The body on the tiles
as a block of ice;
all signs of life
have flown the coop.
For the living
the wailing wall
dark as oil;
time goes rolling on,
steady as a wheel.
God’s will be done;
His word and deed
breaking all bounds,
including His own.
goes limp as a noodle.
God’s will is doom;
his extraordinary quirks
into the wilderness,
among the other outcasts.
By the same finger
that blasted the king’s wall,
the body is resurrected,
a brand-new loaf of bread,
the bread of life, the true bread,
the word of God.
the spirit asks no questions,
hove to in a sea of blood;
home is here.
Give us this day,
weighed one way,
our daily beef,
our sacred host.
Give us, O Lord,
no miracles, please,
light as flies,
to tip the scales.
God’s will be done,
but for eternity
can a universe be,
whirl within curly whirl,
planetarium of eternal law,
carrack always on
an even keel?
Or can it come unstuck?
Can it become cracked
like an old china pot,
or perfectly and forever intact?
These are ores unfound
The body is cold
as a mackerel,
feet, legs, trunk, head,
bound to the rules
of a dark kingdom
and do we care?
We’re uncaring as bees,
the best things in life,
buzzing around nectar,
trying to make things sweet,
trying to stay alive
in a nice way.
The body is cold,
a conductor of
a train of cold
in and out,
doing the necessary;
it matters not
to the corpse,
cold and dead,
a stricken ferry
sinking in a
to the unfathomable deep.
Cold and dead,
the body lies,
a market offering,
among the legumes,
the fish and the lamb;
no way no how
to cheat the fates or
the laws of nature.
by no fell stroke,
by no hocus-pocus,
from the back of beyond.
It lies there forever.
The body ain’t a body anymore;
diminished to a naught,
to less than nothing.
Human fate you say,
this is the way it is,
alas and ho-hum,
like leaves of the passing year
we come and go;
more windy talk
from the pulpit, at the gravesite
but say it anyway.
Goodbye life, hello
portico of wealthy King Dis.
Your coin good here, mortal,
and will buy your passage
to a kingdom built on time
Two pennies for
the fare, for a stay
that lasts forever,
where a day
outlasts the gold,
the silver, the copper;
your coins cheap metal
for your reckoning
with the dim realm,
where all the glitters
are the eyes of the dead.
Have no fears, penny-wise;
step forth pound-foolish
from the heaving ferry;
hell has no furies,
no denying spirits;
only the dead,
mile after mile of them
decked out and penitent
and hell will last, thank God,
among monuments, a monument
more durable than the sin of Adam,
than all our sins.
The body is cold, now
remote as the moon.
For the noble mourning kindred
noble love and death
hand in hand
and the rest of us struggle along;
illusions become elusive
among our daily crusts
and our dearest
bump us out of the park,
this dump called Paradise.
We struggle along,
bound for a rude awakening
in that last call to arms.
Body cold, body
the means of meaning;
of being here for a while
in some peace.
Puissant bird of dawn,
take me, too, when it’s
time to go.
Longer is too much;
still, the body is cold,
even here in the land
Vlad the Impaler
Voivode of Transylvania,
take this ham,
and eat it;
a pig died for you,
strung screaming on a wire.
Hung on a standard,
black and hairy,
bores into Britain.
take this golden hand
and shake it;
Mehmet's dark warriors
wait for Byzantium
at the little gate.
Bang, bang, Urban's cannons
break the walls,
the lavish halls, the streets;
defeat is here,
the retreat of Constantine
from the west,
penniless, is here;
here he is, dead on his feet;
here he is, facing the foe;
he dies here.
Emperor of the east and beggar;
bargaining with a bad pope
a good king
does what he can.
The rosy shoes,
beloved Pharonic ikon,
beneath Peter's ravening cross;
after ripe autumn, the
storms of booted winter.
on his feats,
by default rests;
lost in the east,
he struck wonders
out of his head,
calling argosies to the
last of Byzantium.
Dim, fine, old,
the skin of
his golden likeness
through the dead and
burns our minds still,
like bitter frost.
Black Tuesday, the burning city,
evolved centaur horrors;
ghosts aghast at helosis
floating from the tombs,
the ruined churches,
saw black Vlad, coffin-clad,
between dog and wolf;
Vlad, Count Dracula,
a likely bat,
likable as the plague.
now and then,
a church bell or
something like it,
rings in the dawn;
a mystic freshening
calls up the day.
Night abides while
the sun sees all,
widening and widening
For the sake of Christ
take my hand,
prince, sever your ties;
this kind land's not forever.
The Greater Ferry
Afric and Ind,
buried in the sands
of the cartographer's desert;
hoarded up and treasuries
remote and golden
as Midas' child
stone cold in the palace.
where the head remembers
and the heart forgets;
Tiberius' bepimpled countenance
on Augustus' aureate trunk.
Passions, crimes are
pursued to the end;
tumors grow powerfully
in the gloomy jungles
Afric and Ind,
friends, tissues of fragrance,
hearth to hearth.
Queen Bess and her men
trod new-minted shores
moonlings or troglodytes
and naked savage hooted
in bush and brake.
we amuse ourselves
with quaint voyages
to Muscovy or Ind;
Africa and India,
Giants at bay
they push the sunrise
more and more to the east:
let our cowboys, our Ulysses,
our connoisseurs of simple rewards
take heed and,
move by move,
on a safer shore.
Jack D. Harvey’s poetry has appeared in Scrivener, The Comstock Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Chamber Magazine, Typishly Literary Magazine, The Antioch Review and elsewhere. The author has been a Pushcart nominee and over the years has been published in a few anthologies.
The author has been writing poetry since he was sixteen and lives in a small town near Albany, New York. He is retired from doing whatever he was doing before he retired.
About three months ago, Robert Shivers, the life-long friend of Howard Foker, had unexpectedly gone into the hospital for a few nights for minor surgery. Shivers had given Howard the key to his apartment so that Howard could feed and care for Robert’s hamster, Blinky. Howard was oblivious, however, to the surveillance cameras, embedded in the apartment’s walls, originally installed by Robert to identify any burglar intent on kidnapping his beloved pet.
Howard had no sooner settled comfortably into Robert’s easy chair to watch the new autumn lineup of reality TV shows, than there was a scratching noise from Blinky’s cage: clawing the bars, the little pest was furiously demanding its feed. Just like its master: always annoying Howard with irritating demands. In fact, the more Howard watched Blinky, the more he wondered if Robert actually had not been turned into this hamster by a wizard’s spell. The random shuffling, followed by sudden bursts of frenetic activity, then the way it greedily slopped its food and water – all very Robert Shivers.
While poking through the kitchen closets looking for the little monster’s vitamin-enriched meal, Howard discovered a thick envelope. On it, in Shivers’ childish scrawl, were the words: “My Stimulus Package.” Stuffed inside the envelope was a smaller packet on which Shivers had written: “Boy, this is hot.” Gently opening it, Howard’s attitude toward Robert was about to change forever.
Stapled together were advertising glossies featuring images of kitchen appliances, a generic, stock photo of the Statue of Liberty, set against the skyline of New York City, and assorted printouts of objects, such as jugs, for sale online. A sticky note was attached to the documents on which Robert Shivers had scribbled, “Wow, what a turn-on!”
Included with this stash was also a notarized statement which read:
“I, Robert Shivers say, under penalty of perjury, that I have an intense erotic desire for nonhuman objects. I find myself completely unable to lust after any human being no matter their gender…”
In addition, among the papers was a copy of a letter from Robert addressed to the executive producer, Jay James, of the new reality TV cable program, “It’s a Wild, Weird World,” which specializes in presenting to its audience – in its own words – “the unbelievable – uncensored.” The letter read in part:
“Dear Mr. James,
I have watched your show with great interest. I understand you are seeking guests with shocking and completely unique life-stories. I believe I can fulfill your program’s needs as I am just such a potential guest (my appearance being offered at your normal rate). Please see my attached affidavit with attachments. I think that the story of people who have sexual desires for only nonhuman objects would be of considerable interest to your audiences who tune in every week in search of ‘the unbelievable – uncensored…’”
Stunned, Howard blinked his eyes: one can think he knows a person but actually never really know him. Huge difference between hanging out with this dude at the Big Hit sports bar watching Monday Night Football and getting a peek into his creepy, private world.
Who but a twisted weirdo could get an orgasm from a toaster? And even though the Statue of Liberty was a woman and was made by the French, it seemed really bizarre if not downright unpatriotic to be sexually aroused by America’s iconic symbol – I mean the Statue of Liberty for god’s sake!
But Howard, his stomach grumbling its complaint against his skimpy breakfast, headed for the kitchen again but this time more to satisfy his hunger for food than his curiosity about Shivers’ twisted inner life.
Rummaging around for a can opener, Howard immediately found yet another clump of documents crammed into a dusty hole in the back of the kitchen’s cupboards’ walls; delicately opening the scruffy plastic-wrapped bundle stinking of mildew, he lightly pawed the shiny but stained upmarket furniture catalogue advertising the usual items: blonde floor lamps with pale white shades, rainbow-colored, starkly-crafted chairs, smoothly-contoured black coffee tables, slab-like soft floor beds piled with cheery little patterned cushions.
Then shocked, he looked closer and gasped – or, more to the point, gurgled an explosion of saliva: a glossy image of the pudgy body and face of Robert Shivers, naked except for black socks, was shown on one of the catalogue’s pages, hunched over a blonde floor lamp with a virginal white shade, a lusty, demonic grin on his face. Had Robert somehow Photoshopped a selfie of his face and body into this catalogue to live out his twisted fantasies among this porno-utopia of upmarket sexually attractive nonhuman objects?
Howard’s conclusion was inescapable: Robert Shivers was not a normal pervert.
Sideling into his favorite Starbucks a few weeks later, Howard, still unsettled after his discoveries, almost spilled his latte as he absent-mindedly found a table, and fretted over this new information about Robert. Howard knew that he had to calm down, get beyond the shock of it all, and get focused on the business implications. It was a sick, cynical world, but one could find financial health, not to say happiness, in the problems of others. Now he had to just figure the angles.
How would he approach Robert about selling Robert’s bizarre personality to tabloid shows? With his vast marketing experience in the mass media Howard was sure he could help Robert – for a lucrative commission – to make high-level reality TV executive contacts, who would pay Robert handsomely for his completely unique story of a life spent sexually attracted to upscale furniture, kitchen appliances, and the national icon of America.
It was a delicate matter though as he did not want Robert to know that he had been rummaging through his personal papers. He needed his flunky friend’s good will, yet at the same time Howard had to figure out how to approach Robert about his weird desires without revealing how Howard discovered them – otherwise Robert could be open to a potential lawsuit for the violation of Robert’s privacy. (Howard, despite these sober concerns, smiled briefly when he thought of Robert being interviewed on TV about how he ‘dates’ a toaster.)
A taunt, sinewy arm with blurred tattoos flipped over Howard’s shoulder like a large stiletto knife. Howard’ s eyes followed the arm up to a face stuffed full of jutting, stained teeth that had not seen a dental cleaning in years – nor a cosmetic surgical makeover: thin wrinkled lips carved into a stony face, wandering unfocused, washed-out bluish eyes, and a small patch of dry grey hair on an otherwise bald, skull-tight head. His ruddy facial skin was littered with large warts. Howard thought vaguely of a diseased tropical plant – or the face of the 1950s Yul Brynner but with a completely unknown, creeping skin condition.
The odd man suddenly yawned widely, sending waves of swampy bad breath into Howard’s face. Tearful, and almost gagging, Howard half whispered, half-choked, “Who are you?”
Despite the grotesque appearance, the man’s voice was gentle. “If you know this song then you know who I am.” He began to sing slowly, hypnotically, as if he were crooning a seductive lullaby:
“Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
But what’s confusing you
Is just the nature of my game…?”
The man’s arm twisted slightly; a business card dropped into Howard’s lap as if it were a magic trick; glossy-lipstick-pink, spotted with little devil masks, the card was inscribed with black, very dramatic script:
By Appointment Only”
Edmund Lappe’ winked, then began softly crooning again:
“So if you meet me
“Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste…”
Lappe’ then pointed his middle finger at Howard’s nose, as if the wizard were making an obscene gesture, and waved it. Howard felt his face drip heavily as if he were sweating a river; it was his flesh sliding off like chunks of melting snow, drenching his shirt cuffs.
“Hell’s bells, I am melting like a goddam wax dummy in an oven!” Howard whined. His Starbucks coffee mug, his laptop, and his too-tight undies then vanished, too. Howard and everything in his world had been vaporized. Edmund Lappe’, his Satanic Majesty, a man of many faces and names, who enjoyed serenading the Damned with the Rolling Stones’ 1968 smash hit, then called Robert Shivers to report the good news: that as per his agreement with Robert for a lucrative commission on Robert’s tabloid TV story profits, Lappe’ had eliminated the slimy Howard – who had inexcusably violated Robert’s privacy and failed to properly feed Blinky as instructed – from the face of the earth.
Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.
I saw him as soon as I entered the ticket hall. In the pre-show crowd he sat alone, staring into a plastic cup of water at a table near the gents. He poured a sachet of sugar into the cup and swirled it with a dirty finger and stared at it again. Here was a for-sure oddball – perfect fodder for Anorak UK.
Eccentrics (the juicy ones) are easily spooked, so I joined a larger group of attendees first. Beer and excitement had loosened tongues. A woman with a husky voice declared a lack of confidence had scuppered her romantically; a short man in a tall hat confessed he had been passed over for promotion five times; a well-to-do couple jostled their son to admit he was unpopular at college. Most reasons for coming were like that.
Mine was no better. A feature on vegetable sculptors had been cited on breakfast TV, now my blog Anorak UK (tagline: Tales from the Eccentric Frontline) brought three times the ad revenue. Thus I could afford the £300 ticket for tonight’s event – my next feature. And I had spotted my first source already.
Five minutes before showtime I approached the man’s table. In his cup floated a dead fly, drawn by the sugar, which he picked out and devoured in tiny bites.
He coughed when he saw me and wiped his fingers on his beard. The beard was ersatz, hooked around his ears; and his eyebrows, I saw, were a different colour at the roots. He stank of tobacco. His skin was loose from fasting – a strong breeze would treat it like a sail. No ring on his hand – but then, his fingers were too slender to have kept one on.
“Here for The Power of You?” I asked.
He shrugged guiltily.
“Me too.” I said, pleased I had switched on my recorder. “Although I don’t have much appetite for crowds.” I was pretty sure he’d agree, but he stared at me like an animal in a trap. He stood up quickly, pushed away the cup and, as he fled, delivered me a look of such frantic loathing I was briefly stunned.
The call came to take our seats in the auditorium. By ill luck my seat was one row in front of his. For the next hour he would be literally breathing down my neck. His manic glare was all I could picture as the lights dimmed.
‘The Power of You’ proclaimed six screens, the words pulsing to a Wu Tang track. With a hail of sparks the great Mindy Coleman strode onstage. The applause brought dust from the rafters and shook the seats. She was a magnesium flare in a room full of moths, every stitch the international self-help guru and network TV host (Doing You on CBS). Buoyed by the crowd I tried hard to catch her eye.
Not one clap from behind me. Dour sod – £300 he paid!
“Oh, thank you all for coming! You know, it’s not everyone who has the courage to come out to one of my seminars. You’ve already overcome limitations to be here tonight. Give yourselves a hand!”
Palm-stinging applause from everyone but the fly-fisher.
“If I know one thing, it’s that every one of us has power. We can use that power against ourselves or to launch us forward. Tonight I’ll share a taste of how to find your power and unlock your dreams. Oh, so many faces!”
When the self-activation period came, it was for the sake of our hands and throats. Mindy Coleman supercharged us, no one could stop talking. Her glow was impossible to dim. It was only the well of silence behind me that polluted my uptake of her doctrine.
Offended by the man’s resistance, since it showed me up as an easy convert, I loitered by the gents in ambush. But he slipped past, armpits projecting wide stains, and scuttled to the exit. For no definite reason I followed. Whatever secret had made him come would be humiliating, and right then I wanted it to be.
He turned away from the bright car park and skirted the walls of the centre, keeping in shadow. I turned the next corner and lost him. The cold air and abundant shadows brought me to a halt. What was I doing here, the stink of the bar bins eroding my cologne?
Then I saw him. A shadow leapt over the wooden screen around the bins. My god, was he so desperate? But no, the ticket cost a fortune…
What I heard next was the squeal of a bat or rodent, stamping, then a wet crack. Some plastic items clattered on the tarmac. I kept still, expecting the man to climb out, having retrieved, possibly, a cache of drugs.
Then I heard chewing. Wet and grisly, like a bear chewing fish.
I hurried back inside as an electronic bell signalled the end of the self-activation period.
The second half was billed ‘Living Your Truth in the Digital Age.’ I had seen a spare seat behind him. Now I claimed it. But he did not reappear in the audience.
Mindy Coleman came on to raptures, brushing the fingers of the front row. My eyes were fixed on the empty seat. His sugar-water sat on his armrest, attracting flies.
Feeling spiteful, I knocked the cup onto his seat cushion mid-cheer, so that if he came back I would watch him squirm.
“Carpe Diem. What does it mean?” Mindy yelled as the music faded. “Let me hear you!”
Seize the day! came the cry rehearsed in the first half.
“And what day is that?”
The smell of bins made me twitch. There he was, shuffling along the row in front! He sat, felt the wetness and froze, staring dead ahead. Mrs Coleman took a backseat to his reaction, the dye trickling down his neck. What did he need motivation for? He was already so unrestrainedly vulgar.
With no clear trigger, the whole thing started to revolt me. Mindy was more predator than prophet, a lack-of-confidence trickster. And these misfits were easy prey. The gist for my feature would be: cynic milks the vulnerable for money.
When the curtain fell I raced to the foyer, but I lost him in the loud, happy exodus. I could hear horns bleat as the crowd drained from the car park, bound for promotions, marriages, start-ups and affairs.
I looked until my Prius was alone in the car park, weighing up whether to search local bars. But my heart slumped at the thought. My trophy had escaped, dour sod. His smell was all that was left – I had to replace the air freshener. That’s what I get for £300 worth of journalistic inquiry!
On the M40 I thought of Cheryl. Pretending she was with me made the journey faster. I turned on the radio, seeking Mindy Coleman’s broadcast frequency but it was off-air.
Towards midnight it began to rain, fat drops like marbles, then the rain began to flash blue and red. A siren scared me, waving me over. I checked the speedometer – well within the limit – as the police car parked in front. After a while an officer approached, strafing a flashlight over my windows and roof.
Hitching his trousers, he tapped on my window..
“Where’s your luggage?” he asked once I’d lowered it.
“I don’t have any luggage.”
“Yes. Is there a problem?”
The policeman’s torch crossed the backseat. He patted the roof. “Alright. It’s been a long night, I guess. Drive safe.”
I let the policeman drive off first, shaking my head. He looked younger than me, too. When did that happen? It was my birthday next month. I knew Cheryl had some plans for it, but I wished it wouldn’t come all the same.
I stopped for a coffee at Knutsford services. The reek of the toilets was not unwelcome after hours of driving – sharp enough to keep me awake. I bought a sausage roll and ate it in the Prius.
The sky was fuzzy lilac when I arrived home. Cheryl had left the light on by the front door, but the rest of the flat was dark. Rain had softened in the last hour and I listened to the peaceful sound for a minute or two before locking the car and letting myself in.
Inside there was a note from Cheryl saying there was take-out in the fridge. Since the microwave beeped loudly I ate it cold, thinking about how to bulk out my feature. I could reach out to Coleman herself, overstate my influence and weedle for a one-on-one. As she herself put it: Give yourself permission to chase your dreams.
I heard Smudge rattle the catflap as I washed the plate and headed upstairs. It was dark under the bedroom door, Cheryl asleep. I ran a bath and undressed in the hall, spotting Smudge asleep in her basket – she must have raced upstairs ahead of me – and settled in the bubbles for a calm half-hour. I scratched a few notes on my mental pad, towelled and crept into the bedroom.
Cheryl was warm, her breathing excited by a dream. I tossed and sweated for two hours, unable to fully rid from memory his BO and tobacco stench. At last I tried to lie still and make sleep come to me. The clock read 02:54.
Something probed my lower back – a dislodged spring, sliding between vertebrae. It lanced up with a pain too intense to accept as real. My disbelieving hand found a thin blade sticking through my navel. My scream was a wet hiss – my hand dropped – a numbness like early death spread until I couldn’t speak. The bed churned like a sick stomach. Two slender hands clawed through the mattress, tipping Cheryl’s numbed body so at last I saw her terrified eyes.
From the gutted mattress he emerged, dripping sweat on our faces, eyes gemmed by the moon. His stench engulfed the room; he seemed bigger than the room could possibly allow. From a crusty pocket he withdrew a long serrated knife and giant fork, spilling condiment sachets and lint. His hands were shaking.
“I am brave enough.” he rasped. “I am strong enough. I give myself permission to chase my dreams.”
He undressed in the moonlight, put on a child’s bib, and fulfilled the most courageous act of his life.
Rayfox East was born in Bangor, Wales, and lives in London, trading a sea breeze for city smog. He is not as well-travelled as his stories, which have been published in four continents, but plans to catch up before the next pandemic hits. He works as a website manager for a UK charity.
Rory J. Ribert, Sales Manager of Dial-N-Smile Inc., looked out on the empty sales rep cubicles that could be seen in a wide angle from his corner office. The late afternoon shift would begin in about an hour. Though an atheist, he said a prayer of thanks for the blissful peace created by this lovely absence of jabbering telemarketers.
Sliding open the low-slung console behind him, concealing a monitor linked to cameras hidden above the sales floor, Rory could watch the staff jerking and bobbing about like hyperactive monkeys during their marketing calls. This system also allowed him to monitor their conversations ensuring that they were sticking to business not chatting with their lovers – or drug dealers.
Rory was supposed to be updating profit-loss spread sheets but today he was feeling like a low-performing slacker himself, preferring to just stare at his computer, too morose to even waste his time fiddling around on social media. Frustrated, he considered the absurdity of his current workplace situation. John Jeffy, the owner, had invested big money in all this high-tech gear, yet with salaries and other miscellaneous overhead the company was barely breaking even. Moreover, the quality of the available telemarketer had hit rock bottom: ex-whores, drunks, crack addicts. It was a sad day when management had to listen into routine sales calls, not for quality, but for criminal activity.
Not that it mattered: as any blind fool could see this so-called “business” was in steady decline. When he had come into the telemarketing profession ten years ago there were actually a few hiring standards. His first company had even had an HR rep that screened applicants for bad references – or an unsavory past. Now it fell upon him, the irritated, unwilling Rory J. Ribert, to go through the motions of “vetting” the dregs of society and other barbarians who flooded Dial-N-Smile with their resumes. Nevertheless, Rory never screened any applicant for a criminal record. Results were all that counted. It was a don’t ask, don’t tell policy – even if they were ax murderers, he did not want to know.
Indeed, he often suspected that John Jeffy considered a felonious past a valuable skill for a successful telemarketer – something about the mercenary, unrestrained style of a criminal made such a person especially effective in the telemarketing business.
The office intercom buzzed. Jane Chowders, the foyer receptionist – who doubled as the accountant – spoke in her usual whiny, quasi- nasty voice. “Rory your 2pm applicant appointment, the one referred by Mr. Jeffy, is here.”
Last night he had had to fire an employee for failing to meet his sales quotas so today, as much as he hated it, he had to interview again. Jeffy had promised to network among his old industry contacts for an applicant with some sales experience. Good thing too, as the earlier 1:45 appointment had been a disaster. Rory had shown the applicant – completely unsuitable as a salesman – the door after a two-minute interview.
The portly Jeffy himself, much to Rory’s surprise, waddled into the office with the 2pm appointment – a spectacled, very pale, slender man in his fifties. Protruding from his dirty collar, a scrawny neck from which bulged a massive Adam’s apple like a grotesque pink tumor. Lost in this cheap baggy polyester suit, the applicant, almost skeletal with a gaunt, cadaverous face, appeared to be timid, shy, and reclusive – the very qualities an aggressive sales firm was not looking for. He also reeked powerfully of mothballs and stale smoke as if he had been living in a closet or cheap room. This odor alone would drive away other reps before Dial -N-Smile’s drooling, sadistic floor monitors did. These words instantly came to Rory’s mind: Do not hire this loser.
Immediately the weirdo excused himself to use the men’s room. Winking at Rory, Jeffy then cracked a smug smile and said cheerfully, “I know what you’re thinking. What rubbish bin did I drag that dog’s breath out of?”
“Good question John. You’re becoming a mind reader in your old age,” replied Rory, “Who – what – is he – and why is he here?”
“His name is Simon Sorter and he is going to be our new top biller – believe it or not,” smirked Mr. Jeffy, like a naughty boy with a secret.
“I rather not believe it,” scowled Rory, shaking his head. (Hell’s bell’s was the old fool losing his marbles?).
“Trust me,” assured Jeffy, his fragile face beaming softly like a prematurely aging child, “I used to work with Simon and the guy has some amazing talents.”
“From his looks and smell, hygiene and high fashion are not among his best skills”, noted Rory.
Mr. Jeffy opened his mouth to say something but Simon Sorter reappeared wiping his hands on his frayed trousers.
“I was just telling Rory here about our glory days when we did Fortune 500 account management together,” lied Mr. Jeffy.
Simon Sorter cocked his head sidewise as if he were a puppet on a broken string. Rory, wincing, saw a nasty, crooked scar running the length of the odd man’s head and neck.
Then without a word, Simon marched to an empty work station, logged on to the system, slipped a Dial-N-Smile magazine product list from his shabby jacket, and began to call the phone numbers randomly generated by the computer. He did not use a script – nor did he smile.
Mr. Jeffy nudged Rory and said, “Watch this and be amazed. Simon is going to take our sales numbers through the roof and save our bottom line.”
Immediately, the death-warmed-over pallor of Simon’s face flushed bright red like a giant drop of blood. From one call to the next, his voice changed drastically – depending on which magazine he was hustling. During the next hour a flabbergasted Rory, with a grinning Mr. Jeffy by his side, watched in awe as Simon Sorter’s Multiple Personality Disorder became an incredible marketing tool.
When selling the magazine Retirement World, he became “Pappy Smith”, his voice aged and frail. Marketing Big Wheels, the timid, anemic-looking Simon Sorter seemed to sprout into a fearsome psycho Hell’s Angel-type – code-named “Rod Piston” – his sales spiel threatening and gruff. These performances were followed by others just as remarkable: Gun News made Simon into “Tommy Guns” who wowed his customers with his Southern drawl and defense of the Right to Bear Arms; Computer Time transformed this normally mumbling clod into a very articulate, brisk personality – “Simon Server” – tossing off techno-babble with the greatest of ease. In fact, in front of Rory’s eyes Simon Sorter must have assumed – and shed – at least twenty different personalities, voices, and names.
His sales tally sheet boggled Rory’s mind; the disheveled eccentric had exceeded the firm’s top rep’s billings by 50%.
“Now pal. you know why we used to call him Morphing Man”, happily purred Mr. Jeffy.
“Yeah, I must admit that it is damn incredible. How did he get like that?”
Mr. Jeffy motioned Rory away from Simon’s workstation and spoke in a hushed tone. “You saw that scar? He was in a horrible accident when he was about forty. Split his head and neck open. A few years later, he started having multiple personalities. Underwent treatment but later got into sales with me. Sometimes, it takes a weird person to do good marketing.”
“Yeah, maybe being a bit nuts is ok – but not a psycho……”
From Simon’s workstation came a fresh confusion of voices as he plowed anew into the computer-generated customer list. Mr. Jeffy asked Rory to wait in the office. A few minutes later Jeffy and Simon Sorter, both stone-faced, entered, closed the door, and stared at Rory without speaking. Cold sweat trickled down his nose. The atmosphere was funereal, and he felt like the corpse on display. Or considering Simon’s zombie-like gaze, maybe it was more the dead inspecting the living….
A deep unearthly voice suddenly boomed from Simon’s throat. “You Rory Ribert are no longer required as sales manager of Dial-N-Smile.!” Rory literally jumped from his seat: so this was it, he was being fired – dead meat. Jeffy, the sorry bastard, had some gall, replacing Rory with a cruddy weirdo who smelled like he slept in a used clothes bin at the Salvation Army.
“Well, don’t forget that my contract gives me a severance package. So I don’t give a damn about this hole in the wall!” laughed Rory wildly, suddenly relieved at the thought of never having to interview any more useless applicants like his earlier appointment: a little mumbling man, with a weak, shifting gaze, referred by the unemployment office jobs bank for a telemarketing position requiring at least fair communication skills.
“That is something we need to talk about,” coldly replied Jeffy, peeping out of the shadows.
“Better not try to screw me you cheap bastard,” yelled Rory, “otherwise I’ll be seeing you in court.”
He then bolted for the door, but Simon, showing amazing strength and quickness, grabbed his shoulder. Again, Simon’s voice changed, this time into a very good imitation of Mr. Jeffy singsong cheerfulness. “Looks like we’ll have to part ways partner…”
From the same pocket that had contained the magazine product list, Simon whipped out a knife-cum-paper opener: the “Mr. Jeffy voice” again, but this time slurred and vicious. “The good news is I can save you from going to court and paying a lawyer. The bad news is that you won’t be ‘seeing’ – or calling – anybody any more. You are useless phone time now Rory, wasted cubicle space, dead air…” As if somebody had pulled a plug in Simon’s brain, the John Jeffy persona abruptly stopped. His face now seemed to be undergoing serial plastic surgery at the speed of light. Simon Sorter’s features morphed into every twisted, ghastly facial appearance and expression known to humanity: gnashing feral teeth, wild, yellow eyes, a snarling, pulpy mouth, black, rotting gums, squirming scars. Then a museum of interactive, evil masks: his face melted into Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Saddam Hussein’s, Ted Bundy’s, Pol Pot’s. Still powerfully griping Rory’s arm, Simon Sorter raised the knife-cum-paper opener to the ex- sales manager’s quivering throat.
Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.
I am the King of the kings. I am the son of the falcon-headed Horus. I am the beginning. I am the end. I am the one who will live forever. I am Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, the living god of the land of Kemet.
The golden boat of Re has finished its way in the celestial Nile and submerged in the darkness of Nun. I found myself wandering around the tombs of deceased kings who have already met Osiris in the Afterlife. I try to remember what I’m doing here in the middle of the night but fail. The night is dark and quiet. Khonsu’s crown shines brightly and lights my path with its cold silver light.
Quiet voices interrupt my thoughts. They sound from one of the tombs. Coming closer, I can see the dim light of torches. The voices sound louder. There is no doubt I’ve met the tomb robbers. Disgusting thieves, sons of dishonoured Seth, doomed to be punished in the Afterlife! Their souls will be eaten by the gigantic serpent Apophis and will be condemned to eternal death. They, who dare to steal from the kings, deserve nothing but a miserable death without a burial.
There are three of them on a doorstep of the underground tomb, ready to smash their way in, to defile king’s eternal peace, taking gold and jewellery, and all other of the king’s belongings, throwing his mummy out of its golden coffin.
I’m going to call my guards to arrest the robbers. Instead, my mouth produces a weird, heart-stopping scream. This scream belongs neither to a man nor to an animal. What is wrong with me? I can’t recognise my voice.
One of the robbers turns around. His face is pale like linen. His eyes stare at me in horror. He drops his torch and runs, leaving his peers and screaming like a lunatic. His friend shouts to him, but noticing me, just freezes on the spot.
‘The king… the spirit of the king,’ he mumbles in shock.
‘How dare you touch the royal tomb?’ I shout, trying to grab his shoulder, but my hand goes through his body and catches the air. I see the thief falling, his eyes are wide opened. I lean over him, trying to have a closer look. He has stopped breathing. He is dead. I have no chance to stop the last one as he disappears into the darkness, following his peer.
I sit down on the ground in front of the tomb, examining my hands and wondering what happened to the robbers, where my guards are, and what, for all the gods’ sake, I’m doing amongst the tombs at night. Struggling to follow the flow of my thoughts, I start to read the writing on the tomb. It is a traditional plate with the name of a king on the door’s seal.
Oh Thoth, the Adviser of the kings, give me all your divine wisdom and knowledge! The king’s name on the plate is… Userkaf Smenhkare Meriamun, the name of my brother. And straight away, I see the face of Userkaf in front of me. He is my exact copy. Even our mother, the Great King’s Wife, queen Nefriru, couldn’t distinguish us. We are the same height, with the same short black hair, the same big black eyes, the same straight long nose, which we have inherited from our great father. We were born together, yet I was the first who came out of the queen’s blessed belly. I was the one and the only heir to the throne. My brother, Userkaf, was brought up to become Chief Priest of Amun-Re, but he always desired more. Always jealous, always despising me, always wanted to be the first.
I remember his face, but it’s blurry. I feel the cold water filling my ears and mouth. I can’t breathe. I try to break free, but my brother’s hand is squeezing my throat tighter and tighter. I try to push him, to call for help, but my efforts are weakening. I’m not a good swimmer. I never have been. The grimaced face of my brother, an agonizing blurry reflection of myself… then… here I am. I am dead.
I cry, ‘Oh immortal gods, I call on you! Let me take my revenge. Let me free the throne of Isis from the usurper. Let me be judged by Osiris in the Underworld. Let me travel together with Amun-Re in his golden boat in the skies and let the name of my brother be forgotten forever.’
The light of the oil lamps and torches is fading, and the whole palace is going to fall asleep. Only heavy steps of guards in the corridors and the murmur of fountains in the gardens break the silence of the chambers.
I don’t remember how I appeared here. I just wished to come back home to my palace in Niwt-Imn, to see my wife, young and beautiful Mutnefert, and our son, my only heir, Senenmut. I wish everything that has happened to me was a dream, a bad nightmare sent to me by the demons of the night. I wish to wake up. I wish…. to be alive.
I enter my chambers and… Oh Seth, I can’t bear to see my beloved wife in the arms of my brother, the murderer Userkaf. Using our similarity, he took my throne, my name, and now… he sleeps in my bed with my wife. She has been tricked the same way as all others. She believes that it was Userkaf who drowned in a river, not me. It was an accident, the will of Hapy, the river god who took Userkaf to his underwater palace. Of course, it was a lie she’s been told.
I’m afraid they can notice me. Coming closer to the bed, I realise they both are deep asleep.
My Mutnefert, my great queen, my only love. I always loved her. I have been in love with her since I was twelve, and she was only ten, but my brother desired her as well. When our mother, the Great King’s Wife died, our divine father took Mutnefert as his new Great Wife, but he was too ill and too old. As soon as he joined Osiris in the Underworld, Mutnefert and I married. Userkaf couldn’t control his passion, though. He tried to seduce her a few times, but she loved me. She has always been the most loyal of my wives. Oh, Atum, the creator of the world and all people, give me a body, and I will claim everything back from my brother. I will take my revenge.
I am only ten, but I can read and write fluently. I am short but strong and agile. My father always took me hunting lions and panthers. I have even caught one for my little managerie. My father told me that I was born to be a warrior. I was born to be a king, but I am preparing for the life of a scribe. The almighty gods have sealed my voice inside my throat, so I can’t speak. I never could tell the truth. I never could tell that my uncle Userkaf drowned my father and took his name and his crown. I am just a boy now. My life is under threat. I am scared to death. Why, oh almighty gods? Why have you chosen this body? The body of my only son, Senenmut?
I sit now at the reception chamber together with three king’s scribes and write everything that is said in the king’s presence.
‘…And you are informing me about this situation only now, Great Vizier?’ The king sits on his golden throne. His head is crowned with a high fancy headdress. Tiny golden bees, colourful butterflies, and lotus flowers made from the lapis-lazuli move with his head’s every movement. Long golden earrings shine in his ears. Heavy wide bracelets decorate his wrists and ankles. His lips shine with a golden balm. He smells of lotus and rose oils. He wears my long robe and richly decorated sandals. He doesn’t hesitate to take everything from me.
Ineni, the Great Vizier and the major of Niwt-Imn, kneels. He leans lower and lower until his forehead touches the floor. Ineni is fat, old, and a coward. His bald round head is shines with sweat. He is afraid to make his lord angry, but doesn’t hesitate to tell him the latest rumours.
‘I didn’t want to bother my king with the information that hasn’t been proven yet. I just wanted to wait to be sure that—’ he mumbles under his heavy breath.
‘To wait? To wait for what? For the prince of Kush and his allies to summon a new army? When their barbarian soldiers will stay at the city’s gates?’ the king sounds furious.
Ineni crawls on his fat belly, coming closer to the king, kissing his toes with gold-covered nails.
The ruler only grimaces. ‘Do the viceroy and his chieftains remember that their sons were brought here by my father during his last campaign and have been living here ever since? Does he remember that his oldest daughter is one of my wives?’
‘There is something else, my Lord, you should know,’ the vizier whispers, looking behind his back at me and other scribes.
‘What is it? Speak!’ Userkaf waves.
‘The rumours are spreading in the city, Your Majesty. People keep talking…’ Ineni stammers.
‘What? Speak! Your king orders you.’ He presses his sceptre to the vizier’s head and raises his chin, staring into his eyes.
‘My sources reported that some of the high priests are involved as well. I’ve been informed that the viceroy has offered a deal to the priest of Sobek, the governor of the south who believes that… that you, our divine Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, have been killed by your twin brother.’
The king only laughs, but I see his face goes paler. ‘Tell the priest of Sobek his suspicions are absolutely baseless. I would like to talk to him with regards to all the nasty rumours he spreads. As for our viceroy, I think I need to remind him to whom he should be grateful for allowing him on the throne of Kush.’
He grins, and I feel a chill runs down my backbone.
I follow the king to his private chambers, trying to be as quiet as possible. Nephthys, the goddess of the night, has covered me with her dark veil. I am almost invisible, hiding behind wide lotus-shaped columns of halls and corridors.
Tiyu, my Kushite wife and another victim of Userkaf’s deceit, has already been brought here and been waiting for the king. He comes into the room and nods to the guards to leave them alone. I have no choice but to cringe behind the nearest column. If somebody notices me here, I will be beaten fiercely.
‘Ah, my gorgeous wife.’ My brother smirks, circling like a kite around its prey. ‘I haven’t seen you since the day of our wedding. We need to see each other more often.’
She looks different from all other queens. She’s taller than women from Kemet, and her long hair is wavy. She has been brought here as a guarantor of peace between my country and Kush, and I took her as my third wife. I love my Mutnefert and I am not interested in other women. I am not like my lascivious brother who’s obsessed with sensual pleasures. He has lots of women, spending almost every night with a new one or sometimes even with a few.
‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty. I’m happy to serve you, my Lord,’ she whispers, all her slim body starts to shiver.
‘If so, you need to talk to your father, the viceroy. Tell him to go back to his nest and sit there quietly, if he wants to save his crown, his land, his…’ He touches her chin. ‘And your heads.’
She closes her eyes. Her body shivers even more. ‘My Lord, my divine husband, I am sure you’ve been mistaken. Whoever told you this about my father, told you lies.’ She falls on her knees in front of him and starts to cry. ‘My father is the most loyal servant you have.’
He doesn’t want to listen to her anymore. He grabs her long curly hair and smashes her head onto a low table.
It’s unbearable to hear her scream. If only I could help, could stab a sword between his shoulders, but I am only a boy and I am scared to death. I hold my breath, trying not to cry, not to show my presence.
He squeezes her neck. ‘Now, you can write to your father how women in Kemet’s villages felt when his soldiers raided my lands.’
I leave my hiding place and hurry to my chambers.
I can’t feel my body. Am I a spirit again? I find myself in the king’s dinner chamber now. I can see the whole room, but nobody can see me. I am a spirit, an incorporeal being, something that doesn’t belong to the world of men.
The king enjoys his dinner, surrounded by his cupbearers, musicians, half-naked dancers, fan bearers, and all kinds of servants and slaves. Ineni, the Great Vizier, is also presented. Userkaf reclines on a low sofa, a golden band in the shape of a cobra crowns his short black hair, smothered by coconut oil. He wears a long white kilt. One of the slave girls massages his naked shoulders and neck.
Ineni fills his goblet with wine instead of a cupbearer, whispering the latest gossip in the king’s ear. I know what is in his mind. I can read this shameful plotter’s thoughts.
My father gave the title of the governor of the Southern Land to Hapuseneb, the priest of Sobek, the man of the greatest wisdom, experience, and honour. His family has been loyal to our house for many generations. Ineni couldn’t bear such a turn. Addicted to limitless power as much as my brother, he’s tried to overthrow Hapuseneb many times but failed. He knows his time is coming now.
The musicians play a simple quiet tune, and the half-naked dancers gyrate and flex in their fancy dance.
The king strokes his favourite cat. The embodiment of the great goddess Bastet purrs happily. Golden bracelets decorate its four paws; a golden collar embraces its neck.
Ineni wants to say something to the king, but the appearance of the chief guard interrupts him.
‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty,’ the man starts, kneeling in front of the king.
‘Speak in the presence of the immortal god.’ Ineni waves to him, waddling and puffing on his low sofa like a hippopotamus on a river’s bank.
‘Forgive me my intrusion, my Lord, but Harmachis, the chief of Your Majesty’s chariotery, begs to see you now.’
‘Harmachis? Harmachis, the son of Hapuseneb, my wisest and the most loyal governor?’ Userkaf chuckles.
‘His Majesty is relaxing, don’t you see? How dare you interrupt the rest of God?’ Ineni gets up from his couch. ‘The audience time is tomorrow morning. You know the—’
Userkaf waves. ‘Bring Harmachis to me.’
Ineni only grimaces.
The guard bows and opens the door, letting the young man in.
‘Speak in His Majesty’s presence!’ Ineni proclaims from his place to a kneeled Harmachis.
‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty, may you live forever,’ Hapuseneb’s son starts under his breath.
Userkaf makes an impatient gesture, ordering him to be as brief as possible.
‘I beg you, my Lord, for my father. He’s been ordered to come here, to the capital. He is kept under home arrest in his villa on the west bank. He’s—’
‘Your father is accused of treason and sabotage. Tomorrow, he will be questioned by my chief of security. This shameful case will be investigated. If you believe that he hasn’t done anything wrong, if you don’t question his loyalty to the throne, why are you so worried? I’m sure if his heart is pure, he will be able to prove this to my investigators.’ Userkaf makes a circle around the young man and gestures him to rise from his knees.
‘My Lord, I don’t question your fair judgement. I know that the gods advise you. Your voice is the voice of Maat, the goddess of truth and justice. She can’t be mistaken. She can’t accuse an innocent servant of Your Majesty in treason. But there are so many people, my Lord, who are jealous and sneaky. They are pulling a veil of lies in front of your divine eyes, trying to distract you from Maat’s wise advice—’
All of Harmachis’s wordy speeches are in vain. My brother doesn’t listen. He circles the young charioteer, staring at his longish golden hair, his pale skin, bewildered by his deep blue eyes.
‘You look different,’ he says finally, paying no attention to Harmachis’s pleas.
‘My mother, my father’s second wife, was from the Sea People’s country. I inherited her features, my Lord,’ Harmachis sounds confused.
‘I hope you inherited from her such features like loyalty, honour, and integrity, because none of them I can see in your father.’
‘My Lord, I—’
‘It’s enough speeches for today.’ Userkaf turns away from him. ‘I question your father’s loyalty, not yours… at least, not at the moment. Take a seat, have dinner with us, tell us how dedicated you are to your duties and your king.’ A mysterious smile crosses my brother’s lips.
Harmachis takes a seat on the floor, next to the king’s sofa. Userkaf makes a gesture to his slaves, and they fill a goblet with wine for the king’s guest.
The cat, unhappy about the disturbance, jumps on its place next to the king and starts to purr again, begging for food.
Userkaf smiles and gives it a piece of a roasted duck. It purrs even louder, enjoying the bit, licking the king’s fingers in gratitude.
‘You see, he knows who’s in charge.’ The king nods at the cat. ‘He’s loving and loyal to his master. Sometimes he’s like my people—forgets his place and starts to bite and scratch the hand that feeds him, strokes him, and gives him shelter. When he does this, I need to show him who’s a master here, and he becomes pleasant and obedient again.’
Harmachis chokes on his wine. His eyes look at the king with hope, ready for everything to save his father’s life, title, and honour of his family.
‘Why don’t you eat your meal? These duck and figs are delicious.’ Userkaf takes one of the baked figs and offers it to Harmachis. ‘Try it. Don’t upset your king even more.’
‘I’ll do everything to please you, my king,’ he murmurs, taking a fig from the king’s hands with his lips.
Userkaf’s narrow eyebrows arch. ‘Leave us alone,’ he orders.
One by one, the servants leave the chamber. Ineni doesn’t move from his low couch.
‘You’ve heard me, Great Vizier.’ The king doesn’t look at Ineni, he stares at the young charioteer, tempted by his eyes, his golden hair, his big lips.
I am a little scribe again. I sit on a low bench together with two other scribes and watch the king reinstating the priest of Sobek in his duties.
Hapuseneb kneels in front of Userkaf, his chief of security, and the vizier. His body shakes under the long white robe. All his jewellery was taken away from him on the first day of his home arrest and given to the king’s treasury. His shaved head is covered by ashes in a tribute of grief and obedience.
‘His Majesty the King, may he live forever, honours you with his forgiveness,’ Ineni proclaims, and the scribes start to scratch on their papyri, trying to catch every word.
I start to write down as well, but instead of words, I draw. I draw what I can’t say aloud. I draw my plan, the plan of my revenge.
‘The mercy of our king is truly limitless,’ Ineni continues. ‘He deigns not only to save your life and honour of your family from the greatest shame but also he leaves you to perform your duties as a priest of Sobek, the lord of all waters. However, taking into consideration all the charges against you, His Majesty orders you to be suspended from the post of the governor of the Southern Land.’
Userkaf nods in support of his words. ‘Remember, Hapuseneb, I’m watching you.’
‘I’m grateful to His Majesty for his mercy. I know Maat, who always judges fairly, advises my king that there is no guilt on me. I know, oh the greatest of the kings, that the Eye of Re guides you through the darkness of lies to the light of truth. It shows you my loyalty is undoubted.’ Hapuseneb raises his eyes to the king.
Userkaf gestures him to rise from his knees. ‘I’m very pleased that you finally understood the seriousness of the accusations against you, Hapuseneb.’ He smiles his crooked smile. ‘Try not to disappoint me again.’ He takes a step closer to the priest. ‘Next time, even your son, who is very sweet with me, won’t be able to save you.’
He turns around and leaves the chamber. Ineni, the chief of security, scribes, fan bearers, and all other servants follows their lord.
I glance at Hapuseneb. He stands still, his head is bowed, his eyes are full of tears. I approach to him and take his hand. I give him my drawings. I stare into his eyes. My drawings… they are showing him how I’ve been killed by my brother. They are showing him the future. He knows now the favour of the king costs his son dearly. He knows what to do. He accepts his fate. He is ready for his revenge, and so am I.
It is a huge feast in the palace. My brother adores such types of entertainment when he’s partying till late at night, getting drunk with his generals and chief officers.
I am too young for the feast. I am supposed to sleep in my chamber as all little princes do, but I am here, hiding behind a column. I am here. I feel the future. I don’t know how, but I feelwhat is going to happen.
The music plays louder and louder, drunken guests try to dance, shouting, laughing, and falling on low couches. Userkaf is on his low sofa, embracing one of the slave girls. He looks tipsy and bored. His usual entertainment doesn’t amuse him anymore.
‘Where is Harmachis? Where is my favourite and most loyal friend?’ He turns to one of his guests. ‘Why doesn’t he celebrate with us?’
The officer sends one of the servants for Harmachis, but after some time, he returns alone.
My brother frowns. He doesn’t like to wait, even less he likes to ask for something twice. He sends the chief of security to bring him Harmachis immediately. A couple of hours pass before the chief of security returns. Userkaf is drunk and furious, but he doesn’t want to show it to his guests.
‘My Lord.’ The officer kneels in front him. ‘We’ve found him.’
‘Where is he? Where has he been? You make me wait… again.’
‘I didn’t mean to disappoint you, my Lord, but…’ The officer struggles. ‘Harmachis was arrested this morning together with Your Majesty’s wife, queen Tiyu, when they tried to cross the border with Kush.’
‘What?’ Userkaf jumps from his couch. ‘Why? How? It is… it is…’ he stammers, his eyes shine in anger.
‘It is treason, my Lord.’ The officer bows his head lower.
‘Why did you hide it from me?’
‘I didn’t want to upset my king until we would know the details of their plot. I know, oh my Lord, that Harmachis is very close to Your Majesty—’
‘Where are they now?’
‘Queen Tiyu is under arrest. She is locked in her private chambers. It was the order of the Great Vizier. Harmachis is in prison. He is waiting to be interrogated.’
‘Question them, torture if needed, and send my treacherous wife back to her father with the greatest dishonour. Make Harmachis suffer as he makes me suffer from his treason.’
The king’s army like a cloud of sand moves south-east to the land of Kush. The king is in a chariot of fine gold, adorned with his accoutrements like Horus, the lord of action, like the war god Montu, like Sobek, the lord of the waters. The royal serpent on his crown spills fire. Trumpets sound, troops start their march down the hill to meet the enemy’s army. Hundreds of thousands of Kushite soldiers are killed. Hundreds of officers and aristocrats are captured. Beja, the viceroy of Kush, and all his family follow the king’s chariot as the most precious trophy of the king’s victory.
I am a bodiless spirit again. I observe the battlefield, captured by the whirlwind of countless dead soldiers’ souls—free and wild, just like I am. .
The battlefield is covered with dead bodies, abandoned without a burial. The rivers of Kush turn red, filled with blood. Cities are in ruins, and the moaning of Kushite wives is spreading all over this endless desert. Sekhmet, the ferocious mother of war, has a rich harvest of souls in these lands.
Userkaf took his revenge. Surrounded by his officers and generals, he returns to Niwt-Imn to worship the gods, who granted him the victory.
The king disembarks from his royal barge at a quay on a riverbank and looks up at two obelisks of red granite with golden pyramids atop. This is the threshold of the house of deities. This is a gateway to another world that is accessible only for the king and the priests. Crowned with the double crown and carrying the ceremonial flail and the sceptre, with an artificial beard made from fine golden threads, he sits on a golden throne on a long pole, supported by bearers.
The procession passes the main gates and enters the first square court. It crawls through the endless gateways, roofless courts with sacred lakes, and halls with columns, where the light shades gradually, preparing the king and his retinue for the meeting. The king with his eyes half-closed looks focused.
His body has been cleaned by the waters of a sacred lake. The priests purified him by burning holy oils and giving him special salts to chew and so to make his mouth clean and ready for the uttering of his prayers. His body is fully prepared for the conversation with the gods, but his mind is as dark as the waters of the Nile. His heart knows no mercy.
I’ve assisted priests in purification as it was the will of the king. Userkaf wants to get rid of me as he’s already done once. Is he afraid of his ten-year old nephew? Is he afraid of me spying on him and, one day, taking over his throne? He wants me to become a priest of Sobek now. He wants to lock me up in the temple, far away from the court.
It is the time to worship the river god, Sobek-Re, who gives mightiness to the king, who makes the king’s heart fearless, who makes the king’s body unreachable for arrows and spears, who protects him in a battle.
The king enters the shrine, and I follow him as that is what he wishes. There are only the king, Hapuseneb, and I in the chamber.
I carry a richly decorated casket—the offering to the god. My hands are numb. The horrible content of the casket makes me feel dizzy.
The first words of a hymn start from somewhere above the ceiling, and the service begins. There is a huge pond in the middle of the chamber. In its sacred waters, the embodiments of Sobek enjoy their meal. The king offers the first bloody piece of meat, and one of the divine creatures opens its massive jaws with razor-sharp fangs. Its brothers and sisters, feeling the smell of blood hiss and gnash their teeth, ready for the feast.
The spicy fume of the lamps fills the chamber, the hymn sounds louder. Userkaf is on his knees in front of Sobek’s statue. Only the pond separates him from the deity. He takes the casket from my hands and, slightly turning it to Hapuseneb, pronounces a short prayer, ‘Oh Great Father of all the waters, oh mighty Sobek-Re! Please, accept this offering from your obedient son.’ The king opens the casket.
Poor Hapuseneb screams in horror. The head of his son, Harmachis, stares at him from the casket.
Userkaf grins. ‘I’m sure that my Lord, mighty Sobek, enjoys the taste of the traitor. The pieces I’ve offered him belonged to the body of your handsome but disloyal son.’
Hapuseneb’s eyes are full of tears. He saw this scene in my drawings long ago. The reality hurts even worse.
I open my mouth, and for the first time in my short life the sound as loud as thunder comes out, ‘Murderer! Murderer and usurper!’
Userkaf tries to rise from his knees, but I push him forward and…
The powerful and bloodthirsty embodiments of Sobek are ready for a new portion of the offering. The king screams and shouts, but the heavy wooden doors are too thick. Nobody from the outside can hear his screams.
The pond turns blood red. Userkaf stretches his hand, covered in blood, trying to get out of the pond, but Hapuseneb has no mercy. He steps on the king’s fingers and pushes him back. A few minutes later, Sobek is satisfied with his offering.
Hapuseneb looks into my eyes with sadness and hope. I give him the casket. He kisses Harmachis’s forehead and turns to me. He dashes to open the heavy doors. He falls on his knees and proclaims, ‘Long life and prosperity to the king, may you live forever!’ I am the King of the kings. I am the son of the falcon-headed Horus. I am the beginning. I am the end. I am Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, the living god of the land of Kemet. I am the son of immortal gods and I will live forever.
Valeriya says about her life:
“I am a multi-genre author from the United Kingdom. I studied History and earned my Master’s Degree in Art Expertise at St. Petersburg University of Culture and Arts. Born in Belarus, I’ve lived for many years in Ukraine and Russia before settling down in the north of England. Apart from creative writing, I have a passion for travels, arts, history, and foreign languages. My short stories and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including The Copperfield Review, Meet Cute Mag, Bewildering Stories, The Pine Cone Review, and Strange Fiction SF & F ‘Zine.“
At the Neon Studios Salon, tails creeped luxuriously along the napes of necks in shades of lavender and pearl—and I wanted one—one that hissed and shimmered, one that blinked with long eyelashes and snaky curves. My mother said that no self-respecting daughter of hers would ever go there. Rumor had it that the walls were filled with the bones of the dead, but it was also the best place to get the latest hair styles, the kind that all of the boys at school liked.
To get a boy to like you, everyone knew you had to have the stair-step bob with the long, leafy tail that sprung to life, growing in the back—the one that made the boys sneak a hand up there and run the tail through their fingers, hoping it would lick them.
“I’ve seen the way boys behave when girls your age grow a tail, letting it swing to and fro while walking, swaying their hips. Don’t ever disrespect yourself like that. Don’t get used,” my mother had said, but I didn’t see the harm.
The tails were mesmerizing. Everyone I knew wanted one, and everyone’s grew in differently, in different colors. My friends told me that after the stylist washed their hair and trimmed it, they pulled out a sharp knife and cut an indentation in the nape of the neck. They said the stylists kept gems in various shapes and colors in a special drawer and would insert one into the cut. My friends swore that it didn’t hurt at all because the knife was incredibly sharp, and the stylists had a special license to perform light surgical procedures. Once the gem, which was gel-like, was inserted, the stylists pricked it and seeds oozed out. Over time, the tails grew, developed, licked fingers, or playfully hissed.
The Neon Studios Salon didn’t exist inside of a mall, wedged between a movie theater and an arcade. To get to it, I borrowed my mother’s car (on the pretense of running errands) and drove it through wooded streets, just past the center of town, where all of the country clubs shared views of forest canopies in the summer. All kinds of women—important women—snuck off to the salon while their husbands played golf. They didn’t let their tails grow too long, and they modified the bob cut just a bit—enough to be stylish, but still acceptable in their social circles. I didn’t have to worry about any of that, and neither did my friends. We were young and had nothing to do with country club circles.
At the edge of a wooded street, stood a massive, Craftsman-style home, with white trim. From the outside, it didn’t look like much. It didn’t look like it could be the hub of modern style.
However, there was a sign, done up in soft purple, fluorescent lights that flashed “Neon Studios Salon,” but not in that creepy, motel-by-the-side-of-the-road way. More like a dream-sequence music video in pulses of desire and mystery. Inside, walls the color of deep eggplant gleamed in the light of crystal chandeliers, which hung from the ceiling. The air smelled of perfume and fruit-scented hairspray and shampoo. Mirrors shined, etched in gold. A stylist, Rochelle, who was blond with a violet, glitter-streaked tail that slapped the air behind her, took me to the shampooing station to begin my appointment. Already, I knew I was in excellent hands. I ignored what I thought were groans and shrieks coming from the walls, somewhat drowned out by the latest Top 40 hits blaring through the speakers, booming with synthesizer beats. I still heard the noises faintly and wondered if Rochelle heard them too. They sounded sorrowful, anxious, and if I looked close enough, I thought I saw the walls move. But it was clear that Rochelle didn’t want me looking at the walls. She’d turn my head in the sink whenever she caught me straining my neck. The ashen flakes that fell all around, though, were hard to ignore. They landed on the sleeves of the protective black cape Rochelle game me, and in Rochelle’s hair. Someone came by to sweep up the piles that accumulated on the floor, and I wondered if they were the remnants from the dead—the bones in the walls. I wondered if that’s what made this place so special.
In the main salon area, Rochelle worked quickly to chop off my shoulder-length locks, shaping my hair into a sharp bob with distinct stair-step layers in the back. Then, she took out a knife.
“Most people say it doesn’t really hurt,” she told me. “Sometimes it does, though. Just depends.”
I nodded my head. She opened a drawer at her station and showed me the gems I could choose. They all looked impossibly beautiful, but I eventually settled on a diamond-shaped, green glittered gem.
“Don’t move,” she said, “and uncross your legs. Otherwise, your body will be uneven and so will your cut.”
After injecting the back of my neck with a topical numbing agent, Rochelle made the first cut, which felt like fire, searing and burning, despite the numbing solution, but I refused to scream or cry—or jump. Why would I? Pain was a part of the deal. I’d be entering the world changed, and everyone would notice, especially the boys.
“There. All done,” Rochelle said, before pricking the diamond gel pack, letting the seeds run smooth and warm down my neck. She then massaged the area to work the seeds in and told me not to wash my hair for 24 hours at least. I left the salon with everything my babysitting earnings could get me, which included a 20-ounce bottle of lavender jasmine shampoo (specially formulated to help tails grow), matching conditioner, mousse, and hairspray.
At first, my mother didn’t notice. The nub that formed on my neck was my secret, and I’d gently rub it, just to make sure it was still there. Within a few weeks, though, the seedlings started to sprout, growing like ruffles on lace collars, trailing down my neck, weaving themselves into one sturdy strand of brilliant garden green, speckled with light. Never mind that when I went to the beach that year, I wore a skimpy bathing suit, much too revealing for a girl my age. Never mind that I blossomed and spilled out of the spaces strategically cut into the bathing suit. It was the tail that enraged my mother the most.
“Oh, you’re getting attention all right. The wrong kind of attention. And everyone’s talking about you—all of the neighbors—all of my friends. I’m so embarrassed.”
While I was somewhat ashamed because of what my mom said, I just couldn’t stop myself. I’d look in the mirror, pull the lovely strand across my shoulder and over my neck and admire the way the glint of green picked up lighter shades in my eyes. It hissed happily, darting between my fingers, and I just couldn’t imagine how I’d look without it.
The solution to my problem, I believed, was silence. I shut my mother out. We stopped talking. I stayed longer after school, went over to my friends’ houses more often—my friends who all had tails, just like I did. Besides, a tail didn’t mean you had to do anything with a boy. You just could if you wanted to, at least, that’s what I thought until my friend Jodi mentioned the walls at the Neon Studios Salon. I remembered the rumors but hadn’t thought about them for a while. Despite what I had experienced when I got my hair cut, I brushed the sounds and the ashes off as nothing. To me, the rumors had to be entirely untrue.
“Oh, no!” Jodi told me one day at her house. “If you get a tail, you have to follow through or else. The bones in the walls are from virgins—other girls who got tails but didn’t follow through.”
“Yeah, you know?”
“Have you . . . followed through before?”
“Yeah. It’s no big deal. But if you don’t, well, the walls know. They whisper their secrets to the owners of the salon. They find you in the middle of the night—or in the middle of the day.”
“That’s not true.”
“Remember Betsy Mulligan?”
“She didn’t. Her tail grew in, but she didn’t follow through. Think about it. When’s the last time you saw Betsy Mulligan?”
“We were eating ice cream at the mall. And then, I don’t remember what happened next. I guess her parents picked her up or something.”
“No. She was snatched up off the street. Her virgin bones were ground to powder and stuffed inside the walls. The sacrifices of virgins—not the shampoos and gels and seeds—make the tails grow.”
Jodi’s news was alarming, and I half considered cutting the tail off to maybe break the spell, if it could be broken that way, but I couldn’t. I loved it—the whole look. I couldn’t imagine going out in public with out it. I’d be so plain with just a naked stair-step bob. I’d be nothing special.
But I couldn’t let myself get sacrificed, either, if the rumors were true. As much as I hated my mother, I didn’t want her to grieve the loss of a daughter. So I followed through, with the first boy I met a party. We spent fifteen minutes in a closet together. For me, the experience was underwhelming, but necessary. He wanted another date, said he thought we bonded, reached for my hair, but the tail pulled away. In fact, the tail lasted longer than the boy, and I left the party with my life intact, but wondering if anyone would notice. Would anyone, such as my mother, be able to tell that I followed through?
Eventually, there were signs. The green strand grew long, sassy, and started to hiss. Apparently, you’re not supposed to let it get too long. You had to get it trimmed, but I liked the length. My mother, on the other hand, believed the length was a new source of embarrassment.
“It looks awful. Even your friends haven’t grown their tails to the length you have. Why do you insist on just destroying yourself?” Then, she yanked the front of my hair, turning my face towards her, and asked, “Have you had sex? Tell me now. I’m not leaving you alone until you tell me.”
My mother’s threats were never empty. Her rage knew no boundaries. If I left the room, she’d follow me, and there were no locks on the doors in our house. Those were the rules.
“Yes! So what? At least I had the decency to not get sacrificed to the salon. So there, Mom. You happy? Happy, Mom?”
My mother put her head in her hands and mumbled something about how she’d be able to take care of a pregnant daughter.
“No, Mom,” I said. “I’m not pregnant. We were careful.”
“So will there be more—boys? Times?”
For the first time in a long while, I saw a smile on her face. Her shoulders began to shake as she laughed. A big, powerful, triumphant laugh that rang out through the streets. I’d just said the funniest thing she’d ever heard.
She never spoke badly about the tail again. In fact, she let me grow it out longer, and later, when Dad left us, she went to the Neon Studios Salon and got one too—in blazing red.
“I don’t think so. It wasn’t that great.”
From then on, every afternoon during the rest of my high school years, we’d sit on the front porch. Mom would pour me a glass of champagne, and we’d watch the cars go by, our shimmering tails, hissing and snapping at the air.
Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here: (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/). Twitter: @ckennedyhola
“That building across the street is another Freedom Tower, Carl, take a look at all the glass in front. See how the facade looks like a skinny pyramid, or a spaceship being launched?” Carl passes the fumes of a nearly empty gallon of Carlo Rossi back to his street friend Andy.
“Here dude, you need this more than me.”
Andy takes the last pull from the jug and wipes the cheap burgundy off his cracked lips, “You got to open up your mind, Carl-o.”
Part of controlling someone is telling them, “No one else will ever love you.”
After they got married, Jack would often say, “Even if you were lucky enough to find someone to replace me, in time, they’ll turn into a monster too.” At first it was sex and smoking in bed. Chloe believed everything Jack ever said.
When they’d finally married, started out, Chloe never asked for the perfect apartment. But, here it was, and it was theirs, 52 East End Avenue, Number 39, New York, 10028, on the Upper East Side.
They’d been awed by the panoramic view of the city, the East River, Brooklyn all from their small patio.
The apartment occupies the entire 39th floor of the building. The building is a modest 82 stories that points into the sky. 82 is the same number of moons that circle Jupiter.
It’s something he wanted to purchase, not Jupiter, the building, and the Subaru telescope on Maunakea, Hawaii.
When they’d bought their 2,700 sq ft. apartment, they’d noticed all fine artisanship and amenities. They especially the admired how the common living area featured an open, eat-in kitchen. Chloe had loved the casual dining, “It’s like Paris.” Each room is a jewel with an exquisite view.
They loved how the wrought-ironed fenced-in patio offered vistas as far as any telescope dreamed, up and down the East River. It was perfect for dawn and the sun, moonscapes, and the chivalry numbness of winter.
Come winter, Chloe fancied herself on a chair on the patio, listening to the built-in decibels of the alabaster snowflakes, each snowflake a gift from a dark cloud.
The living space, where the so-called living gets done, offers a breathtaking view of the Brooklyn skyline across the back of the silver scaled East River. On a clear day, you can bend your
eyes around the corner far enough to view the Freedom Tower. Freedom and self-discovery is what Chloe had been promised when they’d married.
Chloe’s childhood is in the Hampton’s, where it remains, and in Paris, in a meager flat her parents still own. Chloe is quite sophisticated but she’s not of the personage to display it. He finds that quite appealing.
The flat in Paris offers a view of Rue de Monnttessuy Avenue. The Rue intersects a street, just a block away from that skyrocket, the Eiffel Tower. Most of the family still summers in Paris.
Jack and Chloe met in college, Harvard, Boston. Jack paid his way by skimming the books of a moving company. He’s smart, received a degree in Operations Management in the high tech industry.
Today, Jack works for one of the top tech companies in all of New York. It’s headquartered in Lower Manhattan, near Broad and Wall next to where all the green gigabytes are stored.
Chloe received an unassuming Masters of Arts Degree in Education. Chloe worked in Harlem, with the disadvantaged, grades 4 and 6. Her life was this low-paying teaching gig that she’d loved.
Notwithstanding, Jack requested Chloe quit her job, a request fraught with the burden of cognitive dissonance on her part. He’d said he could advance his career if only his charming wife were at his side or at home in the luxury apartment. Stratospheric advancement, even a board membership was in reach of his ever-growing tentacles. She could have said no.
But, she really loved Jack, not so much his politics, or the smell of decay from his eroding character.
It wasn’t long before the couple had become perfumed in the stink of wealth. Jack grew dour. Wealth hadn’t filled his worldly appetite, nor did pot, meth, or heroin.
This Jack guy, this new corporate Jack, was the same guy who’d screwed Chloe’s brains out all night under a collision of sexy stars in the Boston Commons Park. Security had to remove them. They were damned near knotted and stuck together. It was after 3:00 AM before they had to leave. Jack loved Chloe. Chloe loves Jack, but less each day.
Everyone supported the lovely couple’s choices, including Chloe’s dwindling number of friends and her family. Jack had made sure of that. He’d provided her with everything she’d wanted, except a baby.
Chloe flops on the toilet to wiz. Her knees pleasantly stick together from Gucci Bloom Body Oil. She places her feet about a foot apart, barefoot toes pointed in. She’s model gorgeous. She’s holding a long cigarette between her fingers. It’s a Newport 100. She looks up at the exhaust fan in the ceiling as it adjusts the zoom. The tiny camera remains hidden behind the quickening blade passion. It takes pictures. It switches to video capacity, as the exhaust fan chops Chloe’s beautiful face into segments. It will practically drool over cut up clips later that night. Chloe imagines the walls having eyes.
Chloe lifts her delicate chin and bellows smoke into the fan in the ceiling. Chloe stands and swishes her paisley shirt as if she’s doing the Tango with a ceiling ghost. She flushes the commode, neglects the bidet, and saunters out of the bathroom suite.
A few of the screenshots he’s taken look promising. Maybe he’ll print out her face and nail it to his headboard, along with the other subjects.
There were formal Thanksgiving’s, spring vacations, back at the Hampton’s, and France of course, so that Chloe could catch up with everyone. Jack had found creative excuses for leaving their time together. He was always in demand somewhere, somewhere was always more important.
Each year, Jack made it more difficult for Chloe to recreate. Chloe missed her family, but she remained loyal to her skittered marriage.
Chloe had felt alone during the end of year holidays. Her husband had been away. It was just her and the snow in Upper Manhattan. A private birthday on a yacht along the East River in previous fall, their wonderful view out every window, their envious life, hadn’t been enough to fill her inside. Chloe felt she’d be less lonely if she were a shadow on the backside of the moon. She needed something more, it needed something more, his production was tanking.
One day, Chloe felt as if she could walk on water, right across the East River into Brooklyn. After all, she’d gotten the news that she was pregnant. Jack wasn’t at all happy, but he hadn’t rebuked her as usual. She was only human after all. So she’d missed a period or two, sometimes forgetting her birth control, he’d forgive her.
Her smile had returned. Her tomorrow’s were growing deep inside her. And then–and then in a matter of three years, she’d lost two nearly full-term babies, Amy and Josh. Chloe imagined her womb a turnstile of death and destruction. She and Jack had searched long and hard to find Babyland at Pinelawn. It was the perfect setting, a Memorial Park in New York City singularly for the unborn, infants and children. It was one of the few places Chloe felt comfortable visiting.
Her obstetrician had said, “Chloe, it’s your Endometriosis. We’ve been over this before. Our extensive imaging has revealed that the only thing growing inside you are tenticles.”
“You make it sound so alien, Doctor,” Chloe had said.
“Shall I refer you to a psychiatrist? Medication can do wonders. And, Chloe, there have been so many advances of late.”
Chloe had shaken her head back and forth, implying no! But she’d said, “Yea, sure.”
“Here’s her number, take it. Her name is Dr. Camille Stone. By the way, Camille means perfect in French. She owes me. Give her a call, Chloe.”
Each level of the building, each room overlooking the beautiful East River has eyes, millions and millions of lenses, impossibly so. Most of the lenses are low voltage, and consume infinitesimal bits of electricity. Every tiny camera is state of the art, distance, zoom, high def. Each monocle is wired to record on a designated DVR. Each DVR sits on a stand in his large, air-conditioned studio. The room’s thermostat is set at a perfect 33 degrees. There’s a lot to keep track of, but he’s very intelligent and up to the task, up there.
Each DVR saves limitless imagery: Credit card and banking account numbers, medical records, debit card pins. Each and every prying camera gorges itself until satiated on eBay, and Twitter accounts. He’s gotten to know just about everyone in the building quiet well.
After months of therapy and the right combinations of medication, Chloe seems less anxious. She thinks more clearly and has feelings again. That gnawing angst that has paralyzed her appetite has all but disappeared, at least for now. She’s gotten her weight back. Chloe chooses to read a lot. She enjoys staring out the patio door glass, onto the East River, and Brooklyn, and into the skyline that seems to blur itself into another universe.
Chloe has been accused of turning the plush modern sofa and the glass coffee table next to it into her personal office space, as if it mattered. And Jack isn’t kidding. His work doesn’t pay him for having a sense of humor.
One evening, after Chloe’s fixed Jack a wonderful dinner, she thought to chill in her designated landing space. She’d molded herself into a comfortable piece of clay on the gorgeous grey sofa. She fingered the mouse on her notebook as if it were her sensitive clit. She’d been given a new Lenovo ThinkPad, P15s, Gen 1-15.6. Somehow the electronic pheromones that it emits feel crazy good to Chloe.
Seasons laser across the patio door’s glass in the same direction as the East River, west. Nothing stays the same in New York City, including the years. Everything outside the patio’s large window seems to lust in direction of the cities harbor and into the Atlantic Ocean. The invisible wind, the sun, the clumsy dim-witted moon, all head west, month after month, out to the sea. Sometimes Chloe feels like moving along too in the direction of permanence.
Chloe exits her custom-built shower. It’s stereo surround sound in an onyx enclosure. The owner purchased the bath marble from the Carrara quarry in Italy. It’s the same quarry Michelangelo release David from. The dreamy shower is the size of a new Mercedes Benz, with all its whistles and bells.
Chloe straight arms the bathroom counter and stoops over the rim of the golden sink. She attempts to wipe away the steam on the mirror. She does this until her patch is mostly a circle and squeaky clean. She can see herself clearly through an opening she’s created. The opening view captures her lovely, vulnerable body. She cups her full breasts, still aching from her last miscarriage. Her nipples are pink spring rosebuds. Their darkness has dissipated. He’s dying inside, behind the mirror, to kiss each bud into bloom. He needs the numbers back home for the council. He has to procreate.
She presses closer as if to disappear into the mirror. There is a lovely pout on her lips as if her reflection is a new lover. He knows what she is thinking, says inside his skull, “It won’t be long, pretty.”
He stiffens his back as if he’s just had a hit of cocaine. He does everything he can to keep from igniting. There are times when the male gender can feel out of control.
Chloe moves out of view to fetch a luxurious towel. She doesn’t know how close he’s come to breaking the glass and entering her world.
Chloe has a diagnosis, one Jack isn’t sold on. She’s suffering from post-partum depression. Chloe disagrees and thinks post-partum depression is simply an expensive word you pay psychiatrists to pronounce. She quits therapy, and cancels any future psychiatry appointments.
Once she’s out of medicine, she takes over-the-counter Tylenol. Tylenol seems to work as well as Effexor. Actually, anything works. And so, she quits eating, again. At least Tylenol fills her stomach.
Defenseless, Chloe invites her morbid thoughts into her mind. It is in there, crawling around in the fissures. She can’t control the sensation, which is becoming an aphrodisiac. She wants to feel it.
It slithers on the scales of its belly ribs, and enters her thoughts. It probes, using its coiled fullness. It squirms and wriggles inside the folds of her gray matter, searching and waiting for the wetness. She grows completely comfortable, vulnerable to its girth and the fact that it exists in her thoughts.
They’d first meet on the elevator, the 39th floor, Chloe and the apartment complex owner. He was headed out of the building for the day. Chloe was off to her cute restaurant in the basement, the Cafe Chez Marie. She was dying for fresh coffee. This had been back in her teaching days.
“You are 39,” he quips. Chloe blushes and peaks up at his platinum hair. He is tall. He’s is as handsome as any model she thinks. He looks forward to meeting her husband. They share the usual introductory chitchat, but there’s something else going on here.
Later that evening in his expansive studio, he reviews the elevator video. He intermittently captures a screenshot and then Wi-Fi’s the pic over to the printer, over and over again. He uses a ruler to measure the distance between their hands when they’d clutched the guard rail in the elevator, on their way down to the lobby.
At the 1.02 point of action, he notices both of their hands gripping the elevator rail. He measures the distance. Their hands were exactly 23 inches apart when the elevator started. By the time the video’s action clip reaches 1.42 minutes, he measures the distance again. He’s determined that the distance between their hands had shortened to 17 inches by the time the elevator landed on the lobby floor.
Based on his calculations, Chloe’s hands had moved 5 inches in his direction. He smiles. He’s a chic magnet. He can almost smell the wetness of a new spawn.
It’s the third of March, almost spring. Chloe is browsing: Pinterest, Google, and something familiar on YouTube. It’s this guy who repairs and repurposes furniture. She’s been intrigued and impressed with his imagination and creativity. As a distraction, she’d booked a few of his videos. She loves Haden the Handyman. Haden’s channel is all about refinishing vintage furniture, and all the care and sanding that goes with handling raw wood. Repurposing feels right to Chloe somehow.
Chloe stumbles around on her computer, and trips over a new URL.
It’s as if someone or something is controlling her Google searches. She happens upon a men’s cologne add. It is for Creed Aventus Eau De Parfum 100ml. The imp in her wants to taste the model’s skin. He’s posed in black silk P.J.’s while sitting back in a leather chair in his master bedroom suite.
Directly behind him is an open black window in the background. Chloe imagines the background a celestial slate board rift with chalky bits of stars. Something inside her wants to enter his world out there.
His pajama top is unbuttoned. Luxurious fur runs the distance from below his navel to the beginning of his throat. He’s smirking at Chloe. She knows it.He’s looking straight through her. His hair is not so much silver-white platinum, but rather quaffed liquid mercury. Chloe’s nipples harden and pulse with life. Her skin is a river of goosebumps.
It’s only a start, but Chloe gets up and walks over to Jack, who’s working at the kitchen table again. She hesitantly taps him on the shoulder. Jack has brought work home he’s focused on, and so it takes a while for Jack to respond. He has a good reason to be distracted. Jack turns to Chloe. Chloe gestures at her notebook. Jack makes that clicking sound again, using the disgust he so often finds between his tongue and teeth.
Jack goes back to his laptop screen.
It watches and records.
Chloe drifts back to her accusatory office.
Not long after, Chloe is pleasantly surprised to discover Jack watching over her shoulder. Just maybe, she thinks, Jack will display some interest in this little nothing YouTube channel she’s discovered. It’s not like she wants to start a furniture repair business. She simply likes the idea of making something old turn newish again. She would like to share this with her husband.
Jack turns sour and says, “Ok Honey, furniture repair is unrealistic. The upfront cost alone certainly doesn’t justify the expense. Jack thumbs the stubbles on his chin, his new compulsion. “Chloe, what in the hell do you know about refurbishing vintage furniture? Jack demands.
Not waiting for an answer, Jack stomps back to his office at the aquamarine table.
The gorgeous dining room light, not quite grown a grown up chandelier, seems to warm the space, unlike its cold mini cameras that continue to watch the scene unfold.
Chloe gets up and slides the patio door wide open, next the screen door. She’s flushed and needs comforting, stands a minute, looks up into the stars.
After, she walks back to her intimate sofa, leaving the patio doors wide open. Chloe curls her socked feet under her rump. The same gorgeous rump Jack couldn’t keep his well manicured hands-off so very long ago.
Chloe gets up again, this time she walks in the direction of the second bath, near the elegant front door. Jack imagines her peeing, maybe crying again on the toilet, boohoo. But Jack’s mostly busy looking at a work email from a friend. His laptop wants Jack to Google skydiving deaths. Jack has deadlines to meet, God-damn it. Doesn’t anyone understand?
Chloe slowly returns to the sofa and sits. She looks long and hard at the moon. It’s platinum too. She insists on lettering the wind blow west in the direction of change. The opaque darkness and loneliness on the East River have never looked so beautiful.
A half-hour drifts into an hour. Jack searches and searches the entire house. Jack needs to remind Chloe how much pressure he’s been under lately, and how upsetting the thought of her new adventures have become to him, all stupid one day purchases, refinishing, sanding, and glazing. And those damned sales, just to get rid of a shit-load of wooden inventory nobody wants anymore. Jack’s mind is headed for a car wreck.
Chloe had no intention to open a refinishing business. Chloe had simply attempted to communicate with Jack, perhaps work on saving their marriage by sharing something, anything. All she wanted to do was to make sure they were still human, and not following out of love?
Jack walks out onto the patio. It’s freezing cold. She’s never left the door wide open before. Jack looks over the patio railing, straight down at the buildings flashing blue lights. Jack imagines the lights spinning clockwise, blue lights of madness. He’s a horrified child again, stuck on a shaky Farris wheel.
Jack refuses the uptake of reasonable thought. He tromps back inside, grabbing the patio door handle. He slides the door shut with a smack and locks it tight, unlocks it and locks it again.
Jack backs away from the patio door a few steps. Next, he becomes transfixed at his computer screens reflection in the glass panel, the stack of emails. He looks beyond the reflection into the impending darkness. His wife has committed suicide. Jack begins to dial 911 and hesitates.
In the windows reflection, Jack’s cursor is pulsating manically. The cursor, like the police cars lights, has turned cobalt blue. Everything is cobalt blue through Jack’s new crazy looking glass. Jack feels as though he has the spade of hearts stuck in his throat. He’s going to have to face everything alone now.
Who’s going to believe he hadn’t pushed her over the railing? Who’s going to download his Google searches? After all, Jack’s night hasn’t been all work.
Jack’s searches: How to best divorce your wife so she won’t take all you money. Pushing someone to their death/top ten dating sites/how to cheat the bitch out of her alimony? /how to tell your new love how much you hate children?/the deadly effects of Ricin?
Jack mulls over an email he’d received from a government attorney he knows, Mr. Tom Jennings. Mr. Jennings works for the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Heads up dude, call me in the morning, you’re going to be indicted for fraud and insider trading.”
Jack had opened and closed the email over an hour ago.
The cameras are viewing Jack’s behavior in real-time. Someone or something already knows the 411.
Jack’s hands feel clammy and sweaty. His guts are wriggling eels. He’s got acid electricity reflux. Epinephrine car jacker’s are running red lights through the intersections of his synapse.
Jack fixes his eyes on the patio door handle. His fingerprints overlap Chloe’s. It’s obvious who shut the door after Chloe jumped. Jack has an urge to wipe the prints clean. But that’s tampering with evidence. Jack chooses not to wipe. How about becoming a fox, and opening the lock with a butter knife? But that makes little difference.
Jack is saddened by a long buried thought. He remembers how his older brother had gotten himself written out of his mother’s trust fund. How Thomas had embarrassed her and tarnished the family name.
Jack is too aware of all the forensic evidence stored on his company’s hard drive, as well as well as somewhere far away in a data farm in Iowa or out in the Ethernet.
Jack’s laptop is stingy, it is holding back those sexy pictures of his hotel tryst, an affair he had affair with a coworker named Andromeda. The undercover photos had been taken and sent to Jack just like the shit-load of other incriminating emails. A private detective he’d hired had traced the emails to the Public Library on 66th street. From there, any further evidence had disappeared into some kind of black hole.
Jack and Chloe had recently upped their life insurance payout totals.
Jack opens the patio door again. His face is swollen and numb. His hands bloody from clinching his fists. He shuffles forward over the threshold into another world. Jack presses up against the rail, never thinking to look up again. His fingernails splinter against the iron rail like hickory kindling cut with a hatchet. Jack loses control of the steering wheel nearly half way down to his death.
Chloe Rings his doorbell. He takes the longest time to open his ornate entrance, not wanting to appear too anxious. He peaks through the vertical slit between the door and door jam, created by the hallway lighting.
Chloe blurts out, “What is that smell in your apartment?”
“I’m so very sorry,” he says, “I’ll open a window, come in. As he pivots in the direction of his massive studio, he adjusts his sclera from black to white, and turns off the ultrasonic sound.
Chloe says, “No, no, I didn’t mean…I love the scent of furniture wax.”
“39, follow me, take a quick look.” he insists. It loves control more than Jack ever imagined. Building worlds is in his wheelhouse.
It contemplates how the building’s complex has been blessed in a honeycomb of planned cells. Each cell a prismatic hexagonal chamber of wax meant for the incubation of mammalian larva.
In the expansive craft room, rest a pair of Antique French Nightstands. He refers to them as French Provincial Cane Bedside Tables.
Chloe stands mesmerized, as the building’s ownerexplains how the nightstands had been a bargain on eBay, costing only $4,995.00. The special furniture polishing wax is meant to be the finishing touch on the restoration project.
Chloe marvels how he’s going to give the two antiques to Goodwill Industries for their annual fundraiser raffle. Jack never gave anything of himself away.
Time is of the essences in the vast preparation room. It is a sexual monster and it shows.
Before Chloe knows it, she’s nearly chatted an hour away. There’s certain numbness around her swollen lips, this feeling of heaviness clear up into her tummy. It’s a good feeling though, she thinks, not a bad one. She’s pregnant.
With Jasmine, the modern on level 24, it had been more difficult. A full 2 hours had been needed, she was insatiable. Jasmine loves cooking, the smell of basil.
And Theresa, 18, last August, the perfume of espresso had lured her into his masterful,foul stickiness. Theresa’s downfall had been her lust for his La Marzocco Linea Mini Espresso Machine. Theresa is two months away from her birthing.
He had become well acquainted with Chloe, but, he’d taken his time to get to know her, like all the rest. After all, he reads everyone’s emails, and monitors there phone calls. And he knows so much more his assigned city.
He thanks Chloe for stopping over.
After the coupling, he walks Chloe back to the elevator. She admires the tall, dark and handsome stranger, as he gently places her finger on the 39th floor button.
Later, it will retire to the studio and pleasure himself over the day’s recorded videos.
He’ll watch the one with Chloe in the elevator and observe closely how she erotically sniffs at her armpits while on the ride down to her floor. It imagines she finds her new scent quite zesty. It slobbers as she touches her cheeks with her silken hands, cups one of her firming breasts. She’sblushing fuchsia. It watches as she tugs at her Cashmere sweaters V-neck, admiring her cleavage and dampness. How she waves her hands over her face, stoking the fires of submission.
Chloe Exits the elevator and slowly walks up to her apartment door. She unlocks it and enters. Chloe closes the thick door quietly. She then engages the deadbolt. She dares not disturb Jack, She’s sure he is still busy at work.
Chloe thinks this the beginning of the better part of her life.
It observes Chloe as she anxiously walks through the empty living space directly to the patio. She senses something alarming. At the patio she presses up against the railing and looks down.
It claws at an itch on the edge of a wing. Its brain is a fevered swamp of new life.
Chloe looks down at all the flashing blue lights. This time, the blue lights are police cars, not the flashing blue lights that warn pedestrians as a driver exists the underground parking. The signaling blue lights are meant to warn the homeless they are about to get run over. The building owner is delighted that the exit is dangerous, thus driving the homeless to camp across the street.
Her actions tell it that she is relieved.
Chloe walks back to her favorite sofa. She sits and thinks. Chloe dials 911. Of all her senses, her sense of smell is the most heightened. Everything molecule in her world is Carnauba wax and Google baby clothes.
Several stories up, in its studio, it continues to watch Chloe. It has met his world’s projected monthly quota. Soon, there will be a new one of them, and then Chloe’s disposal.
It is a rock star. Its appetite is insatiable. Its numbers are tops again. There will be another bonus. It is just one of many across the Promised Land. Who needs a spacecraft to create a new planet?
It smells more like a bat than artificial intelligence. It wishes it had teeth and didn’t have to suck like a leach. It hangs upside down, more than it crawls. It needs to procreate. It is looking over your shoulder. It is becoming a God of a new planet, his assigned city, The Big Apple.
“Andy, maybe you’re correct about that pointing spaceship Building. From the looks it,” Carl points across the street as FDNY hoses down the messy sidewalk, “I think one of your aliens dropped out of the sky last night.”
Dan’s most recent darkness has been published by Aphelion, BlazeVOX, Black Petals, Blood Moon Rising Magazine, Bull, Chilling Tales for Dark Nights Podcast, Cleaver, Close to the Bone, Coffin Bell, Dark City Books, Entropy, HorrorAddicts.net, Mystery Tribune, Suspense Magazine, The Yard Crime Blog, Variant, The 5-2. Dan has been nominated for Best of the Net and best micro-fiction.