You bring sickness as if it is medicine
You alone create tomorrow:
Día de Muertos
John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009. fritzware.com/johntustinpoetry contains links to his published poetry online.
I had driven through the bleached downtown area battered by wind and dirt. Across the railroad track – once six tracks wide, now two, and the highway – once two-lanes, now four, I entered a neighborhood unseen in over fifty years. Not much had changed except the basement house on the corner was gone.
A few surviving elms overhung ancient sidewalks as brittle and cracked as when I, as a five-year old child played in the front yard during a time of unlocked doors. A time when screen windows stayed open, a time with no metal detectors to pass through before entering public buildings.
The slightest of winds caused the leaves of the few remaining elms to flatten casting shadows across the side and onto the house where my dog, Ikey, had frolicked.
I stopped the car, rested my chin on the steering wheel, and, within a moment I was at this very spot as a young boy squinting through the screen door of my parents’ rented house. A small child’s attempt to shut out his mother’s headaches and regrets and his father’s scatter shot venom, that constant burn of anger he carried his entire life.
Is it-? My imagination? Is that him?
I called out. “Mr. Childress. Are you-? Waiting for me? Is it time?” He was an old man about the age I am now.
The back door led to my father spewing anger toward whatever was in his line of sight while slopping aluminum paint onto an old garbage can. The front door led to a walk with Mr. Childress.
I heard my mother’s voice. “Your father wants you in the backyard.” My father wanted me to paint the inside of the trash can, but mostly he wanted to clamp his teeth, rip his glasses off, press his forehead against mine and yell. Even at the age of five, I had tread that path a few times too many.
“Okay,” I said, and walked out the front door straight to Mr. Childress so he could take me on another trip.
“Good afternoon, young man.”
“Hi, Mr. Childress.”
I looked straight at his face as he bent to shake my hand.
“What happened to your nose?” I asked.
“Something grew there and needs to be taken off.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Not yet.” He smiled and asked about school, my dog, and what I planned to do that day. Then he took me on trips from the Populist Party of Jerry Simpson and Mary Lease through the heady days of the Roaring 20’s, and into Prohibition, introduced me to Al Capone, and took me on a car ride with Bonnie and Clyde.
We talked the next day too, but Mr. Childress had to go home early. “Got a doctor’s appointment tomorrow so I need to rest up.”
I did not see him for a week. Then one afternoon he was waiting on the sidewalk wearing a wide brimmed straw hat. The bandage across his truncated nose was dotted with specks of black and dark red.
“What’s that for?” I asked. “Where’s the rest of your nose?”
He grinned and said, “They kept it at the doctor’s office.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Is it time for you to die?”
“Are you going to die?”
He smiled and patted my left shoulder.
I did not see him after that – until today, fifty years later, when he stood in front of that old house – waiting. I saw us walking – his nose restored, wearing his hat, and still with me. I waited until we turned the corner and watched as I held onto him. I heard myself ask, “Mr. Childress. Is it time?”
He smiled and patted my left shoulder.
A Cell in Motion
Why am I here?
Alone each day for eleven years, I – an erudite man of immense education, considerable charm, and the unique ability to twist everything I touch into something illegal – rise, lean my forehead against the door, and stare at a wall six feet away.
The sound of metal beating against itself batters my ears minute upon minute with no moment of peace, nothing to look at other than what others have written on the walls. I step back, sit on a tattered exercise mat that doubles as a mattress strewn across the metal frame embedded into a concrete wall painted institutional green, look at the door, then close my eyes.
When my eyes open, the door has solidified, and, within moments, splits into fractals, divides, then explodes forming a cloud emerging from the center. Walls dissolve. Sink and shower bleed onto the floor, then coalesce into the ceiling.
The single overhead light casts shadows across the hallway floor. Parallel tubes expand – vertically, horizontally – from the solid plate where a key fits, when, once each day, a uniformed man delivers my food.
Thomas Elson’s short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in numerous venues such as Calliope, The Cabinet of Heed, New Feathers, Pinyon, Lunaris, New Ulster, Lampeter, Selkie, and Adelaide. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.
I don’t mean to rant – like my father screaming at the tv while he inflates his blood pressure cuff to make sure he doesn’t have a coronary or stroke out when politicians and pundits lie and don’t care who gets hurt.
And I take no pleasure in yelling at the dead!
It’s just that, my God! How many times does it have to be said that feelings don’t last forever? No one is perpetually happy from cradle to grave.
Annoyance can turn to irritation, morph into frustration, build to anger, cascade into rage, freefall into guilt, slither away in shame, stew in remorse in a fraction of a mayfly’s life.
Fear may have the lifespan of a startle, a panic attack, a sleepless night, may come and go like the tides.
God forgive me, but hurt may last as long as a skinned knee or a widow’s grief, but not forever.
There are days when sadness goes down with the sun and joy rises with it.
There are seasons when sorrow lasts for an arctic winter, as if the sun will never rise again, but the sun always gets around to rising, and hope stalks us like the rising of the sun.
So how could you swallow the lie and act like no one gets hurt? The LIE – that hopelessness is anything more than fleeting.
Why couldn’t you wait? Hopelessness is always eventually eclipsed by hope!
Hope is a stalker. Hope always finds us. As sure as the sun rises. But as sure as the sun would rise, you turned your lights out with a bullet to the brain before it could.
Rise it did. The sun. With hope. And yet here we are, with you – or what remains of you – lying beneath my feet, with me beating the ground like someone pounding on a door where nobody’s home.
Wish you were here. You’re missing out on a sunny day.
Todd Matson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He has written poetry for The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling and has been published in Vital Christianity. He has also written lyrics for songs recorded by a number of contemporary Christian music artists, including the Gaither Vocal Band.