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.
“Not even the fragrant musk was as intoxicating as this story.”
The storyteller told sitting on a swollen root of an aged tree on the edge of a forest. He addressed a gathering of enthralled people.
One dreary afternoon, under the opaque clouds, when the mists had curtained much of the peninsula’s profile, a tea boy made tea. He had a stall near the same place where the storyteller was also telling his stories. It was the boy’s job to make tea as long as the storytelling lasted. He made it in an iron cast kettle over a makeshift stove kindled by dry wood and brown leaves. The kettle steam was a beacon that fueled the desire of many to travel thus far. The brew carried a distinctive aroma.
The storyteller had a large following. They gathered here not just to listen to the story but also to indulge in the hot tea served from the stall. This storytelling helped the boy’s business to flourish. The boy poured the tea in small pottery bowls and handed them over to the rapt listeners. The more they drank, the more they listened.
This tea boy was an orphan. He was fifteen. He lived with the storyteller who had adopted the child when he lost his parents in the last great flood. They had lived on the sea line of a rugged peninsula. This place didn’t have much to offer apart from a school, a spice bazaar, and a few odd dry-fish shops.
Deeper into the woods on the same peninsula, the storyteller now lived with the boy. They lived in a hut near a shaded pond. Tall poplars and their verdant saplings rendered much of this shade. In the evening, when they lit a lantern in the hut, a glow would illuminate a darkly spot outside and light up a pond’s pod corner. The jungle’s wild animals transformed in the full moon, especially the musk deer. This sparked the storyteller’s imaginations.
Neither the jungle nor the deer knew what treasure it possessed, not at least until the musk pods were wrenched out of the deer bodies. The deer didn’t know how crazy earthlings was for its musk. It couldn’t smell its own. The others could. The sensuous properties drove humans to madness, wild with gluttony where fantasy fed reality.
Where would they stop, though? How far would they go to get it? Not even the formidable amazon could stop them. And it was not just the musk but insatiable human greed … said the storyteller and stooped to pick up an object loosely stuck on the bottom of the tree trunk. His breathing intensified. Inch by inch they stole the natural providence. They ate away like bite-sized like termitesinto the planet without replenishing: poaching animals, cutting trees, mining gemstones: red rubies, green sapphires, blue lapis lazuli, the sparkling diamonds. His audience listened mesmerized as he told them this old story retold, and the tea boy to sell innumerable kava clay bowls. His coffers filling up soon with silver coins and gold jewels.
No matter, this storytelling was free. No one ever paid to listen. But drinking tea was essential, said the storyteller. Because the delightful tea glued those stories together. Even on a hot day, it had to be served. People tread miles to come here to listen, but more so for the thirst of the tea. No other could make it like this boy, magic in the brew, the word rang true.
One day it happened. The storyteller stopped and looked closer at the object he held in the tip of the index finger. It was a cast-away gold ring that also had a story to it.
“What happened?” the listeners gasped.
Sitting on the ground, they looked at him hooked to the hot tea. Today, the mist of the day and the tea vapour played a twister in the sky.
“The tea boy became sick,” said the storyteller. “He couldn’t make tea anymore. The boy lay cold on the ground of his hut groaning in agony.”
“Oh no!” the listeners gasped.
There was no afternoon tea. People fidgeted and looked at the empty stall. But the tea never came.
“It was not the story, you see?” the storyteller told. “But it was his tea which brought them here.”
Where was the boy anyway? His listeners wanted to know. They demanded to see him. He grimaced and pouted his mouth in hesitation. But they were adamant. They stood up, held hands, and formed a niche circle fomenting unrest. They protested in a slogan, “no tea, no story” and walked in the circle. In the beating heart, this addiction baffled the storyteller who then realised that he had failed to stir them. He morosely nodded his sage white head as he relented and asked them to follow him to the hut. By then, the night had fallen a full moon lit up a yellow pathway.
It was a menacing jungle. But people didn’t mind. They walked over sodden leaves, shed snakeskins, dry blood, fallen horns and ivory, torn human clothing, hanging bats, and swinging monkeys. They must find the boy. They paced up and they reached the hut beyond the poplar pond. The bare bone sat unadorned on earth’s blue bowl. Not stark as Mars, Earth’s fowl-play tarred and scarred.
The storyteller asked them to wait outside as he went in to find the boy. But people were restless. They couldn’t wait it out. The mob forced themselves into the hut and looked in a frenzy for the prized fugitive. However, when they searched the small hut, they didn’t find him, at all. What they found though, was the last thing they had dreamed of. They found a white-bellied musk deer instead. He was the same small size as the tea boy, lying lengthwise across the space without a musk pod.
Mehreen Ahmed is widely published and critically acclaimed by Midwest Book Review, DD Magazine, The Wild Atlantic Book Club to name a few. Her short stories are a winner in The Waterloo Short Story Competition, Shortlisted in Cogito Literary Journal Contest, a Finalist in the Fourth Adelaide Literary Award Contest, winner in The Cabinet of Heed stream-of-consciousness challenge. Her works are three-time nominated for The Best of the Net Awards, nominated for the Pushcart Prize Award. Her book is an announced Drunken Druid’s Editor’s Choice.
Stanly had as a youth watched the bright orbs shift and glide above the desolate plains, known in the guide books as the Wastelands, near his home. Local gossip was always abuzz with claims that UFOs were in the area and about to land. But as Stanly found out what comes from the skies are not necessarily aliens in spaceships from the other side of the cosmos.
About a year ago, when Stanly had been unemployed, he had been approached by a little man at Stanly’s favorite café. The man had all of the appearances of a street person: frayed and stained overcoat, multiple layers of heavy sweaters smelling of rancid sweat and body odor, patched and torn trousers. A grey-grizzled face with a puckered mouth slightly dribbling tobacco completed the picture of a man down and out. But his teeth! Where there should have been a tramp’s dirty yellow, rotting stumps were glistening white rows of precision-crafted incisors. And instead of an overwhelming stinking whiskey breath, his mouth had a slight greasy smell as if the little man’s mouth was a car hood opened to reveal its engine. Then Stanly noticed the front of the odd man’s neck: leathery and flaming red.
At first Stanly thought the little man, sniffling and mumbling, was going to ask for a tissue or money. Instead, he flashed a very professional business card that read:
‘Heaven is Hell traveling under false pretenses.’
Interested in learning more?
Talk to the Star Watchers
If you want to earn some quick cash.
Offering to buy Stanly a coffee, the man said in a low, almost timid voice, “Excuse my trashy clothing, but when I am traveling on earth I like to keep a low profile. You see my name is Demon Fire, who lives amid the thunder and lightning in the Hell that humans call ‘Heaven’- aka the skies.”
The little man glanced at his grubby boots, then flashed a rigid grin like a corpse trying to be sociable. Noticing a puzzled Stanly starting intently at his face and neck, Demon Fire chattered and flexed his mechanical teeth while pointing to his leathery neck. “These teeth are not human but precision machined from junk parts from an old car engine… but the neck is … real.”
“Who are the Star Watchers?” asked Stanly
“That is what we need to talk about: your big chance to earn some quick cash,” Demon Fire said as he motioned to Stanly to leave the café with him.
About two miles from the café was a sleazy strip joint, The All-Star Club. Stanly and Demon Fire took a taxi there and Demon paid the driver. (For a street person in shabby clothes, DF seemed to have plenty of ready cash, Stanly mulled, smiling to himself.) Both settled comfortably into a booth. A waiter in a bright red leotard took their drink orders.
Demon Fire got right to the point. “We want to hire a guide to take people out to the Wastelands. We have it all set up: it will by day be billed as an eco-excursion, but by night a star gazing tour. The website has already been created. The entire package is called The All-Star Watchers Experience. So Stanly how would you like a job as the guide? Training is included. We pay well.”
Stanly obviously thought the whole thing very weird. What was this eccentric claim to have teeth made of junk auto parts? What did that crazy story about traveling on earth in shabby clothes mean, as well as living in the sky? Very bizarre marketing ploys to draw attention to their new tourist enterprise? It was, however, best to not ask any questions about this. Stanly needed a job badly, his rent was two months overdue, and any probing into that weirdness might personally offend Demon Fire and cause him to withdraw the job offer.
After relaxing over more drinks with Demon Fire, and reading the tour’s website on Demon Fire’s iPhone, Stanly signed an employment contract for a nice salary as a guide for the All-Star Watchers. Despite the wackiness of his new boss’s tales and his bedraggled appearance, he handled the hiring in a very thorough, professional manner.
After his two-weeks paid training on the ecology of the Wastelands and basic facts about astronomy, Stanly was directed by Demon Fire to meet the first All-Star Watchers tour group in front of thestrip club. Stanly had expected the usual crowd: backpackers, retirees wearing long black socks and plaid shirts, perhaps some foreign tourists too, but instead the group was composed of five muscular men with clenched jaws in oil-stained overalls; their greasy t-shirts read: “Jones Junkyard. Body Parts: Just for You.”
One who seemed to be their leader identified himself as Mr. Jones. He mumbled that they needed to stop first at the 7-Eleven near the entrance to the Wastelands to get some snacks as his team was hungry. Stanly was puzzled. These guys did not have cameras, and, in fact, obviously were locals. Jones Junkyard was a small buyer of wrecked cars and scrap metal on the outskirts of town not far from the Wastelands. Very strange that Jones and his employees would be ‘touring’ literally in their own backyard. Yet once again Stanly did not question Demon Fire, who had arrived shortly after Stanly to greet the ‘tourist’ party, about this new oddness. None of Stanly’s business to question the motives of paying clients. The customer was always right, as his tour training facilitator had repeatedly emphasized.
Demon Fire spoke a few words to the men which Stanly did not hear, then drove off in a spiffy SUV. Stanly followed in the All-Star Watchers four-wheel drive van while the junkyard men fell asleep. DF quickly disappeared around a corner, while Stanly got stuck in traffic. Though Stanly thought the men would ask some questions about the tour’s itinerary and agenda, they just continued to sleep, snoring loudly. Stanly drove in silence not volunteering any information.
Stanly pulled up into the parking lot of the 7-Eleven so the men could buy their snacks, but he was surprised to see another four-wheel drive parked there, its front door also marked “All-Star Watchers Tours.” None other than Demon Fire jumped out of the driver’s side and yelled and waved at Stanly to come over and introduce himself to a second group of tourists who would also be going along today.
Looking into the back of the van, Stanly saw bodies, unmoving and strangely quiet, tied up in rope, duct tape plastered on their mouths: stereotypical tourists dressed in plaid shirts and checked shorts, youth in pre-ripped jeans with backpacks, as well as other people in casual hiking clothes prepared for their big day out on the Wastelands. This time Stanly knew he needed to ask Demon Fire some questions, but the junkyard men bounded over like smooth cats and grabbed Stanly, slapped some duct tape on his mouth, hustled him into the van seat next to Demon Fire, and then piled into the back with the captive tourists.
Ten minutes later, they all arrived at a desolate spot on the Wastelands. Demon Fire sprang screaming hysterically from the van and stripped off his ragged, smelly clothes as if they were in flames. The sky darkened quickly as he waved wildly, storm clouds mushrooming on the horizon. At a flick of Demon Fire’s wrist, bolts of lightning rammed the heavens like angry spears.
The junkyard men dragged the bodies from the back of the van and dumped them like sacks on the grass. Knives flashed and the men went to work slaughtering them. Hands, feet, fingers, arms were, with great professionalism, neatly sliced off like skilled chefs working a large round of beef at Stanly’s favorite buffet at the Holiday Inn. Surprisingly, however, the tourists did not scream though even when these butchers worked their way into the guts with rotary saws. Hearts, intestines, livers flew through the air, torrents of blood rained, but not a sound. A slaughterhouse drenched in silence.
Demon Fire by now, having fully cast off his ‘little man’ ‘street-person’ identity, had sprouted into a tall muscular creature with horned feet, scarlet-red leathery skin, and a pointed nose. Seeming to read Stanly’s thoughts, he growled smugly:
“When one is an evil demon one has ways of keeping people quiet even when they are being slaughtered… After all we don’t want to scare the neighbors,” he said, shushing quiet by a long, knobby-knuckled finger on his lips. Before Stanly could reply, Demon Fire said, “You see stupid humans have thought for centuries that evil demons came from some kind of hot, underground smelly place called ‘Hell’, but, as I told you over coffee, ‘Heaven is Hell traveling under false pretenses’…and all those ‘UFOs’ humans have reported on for years? They are actually our Fast Demon Modules – FDMs -we use to get around in the sky and avoid repulsive humans.”
“Why are your junkyard savages butchering innocent tourists?” Stanly demanded.
“Well for a long time, we demons replaced our own body parts, knees, teeth, elbows, fingers, et cetera. – demons’ bodies wear out too like humans’- with reengineered metal scrap from various junkyards. But with all of the new industrial technology coming online, our workshops are having trouble with the complexities of the new recycling and manufacturing processes. It is now time to use the original, realhuman body parts, which are certainly more cost effective, too. Jones Junkyard, one of our longtime suppliers, is developing a new, more simplified business model to accommodate our growing need for authentic anatomical components, hence the very professional demonstration you witnessed today.”
“And in case you think the disturbance,” Demon Fire’s red eyes glared like raw wounds and rolled toward the sky, “that I caused with the clouds and lightning was me doing a rite of worship in homage to some kind of ‘Sky God-Demon’ think again. Demons are independent operators who do what they want. I was just in the mood to create a gothic/scary atmosphere that was appropriate for our junkyard team’s excellent effort today… We demons are not all boring business…we like a little drama in our lives once and awhile.”
One of the junkyard butcherers came over and whispered something to Demon Fire. “Excellent,” he proclaimed, “all the body parts have been collected.” Demon Fire flicked his wrist again: a larger bright orb popped out of nothing and then slowly lowered itself to the dark grass. It dimmed slightly to reveal a saucer-shaped, semi-translucent hull through which various shapes could be seen moving about.
Demon Fire flashed his frozen smile’s metal teeth again. “Well, Stanly we really need a reliable human to run errands for us on earth. I don’t want to dress up in trashy costumes to hide my identity anymore. I will double your salary and, as an added perk, you will get plenty of travel.” Demon Fire waved toward the FDM. “And besides,” his hot breath whispered, “you really don’t have much choice do you? After all, I am sure you want to keep all of your body parts.”
As the Jones Junkyard guys slowly gathered around Stanly to escort him to the Fast Demon Module, Stanly could not have agreed more.
Thomas White’s poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print magazines in Australia, the United States, and Canada. In addition, he is a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author, and contributor to various non-literary journals on topics ranging from the meaning of Evil to reality as a computer simulation.
After we crossed the Northwest Passages, a vast expanse of gray sea, and were over Baffin Island, the Commodore allowed the barbot to serve me a martini.
“Just one, Rome. Try to keep yourself together. After all, we have Claire to think about.”
The Commodore said this in front of Claire, in fact, in front of everyone. We were on the bridge, admiring the Commodore as he steered AS Vanderbilt, jaunty in a white yacht cap and red blazer with a garish crest on the pocket. I ignored my father and gratefully sipped the ice cold cocktail infused with toad venom. The barbot knew my preferences.
“Peyton, that tickles.”
“That’s why I did it.”
My older brother and his new wife tussled and giggled. Laurel, my mother, watched with an approving smile, faint like everything else about her. The Commodore chuckled, but then returned his attention to the wheel. I continued to drink. The bridge was in the bow. Encased in a transparent glaz canopy, we had a three hundred degree view of bright sky above and surging seascape below, an amazing prospect that once thrilled me as a child. We were over the Davis Strait by that point. Not long now. The Commodore turned the wheel hard to port.
“Turbulence ahead. I don’t want anything upsetting Claire. For all I know, she may already be carrying my grandson.”
“Commodore, how you talk.”
As if Claire would get pregnant on her own, like a savage. I took another sip, tried to make the drink last. Only the first day and my family had already stretched my nerves to the breaking point. We all knew the Commodore was faking, that the giant airship was efficiently, continuously steered by AI with no need for human guidance or help. I’d figured it out at twelve and lost respect for him forever. But still, here I sat with my family, headed once again to our summer resort.
“Wait until you see Uummannaq, Claire. I know Peyton has shown you holograms, but until you see it in person, you can’t appreciate it properly. It’s a very special place, full of happy family memories. And I know you’re going to add to them this summer, my dear.”
Claire giggled. She was blonde, tall, and perfect, no surprise since her characteristics were specifically chosen by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gates, in close consultation with their personal biogenetic engineers.
The conical, gray airship sailed in solitary grandeur through a blindingly blue sky over a black sea. Powerful electric motors drove long bladed propellers at four hundred kph. Midmorning sunlight poured into the bridge, softened by glaz filters. Laurel had a bowl of strawberries and cream. I finished my drink and blinked at the barbot.
“I said one, Rome.”
Vanderbilt passed Disko Island, a lush, green dot fifteen kilometers below. Almost there. To our right, a vast, endless sward of tropical jungle spread before us, Greenland. The airship descended. The Commodore vigorously spun the wheel.
“Stand beside the canopy, Claire. I want you to be first to see Uummannaq.”
Claire took Peyton’s hand. They went to the bridge’s edge and looked down at the white capped sea below.
“Uummannaq straight ahead,” the Commodore cried. “Clear the decks and batten the hatches for fun and adventure.”
I inwardly groaned and yearned for another drink. Claire wildly squealed in delight.
“Oh, there it is. And it’s wonderful, just like you said, Commodore.”
Laurel went to look as well. Vanderbilt headed toward the broad, electric blue fjord carved from Greenland’s mass. A small island loomed ahead, capped by a towering crag, the most prominent peak in western Greenland, topped in turn by a half kilometer high structure of gleaming glaz and titanium steel, the Vanderbilt summer home, one of a half dozen Greenland private resorts.
“Oh, look,” Laurel said. “It hasn’t changed.”
“Why should it, dear?”
A blazing fireball soared in a tight spiral around the airship, then flashed past in a shower of red and gold sparks. The airship pitched and yawed, a violent oscillation AI guided stabilizers desperately scrambled to overcome. The fireball streaked toward Uummannaq.
“What’s that?” Claire shrieked.
Peyton sighed. “Don’t worry, dear. That’s just Barton.”
Indifferent to the terror my younger brother’s typical stunt inflicted upon Claire, the Commodore chuckled. “They broke the mold when they made Barton.”
“Thank God for that too.”
“Please, Eaton. Can’t you be pleasant?”
“I’ll be pleasant, Laurel, if you don’t call me ‘Eaton.'”
“That’s enough, Rome.”
I fell into sullen silence. The Vanderbilt steered for the mansion’s apex. Propeller blades retracted into their housings that folded in turn into apertures in the airship’s horizontally ribbed hull. VTOL rotors steadily whirred the airship downward. Three massive clamps on an inline axle sprang open on the airship’s keel. Matching catches opened on the landing pod beneath. With a great hiss of helium, Vanderbilt slipped into the berth. The clamps slammed home. The Commodore tethered the wheel with a rope and dusted his hands, plainly pleased by yet another job well done.
“Safe and sound, just as I promised. Now to disembark and begin our vacation.”
The Commodore snapped his fingers. With gentle, hydraulic ease, the canopy split in two. An air saloon ascended from the landing pod. It hovered close, an electric rotor powered open coach with seats for eight upholstered in mammoth hide. A short ramp extended from the saloon and locked into place with the bridge. The Commodore needlessly assisted Laurel up the ramp. Claire and Peyton followed with goosing and giggling and other obligatory, young married nonsense. I went last, sat up front, and brooded.
The ramp unlocked and retracted. The Commodore sat in the stern and put his hand to the tiller. The saloon lifted noiselessly away from the airship. Black maintenance drones swarmed over Vanderbilt like a horde of winged ants. A gap opened in the landing pod. The saloon descended into the mansion. Numerous, gargantuan floors passed by, endless, tastefully furnished spaces brightly lit by transparent glaz walls that opened onto blue panoramas of sea and sky.
The saloon landed in garden niche T-37, a recessed, hundred hectare inset with an AI controlled microclimate. The Commodore intended to show off his collection. Hopefully, I could drink when lunch was served. Amid the broad green sward where lesser Cretaceous reptilians gamboled, bots laid out a feast fit for the gods upon a damask clad table. The centerpiece was an auroch’s gleaming, roasted haunch, clad in aspic, surrounded by broiled chickens, ducks, and pheasants.
“Everyone must be famished after that long trip. Sit down and eat.”
We took our places. The Commodore nodded. Wheeled, bow-tied waitbots trundled forward and served choice viands whether we wanted them or not, grilled filet of coelecanth, thick, juicy indricotherium chops, three kilo bats stripped of their wings and fricasseed in their skins.
“Oh, what a nice meal. Don’t you think so, Claire?” Laurel said.
A few meters away, a velociraptor tore out a duck billed hadrosaur’s throat with his sharp claws. Claire gasped. Peyton smiled.
“Don’t worry, Claire. We’re all right behind the tension barrier.”
“Don’t let a raptor eating lunch bother you. After all, you’re doing the same thing, just with less effort.”
Barton strolled up. Another of his sneaky entrances. He must have used a tether.
“This is Claire, right? Say, Peyton got lucky. I got to congratulate you.”
Barton slipped an arm around Claire’s shoulders and planted a kiss on her mouth more appropriate for a late night date than a new sister-in-law. Peyton just took it. But then again we all did, even the Commodore, but he thought Barton was cute.
“Barton, enough horsing around. Sit next to your mother.”
He sat down, pecked Laurel on the cheek, and ate with his huge appetite. I had a chicken wing and a large glass of white wine I frequently refilled.
“So how is Galt’s Gulch, Barton?” the Commodore asked.
“Dull. That’s why I came early. AI flashed the airship was only five K’s away. I decided to give you a real Uummannaq welcome, Claire.”
She smiled. “I admit I was scared, but Peyton explained it to me. You certainly make an impression, Barton.”
“You could get us killed with your stunts, Barton. Maybe someday we’ll get lucky and you’ll succeed.”
Laurel’s mouth formed a small “o” of dismay. The Commodore gave his patented cold stare, but I was long immune. Peyton scowled. Barton just laughed. Used to rigidly maintained gentility, Claire’s eyes went wide in blank incomprehension. Two triceratops mated in the distance, reptile jaws gaped wide in carnal ecstasy. I continued to drink. It was just as good a time as any other for Claire to learn what the family was really like.
“You’re overreacting and being gratuitously cruel, Eaton. You promised if I showed you the respect you claim I’ve denied you, you’d curb your sharp tongue and drinking in return. I see you’ve no intention of fulfilling your bargain. Try to be civil for a change.”
I got up and walked away.
“Eaton, you have not been dismissed from the table.”
“The name is Rome,” I said over my shoulder.
“You can always take a rocket pod home, Rome,” Barton said.
I ignored him and continued to the terrace’s edge. As I surmised, a tether hung there. I winked. The tether recognized my retinal signature and came alive, crackling with energy. I slipped on a silicon glove, broke the invisible tension barrier, and grasped the tether.
Bonded tight by the glove, I plummeted downward, twenty stories to my quarters at the mansion’s base, as far from my family as I could get. Once inside, I downed a stiff, straight shot of skullbustium and laid down on my bed, anxious for oblivion.
I slipped into a deep, black sleep, devoid of dreams.
It was almost 1800 when I came to, slightly groggy. I shook off the drug’s aftereffects, cursed my indestructible constitution, and got up. A wink turned a glaz wall transparent. The summer sun was pitched high in the northern latitudes. Hours of daylight remained. I decided to walk outside and filled my flask with brandy.
I slipped through a side entrance to the two story high master portal. It was a balmy thirty degrees C. Uummannaq’s craggy flanks were fringed with tropical foliage, wine palms, teak, ebony, mahogany. Green lichen ate into the mountain, ever so slowly sapped the stones of nutrients.
I put on a glove, and snapped my fingers with my other hand. A tether snaked from a wall to form a gentle arc downward to the plain. I grasped the tether and flew toward the ground, careful to look away (heading rapidly, inexorably toward an unyielding landscape makes me nauseous). At the last moment, the tether slowed my fall and I landed with a fair grace. The plain was thickly forested with wine palms and other fruit bearing trees.
I took a path to the sea. A faint breeze tried to ruffle my hair, but it insistently stayed in place. Thick undergrowth restricted my vision. Waves crashed in the distance.
A large, male dodo jumped onto the path before me, gray feathers ruffled and short wings spread wide in a full threat display. He snapped his powerful beak at me. His mate must be nursing an egg somewhere nearby. The dodo was ready to fight.
“Here, pretty birdy.”
The silicon googleplexchip ring on my right hand discharged low voltage into the bird. The dodo shrieked and ran into the brush. I resumed my walk. Two kilometers later, I reached the beach, a broad, flat stretch of sand that extended into the hazy distance. Dodoes hustled among nearby trees in search of fallen ripe fruit. This was where we swam, when Peyton and I were small, before Barton came along.
I arranged palm leaves into an improvised pallet in the shade, stretched out, and drank from my flask. Birds circled over the beach in uncountable numbers, common gulls and the great, white winged pelagornis, while black and white great auks clustered on worn rocks that jutted from the sea. In the distance, a plesiosaur’s long, sinuous neck and head reared forth from the sea only to submerge again. The vast, light blue sky was cloudless. There was nothing human around me. The waves’ susurrus and the steady heat combined with alcohol to lull me to sleep.
“This is a pretty spot. Didn’t you try to drown me here when I was two?”
Barton sat on the pallet’s edge, arms wrapped around his legs. I sighed, sat up, and took another drink.
“You know, it’s none of my business, but even a biologically engineered liver can only take so much punishment.”
“What do you want, Barton? You never see me unless you want something.”
“Rome, that’s not true. You’re the only one besides me who can face facts. Laurel, Peyton, definitely Edgar, they’re not much different from bots.”
“Then why do you kiss Edgar’s ass? It’s what I hate most about you.”
Barton lightly slapped me on the knee. “You know I only do that so I get my fair share of the estate when Edgar hits one hundred twenty. That’s only seventeen years away.”
“You’re counting every second aren’t you?”
“No. I’m only forty-three.”
“I hope Edgar leaves it to Peyton. That would serve you right.”
Barton snorted. “Edgar favors me, not that slavebot Peyton. Take Claire. An excellent example of his inadequacy for any real, important task. She’s more woman than he can handle. Why should she be with him?”
I looked Barton dead in the eye. “That’s why you’re bothering me. You’ve got some crazy idea about using Claire to hurt Peyton. Because it’s the worst, most completely inappropriate thing you can possibly do.”
“You give me too much credit, Rome. Still, nice chatting with you. We should do it again.”
He stood up to leave, but turned to look at me.
“One thing puzzles me. Call yourself whatever you want, but why ‘Rome?’ Why not ‘Paris’ or London?'”
“I like the place.”
“It doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Neither do the other cities you mentioned. That doesn’t mean I can’t miss them.”
Barton shrugged. “I never will understand you, Eaton.”
He strapped on his jet pack. Barton took off with a blast of flame as he soared toward the mansion’s peak. I lay back on my pallet and tried to forget the whole unpleasant interlude, but failed. Summers at Uummannaq had always been emotionally fraught affairs, but Claire represented a new source of tension and strain. Barton was plainly hell bent on mischief. And Barton always had his way, no matter what.
Things seemed to calm down after that, at least on a superficial level, as the family settled into the holiday routine. We took the airship low over Greenland to view natives in their primitive huts. The Commodore promised to hold a party, to invite guests from other grand homes like the Rockefellers, Putins, and Dimons so Claire could meet everyone as Mrs. Peyton Vanderbilt. The Corsair was run out from dry dock, black, sleek, with a sharply raked hull and four 6000 hp electric motors.
We took a cruise. Barton harpooned a megalodon outside the fjord. We watched him die from the bridge. The giant shark thrashed about and leaped from the sea, biting at the harpoon that pierced his side, but finally rolled over and lay still upon the surface.
“Shark steaks tonight,” Barton crowed as powerful winches reeled the thirty-five ton monster toward the Corsair.
I saw the admiring look in Claire’s eyes. She had to notice how active Barton was compared to Peyton. He shared my indolent, passive nature, although not my vices. Claire had a lively disposition herself. She liked to organize parlor games after dinner with everyone’s enthusiastic participation, myself excepted. I watched them laugh as the Commodore tried to act out a word. Barton roared along with the rest of them, but his eyes never left Claire.
His attentions toward her steadily increased with invitations to play jet pack handball over the landing pad, to race one horned elasmotheriums across the island plain, goaded by laser prods, or just to hang motionless for hours in the bodywarp web, mutually lost in mindless limbic ecstasy.
It was more than obvious what he wanted. Of course, the Commodore thought Barton was just being attentive, making Claire feel at home. If Laurel had any concerns, she kept them to herself. She stuck to her laser knitting, cutting and stitching various bits of DNA to make tiny, fanciful creatures she kept in plaz terrariums. Peyton just laughed it off. After all, Claire still slept with him every night. He’d don a holomask and return to supervising sandhogbots as they dug for rare earths and alien metals on our lunar mine, another task like steering the airship AI could handle perfectly well.
I confronted Claire when she was alone and told her the truth. “You should know Barton never does anything nice on purpose. He only wants to play a mean trick on you and Peyton. Stay away from him.”
Claire gave me a sad, pitying look. “What the Commodore says about you is true, Rome. You drink too much and look at things all wrong because you’re drunk. From now on, Rome, until your attitude improves, I’d prefer that you left me alone, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Just as you say.”
The party was held soon after that. Airships hovered over the landing pad. Elegant saloons descended down to the Grand Ballroom, a square kilometer in size and three stories high. Music bots hummed a gentle, quiet welcoming drone. Men wore opaque suits that made them walking cubist blocks while women were attired in flaming sundresses that hurt the naked eye so everyone had tinted masks. The Commodore was in his traditional sporran and kilt in the family tartan while Laurel wore a simple white gown adorned with living, writhing homunculi. He held his arms high in greeting.
“My dear friends, let’s get another summer off to a good start with music, food, drink, and dancing.”
Given their cue, the bots pumped out tek with a thumping beat. Guests danced, lively or sedate depending upon age and disposition. Barton took Claire’s hand, held her tight, and put her through the sinuous motions of the shameless, sordid Galt’s Gulch Grind. They couldn’t have been any closer if they were sutured together. Younger guests laughed and cheered them on. And Peyton took it with a dumb look on his face.
The party went on by the sun’s light, a pale disc hovering just above the sea’s edge. Food and drink were consumed, megalodon steaks cooked in lemon juice and garnished with thyme, plesiosaur roe with sour cream on a fifty kilo baked potato, tender percopteris leaves with Roquefort dressing, washed down with champagne, beer, toad venom shots, and pineal gland bitters. Everyone ate and drank so heartily they were close to stupefaction. Peyton was particularly hangdog, slumped in his chair, eyes half closed, drumstick in one hand, empty glass in the other. He sat up, shook himself aware, and looked around him.
I scanned the vast hall, but didn’t see Claire or Barton. Had they slipped out unnoticed in the party’s hubbub?
Shortly afterward, Barton showed up. He sauntered slow and cool across the ballroom. No one seemed to notice, probably due to being stuffed and inebriated. I’d had as much alcohol as anyone else, but barely ate and was in my usual state of lucid drunkenness. I watched him approach Peyton. I knew we stood on the edge of an awful, unforgivable event, a ratcheting up of family ugliness to an unbearable level.
Barton snapped his fingers and overrode the AI. The musicbots ceased. A woman’s sobs filled the air, soft, miserable, inconsolable. Claire’s.
“Barton, how could you? I loved you and trusted you-“
Barton laughed. “Peyton, I usually like to keep these as souvenirs, but it’s really your property for now, so here.”
He threw a pair of mauve shamseen panties onto Peyton’s lap. He looked down and the flimsy undergarment’s meaning sank into his sozzled brain. Peyton threw his wine glass at Barton. He neatly sidestepped it.
My brother’s unexpected show of anger surprised and pleased me. I hoped for more, but Peyton instead reverted to type and ran weeping from the room. Kilt a-flap, the Commodore went to the table.
“What in the name of sweet plutocracy have you done, Barton? You seem to have upset Peyton terribly.”
“He’s just angry, Commodore, because he knows Claire’s mine now.”
“Come, come, Barton. You like to joke, but I went to a great deal of trouble to arrange Peyton’s marriage to Claire. You can’t upset that on a whim. We’ll find you an appropriate mate in due time.”
“No, I want Claire. She needs a real man. Just tell the Gates you switched brothers.”
I had to get away, from the guests, the mansion, and most of all, my family. I grabbed a bottle of champagne and ran to the ballroom’s rim where I broke the tension barrier and grabbed the nearest tether. Outside, I hustled quickly down the path, glad for once to be born athletic. The sun had slipped away and the weak gray night begun. Dodoes huddled in their nests, grateful for the brief rest.
The long, curved beach was fringed by a delicate scroll of shifting, small, silver waves. I unsealed a hermetic pod with my ring and dragged out a long unused rowboat. I pulled the boat into the water, got in, and put the oars in their tholes. Out in the fjord, Barton couldn’t sneak up on me and I could drink in peace.
Biologically engineered muscles easily adjusted to the unwonted exercise. I rowed until I was in the middle of the fjord with a clear view of Uummannaq, then shipped oars. The boat bobbed gently in the water. I uncorked the champagne. Foam arced into my lap. I drank deeply.
At the mansion, the tek had resumed, loud enough to be heard in the fjord, along with occasional snatches of high pitched, feminine laughter. Order or what passed for it in our family had apparently been restored and the party had resumed. The Commodore liked to keep up appearances. I took another stiff pull from the bottle and wondered. How would things finally play out? Would the vicious fighting ever end or simply drag on for the rest of our lives?
A giant fireball erupted from the mansion, a huge explosion that shattered glaz and steel and cast fragments in all directions. I held my arms before my face to shield myself from white hot steel scraps and razor sharp glaz fragments. Another explosion, even more massive and destructive than the first, snapped the mansion in two. The sundered top fell into the fjord, taking my family and most of Terra’s plutocrats with it. A huge wave swept toward me, but the cork like boat easily crested it. Wreckage was strewn all around me.
My question was answered. Peyton had taken a coward’s revenge and blown up Barton, himself, Claire, our parents, and everyone else who had witnessed his cuckold’s shame. I’d only escaped by sheer accident. Always under strain, dysfunction had reached the point where the family cracked like a badly cast vase, the fault built in from the start.
I laughed for a while and cried for a time. When I finished the bottle, I threw it into the water, and put the oars back in their tholes.
I rowed westward, where the sea could swallow me and Terra would finally be done with Vanderbilts.
“By way of background, I’m a novelist who supports his family by working as an attorney. I have four novels and over seventy short stories (many as reprints) published in the USA, UK, Ireland, and Denmark. Short fiction by me has recently appeared in Thriller Magazine, Tigershark, Tall Tale TV, and Into The Ruins. A novella, Escape From Byzantium, won the 2010 Independent Publisher Silver Prize for SF/Fantasy. More information about my writing is available at: www.mellonwritesagain.com.“
Mark says about this story: “You may be interested to know I wrote this yarn as an SF version of a John Cheever New Yorker piece, something I felt compelled to do after reading his collected short stories.”