“Blue Genie” Horror by Robb White

Part 1: Lottery Ticket

Rebecca rounded the corner of Giant Eagle’s main entrance to check out the produce. She had  white bean soup for dinner in mind, although leeks weren’t her favorite recipe item. No matter how much they were washed, grains of sand wound up at the bottom of the bowl. 

The voice behind her jarred her out of her cooking reverie, thrusting her into one worse:  Eleanor Ragsdale, her one-time best friend, looked at her with scrunched-up face behind the shopping cart where a chubby toddler waved around a piece of paper and screamed, “Mommy! Boo-gee-gee, boo-gee-gee!”

“Hello, Becky.”

“Hey there, Ellie.”

They wore matching frowns. These rare but always awkward meetings in public always distressed Rebecca, reminding her of her losses: the husband and family she never had.

“Everything OK, hon? You made such a sour face I thought a tarantula jumped out of a bunch of bananas.”

Rebecca forced a smile. “Ah, I see you brought your helper.”

The child’s name—what was it? Some clever-cutesy thing.

“Boo-gee-gee!” the child howled.

“Blue Gee-nie, Rainbow, Blue Gee-nie.”

Blue Genie?

Eleanor’s face, never her strongest feature, bloomed with pride; her expansive bosom beneath the double chin was, she suspected, the main reason why Bill had been lured away just before senior prom. Acid reflux shot up her esophagus every time.

The child thrust a paper at her.

“Becky, Bow wants you to have it.”

Rebecca leaned down to the child’s level. “Thank you for the lovely picture.”

Hardly lovely . . . A genie caricature, not Disney’s Aladdin, either—huge teeth, jet-black goatee and matching spit curl peeking beneath a turban cinched with a ruby pendant. Rainbow’s genie leered at her with a stare that tracked owing to his bulging eyes. The asymmetrical nose and mouth had been applied by stickers. Rainbow’s work. The whole cockeyed alignment made him more sinister. 

The little girl shifted buttocks in the cart, releasing noise followed by gaseous vapor.

“I farted!”

“Yes, you did, honey-bunny.”

Rainbow kicked her mother’s thighs, yelled: “Mommy, go! Cu’cakes!”

“Say ‘You’re welcome’ to the nice lady, so we can get you a yummy cupcake.”

That elicited a mini-tantrum.  

“Shush, Bow, sweetie, we’re going!”

Mugging for her friend, Eleanor delivered an eye-rolling visage of an overwhelmed parent accompanied by a theatrical sigh. “Sometimes I envy you single women. I really do.”

Mother and daughter headed to the bakery section. Eleanor gave her child a smooch on her mop of curls. Rebecca burned with a pang of envy.  She clutched the child’s blue-faced genie, her meager crumb from a feast she’d never enjoy.

A clerk behind a counter where razors, tobacco, and matches were sold along with lottery tickets muttered “Good luck” to a customer. She’d never bought a lottery ticket in her life, not even when the country was consumed with lottery fever after a massive jackpot. Something propelled her toward the window.

“What’ll it be?”

A placard behind the clerk showed penciled-in sums for the Powerball and Mega Millions drawings. Staggering figures: 67 million and 118 million.

“Ma’am?”

“Sorry,” Rebecca replied, “is there one for less money than those two?”

“Wow, that’s a first.”

“What is?”

“Somebody wanting less money. Well, there’s Ohio Classic. A lousy hundred grand.”

“OK.”

“Brought your lucky genie with you, huh?”

Rebecca’s face turned hot. She didn’t realize she’d placed Rainbow’s picture on the counter.

“I’ll take that one, the last one you said.”

“Auto play?”

Rebecca had no idea what that meant.  “Yes.”

“One dollar.”

Ticket in one hand, genie in the other, she abandoned any idea of food. When a customer’s cart triggered the automatic doors, she fled. 

* * *

Part 2: Make a Wish

Nothing for supper the last two nights but Mac & Cheese and a can of Chef Boyardee’s spaghetti. Replacing the bundle of celery in its row, she dug out the ticket from the bottom of her purse and walked over to the same counter she’d purchased the ticket.

The clerk behind the counter was different and seemed intent on ignoring her. Becky noticed the ticket scanner at the end of the counter. A small rectangle of LCD screen above the laser scanner beamed digitized joy: “Welcome! Place Ticket Here.”

She inserted it. Nothing happened. She was about to crumple the ticket and toss it into the receptacle next to the magazine kiosk when the clerk grimaced at her, said, “Put the barcode inside the viewfinder, ma’am.”

Becky’s face flushed; she immediately reversed the ticket.

What happened next came out of dream time that slowed everything to a molasses crawl. Bells clanged, party whistles whooped, and the tiny machine proclaimed in a tinny voice: “Winner! Winner! Winner!”

Her face turned crimson. Everyone in earshot stopped pushing carts to watch.

The clerk sidled over, her scowl replaced by curiosity. “I ain’t ever heard that much whoopty-doo before.”

A crowd gathered around like bees in a hive. People pointed at her.

“Could be a mistake. Gimme the ticket.”

She slid it under Plexiglass.

A deep male voice behind her mumbled, “Damn if I’d hand over that ticket. She’d pull back a bloody stump first.”

Rebecca stood there, still as a post, hoping the crowd would go back to shopping. The opposite happened: more people wandered over, magnetized by the small commotion. Every person in the checkout lines was looking her way. Being stared at brought back the worst time in her life. That old terror welled up.

“Winner! Winner!” the machine kept bleating.

“Can’t find nothin’ wrong with it,” the clerk said. “Looks like it’s the real McCoy.”

Real McCoy . . . her father’s expressions . . .

“How much is it . . .”

“The whole shebang, lady. You got yourself a hundred thousand, cash money. What’s your name anyway? We gotta put you up on our Winners’ Board.”

The clerk jabbed a thumb over her shoulder at a poster board. $5, $10, $20, $100, and $500 denominations were written beside the names of customers in black Magic Marker. Beneath: “Congratulations to All Our Winners!!!” was slathered in glitter.

“You beat ‘em all, hon.”

Rebecca protested she didn’t want her name on it. She was terrified she was gibbering. Her vision lost clarity in moments of panic like this. The edges of things blurred—furniture, people’s faces.

She gripped the counter to keep from falling to the floor; her knees gave out. She clipped the counter with her chin going down to the floor.

Before the light faded, a face loomed above hers: a man’s, not unpleasant. His face stared down at her from the edge of the crowd surrounding her, the only one not expressing panic or concern.

She would recall his frank appraisal later in perfect detail.

When she opened her eyes, the man was still there. This time he was smiling. He swiveled his head at the crowd pressing in. “Folks, move back! Give the woman some air! C’mon, folks, move back!”

Kind but forceful—like her father. No matter what state the grieving family was in when they arrived at the funeral home for calling hours, he was a pillar of strength. He knew exactly what to say and to whom. He gave the same pep talks to the same kinds of people year after year until his stroke. His favorite being the “The-Lord’s-Will-Be-Done” speech he used inside the parlor. In the hospital once, she caught his expression in the convex security mirror in the corner, but it was distorted into a grimace of rictus, a look that terrified her young mind.

The man was striking in looks: a full head of closely barbered hair slightly graying at the temples, deep brown eyes, and a strong jawline. Not Hollywood handsome but good looking by Midwest standards. The slim gold watch on his wrist winked under fluorescent lighting; she noted the gemstone ring, the ironed points of his shirt collar.

The man helped her to her feet.

“Let me help you,” he crooned.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she repeated, rising to her feet slowly.

Nonetheless, the stranger had her triceps in a firm grip, leading her as if she were blind, past the onlookers, through the Express Lane and out the pneumatic doors.

“Let go,” she pleaded, “you’re pinching my arm.”

“I’m so, so sorry.”

They stood on the pavement beside racks of white, yellow, and orange mums for sale. She blinked into the late autumn sun, her stomach queasy. Behind the store’s plate glass, people stared at them. She wanted to get away, far away.

The strange man’s eyes bulged.  “Wait! Your lottery ticket!”

He rushed back inside. She stood transfixed, fearful she’d stumble or faint again. Her stomach roiled with bile. An odd sensation of floating in a cone of ambient light hadn’t yet receded from her vision.

The man came out the exit doors guiding the ticket clerk.

“I brought her,” he said unnecessarily. The ticket woman glared at him.

“I wasn’t gonna hand this ticket to nobody but you,” she said.

Rebecca meekly thanked her.

The man’s smile was radiant. “You never know, dear. Decent people turn into dogs when it comes to this much money. My name’s Ted—Theodore, actually—but I go by Ted.”

“Thanks for—thank you . . .Ted.”

She lacked a handy exit line to depart gracefully. Before she realized what was happening, he was walking beside her, talking the while, in no hurry. She wondered if he was a salesman, maybe a telemarketer. That seemed unkind for his assistance.

Mentally fatigued and drained, she barely replied to his banter. Instead, she thought of Delphinia, her ginger cat, asleep on the ottoman. 

“I hope you don’t consider me presumptuous,” he said, standing beside her car door, “but I told you my name, you haven’t told me yours.”

“Rebecca.”

“A beautiful name,” he whispered, “my mother’s name.”

Rebecca thumbed the key fob. The chhkk of the door unlocking soothed her jangled nerves; she set the ticket in the cup holder and shut the door.

He gave her that look again. She drove off, her heart thumping.

Three days later, answering the doorbell, she found him on her porch with a box of candy and a bouquet of red gladiolas.

* * *

She looked back on that moment as pivotal. She had choices. She could have borrowed a page from Ellie Ragsdale’s book and told him to shove off and take his flowers and candy with him. Or cocked a hand on her hip in the doorway, put Ellie’s arch look on her face and growled, “Say there, Teddy, this doesn’t have anything to do with my coming into a hundred grand now, does it?”

She did neither. She stood there blushing like a moonstruck girl, cutting her eyes from his beaming face to the flowers, then to the candy, then back to his face. Her armpits perspired and a moustache of perspiration began forming above her upper lip.

Before she could say anything other than a stammer of greeting, he was inside the foyer.

His “excuse for dropping by” was her fainting spell, but she wondered how he knew where she lived. The funeral home’s name and number remained changed since her father’s death. Her social awkwardness, aggravated by her semi-reclusive life, left her confused and self-conscious.

Handing him a microwaved cup of decaf, she almost blurted out that her lottery winnings would be deposited in her bank account any day.

Ted was a good listener—in fact, he was a great listener. He really looked at her when she spoke. Not many people do that, she knew. She used to ask Ellie to stop interrupting the middle of her sentences with the beginnings of hers, a rebuke that bounced off Ellie’s head.

He wanted to know about her. It thrilled her.

When he checked his watch, apologizing, saying he had to be somewhere, she was aware of her keen disappointment.

“Thank for the coffee, Rebecca. Do you mind if I call you that?”

His mother’s name, he’d said—

“Call me Becky. My friends all do.”

A tiny fib, she thought. What friends? Job’s comforters, the lot of them or traitors like Ellie.

She didn’t own a cell phone, much less have a “presence” on social media platforms. She wasn’t sure what that meant when he asked her about “family online.” She kept a shoebox in her bedroom closet full of old photos, most dating from her parents’ time. Her father tall beside the casket, neatly shaved, black tie, and suitcoat, beaming, thick horn-rimmed glasses—his first funeral. Her mother in a Jackie Kennedy hat, looking shyly at the camera. They were flawed by camera flash and revealed red eyes like raccoons, not a plain, middle-aged couple. 

The “Bill photos” she could not bear to look at.

Ted was a successful contractor, often on the road in neighboring counties with various projects.

“I don’t get my hands dirty anymore,” he sighed between sips of the bland decaf. “I miss hard work—you know, tearing off a roof, replacing pipes, work that makes you feel good at the end of the day.”

Over the course of two months, they “dated,” although she didn’t like to think of their relationship so formally. He hinted about past relationships that “hadn’t panned out” or were “amicable splits.” She inferred these were amorous events in other states. He briefly mentioned a grown son and daughter that he flew out to visit during holidays.

“Randi’s currently in Indianapolis,” he mentioned. “Ronnie’s in Nevada.”

He didn’t pry into her past, and yet she found herself revealing secrets she thought had been clamped down. He always backed off when he felt he’d trespassed onto private grounds. She reassured him that was not the case, always revealing more than she expected to.

On their first date, he begged her to take him on a tour of her house.

“It’s like a palace, so many rooms. I’ll bet you haven’t even been in some in years.”

She didn’t want him to think she was some kind of neurotic spinster—was that the word people still used?

She took him downstairs for a look at the embalming rooms.

He followed, commenting on the size of the green-tiled walls and high ceilings, ignoring the scuppers in the corners and the unsold display caskets lining one wall, their satin and polyester liners having turned an antique white over time.

She flipped a light switch. Fluorescent lights crackled.  She stood aside to let him enter.

“So, this is where the magic happens?” He lost his smile when he noticed the expression on her grim face. “Sorry, that was tacky.”

“No, no,” Rebecca replied. “It’s just that I haven’t been down here in years.”

The faintest smells overlay the quiet of a room long shut, a familiar redolence of formaldehyde, disinfectant, and the pungent aromas left in the wake of hundreds of corpses.  Powerful olfactory memories tumbled from her neocortex—too many to banish like the dust motes swirling in the faint light streaming from the glass-block lights above their heads at ground level.

He walked along the counters, one hand trailing, passing through the dust over the array of instruments laid out and kept at the ready:  graspers, scissors, staplers, the boxes of gallons of embalming fluid neatly stacked in the corner, extra tubing coiled like transparent snakes on the gleaming counters, the scalpels for making slits beneath the armpit and groin for draining fluids.

Her father’s image arrived unbidden—splash gown rolled to the forearms, the black hairs of his hands vigorously massaging the muscles of “the decedent” (never “the dead” or “the body”). After arrival from the hospital or nursing home, he first had to eliminate blood clots after rigor once the body was stripped and washed on the slab.  Her first jobs as his assistant were to set the face, cant it at a 15-degree angle for proper viewing upstairs. She’d glue the eyelids, seal the mouth in a natural expression—“extremely important,” her father insisted, because embalming fluid would make it impossible to change the features later.

Ted asked simple questions, nothing gross.

“I’ll bet you were great at the makeup.”

“My father taught me to do hair and makeup first. My mother and I pitched in. It was expected. I was still in high school. He thought it would be a good idea to learn a few things before mortuary science at Gannon.”

He had wanted her to succeed him as he had succeeded his father in the mortuary business. Her failure to finish mortician college crushed him. Not even her mother’s death from stage-4 breast cancer hurt as much as that betrayal.

The unasked question hung in the air.  Ted looked at her.

“I—I left school before completing my associate degree,” she said. “See, it was my turn to insert the trocar—”

“Trocar?”

“An instrument designed for removing fluids. It goes into the abdomen.”

She felt that rapid, heart-fluttering sensation as though she were standing in that same room, not here. The 3-sided cutting point, its obturator, and cannula all flashing back to a tactile memory of that day when she hesitated at her instructor’s direction to place it inside “Benny.” Benny was the foam corpse students practiced on.

“What happened?”

“I fainted.”

“I . . . understand.”

“No, you can’t. My father never understood how a stupid practicing dummy made me faint after I’d worked on so many bodies down here right beside him. But it happened. I fainted to the floor. I left school that evening.”

Before she knew it, she was sobbing in Ted’s arms. They made love for the first time that night.  She was so grateful for the release of pressure that she wanted to please him. Unlike her teenaged lovemaking with Bill, this was adult sex. She had her first orgasm.

Weeks passed in bliss. Ted drugged her with sex.

“My God, I’ve missed so much,” she told him in bed that first night.

She dressed for him, made herself more attractive. She tossed out all her negligees and sleepwear for more erotic attire.  She made him meals that took hours to prepare. It seemed that, more than the lottery winnings, her wish for a lover was granted in spades.

Ted pulled the Blue Genie picture attached to the fridge and crumpled it to throw it away.

“You don’t need his magic now. You have me.”

“Please, don’t,” she begged. “He granted me my wish.”

“You mean the money?”

“No, you.”

She understood that men were the sex-seekers, and this was what they craved beyond the homemaking, the dinners, and pillow talk—even more than the tenderness and gentle kisses in daytime. Still, it was strange, unsettling to see him lean against the counter so casually with that look on his face. He slowly undid his belt and shove his pants down to his knees. The bulge in his underwear drew her gaze.

“Come here,” he ordered.

She walked to him, zombie-like, hoped he meant to kiss her passionately. Instead, he pressed her shoulders down, guiding her over the rough fabric of his clothing.

“Do it.”

Her first blowjob. It seemed harsh; it seemed . . . like rape.

He hissed something, gurgled, then grasped the back of her head and thrust his crotch into her. She adjusted to the aggressive rhythm of his thrusts, unable to control anything. She was less afraid of gagging than of what she might see if she removed his erection and looked up into his face.      

* * *

“Get that, hon.”

He sat at the table in his underwear reading. She wanted to protest she was the one doing some work; the moment passed, so she dried her hands on a dish towel and went to the door.

A man in his mid-twenties stood there. At first, she thought he was a salesman, but he didn’t look the part. In fact, he was scruffy looking with long hair and a dark, untrimmed beard. Tattoos on his hands looked crudely drawn, something done in a jail. A duffel bag lay at his feet.

“I’m Ron,” he said. “Where’s my dad here?”

“Your d-dad?”

“Did I stutter? Yeah, my dad. Ted Mayfield.”

Ted shouted from the other room: “Who is it?”

“Your son . . . he says.”

The man brushed past, exclaiming, “Hey, old man, what’s up?”

She turned to behold father and son embracing. Ted gave the youth a hard clap on the shoulder.

“What took you, Ron.”

“Hon, this is Ron. Ron, Becky.”

They shook hands. Father and son walked away, both talking, conversing in a shorthand she didn’t understand. She heard “Seattle” and “docks,” but that was all she understood.

She wondered if she should say something about the duffel bag. Instead, she closed the door and returned to the kitchen.

“Where’d he go?”

“Oh, Ron’s going to stay with us for a couple days. I know, it’s sudden. He should have called, the rascal. I swear, hon, if he weren’t big enough to eat apples off my head, I’d tan his hide for him.”

“Ted, this is not—this is an . . . imposition.”

A fatuous word, but she had nothing else in her vocabulary to fire.

“I told him he could stay at the end of the hallway upstairs.”

“Ted, I don’t let strangers barge in here on a whim.”

Strangers? He’s my son, damn it! I haven’t seen him since last Christmas.”

They’d never argued. This was a shock. She finally relented to Ted’s pleadings, and agreed to “a few days, no more.”

He kissed her neck—more a dismissal than an apology. “That’s my girl!”

Ron stayed out of sight, avoided her. She told Ted to ask his son to share a meal with them that evening. She wanted things to be normal. This seemed like an appropriate truce to bring her and Ted back together. Ted told that morning Ron expected to get work in Cleveland “soon.”

“He’s short of money at the moment. This’ll make all the difference in the world to him—and to me.”

She thought being “short of money” ironic. That expression was on Ted’s lips often these days. She’d already “loaned” him $300 for a contracting job in Andover that fell through at the last minute and left him short of spare cash. “Just to tide me over, sweetie.  That farmer ripped me off. I lost twenty-two hundred on the job. I’ll have to go to court to see any of it back.”

On the day Ron was packing to leave, upstairs waiting for his Uber to take him to Cleveland, another knock at the door summoned her away from the Highsmith novel she was reading in the breakfast nook. She slammed the paperback shut—her first quiet moment dissolved. She was glad Ted had left her alone for a while. She was suffocated by the constant presence of father and son in the house. Her romance had evolved through a rapid progress of honeymoon stage through mid-life crisis to a stressful being taken for granted. Ted hadn’t volunteered to pay a dime for household expenses since that first week she allowed him to move in. 

She parted the sheers and looked out the big front window. A dark-complected male sat behind the wheel of a Honda Civic with its engine running.

Thank God, his ride is here, she thought.

She opened the front door to signal the driver to wait while she called Ron. But she found herself looking into the face of a young woman, age hard to discern because of the matte-black, dyed hair, the purple-tipped bangs, and lip studs at each corner of mouth, all topped by a large nose ring. Her tattoo sleeves, if anything, looked more elaborate than her brother’s and extended to the backs of her hands.

“Hey, I’m Randi. My father said you’d be here to let me in.”

Hell, she told her reflection in the bathroom mirror five minutes later where she ran to weep silent tears. I’m in hell.

* * *

The sanctity of her home wasn’t just gone, it was obliterated—first by Ted, then by his son (whose job mysteriously “evaporated”), and now by his surly daughter; she moved in across the hall from Ronnie. Randi moved ghost-like about the house, rarely speaking to her unless the encounter couldn’t be avoided.

“Randi’s had a hard time,” Ted told her, sheepdog look on his face as phony as everything he said nowadays.

What else is a lie, she wondered. Had he stalked her from Giant Eagle that very day the scanner bleated out “Winner!”?  

“You told me you always wanted a family,” he complained over breakfast, his tone surly. “You said that was your fondest wish, huh.”

She got up without a word and went upstairs to cry alone in her bed, muffling the sound of her sobs with a pillow. She thought about her simple life before Ted. The life she thought she hated. Tending the tomato-and-pepper garden out back, feeding the birds and squirrels, grooming Delphinia, tossing dinner scraps to the occasional stray cat.

She would have traded this life for her former existence in a heartbeat. Another old expression of her father’s flitted across her mind’s eye, one used frequently after her disgrace from college: 

Worse always come to worse . . .

* * *

Part 3: Careful What You Wish For

The catastrophe was complete the day she discovered $500 she kept in a linen closet missing. She accused Rand.

“Bitch! I didn’t touch your money!”

Screaming brought Ted downstairs.

“Hey, hey! Why are my two favorite ladies squabbling?”

“Your daughter’s a thief!”

“You’ve been under a lot of stress lately, babe. Take it easy. Maybe you only thought you had money in that drawer.”

“Who told you it was hidden in a drawer? Go ahead, ask your daughter. She’s been sneaking around ever since she showed up.”

“C’mon, Becky, that’s harsh. Randi, did you take the money?”

“Hell no.”

“That settles it.”

She’d stepped out of the shower an hour ago and caught Ronnie leaning against the wall looking at her. She was so flustered that the towel dropped to her knees before she could gather it up to her chest.

“You’re a real redhead,” he said. “Most redheads are dye jobs or else go bald.”

Angry, shocked, disgusted all at once, she screamed, “Get the hell out of here, you lout!”

“Kiss my ass,” Ron said.  He smiled, winked, and flipped her the bird from behind as he casually walked down the hall.

She’d avoided the upstairs bathroom because of the mess Ron and Randi left it in. Sanitary pads and Kleenexes spilled out of the wastebasket, urine spots on the toilet lid, her ceramic figurines broken or chipped. Splashed shower water seeped into the grout and popped it loose in places.  Worse now that boyfriends picked up in bars spent weekends sleeping with her. Randi thought it funny to splash water all over the mirrors, floor, and walls. Two nights ago, Rebecca’s bladder aching, she risked a quick trip to “their” bathroom. Big mistake. Cracking the door, she saw outlined against the shower curtains Randi and a rail-thin male engaged in coitus.

“Wait! You hear that? It must be that bitch out in the hall.”

“Babe, who—uh—gives—uh-uh-uh—a shit,” the boy grunted, not pausing in his humping.

Randi took the money, no doubt, and it went to keep her and her sleazy boyfriends in drugs.

Ted having been out of the house for two days, she planned to confront him as soon as he got back. I almost said ‘home,’ she realized. He has no right to bring his lowlife children into the house my parents worked for all their lives.

Ted arrived in the foyer around ten-fifteen, very drunk; the booze reek reached her before she stood in front of him. He fumbled at placing his jacket a coat tree hook like some blindfolded child trying to Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

“Shit,” he growled. The whole rack of coats, mostly hers, tumbled to the floor.

“I want to talk to you,” she demanded.

“So, talk, light of my life.”

“Look at me, Ted.”

“I am lookin’, Re-becca, mine, and I’ll tell you what I see. I see someone who’s going to the bank with me tomorrow. Someone whosh—who’s going to keep her goddamn promise to put me on a shared checking account like I been askin’ for the last got-damn week.”

“Over my dead body.”

“That can be arranged.”

Said with an icy coldness that rooted her to the floor. He staggered toward her, and she stepped aside to let him pass. Instead, he stopped in front of her and slapped her hard across the head. She flew into the wall and collapsed to the floor.

“See what you made me do, cunt?’

He stepped toward her. She cowered, raising her hands to cover her face and head in case he meant to swing again.

“Hey, sweetheart, look, I’m sorry! It’s just you jumped me comin’ in the damn door like that—”

She scuttled away, on all fours like an insect, launching herself up the stairs, stumbling, slamming into Ron coming downstairs. He gripped her under the arms and raised her up.

“Hey, what the hell’s going on?”

She broke free and bolted past him to her bedroom. 

The following days were all eerie silence and hostile glares from Ted’s children. On the fourth day, he laid down the law, bringing them all together at the supper table. She wasn’t permitted to cook or even set the table. He served London broil (underdone) and asparagus (overcooked), and a store-bought Mississippi mud cake that stuck in her craw. Ted tried to jolly them into “pleasant  conversations about everyone’s day.”

“Like, what the frig we s’posed to say?” Randi snapped.

“Language, Randi. Just be pleasant.”

Randi turned to her and sneered, “So how was your day?  Mine was fine, thanks for asking and see you later.”  She jumped up from the table, knocking Rebecca’s wine glass to the floor, grabbing Ted’s car keys from the sideboard. The door slamming behind her rattled the dining room windows.

Ronnie laughed. “Ha, ha, Randi’s on the rag.”

Ted stared at his son as though some secret communication had passed between them. She shivered. She pushed food from one side of her plate to the other.

“May I be excused?”

Ronnie snorted.

“Are you sure, sweetie? You hardly ate.”

“Yes, I’m fine. It was good, thanks. I’d like to go upstairs and nap. I’ve had a migraine all day.”

She slammed the door loud enough for them to hear downstairs. She waited ten minutes and crept down the stairs, shoes off, placing her feet carefully, locating places she’d memorized years ago to avoid the creaking steps. Her father suffered from insomnia toward the end, and she didn’t want to alert him to her presence. Meetings between father and daughter in those days were fraught with shame and a burning anguish she found unbearable.

When she thought they were sure she was asleep upstairs, she worked her way to the oaken pocket doors and held her breath, listening.

Ronnie: “You sure about this?”

Ted: “Are you stupid? You can see she’s going to give us all the boot any day.” 

Ronnie: “Yeah, but I thought—”

Ted: “Thought what, Ron?  Thought we’re going to get another shot at a hundred grand?”

Ronnie: “We—I mean, you been doin’ good so far, right? Cracking into her checking and savings accounts, right. You always said the women were too embarrassed to report you to the cops.”

Ted: “Chickenfeed, Ron. I want a big score this time. This property’s worth a couple hundred grand, easy. Who knows what else she’s got squirreled away for her lonely old age? I mean to get it, son. Every goddamned dime of it.”

Ron: “I can do this one, you want. Choke her out just like her damned cat. Won’t even need the railroad gloves to keep from getting scratched.”

Ted: “No way. She’s all mine. I’m looking forward to it. That nagging bitch is going for a stainless-steel ride on that slab in the cellar.”

Ronnie: “Ha-ha. Wait! I heard something.”

Ted: “Heard what?”

She glided away like a phantom into the semi-darkness of the big hallway as soon as she heard the scrape of a table leg.

She had no sleep that night. Like those cups she used to place over the eyeballs of the decedents to keep the eyes from sinking into the face, she lay awake staring at the moving shadows the big maple’s branches outside her window cast on the ceiling.

At dawn, she rose. A little tired—but also exhilarated. Her brain swarmed with images all night. She knew she didn’t have much time. Ted was returning from one of his mysterious “errands” after lunch, and they were going to the main bank downtown. Once his signature was on her accounts, her days were numbered.

With Ted gone, Randi off on another drug binge with a new boyfriend, only Ronnie remained in the house to worry about.  Around seven, she came downstairs and found him sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee.

“Everyone gone, I see?”

“Yep.”

She removed the Blue Genie picture from the fridge, folded it, and put it in her pocket.

“What is that ugly-ass thing anyway? It crept Randi. Dad said not to touch it or you’d have a shitfit.”

“Just a keepsake from an old friend of mine from years ago, her daughter gave it to me.”

“Whatever.”

She smiled, said: “I told your father I’d get busy cleaning out some junk in the basement.  He’s been pestering me to do it for weeks now.” She tried to get the tone right. She didn’t want him suspicious and come down there looking for her. Lately, he reminded her of a pit bull who followed his father’s voice commands—just barely.

“Ha-ha, you mean like a dead body? Like in what’s-that-movie, Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Psycho, moron.”

“Whatever.”

“Who knows? Maybe my father kept dead folks down there if the family didn’t pay the bill.”

“That’s sick, lady.”

“I know.” 

* * *

Part 4: Your Third Wish Is Granted

The drug would help. She’d gone through Randi’s room that morning with the vacuum cleaner switched on but searching drawers until found her stash of MDMA and Ketamine inside a pair of electric-blue bikini panties. Googling “Mollies” and “Special-K,” she learned about dosages and side effects. Her father’s drug cabinet in the prep room was loaded with various combinations, but none she trusted that old.  

She cut out a small portion of MDMA for herself, laughing to herself, thinking it was exactly like a recipe: “Two tablespoons MDMA, set one tablespoon aside.”

Her sensibilities needed to be dulled when the time came. No more fainting spells. Hard work ahead, she told herself. Suck it up, bitch, borrowing from Randi’s vocabulary for her own pep talk. She’d studied it in textbooks years ago, watched her father hundreds of times.

* * *

“More iced tea?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Ted avoided looking at her through dinner—a sure sign he’d moved closer to carrying out his designs on her.  Randi, ever surly, wanted to be off fornicating with some “rando male,” as she eloquently put it to her father when he ordered her to stay for dinner.

“I don’t recall that last one being so friggin’ wonderful,” Randi whined.

Marijuana smoke had wafted from both back bedrooms all afternoon. Ronnie and his sister were still high, giggling at each other across the table. The weed worked to her advantage.

She thought it odd how obstacles in one’s path were smoothed away when you needed it.  Like her smiling blue genie coming to her aid. 

Ted sipped his tea. “I’m going out later,” he mumbled at her.

“Oh, want some company?”

Giggles from the siblings.

“No, no. It’s a job site in Rome I got to check out.”

“Long way for a job, Dad,” Randi quipped.

That cheap wit sent her brother into a raucous burst of guffaws.

“Rome, Ohio. God damn it, you two morons. Off Route Forty-Five. Christ, you nitwits.”

His bad-tempered swearing was another sign she was on a short clock.

Ted gulped the last of his tea and stood up—or, rather, he tried to.

“Got-damn.”

“Something wrong, sweetheart?”

“Wrong, you idiot? My legs! I can’t stand up!”

Peals of laughter from his children, Ronnie nearly falling over from belly-laughing.

“Let me help you, sweetheart.”

“What . . . what . . . are you doing?”

“Wrapping your legs in duct tape so you can’t move.”  All deadpan delivery but her heart thumped, and she fought dizziness. In seconds, Ted was secured to the chair legs. The next seconds were critical. She had to keep clear of his fists, his fingers.

“Ronnie! Randi!”

“Holy shit, I can’t get up,” Randi complained; “my legs are cramped up.”

Ron suddenly looked sober. He looked at his father, shook his head like a dog casting off water, and swiveled his head to take in Randi.

“Going on . . . what’s going . . . Hey, bitch, what . . . you do to them?”

“Ron, look out!”

Before he could rise, she brought the hammer down on his head. He sat there stunned like a bull in the kill chute hit with a cattle gun. As fast as she could, she wrapped Ron’s torso to the chair.  Randi tried to bite her when she did the same to her, foaming at the mouth, screaming, and cursing. Rebecca had never heard most of those words.

She returned to Ted, re-wrapping him thoroughly around legs; then she moved to his chest, careful as a bird avoiding a snake. He slathered her with curses, entreaties—a mishmash of hate-and-love gibberish, slurred from the drugs she’d put into his tea.

Randi and Ronnie received the same attention.

“What now, you crazy slut?”

“You’ll see. You will all see.”

It was safe to go down into the basement to gather her supplies set aside that afternoon, humming a Puccini aria. Upstairs, Randi screamed “Help!” but her dopey condition made it sound like someone wheezing.

“Go ahead, wear out your lungs, Randi,” she whispered. “That way I won’t have to listen to your potty mouth.”

Lugging everything she needed up the steps, she placed identical items—bucket, tubing, scissors, scalpel, trocar, and tape—around each chair leg for easy reach.

She stood up. “Before I begin, I’d like to say a few words.  You’re all scum and you deserve what’s going to happen.”

A slushy volley of oaths, imprecations, and threats were hurled at her from all three at once.

“You can’t move, but you’re going to be aware of everything happening,” she resumed. “The best part is that you can look at one another across the table as it happens.”

“Becky, Listen, angel, Becky, Becky, what’s . . . going . . . listen to me . . .”

“Better you experience it,” she replied, ignoring Ted’s pleas. “Words won’t suffice.”

She started with Ronnie; the heaviest male meant the most blood.

She cut a small patch of his Levi’s below his belt with her scissors. “Sorry if I hit flesh. This will pinch a bit. There now. Better if you don’t squirm so much.”

“K-kill you—”

When she made the incision with a short, scythe-like flick of her wrist, he howled in pain.

“I know that hurt,” she said softly, “but this will hurt worse so don’t move too much.”

She fed the tube into his abdomen, poking it around to find the best location for placement. The other end she fed into the bucket.

The pump would be faster, but gravity would do the trick.

“Oh God, no.”

“Oh God, yes.”

Ted glared at her while she worked on him, played the tough guy, ground his teeth as she cut into him an inserted the hose. “You and your boy should time out together,” she said, “if I did my calculations correctly.”

Instead of the onslaught of usual cursing—silence. It was as they they’d morphed into a bizarre medieval tableau with herself as the maestro. Three pairs of eyes bored into her face, looked across the table at the remains in the dinner plates, and saw the same fear and terror in one another’s expressions.  

Randi sobbed and cried, begged her not to hurt her, offered to do sexual things to her if she’d stop.

“That sounds interesting, sweetie, but you deserve this almost as much as your scumbag father.”

When she inserted the tube, Randi evacuated her bowels, filling the room with a nauseating stench.

Meticulously, painstakingly, she moved around each one, taking away dinner plates and glasses, utensils. She checked bindings, retaped tubes as needed; it couldn’t be helped—their contortions, struggles to move against the tape locking each one into his or her place at the table.

Clips on the tubing held off a too-quick exsanguination. The tinny drip, drip, drip of blood was the only sound other than her turning on the faucet to wash and wipe her hands frequently. The human body is a warehouse of filth and bacteria, her father always said.

Fifteen minutes, eighteen minutes, twenty minutes. Their movements against the restraints grew more sluggish, their eyes acquired that filmy glaze of dead birds. Each bucket filled at the same pace.

Seeing their eyes cloud and their sensibilities fade, she knew it was time. The dose of MDMA she took hit her like a fist. At first, she feared it was too much; then a warm, fuzzy glow of sensory overload rocked her backward on her heels. She adjusted to the new feeling.

“Time for the pièce de resistance.” she announced to her sluggish guests at the table.

With a flourish, she placed the gleaming bone saw in the middle of the table, polished to silver brightness.  Every detail of this Last Supper for Ted and his worthless clan of home invaders had been spun out of her anguish that night she lay awake.

They all recognized it at the same time. Randi vomited up a yellow bile that spattered the table and dribbled off her chin. Ron, silent, strained against the tape. Ted wheeled his head in her direction, the light in his eyes not yet faded, a final plea for mercy.

She placed the black tarp all around the chair legs, tucking it here and there; the carpeting was going to be trashed regardless, so the idea was to keep blood out of the tongue-and-groove floorboards beneath the carpeting and therefore visible from below.

“I’m done with you all,” she said.

She went round removing all the clips. Blood that trickled gushed into pails. One by one, their heads lolled, then sagged on their chests. She gave each a tap with the hammer in case anyone played possum. None did.

The girl who couldn’t stick a trocar into a foam dummy had the strength—albeit with a little help from Randi’s supply—to dismember each limb from three adult human beings. Arms piled up on the table. By midnight, legs joined them. At two a.m., all that remained were the heads. Her forearm tendons aching from sawing, she detached all three, Ted last, and placed them in a row, all staring through sightless eyes in the same direction.

Taking a break, she drank half a fifth of vodka from Ron’s room, passing out until the sun pawed her eyelids, forcing her awake. By late afternoon, still groggy, half-drunk and a little high, she staggered into the dining room and saw her work in toto. She opened a window to remove some of the coppery smell of blood and other fluids; however, cadaver flies homed in on the feast in seconds and she was forced to shut the window. 

Limbs were taken out to the garden first, followed by the heavier torsos, which consumed most of the time she allotted for the whole task. A Wagner opera playing from the kitchen for accompaniment, she was indifferent to body parts and placement into the separate holes.

Memorial stones she’d made as a little girl and retrieved from the shed—tiny cement hexagons decorated with plastic colored stones—were placed where the heads were buried.

“I have my family now, Genie. All thanks to you.”

She unfolded Baby Rainbow’s picture of the blue genie and attached it tenderly to the refrigerator with kitchen magnets. She couldn’t be sure, tired as she was, but she thought he was staring right at her, his big-toothed smile agleam—smiling and winking right at her.


Robb White is the author of 2 hardboiled detective series: Thomas Haftmann & Raimo Jarvi. White has been nominated for a Derringer award and “Inside Man,” published in Down and Out Magazine, was selected for the Best American Mystery Stories 2019. “The Girl from the Sweater Factory,” a horror tale, was a finalist in The Dark Sire Magazine’s 2020 awards. When You Run with Wolves and Perfect Killer were named finalists by Murder, Mayhem & More for its Top Ten Crime Books of 2018 & 2019. “If I Let You Get Me,” a crime story, was selected for the Bouchercon 2019 anthology. 


“Bandit” Fiction by Millicent Eidson

Harry despised getting up early, but if he was going to fit in a run, his jam-packed lobbying schedule required it. As he burst out of the condo elevator, he tripped over the mop bucket and his Air Jordans slid on the gleaming marble before his momentum was stopped by the glass entry door. Shaking a bruised hand, he glanced around for someone to blame.

“Fuckin puta.” The spit from his lips was aimed at a young pregnant woman, no more than a teenager, cowering on her knees with a sponge in her hand. “What’s your name, bitch?”

“Dee, Denise. I’m sorry.” The words slipped her lips in a whisper.

“Duh, dunce Duneze. You’re gonna remember me as the guy who got you fired.”

In the cool October dawn, the streets were damp from an overnight shower and slickened by colorful fallen leaves. With gentrification of the neighborhood, Harry hoped to make a killing when selling his Columbia Heights unit, but the nights remained a risk for gang shootings. Around the corner, a shell casing in the gutter and bullet holes in the beat-up Chevy confirmed noises he had heard at three o’clock.

Wiping at his brow, already beading sweat with his brisk pace, he refocused on the morning’s schedule. He had to buttonhole some key members of Congress over a bill scheduled for a floor vote later in the week. If a company labelled their product a food supplement instead of a drug, the Food and Drug Administration exempted it from oversight. Some major and minor adverse health effects prompted do-gooders to argue for tighter governmental control. But thank God there were more vocal advocates on the side of the supplements, willing to pay him big bucks to maintain their market freedom.

By the time of his return to the condo, the cunt was gone. Add her sorry ass job to the morning’s checklist.

#

Whether it was the stress of the firing or the long scary walks between buildings for bending and cleaning, Dee was in the hospital a few weeks before her due date. With no medication, she pushed baby Jessie out on Halloween. Last fall had started with promise—a scholarship to Howard University. But too many tasty whisky sours at a dorm party led to this. The mewling five-pounder with the satin skin and dark doe eyes made up for all the trauma. Nursing came naturally, despite all the remembered cautionary tales from long-gone aunties in Alabama.

#

The condo was only a shrewd financial investment and place to lay his head during the D.C. lobbying. Harry’s real home was in Big Stone Gap, southwest corner of Virginia in the heart of Appalachia, and he hurried back there in time for the fall election. Only five thousand people, coal country, and one of the most conservative towns in the state. The hundreds of thousands earned in consulting fees paid for a beautiful old farm, which he didn’t work, but the autumn gold foliage was spectacular.

Family and friends—those words had little relation to Harry. Everyone was a means to an end. Around Veterans Day, as the evenings frosted and multicolored leaves carpeted the soil, his heart softened. When spotting an annoying raccoon scratching at the back door, he let the animal in. It was sociable—maybe others had fed it before. Pansies. But after scrounging under the sink, he located the old dog bowl and some stale Purina Dog Chow, leftover from the coonhound he dumped along the rural road after it bit him.

The coon was soft and gray, maybe fifty pounds, so shouldn’t be begging. But the ringed tail and white-framed black mask reminded Harry of his ancestors’ frontier days—didn’t they brag about being descendants of Davy Crockett?

Harry kicked out his booted feet and leaned back in the hand-hewn wooden kitchen chair. He kept popular with the local citizenry by buying their craft products, even though he despised their folksy ways. Anyone who didn’t spend a thousand dollars on a suit clearly didn’t value themselves enough for Harry to respect them, either.

The ridge had record snowfall, contradicting the hysterical Dems who screeched nonstop about climate change. So Hairy, his kindred spirit, spent the cold months inside, amusing Harry by dipping dog biscuits into the water bowl to clean them with his cute versatile paws. As Hairy chomped the coonhound treats into tiny pieces, Harry downed shotglasses of the local hooch, and poured a few drops into the water dish.

“Join me, bud.” He smirked when the coon lapped it up. The only heavy effort either made was Harry shoving another log in the woodstove, keeping them both toasty.

#

When the warmth of spring allowed outside playtime, Dee bragged to other moms about Jessie’s advanced development. At only five and a half months, Jessie supported her own weight when playing in the pocket garden a few blocks from Columbia Heights Village. Dee lay next to her in the grass, inhaling the floating scent of hyacinths and rubbing the smooth glossiness of  white magnolia blossoms dotting the area like snowdrops.

Dee was distracted, cobbling together odd jobs to put food on the table while the neighbor lady took in one more-too-many infants in her unlicensed day care. Her favorite time of the day was Jessie’s bath in the kitchen sink. She was proud of Jessie’s beauty—the glistening, smooth skin that smelled like heaven, and the soft dark curls. She pressed her lips to Jessie’s, and the baby giggled.

#

On the pleasant April afternoon, Harry’s impatience showed with every rapid movement as he circled the Tidal Basin, Japanese cherry blossoms budding pink and purple. This was the only time of the year he enjoyed being this close to the Deep State.

When admiring a bud straight on, the vision in his left eye became cloudy, but no pain or itching. He swiped the eye and didn’t feel any discharge or tearing. As he glanced around at the larger tree, there were a few white floaters. His Dad had cataracts before drinking himself to death at seventy. Only in his forties, Harry was way too young to have that problem, at least the eye issues.

He perched on a step of the Jefferson Memorial, clear view of the Washington Monument piercing the sky above the rippling water of the Basin and tourists whooping on paddle boats. Thumbing through the names on his phone, he located one of his White House contacts.

The guy was a special agent of the U.S. Secret Service, and they served in Iraq together before Harry was discharged for insubordination. Harry refused to implicate the guy in his misdeeds—the only nice thing he did in his life. So a favor was owed. The agent referred him to an ophthalmologist who used to be at Walter Reed before his own military service was cut short—something about harassment of an Army nurse.

“But he’s top notch, I promise,” Harry’s comrade assured him.

Within two hours, Harry had cleaned up from the run and Ubered to one of the sprouting office towers in Crystal City. After dilation, the doc gazed into Harry’s eye with the ophthalmoscope.

“No inflammation in the anterior segment or the vitreous cavity.  That’s good—nothing wrong with the front or middle of your eye. Let’s shift to the retina at the back.”

The doc adjusted his position. “Fuckin’ A. Never seen one of those before.”

Harry’s slight drawl deepened with fear. “Hey, don’t freak me out. What’re ya talking about?”

“Live nematode—worm—swimming slowly in the subretinal space.”

#

Seemingly overnight, Jessie developed a vacant stare and droopy head. At the emergency room, the doctor scratched his forehead. “I’m sorry—not sure what’s going on. If it was infectious, she should have a fever.”

Dee rocked Jessie as she sucked on the bottle. “But it’s not my imagination.”

“She’s appears to be drinking well, how’s her appetite?” the doctor asked.

“She still eats fine—no throwing up, no loose stools.” Dee held the baby more closely. “But something’s off. Jessie’s different.”

The uptight intern shoved thick glasses higher on his nose. “I did a thorough physical exam. As you can see, there are no skin changes. My stethoscope revealed no gastrointestinal or respiratory abnormalities.”

 “There must be somebody else we can talk to,” Dee insisted. She let go of her hands for an instant and Jessie flopped against her chest. “She was sitting up fine until three days ago.”

“I don’t have enough evidence to call in a specialist on a Friday night,” the intern responded, stubbornness strengthened. He experienced the wrath of highly paid superiors more than once. “I need stronger evidence to disturb them before Monday. But I can take a blood sample.”

Jessie screamed bloody murder with the needle stick, oceans of tears flooding down from her inky eyes. She wasn’t a hundred percent weak, requiring both Dee and a nurse to restrain her.

In the tiny apartment on Sunday, Dee covered one ear to block the fighting neighbors and held the cell phone to the other.  Jessie had a high proportion of eosinophils, one of the WBCs or white blood cells, but they didn’t know why. When Dee complained that Jessie could no longer turn over on her own, they scheduled an appointment with a neurologist for Monday morning.

Back at the hospital the following day, Dee shifted her weight on the chair, unable to sit still. The plump seventy-year old lady who introduced herself as Dr. Bautista set down her hammer. “I can confirm the reduced muscle tone you described, and decreased deep tendon reflexes.”

The younger eye doctor leaned against the wall, waiting for his senior to finish. “Good news—there’s no indication of vision problems when I look inside her eyes. However, she is unresponsive to tracking my visual stimuli, and there are some subtle involuntary eye movements, what we call nystagmus.”

Dr. Bautista, in a grandmotherly gesture, scooped the infant up. “We’ll admit baby Jessie and run more tests.”

 #

Harry’s temper overcame his judgment and he shoved the eye doctor away, leaping to his feet. “How can I get a worm in my eye?”

He ran well-groomed hands through thick auburn hair. “Maybe when I was in Iraq. Other guys ended up with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, and I land a parasite.”

But his naturally suspicious mind hit the pause button, and he grabbed the collar on the doc’s white coat, pulling him close. “Say ‘ah’, doc, I want to smell your breath. One of those three martini lunches, and you’re trying to extort me for some exotic, expensive treatments.”

The ophthalmologist was equal to Harry’s bluster. “Sit your butt back down in my chair, hombre, and I’ll take photos to prove it to you. While those are developed and analyzed, I’m sending you to a parasitologist for blood and stool samples. If you can’t poop today, maybe she’ll extract a sample digitally—I bet you’d like that.”

The next day was typical D.C. spring rainy gloom. Winds roared in from the Appalachians and scoured the cherry blossoms—tourists hit the highways and airports to go home. The National Cherry Blossom Parade was cancelled, and Harry stopped back at the eye doctor’s office.

“I think you’re full of shit,” he greeted the specialist, after admiring the striking twenty-something receptionist for ten minutes. “Everything’s coming back negative on my other tests. But I do appreciate the intro to the Korean doc for the parasite consultation. I’ll give it a week so it won’t seem creepy, then ask her out.”

Confident of the results, he dropped back into the exam chair. “It’s morning, so presumably you haven’t had those cocktails with lunch. Check my eye again and I dare you to find something.”

The ophthalmologist smirked. “Sure, why not? And then I’ll show you the photos of your fundus.”

After adjusting the ophthalmoscope, he grinned. “Active little bugger you got there. Moved to a different spot.” Before Harry could explode out of the chair again, the doc opened the screen to his laptop and pulled up the photo file. “See that squiggly little worm? Not supposed to be there.”

Harry still wasn’t satisfied. “Fuck it—there’s no guarantee this photo is from my eye. I don’t know what kind of scam is going on, but it’s impossible for me to have something like that.”

“You’re welcome to a second opinion,” the doc responded. “But I can knock it out with a laser, and the sooner the better.  I’m already seeing serious damage, including optic atrophy and attenuated retinal blood vessels.”

Harry acquiesced. “Let’s get it over with, I’ve no time to waste.”

The scary names for his problem refocused him on the eye doctor. Diffuse unilateral subacute neuroretinitis or ocular larva migrans—Harry tilted his head up, froze his smile, and tapped the footrest as the ophthalmologist prepped the equipment.  The laser got the worm—there was no more evidence on repeat check-ups.

#

During the days after the initial neurologic exam, cultures done on Jessie’s blood and cerebrospinal fluid were all negative for any bacteria. Viral meningitis—that was the diagnosis of record. When Dee asked for an explanation, Dr. Bautista explained it was an inflammation of the lining of the brain and the spinal cord—a foregone conclusion with neurologic signs and no bacteria.

The next recommended step was a lumbar puncture—sticking a needle in Jessie’s spine. The cerebrospinal fluid drawn out had a high number of eosinophils, forty-five percent of the WBCs, with normal less than one. As the nurse went to retrieve Jessie’s mother, Dr. Bautista reflected that the name sounded wonderful in its Greek origin—‘eos’ for dawn and ‘philein’ meaning to love. But when Dee returned, she explained that the cell was implicated in a long list of nasty problems—asthma, allergies, parasitic infections, and disorders of the skin, gastrointestinal system, blood vessels, or connective tissue.

“Whatever’s going on, it’s reflected in the blood, too.” Dr. Bautista handed Dee the test results. “Current sample has twenty-seven percent eos, when normal tops out at six.”

After a brain scan the next day, the doctor reviewed all the results in her darkened office. First she slipped the CSF and blood slides under her microscope. Despite the lyrical origin of the eosinophil name, no one would dispute that they were weird. The cytoplasm, primary gel-like substance of the cell, was filled with large rough particles stained a nauseating yellow-red or orange when exposed to the eosin dye. Lobes with cell nuclei were broken up and irregular, staining dark and threatening. Of course, the strange-looking cell wasn’t the culprit—just the body’s response to fight off something else.

Most dramatic of all were the magnetic resonance images Dr. Bautista pulled up on the laptop. Acute demyelinating or disseminated encephalomyelitis—ADEM. The destruction of the protective myelin sheath was indicated by multiple small lesions in the brainstem at the rear of Jessie’s skull. Dr. Bautista picked up the phone to summarize it for the mother.

“I’m sorry, Denise, but the scans aren’t good. Jessie’s body is attacking its own covering of nerve fibers. This can happen after viral or bacterial infection.”

Initial treatment included an injection of immunoglobulin antibodies through Jessie’s vein. But the next day, her eye movements worsened and she began smacking her lips. Her head was arched back, arms and legs thrust out, and toes pointed down.  Dr. Bautista administered a steroid injection to reduce the inflammation, with no effect.

For someone so sick, Jessie kept eating, drinking, and breathing normally. But the nurses had to feed her. Dee tried to do it on her daily hospital visits, but when Jessie shrieked and pushed away, the staff took her back. At night alone in the bed they had shared, Jessie transformed in Dee’s dreams to a creature out of a horror movie.

One month later, when the hospital said there was nothing more they could do, an ambulance took Jessie to a specialized rehab center for children. She was blind. The muscle stiffness remained and she was diagnosed with a form of cerebral palsy. Worst of all, the previously bubbly, affectionate infant appeared to have no cognitive function at all—dead inside.

Dr. Bautista could never confirm for Dee what changed her vibrant child to a conscious but uncomprehending, barely-alive form. One diagnosis was briefly discussed, with no laboratory confirmation. Neural larva migrans or NLM—invasion of the brain or spinal cord by parasites.

 Dee had no clue how Jessie could have been exposed to parasites. She didn’t even understand what they were. The amount of soil that slipped into Jessie’s tiny lips in the park never crossed her mind. Pica or geophagia, a predilection to eating dirt—none of the health brochures at the hospital warned about it. As Dee and Jessie had slept cuddled on the single mattress, the neighborhood raccoons explored the park, helping themselves to a few veggies from the community garden and relieving themselves in the dirt.

#

Before Harry left the heat and humidity of D.C. for the refreshing altitude of the Appalachians, the Virginia Department of Health interviewed him in detail about his life and habits. They blamed Baylisascaris procyonis, the most common intestinal roundworm of raccoons. In the raccoon intestine, the female worm can be nine inches long as the coon poops eggs into the soil, ready to penetrate a human’s intestinal wall after ingestion and migration to the nervous system and eyes. When the State Public Health Veterinarian asked to trap and test Hairy, Harry refused to cooperate.

“At least let us collect some of his stools from the environment,” the old broad begged. She could have been right—Hairy did make occasional messes inside. But Harry hadn’t been home to let Hairy inside for two months, since the eye problems started. Animal lover, the state concluded, afraid of what the big bad guvm’t might do to the creature.

The crickets chirped and bird song was muffled as low sun rays glanced through the thicket of mountain laurel and clusters of bell-shaped, purple-streaked flowers. The air was so dense, he could see water molecules dance in the light beams. At least, out of one eye. The retina had detached in the left one, and he was legally blind on that side. Taking it in stride, he thought the black eyepatch added a rakish air, intriguing to the ladies. Recumbent on the bright blue Adirondack chair, Harry shook the plastic container with the dog biscuits. Despite months apart, Hairy scampered into the meadow as programmed. Soft patches of black and gray fur floated in the sunbeams after the shotgun blew him apart.


In the short story “Bandit”, economic stratum and access to power influence the outcome from exposure to a mysterious microbe. Through the MayaVerse HOME | DrMayaMaguire, Dr. Millicent Eidson explores the threats of animal diseases based on work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments. Awards include best short play from Synkroniciti and honorable mention in the 2020 Jim Martin Mystery Story Contest sponsored by the Arizona Mystery Writers. 


“Lost Lambs” Fiction by Kilmo

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.”

“What?”

“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.”

Kata frowned.

“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.

“Did you…?”

“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.”

“Hannibal…”

“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.

“Hannibal?”

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.

“You there?”

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.

“Oh…”

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.”

“Who will?”

“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.”

She spat.

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.

“Sorry…”

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?”

“My job.”

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?”

“Adele.”

“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.

“Okay.”

They were halfway to the nearest trees when the first figure stepped from between their trunks.

“Damn.”

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.

“Go. NOW.”

“But…”

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.

“You said…”

“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.


“The Tallyman” Fiction by James Hanna

You don’t know me, but I know you. I’m the one who notices when you ignore a bum begging for quarters. I’m the one who sees you when you cut someone off in traffic. Don’t think these matters are petty because you are not on my list. The only reason I have not come for you is that you are not worth my time.

So what is my name? Better you should ask me, What is my name to you? Now if I haven’t come for you, my name could be Tolerance. But if you turn into some kind of big shot, you might know me as Nathan Skudder. Tycoons and honchos tremble at the mention of Nathan Skudder. So choose your transgressions carefully—you don’t want to know me by my true name. Stick to sins better handled by churches or traffic courts.

Just who do I bother with? you ask. Who is worth my time? Nobody—the sword I carry is only fit for the Devil himself. But I stoop to noticing lying moguls who steal other people’s ideas. I notice hacks who praise only what’s common and let geniuses die in the dust. And I’m very aware of starlets who pretend to be what they aren’t—those playing the role of heroines while acting like Hollywood whores.

Do I dispense justice swiftly? No, that would be an indulgence. Justice is better served slowly with discipline and restraint. Unless the noose tightens gradually, unless the blade is delayed, the transgressor will escape the full measure of the punishment he deserves.

Do you wonder where you will find me? You will find me where ideas are stolen. You will find me where prodigies weep. You will find me where truth is brokered by bandits then trampled underfoot. I am persistent but honorable, so please remember this: if I should ever come for you, I will look into your eyes. I will not give my sword to a surrogate nor hide behind a desk. That would deprive me of stature and you of your fullest dissert.

Can you outsmart me? you wonder. No—I am far too intelligent. I have the mind of a seer, and I read two books a week. Not the sort of drivel that poisons the public mind, but masterpieces accessible only to those with expanding souls. Thank god, my mother passed at my birth and I was raised in an orphanage: the place was so cruel and alien that it fostered my kinship with books. I may hide behind the persona of an unkempt derelict, but I am intimate with all the classics. I can recite The Faerie Queene. Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton are like bosom friends to me. It is their collective spirit that I pour into my art. It is their unsullied wisdom upon which I have honed my wit. So do not try to outsmart me or pierce my searing light. That would be like a pygmy shooting arrows at the sun.

Now since I am the hunter, it falls that I also am hunted. But the moguls that hunt me are cowardly; their faces are always well-hidden. The women that hunt me are only brave when their captor is celluloid—when they star in such abominable productions as Queen of the Amazons. No, moguls and whores will not hunt me themselves—they will only send surrogates. They cannot wield a thirsty blade, and guns make them pee their pants.

So who is the one that hunts me? He is called the Tallyman—he told me that in a dream. I have only seen him a couple of times, but I know he is after me. The Tallyman is honorable; he is also very brave. His reputation precedes him because he almost always catches his prey. I would not hunt the Tallyman although he is hunting me. I only hunt those that lack honor. Moguls and Hollywood whores.

*

My pursuit of the Tallyman’s patrons was decided long ago. After all, it is scripts that rule us—scripts that determine our lives. My scripts are those of an oracle and an author ahead of his time. The moguls are scripted to feed upon scraps like pilot fish trailing a shark. I have sent the moguls a dozen fine screenplays—not a word do I ever hear back. They are shallow swimmers—these moguls. My drifts and currents elude them. They are no more capable of fathoming my depths that a sink might contain an ocean. And yet they peck at my art in the manner that seagulls might strike a beached dolphin. Lines and passages I have composed turn up in the trashiest of films: regrettable chestnuts like Spiderman 3 and Maleficent Mistress of Evil. Ah, rivers that start in heaven end up in the vilest of swamps.

Does the Tallyman seek to kill me? Of course, but how happy that would make me. Am I not a quixotic tramp? Do I not have a martyred soul? If my quests remain true then the day when I die will be better than the day I was born. We are born to innocence and sorrow, but we may pass on to omnipotence. But although I admire the Tallyman, I choose not to be grateful to him. I do not wish to be indebted to one who would cut my throat. And so I concede to the pettiest of scripts: the instinct to flee like a squirrel. What a mockery our instincts make of us—we are no more developed than insects.

But back to the subject of comeuppance—the message I wish to deliver. Do I ever make exceptions to those I have vowed to destroy? Yes, but I only did it once. Remember that starlets are spellbinders—they are skillful in their deceits. I once emailed a starlet whose name I won’t mention, but suffice it to say that she touched my heart while performing from one of my scripts. I was also impressed that she emailed me back and called me her sweetest fan. Was she worthy of me—no, she was not—but with her I was charitable. I decided the pleasure of bedding her was worth the theft of my work.

Oh, chicanery, your name is woman. Oh, deceit your name is Eve. Not a month went by before she appeared in a flick with a bedroom scene. Not even the lustiest of centaurs, not even a mongrel in heat, not even the commonest of sluts went at it harder than she. It was bad enough that she had betrayed me by fucking a far lesser man, but she did not show the slightest embarrassment in putting her lust on display. I vowed that my revenge would be total, I swore my rout would be sweet, and yet I knew that the cruelest of vengeance would hardly level the books. In every way conceivable, that bitch had stolen from me.

And yet, she bewitches me still, she still has a hold on my heart. When I showed up in the Mission District where she was seeking unmerited glory, I was holding a bouquet of roses instead of the knife she deserved. As usual, my knife was strapped to my shin, but it was not intended for her. From her, I only wanted a smile or maybe her hand on my cheek. I wanted only the merest acknowledgment of what she owed to me. So deep was my degradation, so paralyzed my heart, that I wished only to join her worshippers and cast myself at her feet.

A film crew was stationed on the street, and its members were waiting for her. No patron of manners—she. No fan of decorum—she. She was content to keep them waiting, but this was clearly her right. Her debt was only to me, and I wanted just a crumb. A friendly glance would do me. Or the merest nod of her head.

Two security guards were looking at me as I wandered onto the set. A couple of paunchy thugs who were not worthy of being her protectors. “Hey runt, where ya think yer goin’,” one asked me. He was looking at me as though I, and not he, was a boil on the face of humanity.

I showed the greatest of patience as I uttered my reply. “I don’t think I’m going anywhere,” I said. “I am sure of my destination.”  

“Get outta here, you little bum,” he yelled, “or you’ll end up in the gray bar hotel.”

It was not enough that he had interrupted me, he had insulted me as well. And yet my patience endured as I drew the knife from the sheath on my shin. A bullet between the eyes is what that lout deserved, but I am a merciful paladin and do not take vengeance upon pigs. I presented only the tip of my knife, which I held at a discreet distance.

The pair drew their service revolvers so quickly, you would have thought I was Osama bin Laden. “Drop it,” said one, but I clutched the knife and said, “Gentleman, please let me pass.” We stood there for several seconds—the most improbable of champions. They, a couple of wannabe cops who hoped I might make them heroes. I, who wished only to place a bouquet at the feet of my beloved. But had the brutes filled me with bullets, the glory would have been mine. Remember, there is no better passage than one spawned by romantic ends. Heaven will ring with cheers of the righteous while seraphim carry you home. Oh, let me like a soldier fall upon some open plain. My chest expanding to the ball to wipe out every stain. This Joycean ballad filled my mind as I waited for them to shoot.

But I was struck down not by a bullet but a bag from a beanbag gun. And my chest did not expand to it—I was hammered in the groin. In my quest for epic glory, in my zeal to dwell among angels, I had somehow misjudged the weapon one of those assholes was holding. Cheated, I lay upon the ground as angels passed me by. Not even a cherub will stoop for a warrior felled by a beanbag gun.

*

I was not alone in the paddy wagon as I rode to the city jail. Sitting on the bench across from me was a tall, cadaverous man. His eyes were the eyes of a hunter, calculating and alert, and his nostrils swelled like those of a tiger picking up a scent. At first, I did not recognize him because he had grown a full beard. A master of disguise is the Tallyman, and for this, I respected him more.

“Don’t let it be here,” I said, an appeal to his better angels.

The Tallyman shrugged and raised his hands—his wrists were chained like mine. But his hands were thick and sinewy, so that did not console me. At any given moment, he could have torn off his restraints, so I borrowed a line from Sir Walter Scott, which I hoped might keep him at bay. I said, “Do you know that beasts of game the privilege of the chase may claim?”

His brow knotted into a furrow, he licked his lips like a wolf, and his breath boomed through his nostrils like a black, approaching storm. Thankfully, he did not bare his teeth—they would surely have dripped like stalactites, but his thoughts bore the shock of electricity when they buzzed inside my head. It will not be here, he answered. That would cheat us both.

Thank god, he was unlike his mistress—that vampish, unprincipled slut. She would have cut my throat in a second had she the sand to do her own work. No, the Tallyman has standards, he will not slaughter me like a hog. He surely knew the depth of my grief and how totally I have been robbed.

*

I have been booked many times in the San Francisco County Jail, so I felt no discomfort when the cop who arrested me returned me to its bowels. No, I stood like John the Baptist, whose martyrdom rivaled my own, and I did not blink as the booking camera captured my likeness once more. “Nathan Scudder,” muttered the booking sergeant. “Whoja threaten this time? Seems every time I turn around, they’re hauling you in here again.”

He showed not a flicker of interest as he filmed my fingerprints, he did not even bother to glance my way as the arresting cop patted me down. No, only the Tallyman pities me enough to cut me some slack. Only he knows the torment I suffer from those who have stolen my art. And where had the Tallyman gone to? I did not spot him inside the jail. He must have vanished into the city to hunt me another day.

The following week, I hung my head as I stood before a judge. It is best to show some humility when you stand before the bench. If you lie and pretend to be humble, the courts will turn you loose; if you shout out the truth like a prophet, you will meet a prophet’s demise.

The judge, some fool with a face like a monkey, was reading my psych report. The report had been prepared by a jail shrink—a clod with bottle-thick glasses and breath that stank of garlic. The jerk had interviewed me for only five minutes before putting a brand on my soul. No doubt, he had described me as a paranoid schiz—psychiatrists love those words. There is not a seer under the sun whom a shrink will not scar with that term. Were Jesus to return for the second coming and preach salvation to the masses, I have no doubt the psychiatrists would call him a paranoid schiz.

The judge put down the report and squinted at me. “So you’re hounding celebrities again,” he said. “Nathan, are you taking your meds?”

I nodded like a bobblehead. “Four times a day,” I said.

In fact, I was palming my meds and flushing them down the toilet. No brain- dead existence for me. No life without vision for me. It is better to soar like an eagle and be ostracized from the flock then to hop about with shattered wings and feed in garbage dumps.

I plead to a charge of aggravated assault, and the judge gave me three years of probation. He also ordered me to stay away from she who had stolen my art. She who had raped my very soul while wallowing in lust, she who teased me like a siren then abandoned me without a thought. I bowed my head like a beggar and agreed to the stay-away order. But why did the court not order her to free her talons from my heart?

And there you have it. By bowing my head, I was allowed to return to the streets. I was permitted to wear the mark of Cain and live in the Land of Nod.

*

I am wholly convinced that the only place for an honest man is jail. But I am not an honest man—I am deceitful and slippery and sly. “Be cunning like the serpent.” Were these not Jesus’ words? And so with our savior’s blessing, I hide my true face from the world.

But the probation officer they gave me this time, a stringy fellow from Kenya, was skeptical of me when I reported to his office after taking my leave of the jail. “Meester Skudder,” he said in clipped English, “how come you accepted probation? According to your presentence report, you’re a vicious, little bum. You live on public assistance, you have never held a job, and you’ve had twenty arrests for terrorist threats and brandishing deadly weapons. It will just be a matter of days, my friend, unteel you are back in jail.”

“Have you been in jail, sister,” I asked him because he was already pissing me off.

I ask the questions,” he answered. “And it’s Meester Oneybuchi to you.”

“Well, ask yourself if you’re leading a life of quiet desperation? As a minion to the Philistines, I suspect that is the case.”

“Quoting dead authors won’t help you,” he snapped. “Do you think I have not been to college? Do you think I have not read Thoreau?”

“I don’t think you read him well enough to know that he was a fraud. He stayed only two years in that cabin of his, he was dumb enough to burn down a forest, and if he had spent more than one night in jail, he’d have accepted probation too.”

Ooglybuchi, or whatever his name was, pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose. All the time we were talking, he kept adjusting his specs on his nose.

“You seem well-read,” he said, “so how come you can’t stay out of jail? You are thirty years old, sir—isn’t it time you showed a bit of sense?”

“Jail is a good place to contemplate,” I said. “I learned that from Thoreau.”

Ooglybuchi pinched his nostrils and said, “We are off to a bad start, Meester Skudder. Please come back in one week for a pee test. I must make sure you are taking your meds.”

*

“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” said that wordsmith of the woods. I’m not sure why he said it three times, but it’s still advice I follow. And so I live in a subsidized room in the Dalt Hotel on Turk Street—a room with nothing in it but a bed, a chair, and a cot. Except for the noise tenants make in the hallway, I have no distractions at all—that’s why I have written a dozen scripts of exceptional quality. Scripts that I mailed to Warner Brothers and Universal Studios.

Upon returning to my simple abode, I took a refreshing nap. Afterward, I picked up my iPad and googled my beloved. I check on her once or twice a day to see if she has repented—it would be callous of me to punish her if she is in the throes of regret. But she gave me no hint of contrition—no nunnery did she seek. She was sitting in a restaurant on Mission Street, batting her eyes like a hooker, and telling a fawning reporter the plot of her latest flick. Word for word, it was the exact same script I had mailed her studio three months ago.

“Bitch!” I shouted. “Pickpocket! Have you no shame at all?” I cursed her for more than a minute—even after my throat was raw, even after some jerk in the room next to mine started banging on the wall. Let him bang—this was no time for etiquette, this was no time for restraint. This was the hour to give her some part of the grief she had given me. Tit for tat, I always say—is that not the way of the world? And since her tit was off-limits to me, I was determined to make do with tat.

She must be stopped, I reasoned, but how? An idea popped into my head. I grasped the restraining order the court had served on me, and I dabbed it with a bit of Wite-Out then interchanged our names. She would not know the order was a forgery when I pressed it into her palm. She would only think that she no longer had license to shatter my peace of mind.

Oh, genius, your name is Skudder, I thought as I hurried out to the street. No wonder I had written so many fine scripts. No wonder she was stealing from me. Yes, she deserved to be pimp-slapped, but a restraining order would do. After all, she could no more withstand my genius than a moth might resist a flame.

I dashed to the movie set on Mission Street where they were reshooting a couple of scenes, and I caught a fleeting glimpse of her as I elbowed my way through the crowd. Oh, to feel the touch of her hand as I gave her the restraining order. Oh, to hear her apology as I unburdened my grief to her. An apology over dinner would do. We could share a bottle of wine.

The two piggish, security guards stood in my path while she disappeared into a trailer. A will-o’-the-wisp on gossamer wings could not have vanished so quickly.

“How about a filet mignon?” I shouted before she shut the door.

“How ’bout some black-eyed peas,” said one of the guards as he pointed the beanbag gun at me.

In my haste, I had forgotten to bring my knife, so I offered no resistance. No, I stood as still as the statue of David while this cop I know cuffed me up. “Skudder,” he said as he set the strands, “when are ya gonna learn?” He was overweight and out of shape, and he wheezed as he patted me down. Was he the best the police had to offer? I sighed and shook my head.

“My cross is not to learn,” I informed him. “My cross is to shine and be scorned.”

 “Far as I can tell,” he drawled, “you got no cross at all. Not unless being a public nuisance can be counted as a cross.”

The guard with the beanbag gun snorted and said, “Whadaya gonna do with him, Abe? This is the second time we hadda deal with him this month.”

The cop shrugged. “Chew him out then let him go. I ran his name—he’s clean. All I can book him for is trespass, and the DA won’t prosecute that. Hell, the DA won’t prosecute anything that ain’t a felony.”

The guard slung his bean thrower onto his shoulder and spoke as though he’d been cheated at cards. “That’s San Francisco for you,” he said. “If he comes back again, we’ll call you.”

“If he comes back again, kick his ass,” said the cop.

The cop pushed me into the cage of his patrol car then drove me to Pier 39. After he let me out of the car and took the bracelets off me, he said, “You’d be in San Quentin, Nathan, if the DA had any balls. It’s a pain in the ass to keep busting you just so the Sheriff can let you go.”

“It seems payback eludes us both,” I said as I stood there rubbing my wrists. “But if it’s any consolation, you put on those shackles too tight.”

“Whadaya want?” snapped the oaf. “A goddam apology.”

“I’ll let it go this time,” I warned him. “I have other things to do. But the next time you bruise my wrists, I’ll file a complaint on you.”

How nice it was to have the brute by the balls—to grin while he glared at me. When one is a suiter of light, good fortune will be his bride.

“Do me a favor,” the cop said. “Stay here and feed the seagulls. I don’t have the patience to bust you a second time today.”

 Like a dog with his tail between his legs, he got back into his squad car, and I felt like I had slain Goliath as I watched him drive away.

Since doing God’s work made me hungry, I took the asshole’s advice. I bought a bread bowl full of chowder, found a bench on Pier 39, and tossed some crust to the seagulls while I sat there eating my lunch.

*

I hate to admit it, but sometimes I feel a bit sorry for that cop. I secretly call him Sisyphus because their tasks are much the same. I am the boulder that dude has to roll up a steep hill every day—the boulder that bounces back down the hill the moment it gets to the top. So I decided to give him a break and stay out of his hair for awhile. I decided to return to my Spartan abode and work on a couple of scripts.

I walked no further than the Embarcadero subway because it’s a pretty long hike back to Turk Street. As usual, the fare booth was empty, so I hopped right over the turnstile. There are indignities I do not stoop to, and one of them is paying train fare. Since the world owes me a million dollars, I should ride in limousines.

As I sat on a bench on the southbound platform, waiting for the train to arrive, I got the sudden feeling that someone was shadowing me. Turning my head, I spotted the Tallyman standing beneath the exit sign. He was taller than a grenadier, his skin was fishbelly white, and he was looking at me like a bill collector about to knock on my door. He turned his eyes away from me when I stared in his direction, but he followed me onto the subway and sat down on a seat opposite mine.

As we sat face-to-face, the doors hissed shut and the train pulled out of the station. Would it be now? I wondered, and my heart began to thud.

He stroked his beard and smiled at me, a smile that did not reach his eyes. I could spot the bulge of a dagger behind his seedy coat.

“Will you give me time?” I asked him. “I’m the pigeon, not the hawk.”

His measured stare suggested that my time was running out, but he held his hand up politely and showed me the face of his watch. A generous huntsman was he, an enduring sportsman was he. Yes, space and time the stag would get ere hound was slipped or bow was bent. I sat through several station stops, plotting my escape. When the train pulled into Civic Center, I bolted through the doors.

*

“I went to the woods,” said that braggart, Thoreau, “because I wished to live.” Well, I had no woods to go to, but I certainly lusted to live. So I adopted another strategy to elude the Tallyman. Whenever I heard loud footsteps in the hallway outside my room, I quickly opened my window and escaped to the street below. Whenever I went to the post office to mail out new scripts, I varied my route and kept checking behind me to make sure I was not being followed. Even when I returned to the probation department to keep my appointment with Ooglybuchi, I entered the building through the back entrance and rode the jail elevator up to his floor.

“Meester Skudder,” said Ooglybuchi as I sat in the chair by his desk. “I have a police report on you. It seems you violated your stay away order before eet was even entered into the system.”

“Ya gonna arrest me?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “There would be no point in that, sir. I could charge you with violating your stay away order, but nothing will come of eet. Your victim won’t show up to testify, and the court won’t enforce the subpoena. Movie stars get stalked all the time—they never show up in court.”

“That’s because they hire assassins,” I said, and I mentioned my nemesis. I said only Melville’s leviathan, a creature purer than snow, had suffered a hunter as relentless as the one pursuing me. I said I would deem it a favor if I was locked away for awhile.

“On what charge, Meester Skudder?” he asked. “Have you committed a more serious crime? Unless you assassinate someone yourself, the courts will not keep you in jail.”

“Piss test me,” I said desperately. “I haven’t been taking my meds.”

“That I cannot do either,” he said.

“You promised to piss test me,” I insisted.

He shrugged. “That was last week, Meester Skudder. Due to a recent budget cut, we lost our contract with the lab.”

 “You’re supposed to represent justice,” I bawled, “and you’re sitting their making excuses.”

“May I be blunt, Meester Skudder,” he said. “I am buried in cases, the courts here are useless, and there is no excuse for you.”

“So you’re abandoning me to a garrotter. An eater of broken meats.”

“Meester Skudder,” he said, “I’m not interested if someone is on your trail.”

“Lock me up, fool,” I shouted. “Is there no justice under the sun?”

Ooglybuchi adjusted his specs on his nose then patted me on the wrist. “Do not worry, Meester Skudder,” he said. “I think justice is coming for you.”

*

Am I a hypocrite? you ask. Well, since the law is toothless, I choose to break it at will. So why, you ask, should I expect the law to shelter me? To this, I reply that there are greater laws than the pablum dispensed by the courts. There is the law of retribution, the Code of Hammurabi, the apocalyptic justice pronounced in the Book of Revelation. “Behold a pale horse!” its author screamed to the robbers, the swindlers, the whores. And who sits upon that horse but I whom the angels have decreed. And yet, I am more dupe than destroyer. And yet, I am more patsy than prince. And yet, I seek only a particle of the pound of flesh I am due. So if the law ever musters an ounce of gumption, a scrap of fortitude, it is not unreasonable to demand that this scrap be given to me.

But since the law is a pussy, I must slink through the streets like a hound. Since the law is a joke, I must hide away like a leper. Even when I am sleeping, I don’t have a second of peace. I have the same dream night after night, and I wake up in the coldest of sweats. In my dream, I wander city streets beneath a crescent moon. There is not a person anywhere—I am utterly alone. Finally, I come upon a massive whore who is standing under a streetlamp. She is drunk with the blood of poets, she is black with leprosy, and at her feet lie the severed heads of Chaucer, Milton, and Proust. “Who are you?” I cry. She grins like a pumpkin. “You know who I am,” she purrs. She then lifts her dress and spreads her labia, and her hole is a bottomless pit. “Come, come,” she says in a voice warm as piss. “I have plenty of room for you.”

Oh, wretched dream, you have turned me into a craven malcontent—you have forced me to endure law’s delay and the scorn of despised love. Like Hamlet, I must suffer the slings and spears of fortune run amuck—a buffer to only the darker afflictions that lurk beyond the grave. So I continued to endure the theft of my lifeblood, I continued to hide behind dumpsters, I even refrained from proclaiming my love to she who had shredded my heart. But, finally, I suffered such a blow to my pride that I could keep silent no more.

*

Am I a narcissist? you wonder now. Of course, but where is the rub? The moguls, directors, and Hollywood harlots are boasters far greater than me. Consider the tedious galas we are forced to endure each year: the Oscars, the Grammys, the Golden Globes, the Hollywood Film Awards. These are but a few of the accolades they heap upon themselves. And where am I in these celebrations of ostentation and pomp? I am the pitiful ghost at the feast, I am the hobo at the door, I am the footman left out in the cold while the fires of foppery blaze. So do not hold me in contempt when I confess my self-love to you. Were it not for the laurels I grant myself, I would gather no glory at all.

You now wonder, Am I a masochist?  I assure you the answer is no. But at times I indulge in self-flagellation that sinners alone should endure. Why else did I recently watch the Oscars on the television in my hovel? Why else did I sit through three fucking hours of speeches and phony applause? Had I been staked to an anthill with a desert sun searing my eyes, I would not have suffered a greater ordeal than enduring those endless awards. But, at least, that monotonous marathon afforded me her true measure. At least, I could fathom her cheapness when she accepted the Best Actress Award. Batting her eyes while freezing her smile, she tossed out kudos as though they were dimes. She thanked her director, she thanked her producer, she thanked her grandfather. She thanked her mother, her hairdresser, and half the men she had fucked. Had the master of ceremonies not intervened and ended the charade, I have no doubt she’d have thanked her chihuahua and Siamese cat as well. But not a word did she spare for me, her rock, her stalwart Pygmalion—the muse that had made her prize possible by supplying the script to her flick. This was the final outrage, this was the proverbial straw, that was the withering climax of my winter of discontent.

“Whore!” I shouted. “Charlatan !” I spared her no insult. But when the dimwit next door started pounding the wall, I banked my consuming rage. To plan my reprisal, to serve vengeance cold, I decided to take a walk through the streets and let the night air clear my head.

It was a measure of my desperation, a gauge to my discontent, that I strode the streets for an hour and cursed with every step. Wouldn’t the Tallyman nab me if I abandoned the rules of the chase—if I failed to duck into alleys or hide behind dumpsters and parked cars? No, I think not—he would allow me a moment of vulnerability. He would know that compassion was due to one so cheated as me.

 I managed to talk myself out of my fear, but I froze when I spotted him. He was sitting on a bench in Jefferson Square Park, watching me like an owl. He seemed to be embarrassed, as though he were late for a date, but the pallid cast of a street lamp made him look as pale as a ghoul. Did he know I did not want his pity? Did he know I did not want his shame? Did he know his maudlin sympathy had only diminished me more?

Earn your thirty pieces of silver!” I shouted. “Don’t sit like a crow on a fence!”

It seemed like an act of charity when he slowly rose from the bench, when he reached into his jacket where his dagger surely lay. Were courage not so fickle, I would have offered him my throat, but my bravado fled me as quickly as water down a drain. How tall he was, I marveled. How glowering his eyes.

I ran like a hunted rabbit. I ran like a greyhound on crack. I ran because my only choice was to run away or fight. Oh, Father in glorious heaven, have we no greater options than these? Are we disallowed thought or reflection? Are we disallowed nuance or calm? Oh, great and mighty progenitor, your script has made fools of us all.

*

Fight or flight. Such despicable choices should not have a season at all, so when I returned to my room, I vowed to mitigate my ire. Yes, the wrath of Ezekiel guided my hand as I wrote her another email, but because I still loved her dearly, I tempered the prophet’s resolve. I made no mention of ravishing her or slashing her ivory throat. I promised her I would do no more than cut off the tip of her tongue. After all, was she not a victim as well? Were others not pulling her strings? Had the moguls who had pilfered my gift not plundered her beauty as well?

I pressed the send button, releasing the email as though I were freeing a dove. And then I buried my face in my hands and wept for both of us.

*

After several more days of hiding in alleys and ducking behind parked cars, I received a text on my cellphone—a message from Ooglybuchi. Rejoice, I must put you in jail, it read. Please report to me at once. Relieved that my keeper had developed a spine, I hurried down to the Hall of Justice, and the wings of destiny lifted me as I mounted the stairs to his office.

“Meester Skudder,” Ooglybuchi said as I sat on the chair by his desk. “I have no choice—the probation chief insists that I lock you up.”

He seemed almost apologetic as he removed a pair of handcuffs from his desk, and I felt a seer’s obligation to set his mind at ease.

“Consider it prophecy,” I replied, and I offered him my wrists.

Ignoring my gesture, he adjusted his glasses and showed me the police report. “So why deed you threaten to cut out her tongue?”

“Ezekiel would want nothing less.”

“And what do you want, Nathan Skudder?” he asked.

“If it’s all the same with Ezekiel,” I admitted. “I would rather not cut out her tongue.”

Was it my abiding love for her that had forced this concession from me, or did I simply wish to keep her intact so she could keep on performing my scripts?

Bravo, Meester Skudder,” Ooglibuchi replied. “That is very smart thinking, my friend. She may win another Oscar and give you some credit this time.”

The chuckle in his voice annoyed me, and I’m not a man easily mocked, but I strained to control my temper as I held out my wrists once again.

“Lock me up,” I insisted. “She can win all the Oscars she wants.”

“Put those hands behind your back,” he said, as he clicked the strands into place.

After he had secured my wrists and set the safety locks, he said, “I weel make a prophecy too. You’ll be out in a couple of weeks.”

*

Two weeks later, I puffed out my chest as I stood before a judge. I even curled my lip so I would look like a public menace. The judge, an old woman too small for her robe, reminded me of a vulture. Her eyes combed the spectator’s section as though she were searching for carrion.

“Is the complainant here?” she cawed.

“No, your honor,” the court clerk replied.

“Was the complainant served the subpoena?”

The clerk rose from her desk and handed the judge the receipt of service.

“Celebrities,” the judge muttered as though uttering a dirty word. “Why do they bother to file charges if they choose not to show up in court?”

She tossed the probation report aside then glanced in my direction. “You are free to go, Mister Skudder,” she snapped. “I don’t want to see you here again.”

“Keep me in jail,” I pleaded. “I’m not free to go anywhere.”

“What are you trying to say?” she snapped.

“Captain Ahab is after me.”

“I’m sorry about that,” she chided. “Go file a police report.”

 I lingered at the podium and checked out the gallery. Although the courtroom was packed, I spotted him right away. He was sitting on a pew near the doorway and he appeared to be asleep, but his eyes popped open the moment the bailiff led me toward the holding tank.

“Is it assured?” I called to him.

It’s in the bank, he replied, and he winked like a conspirator before the bailiff locked me back up.

As I sat by myself in the holding tank, I trembled like a hare. Should I have called the judge a cunt? I wondered. Would that have delayed my release? At that moment, it seemed that my whole life was nothing but missed opportunities. So tight was the grief that gripped my chest, so barren the drought in my soul, that when Ooglybuchi entered the tank, I was glad for his company.

“It seems you’re an oracle also,” I said as he sat down on the bench beside me.

He sighed as though chastised and said to come see him as soon as I was out of jail.

“How hospitable of you,” I snapped. “Are you going to serve cookies and tea?”

“Meester Skudder,” he said. “I have accommodated you as much as the law will allow.”

“The law is a pussy.”

“Even so,” he replied, “you are living on borrowed time. My friend, do you really believe there is no justice under the sun?”

“Is that another prophecy?” 

“It is merely an observation. In Kenya, a parasite like you would have disappeared a long time ago.”

“The lot of all prophets,” I grumbled.

“It is the lot of all stalkers as well.”

“Lock me up or I’ll kick your ass.”

He smiled and lowered his eyes. “My friend,” he said, “you hide among shadows. Your threat is an empty boast. How can I save you from phantoms when you are already a ghost?”

*

I was let out of jail that same morning and met my destiny right away. He was standing outside the maingate, writing into a notebook. The moment I stepped from the sallyport, he put the notebook away. He then gazed at me, and his eyes were as injured as those of Banquo’s ghost.

“Is it assured?” I asked him again.

It’s in the bank, he replied.

I sprinted to Valencia Street then hopped aboard a bus. I was determined not to perish without my dagger in my hand. Far better a Viking’s haven, the island of Valhalla, than to have no oasis awaiting me when I entered the void to come.

Arriving at my tenement building, I dashed into my room. I then snatched my knife from under my pillow and named it Providence. If Beowulf can name his blade, why not I? Was I facing a beast less unearthly? Had my date with darkness not come? When fighting the reaper, it is best to look him fearlessly in the eyes—to let him know that the dusk he inhabits cannot match the darkness in you.

Was I hoping a warrior’s resolve would frighten him away? Was I gambling that he had no stomach for the ringing of steel striking steel? If so, my hopes dissolved the moment I hopped through my window. He was waiting for me on the sidewalk, a taco in his hand. So unaffected was he by my bluster that he was having a casual lunch. But the hunger in his eyes remained as he munched upon beans and rice. Clearly, his appetite would not be sated by such pedestrian fare. I did not doubt that when he finished the taco, he would feast on my heart as well.

I ran to Golden Gate Park, but I spotted him under a tree, so I caught a bus to Chinatown where I hoped to buy some time. Spotting a Buddhist Temple, my heart leapt like a fawn. Why not ascend to Nirvana instead? That would not be a difficult task. Surely, I was a worthy candidate for selflessness and light? Had I not led a life of self-denial? Had I not suffered for my faith? Had I not loved a sinful woman in a manner both generous and chaste? Yes, Nirvana would do me just fine, so I hurried into the temple. As I knelt upon a prayer mat before the holy perch, the statue of Buddha looked down upon me and smiled like a happy drunk.

After an hour, I strode from the temple, suffused with a heavenly glow. He was waiting for me on the sidewalk, but his gaze was inhibited. His eyes seemed to say, I will not take your life when your soul is filled with light. No, not when an angel might claim you. Not when you’re primed for great flight.

“So how will I find my deliverance?” I shouted.

It’s in the bank, he said.

Was that a riddle? Was that a challenge? Was he still making sport of me? Or was he simply waiting for me to devolve before he cut out my heart? Whatever his thoughts, I knew that I would not get another chance.

“How much longer?” I hollered.

It will be soon, he replied.

As I dashed down the street, I struggled with the mystery of his words. It’s in the bank? Was this something more than a cruel and mocking jibe? The world owes me a million dollars, and I have never collected a cent. 

It was not until I spotted a Wells Fargo branch that I finally unlocked the riddle. Whipping my blade from the sheath on my shin, I dashed into the building. “Give me your assets!” I hollered. “Give me your liberty bonds!” The young lady I grabbed as a hostage reminded me of her. Her tits were as shapely, her ass was as taut, her shriek seemed frozen in time. She even batted her heavy eyelashes as though they were butterfly wings. But this time, I would not be dissuaded. This time, I would not be fooled. I kept the knife against her throat until I heard a police siren wail.

How fitting it was that Officer Sisyphus burst into the bank. His pistol was out of his holster, and he pointed it at my chest. When I let my blade clatter upon the floor, he grinned like a lottery winner.

“This time we gotcha, Skudder,” he said. “Put cher hands behind yer back.”

*

So where am I now? you ask. I’m at the Federal Medical Center in Ayr, Massachusetts. It’s a therapeutic correctional facility twenty miles from Walden Pond. I am here for ten years, a stretch that puts Thoreau’s petty sojourn to shame. The feds could have given me more time, but they thought I was out of my head. Oh, irony, thy name is Nathan. Oh, stealth thy name is Skudder. My mind was never clearer than when I pretended to rob that bank.

“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” were that hermit’s most famous words. And there is nothing more basic than a cell on a lockdown range. A bunk, a cot, an impenetrable door—what more do I need than these? I now work in such a fever that I produce thirty pages each day. I do not even stop my production to go to the exercise yard.Ah, nemesis, you now worry me less than the fleas that nip at my art—the insects my fiery pages will turn into cinder and dust. Their cowardliness cannot contain me. Their plots cannot stop my pen. Because I am no violable genius. I have thwarted the Tallyman.


James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, four of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna/e/B00WNH356Y?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000


“You Can’t Do Anything Without Me” Fiction by Christiana Hoag

The bitch. The cold, evil bitch. After all I did for her, after all we went through, she left me? She thinks she’s going to find someone better than me, that she’s such a catch? She’ll see. She’s forty-five with a triple chin and Coke-bottle legs. She’ll fucking see who she gets. I’ll let her have her little life alone without me and she’ll come running back just like she did when she first moved out five months ago. She called me up, crying hysterically from her car in some parking garage in Midtown. I took her back, I should’nt have but I love her. I love her to death.

See, what Cath don’t understand is I know her better than she knows herself. When I met her in Jersey two years ago, she came across so sweet and innocent, all loyalty and integrity. I fell for it. She had a great act going. She should’ve won an Academy Award. All she wanted was a way to get to New York and there I was.

I rescued her from that dump in Jersey, you know. She was in a small town way down the Garden State Parkway. I met her when I went down the Shore for a weekend. She was set up there with a nice house and a good job running a beauty salon and everything. I went into the salon for a haircut and stared at her the whole time in the mirror. She was so cute. Big eyes and a tiny, freckled nose. I asked her out. She said it would be a conflict of interest to go out with a client. I pushed. She acted kind of annoyed and said she had a boyfriend.

“Are you in love with him?” I asked. She didn’t answer, just snipped. I knew I could reel her in.

I kept going down the Shore, dropping by the salon, bringing her flowers and chocolates. That always works with girls. I called her all the time when I went back to Manhattan. We talked for hours. She started telling me all her private stuff. I knew she liked me. I went down in the middle of the week once just to check up on her. You never know with women. They’re sneaky, secretive. That was Cath all right, but I didn’t find that out til later. Anyway, I waited around the corner from her salon and I saw this asshole pick her up. Well, she sure didn’t go for looks, I’ll say that much. Sure enough, two months later, she called. “Jimmy, you’ll be very happy to hear this. I ended it with that guy.” I was down the Shore that weekend.

From then on, every time I went back to New York, I was back down the Shore a couple days later. I couldn’t stand not knowing where she was, who she was with. I was so in love with her. She cleared out a couple drawers for me in her dresser and stocked the fridge with stuff I like, purple Vitamin Water and chocolate protein shakes. I cleaned the bathroom for her, paid for a maid, just once though, she was fucking expensive. Cath bought me a real nice suit. When she moved out, I was going to rip it up, but I like it too much.

Cath blames me now for ruining her life? She wasn’t doing shit in South Jersey. And she was a good hairdresser. She needed to get out of that dump and work at one of the salons on Fifth Avenue where she could make some real money. That’s what I told her, anyway. See, I’ll let you in on something. I wanted to get her away from all her friends. I had to get her to New York so I could have her to myself and she’d depend on me.

Lucky for me, Cath didn’t have a lot of friends and she wasn’t close to her family. She wasn’t one of these girls always on the phone telling her mother or friends everything. I told her I liked her kind of being a loner, so she’d make more of an effort to be like that. Like I always told her that people were jealous of her, so she had to keep a distance from them. Like her nosy neighbor.

She also had a younger friend who was always dating and going out on the town. I told Cath she should have friends more her own age. That girl was too young for her. “Hon, you got so much more going for you than all these people,” I’d say. “I’m the only one who sees your true worth.” She’d laugh it off, but I could tell it soaked in. I’m pretty good at figuring people out.

I knew I could convince her to move to New York if I pushed hard enough. Most people are afraid to push for what they want. I’m not. I laid it on one night when we were walking along the Boardwalk in Atlantic City.

“Cath, you’re forty-three. This is your last chance to make something of yourself. That salon is a shithole. You need to open your own salon in Manhattan. I can get you clients. I have a good real estate contact to find a locale. I’ll remodel the place.” I kept it up, too, kept hammering her. Like I said, some people you just have to push.

She didn’t believe me until I took her to New York and showed her around and introduced her to my contacts. I knew a lot of people through my contracting business, although I haven’t done too great for a couple years. I took her to fancy restaurants and clubs. I bought her clothes at Saks. She didn’t want me to, but I insisted. I wanted to dress her up and take her out and show her off. She had a great body for a broad her age.

That’s one thing I always liked about her. She never really realized what she had. I bought her a tan leather jacket that looks just like mine and a couple dresses, some short shorts. I never should’ve bought her clothes. She was probably going on dates in that form-fitting black dress I bought her. I should’ve taken a pair of scissors to that dress before she left, cut it up like I did with all her photos.

Cath wasn’t like other girls I went out with. She was hard to impress. I had to really work at it, but I know how to turn on the charm. Hell, I’m a charming guy. I’m a good catch. I know I am. I took her for a special weekend to Southampton. I took another girlfriend there before Cath so I knew it would work.

I massaged her feet and made her a special bath with salts and everything. “I’m the only one to see the real you, the only one who really appreciates you and who you are, hon. Everyone else passes you by, but I see you for you.”

“No one has ever made me feel like this, Jimmy,” she said. “I think you were sent to me from heaven. You’re my reward for doing the right thing my whole life.” I practically melted when she said that.

“I want to marry you,” I said. “I want to have a baby with you.”

I know I have a problem with truthfulness, but this really was true. Cath really was my dream girl. If I married her and got her pregnant, she’d never run away from me. That’s what’s happened with me my whole life. People saw the real me and ran away. But Cath was different, or so I thought. Now I see how she sucked me in big time. She brought me coffee and an English muffin in bed every morning. If I told her I wanted more butter, she’d make it with more butter, crispier, she’d make it crispier. She even cut my toenails. She was really into doing that.

I love those crazy little quirks of hers. Sometimes I’d make her do stuff for me just to test how far she’d go. She came home from work one day to help me look for my keys. I’m always losing stuff. She brought gas to me when I ran out on the highway. She drove me twenty-five miles to the hospital when I had to have tests, went back to work and then drove back to get me. No one took care of me like that, except my mother. She even has red hair like Ma. Cath is very kind, she really is.

I wish we could go back to that time, to the beginning. Why can’t it be like that again?

You know, that fucking bitch left me without a dime in my pocket. Man, she’s the cheapest broad I ever met. She uses coupons and buys gas at the Thrifty gas station. She has all this money in the bank from the sale of her house. The last time I checked her statement, it was more than $300,000. She’s selfish and ungrateful, just like all the rest. I admit I lost my temper a couple times about her being a tightwad, but it worked. She started paying for more stuff to prove to me she wasn’t cheap, that she wasn’t just like all the rest. Like I told you, I know people.

But I’m getting sidetracked. Where was I? Yeah, so I got her to quit her job and sell her house and move to Manhattan. She wanted to just take some time off work and just rent out her house, but I talked her out of that. Pretty amazing, huh? I mean my dick ain’t that big. She went and told my buddy George I manipulated her. She’s nothing but a fucking con artist herself.

Cath was shy, hardly said a word around other people. It was better that way because she would say the wrong thing unless I told her exactly what to say. I mean I was so happy I had a girlfriend I took her around to meet all my connections and introduced her as my fiancée so they’d know she was a real girlfriend, not some bimbo. We dropped in once on Sheldon Squirel. I retiled his bathroom. He’s a hasbeen, but he still acts, reality shows and stuff. He asked her where she lived. She said, “The Village.” I couldn’t believe it. When we got back in the car, I yelled at her.

“You should’ve said ‘with Jimmy, in the Village with Jimmy’. Now he’s going to think we’re not really together. You don’t realize that people are jealous, Cath. You just don’t have the life experience I have. People are always going to try to drive a wedge between a couple, so they look for any kind of hole.”

She started crying. That always made me feel bad, so I softened up. “We have to present a united front at all times, Cath. It’s for our own good. I got ten years on you. You don’t know people like I do.”

I know I get mad. I can’t help it. But she really knew how to push my buttons. She was always too nice to men. I don’t mean the things I say when I’m mad. I mean, the names I called her, it was just because I was mad. That’s all. She knows that. I feel so much better after I get mad. Like I need to get something out. But Cath made a big deal out of it. She was always a dramatic Annie, always exaggerating things.

Like when I grabbed her wrist and she fell against the bed. It was nothing, just a small push. So what? She made out like I threw her. She didn’t even get hurt. I was upset because she was packing her bags to leave me. That was soon after I brought her to New York. I would never hit a girl. My father taught me to respect women. I blocked the front door and grabbed her shoulders.

 “Do you want to throw away everything we have together?” I hugged her. “I love you. It won’t happen again. I promise.” She dropped her bags and hugged me back.

Another time she says I kicked the door in and smashed a lamp. I don’t remember doing that. She almost called some domestic violence hotline on me. Can you believe that shit? That would’ve ruined my reputation. Good thing I got friends in the police department. I made sure she knew that, too. She should’ve understood. She knows I have low self-esteem.

Yeah, I know I’m fucked up. Who isn’t? Cath? She’s unsteady, passive-aggressive shit from growing up with an alcoholic father. She just puts on a good front. I told her things I never told anyone before, you know, shit about my childhood. My father used to smack me around, take me out back and lay into me because he felt like it.

Then he’d take me to the emergency room when I couldn’t see good or got a headache that wouldn’t quit. I lied to the nuns at school about how I got the bruises. Told them I fell. I guess he got a little carried away, but them were different days. Everybody hit their kids back then. I woulda been a delinquent if he didn’t slap me around.

I never told anyone that shit, except Cath. I went deep with her. She was very caring. She knows a lot about me, too much. But I know a lot about her, too. I made sure I got all her secrets out of her right up front. Like her abortion, her affair with a married man. Secrets are good weapons in fights. I used them against her but so what. Cath knew they were just words. She knew how I was. I always made it up to her. I apologized. I promised to see a shrink.

“I can’t live without you, Cath,” I told her. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.” That’s true, it really is. I had a real home with her. I felt like one of the guys, you know, with their wives always calling, nagging when they were coming home for dinner. I miss her. I miss her a lot.

When she moved out, she hid in a hotel. She did that just to make me come after her. She liked drama. I went from hotel to hotel looking for her. She accused me of stalking her. Can you believe that? It was romantic, that’s what it was. Then she got her own place and a job, and we got back together again.

She needed me like I needed her. We were meant for each other. I know I made mistakes. She knew I wasn’t good at relationships. Then five months later, she broke up with me just when I was going to take her on a trip to the Bahamas. I had it all planned out, and I was paying for everything to make up to her for the Hawaii trip. We went to Hawaii and well, I made her use her airline miles and pay for stuff. She was too nice to this friend of mine and I got jealous. We had a big fight. So, I was making it up to her. Yeah, I still had to put a few things on her credit card, but I was going to pay her back.

Then all of a sudden, she didn’t want to go. She had no thought for the effort I put into planning for that trip. All the selfish bitch ever thought about was herself. “Jimmy, I told you I only wanted to go for five days, but you went ahead and booked it for ten. It’s always all about you.” That’s what she told me. But she didn’t want to go at all.

She goes, “You’ll go into a rage. You’ll get jealous because I’ll talk to the waiter or something and you’ll start raging. You’re not safe to be with.”

“So?” I says. “You can get on a plane and go home early.”

She goes, “So I have to have my vacation ruined at any time because of your rages.” Then she launched her grenade. “You know something, Jimmy. You’re never going to change. This is it, end of the road. I don’t want to do this anymore.” The bitch got in her car and drove off. She left me standing there in the middle of the street. And I knew she wasn’t going to come back to me this time. I knew it.

I tried to get her to see me, for coffee, anything, just as friends. I knew if I got her in front of me, I’d get her. She wouldn’t be able to resist. But she wouldn’t do it. She changed her phone number. Bitch. She thinks she can just push me away like that. Fucking asshole.   

She really changed. That wasn’t the girl I fell in love with. Maybe it was her new friends at work, the shrink she’d been seeing. People were putting things into her head. She must’ve had someone waiting in the wings already. Her boss. I saw him looking at her.   So, go ahead, Cath, go right ahead. You’ll never meet anyone like me again. You think you can make it on your own?  You’ll see. You’ll fucking see. You can’t do anything without me.


Christina Hoag is a former journalist and the author of novels “Girl on the Brink” and “Skin of Tattoos” In 2020, her fiction and nonfiction won awards in the International Human Rights Arts Festival and the Soul-Making Keats Writing Competition. www.christinahoag.com.


“Big Game Hunter” Fiction by Travis Lee

It’s dusk and no one’s coming.

The damn beast wasn’t supposed to charge me. I paid $45,000 to come hunt it, an albino rhinoceros with a nice horn. They made me sign a waiver. This land is owned by a diamond mining conglomerate, and when Pavel looked at my signature he told me I was going in alone. Once I kill the rhino, contact him by satellite phone.

The phone. In the tall grass, maybe still working, or maybe in pieces along with the rest of me because when the rhino charged I was not prepared. Animals have never acted hostile before. You should see the lions. They tear apart wildebeests and buffalo calves, but when they see me they just lay there as I squeeze the trigger.

My arm is aching. I’m trying not to move but my arm. I shift a little. My gut explodes in pain. Blood attracts predators and there’s a difference between a healthy man aiming a gun and a bleeding man under a tree. One’s an anomaly.

The other’s prey.

I went on my first hunt was when I was twelve. My uncle took me to Yellowstone Park and before we set off he pulled me close and said, Congratulations. You’re now part of the food chain.

I haven’t thought of that in years.

Funny what your mind coughs up.

#

I have some pills but I dare not take any. Night has fallen and I’m alert. I have a .357 Magnum with six shots, well, five. Five for the hyenas.

One for myself.

They sound close. I raise the gun, ignoring the pain. It’s stupid, of course, as hyenas hunt in packs. The best I could do is scare them and if that doesn’t work?

One bullet will.

Hyenas can bite through anything. They’ll start at my legs, ripping me apart beneath the clear savannah sky.

At which point do you die? In the middle or does it happen last, after you’ve been mostly eaten?

#

Night passes. No hyenas.

I’m getting weaker. I sip the canteen. There’s enough water for a day, maybe two if I space it out but it’s hot. The sun breaks through the leaves and a fly crawls around my mouth.

#

The satellite phone is ringing.

Beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep. The sound of salvation I spot it in the tall grass, green light flashing.

Beep-beep.

Beep-beep.

#

I’ve spent the day making arguments against going for the phone. My uncle’s words keep coming back, circling me like the flies. I’m already part of the food chain, and it didn’t happen when the rhino charged and I stood there like a doofus, too shocked to do anything. It happened the moment I stepped out of the jeep.

A caw. I look up.

A vulture cruises overhead.

I close my eyes. Vultures can smell the dying from miles away.

I open my eyes and reach for my gun. The vulture. I stare at it, my eyes burning in the unfiltered daylight. The vulture spreads its wings and perches on a high branch.

It’s staring down at me.

I tilt my gun skyward, , aligning the barrel with the bird. I do a silent Mississippi-count to five.

I fire.

The bird drops down beside me. Its wings spread open, covering my legs and I look down and scream, brushing it away and igniting a new series of pain.

I shove the dead bird as far as my arm will allow and close my eyes. The smell. A messy infection below and I can smell myself rotting and I can’t hold it in. I turn my head.

I puke.

#

Laughter cuts through the night. My eyes flip open and I grab the Magnum.

Congratulations. You’re now part of the food chain. I had slipped away to somewhere just beneath the pain. My uncle was leading me through the jungle to where the rhino stood waiting in a long field. I lined up to take my shot while the rhino charged and I took it down, one shot. Dead.

Their laughter makes me want to laugh too and I let go of the gun. I cover my mouth with both hands. I laugh, pressing my hands tighter as they approach.

The hyenas move with purpose through the tall grass. Their eyes shine like migratory starlight as they rush their prey. I know they can see me and smell me but do they understand and I know I should grab the gun because this is it, but I don’t.

I just laugh.

And I’m still laughing when the hyenas ignore me. An elephant herd is on the move. I’m laughing when the hyenas slip between the great beasts’ legs, separating a baby elephant from the herd. I’m laughing when they start with the trunk, one hyena tearing it in half and the rest ripping it off. The baby elephant is screaming as the pack swarms and I have my answer: you die at the very end. The hyenas eat the baby elephant to the bone.

I’m laughing so hard I have a coughing fit.

#

The pain is bad and the smell is worse.

The pills are part of the standard first aid kit they issue all hunters. They give you a vacuum-sealed pack of six. One a day.

Or six.

I tell myself it won’t come to that. I look up. The sun hasn’t crossed the midway point yet and the predators hunt at night. I look out across the savannah. The baby elephant’s bones. I feel a laughing fit coming on and I jab my tongue against my cheek. The laughter rises, falls back. I hold my tongue there until I no longer feel like laughing.

I peel one of the pills free.

It dissolves on my tongue in seconds. I lean back, close my eyes and listen for the phone.

#

Beep-beep.

I open my eyes.

Beep-beep.

I close them.

#

I’m awake. For a second I think there is a bear in the tall grass, guarding the satellite phone. I have to concentrate for several minutes, readjusting my mind to the time and the shapes around me.

It’s night. I slept all day.

I wasn’t supposed to sleep all day. God damn pills are only supposed to knock you out for five hours. But you’re also supposed to eat with them and I have no food. The three emergency MREs they give you are out in the tall grass somewhere, assuming the hyenas haven’t gotten to them.

Flies crawl on my forehead.

#

I turn my head to puke but only dryheave. I have nothing to throw up.

#

I’m awake all night, thinking of my rifle.

My uncle taught me how to shoot. We hit targets on his property. And in Yellowstone, he taught me the importance of stealth.

Since we’re part of the food chain we gotta act like it, he said, outfitting a silencer to his rifle.

We tracked the bear and her cubs for days. We weren’t dumb enough to carry our rifles out in the open and once we were in position for a good shot, my uncle handed me his rifle. He showed me how to steady the aim. The cold cylinder in my hands. The weight that decides death.

I can still see the bear. She looks right at me when I line up my sight. My uncle would have laughed so I never told him but I know what I know, and what I know is that bear saw me. She knew I was there to kill her.

Her cubs squealed afterwards. They crowded around their mother, sniffing her, trying to lick her back to life. My uncle told me not to feel sorry for them: turn the tables, and the bears would have me for lunch.

Let’s go, my uncle said.

We’re not taking it?

Where? To who? He gave me a light smack on the back of my head. Yellowstone’s got too much stick up their asses for that.

We left the bear to rot, her cubs to mourn and on the way back home we bought ice cream.

#

A fly lands on my cheek buzzing I brush it away more on my forehead

#

I drift off and wake up hearing the bear cubs sobbing for their mother. What ever happened to those cubs? Male bears will kill cubs that aren’t their own but the bear would eat me if the tables were turned and besides we’re now part of the food chain so we have to act like it.

I cough. Flies. I can’t wave them away. Something is stalking me through the tall grass. I can’t make it out. Hyena? Lion?

Bear?

Where the hell is Pavel? They should have come for me by now. The satellite phone is working, I heard it beep (yesterday? day before?) so they know I’m here.

Where are they?

I don’t have the strength to move but I do have the strength to think and see and combined I think I see what’s out there in the tall grass.

I grab the Magnum. The movement startles the flies but doesn’t scare them away.

Five shots left.

#

Laughter and it’s not coming from the hyenas.

It’s coming from the bear.

Mama bear is laying in front of the satellite phone. She keeps her paws to the side of the phone so I can hear it ring.

Beep-beep.

Laughter.

Beep-beep.

Laughter. Sounds like hyenas but it’s that fucking bear. Congratulations. You’re now part of the food chain.

#

Fucking bear. You haven’t moved all day. The sun sets and I need another pill for the pain and the flies the itching is driving me crazy the smell makes me gag. I dryheave.

The bear laughs.

And this is it. I won’t survive another day out here. Pavel isn’t coming. I need to get to the phone. That’s him calling. Their equipment is broken. They can’t find me unless I answer.

The bear laughs.

Your cubs are dead, I whisper. My voice sounds like it belongs to someone else.

My uncle is beside me. He swats me on the back of my head and hands me his rifle. The rapport might knock me down, but at least mama bear will die and this time she will stay dead.

Beep-beep.

I stand up. Something’s coming closer. A small stampede. The laughter grows. The bear doesn’t raise her head. I aim the rifle as something tears at my legs. The flies have scattered. I try to squeeze the trigger but my finger is too weak and I no longer feel it.

I feel teeth.

I hear laughter.

And somewhere, the satellite phone is ringing. Beep-beep.


Bio:

Travis Lee lived in China for two and a half years, where his short story ’The Seven Year Laowai’ went viral among the expat community. He currently lives in Japan, working as a weather forecaster. Find out more at https://www.travis-lee.org


“the veins” Short Story by Bogdan Dragos

Something wasn’t quite right in this small, barren room. The man sitting across the square table, dressed in a white coat, seemed a little to calm for someone in reaching distance.

‘I could just reach for that bald head and snap the neck real nice,’ he thought as he watched the man. ‘What does he want from me? More questions?’

It was indeed more questions.

“So,” said the man in the white coat, “if you are ready to speak, I am ready to listen. I am here for you.”

“How come you’re still alive?” he asked the man.

And the man answered, “What do you mean?”

“Are you one of the few who adapted?”

“Adapted? That’s interesting. Please, explain. What do you understand through this adaptation you speak of?”

He shrugged. “I just… thought I’m the only one who adapted. To the new life.”

“I see. And what about your family?”

“What family?”

“Your wife and child. Did they not adapt to this new life?”

“Stop trying to manipulate me, Mister White Coat. I know you know they’re dead.”

“Yeah, but I’d like to know why are they dead.”

“They didn’t adapt. They were too trusting. And have been touched by the veins. I had to dispose of them. So they wouldn’t infect others.”

“Or yourself.”

“Or myself, sure. Sounds selfish but adapting means you come to understand that once touched by the veins, a human being is no longer who they were. They become one of the infected and from there they only live to spread the infection even further. Make more veins. The world is at its end. Everything will be taken over by the veins. If you don’t adapt, you die.”

“I see. So tell me then, where do the veins come from? And why do you call them so?”

“I’ve no other name for them. I’m not some scientist. I just describe what I see. And heck if I know where they come from. I’m starting to think they were created. Artificially. In some lab, you know?”

“Well–”

“Actually, you look like someone who works in a lab, to be honest. You motherfu — ah!”

He could not leap across the table to reach the man in the white coat. The chair held him back with cables apparently.

“What the fuck? What’s going on here? Who in the fuck are you?”

“Relax, I’m only trying to help. I want to help you. Please.”

But there was no reasoning with him. He kept screaming that the veins had gotten to everybody but him.

Some days later after many sedatives and solitary confinement he was given a piece of paper in his cell and a pen and was asked to draw what the veins look like.

It took him the whole day and finally he drew the picture of a woman.

***

Bogdan Dragos works as a dispatcher for a Romanian gambling company (supervising casinos) and that implies spending twelve hours alone in the office (where he daydreams and writes poetry that he emails to himself). He is the author of Pour the Whiskey Over My Heart and Set it On Fire.